How it Works: Eating on the CaminoEating on the Camino can be an exciting adventure and a culinary journey in and of itself. Some days you will wade through a gourmet extravaganza provided by some very creative kitchens. Other days you will find yourself in a culinary wasteland, where the only goals are to stave off hunger and find some basic nutrition. Either way, you won’t go hungry. Here is a rundown on how to eat on the Camino. The Meals – What’s on Offer, When and Where Shopping for Food Drinking on the Camino The Best Tapas Towns The Best of the Best Costs for Eating on the Camino Francés
The Spanish BarThe first thing you need to know about eating on the Camino is this: the Spanish bar. The word ‘bar’ means different things in different cultures, so let me clarify. In Spain the bar is like a café . . . sometimes it’s like a restaurant . . . wait, no, it’s more like the center of town or neighborhood life. The bar is often all of those things. For the pilgrim’s purpose, the bar is the source of all good things. There you find many of the things you need each day: coffee, breakfast, snacks, lunch, refreshing after-trail beverages, dinner, restrooms, and the ever popular WiFi. There is at least one bar in all but the smallest hamlets, in every town and village, and the bigger cities will have a seemingly unlimited selection of bars to choose from. Bars are usually open when everything else might be closed. Your albergue or hotel host will know where to find the bar and the opening hours.
BreakfastThe first meal of the day always includes a hot drink, which is usually coffee. Tea is readily available, but most Spaniards opt for a café con leche, which is a shot or two of espresso and hot milk served in a small cup. This drink is available all day, every day, at every local bar. Coffee is taken with toast, butter, and jam. In Spanish, that’s tostado, mantequilla, y mermelada. Croissants and other pastries are available in bars, panaderias (bread stores), and pastelerias (bakeries) in the larger towns and cities. In the smaller towns you might find pre-packaged muffins, cakes, or breads. Or you might find the leftover bread from last night’s dinner, toasted. In the albergues, breakfast is served sometime between 6:00am and 8:00am. In bars, breakfast is served from opening time until the bread runs out, and coffee is always available. It is becoming more common to see bars offering an ‘American breakfast’ consisting of fried eggs, bacon or ham, and french fries. This is a good solution for those who want some protein in their morning meal.
Late Morning SnackAs you might imagine, the breakfast described above isn’t going to get you very far, in terms of nutrition and energy. The next meal, then, comes in the late morning and consists of (probably) another café con leche and a bocadillo, or sandwich. Bocadillos are usually pretty basic, consisting of just a large white-bread baguette and some slices of meat, or cheese, or a ‘tortilla’. Some places will add on a tomato or onion slices if asked, but it’s less common for a typical bar to have these items available, especially in the smaller towns on the Camino. The tortilla is a regular part of the Spanish diet and is available in nearly every bar. Tortillas come in two varieties, the tortilla española and the tortilla francesa. The tortilla española is like a potato and egg pie, minus the crust. Often it is served alone, but you can also get a bocadillo con tortilla, which is quite filling. The tortilla francesa is simply a couple of eggs cooked up like an omelet, but without any add-ons like ham or mushrooms. Bocadillos and tortillas usually are put out on the counter around 10:00 or 11:00am (earlier in larger cities). They are then available all day, or until they run out. For the best selection of tortillas on the Camino Francés, stop by Meson de la Tortilla in Pamplona. They put out seven different varieties a day, with at least a couple of vegetarian options.
LunchThe mid-day meal for the Spanish is usually a sit-down affair that precedes the afternoon siesta. It is considered the main meal of the day, and is often presented as a ‘Menú del Día’, or Menu of the Day. A Menú consists of three courses: a starter of salad, soup, or pasta, then a second course which is a meat or fish dish with potatoes of some form, and dessert. Menús are always served with a basket of bread, and usually come with wine or water included in the price. The mid-day meal is also called simply comida, which means ‘meal’ and is served from 1:00pm to 4:00pm.
