Your next adventure rarely begins before your current one ends. But the seed for my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage began germinating while waiting for my socks to dry on Day 50 of the Heysen Trail.
I’d endured a dreadful night’s sleep at the Woodhouse Activity Centre after my sleeping bag and mat were stolen from my tent. I considered quitting then and there, unsure whether I could push on. Can I trust humanity? Was hiking really for me?
Nevertheless, I trudged into Bridgewater the next morning, located the local laundromat and began soaking my smalls. After a while, a comment floated over from the corner of the room, “I know a long-distance hiker when I see one. It must be washing day.”
Finally, following a troubled twelve hours, an empathetic ear had arrived. The voice belonged to the Chair of the Australian Friends of the Camino, Janet Leitch OAM. As you can guess, our conversations eventually turned to the Spanish pilgrimage.
Her insights into the Camino de Santiago’s food, wine and culture were fascinating, but her stories of wholesomeness and generosity captivated. Seeing as I was moments from giving up on humanity, this was a motivational speech I needed; my faith was restored, and my next adventure was set.
Nine months later, after a whirlwind trip through the northern hemisphere, I arrived in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port with my scallop shell, stone and pilgrim passport in hand. I stepped onto its cobblestone streets as a solo hiker but was quickly absorbed into an inclusive pilgrim community.
The Camino Francés
The Camino goes by various names across different languages, which can confuse first-time pilgrims trying to get directions. In France, it’s known as Chemin St Jacques; in Spain, it’s called Camino de Santiago; in English, it’s the Way of St James, or shortened to ‘the Way’ or ‘the Camino’.
To add to the confusion, there are multiple Caminos. While all paths lead to Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s northwest, the route influences its title. After much research and debate, I decided to walk the popular Camino Francés (yes, the one from the Emilio Estevez movie).
The ‘French Way’ provides the perfect snapshot of Spanish cuisine, hospitality and culture, as well as a taste of French joie de vivre. The path includes the Pyrenees mountain range, history-rich Navarre, La Rioja wine region, the agricultural Meseta and evergreen Galicia.
Follow my journey: Camino de Santiago Daily Diaries
Camino Francés (2023)
Distance: 790km (plus another 89km to Finisterre)
Time: 30-40 days
Dates: Open year-round
Trail Towns/Villages: 250+
Spanish provinces: 4
What to expect on the Camino Francés
The Camino Francés may be the perfect long-distance trail for beginners, even if you don’t speak the language. Following a thousand years of accommodating pilgrims, Spain’s north has developed a constant stream of purpose-built facilities. With towns appearing at regular intervals, there’s little need to carry food or forward plan future stops; you can even book transport for your backpack!
The French Way is one of the most active trails in the world. On top of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims that complete their journey each year, the route connects popular tourist hotspots Pamplona, Burgos, Léon and Santiago de Compostela. However, while the cities might teem with visitors, the separation provided on your daily walks allows room to think.
As you might imagine, for a route following an ancient pilgrimage, sizeable stretches include well-trodden roads, often shadowing highways. These tracks link centuries-old cathedrals and infrastructure dating back to Roman times. For these reasons, the Camino Francés is a culture hike, not a nature hike; that’s not to say there isn’t stunning scenery along the way.
The route’s bumpy bookends, flat interior and constant forested regions highlight the trail’s natural diversity. Mountainous climbs over the Pyrenees and into Galicia require a moderate level of physical fitness, while isolated stretches through the agricultural middle can’t be underestimated.
As you start to walk out on the way, the way appears.