Overview: the Camino Francés
This is the so-called “French way,” leading from the Pyrenees across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela and the most well-known and well-travelled of the pilgrim roads to Santiago. Three of the main routes through France (from Paris, Vézelay and Le Puy-en-Velay) feed into it on the French side of the Pyrenees while the fourth, from Arles, joins it 3-4 days later (for walkers) in Puente la Reina. In 1987 this Camino de Santiago was made the first European Cultural Itinerary.
Walking in the Rioja [Photo: Michael Krier]
The Route. Some 778km long, starting either in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (“St. John at the Foot of the Pass”) on the French side of both the mountains and the border or 27km later in Roncesvalles (Roncevaux in French, the “Valley of Thorns”) in Spain. It passes through Pamplona, Puente la Reina, Estella, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada and Sarria before it reaches the “City of the Apostle” in the western reaches of Galicia. The route takes, on average, 4 - 6 weeks to walk.
Waymarking. The route is extremely well-waymarked throughout (but only in one direction) with yellow arrows painted on rocks, trees. buildings etc., as well as with plaques and signposts bearing stylised shell symbols and the Council of Europe blue and gold shell logos.
Terrain. Varied, beginning with the ascent and/or descent of the Pyrenees then passing through the undulating meseta (tableland) of the central part of the route between Burgos and León. After that the camino enters the Montes de León with some of its formerly abandoned villages now come back to life before entering Galicia, green, wooded and criss-crossed with old walled lanes. For a height profile of the route (as well as a list of the stages), go to www.godesalco.com/iphp/perfil.php
Weather/When to go. The route is normally practicable (though not necessarily recommended) throughout the year. It is likely to snow in the Pyrenees, the Montes de Oca (before Burgos) and parts of the Montes de León and Galicia in winter and early spring. It also rains heavilly in Navarre at that time and you can, unfortunately, expect torrential rain in Galicia at any time of the year, even during July and August. Most parts of the route are extremely hot in the summer. April-June and September-October are recommended.
What to see. Important cathedrals and abbeys in Pamplona, Burgos, León, Astorga and Santiago itself, plus many interesting smaller cathedrals, churches and other historic monuments. Many pilgrim, St. James, St. Roch and other related references, art and architecture along the way.
Accommodation. Plentiful, at very frequent walking distances along the way, and of all types: refugios (pilgrim-only accommodation). hostales, pensiones, casas rurales (B&B) etc., plus some campsites (summer only). For a description of all the refuges on the Camino Francés, consult the CSJ Guide.
Distinctive features of the route/General. Formerly a quiet, solitary route the Camino francés has become extremely popular in recent years. In 2003 over 65,000 pilgrims of all ages, backgrounds, motiviations, abilities and nationalities walked, cycled or rode all or part of this route. By 2010 this had reached 272,703. As a result accommodation is in short supply during the busy periods. In a few places along the route churches/religious orders have pilgrim services/vespers.
Guide books. Some examples (there are many others available in Spanish):
- The Camino Francés (Pilgrim Guides to Spain # 1), ed.William Bissett, Confraternity of St. James, London, updated and re-isssued in January of each year.. Very detailed guide to accommodation and services, updated every year on basis of feedback from previous year’s pilgrims. Available in our bookshop.
- Way of St. James: Pyrenees - Santiago - Finisterre, by Alison Raju, Cicerone Press 2003, new edition 2005, 222pp. ISBN: 1-85284-372-1. Compact volume covering the entire route with route finding description and both historical and practical information.
- A pilgrim's guide to the Camino de Santiago ... Camino Francés ... from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela: a practical and mystical manual for the modern day pilgrim, by John Brierly. 7th ed, Camino Guides, Findhorn, 2011, pp. 288. ISBN: 978-1-84409-192-8.
- Way of St. James: Le Puy to Santiago - A Cyclist's Guide 1-87284-441-8 Covers the entire route for touring cyclists, with route finding description and both historical and practical information.
- Camino de Santiago Maps,by John Brierley, Saint-Jean-Pied-de -Port-Santiago-Finisterre. Findhorn, 2011, ISBN 978 1 84409 529 2
Discussion Forum. Visit the Camino de Santiago Forum to join in the current conversation.
Cyclists. Many sections of the walkers’ route can be taken by those on mountain bikes (touring cyclists can ride the route using minor roads - see above). Cycling pilgrims should allow 2 weeks plus.
Language. While it is not impossible to take this route without any command of Spanish prospective pilgrims are strongly urged to learn as much as possible before they set out. We recommend the BBC's Get By In Spanish - a small slim book in 5 chapters, with a single CD, or Talk Spanish, an expanded version of the above, with 2 cassettes or 2 CDs.
Thanks to Alison Raju, February 2004 and February 2011, Marion Marples 2011