Comparisons and Observations re: the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain

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This is the third of three blog posts regarding my recent walk on the Chemin de Compostelle (Camino de Santiago) in France. The first post covered the walk from Le Puy to Conques; the second covered the stretch from Conques to St. Jean; and this post has fewer pictures and is a bit wonkish as it covers items to consider if you are thinking about walking the Camino de Santiago whether in France or Spain.

The observations in this post are based upon my walk in Spain on the Camino Francés from St. Jean to Santiago de Compostela in the spring of 2015 and walking the French portion of the Camino from Le Puy to St. Jean in the fall of 2018. Please keep in mind that everyone walking the Camino, whether in France or in Spain, will have their own Camino experience and may have a different observation than mine.

Some of the wonderful scenery you’ll see along the Camino de Santiago in Spain!

If you enjoy your walk on the Camino as much as I did mine, it can be a trip of a lifetime. You don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to do it, but helps to be fit. You don’t have to be an experienced backpacker, but it helps to have some basic hiking skills, such as knowing how to dress in layers and how to take care of your personal hygiene needs while on the trail. You don’t have to go through a rigorous training regimen to prepare for the walk, but it will help if you are already walking regularly. Most of all it takes the ability to set a goal, a willingness to stick with it, and then letting go and allowing yourself to enjoy every moment along the way.

The Camino is great for a walking trip as both France and Spain have basic and affordable accommodations (called an albergue in Spain and gîte d’étape in France) along the entire route. They provide a bed, a shower, a nearby place to eat (oftentimes in the establishment itself) or a kitchen to prepare a meal, and most of them have wi-fi.  You’ll need to carry a Pilgrim Passport to stay at one.

Every gite or albergue is different; many are much better than the one shown in this picture.

Your passport is your authorization to stay in a pilgrim (peregrino in Spanish and pèlerin in French) accommodation. The establishment will stamp your passport with their unique stamp upon arrival, and that stamped passport will become one of your most prized keepsakes from the trip. It will be a reminder of where you were, what the day was like, and the people you met along the way.

Here is my stamped passport from France.

Having affordable accommodations means that you do not need to carry a tent, food, or cooking gear in an oversize backpack. All you need in your pack are extra clothes, rain gear, and personal items. (For more information on what to carry, please read an earlier blog post (click here) on preparing for the Camino.)

A stay at an albergue or gîte requires being comfortable with shared accommodations and facilities, oftentimes with people of the other sex. If this is a problem, more expensive accommodations with more privacy are available. However, a night at an albergue or gîte and joining in the communal meal does offer an opportunity to meet and interact with other pilgrims. Those other pilgrims will become a big part of your Camino experience.

A noticeable difference between Spain and France is that walkers in France tended to make reservations for a bed at a gîte ahead of time. I never saw anyone in Spain reserve a bed ahead of time. In France, I was one of the very few pèlerins who was not making reservations. Fortunately for me, I never had trouble finding a bed in France or Spain. Had I been walking in a more crowded time of the year, I might have made reservations like everyone else.

Another difference between Spain and France is that Spain is more of an international experience. In Spain, I met people from over 35 different countries, while in France I might have met people from maybe twelve different countries. Over 90% of the people I met in France came from France, Belgium, Switzerland, or Quebec. All of them French speaking countries.

With pilgrims in Spain coming from so many different countries, most non-Spanish pilgrims settled on using English to talk to each other. With over 90% of the pilgrims in France being French speakers, almost all conversation was in French. It’s not mandatory that you speak French in France, but it does help.

To prepare for the trip to France, I attended a weekly French class for a little over year prior to my trip to learn some of the basics. Unless you have a special gift, that is not nearly enough time to become fluent. I did learn enough words to ask a few basic questions, to start a conversation, and to be polite. Fortunately, many, and maybe most people, in France know some English. Between my French and their English I was able to get along without any major problems.

Some of my best interactions on the journey was struggling with my very limited French to point at an object and then ask a fellow walker how to say it French. Many French speaking people would in turn ask me how to say something in English.

I learned that sunflowers are called “tournesol” in French. As you can see, when I walked by these sunflowers, they were no longer turning with the sun.

Walking on the Camino is a very affordable way to travel in Europe. France is a bit more expensive than Spain. In Spain, it is very doable to travel on the Camino for € 30 to € 35 per day. This amount includes staying in an albergue, eating a pilgrim dinner in the evening, buying food along the way, and paying for some incidentals such as laundry. In France, you can expect to spend € 45 to € 50 per day for the same. Some people will spend more and others could spend less if they prepare their own dinner.

It would be nice if our country offered a similar walking infrastructure to facilitate a long distance walking trip without needing to carry a full backpack. Fortunately for us, our country does have a good base of hiking trails, rights-of-way, and easements to establish a network of walking routes. All we need now is a network of albergue and gîte equivalents. The Appalachian Trail in our country does have several hiker hostels and other hiker lodging along the way, but you still have to carry a backpack for the gaps between those facilities.

Although the Camino has its roots as a Christian Pilgrimage, it is not a churchy experience. There is no holding hands in prayer at the communal meals or people engaging exaggerated religious behavior. Nor did I meet any strange people talking like Yoda from Star Wars, engaging in self-flagellation, or walking on their knees. Everyone I met was quite normal and happy to have the opportunity for a shared experience.

In fact, in Western Europe, including both France and Spain, church is not a significant part of most peoples’ lives. Every town has a church, and the church bells ring every morning, and you can’t go far along the Camino without running into a cross, but for all practical purposes the churches are almost empty on Sundays. If you happen to walk by a church on a Sunday, or actually attend a church service, you will see that the overwhelming majority of attendees are women over 70, probably closer to 80, and whoever drew the short straw to take Grammy to church.