TapasNow we come to (in my opinion) Spain’s most fantastic contribution to the culinary landscape: tapas. Tapas are small plates of tasty treats that are meant to fill that awkward hunger gap between lunch and dinner. The word tapa comes from the verb tapar, which means ‘to cover.’ The original tapas come from the Andalucía region of Spain and were slices of bread or meat placed over glasses of sherry to prevent the invasion of fruit flies between sips. In smaller towns tapas are just little snacks, like a small plate of olives or assorted nuts. But in several big cities on the Camino, tapas are a feast for the eyes and more importantly, for the taste buds. Tapas are served hot or cold, and feature such ingredients as ham in its various forms, seafood, cheese, eggs, sometimes vegetables, and often come laden with tasty sauces. The olives and assorted nuts come complimentary with the purchase of a drink, but the others usually cost around two-to-three Euros each. The top cities for tapas on the Camino are Pamplona, Logroño, León, and Santiago de Compostela. So good, in fact, that you may consider skipping dinner and just making a night of your tapas crawl. In the Basque region of Navarra, you will find ‘pintxos‘ (pronounced PEEN-chos) instead of tapas. Tapas and pintxos are served to accommodate the normal Spanish eating hours, so they are usually presented around 6:00pm to 7:00pm, which is when pilgrims are ready for dinner. Which is why tapas make such an excellent substitution for dinner.
DinnerThe last meal of the day, if taken in traditional Spanish style, occurs around 10:00pm. Or later. For the average pilgrim, this is too late, since the albergues close and lock their doors at that exact hour (or one hour later in the big cities). Not to mention that a tired pilgrim usually wants a meal earlier than that! Bars, restaurants, and albergues catering to the pilgrim traffic therefore serve their dinners – la cena – earlier, usually at the very early hour (for Spaniards) of 7:00pm to 8:00pm. In most places on the Camino, bars, restaurants, and (some) albergues offer a special pilgrim’s menu, or Menú de Peregrino. This Menú is similar to the Menú del Día in that is has three courses, plus bread and wine. The main differences are the price and the quality, both of which tend to be lower. The Menú de Peregrino will be served as early as 6:30pm in some places, but more typically around 7:30pm or 8:00pm. If there is no bar or restaurant in a town or village, the albergue will either offer a pilgrim’s meal or there will be a kitchen available for pilgrim use.
Shared Meals at the AlberguesPilgrims staying at the albergues along the Camino will have the opportunity to participate on one of the most enjoyable Camino experiences – the shared pilgrim meal. Many of the towns along the Camino are too small to have many (or any) dinner options, so the albergues in these towns will provide an evening meal. Albergue meals are often very similar to the standard pilgrim’s menu served at bars and restaurants, consisting of three courses, bread, and wine. What makes these meals special is the company of other pilgrims who are on the same path as you, and who are sharing their personal stories around the table.
Eating, Pilgrim StyleThe meals described above set a framework for how and when to eat on the Camino, but there will be times when a pilgrim just can’t (or doesn’t want to) conform to the Spanish (or standard pilgrim) way of eating. Here are some ideas for other ways to eat and drink on your Camino:
You may want to shop in the evening for some ‘special’ breakfast items, like fruit and yogurt, and skip the coffee and tostado.
You may seek out the one-of-the-few places that serve bacon and eggs for breakfast.
You may decide to carry a supply of muesli and buy a glass of milk at the local bar each day.
You may prefer to have a picnic lunch some days, taking advantage of the fruits and vegetables in season and stocking up on olives and freshly sliced meats and cheeses from the supermarket.
You may lead your friends on a tapas crawl and skip a sit-down dinner.
You may prefer to cook your dinners, and will therefore seek out the albergues with fully-equipped kitchens.
You might decide the wine served with the pilgrim menus is, well, not really ‘drinkable’ and choose to buy your own ‘upgraded’ bottle to go with your ‘home-cooked meal.’
In the bigger cities you might seek out the one Italian / French / Vegetarian / Doner Kebap / or Seafood restaurant and sample a non-pilgrim menu meal.
