What is a Donativo albergue anyway?

Every now and then, and with increased frequency this year it seems, the Donativo thematic raises its agitated head on social media like Facebook. Often started by a hospitaler@ complaining that the pilgrims of yesterday didn’t leave enough money to take care of the pilgrims of tomorrow. Or by somebody innocently stating that Donativo equals free as the Church (which one?), the state, the European Union, or whoever or whatever comes to mind, supports the Donativo albergues on the Caminos de Santiago. Or a new pilgrim is just asking what would be the correct amount to leave in a Donativo albergue. And then the discussions start …

Church and albergue of Grañón in La Riojy, on the Camino Francés, image (CC) Henri Bergius

I have served over the last 20+ years in more than 20 albergues as a hospitalera and whilst Egeria House is NOT an albergue, the work that I do here, be it practical pilgrim help or the Camino Chaplaincy, is supported by fundraisers, donations and my own money. If you don’t want to read the whole article to the end, it has become rather long, here a short summary:

Donativo Albergues are maintained exclusively with donations and don’t receive any public funds. They are a work of love by veteran pilgrims and locals to help the pilgrims currently on pilgrimage to Santiago.

If you can, leave:

… the place better, cleaner and tidier than you found it.

… a generous donation, think what was offered to you freely (not for free!) and respect the hospitaler@s, as they are donating their precious vacation time, to help you, the pilgrim.

…, as a rule of thumb, and if you can, the same amount that you have left in a previous albergue where you had to pay a fixed amount for everything you received.

… or 5 Euro (or even a bit more) each for the following: a place to sleep, clean bathrooms and showers, dinner and breakfast.

… nothing, if you have nothing, but always, always leave a smile and a Thank You!

And now my longer take on the subject:

Donativo Albergues 101

A Short History – Medieval Times

The Roman-Catholic church did indeed support pilgrims to and from Santiago de Compostela, and other places, by providing food, shelter, spiritual and practical care. So belonged, for example, the little church and monastery in O Cebreiro to the powerful Benedictine abbey of Cluny in France. Or take the Parador here in Santiago, it was founded by the Catholic kings in 1486 as a hostel and hospital for pilgrims. These were financed by generous donations of the nobility and gentry plus with the income of the monasteries. Helping a pilgrim was, and is still, deemed a good work, a work that helped the donor to achieve salvation and his or her heavenly reward.

A Short History – Modern Times

In the late 80s and 90s of the last millennium, the pilgrimage to Santiago picked up again, after its decline caused by the Black Death, wars, reformation, enlightenment and so on. Some 25+ years ago a young teacher from Catalunya approached a parish priest who lived in a small village on the Camino Frances with an unusual request: Could he help her to rent a house on the Camino so that she could welcome pilgrims in it? Her reasoning was that whilst albergues existed even back then, the human touch, the personal hospitality was still missing. And so the modern movement of volunteer hospitaleros started.

The priest was Don José Ignacio Díaz Pérez, at that time editor of the Spanish pilgrim magazine “Peregrino”. After the teacher finished her stint as a hospitalera, a couple of people took over and the albergue in Hornillos del Camino became the first of many albergues where the traditional hospitality of the Camino de Santiago has been revived. Today a hospitaler@, after having done the Camino, typically attends a preparation course that takes place over a weekend in many places of Spain and also worldwide. After that, they get assigned, typically for 15 days, to an albergue. These hospitaleros pay their own travel to and from the albergue, donate their free and/or vacation time to clean bathrooms, dormitories, kitchens, to cook with and for pilgrims and to pray with them. They don’t receive any remuneration for all the work they do in 15 very long days. The donativos are used to maintain the albergue, pay the water and electricity bills, buy food and other necessities.

