Camino de Santiago - The French Way


'02 140 Hi BlueBlk Pass
For 35 days in April and May 2019 I hiked the Camino de Santigao – the French Way, from Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The distance estimates vary, but the official Compestella says 779 km.

St. John (St. Jean) is a tourist town that draws both buses and hikers alike. The buses come for the walled city and well renovated medieval buildings; whereas the hikers dive into albergues/hostels and pick up their first stamp in their credential.

The worst segment can be the first day. With 250 of your closest friends everyone takes off in the morning. Weather permitting, most chose the Napoleon Way over the Pyrenees – a 1200 m gradual but constant climb. Great views, weather permitting. The only snow I saw was left-overs. A week later 23 people had to be rescued from the pass due to a snow storm by the Spanish police.

The first albergue is Rhoncesvalles Monastery. Massive, but still not large enough to take the crowd of hikers. Many hikers were unprepared – lots of foot blisters, shin splints, overloaded packs, inadequate water. The down trail consisted of eroded rocks which lead to further injures. Then, for those that arrived after 3pm, no room and they had to walk more km or take a taxi. Welcome to the Camino!

The overflow room was a stock pen – packed in, little ventilation, inadequate showers and toilets. And an active thief stealing wallets and cell phones from unwary hikers. A few days later the thief was cornered by hikers staying at the albergue and turned over to the police.

The Basque country is full of old villages and houses.

But, like most of rural Spain, depopulation is a major issue. Notwithstanding, the Camino seems to have become such a major tourist draw, the Naverra government appears to be offering incentives to fix up abandoned property. Here is an example – it looks great from the front, but in the back the buildings are falling apart.

Entering Pampoloma, formerly a toll bridge with collection at the building.

Bocadillos – the hikers’ new favorite food – reasonable and available lunch and dinner in many places.

Throughout the Navarra province, many new memorials to the Republic’s dead from the Rebel’s massacres. Interestingly enough, these memorials either do not exist or are not as prominent for the remaining provinces along the Camino.

A fairly typical shot of a main street in better preserved towns. In this case, Puente la Reina.

But, Puente la Reina does have a great bridge:

Actual rivers take on added significance when you are hiking for days across (since Pamplona) relatively dry countryside. Here the Rio Najarilla at Najera. It seems the towns were different on each bank of the river, but according to one translation (and seemingly inadvertently capturing the history of Spain) one town “conquered” the other, thus consolidating the town.

But it is the site of the church of Santa María la Real (1052) due to an alleged apparition of Mary. It is the burial-place of kings of Navarre.

For the next 2 weeks there will be many days of crossing the Meseta (the Plains of Spain). Large fields of wheat, barley and rape. Most of this agriculture must be post-industrial age, as there are basically no towns for miles on end, and large amounts of terraforming. The pasture lands that supported cattle, sheep and horses that provided the wealth of these provinces in the days of horse power transitioned to a new form of agriculture that is not as labor intensive.

Fabulous Burgos Cathedral, and a great place for our second rest day.

The Camino draws not just Pilgrims. There are also segment hikers, lost souls aimlessly hiking, bikers, and, as below, retirees wandering the plains.

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'02 140 Hi BlueBlk Pass
More vistas

While not making much sense, this poster is not far off as an allegory

When on the Camino, most hikers are on similar schedules. Thus, we see a cohort of hikers over and over during the course of the 30+ days of hiking. We become a floating community that keeps in touch by bumping into each other over the days, WhatsApp and Line. Health became a major problem for many – starting with feet and legs as noted above. By the first week in, blisters where out of control for many. There is no privacy in an albergue, so we saw many feet that looked like hamburger. We depleted our supplies helping others – plus dispensing advice on boots, shoes and pack weight. The pharmacies and clinics on the Camino are well stocked with pain killers, braces, tapes, and pads. In addition, forms of respiratory infections spread early on (I did not catch it until the last 3 days). The result was that many ended up in the hospital and on forced recovery days. I did not have a single foot or leg problem.

When you come over a hill and see your town and albergue on a hot dusty day – this is paradise!

