I will be a first time "pilgrim" in July of the Camino de Santiago (Way of St James) and am deciding on the various routes. Can someone explain what differences are encountered on the routes - how strenuous, distances between places, popularity, for example?
I've been researching routes for my trip to the Camino in June/July. It appears that the most popular routes are the Northern way and the French way. Here are the differences between the two.
The French Way
- More popular and crowded.
- Traditionally starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port, France and crosses the Pyrenees into Roncesvalles, Spain. A lot of French folks start in La Puye, France.
- Great route if you're looking for people to meet. Not so great if you like solitude.
- Albergues are more frequent (~15-20km between each), but more crowded so you'd have to leave early and try to arrive by 5 or 6 to get a bed.
- Walking through a lot of prairies. Some gradually rising hills, but nothing too intense. Still decent scenery.
- Very well marked path. Almost impossible to lose your way.
- Some parts of the route are on busy highways. Just be cautious of traffic. Nearly 70% of deaths on the French way are due to pilgrims being ran over by motorists.
- A lot of accommodations for pilgrims along the path. Water fountains and quick shops are abundant, so no need to carry a ton of stuff with you.
- A lot of English-speaking locals.
- A lot of walking on gravel, but also a quite a bit of walking on pavement. This can really grind your feet.
- Great route for beginners and inexperienced hikers/walkers.
- Great route for "spiritual awakening."
Having done this route twice now (July 2013 & July 2016), I can say that a lot has changed in just a few years.
- The French way gets 10% more people every year. That's a lot of people. Albergues fill up rather fast, but new ones are popping up everywhere. You'll still golden if you get in by, say, 4 or 5PM.
- The French way is very, very littered. There is trash nearly everywhere. More so than I remember in 2013. People are having no problems taking care of business under trees and bushes right off the trail. It's pretty disgusting.
- The bed bugs situation is getting worse. Much worse. I noticed a few Albergues are now trying to employ some ways to fight the situation. Most others don't seem to care. Almost every other person I'd met had bites on them. Bring some kind of spray with you and trash bags to disinfect everything if you find problems.
- Bring a tent (if you can get a very light-weight, single-person tent). There are some really nice spots to camp in Galicia. You won't need it most of the time, but you could send it ahead and pick it up when the scenery becomes more interesting.
- The French way is becoming very commercialized. You can cheat and have your backpack sent to the next stop for 5€ or 10€. Phone numbers for taxis are everywhere, even in some of the most desolate spots of the trail.
I still think this is an amazing trail if you want to meet some very interesting people and have a truly life-changing experience (that is if you can deal with some issues i mentioned above). However, I'd probably never walk the French way again just because it's slowly turning into a dump.
The Northern Way
- Traditionally starts in Irun, Spain.
- Beautiful coastal scenery along the entire path.
- More hills making this route more challenging than the French way.
- Weather is a bit of an issue being near the coast. I hear it rains a lot up north except for June/July months. The route has signs which provide alternate ways in case of bad weather. I read that those things are not to be underestimated and there have been cases of people dying here taking chances.
- I also read that there is a ton of walking on pavement. More so than on the French way. This can take a toll on your legs, but you'll probably get used to this after several days.
- Not as popular as the French way, but still fairly active. Great if you like walking by yourself and still gives you plenty of chances to find a walking partner.
- Not a lot of albergues or pilgrim accommodations, but still enough to find a place to stay every day. Finding a bed at an albergue is easier because this route doesn't see a lot of pilgrims.
- I read that the route is fairly well marked but not as well as the French way. Still pretty hard to get lost.
- Not a lot of locals speak English, so you should equip yourself with minimal knowledge of Spanish or at least carry a dictionary or a list of helpful phrases.
From meeting others who have completed it I keep hearing that the Northern way is becoming more popular, but still doesn't get nearly the same number of pilgrims as the French way. There doesn't seem to be many Albergues, still. And some folks find themselves frantically running to the next stop to secure a spot for stay. So definitely pack a tent here! This route would be my next Camino adventure for sure.
So to sum this up, if you want a truly spiritual, authentic Camino experience which includes meeting a ton of people and hearing their stories - take the French route. If you like challenge, don't mind solitude and want gorgeous scenery - take the Northern route.
Update: From Sergei's answer the french way is the red one and the nothern way is the blue one.
Here is an overview of the routes closer to Santiago. The red route "Camino Francés" is "The Way", the well known one. Very busy at the end. It starts in St. Jean Pied de Port, France.
The other routes are not as popular therefore the infrastructure isn't as good as on the Camino Francés.
Thanks to Hermann from www.pilger-faq.de.vu