First of all, it is important to be aware that the Camino de Santiago is a personal journey and there is no right, wrong, best or worst Camino. Do some research and walk the Camino that appeals or calls to you. There are many options and this website discusses and compares many of the various Caminos de Santiago. In addition to various Caminos in Spain, there are several routes in France; Via Podiensis, Tours, Vezelay, and Arles. In Portugal, the Portuguese Way. Also, there are options like the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome, or The Japan Kumano Kodo or 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimages, The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and many others.
As the Camino de Santiago evolves, one hears more and more negatives about Camino Frances, especially that it is too crowded with as many as 200,000 walking it in 2019. The popularity of the Camino Frances has furthered the development of lesser known Caminos throughout Spain, including; Del Norte, Portuguese, Primitivo, Via de la Plata (VDLP), The English (Irish) Way. Also little known and less traversed ones; Aragones, Invierno, Madrid, Levante, Sanabres, Catalan, Mozárabe, etc..
Del Norte is less crowded and offers more beautiful nature including spectacular coastal vistas. Via de la Plata(VDLP) offers a more quiet and solitary experience. The mountainous Primitivo is more scenic and challenging. The Portuguese Way offers 2 countries and cultures. While these and other Caminos are all wonderful and great in their own way, there is something quite special about the Camino Frances that makes it ideal for the first time pilgrim seeking something different. Especially if they are looking for a spiritual experience.
First let’s explore the negatives.
- Too crowded. Well yes that is true. Of the 347,000 walking the Camino in 2019, 55% of all pilgrims walked the Frances. The highest numbers leave from SJPP in September and May. August sees thousands, especially groups of Spaniards beginning in Sarria.
- Camino Frances loses some energy after Sarria with the influx of tourist pilgrims. There is a huge number of pilgrims starting here that swells the numbers and often overwhelms the pilgrims coming from further away starting points such as Leon, Pamplona, and SJPP or somewhere in Europe. Large groups of 10 to 20 or more can be a nuisance. While there are ways to reduce the negative energy, this stretch is often a letdown for long distance pilgrims
- A Race for beds. During the most crowded months there can be a race for beds which can take away from the joy of the walk. This problem has increased during the Covid era as some albergues are closed.
- Too commercial. The Frances is certainly not a wilderness walk. There are frequent bars, restaurants, albergues, and hotels available all along the route. Some are not as pilgrim friendly as others.
- Too much pavement and urban walking. Yes there are some difficult stretches like Burgos and Leon and a good amount of pavement walking as well through smaller villages. This walk is very different from a wilderness trek like the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails.
Now that we have that out of the way, lets review the reasons why Camino Frances is the most special of all the Caminos in Spain and how you can optimize your pilgrimage:
- While it can definitely be relatively crowded at times, there are ways to avoid the hoards. Some pilgrims walk in October to March when you will find the hoards to have thinned significantly. Also, if it is in your nature, leaving early in the morning each day or later in the day can help with reducing the numbers you will see. Also, a few days out of SJPP, after Pamplona the pilgrims seem to spread out and it seems not so crowded until you arrive in Sarria. Though there seem to be peaks and valleys, some people experience crowded conditions while another pilgrim a day or two behind may have no problem finding accommodation.
- Admittedly, reaching Sarria pilgrims usually find the vibes change with the influx of the pilgrims walking the last 100K to Santiago which still qualifies them for a Compostela or Certificate of Completion. You can reduce this impact though. First, avoid stopping in the places suggested in the guide books. Avoid Sarria, Palas de Rei, Melide, Arzua, etc. There are many albergues in quieter, smaller villages along this stretch. For solo pilgrims, I suggest hooking up with one or more other long term pilgrims for this stretch as it is harder to connect with the short term pilgrims. That said, refrain from making assumptions. Remain open as plenty of the short term pilgrims are beautiful spirits and some of my favorite pilgrim buddies were ones doing the 100K walk. You may want to reserve accommodation on this stretch especially during the high season. And avoid passing through Sarria on weekends if possible.