Every settlement, no matter how small, has a church, and the bells still ring every morning.

When you consider the number of churches that you see along the way and the impact of the church on  European history, this indifference toward church is a remarkable turn of events. And it is something that has transpired during the course of a normal human lifespan.

Although there are many similarities in walking the Camino in Spain and France, they are two very different experiences. Both walks are quite doable, but the walk in France is harder! I was able to average over 5km (3.2 miles) a day more in Spain than I was in France!

This may be because the Camino route in Spain follows a natural travel corridor that has been used for commerce and invading armies for thousands of years. There are even Roman roads along parts of the Camino in Spain, and in one short stretch in Spain you’ll actually be walking on a Roman road!

This is an actual Roman Road just outside of Cirauqui in Spain.

Because it follows a natural travel corridor, the Spanish route passes through several larger cities, has more smaller towns along the way, avoids difficult grades wherever possible, and finds the best possible pass to cross a mountain range. In many places in Spain, you’ll be able to see the next town almost before you leave the town that you are in. As a result, you’ll never be too far from a place to eat or to obtain other services.

That’s Cirauqui on the hill ahead. This picture was taken from the town of Maneru!

Having services within a few miles of each other means that you can stop several times during the day for a quick snack or to get something to drink. In the few places where the towns are spaced further apart, some enterprising soul will have parked a food truck along the Camino to sell you a snack or a drink! With so many places to stop and replenish, you’re likely to spot someone you know when you stop at an establishment. This combination of easy replenishment and regularly running into other pilgrims can be, for many, a source of energy to make the walk easier.

Almost every town along the Camino in Spain had a bar like this where you could get something to eat or drink.

It was not unusual to run into a food cart or truck if there was a longer gap between towns.

In France, the Camino route from Le Puy to St. Jean does not follow a natural travel corridor. The route cuts across hilly and sometimes steep terrain that you would never take unless you were trying to find the shortest straight line route to Santiago de Compostela. Because of this there are fewer towns with services. Some of the towns may only have a couple houses and have absolutely no services or places to get food. This means that you have to pay careful attention to your guidebook and advice from other pilgrims on where you should pick up a sandwich or something else to eat along the way.

Another difference between France and Spain is that France has fewer people walking the Camino. You will certainly see other walkers during the day, but there will be long stretches of the day where you will be by yourself. This alone time can, for many, be a good opportunity for contemplation and observation. But it does mean drawing upon your inner resources for the energy to keep you going.

You’ll spend much of the time in France walking alone on a road like this. Especially after you get past Conques.

In Spain, there is always a sense that you are on the Camino. The route is well marked and other walkers are almost always in sight. With so many walkers, much of the route in Spain is on its own right-of-way well away from, or separated from, the road. In France a good portion of the walk is on remote, lightly traveled, and sometimes steep paved roads going up and over hills surrounded by farmland. The route markings are also more subtle in France, and if you’re not paying attention, it is possible to miss a turn. Fortunately, the French guidebook (Miam Miam Dodo – written in French) has very good maps, to help you find your way back to the designated route.

Here is map page from the Miam Miam guide. These maps can be very helpful in determining where you are!

As for which route to choose, Spain or France!

If I you are interested in doing a one to two-week walking trip in Europe, the stretch from Le Puy to Conques is spectacular. You would be hard pressed to find a prettier route anywhere in the world (click here to read about that walk)! In addition to an amazing walk, there are accommodations to suit any budget and transport services available if you do not want to carry your pack.

If you are interested in walking the Camino and have the time and budget to make multiple trips, or one long trip, to Europe. You can start in Le Puy and walk all the way Santiago de Compostela in Spain. With a total distance of a little less than a 1000 miles you are probably looking at around two months’ worth of walking to complete the journey.

If you only have budget or time for one Camino journey, I would walk the Camino Francés in Spain. Ideally starting from St. Jean Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees and going all the way to Santiago for a trip of a little less than 500 miles. The Camino Francés is the Camino that you have read about in books and have seen in the movies and on television. In choosing the Camino Francés, you’ll never have a problem with language, meeting other pilgrims, or taking care of yourself along the way.

The one drawback to the Camino Francés is its popularity. In talking to the lady who runs the Boutique de Pèlerin (which happens to be a very nice shop for hiking equipment and Camino souvenirs) in St Jean Pied-de-Port, she told me that as many as 500 pilgrims a day can start out from St Jean during the peak season. This is more people than the Camino’s infrastructure can support and results in a scramble for accommodations and services for the entire way.

If you are going to do the Camino Francés, the lady at the boutique told me that you should leave St. Jean either before April 20 or after September 20. If you can leave during those time-frames you should not have an issue with having to scramble for accommodations or services. I know in my case, I left St. Jean on April 8 and had a fantastic time. Crowds were not an issue until the very last few days when tourists begin to descend upon the Camino just outside of Santiago.

If you have the budget and can afford the time and time your trip appropriately, you could have the trip of a lifetime. If you are serious about walking the Camino, I will be happy to answer any of your questions. Please click on the Contact tab at the top of the page for my email address.

Thank you and Buen Camino or Bon Chemin depending on where you choose to walk!

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for all of the information. It was very interesting – especially the differences between the two walks (France and Spain). Where will your next long walk be?

  2. Hi David,

    These posts really bring the Camino de Santiago to life. They also provide useful and practical advice. For instance, the long distances without towns and accommodations in France versus more hamlets in Spain.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi David,
    Thank you for this wealth of information for anyone curious enough about what draws so many pilgrims to experience this hiking adventure. I especially appreciate the comparisons you made between the two trips. Your ability to describe and pay attention to so many specific (and important) details really inspires me to honor the deep desire in me to walk the Camino in Spain. Let’s talk!

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