There’s nothing like spending time in a Spanish-speaking country to improve your Spanish skills and learn about the life and culture of that country. The Camino de Santiago is the perfect opportunity for an immersion experience. After all, you’re going to spend at least one week in Spain, and you may spend several weeks, a month even.
It would be a shame not to take advantage of all that time to improve your Spanish a little.
You’re going to be in Spain, surrounded by people who speak Spanish, things written in Spanish… so it’s almost impossible not to learn something.
In this post you’ll find tips to get more out of your Spanish during this pilgrimage time.
You can listen to these ideas in the podcast, in Spanish.
Or you can continue reading in English.
Let’s start with the advantages of learning Spanish on the Camino compared to other destinations in Spain.
There are many routes and each one is different, but in general you’ll pass through a lot of towns and villages that are far from the most touristy areas. So, you won’t find many people who speak English or any other foreign language. It may not be so difficult on the Camino Francés because it’s the most popular one. But if you take other routes… Spanish will come in very handy.
In general, people react very positively when someone makes the effort to speak Spanish, even if it’s very basic. So don’t be afraid. You’ll even notice that they treat you better than someone who doesn’t try. And I’m not the only one saying this, people who have made the effort have had access to special experiences that would have been closed to them otherwise.
Tips to improve your Spanish
The first one is quite obvious: Depending on the route you choose and the time of year, it’s quite possible that you’ll come across other pilgrims. Sharing the path with other pilgrims from around the world is an essential part of the experience. But why limit yourself to people who speak your own language only? Roughly half of the pilgrims who walk the Camino every year are Spanish. Speaking Spanish will allow you to connect with them and it will obviously help you improve your Spanish. In addition, Spanish is an official language in more than 20 countries, so you can make friends not only with pilgrims from Spain, but with those from any other Spanish-speaking country.
We tend to focus on relationships with other pilgrims and often forget about the people who live in the places we pass through. In the smaller towns, it’s common to find people, especially older people, who are eager to chat. Take advantage of this opportunity and greet them. Stop for a few minutes, ask them about life in the village, their festivals, history, customs, whatever comes to mind. Not only will you be practicing the language, but you will also be learning a lot about the culture and way of life. And you will be making this person’s day.
In the bigger cities and towns, people tend to be in a hurry. They don’t have as much time to stop and chat, but that doesn’t mean you can’t practice. Look around you. You are surrounded by opportunities to improve your Spanish. There are billboards, signs in shop windows, information at bus stops, etc. Pay attention to all of this. Do you understand everything or are there any new words? Surely you have a phone with an internet connection, right? If you see a new word, you can look it up in an online dictionary. Or take a picture and ask someone later when you have the chance.
In these larger places, there is usually a tourist office. Look for it and go ask for information. They will be happy to help you and you will be practicing and learning.
It’s common for bars and cafes to have newspapers. Take advantage of the breakfast or break time to read a bit if you don’t have anyone to talk to. In addition to practicing reading, you will also be up-to-date on current events and learning about other issues. What topics are given more space in the newspaper? What type of news is more frequent? Are newspapers in your country the same or different?
At the end of each day, write a little bit, in Spanish, of course, about how your day went. You don’t need to write a long text with long, elaborate paragraphs. You can start by simply writing down words or very short phrases, and you’lll notice how your writing will get better every day.
In order to help you with this last part, I have created journals for the Camino. Actually, you can start using them even before arriving in Spain. You can plan your stages, write your packing list or your thoughts. You also have space to write every day during your Camino, as as after your journey, while you are still processing your experience.
I had a new guest in the podcast. Fabi, who is also a Spanish teacher, walked his first Camino in 2017. In our conversation, Fabi shares his experience on the Camino Francés, as well as some lessons he learned the hard way. So, if you’re planning your first Camino, pay attention to Fabi’s advice.
You can listen to our conversation in Spanish:
Or, if you’re not up for it, you can read here an account of what he told me. In English.
In 2027, Fabi walked the five final stages of the Camino Francés, starting in Sarria and ending in Santiago de Compostela, with 2 friends. He soon discovered that he wasn’t wearing the right shoes and after only one hour into his first day, he got his first blister. Luckily, he had a second pair of shoes, and those were a better fit, so he was able to continue.
Although he had traveled to Sarria with 2 friends, Fabi decided to walk by himself on the second day, because he wanted that time to reflect and think about his life and the future. But something else happened that second day. Half way to Palas de Rei, it started raining very heavily. Fabi was prepared for the rain. But, when he got to Palas de Rei, he couldn’t find his accommodation; so he tried to find his way with the help of his phone… but the phone got wet in the rain and it stopped working after he arrived at his albergue. The next day, on his way to Arzúa, he stopped in Melide to buy a new phone. And what do lots of pilgrims do in Melide? That’s right, eat octopus. So, that’s what Fabi did. And he drank some cider too. That was his second breakfast!
The rest of the days were less eventful, but an enjoyable experience all the same. He met pilgrims from other parts of Spain along the way and it was exciting to arrive in Santiago and sit on the square, in front of the cathedral, to celebrate together that they had made it. After that, they continued the celebration with a mariscada, or big seafood meal.
