This is the so-called “French way,” the most popular and well-known camino route, leading from the Pyrenees across northern Spain to Santiago. In 1987 this Camino de Santiago was made the first European Cultural Itinerary.
History. What is now the most popular and well-known camino route became established some time after the first recorded pilgrimage made to Santiago by King Alfonso II along the Camino Primitivo. The Camino Francés was developed by kings Sancho the Great and Alfonso VI across Navarra and León after having taken them back from the Moors. Monasteries, pilgrim hospitals and appropriate infrastructure was established on the route for pilgrims to Santiago. Locals were also given incentives to settle along the route, leading to the development of towns, cities and the thriving of the communities that still exist there today.
The Route. Some 778km long, starting either in the medieval French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or over the border, 27km later, in Roncesvalles (Roncevaux in French) in Spain. It passes through Pamplona, Puente la Reina, Estella, Logroño, Burgos, León, Astorga, Ponferrada and Sarria before it reaches Santiago in 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 blue and gold shell logos implemented by the Council of Europe.
Terrain. Varied, beginning with the ascent and descent of the Pyrenees then passing through forest, hills, countryside and 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 height profiles of the route (as well as a list of the stages), go to https://www.gronze.com/camino-frances
Weather/When to go. The route can be done (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. The rainiest time of year is typically spring; although the microclimate in Galicia means it can rain heavily at all times of the year. Many northern Europeans choose to go in spring or autumn to avoid the extremes in temperature. If you do go in winter, also bear in mind there may be fewer pilgrim hostels open.
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, see the CSJ Guide available from our bookshop.
Distinctive features of the route. 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. Formerly a quiet, solitary route the Camino francés has become extremely popular in recent years. In 2017, there were over 300,000 compostelas issued to pilgrims in Santiago - let alone the pilgrims who didn’t collect these. As a result accommodation can be in short supply during the busy periods.
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.
Discussion Forum. Visit the Camino de Santiago Forum to join in the current conversation.
Confraternity of Saint James,
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Founded in 1983 to promote the pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela