The following article first appeared in our Bulletin no. 56, in May 1996, and is included here by permission of the author and the editor. You may quote reasonable extracts without permission, though we would appreciate an acknowledgement. For more substantial use, please contact the Secretary.
Anyone who walks the camino discovers something special. It may be the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of the pilgrim route or something of their own inner resources. As pilgrims toil through the countryside they also become aware that the camino is a living and dynamic tradition. Part of the contemporary experience is the refugio and its hospitalero (warden). By and large these are volunteers, drawn not only from Spain, but from many nations – a symbol that the Camino de Santiago is both the way for peregrinos and the Camino de Europa.
The sole purpose of the refuge warden is to provide a welcome to all who arrive at the refugio or albergue with the appropriate credentials. This extends from offering the newly arrived, and possibly very tired, pilgrim a word of welcome and encouragement, to ensuring that lights work and toilets are clean.
At least that is the theory, as I was to discover when I worked as a warden for three weeks last year (1995) there are, in fact, more dimensions to being a hospitalero than smiling at newcomers and wondering whether my opening gambit should be in Spanish, French or English.
For a refuge to be more than a mere building a warden must work to create and maintain an atmosphere that is both homely and also a reflection of the pilgrim ethos. As I was reminded constantly there are no set rules on how to do this – every warden must find their own style and manner of achieving this. Once my predecessor had left Castrojeríz it was somewhat disconcerting to realize that this was now all down to me!
During my three weeks I began to appreciate just how important it is to encourage each day’s set of pilgrims to see the refuge as more than just somewhere to rest and sleep. Reputations of particular refuges are made or broken on whether those staying there have felt cared for. More than this, a good refuge and warden can help to enrich the experience of pilgrims and, perhaps, help those who see the camino simply in terms route to be travelled to appreciate some of its other riches. It was often necessary to strike the right balance between those who saw themselves as ‘authentic’ pilgrims and others whose motives were less focused. I used to find that when walkers or cyclists arrived they were either too tired or it was too late for them to bother about much more than showering, eating and resting. For this reason making a simple breakfast available of coffee and magdalenas was in ideal opportunity for the now refreshed pilgrims to have a chat with each other or with me. Many insights, experiences and words of encouragement were shared over the breakfast table.
On the other hand it was also necessary to allow everyone their own space and not to be too ‘motherly’. So I never asked leading questions such as ‘Why are you doing the camino?’, or ‘What are your impressions of the route?’ even if many people did interrogate me about why I, an Englishman, was warden there and not at Rabanal. It often proved sufficient to ask, ‘Are you tired?’, or ‘Any problems?’ Then if they wanted to show me their blisters that was fine, or if they wanted to say something more, that was fine too.
So, to pilgrims new and old I would say: spare a passing thought for the warden. If the refuge is not open before 4 p.m. it is perhaps because the poor warden needs time to clean the refuge and also have his own lunch. If he looks a little tired and strained maybe it is because he has just dealt with a group of effervescent youngsters or had to deal with a drunk who tried to gain admittance at 2 a.m. the night before. If he looks a little bewildered and harassed it may be because he is newly arrived and hasn’t the faintest idea where the spare light bulbs are kept!
Source: Confraternity of St James Bulletin Nº 56 pp. 40-42.