Camino Francés vs Camino del Norte, which is better? My opinion

As soon as people find out I have done the full Camino Francés AND the Camino del Norte they always ask the obvious question: which is better? Well, here are my thoughts.

Like everything else in life, it is all about your personal tastes, the purpose of your Camino, etc.

The French way has more varied terrain, switching every few days. You get the Pyrenees on day one, then the rolling hills of Navarra, blending into the vineyards of La Rioja, eventually you get to the agricultural hills of Burgos, before hitting the plains of the plateau of Palencia and Leon before arriving at the hills of El Bierzo and the ancient Celtic hills of Galicia. The North or Coastal route on the other hand is amazing beach after amazing beach, and amazing forest after amazing forest, oh, and the only flat bits are the beaches, the rest of the time you are going up or down, which makes this route much tougher physically, but extremely rewarding as you are never more than a day or two away from the sea.

Also since this was the predominant trail in the late Middle Ages, the French way has a lot of history and a powerful spiritual charge, every chapel, every church, and cathedral just has this literally awesome, moving presence. By contrast, the Northern trail was abandoned in favor of the Francés as the Moors were driven out of the peninsula so, in fact, you are walking a much newer trail without so much of the spiritual aspect.

Food is probably better on the North route, as you partake from the bounty of the lush, green countryside and the ocean. This does not mean that the French way is bad, it just does not pass-through San Sebastian, arguably the best food per square foot in the world!!

North Coast of Spain is very green. Why? Because it rains a lot! So, if you commit to the North way, make sure you are prepared mentally and physically to deal with rain, sometimes for days… The French way on the other hand tends to be much drier.

Finally, depending on when you are doing it, the French way can become a bit crowded, while the North route has consistently less traffic.

If you are more into exploring cities and towns, both ways offer great stops, San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander on the North, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos or León on the French way.

So, in the end it boils down to what you want from your Camino. If you are looking for tradition and spirituality, go with the French way, if you prefer breathtaking views and more of a physical challenge, go North.

Have you done both Caminos? Leave your thoughts in the comments!!

Summer Adventures, Camino de Santiago (#2)

My last Camino de Santiago had to be cut just short of finishing because of time constraints. After a fallow Covid year, I was rearing to get back on the Camino, the Camino del Norte, following the North Shore of Spain until it turns Southwest towards Santiago de Compostela. That turn inland is just where I finished in 2019.

I picked up just where I left off, on the ria (fjord) that separates Asturias from Galicia on the latter side, Ribadeo. A cute town with a nice marina and old buildings ranging from Medieval to Modernist – these were financed by “indianos” folks that made it big after emigrating to America, mostly Cuba, and returning full of cash. Since I could not find the right transportation to get there, I ended up driving myself. I shared the ride on BlablaCar to help me with the cost of my gas guzzler old Land Rover Discovery.

The first day was, like the next four, rainy, but I was so happy to be walking again. It meant wearing a poncho that keeps the rain out but somehow also gets you all wet inside. I have not figured out if the moisture is sweat from wearing a plastic sheet over you, or water that gets in. But I refuse to spend over 200 € for a real rain jacket. I try to keep my Camino as close to the Medieval pilgrims who would have done it, at least as close as I can get in the XXI C.

Breakfast at the albergue was a rare treat: tortilla, good coffee and fresh squeezed OJ. My guide recommended pushing 34km to Mondoñedo for the quality of the Albergue and the town. Although it was a bit of a challenge for my first day, it was worth it. I only met four other pilgrims along the way. Before Mondoñedo is Lourenzá which is a nice village which has an amazing monastery! The albergue in Mondoñedo, as the guide promised, was awesome and I even had space to do some post hike yoga! When I sat down at the cathedral for mass, seeing as I was a pilgrim, I was asked by the sacristan if I wanted to read the first reading and the Psalm. What an honor! Of course I accepted although I was wearing my long sleeve T-shirt, shorts, and after hike flipflops! (I always wear long sleeve T-shirts to protect me from the sun and to keep me warm, as the case might be)

One of the reasons I walk the Camino is to honor and remember my dad, who always talked of doing it. So I always make sure that I am walking on June 20, his birthday. On that day, he walks especially close to me.

Day two is still raining and starts with a brutal two-hour climb -fortunately on good ground. Eventually it stops raining and I walk through ancient, magical forests for hours, without seeing a single pilgrim all day (except a German couple at the only café on the Camino). Vilalba, my destination, is quiet as it is Sunday evening when I arrive. I go to the evening mass and dine at the only place open in town.

Day three is, as I said before, rainy. But a pilgrim churns on regardless. I finally meet a genuinely nice pilgrim from Gerona, and we chat for a while.

One of the rewards of the Camino is seeing interesting architecture, mostly churches, but also occasionally homes or other buildings. During this stage, I walk to a gorgeous early Gothic church in the middle of a forest, by a river, San Esteve (see photos). Albergue Witericus at the end of the day is an old, restored farmhouse in the middle of a forest. I spend the rest of the rainy evening there, chatting with the wonderful innkeepers, reading, and writing my diary, dining the vegetable soup from their garden and an omelet from their chicken’s eggs!