- The race for beds can be a problem, especially once when I started from SJPP on Sept 10. September and May are the busiest months. This issue is related to avoiding the crowds so choosing your date and location to start can impact this problem. If you are staying in albergues people are usually starting to shuffle around and prepare to leave by 5:30 or 6:00 so I naturally wake up early and like to avoid the crowds by getting ahead of them. It is also my favorite time of the day on the Camino as you enjoy the dark sky fading into brilliant blue, red, orange hues before sunset. If you choose to leave later in the morning to avoid the crowds it may be best to reserve at a private albergue. Of late, and especially during the Covid area, it has unfortunately become more challenging to walk without making accommodation reservations. Still doable though for purists.
- Perhaps it being too commercial is true. However, this is a glass half empty kind of issue. Most albergues, bars, etc. are pilgrim friendly. Also, you will often discover rest stops offering food and drink on a donation basis. Some of the albergues are donativo, though their numbers are decreasing. That said, the albergues are still incredibly cheap at €5-10 for public albergues and €8-15 for private ones. And most importantly, the owners of the albergues, hospitaleros of the municipal and church albergues, are typically beautiful spirits putting their hearts and souls into creating an optimal pilgrim experience for each and every pilgrim. One of the special things about the Camino is that often you experience VIP service when paying 5 or 10 Euro for your bed. In fact, the experience can be better than what you receive in a 5 star Hotel.
- The Frances has a good amount of pavement which can create havoc on your feet. But all the Caminos have a good amount. Even Primitivo, which is considered a mountain trail. Frances nor any of the other Caminos are wilderness trails like the Appalachian or Pacific Coast Trails. So the solution is simply to tolerate the tarmac and be thankful when you do find yourself on a dirt trail covered with pine needles in a forest. Also, take good care of your feet by placing preventative tape on toes and feet susceptible to blisters. Some pilgrims spread a preventive lubricant such as petroleum jelly on their feet before setting out each morning.
Now that we are less concerned with the negatives of Camino Frances let’s examine what makes it so special:
- It’s History. The trail from Roncesvalles to Santiago is laden with cities, churches, a few castles, and natural spots that add historic and spiritual implications to your pilgrimage. A few examples are Pamplona with its running of the bulls and connection to Ernest Hemingway, the pass at Alto del Perdon, the Chickens of Santa Domingo de Calzado, Burgos and El Cid, Cruz de Ferro, and O Cebreiro and its story of the faithful shepherd. These and other stops can make your Camino special. Perhaps the most special stop is the Cathedral de Santiago, where on the center column of the old entrance, The Portico de Gloria, is the hand indentation from the millions of pilgrims arriving over the last 800 years. You can feel the energy if you are aware.
- The Pilgrim Experience is magnified on Frances because of the unique mix of pilgrims. You will encounter pilgrims of all ages, from babies with their parents, to 90 year olds. Mothers and Daughters. Fathers and Sons. I once walked with a Father, Son, and Grandfather. Occasionally you will come across pilgrims walking with dogs, or less so riding on horses. People who have lost their spouse or parents or children. Patients with late stage Cancer or other lethal diseases. People who have recovered from those same illnesses. Pilgrims in wheelchairs, with one leg, one arm, blind, etc.. The Camino Portuguese is similar, but definitely to a much lesser extent. On the other Caminos, you will encounter more people with a hiker mentality. Also, Pilgrims who are on their second or third or more Caminos. They are less interested in Why you are on Pilgrimage. On the Camino Frances there is much more conversation as to your motivations and reasons for walking. Hence, Frances feels most like a Pilgrimage.