WineSpanish wine is in a class all its own. By the bottle, or by the glass, there is just no reason to drink bad wine while on the Camino. Pilgrim friends have described the wine served with the Menús de Peregrino as ‘drinkable.’ In a wine-producing country like Spain, it is, in my opinion, a crime to drink any wine that isn’t completely delicious. Granted, ‘delicious’ is in the eye of the beholder, but if wine is your thing, don’t hesitation to upgrade from that which comes with the pilgrim’s menu. Wine is available everywhere on the Camino, and is most easily accessible in bars and food shops.
CoffeeEvery bar in Spain, it seems, has an espresso machine, and if you order coffee on the Camino, you receive some type of espresso drink. Actual definitions of specific coffee drinks vary, as do cup sizes, but here is a general guide to what’s on offer:
Café cortado: a very small cup with a shot of espresso and a splash of hot milk
Café solo: a small cup with a double shot of espresso
Café con leche: a small cup with a double shot of espresso, then filled up with hot milk; also available in doble (double) and grande (large) sizes
Café Americano: a larger cup (although not the large US-American size) with either a long-pull of espresso or a double shot of espresso with hot water added; you will have to ask for a bit of hot milk if you don’t want your coffee black
Café descafeinado: decaffeinated coffee is not commonly consumed, but it is available
Café Bombón: for a real treat, try this delicious dessert-like drink that layers espresso between sweetened condensed milk and steamed milk to make an attractive and tasty treat. The best ones are found in Logroño at the appropriately named Café Bombon.
BeerBeer is served the normal ways in Spain, in both bottles and from the keg. A cold draft beer tastes fantastic after a long day walking the Camino in the sun. A small serving is called a caña, and a large glass is una jarra grande de cerveza (pronounced ‘HAA-rra’). Or you could just point to the tap and pantomime big or small. Spain produces several beer brands of their own, such as San Miguel, Keler, Mahou, Cruz Campo, and Estrella Damm. Plus you will find other European brands such as Amstel, Heineken, and Kronenbourg, and even the occasional Budweiser. For something different, try a caña con limon, which is the equivalent of an English Shandy or a German Radler: a draft beer with carbonated lemon soda. so refreshing!
SodaBars serve up the usual soft drinks with the Coca-Cola company dominating the market in the north of Spain. Other choices include Kas, Spain’s (and PepsiCo’s) answer to Fanta. Kas comes in several flavors, with naranja (orange) and limon (lemon) being the most popular on the Camino. Expect the bottles and cans served in bars to be smaller than those found in the US and to be similar in price to a beer or glass of wine.
Zumo de NaranjaPerhaps one of the greatest joys to be had on the Camino is the delicious fresh-squeezed orange juice found in many bars along the Way. Trust me on this, order it at the first bar you come to that has the fancy orange-squeezing-juicing-magic-making machine. There will be no turning back.
WaterDrinking water is easy to come by in Spain, and you will find fuentes (fountain, tap, or spigot) all along the Camino to fill your Camelback reservoir or reusable water bottle. Unless otherwise noted, the water in fountains in Spain is safe to drink. Bottled water is available in every bar, shop, and supermarket. To add some electrolytes to your day, try the canned Aquarius drink, which has added potassium, calcium, and sodium chloride and comes in several tasty flavors.
Local SpiritsAbsolutely everything is available in a Spanish bar. This includes all the international spirits and every kind of alcohol, and most at very low prices. While in Spain, why not try out some of the local libations? Pacharán (patxaran in Basque) is liqueur made from sloe berries, anisette, coffee beans, and vanilla. It is usually served after the meal as a digestif, either over ice or in a chilled glass. Serving size is usually shot-size, so you order a chupito de pacharán. Spain also produces some excellent brandies and other liquors.
