France and Spain
Start: St. Jean-Pied-du-Port, France
End: Santiago de Compostela, Spain
The Camino Francés or French Way is the most famous of all the Camino de Santiago routes, featuring in many documentaries, books (the Pilgrimage) and movies (The Way). While St Jean Pied de Port marks the starting point, you can start your Camino from any town or city along the way.
In 2015, I began my second-ever long-distance trail, alone. I had heard about the Camino de Santiago a decade before when I read Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage and it sounded like something I would love to do. However, as someone that had rarely left the USA, a month-long walk across Spain sounded like a pipe dream and something that would never be a reality for me. How could I ever afford taking a month to walk across Spain?
But over a decade later, I was living in Dubai and I had an entire summer free (in Dubai summer is ‘off season’). I remembered the story about the Camino de Santiago, and I decided to do it. Although I had read the book of Paulo Coelho’s mystical experience along the way, I still had no idea what the Camino would be like for normal people. The only picture in my head of what this experience would be, was a solitary walk on a dusty, country road, with dappled light breaching the cover of overhead leaves.
The image in my head was beautiful, but what was in store for me was infinitely better. Even without the supernatural experiences and fights with demons (as depicted in the book), I still had an experience that, much more subtly, changed my life. The people I met, the life-long friendships I made, the personal stories I heard, the history I learned, and the way that I felt… all of these things changed the way I looked at the world from that point forward.
In 2015, we all started alone and over the period of one month we formed a little family. A Camino Family. We stay in touch constantly and we have traveled all over the world to meet up over the years.
For these reasons, the Camino Francés will always be one of my favorite hiking trails.
|Start Location||St. Jean-Pied-du-Port, France|
|Final Destination||Santiago de Compostela, Spain|
|Time Required||30 days +/-|
|Average Distance per Day||25kms|
|Average Time Walking per Day||6 to 8 hours|
|Total Cost||$1300 / €1200 / 1000£|
for everything, for the entire month
Itinerary of an average day on the Camino Francés:
|5:00 AM||Wake up.|
|6:00 AM||Begin walking at your own pace.|
Start early so you are done before hottest part of day.
(8 AM Hostel shuts. You gotta be gone!)
|6:30 AM –|
|Stop for coffee at first café you see.|
You’ll see everyone you know here.
Agree what village you will meet for lunch.
|10:30 AM||Meet for lunch in some random village.|
|1:00 PM||Check in to your next hostel.|
|1:30 PM||Drink your first beer.|
|5:00 PM –|
|Dinner with friends, old and new.|
|9:00 PM –|
|Bedtime for people who just started walking.|
You are going to be tired your first week.
|10:00 PM –|
|Bedtime for people that have been walking for a few weeks.|
Major proof that your stamina is stronger!
Completing this route is achievable by inexperienced walkers. The hills are easy, except for a few exceptions and there are hardly any extreme variations in height to overcome.
Even still, there are many hikers who have to give up or take rest days because they were not prepared or they underestimated the demands of long-distance trekking.
Add to this the high temperatures in Spain during the summer, some people trying to push themselves too far, and not hydrating themselves. These things can cause heart and circulation problems. Swollen feet due to the heat will also increase the chance of blisters or even inflammation of the tendons. To train for walking long distances every day, it is recommended that you take some long walks for several hours once or twice a week. If you are unsure about your fitness, you should consult your doctor before you go.
But don’t let this scare you. If you are not able to do full segments right away, there are many options to break up your days into shorter bits until you get your hiking legs.
The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James, is best known as an epic Catholic pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. Although the Camino is actually a network of trails from all across Europe, its most popular route, the Camino Francés, spans from the city of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port at the base of the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain.
The Catholic Camino, which was incredibly popular during the Middle Ages, fell out of fashion when the Black Plague, the Protestants, and the Renaissance ruined the pilgrimage party. Then, during the time of the Franco dictatorship, the Camino came to a complete halt.
