Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

The light and dark of beer and wine on the Camino

I have never consumed wine as often as on the Camino. Every day, a full bottle of delicious vino blanco or riojo came included in a Pilgrim’s Menu, the discounted three-course meal offered by restaurants along the route.


Even some albergues sold wine. One displayed a bottle of red at the front counter, available for only 1.5 euros (about two dollars). With a wonderful homemade label—“un buen vino para un buen camino” (a good wine for a good Camino)—it was made by the next-door neighbour, who had his own vineyard. The verse and sentiment appealed to me, so I bought a bottle and shared it with some pilgrims and a hospitalero. Previously, they were all sitting alone and silent at a table; within minutes, we were laughing and telling stories.

un buen camino wine low-res 405

Throughout the Camino, I tried not to indulge, but the easily accessible liquid offered too much temptation. How could I resist sampling the fresh local stuff while walking through Spain’s primary Rioja wine region? After passing all those acres of vineyards—the country has the most “planted surface area” in the world, according to the website Wines from Spain—I felt obliged to offer my cultural appreciation.


Besides, when even the monks in Spain make red wine, you have to wonder how they’re interpreting the term “spirit.” Before walking the Camino, I had heard of the “wine fountain” at the monastery in Irache, surrounded by acres of the Rioja region’s red grapes. (King Sancho IV of Navarre donated the original vineyards to the monastery in 1072.)


I had expected some simpler, mini-version of the Bellagio Hotel’s fountain in Vegas, spouting plumes of red wine like a circle of tiny geysers. In full decadence, a ring of pilgrims could open their mouths and allow the lush liquid to fall directly onto their waiting lips.


Instead, an ordinary tap dispenses the red wine from a cut-stone wall of the winery. Next to it, a sign reads: “Pilgrim, if you wish to arrive at Santiago full of strength and vitality, have a drink of this great wine and make a toast to happiness.”

wine fountain low-res 341

The wine fountain at the monastery in Irache

(I did get a chuckle from another official sign on the winery property. Explaining some relevant local history, the formal English translation referred to “the fucking church.” Who let this phrase slip in? Perhaps some wry, bitter westerner provided it after an unsuspecting friar requested a translation. Or maybe a surly bilingual monk wrote it after finishing a bottle of post-communion riojo.)


Arriving at the winery at about 8:30 a.m., I looked forward to trying a novel tipple. But the tap, which is supposed to operate for 12 hours daily, starting at 8 a.m., was dry. I had to settle for mere water from the tap beside it.


Overall, Spain helped me adopt a new view of red wine. In North America, I rarely drink it since it usually gives me a headache. But in España, I could try glass after glass with no negative side effects at all.


Even at the Palomar Restaurant in Atapuerca, after sharing a night of fun, songs, and many bottles of red wine with a tableful of European pilgrims, I expected to wake up with a monstrous pounding head the next morning. But I felt almost nothing.

bavarian low-res 473

A Bavarian pilgrim entertains our international group at the Palomar Restaurant in Atapuerca.

Was it because Spain’s local red wines have no preservatives? My German friend Elke, whom I met on the Camino, told me that in Germany, it is illegal to include additives in wine; perhaps a similar law exists in Spain.


Of course, I had to sample some sangria, which was excellent. And for a white-wine lover like me, Spain’s offerings were dry and smooth. In a few places, the vino blanco was a strange orangey colour and more sweet than I like, but mostly, it tasted great. I’m certainly no connoisseur and never bothered to write down any labels, but I savoured everything I tried.


Although I rarely drink beer, I did enjoy having the odd shandy decades ago, the British style of beer with lime. If you ask for this combo in North America, most waiters will look at you as if you’re loopy. So I was surprised to see bottles for sale in Spain with the two mixed together. Curious, I tried one and liked it. A few times, when I ordered a beer and lime, a bartender would never hesitate or look quizzical; he simply pulled out a bottle of flavoured lime and poured a healthy amount into a glass before adding beer.

beer sandwich board low-res 850

A pilgrim-themed advertisement for Mahou beer


In Spain, beer companies have expressly targeted pilgrims in their marketing campaigns, knowing that thirsty people walking and sweating in hot sun will want to guzzle their product. Nearly every table, chair, and umbrella at every café or restaurant along The Way sported the name of a beer in bold letters. A sandwich board for Mahou beer showed two pilgrims silhouetted against a dusk sky, under the words “El Camino.” A sign for San Miguel beer, mounted on a tree, displayed an image of a pilgrim and gave the distance remaining to reach Santiago.


I found this commodification of a contemplative journey troubling yet understandable, particularly due to Spain’s terrible economy.  Presumably, these signs had not been updated in more than a decade. Two century-old companies, Mahou and San Miguel, merged in 2000, yet these signs still identified them as separate entities. All part of brand loyalty?

san miguel beer low-res 568

A pilgrim-themed ad for San Miguel beer
doubles as a Camino waymarker


Spain is supposed to have the highest beer consumption per capita in southern Europe, according to the Carlsberg Group website. According to Brewers of Europe, each person in Spain drank less than one litre of beer a week (an average of 48.2 litres) every year between 2009 and 2011. That’s well below Germany’s per-capita average of 107.2 litres, Austria’s 108.1 and about a third of the Czech Republic’s 145. In 2011, the average for the European Union as a whole was 68.9 litres.


It bothered me seeing some of the same pilgrims getting routinely drunk along the route—although I was hardly a teetotaler. To me, overindulgence, rather than balance and moderation, is part of the shadow side of the Camino. I overhead some men, while drinking beer on a patio, say that they obviously wouldn’t be “attending a meeting” while on the Camino. Were they referring to AA?


As the daughter of an alcoholic, I have had a pattern of attracting men who drink too much. I do not enjoy being around heavy drinkers, but understand the nature of addiction. We all choose how much light and darkness we want in our lives. We can all strive to find balance, every day, in whatever form that works.

NEXT WEEK: Portals and thresholds on the Camino

UPCOMING WORKSHOP: Inspired by my Camino pilgrimage, I’m hosting the workshop “Twelve Gifts of the Camino: a SoulCollage® Journey” on Saturday, Oct. 5 in Sechelt, BC. For more information, contact me at hconn@dccnet.com or see the 2013 schedule on the Sunshine Coast SoulCollage® website.


, , , , , , , ,
September 7, 2013 at 3:39 am Comment (1)