The Camino Frances (French Way) starts in St Jean Pied de Port in France, crosses the Pyrenees into Spain, passes through the major cities of Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and León, before finally finishing in Santiago de Compostela. It is approximately 800km in length if you walk from beginning to end and is by far the most popular route of the Camino. It has been featured in many books, films, and documentaries, including the American film The Way and Paulo Coelho's book The Pilgrimage. When people talk about the Camino, more often than not, this is the route they are talking about.
The facilities on the Camino Frances are the most complete of any of the routes. There are plenty of albergues/refuges (pilgrim hostels) to choose from as well as various other accommodation options. There are plenty of places to buy food, whether you are looking for a restaurant or a store, and water is easy to find as well. Bag transfer services are also available from many of the albergues, busses and taxis can be found in most towns (definitely in the cities), and medical supplies and other things that you might need are readily available.
A Variety Of Scenery
You'll see the scenery change from forests and mountains to farmland and vineyards, from ruins and small villages to big cathedrals and historic cities like Burgos. And it is all very well signposted, with arrows and signs pointing you in the right direction.
The Community Spirit Amongst The Pilgrims
Because it is such a popular route you will meet people of all ages from all over the world and make many new friends. Pilgrims are also generally very willing to share and help others. It is definitely the most social of all the camino routes!
The Camino can be as expensive or as low cost as you like. You could comfortably live on 30 euro a day for example, or even half that if you are willing to really rough it! You can expect to pay around 5 to 15 euro a night for albergue accommodation and for dinner you can get a special pilgrims three course meal, in most places, for around €10. Alternatively you could cook your own food, you can easily create a healthy meal for two people for around €5. A bit of planning is the key here.
The route of Santiago de Compostela was given UNESCO world heritage status in 1993 and features around 1800 buildings of great historic interest. More on the world heritage status can be found here.
Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago
A documentary following six pilgrims along the Camino Frances
It's Getting Busy!
The downside to all of this? It is becoming more and more popular and therefore busier as a result, especially in the peak seasons. On very busy days it can feel like you are walking in a line of ants!
The Last 100km
To get your compostela you must walk the last 100km to Santiago, on the Camino Frances this means at least walking from Sarria. Because of this a lot more people join, from this point on, as a 5 day walking holiday. As a result we found this part of the walk to be busier and not as friendly as the rest of the walk.
The Camino is a Business
Parts of the Camino have become a business, resulting in some yellow arrows actually leading you on a detour through other small towns that weren't originally on the route. There is generally no harm in taking detours, but it will always add distance to your walk so it is good to be aware that sometimes other yellow arrows may appear. If you are not sure which direction to go, follow your guidebook or ask another pilgrim.
Either side of summer is a good time to walk as the heat is not as intense and you avoid the summer holiday period. An added benefit of walking in autumn is not only more comfortable weather but ripe fruit along the path! There is especially an abundance of grapes and blackberries!
You will often see the stages of the Camino Frances split into approximately 34 days in guidebooks and stage planners. But depending on the time you have to walk, your fitness, and any other plans you have, you can split your walking days up however you please. Of course you can follow the suggested stages in a particular guidebook, or follow the Camino Frances distance and altitude map (see the resource section below to download a copy), or any of the other stage planners from various books and websites if you choose.
All stages of the Camino Frances are well signposted with arrows and shells pointing you in the right direction, however some care does need to be taken in the bigger cities as it is easy to lose track of the camino markers amongst the busy streets.
As for what to expect from the Camino Frances stages; it varies slowly but dramatically over its 800km length. After the first day crossing the pyrenees (quite an introduction to Camino life!), you'll walk across some of the main wine regions of Spain (Rioja, Navarre, Bierzo), through the wide open spaces of the meseta, and into the beautiful and green (and often raining!) region of Galicia, not forgetting the several famous cities, such as Pamplona and Burgos, and the countless small villages and ruins along the way as well. It offers something for everybody and, as mentioned, it is very well facilitated too.
• The first day walking on the Camino Frances can be one of the most physically tough days you will have on your Camino. Because of this I thought it was important to include a full page about the first day, crossing the pyrenees.
• After the city of Burgos the Camino Frances passes through the northern edge of the meseta. This is another stage of the way that some pilgrims get nervous about. You can find more information about the meseta here.
• The municipal albergues (basic/public albergues) over the middle stages of the Camino Frances are great value, usually 5 or 6 euro for a bed, shower, wifi and in some cases full kitchen facilities. But over the last 200km they become more expensive and they provide less as well, usually just a shower and a bed.
• Fill up your water at your albergue every morning. In St Jean we were advised to be careful of drinking out of public fountains over the last 200km, especially after heavy rain.
• If you are worried about getting accommodation the next day, book your albergue the night before. Generally you don't have to worry about this, you will find a place 99% of the time even if it's busy. But doing this might help you relax instead of hurrying to your next stop. It's about the way, not the destination, after all.
• Walk your pace and distance. There are many stops along the route and usually no more than 10 to 15km between albergues. We found walking 18 to 25km a day was perfect for us, anymore and we were very tired and sore the next day. We also had 2 or 3 rest days and some very short walking days thrown in so we could rest and explore a town or city.
• A free Camino Frances distance and altitude map is available here. However you will need to setup an account with the Camino forums if you want to download a copy. A near identical copy is available from the pilgrims office in St Jean Pied de Port though. (Please Note: Some of the stages on this map appear to be extremely steep. Yes there are some tiring up and down hill stages, but if they were as steep as they look only mountain goats would be walking the Camino!)
• Another great free resource! A list of all current albergues (last updated on the 1st of May 2016) along the Camino Frances. It includes contact info, website addresses, costs and facilities. Sign in to the Camino forums and download a copy here.
• Eroski keeps a fairly up to date list of pilgrim accommodation as well as having interactive maps for each stage. It can be a little awkward to navigate if you are not familiar with the Galician language but it's still a very useful resource.
• Godesalco.com is another free resource that helps you plan the stages and see a height profile of your next camino. Just click on the english flag to change the language and then choose the route and follow the instructions from there. Click on the Camino de Santiago option for the French Way (please note that this planner starts on the other side of the Pyrenees, in Roncesvalles, just one days walk from St Jean Pied de Port).