The French Way – 10 tips to prepare for your pilgrimage
El Camino Francés, or the French Way, is a centuries old pilgrimage route that takes you from the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela.
The French Way is only one alternative route of El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) but definitely the most popular and best known one. In recent years it has been described and promoted in a number of books and films and thousands of people walk (or cycle) the roughly 800 km.
Although it is usually described as a journey to take in one go in about a month, this is not the only way. My family and I have been returning in October for three years to walk this inspiring way in installments. Our reasons are simple: in summer the route is way too crowded and this part of Spain is scorching hot. And in fall/spring we never have an entire month because my son goes to school and my wife works in one.
In this post, I’ll help you with the organization of your pilgrimage. Or long-distance hike, as you like it. Because although it’s a route that came to life thanks to religious faith, it has much more to offer. It is journey through changing landscape, cultural insights, culinary experiences and human encounters.
1. The best times to walk
Generally speaking, May to June and September to October are the best times for the French Way. It can be pretty nasty in November to April with lots of rain and/or snow in different areas. Daytime temperatures are hellish in July and August and the sun shines mercilessly. Besides, August is school vacation for the Spanish and most Europeans so you can expect huge crowds and fierce competition for beds.
2. How to reach the starting point(s)
The French Way officially starts in Saint Jean Pied de Port (France) or Roncesvalles (Spain). Assuming that you arrive in Spain by plane at Madrid airport, I recommend taking a bus to Pamplona first. Check PLM Autocares. It’s a little more than 5 hours and costs around 23 euros.
From Pamplona, you have two options: bus or taxi.
Autocares Artienda buses connect Pamplona with Roncesvalles. You can only buy the tickets (6 euros) at Pamplona bus station on the day of your travel. In summer (July and August) there are 2 buses a day but none on Sundays. The rest of the year there’s one bus daily (except Sundays).
ALSA takes you from Pamplona to Saint Jean Pied de Port. It costs 22 euros but there are services only during the summer months. At other times you’ll have to take a taxi, which is a hefty 120 euros (for maximum 4 passengers).
If you want to start walking elsewhere, you can use a site that compares all possible means of transport, like this one. It’s also a good idea to try shared cars though you generally have a better chance if you travel between large cities.
If you don’t walk as far as Santiago, try to end your trip in a sizeable city with good transportation options. It will save you time and money when you return to continue your pilgrimage.
3. What to take with you
If you walk the route as a real pilgrim does (without someone transporting your stuff after you), you have to pack light. You will walk 20-35 km a day so every kilo counts. The essentials:
– hat or baseball cap,
– 3-4 T-shirts (e.g. technical quick-dry running shirts),
– 1-2 long-sleeved tops for cold mornings,
– 2 pairs of hiking pants (convertible to shorts is useful),
– socks (designed for hiking) and underwear
– good walking shoes (see the next point)
– flip-flop (for the evening and the shower)
– sleeping bag
– earplugs (as there’s always someone who snores like a freight train)
– water bottle
– Vaseline (to treat your feet in the morning)
– smartphone (with a detailed map)
– USB charger
– solar charger or portable battery (if you didn’t get the chance to fully charge your phone at the albergue)
– a guide app for your phone (consider this)
First aid (specifically for walking):
– sewing kit (handy if you have blisters!)
– antiseptic ointment
Mind you, this is only the minimum you’ll need. I always take my DSLR camera and you may want to have an ebook reader with you, not to mention personal medication, etc.
4. The right shoes
Your feet will have to cope with all sorts of surfaces along the 700+ km French Way: asphalt (too much of it), gravel, dirt roads, rocky paths and cobblestones. Needless to say that choosing the right footwear is crucial.
To cut it short, I’d recommend either trekking shoes (see a good article here) or trail running shoes (check out this list). They are light and flexible enough and the sole protects your feet effectively from the impact of the uneven surface. Trekking boots are too heavy and conventional trainers are too soft.
Your shoes should be the right size: they should fit your feet well but not be too tight. And take well-worn shoes with you on the Camino. It’s not a good idea to start out with a brand new pair.
5. How to choose the backpack
The other key issue is the right backpack. What you carry should not be (much) more than 10% of your own weight. Accordingly, the ideal size is 40-50 liters. Choose a backpack with adjustable back, chest straps and hip belt. Most of the weight (around 70%) should rest on your hip and not on your shoulders.
It’s a good idea to take a rainproof backpack or a separate rain cover for wet days.
6. Happy feet make a happy pilgrim
Before you walk:
– Cut your toe nails
– Do NOT wet your feet in the morning (if you must, use only cold water)
– If you did wash your feet, dry them completely, including between your toes
– Apply Vaseline on all your feet. This will hydrate your skin and prevent sweat from accumulating in the sensitive parts
During the walk:
– Wearing proper trekking (hiking) shoes is a must (see point 4)
– Seamless socks will prevent blisters
– Tie up your laces well and make sure the tongue is in its place
– Clean your feet with cold water
– If you have a bruise, treat it with antiseptic ointment but don’t cover it
– Never burst a blister. Instead, drive a piece of thread through it with a needle and leave it there overnight. It will remove the liquid and accelerate healing
– Make sure your shoes dry during the night. Use talcum powder if necessary against bad odors
7. How to plan your days along the French Way:
There are albergues (low cost hostels for pilgrims) every 5-10 km along the French Way so you can plan your days quite flexibly. Conventionally, the whole route is divided into 31 days but you don’t have to stick to this.
It’s a good idea to start lightly. Don’t walk more than 20 km on your first two or three days. Then as your feet and body get used to the challenge, you can raise the number of kilometers. But in my experience the ideal distance is around 25 km.
8. Don’t let the bed bugs bite
Apart from the fellow pilgrims, the landscape and the inner journey you take, the albergue is the institution that will have the greatest impact on your experience. There are basically three types: albergues run by the church, a municipality and private individuals. Rates vary just as standards along the French Way. While most albergues are adequately equipped, clean enough and their staff (the hospilateros) are welcoming and helpful, some are less well-tended or downright filthy.
Luckily, you can choose where to stay but occasionally you may have to make compromises. Then it’s useful to have a sleeping bag and take a few precautions. Don’t leave your clothes and things around. Keep your backpack away from the beds. You may want to consider treating your sleeping bag with permethrin or, if you prefer the natural solution, lavender oil.
If you are unlucky enough to find bedbug bites on your body in the morning, don’t panic. Any pharmacy will provide you the right cream to treat them. Just don’t let the damned critters ruin your Camino experience!
9. Keep your stomach satisfied
You plan to walk 5-7 hours walking every day, often in harsh weather conditions. It’s very important to make sure your body gets all the necessary nutrition and liquids.
Take your time to start the day with a full breakfast (e.g. dairies, cereals, sandwiches, fruits, fruit juice).
During the day, take a short break every 1-2 hours to drink water and eat something that contains carbohydrates so that you can keep walking.
Your dinner should be the main mean of the day, preferably taken at least 2 hours before going to sleep. If you choose an albergue with a well-equipped kitchen, you can cook for yourself. It’s also a great occasion to socialize with other pilgrims.
10. Behave with responsibility
Don’t take advantage of albergues where a voluntary donation is expected. Leave a few euros if you can afford it.
Remember that hospitaleros are volunteers who sacrifice their spare time to take care of you. Tell them if you are satisfied and don’t make them more work than necessary (I mean, wash up your dishes after you, for instance).
Don’t leave litter along the way. Collect them and discard them in the next village.
The French Way is likely to leave you with indelible memories and a number of new friends. Just show respect to others as you expect them to treat you.