In the early ’80s, a short time after the death of Franco, El Camino was reborn and quickly became more popular than ever, as hiking gained in popularity. When Paulo Coelho‘s ‘The Pilgrimage‘ book came out in 1987, and a series of books in Korea were published about the Camino Francés, the trail exploded in popularity and hasn’t stopped since.
But Christians didn’t invent the route. In fact, like many of Christianity’s holidays and rituals, the Church usurped and repackaged ancient pagan traditions and called them Christian (like it did with Christmas and Easter).
Long before Jesus was born, pagans were walking across northern Spain in a born-again ritual. They would finish at Fisterra (the end of the world), burn their clothes, and watch the sun fall into the infinite sea next to La Costa de Morta (the Coast of Death). This ritual symbolized a pagan pilgrim’s death and rebirth.
Eventually, Christians claim to have brought the remains of St. James to Santiago de Compostela. They encouraged Christians to follow the well-beaten pilgrimage path that the pagans had created, but this time in the name of Christianity. Then, since the early ninth century, the Camino hosted kings and queens, Roman armies and of course legions of Catholic pilgrims walking the route for atonement.
With over 2000 years of history, there is an infinite amount to learn about this ancient path, and the best way to learn about it, is to walk it.
One of the greatest characteristics of the Way of St. James is that of uniting people of quite different generations, nationalities and motives. Besides a spiritual and religious motivation there can be a great many other reasons for walking the path which is over 2,000 years old. With an infrastructure of support services that has been developed over centuries, with well marked paths, and a dense network of overnight accommodation, the Way of St. James is the ideal long distance walk for anyone who would like to experience for the first time the adventure of a long journey on foot.
Over the centuries villages, towns, and cities developed along the path to Santiago for the sole purpose of supporting traveling pilgrims. A unique culture with customs, legends, and currency was created around the trek of the pilgrims. There is no other long-distance hiking trail in the world so full of history as the Camino de Santiago.
Today, the Camino is mostly seen as a physical challenge of stamina. Many people that would never consider themselves an elite athlete can walk 6 to 8 hours a day. Yet still, once they have walked across the entire country of Spain, they can’t help but feel like an Olympian. That feeling is well-deserved because they have done something extraordinary.
Everyone has a different reason for embarking on the Camino de Santiago, and here lies the trail’s unavoidable appeal. For many, the Camino is the trip of a lifetime—a 780 km / 500-mile journey through some of Europe’s most beautiful landscapes. For others, the sense of self-discovery and achievement that a walk along the Camino can bring offers an undeniable allure. Yet for all, the extended stretch of incredible food, beautiful historic sites, fantastic beer and wine, and camaraderie, are what make the Camino Francés one of the most legendary hikes in the world.
The official mark for the Camino de Santiago (all routes) is the stylized scallop shell on a blue background, or a yellow arrow, which is often placed on the walls of houses well above eye level to indicate the route through villages and towns. In open country one frequently encounters these signs embedded in small concrete pillars.
The scallop shell is one of the most iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago and still used today to guide pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela along the many different routes.
The scallop shell is believed to be a metaphor, its lines representing the different routes pilgrims travel from all over the world, all trails leading to one point: Santiago de Compostela.
Medieval pilgrims often wore a scallop shell attached to their cloaks or hats for the duration of their journey to Santiago. More than being just a symbol or a pilgrim badge, the scallop shells also had a practical purpose. The scallop shell often doubled as a cup, to scoop water out of fountains, and could also be used to carry small portions of food.
The name of Don Elías Valiña Sampedro might not ring any bells but you will certainly recognize his most ‘famous’ creation: the yellow arrow showing pilgrims the way along the Camino Francés.
Don Elías was parish priest of O Cebreiro and a Camino visionary. After years studying the Way of St James, he was convinced of the importance of this ancient trail and set himself the challenge of reviving the route we call the Camino Francés. In 1984, he put in motion his mission to rescue, clean and mark the trails along this Camino, starting in Roncesvalles, in the Pyrenees, he began marking the trail with his now-famous yellow arrows.
