The Camino Frances or the French Way is the most popular of all the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes. It has featured in many books and films, (The Way), and it has the best infrastructure of all the Caminos. It is 780km from the start point in Saint Jean Pied de Port to the finish in Santiago de Compostela. Many pilgrims though will start at various points along the way, the most popular is Sarria.
As stated this Camino route starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and goes all the way to Santiago de Compostela in which the shrine of Saint James the Greater with his relics is situated. Other popular starting points are Pamplona, Leon, Burgos, Ponferrada, and Sarria. (Many will also choose to start in Roncesvalles to avoid the grueling first day over the Pyrenees.)
Santiago de Compostella, the final destination of the French Way, dates back to the 9th century. The city was founded due to the discovery of St James relics. The Camino has an abundance of exquisite cultural, architectural, and artistic wealth; in 1993 it was listed as a UNESCO’s World Heritage Site.
Another great reason to opt for this route is the fact that it boasts breathtaking sceneries which combine both mountainous and flat terrains and takes pilgrims through some of the most beautiful parts of Spain.
Table of Contents
- 1 Why do People Walk the Camino Frances?
- 2 What are the Camino de Santiago Accommodation Options?
Why do People Walk the Camino Frances?
Although the idea of a pilgrimage for religious beliefs was the initial reason for people to start following different routes of the Camino, many modern-day pilgrims have different motivations when they subject themselves to walking 25-30 kilometers a day, sleeping in hostels, using communal showers, and being devoid of privacy.
Some want to disconnect and take some time off from their busy lives. When the boundaries between our personal and business lives are blurred, it’s pretty common to read your business emails at 1 AM. This takes its toll on our mental health and leads to burnout. So, no wonder that most people decide to take this journey and get away from their hectic lives and reconnect with themselves. It’s a spiritual journey.
Others see it as a challenge and a way to enjoy a sense of accomplishment after they have covered such an exhausting and demanding route.
The Camino de Santiago is a personal, spiritual, or religious journey, and no matter what compels you to take it, you’ll enrich your life with valuable experiences. (Read my reasons to walk to the Camino)
How Long Does it take to Walk?
As we’ve already mentioned it is a long hike at 780km, and this distance can be covered in about a month by most people.
Our detailed day by day guide splits this route up into 32 days so that it allows you to use your time on the road to the fullest and experience the adventure. But, remember to walk your own Camino, the guidebook stages are only a suggestion.
Given that you’ll pass through a number of picturesque and historically and culturally significant villages and towns, it’s a good idea to have an itinerary in place so that you can do some sightseeing and visit places of historical and religious importance too.
It’s worth noting that the hiking route passes through four (and some would say most beautiful) of Spain’s 15 regions – Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y Leon, and Galicia. See this post on how long it takes to walk each Camino route.
What are the Camino de Santiago Accommodation Options?
A number of different accommodation options on this route are another reason for its popularity.
You can choose among various traditional pilgrim hostels also called albergues or refugios, commercial hostels, rural houses, campsites, pensions, and hotels. The fact that some of these are open all year round allows pilgrims to walk the French pilgrimage off-season, and even during the winter months.
As their name suggests, Pilgrim hostels are hostels that accept only pilgrims. In other words, to be able to stay in one you’ll need a Pilgrim’s Passport. You can obtain this document at some albergues and towns where people start their Camino walks such as St Jean Pied de Port, Pamplona, or Roncesvalles. See here for a list of places to get a pilgrims passport.
Albergues differ in the level of comfort they provide, which means that in some of them you’ll get only a mattress on the floor and a hot shower, while in others you can get a private room. As for the other amenities such as washing machines or kitchen areas, it’s worth noting that you’ll generally have to wash your clothes by hand and rely on bars serving the Pilgrim menus. Most pilgrim hostels have an internet connection.
Some hostels have fixed opening and closing times, which means that you can even be locked out if you show up later than ten or eleven at night. Another piece of information that can come in handy is that you’ll be allowed only a one-night stay unless there’s some kind of medical emergency.