- The Camino Spirit. This is an intangible, difficult to describe idiosyncrasy of the Camino Frances. The Pilgrim Experience above touches upon it. However, it’s more than that. Perhaps it’s the kindness and respect for pilgrims by Hospitaleros that offer you food and drink or a spot to rest observing you are hungry or tired. Or helping you get to another albergue when theirs is full. Perhaps one that sees you so tired they offer to put your sheets on your bed. Or take you to a doctor if you are sick. Or administer to and apply bandages to your heavily blistered feet. Or perhaps it is the kindness of pilgrims to other pilgrims. Sharing one’s food, offering to pay for a fellow pilgrim’s lunch or bed. Listening to your stories. Treating and bandaging other’s blisters. Or perhaps it is the kindness of local people who go out of their way to walk you to a Church or Albergue or offer to feed you or even provide a bed. Many pilgrims find that they keep running into the same people frequently, If so, approach that person and introduce yourself and explain your reasons for walking. You may find there is a reason you keep bumping into each other. I believe it is all these things and more that will make your pilgrimage special. You may find these occurrences on any Camino, but this magical spirit is strongest on Camino Frances.
For those seeking the ultimate Experience, the most special of all Caminos is the one from your home. Many Europeans have this opportunity of course. For a few years after starting my Caminos, it finally dawned on me that us descendants of Europeans can also walk a dream pilgrimage if we know our ancestral homes. In 2018, I walked 3,800K from County Clare, Ireland to Santiago. It was the most special by far of my 15 Caminos. Find out more at Its A Long Way From Tipperary To Santiago.
After you decide which Camino is right for you it is advisable to review a Camino Packing List.
The Camino is a place that offers us a glimpse into the world as it should be. A place where simple acts of kindness and generosity overshadow all else. There seems to be less concern of money and material things you own. There is much more interest and concern in the pure joy of life and our spiritual side. People go out of their way to help you in all sorts of ways. Some examples of the kind of special moments that are possible on the Camino. There are many books written by pilgrims and very often they and other pilgrims talk about how their Pilgrimage was life changing. There are many books written by pilgrims and very often they and other pilgrims talk about how their Pilgrimage was life changing.
A few recommended books:
- ‘To The Field of Stars by Kevin Codd. My favorite of the many books written by pilgrims of their actual pilgrimage and its impact on their life. What really draws me to this tale is the humbleness of the author who just happens to be a priest.
- ‘Walking Back Home‘ by Margaret Caffyn is a great read for anybody preparing to undertake their first Camino or Pilgrimage, especially women walking solo. She is a 60 year old woman who was told by most friends and family this was a bad idea but listened to her heart and undertook the Camino Frances. The first half is the story of her journey. The second half provides information to help one prepare for their Camino.
- ‘Walking on Edge‘ by Reino Gevers is a book that explores the spiritual aspect of the Camino. There are many books that address the journey but what makes this one different is the author’s realization that the Camino is a journey within connecting you to your soul.
- ‘Iberia‘ by James Michener is perhaps dated, published in 1968 before the Camino became popular again. The book is a long nonfiction exploration of the history of Spain. The last chapter explores the historical side of the Camino. I found it to be illuminating with Michener’s unique perspective and his conversations with local Camino experts.
- ‘Codex Calixtinus‘ is the 12th Century account of a pilgrim from France to Santiago and most interesting for readers interested in the medieval pilgrim experience. This account is the first travel guide book ever written.
So walk without expectations, seek to reconnect with your inner self, and look for ways to be of service to your fellow pilgrims and all others you encounter. Be aware of all around you as the Camino spirit may provide signs to guide you.
If you’re still undecided there are more detailed comparisons and descriptions available:
- How The Camino Del Norte Is Different From Camino Frances
- How The Via De La Plata Is Different From The Camino Frances
- How The Via Francigena (Canterbury to Rome) Is Different From The Camino De Santiago
- How The Japan Kumano Kodo Pilgrimages Are Different From The Camino De Santiago
- How The Chemin DuPuy (Via Podiensis) Is Different From Camino Frances
- Camino Ingles (Irish or English Way)
- Camino Portuguese
- Camino Primitivo
- Camino de Madrid
- Camino Aragones
- Camino Invierno
- Camino Levante
- Via Francigena (Canterbury to Rome)
- Via Francesco-Way of St. Francis
- Inca Way to Machu Picchu and Choquiero
- Japan 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage
- Japan Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage
- Nepal Annapurna Circuit
- Nepal Manaslu and Tsum Valley
- Nepal Everest Base Camp
- Nepal Langtang/Gosaikunda Lake/Helambu