As you begin the Camino, your body is going to experience a little bit of shock. You’ll get a little sore. You will need lots of rest. But after about a week, your body adapts to the routine and suddenly you are not thinking about tight muscles and aching feet.
As your mind is now able to wander as you walk, you leave the winding roads of the Pyrenees mountains, and you enter the endless, straight, dirt roads of the Meseta. With nothing around you except miles of farmland in all directions, your mind has no distractions, and it turns inward. You have one week to think about every little thing, good and bad, you have ever done in your life.
After a good deal of self-reflection, the knowledge that this journey is nearing completion can bring a mix of emotions. Most of all, you are likely to hate the fact that you will soon have to say goodbye to the many friends you have made and shared your adventures with. A feeling of spiritual enlightenment is not guaranteed. It will come when it comes… and that could mean a week after you return home from your journey.
Forget “Hello” and “Goodbye,” on the Camino de Santiago (in Spain) these greetings are replaced with “Buen Camino.” The literal translation for this phrase is ‘good road’ in Spanish, but it infers that you are wishing the person you are talking to a good journey, both physical and spiritual. It is the greeting shared by pilgrims, hikers, and bicyclers on the Camino and also with local people who wish you well. You will hear this about a million times, so you might as well start practicing it now.
Another Camino-specific phrase that is less-commonly used is “Ultreya” meaning ‘let’s go further’ or ‘keep going!’ This is usually answered with the expression “et suseia“, meaning is ‘let’s go higher’.
Your pilgrim’s passport (aka Credencial) is a document that identifies you as a pilgrim, and provides proof that you have walked, cycled or ridden on horseback, the required distance to gain your compostela. It allows you to sleep in the albergues and hostels at special rates. It can also be used to get access to the low-cost pilgrim’s menus as well as qualifying you for reduced-price entry to certain tourist spots. On a deeply personal note; it provides a wonderful record of the places that you stayed, and makes for a beautiful, soulful reminder of a special spiritual journey.
Your credencial is a long card, folded over a number of times to produce a mini booklet. At the pilgrim’s office, you will receive your first stamp and after that, you will produce it every time you arrive at an albergue or hostel. On payment of your accommodation, you will get a stamp in the passport to prove that you stayed the night in a specific hamlet, village, town or city. Additionally, you can often find stamps for your credential at churches and iconic locations along the way to Santiago. Collecting these stamps is a fun way to document all of the places you visited during your journey.
You can obtain it at the Pilgrim’s Office at the start of your Camino. You simply find the office, register as a pilgrim, and you will be given the passport for a small fee (currently 2 euros). If you start in a town without a Pilgrim’s Office, you should be able to obtain a credencial at the local church, or at one of the municipal albergues. Simply ask around and you should get lucky.
The compostela is the certificate that testifies that you have completed the Camino de Santiago. It can only be granted to you if you can prove that you have actually done the camino journey. The credencial, the pilgrim’s passport is the proof that you need.
There are certain conditions though:
Major question that is always asked is: WHAT DO I BRING?
I saw people with backpacks of all sizes along the trail, from tiny schoolbags to enormous 100-litre hiking packs, and everything in between. For most people, the best Camino backpack will likely be a comfortable, lightweight, sturdy 35-50 liters hiking pack with good shoulder and waist straps.
The key is to be smart and minimize what you are bringing because you really don’t need much. And if you bring a full bag, you will not have room to hold any tiny souvenirs you might want to purchase.
The key is to get plenty of practice with whatever you intend to use well ahead of time, and with the weight as you intend to carry. It is amazing how quickly you will want to drop some of the things you thought you could never live without, once you have to carry them for 6 to 8 hours. The people I met who were posting gear home from Pamplona or nursing shoulder injuries hadn’t done this, and were suffering for it. A bit more preparation would have resulted in less pain to both wallet and body.
