While a high majority of pilgrims wanting to do the Camino de Santiago for a month or longer choose St. Jean Pied-de-Port (SJPP) as a starting point, there are alternatives. Of course you can start closer in Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, or even Sarria. Or elsewhere in Spain. However, for some the longer the better and a few start farther away at their homes all over Europe. In any case there are no right or wrong, best or worst places to begin. There is only your starting point.
1. Lourdes is a holy city and a pilgrimage destination itself. In 1858, Mother Mary appeared to Bernadette, a 14 year old French girl. Today there are over 5 million pilgrims arriving here annually.
2. Puts you into a ”pilgrim frame of mind”. This is the single most powerful reason. There was something quite special starting the Camino lighting a candle for loved ones, walking around the grounds with other pilgrims at night holding lit candles singing ‘Ave Maria’ and other holy hymns, sensing the power of prayer watching people on their knees on the hard pavement connecting to their God and spirits. Lourdes is truly a place of miracles, as there have been 70 reported healing miracles since 1858.
3. This one is an extension of 2 and a bit subjective but if you are seeking a pilgrimage that reconnects you with your inner soul, walking from Lourdes to SJPP will offer some quiet reflection time before integrating with the much more populated Camino Frances.
4. Starting in Lourdes allows for a pilgrim to get in a bit of shape before the challenging SJPP to Roncesvalles stage over the Pyrenees. This stretch is 149 kilometers and takes 6 days on average. And you still get to experience the joy of reaching St. Jean and connecting with the many pilgrims arriving from all over the world to start their own pilgrimages. You may enjoy being one of the few through pilgrims who started before this bustling border town.
5. Enriches your pilgrimage experience walking through 2 countries. Every Camino is great but my personal favorites are the 4 I started in France or further away. Granted, SJPP is in France but one gets just a brief taste of France.
6. Allows one to experience French culture and cuisine. I love walking in Spain, but France is just as special. Only slightly more expensive as there are auberges and gites available. And the food and wine are exceptional. I enjoy the food in Spain, but the French passion for delectable cuisine paired with a good local wine makes dining in France a truly memorable part of one’s Camino.
7. This one is a bit subjective but if you are seeking a pilgrimage that reconnects you with your inner soul, walking from Lourdes to SJPP will offer some quiet reflection time before integrating with the much more populated Camino Frances.
8. Starting in Lourdes extends your Camino by a week. If you are like me any reason for lengthening our time on The Camino is a big plus.
9. Lourdes is easier to get to than SJPP. Being a major pilgrimage site there are excellent flight and train connections to Lourdes from all over Europe.
FYI, Lourdes is on the Camino Piemont which runs south and parallel to Camino Arles. It starts in Narbonne on the Mediterranean Sea and passes through the wonderful city of Carcassonne. 3 days past Lourdes in Oloron Ste. Marie it connects with Camino Arles taking you into St. Jean. Alternatively in Oloron, pilgrims can veer south over the Pyrenees to Somport and the wonderful and quiet alternative, Camino Aragones which then links up to Camino Frances in Puente La Reina.
One final note. Speaking little or no French shouldn’t deter you. While the French have a reputation for occasionally being rude to tourists, I have found them to be friendly and accommodating to pilgrims during my 100+ days walking in France. Plus it’s fun to use “Bon Chemin” rather than “Buen Camino”.