Also, given that pilgrim hostels are the most affordable accommodation, they tend to get crowded and reach their full capacity in peak season, so make sure to come early if you want to find a free bed or mattress.
Municipal and parochial pilgrim hostels are staffed by volunteers who want to show their gratitude to the Camino and help others, so be considerate, respectful, and kind to them, because they make the whole experience much more pleasant and easier for everyone.
Some of these hostels operate on a donation basis, which is why their amenities are basic and affordable – though this is changing fast.
Private Pilgrim Hostels
While municipal and parochial hostels are run by local governments and religious institutions respectively, private pilgrim hostels are run by private individuals.
Their amenities aren’t as basic or as affordable and are a great option if you prefer more comfortable accommodation. These hostels also might not be exclusive only to pilgrims.
A lot of them accept bookings in advance.
Or Casa Rurales in Spanish, are restored and nicely restored family-run homes which usually provide a wide variety of amenities. You’ll get a chance not only to enjoy a comfortable stay but also to experience a traditional way of life in the region.
Home-cooked meals are also available, and for approximately €45 you’ll have more privacy and comfort than you would at a pilgrim hostel.
Read also: Freeze-Dried vs Dehydrated Backpacking Meals
How Difficult is the French Way?
It is generally speaking of medium difficulty, but it’s worth noting that the first stage, stretching from St Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles across steep hills, are the toughest ones, so be prepared for this and take your time. (get the best hiking shoes you can afford, it is not all about the money though)
Don’t forget that this isn’t a marathon, but a pilgrimage during which you should relax and enjoy every step of the way.
One of the reasons why the French Way is the most popular and crowded route of all the Caminos is its suitability for beginners – according to many, this route is the best choice as a first Camino de Santiago.
You don’t have to be at the top of your fitness game for this one, but it still doesn’t mean that you can come completely unprepared. Read getting fit for your Camino.
Besides, many people don’t complete the whole route but pick the last 100 or 200 kilometers. It should be mentioned that in order to earn the Compostela, which is the pilgrim’s certificate, you need to complete the last 100 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago on foot or 200km by bike.
What’s the Infrastructure Like?
This is an important question when one sets off on such a long journey, and the Camino Frances is by far the most advanced route when it comes to infrastructure.
This means that there are a lot of hostels and other accommodation options along the way. You can find an albergue every 5 to 20 kilometers which is more than on any other route.
The fact that all the roads are well marked is a big plus, especially if you’re a beginner.
Another important thing is that there are a lot of water fountains along the way so that you can freshen up a bit and collect drinking water. These can come in particularly handy during the summer months when you can expect some real scorchers. (Some pilgrims take a backpacking water filter, but I prefer a reusable hiking water bottle)
Big yellow arrow signs in the countryside and scallop signs in towns and cities will help you stay on your way and prevent you from getting lost. This means that you’ll be able to start walking from any point.
Finally, in case you need to buy more outdoor gear or something that you’ve forgotten to bring along, there’s no need to worry because you’ll pass through several major cities along the way. (See my Camino packing list here)
A word of caution is necessary. Certain portions of the route are on busy roads, so be very careful when you’re walking there.
Finally, small convenience shops are scattered along the way, which means that you don’t have to overstuff your rucksack and you can buy food in almost every village. Remember that keeping the weight of your luggage down is one of the best ways for avoiding injuries.
Best Landmarks Along the French Route
As we’ve mentioned, the French Way stretches through the Spanish regions of Navarra, La Rioja, Castilla y Leon, and Galicia.
Here are some of the most remarkable landmarks to see on your way to Santiago.
Once you leave the challenging Pyrenees section behind yourself, a bit easier hike is ahead of you. The Navarra region of Spain is probably most famous after the city of Pamplona, of which you’ve most probably heard through its fiesta featuring a centuries-old tradition – the Running of the Bulls. If you decide to walk in July, you can witness this unique event.
While in Pamplona, make sure to visit its true gem, Café Iruña, a restaurant that Hemingway used to frequent. He even immortalized it in his masterpiece The Sun Also Rises. Engulf yourself in the history and culture of this vibrant region, packed with architectural, historic, and natural attractions.