The theory for the Camino is that your backpack and everything in it should be no more than ten percent of your bodyweight, and less is better.
It’s also worth considering taking the smallest packable daypack you can find. I use this remarkably-tiny version from Sea to Summit, which weighs under 70g (2.4oz) and folds up smaller than my fist. It’s ideal for throwing a few things into when exploring larger towns in the evening, or on a rest day when you don’t want to carry your entire backpack around. It also gives you the flexibility to ship your main pack ahead now and then, and carry just the stuff you need for the day.
One of the more popular guide you will see people using is this ‘Pilgrim’s Guide’ which not only gives you all of the reference information you need (maps, hostels, local information), but it also includes ‘helpful spiritual guidelines to support the seeker’s inner journey as well as the outer pilgrimage.’ Most of the people I met found their spiritual journey was actually happening through the random people they met, and they didn’t spend much time on the book’s spiritual lessons.
Also be careful that you are buying the COMPLETE GUIDE (link below) and not just the maps book.
The below chart is just a suggestion. There are many options available for you as and you can choose how to break up your personal Camino into daily stages. This chart is simply to give you an idea of how far you will walk each day, on average. When you look at the chart, you realize it is not as terrifying as you probably thought it was going to be.
If you are thinking of only walking one week because you think walking the whole month will be too painful, this is ridiculous. The first week of walking is actually the hardest. If you leave after one week, you will be leaving just as your body is getting used to the pace. People that think they can’t make it a whole month at the beginning of the Camino seem to find their strength the longer they walk.
In addition to the Camino Francés segments, there is an additional chart showing the route from Santiago to Finisterre. While most pilgrims stop in Santiago, a few continue the Pegan pilgrimage all the way to the ocean (Finesterre = end of the Earth).
|04||Pamplona||Puente de la Reina||23.9km|
|05||Puente de la Reina||Estella||21.6|
|09||Nájera||Santo Domingo de La Calzada||20.7km|
|10||Santo Domingo de La Calzada||Belorado||22km|
|11||Belorado||San Juan de Ortega||23.9km|
|12||San Juan de Ortega||Burgos||25.8km|
|13||Burgos||Hornillos del Camino||21km|
|14||Hornillos del Camino||Castrojeriz||19.9km|
|16||Frómista||Carrión de los Condes||18.8km|
|17||Carrión de los Condes||Terradillos de los Templarios||26.3km|
|18||Terradillos de los Templarios||Bercianos del Real Camino||23.2km|
|19||Bercianos del Real Camino||Mansilla de las Mulas||26.3km|
|20||Mansilla de las Mulas||León||18.5km|
|21||León||San Martín del Camino||24.6km|
|22||San Martín del Camino||Astorga||23.7km|
|30||Portomarín||Palas de Rei||24.8km|
|31||Palas de Rei||Arzúa||28.5km|
|33||Pedrouzo||Santiago de Compostela||19.4km|
|34||Santiago de Compostela||Negreira||22.1km|
St. Jean-Pied-de-Port is considered the official starting point for the Camino Francés. This idyllic French village is also the perfect place to start your Camino, as it offers good food in a pleasant and peaceful atmosphere. Here you will find French village charm, history, monuments and good restaurants in abundance.
In this quaint village you can find an office for pilgrims starting out on the Camino de Santiago. Here you can pick up your pilgrim’s passport; they register you as a pilgrim; and they answer any questions you might have.
Pilgrim Registration Office
39 Rue de la Citadelle, 64220
To sleep on the Camino Francés there are many options: either choose a shelter, a hostel or a hotel, you will often find a complete network of accommodation to cover your needs. Accommodations are available on the Camino at a variety of budgets, from as little as €3 for a dormitory bed to €300 for a room in a posh Parador. There are also a few places along the route that you can sleep for free.
Albergues (pilgrim hostels) are the refuge of choice for most people walking that Camino.
Albergues tend to fall into three categories: municipal, private, and parochial. Other than walking along with someone on the trail, the albergues are where you meet other travelers. They are a significant part of the heartbeat of the Camino.
