El Camino Frances: 7 Things You Need To Know

Camino Frances

This week marks fours years since I embarked on the adventure of a lifetime and walked the Camino Frances. In the spirit of reminiscing, I thought it would be nice to revisit this 800km escapade and go over a few topics I can retrospectively deem semi-important. With the presence of Miss Rona, I don’t expect many people are planning on walking anytime soon. However, most of these points are relatively timeless. 

This post is the third in my little Camino series, so, should you be interested in the planning phase or get some packing suggestions, I’ve got you covered! 

Camino sign Pyrenees

1. The Fucking sign

Did the title shock you? Excellent! The first thing I wanted to cover is the fucking sign pictured above. During my first night in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, while enjoying a communal meal with the other pilgrims, the hostel owners gave us some tips on what to expect from our first day of walking. They mentioned how much water we should drink to stay hydrated, what was the incline, going up the Pyrenees, when could we expect to get a bite to eat etc.

Although all of this information was exceedingly helpful, the one piece of advice that stood out was regarding the fucking sign. Dubbed this so to better remember it, the sign appears near the end of the first walking day, a few kilometres away from Roncesvalles. Contrary to all the other stops, Roncesvalles offers a limited number of accommodations, the main one being the abbey. There are a couple of privately owned hostels but the majority of people stay at the abbey as it’s the thing to do. 

When looking at the sign, one would assume they should follow the arrow ‘Roncesvalles – 3,6 km’. Apparently the sign was paid for privately to insure pilgrims are diverted so as to pass certain establishments before getting to the abbey. However, this arrow leads you down a very steep path. Littered with rocks, it is precarious at the best of times, not to mention after rainfall. This path is not recommended as it has resulted in falls of all kinds.

Instead, the way to the right leads to a wide flat path, gradually winding down the mountain. It takes a little longer but better walk 20 extra minutes than risking an injury so early on. Don’t trust that fucking sign! ,

donativo food stall

2. Fine, butterless dining

Now on to food, my favourite topic! When reading Camino forums, you’ll often find copious opinions on the subject. That said, here’s what I think about it. 

Yes, it will be especially challenging if you’re vegan or gluten-free and very monotonous if vegetarian. While the Camino Frances leads you through a few big cities, the majority of your stops will be in tiny towns that don’t cater to dietary restrictions. You will rely on supermarkets and perhaps plan your breakfasts the night before. Generally speaking, options are limited to tortillas, croissants or bocadillo (but without butter, because this is the land of olive oil).

I personally really enjoyed going to the supermarket as it usually meant you ended up making and sharing a meal with fellow pilgrims. A great way to unwind and break the ice! Not to mention it was usually a lot cheaper than eating out. Something to consider if you’re keeping a tight budget. Remember to check the hostel’s kitchen* usually stocked with odds and ends previous passers-by left behind.

Alternatively, you can dine in a local restaurant that offers a pilgrim menu. This option could lead to disappointment if you expect to eat fresh produce growing in the nearby fields. From experience, a lot of the time you’re served canned vegetables…convenient nonetheless. 

*When you get to Galicia, it’s not uncommon to find an empty hostel kitchen. Word on the street is a lot of hostel owners are either also local restaurant owners or have agreements with restaurants to maximise their clientele. 

Camino pilgrim meal

3. The Camino is a business

Although the Camino is a pilgrimage and holds certain religious values, in this day and age it’s a business. Over 150 000 people walk the Camino Frances each year alone. Entire villages were revived because of the passing pilgrims in search of food and shelter. In addition to that, volunteers across Spain make sure that all of the signage is up to date and visible. 

Although some places truly want to uphold the spirit of the Camino (municipal and church hostels or donativo food stands), there is money to be made in privately owned pilgrim centred enterprises. 

I am in two minds about this aspect, as I experienced the negative effects of money and entitlement. Then again, who am I, someone who was financially and physically able to complete the walk, to tell someone else how to make their living? I would never expect to spend over a month in another country for free. 

Where I have a problem is when pilgrims pay extra to avoid sharing a room. This obviously isn’t everywhere but if a private hostel owner can make their 60 EUR by housing 2 people rather than 6, nothing is stopping them. I understand it can be tempting. But, the convenience of paying for an empty six-bed room means someone may add another 5 km to their day to find a bed. That just doesn’t sit right with me. 

Camino Pyrenees

4. The Camino spirit is different for everyone

One of the beauties of walking any Camino is that you’ll meet and exchange with people you would most likely never encounter normally. One of the downsides of the Camino is that you’ll meet and exchange with people you would most likely never encounter normally.

A big misconception I had was that everyone embarking on this journey was in search of an answer, was there to work on themselves introspectively and the like. That simply isn’t the case. For some, this is the easiest way to travel cheaply across Spain – which is completely fine, of course. Not everything holds a deep routed meaning or intention, the Camino is no exception. 

With this in mind, your fellow pilgrims will inspire you, open your mind, and show you great generosity. They will also irritate you, share vastly different opinions and wake up 20 people at 4:30 AM to find their toothbrush conveniently stored in a noisy plastic bag. 

To that, I say just forget about them. Bring earplugs and leave at a different time the next morning. Don’t feel obligated to walk with someone if it makes you unhappy. This also applies if you’re walking with a friend. You may not share the same pace nor are you expecting the same thing out of your journey. There’s nothing wrong with taking a new day apart and meeting up in the next big city. You are already walking 800 kilometres, after all, there’s no point in making this more challenging than it already is. 

León Spain

5. Call the doctor

I found that everyone on the Camino was super helpful and compassionate, especially when it came to injuries and self-care. However, if you are a medical professional, especially if you’re a physiotherapist on vacation, better keep that to yourself. Otherwise, you will undoubtedly spend your afternoons recommending muscle relaxants and exercises to every passer-by. 

Generally speaking, every 5 days you’ll find yourself in a city where you can stop by a pharmacy. Due to the sheer volume of pilgrims, most of whom experience the same problems, pharmacists are accustomed to dealing with #pilgrimsproblems. Otherwise, there are occasionally massage therapy as well as foot care services offered in hostels themselves.

Camino Frances

6. Taking in the view

Walking through the Spanish countryside is nothing short of breathtaking. The Camino Frances guides you over mountains, through wine country, across plains and down into the valley – you see it all. Nevertheless, we’re in the 21st century and although the path remained the same, it would be foolish to expect to see the same scenery as did the original pilgrims. 

Sometimes, for instance, you’ll spend your day walking along a highway. How dreamy. Most guide books will suggest alternate routes, especially when the official route runs along a busy road. In those cases, it’s up to you to decide how much importance you attribute to following the official path and how much importance you attribute to the view. 

Other times, you find yourself walking through suburbs and industrial zones on your way to a major city. This was often a topic of annoyance for pilgrims but what do you expect? Urban development and life goes on in Spain as in any other country. 

Camino Frances sign

7. How much longer?

This last point will hopefully help get through the long days of walking in the sense that it’ll better prepare you. In your guide book or on signs, you’ll be provided with distances to the next town, city etc. However, the marked distance is to either the city center or the city limit. That means you should account for 1 to 2 extra kilometres once in town before arriving at your hostel.

Now, you could be one of those tech-savvy pensioners who has the Camino mapped out to the meter using an app. In which case, you probably won’t have any misconstrued distance-related expectations!

Finisterra

Hope this was helpful if you’re looking to walk the Camino Frances or another route. 

¡Buen Camino!