Puente de la Reina, a town 24 kilometers southwest of Pamplona, is the spot where two Santiago routes – the French Way and the Aragonese Way, join. Apart from having a great number of churches, the majority of which were built in the 12th century, this picturesque town is also famous for the Romanesque bridge over the river Arga after which it was named.
When in Logrono, La Rioja, on the stretch between Viana to Navarrete, don’t miss the Co-Catedral of Santa Maria de la Redonda, a baroque style cathedral whose twin towers are the symbols of the town. If you take a look behind the main altar, you’ll find a real treasure – a small painting of the Crucifixion of Christ attributed to Michelangelo.
If you decide to stay in Logrono for the night, make sure to take a trip to the Castle of Clavijo. It’s approximately 20 kilometers to the south, and you’ll have an opportunity to see one of the most iconic castles in Spain. Legend has it that Santiago Matamoros, that is St. James the Moor Slayer, who was the protector of the Spaniards, appeared to the Christian King Ramiro I of Leon, during the mythical Battle of Clavijo, predicting his victory over Muslims.
The region Castilla y Leon and its capital Leon, are brimming with spectacular monuments. The Basilica de San Isidoro de Leon is situated inside a historic site together with the Royal Pantheon, in which lie the sarcophagi of kings and queens of Leon, and the museum. This monument is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Spain.
The Casa Botines, Antony Gaudi’s Modernistic building with Gothic touches, was designed with Leon’s various emblematic buildings, particularly the Gothic Cathedral, in mind and is another must-see in the city.
The Cathedral Santa Maria de Leon was built by King Ordoño II out of gratitude to God after the victory against the Moors. This monumental building with a distinctive façade, two towers, and approximately 1,800 square meters of stained glass windows, boasts a huge collection of sacred art.
O Cebreiro, a quaint hamlet in Galicia, looks like it comes straight out of the Lord of the Rings with its Hobbit-style houses called pallozas. Although seemingly idyllic, this breathtaking scenery is exposed to harsh weather conditions.
Santa Maria la Real in O Cebreiro, founded in 836, is said to be the oldest church on the entire Camino Frances. According to a local legend, the 12th-century golden chalice and reliquary guard items associated with the Miracle of the Eucharist, when the host and wine changed to flesh and blood during a mass during the 1300s.
Although the Camino Frances is considered a pilgrimage, it doesn’t mean that you have to be religious in order to walk it. The wealth of natural, cultural, and historic sights and sites, as well as the pure joy of walking and exploring different countries and cultures, make this adventure special and worthwhile.
Is it Safe to Walk Alone?
The popularity has translated into more than 180,000 people who walked it in 2017, and this number increases by 10% every year.
In other words, you won’t be far away from the next pilgrim walking towards Santiago.
Even women who took this trip on their own said they felt safe and protected.
Although this route passes through the countryside and some isolated rural areas, it’s generally considered safe as there are a lot of pilgrims and locals ready to help you or give you tips on how to be safe.
Even if you decide to walk alone, the odds are that you’re going to meet and befriend some nice people during this pilgrimage. You’ll meet some of the same people each day at albergues and hostels. It’s pretty common for people to organize into walking parties along the way, and support each other, (these often get termed Camino Family).
What’s the Best Time to Walk the Camino Francés?
As you can guess, July and August, as traditional vacation months are most popular for walking.
But, they’re also too hot and crowded. (I have written a whole post on the best time to walk the Camino)
The best time to walk is in May, June, and September. The weather is warm and pleasant with little rain.
However, experienced pilgrims in groups walk from April to October, but you should bear in mind that autumns can be chilly, rainy, and gloomy, especially in the mountains.
Although some people walk even in winter, it’s important to mention that it means braving different elements including harsh winds, ice, and snow.
You’ll find our detailed 32-guide for walking this pilgrim route on the right. It’s packed with all kinds of important information about the hostels and other amenities on the route, as well as tips and advice on what to pay attention to and how to make the most of your journey.