Imagine big rooms with lots of bunk beds, and bathrooms. Something similar to a nice dorm at a campground.
On the Camino Francés route, these accommodations are very frequent, with as little as 5km between albergues and only a few stretches where places to sleep are separated by distances of 15km.
Dealing with snoring roommates is a big part of albergue life and I would say that if you don’t stay in alburgues, you are missing one of the key facets of the Camino expereience.
Below are some guidelines of classic pilgrim complaints.
The Camino de Santiago is more than just a long walk. It is a path forged with over 2000 years of history. An entire ancient society was built around it. Towns and villages exist because of it. Along the way are many historical, extraordinary, and oddly-interesting attractions to see. Here is a very small sample of what is in store for you to see and experience of as you walk your way across the north of Spain.
These are just a few of the things that I continue to talk about years after completing the Camino de Santiago.
The gorgeous old walled town of St-Jean Pied de Port is a popular starting point for would-be pilgrims, nestled on the French side of the Pyrenees amid gently rolling foothills, 8km from the Spanish border. Strolling the ramparts and clambering up to the citadel make for an ideal final evening before undertaking the slog up through the mountains into Spain (the toughest stretch of the whole route – but also one of the most scenic).
Among the most breathtaking views along the Camino Francés is the pinnacle at the beginning, a few miles after pilgrims depart from the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to cross the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. The highest point, just before reaching the Spanish town of Roncesvalles, is at the Col de Leopoder, 1,450 meters (one mile) above sea level. An ancient native beech forest anchors one’s feet below, and at eye level is the infinite layered mountain vista of the Pyrenees.
Before you reach Pamplona on Day 4, you have the option to get off the the road and take a more historical route. That trail will start to climb and you will start to wonder “Why did I go this way?” and then suddenly you will see a church through the trees.
This is one of the more secret gems on the Camino trail. — But what makes this church so special as apposed to the countless other churches and cathedrals along the route?
If the door to the church is locked, walk next door to the Sisters of the RSJC (Society of the Sacred Heart) and they will be excited and eager to open the door for you and show you around. In fact, meeting the Sisters was also one of the big highlights for the day. Gregarious and kind, it was a pleasure talking to them.
Famous for the running of the bulls and Ernest Hemingway, the real appeal of Pamplona is not when the city swells with the bull-running masses to celebrate their city’s patron saint, San Fermín, but during the everyday of this pedestrian-friendly city. Local life is centered on the colorful main square, the Plaza del Castillo, and the surrounding cobbled streets. Here cafés cater to the best of those small plates known as pintxos in Basque and pinchos in Spanish. Take a seat, order, and savor the slow lane.
Insid tip: The Café Iruña on the Plaza del Castillo, is famous as the bar where Ernest Hemingway’s characters ate and drank (and drank) in The Sun Also Rises, and it remains a great place to stop for a glass and pinxtos or a full meal. If you ask the staff nicely, you can go into a smaller, private room where Hemingway spent a lot of his time. The bar has immortalized the great writer with a life-size, bronze statue leaning against the bar. (He was a freaking HUGE guy!)
This is the most famous bridge along the Camino Frances, its Romanesque construction has six arches and five pillars. Until the 19th century the statue Nuestra Senora del Puy (which is now in the Church of San Pedro Apostol) was kept in a small chapel in the middle of the bridge. Legend has it that a little bird used to go in and clean the Virgin’s face – this was considered a good sign. The bridge was constructed by a Queen for the sole purpose of helping pilgrims cross the river, however records are unsure if it was dona Mayor, wife of Sancho III, or dona Estefania, the wife of his successor Garcia el de Najera.
The reverse side of Euro bank notes depict bridges and arches in different historical European styles. The twenty euro note shows the gothic era (between the 13th and 14th century and for this they chose the Puente La Reina bridge.