Day four starts dry but soon changes to pouring rain. The Camino crosses the cute village of Miraz with its manorial tower, and 18th C. church and then climbs into the hills. This day also hits the highest point of the Camino del Norte in Galicia, a mere 700 mts (2.300ft). I finally meet the fellow that keeps overtaking me as he is doing the Camino running!! He is a lovely chap and stops to walk with me for a while. I end my day at Sobrado with its amazing Cistercian monastery which still operates with fourteen monks -one of them a brit! I obviously stay for very mystical Vespers with them, before dinner at a local restaurant.

Day five is finally sunny. Cold but sunny, so there is an extra spring in my step. At Arzúa I connect with the Camino Francés, which carries a stream of people. Fortunately, after clearing the village there is no one for the rest of the day. My final albergue is a lovely, restored old house and there is only me and a fellow from Honduras. The only attraction in the village is a bar decorated fully with empty beer bottles! I am the only customer there and spend over an hour chatting with the owner about politics, and the meaning of life, extremely rewarding.

My last day is sad as this Camino has been noticeably short for me, but I get to celebrate it with an amazing breakfast on the trail. I enjoy walking alone, meditating, breathing the fresh air. As we approach Santiago, the concentration of pilgrims increases, but that is part of the Camino. My last coffee stop is the same as when I finished the Camino Francés in 2018, the cortado is just as delicious as I remembered.

Tired of albergues and ready to fulfil one of my Camino dreams, I book my overnight in Santiago at the Parador. This luxury hotel is housed in the original, medieval “Hospital de peregrinos” which yes, was a hospital, but also served as a hostel for those who could not afford where to stay in Santiago. In fact it is technically the oldest hotel in the world. I celebrate my arrival in Santiago with a long, long bath. And only after did I venture for a meal, a walk and eventually mass in the recently restored cathedral that houses the remains of St. James.

In conclusion, I wish my walk would have been longer, but again, family obligations kept me from extending my walk to Finisterre. Otherwise, I love the spiritual journey of self-discovery that is the Camino, walking in nature for days on end, meeting interesting people with their stories, seeing amazing architecture that spans almost a thousand years, and eating great food. But do not get me wrong, the Camino is not a walk in the park, it requires you to walk for miles on end every day. My average this outing was 31.6 km per day (that’s close to 20 miles a day). You start the day with boundless energy, but the last couple of hours of an eight-hour day, day after day are a difficult slog that tests your mental and physical endurance.

Camino de Santiago #3 Camino del Norte

People start the Camino de Santiago for all sorts of reasons: adventure, self-improvement, fitness, spending time with their partners or friends, personal growth, finding oneself, etc. Upon finishing my third Camino, I have found that my main reason is a spiritual one – which by the way was the original purpose of the pilgrimage.

This year I did the Camino del Norte which  “officially” starts on the Spanish border with France at Irún. I crossed the Bidasoa river that separates the two countries, had a coffee in France, got my first stamp on my Credencial (the pilgrim’s “passport” that gets stamped along the way) and so got my official start in France, how is that for one-upmanship? or just for snobbery! This Camino then goes all along the North shore of Spain until turning in at Ribadeo to finish at Santiago.

Technically this is the second oldest Camino. When European Christians first started going to visit the tomb of the Apostol James in Santiago they either took a boat to one of the nearby ports in Galicia or to Oviedo and then cut inland to Santiago – that is the Camino Primitivo. Then came the coastal route, and when the Moors had been pushed South enough, pilgrims started going along the interior of the country on much easier terrain than the constant hills of the coast, this would become the Camino Francés, the most popular and most long-lasting Camino.

Now, before I continue let me point out that specially the Camino del Norte is a bit of a scam. You see, the Camino really was abandoned in the XX Century. In 1978 there were only three recorded pilgrims arriving in Santiago. Then in the ’90s it came back into fashion with younger people going on this route of self discovery. With increased popularity regional governments needed to re-mark and really re-establish the Camino. For the northern route this was difficult since the medieval paths that would unite villages along the valleys were now taken over by roads, so especially the Basque and Cantabria governments reinvented the Camino as a hiking route over hills and mountains where medieval pilgrims would never have set foot as they would have been eaten by wolves, bears and/or assaulted by bandits!

My Camino was glorious. The first day it crests a long mountain with amazing views of the sea and of the valley inland, finishing in San Sebastian, one of Spain’s prettiest towns and with the best food in the world. The second day it rained, and on a difficult descent, with wet socks I hurt both of my big toenails. This would be a bit of an issue for the rest of the Camino, but you do need some suffering in order to fully enjoy the Camino!

The Camino del Norte is known for it’s beauty. You walk between gorgeous beaches to verdant valleys day in and day out, through postcard perfect villages and some of the prettiest cities in Spain: San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón… The down side, if it can be called that, is that there is little variety as compared to the Camino Francés which changes topography constantly from the wooded hills of Navarra to the dry tableau of Palencia. The Camino del Norte also lacks the spiritual “weight” of the Francés with it’s open churches, pilgrim’s masses, etc.

I can’t wait to finish the few days left of this Camino and get started on the Primitivo…