The French Route – Camino Frances
When most people talk about the Camino de Santiago they are referring to the Camino Frances. It is the most traveled and most well-organized of the Camino routes in Spain. Roughly 75% of all people who make a pilgrimage to the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela travel the French route.
The traditional starting point for the Camino Frances is Saint Jean pied du Port France. A small French Basque village at the base of the Pyrenees mountains in southwestern France. There are also many locations in France where you could start your Camino if you wished. Some actually start at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and walk all the way to Santiago de Compostela. Traditionally back in the middle ages you began your pilgrimage at the front door of your home wherever that might be and walked all the way to Santiago. Unfortunately, back in those days there were not trains, bus’ or airplanes so after successfully reaching Santiago you had to turn around and walk back home. It was very dangerous and many either choose to stay or never made it home.
The first day out of Saint Jean pied du Port you can travel one of two different routes. The first and most famous is the route Napoleon which goes directly up and over the Pyrenees. It is of course a beautiful if not strenuous 27 km walk up and over the mountains. The other choice is the Valcarlos route which follows the road up the mountain although you will not walk directly on the road. It is also very beautiful and as strenuous as the route Napoleon. So why would you choose one over the other? Primarily because during the winter, early spring and sometimes the late fall the route Napoleon is closed due to Snow. Normally it is closed from the end of October until sometime in March or later. It is very important to go to the pilgrims office in Saint Jean pied du Port to check on the status of the route Napoleon. If they tell you it is closed, please listen to them and walk the Valcarlos route. At least one or two pilgrims die each year due to becoming lost or disoriented and falling off the mountain during inclement weather. The pilgrims office has the most up to date information in the status of the route. One more warning, should you ignore the pilgrims office and need to be rescued, you can expect a bill for a minimum of €5,000 and we have seen charges as high as €15,000 as the rescue team will deploy helicopters during the search.
Roncesvalles is the first stop after going over the Pyrenees. Roncesvalles is a very small village nestled in the Pyrenees on the Spanish side. The next big city is Pamplona, which is a wonderful place. Most well know around the world for the festival of San Fermin or even better know as the running of the bulls. After Pamplona the next large city is Burgos. The Cathedral in Burgos is not to be missed. It is one of the largest Cathedrals in Europe. Once you leave Burgos you will walk across the meseta which is an area full of fields of grain, vineyards and fields of different plants and vegetables. Many will tell you it is flat. While it is relatively to what you have already been exposed to, it is more like undulating ups and downs. it’s a beautiful part of the Camino. the next large town will be Leon. Leon is also a beautiful city. The Cathedral of Leon is also not to be missed. After Leon you will begin to walk back up into the mountains and eventually cross over into Galicia which is the region of Spain where Santiago de Compostela is located. Galicia is very near the sea so the weather, even in the summer months is unpredictable.
Of course the final destination is the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Total distance from Saint Jean pied du Port is roughly 800 km or about 480 miles.