Bodegas Irache is a winery located just outside Estella that is over 100 years old. The company installed a wine fountain on one of the walls of the winery that dispenses free wine for pilgrims. This simple act captures the spirit of the Camino and there is a lot of excitement when you finally arrive. Be sure to get here early, as although 100 litres of wine are dispensed each day, it can still run out!
Torres del Rio’s 12th–century Holy Sepulcher church is octagonal and beautifully harmonious. Inspired by the architecture from Islamic Spain and borrowing the cross ribbing of Cordoba’s mosque dome in the south, it is worth the one euro the chapel caretaker asks from visitors. Enjoy the space’s acoustics and look up to take in the overall architectural magnificence. Note the carved capitals and their menagerie of fantastical creatures.
The city is a beautiful stop on the Way of St. James. It is linked to Santo Domingo, who was born nearby, and to his building work on the Roman road. The city was settled and grew as a result of the pilgrim’s hospital founded by the Saint around the second half of the 12th century. The bridge spanning the River Oja, which helped pilgrims on their way, also contributed to the city’s development. The city grew as a result of the inn, then later due to the Way of St. James and in the late Middle Ages it became a considerable artistic, religious and financial centre.
INSIDE TIP: There is an incredible legend associated with this town involving magic chickens (or a miracle involving chickens). The legend is so powerful that the pope himself allowed a shrine to the chickens to be included in the local cathedral, and still today, two live chickens are kept in the shrine… IN THE CATHEDRAL. Take some time to discover this amazing story.
A pleasant place in which to stay with some spectacular sightseeing — in particular, a gothic cathedral which ranks with the best that Spain has to offer. Burgos is a city that brings history to life. For many pilgrims it is a place that beckons a two-night stay; and rightly so, Burgos has a tremendous amount of museums, churches, one cathedral, a few monasteries, and a healthy (or not) number of bars and restaurants to keep you busy.
Steeped in history this is a great place to stop over on the Camino. Here you follow in the footsteps of Alfonso VI who is buried in the Benedictine Convent of Santa Cruz. Charlemagne is also connected with the town. The Church of San Juan where the tomb of patron saint of the town San Facundo can be found along with a sculpture of San Facundo. Also visit the Church of San Lorenzo, which is a superb example of the brick Mudejar style of building.
INSIDER TIP: Make sure you stay on the main path. This will ensure that you pass through the CAMINO HALF-WAY MONUMENT
The medieval quarter has many gems such as the neo-Gothic palace built by Gaudi, Casa de Botines. There is also the fountain of San Isidoro, however the true gem of this city is the Cathedral of Leon. Elaborately carved portals, splendid rose windows, and beautiful sculptures such as the Virgen de la Esperanza are just some of the many impressive features of the Cathedral.
In Ponferrada the castle was named by the Knights of Templar, who used it as a stronghold after they placed the town under protection in the 12th century. The magnificent structure is home to the Templar Library, and it includes work from none other than Leonardo Da Vinci.
A cross on the Camino Francés, located between the towns of Foncebadón and Manjarín. One of the best things about the Iron Cross is that it allows you to partake in a very old, freeing tradition. When you approach it, you’ll see that it’s surrounded by small rocks of all shapes and sizes. Most pilgrims who walk past tend to say a prayer and place a rock of their own near the cross.
CAMINO TIP: It is tradition to bring a small piece of rock or a pebble from your home town and place it at the foot of the Iron Cross. There is a special prayer to say when doing this. It is read in the hope that the weight of the stone you carried will balance the scale when the time comes to measure the good in your soul.
As you reach the summit of Monte do Gozo, if you look hard, you could spot the three spires of The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela for the first time. This hill is located about an hour’s walk from the end of the Camino Francés. In ancient times, the first pilgrim of each group to identify the cathedral would call it out and be declared ‘king of the Camino.’
These are only a few of the highlights and there are SO MANY more things to see along the way.
If you would like to know more about what you will find once you finally reach Santiago de Compostela, check out the Camino de Santiago page.
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