After saying that I was not going back, I have changed my mind and am going to do the Camino de Santiago a third time. Why? For two reasons.
First, I simply have a great time walking the Camino. It is the best way I have ever found to travel–the perfect balance of everything. A pilgrim walks a good distance without killing himself or herself like thru-hikers do on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail. Further, the social element on the Camino is without parallel. There are literally pilgrims from all over the world doing the Camino. Unlike conventional trips, it is easy to meet foreigners in authentic situations. The great Spanish food and wine add an exotic flair to the entire adventure.
But I have an even more important reason to return to the Camino a third time. I keep hearing and reading that some of the alternate routes (the main route is the wildly popular Camino Frances) to Santiago de Compostela are not just gorgeous, but well maintained. Also, they are rapidly gaining popularity as the main route, The Camino Frances, is bursting at the seams.
The main French route begins in Le Puy. Since medieval times this has been the passageway for pilgrims out of northern Europe traipsing to southern Europe. The route is heavily traveled by pilgrims from not just France, but Quebec, Germany, and Switzerland. And increasingly it is gaining an international flair like the main Camino route. I am arriving on July 4th in Madrid. I have then arranged a cheap flight on Easy Jet ($70) to Lyon, from which it is a 2 hour train ride to Le Puy. Le Puy is famous for its statue of Notre Dame, where pilgrims are blessed by the local bishop before beginning their journeys to Santiago de Compostela.
The trail is reputed to be more difficult in the first 10 or 12 days out of Le Puy. Pilgrims stay in what are called gite d’ etaps. These are more like chalets or inns and are unforunately more expensive than the municipal albergues that pilgrims are accustomed to. Generally they run 30 to 35 Euros, including two meals. However, because of the increasing popularity of this Le Puy route, more municipal albergues are springing up (A pilgrim’s passport is valid on not just the main route, but the alternative ones as well). The scenic delights of the Le Puy route include the magnificient Gothic cathedral at Conques, as well as such former medieval highlights as Cahors. Of course, the south of France has virtually celestial connotations to some, and this is exactly where pilgrims travel on the Le Puy route.
It is 742 kilometers (450 miles) from Le Puy to St. Jean Pied de Port. From there, I will travel to Irun, where the Northern Route begins. This route is known in Spain as the Camino del Norte. It runs to the north of the Camino Frances, and heads through the Spanish Basque country. This includes the well-known tourist attractions of San Sebastian and Bilbao. The scenery on the Camino del Norte, which at times runs along the shore of the Atlantic, is reputed to be breathtaking. The route, which has long been popular with the local Spanish, is now heavily traveled by many nationalities. Consequently, and fortunately, municipal albergues (5-7 Euros per night) are regularly available for pilgrims.
To be sure, both the Le Puy route and Camino del Norte are reputed to be more difficult than the Camino Frances. But many of the pilgrims are like me; they’ve done and thoroughly enjoyed the Camino Frances and seek a different, and perhaps greater challenge. I can’t wait to give it a try, and you will be the first to know what I find.
Bill Walker is the author of ‘The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago (2012). He is also the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail (2008), as well as Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail (2010). Walker, who is just shy of 7-feet tall, is currently working on a whimsical book on the subject of height.