PamplonaThe first big city the pilgrim comes to in Spain, after crossing the Pyrenees and sorting out his or her Camino rhythm, is Pamplona. Such luck! Pamplona understands pintxos, and it is located in one of the best wine-producing regions in Spain: Navarra. The neighboring Rioja region has more prestige, but the wines of Navarra are delicious, and they compliment the pintxos of Pamplona perfectly. Pamplona is located in the Basque region of Spain, so this food group is referred to as pintxos (PEEN-chos) rather than tapas. From the main square of Pamplona, Plaza del Castillo, several streets radiate out that are filled with pintxos bars. Start with Calle San Nicholas on the west side of the Plaza, for typical Basque and Spanish pintxos. Fantastic seafood pintxos are found at Bar El Gaucho, again, just off Plaza del Castilla, south side. And then from El Gaucho find Calle de la Estefeta, which is full of more options. There are even a bunch of pintxo bars directly on the Camino trail. They make it so easy! If you’re not sure where to go, just follow the local crowd. They are the experts. And they are out in full force each evening starting around 7:00pm.
LogroñoThis big city is located between Pamplona and Burgos, and is the perfect place to spend an entire afternoon or evening sampling the local tapas and regional La Rioja wines. Logroño has three whole streets dedicated to tapas bars, so you really could get a bit carried away. Oh why not. Stop by the Tourist Information Office, located directly on the Camino at the far end of the city center, for a full-color brochure that guides you through the tapas streets: Calle del Laurel, Calle San Augustin, and Calle de San Juan.
SantiagoWhat a perfect place to celebrate the end of your Camino experience, Santiago! With its almost seaside location, Santiago is home to some fantastic seafood tapas. The main ‘food’ street in Santiago is just off Praza do Obradoiro, steps from the Cathedral. There you will find numerous seafood options, including A Taberna do Bispo, home of – possibly – the best seafood tapas in Santiago. Forget dinner; just sidle up to the bar and point at anything and everything that looks good. There are many more tapas options in the historic center of Santiago, plus a huge selection of restaurants and bars. Perhaps the best way to choose a place is to just wander around until you can’t stop yourself from going in! www.caminodesantiago.me/board/el-camino-frances/topic18531.html) In order on the Camino Francés, from east to west…
Best Meal that’s NOT a ‘Menú del Peregrino’
Zubiri, Hostal Gau Txorri Pamplona, Menú at Café Iruña, Plaza del Castillo Pamplona, Restaurante Basseri Pamplona, Restaurante Sarasate (vegetarian) Pamplona, Herriko Taberna (This is my favorite place to eat on the Camino! Their vegetarian menú del dia is fantastic.) Estella, Restaurante/bar La Aljama Los Arcos, Meson Gargantua Villafranca Montes de Oca, restaurant at Hotel San Anton Abad Burgos, Mesón Los Herreros Población de Campos, Casa Rural Amanecer Moratinos, La Bodega Castillo de Moratinos Mansilla de las Mulas, La Curiosa León, restaurant at Hostal Albany Astorga, at Hotel Gaudi El Acebo, La Casa Peregrino El Acebo, La Trucha B&B (for guests only) Molinaseca, Teberna de Señor Pepe Cacabelos, Comida la Moncloa Sarria, Alfonso IX Sarria, Matias Loconda Italiana Mercadoira, at hostal/restaurant Melide, Pulperia Ezequial Arzua, Teodora’s Monte de Gozo, Restaurante Sousa Santiago, Casa Manolo
Best Vegetarian Fare
Pamplona, Restaurante Sarasate Pamplona, Herriko Taberna (Did I mention this is my favorite place to eat???) Burgos, Restaurante Gaia (vegan) León, Restaurante L’Union See also Albergue Meals, below
La Tagliatelle, in Pamplona, León, Burgos, and Santiago Foncebadón, Pizzeria Foncebadón Sarria, Bar 8mm Sarria, Matias Locanda Italiana
Best Albergue Meal
Grañon, Albergue San Juan Bautista (for the experience) Viloria de la Rioja, Albergue Acacio y Orietta Belorado, Albergue Cuatro Cantones Belorado, Albergue A Santiago Albergue Castrojeriz, Camping Camino de Santiago Moratinos, Hospital San Bruno Villar de Mazarife, Albergue San Antonio de Padua (vegetarian) Hospital de Orbigo, Albergue Verde (vegetarian) Pieros, Albergue El Serbal y la Luna (vegetarian) Arzua, Albergue Ultreia San Mamede do Camiño, Albergue Paloma y Leña