A Roman causeway over a swampy area, near Castrojeriz, that facilitated their movement of gold from Austrias and Galicia to the Mediterranean coast.

Canal de Castilla in the middle of the Meseta. Only a tourist boat now, and it doesn’t even go through any locks.

Private bodegas – wine cellars – most abandoned

Leon Cathedral – our third and last rest day.

Food may be good in Spain. But for hikers/Pilgrams, the options are limited. Up by 6 or 6:30am. Grab a European breakfast of coffee and cold toast (last nights bread). Lunch is on the road – usually a bocadillo. But occasionally we are lucky to be at a town that actually has something more, and offers the best deal in Spain – Combination Meals (below). Dinner is usually at 7pm at the albergue as there is no other option in town – the Pilgrims’ Meal. That varies in quality and quantity. In bed by 9pm – before the sun goes down. As most Spanish restaurants don’t getting really going before 9pm, those options are not before a Camino hiker without paying a serious sleep penalty.

Puente de Orbigo

The exception to the rule of small villages falling apart is Castrillo de los Polvazares – outside of Astorga. It has been adopted by the urban rich and is maintained to the hilt.

The heather and gorsch was in full bloom. The perfume spun your senses.

Just as well. The trail down into Molinaseca was tough – endless steep grade on loose river stone alternating with slate. Here is an indication what a 1000 years of pilgrims can do to a trail.

The famous Templar castle at Ponferrada

A private castle in Villafranca

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'02 140 Hi BlueBlk Pass
Finally – getting into Galicia. Now the fog and the rain.

Galicians seem to have a better sense of proportion for their churches.

Galacian villages are fascinating – the architecture is different from the rest of Spain – always one “corner” is curved, slate roofs. Further, the small farms are still hanging on – though looking at the farm equipment, tractors and low numbers of livestock I would say that they are not prosperous. Notwithstanding, the towns still have more activity and population than those on the Meseta.

The weather was bad only for one day – snow, rain freezing on our rain gear. The Camino is also used by the livestock. So the trails were a puree of mud, duff, cattle manure and urine, with a light touch of horse dung and human waste.

Sarria is the starting place for the “bus Pilgrams” – who must start at least 100 k from Santiago and have at least two stamps per day in their credentials. Tour groups bus hikers to Sarria for their first stamp, drop them off at some place along the line for a second stamp, pick up and deliver to a hotel, repeat to Santiago. Hence the graffiti from resentful Pilgrams.

Excess weight gets dropped as you approach Santiago – likely boots that did not fit, replaced, but they could not bare to abandon until near the end. We ran into this weird psychology several times when we recommended getting new boots/shoes and dumping the ill fitting shoes. Finally reality dawns.

Bus Pilgrims celebrating their arrival.

Me and my fellow hiker

My celebratory meal

Then off to stand in line for 1.5 to 2 hours to get our official Compostela. Can you spot the Russian nuclear physicist who worked in China? Just one of many fascinating stories from people on the Camino.

Funny how it turns out. The cheapest flight back to the States was to Newark. So we had to catch a bus to DC. Now we are Bus Pilgrams.



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loved looking through your pictures! we spent 2 wks traveling around Spain last year and was in Pamplona at the beginning of July. Such rich history throughout and lots of beautiful old buildings. Thanks for sharing your adventure (y)
Total wow. Thanks hkpierce. My old mans feet will will have to delay this adventure until my next life at this point. I wish I had had the means decades earlier. Not sure if I would supplant this with a bus tour that barely scratches the surface of what the journey is about. The time walking and observing is the Real deal.

Before the current crisis, I had intended to head to Europe in April to Italy, Spain and Portugal through Iceland for a much longed for a culinary, art and architecture trip.

At least I squeezed in an annual 10 day Baja whale trip with friends in mid March. When we were driving north, we all had the thought that we were going the wrong way, but knew there was no real option. I would not want to be sheltering in place any where else.

As we are all now in much the same boat, armchair traveling is certainly appreciated. Thanks to all here. Stay safe.

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