Commemorative sign to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hospitaleros Voluntarios, (cc) Jialxv

What Donativos can teach pilgrims and society in general

The traditional hospitality on the Caminos de Santiago shows that another approach to life, sharing and possessions is possible. The pilgrim receives what is on offer and available in the albergue. Sometimes it is just a place to shower, sleep and rest, sometimes it is a communal meal, a breakfast and/or a time of prayer and reflection. This hospitality aims to take care of the pilgrim and his/her needs without expecting anything in return. Yes, you read that right, if we hospitaler@s start to see pilgrims in terms of “possible donations” then we get it wrong. Of course, there is a box where those who want to keep this “pay it forward system” alive can leave their contribution, but that box should never be the centre of our hospitality. Generous hospitality, offered with an open heart and without judgement, has changed the life of many pilgrims, including my own, more than 20 years ago. Because of the hospitality I have received so many years ago I am now where I am and do what I do.

And a final word to my hospitaler@ colleagues

There is a fine line between explaining to pilgrims what a Donativo albergue is and how it works and making them uncomfortable by being too pushy towards the donation box. Here some tips that might help:

Don’t overload the pilgrims, on arrival, with information, they will forget it anyway. Instead show them their bed, the showers and tell them to come back to you later for more information, after they have recovered from their day’s work of walking or biking.

A transparent or open donation box helps and lets pilgrims see how much or little is in the box. If they can’t see that, they will automatically assume that the box is as full of money as the albergue is full of pilgrims.

Use, if possible, the conversation during the common meal to explain a little bit about the albergue, how it came into being and who actually maintains it and who not.

And, perhaps most importantly, try to separate the pilgrims from the money they leave in the box. This money doesn’t represent your worth as a hospitaler@ nor the worthiness of the pilgrim as a pilgrim. It is just money and if it is one day less than you need, rest assured the next day it will be more than you need to take care of pilgrims.

Have I met true “freeloaders” aka pilgrims that had money, sometimes a lot, but decided to make their Camino as cheap as possible by staying mainly in Donativos and leaving nothing or next to nothing? Yes, over the last 20+ years it was around a handful … if you look at the numbers of pilgrims each year on the Camino, that isn’t many.

10 thoughts on “What is a Donativo albergue anyway?”

  1. Great piece
    Thank you for reminding us to give as we receive, to give and not to count the cost is amazing and sutch people are a treasure to the camino. I try to use donativos as much as possible for the comradary and always feel this is the true camino experience. Thank you so much for all you do.
    Buen camino

  2. Thank you for this article. I was just listening to a podcast specifically about the camino in which both people ( both pilgrims) repeatedly referred to “free” albergues. I was a bit shocked because they seemed somewhat informed otherwise. Thanks for all that you do.

  3. I have just walked in to my home after the long journey back
    , and the first words I have read are by people who I respect and whose words ring true in my soul.. Thanks, I will soon go to bed with my heart singing!

  4. Thanks for writing this article. Indeed, the spirit that volunteer hospitaler@s bring to a donativo albergue is something that many pilgrims say is the best part of their Camino experience. Those who do not stay in a donativo albergue are missing out on an important -and historical- aspect of the Camino. Many thanks to the hundreds of volunteers who each year give of their time, money and spirit to help others along the Way.

  5. Beautiful article . The donativo’s , hospiteleros and pilgrims are the true heart of the Camino .

  6. Thank you Sybille. This is exactly how I see the role of a donativo hospitalero/a, so it’s heart-warming to read a like-minded view. The kindness that is central to this approach, as you say, has the power to change lives. <3

    1. Like Don Jose Maria Alonso of San Juan de Ortega once said – Changing the world, one pilgrim at a time … BC SY

  7. thank you for writing this, Sybille. The hospitaleros and the interactive donativo principle is what makes the Camino de Santiago stand out from the network of European hiking trails. If we lose that, we lose the essence of the pilgrimage.

    1. Yes, if we lose the Donativos we will lose a big part of what makes the Camino unique, we will lose its soul … BC and Buen Albergue Amiga Hospitalera! SY

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