In the future, Fabi would like to walk again, either a different route, or the Francés again but in reverse, towards France.
His advice for those planning their first Camino:
make sure you got the right shoes, comfortable and not new.
the right socks are quite important too.
use some gel or vaseline to prevent blisters and chafing.
pack light. You can wash your clothes every day after you finish walking, so you don’t need to carry loads.
be open to new people, new places and don’t be afraid to go on your own because you will soon meet others.
In this new podcast episode I talk to Gordon Chong, who joins me from Canada.
Gordon first heard about the Camino some 40 years ago while studying European history. He was interested in the struggles of pilgrims, soldiers, and Christians in Spain and other European countries, as well as the Gothic churches in Spain.
But he wasn’t able to experience the pilgrimage, the culture and history until last year, when he walked the last 100 kilometers from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. In the end, he enjoyed the rural life and natural surroundings more than the churches and history.
Gordon has been learning Spanish for a while and the Camino gave him the perfect opportunity to practice. Speaking Spanish helped him to interact more with locals, and stay away from more touristy places. However, he was surprised to find out how many Galicians speak gallego, and not Spanish, in their daily lives.
It took Gordon a few decades to make to to the Camino but, as it happens to many of us, he’s already planning his next one! No definite plans yet, but he would like to walk with a group of Spanish friends, so he can fully immerse in the language and the culture.
She walked her first Camino in 2005, when she was dealing with many important changes in her life (divorce, quitting her job, turning 40). She came back for a second Camino in 2007. Since then, she has walked twice a year, most years. Mainly the Camino Francés, her love, as she describes it.
The podcast is unique in that its focus is those pilgrims who are preparing for their first Camino and are full of doubts and questions. In each episode, Nancy shares her expertise on all things Camino and she also talks to people who haven’t walked yet and get to ask her about any aspects of the pilgrimage that worries them.
Don’t be in a hurry. Take it easy, especially on your first days; you can only walk your first Camino once.
Spend some time thinking why? Why do you want to walk the Camino? What are your motivations?
Always look back! Enjoy the view, breathe… and check you’re not leaving anything behind after you stop for a break.
Nancy has been able to use the Spanish she learned in school on her many Caminos. Her ability to speak Spanish has allowed her to connect with the local people, to be a part of their daily life.
Regarding this, she has another piece of advice. Something, actually, I keep saying to anyone who wants to listen: start your conversations with a greeting. Whether you’re looking for a bed in an albergue, buying something from a pharmacy or a supermaket, remember to greet people. This is much more important, if you want to be polite and respectful, than saying gracias and por favor many times.
Nancy also shares her secret, which works both for when she’s speaking Spanish and when she’s speaking English to a non-native speaker: keep it simple. Simple grammar, simple vocabulary. Makes communication much easier for both parts.
You can listen to the whole conversation, in Spanish, here:
New podcast! I was not meant to publish a new episode this week, but there’s something going on today in many Spanish towns that I thought was worth explaining. It has to do with the Carnival, or with the end of it, to be precise. In most cases it involves fish. We do things a bit differently here in Pontevedra. So no fish for us, but a bird instead.
I’m talking about el entierro de la sardina (the burial of the sardine), a celebration that typically takes places on Ash Wednesday and marks the end of the Carnival celebrations. The origin of the burial of the sardine ceremony is not clear; there are several theories. But we know for sure that it was already a very popular celebration is the 18th century.
El entierro de la sardina usually involves a parade that is kind of a mock funeral procession. Instead of colourful costumes, people wear black and the parade ends with the burning of a figure, usually a sardine.
As I mentioned before, we don’t bury sardines in Pontevedra and we don’t celebrate the end of the Carnival on Ash Wednesday either. We stretch the festivities a little longer.
If you’ve walked the Camino Portugués, you may have seen the statue of a parrot. It’s very close to the Peregrina church. That parrot is called Ravachol, and that’s who we bury at the end of the Carnival.
There used to be a pharmacy where the statue is now. The pharmacy was a meeting point for politicians, artists and scientists, among others. In 1891, Perfecto Feijoo, the pharmacist, was given a parrot, that turned out to be quite mischievous.
Ravachol used to be either in the pharmacy or outside, next to it, where he could watch people pass by. He soon became a very popular character in the city. His voculabulary was not the most polite, and he was said to be quite smart. He would call his owner if a customer entered the pharmacy or insult those who didn’t give him a sweet. And he would sing during mass times at the Peregrina church across the street…
Ravachol died in 1913, after eating too much cake soaked in wine, apparently! The people of Pontevedra were devastated, and telegrams of condolences were sent from all over Spain. They organised a wake and a funeral por Ravachol. The invitation to the funeral encouraged people to wear costumes. It was a huge event, with music bands, floats and a large crowd. In 1985, a group of people decided to re-enact Ravachol’s funeral during the Carnival. It was a great success and in a couple of years it become one of the most popular events of the Carnival in Pontevedra.
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