For many pilgrims, the Camino Francés, or French Way, is the Camino de Santiago. In 2019, more than half the pilgrims who walked the camino and received a compostela walked the Camino Francés, despite the existence of many other routes.
If you’re thinking about walking the Camino Francés but don’t know where to begin – literally – here’s what you need to know about the six most popular options to help you find the Camino de Santiago starting point that works for you.
Distance to Santiago: 767km / 476.6mi (per Wise Pilgrim), though estimates vary wildly! It is listed as 799km on the compostela.
Stages to Santiago: 33 (per Gronze), although different pilgrims walk different stages
Starting Popularity: 2nd, 17.5%*
* Percentage of pilgrims who started here out of those who made the Camino Francés pilgrimage in 2019 and received a compostela, according to the Santiago Pilgrim Office.
Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a French village at the foot of the Pyrenees, is the modern starting point for the Camino Francés, though whether this has a historical basis or not is debated. Starting here will allow you to experience all the Francés has to offer and to meet other excited pilgrims looking for company, potentially before you even begin. If you have doubts, require any information or still need to pick up your credencial (pilgrim passport), the pilgrim office in SJPdP is a great resource.
Pros: ‘Official’ starting point, allows you to spend some time in France, meet pilgrims starting at the same spot and walk over the Pyrenees into Spain
Cons: Difficult to reach, Pyrenees climb might be too difficult for some (although Valcarlos is an easier alternative), taking five or more weeks off at once might be impractical
Distance to Santiago: 742.7km / 461.5mi
Stages to Santiago: 32
Starting Popularity: 6th, 2.6%
Roncesvalles is the end of the typical first stage from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, either via the Napoleon or Valcarlos routes, although some pilgrims walking the Napoleon route over the Pyrenees break up this stage by staying the first night in Orisson. The main reason to choose Roncesvalles as your starting point is to avoid the Pyrenees climb, which is the most difficult stage of the entire Camino Francés. Consider starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and walking the Valcarlos route as an alternative option.
Pros: Virtually the ‘full’ camino, avoids the Pyrenees if that’s desired
Cons: Difficult to reach, misses the camaraderie of day one
Distance to Santiago: 305.7km / 190mi
Stages to Santiago: 13
Starting Popularity: 3rd, 5.6%
Starting in León allows you to explore the city for a day or two before beginning your walk and to experience a decent chunk of the Camino Francés before it hits bursting point at Sarria. You will miss out on the Meseta (a positive or a negative depending on who you talk to!), but will still get to experience the Bierzo villages, cities like Astorga and Ponferrada, and the climb to O Cebreiro and entry into Galicia.
If you only have two weeks and hope to walk the full Francés one day, two alternatives to starting in León are to experience one of the other main routes to Santiago by walking the full Camino Primitivo (‘Primitive’ Way or Original Way) from Oviedo or the Camino Portugués (Portuguese Way) from its main starting point at Porto.
Pros: The city of León itself, easy to get to from Madrid, skips the Meseta if that’s desired, offers a reasonable part of the Francés experience
Cons: Misses the variety of the full Francés, many pilgrims you meet will already have a ‘camino family’
Distance to Santiago: 205.1km / 127.4mi
Stages to Santiago: 9
Starting Popularity: 5th, 3.6%
If you can’t spare the time you would need to walk from León, Ponferrada is a shorter option that still allows you to experience a couple of days outside Galicia and the climb to O Cebreiro. And if you arrive in Ponferrada in the morning, you could spend some time exploring the city’s 12th-century (but much renovated) castle before other pilgrims arrive.
If you don’t have much more time than this and like the idea of walking a ‘full camino’, another option from Ponferrada is to walk the Camino Invierno (Winter Way), a well-marked alternative to the Francés that pilgrims traditionally took in colder months when the more mountainous regular path was impassable due to snow.
Pros: Having time to explore the Templar castle, still being able to climb to O Cebreiro
Cons: Ponferrada was described by one pilgrim as an ‘urban, gang-tag riddled, concrete, car exhaust nightmare’!
Distance to Santiago: 152.8km / 95mi
Stages to Santiago: 7
Starting Popularity: 4th, 4.4%
If you only have a week and want to walk in Galicia, starting at O Cebreiro is a decent option. It’s a historic camino location and starting here allows you to experience all of the Galician portion of the Camino Francés, including places like Triacastela and the Samos Monastery that those who start in Sarria will miss out on. Starting at O Cebreiro also means that you won’t have to climb the hill to get there!
Pros: Enables a few days before Sarria, good number of stages if you have one week off
Cons: Not that easy to get to, gives you a Galicia-only camino
Distance to Santiago: 113.6km / 70.6mi
Stages to Santiago: 5
Starting Popularity: 1st, 50.7%
More than half of the pilgrims who complete the Camino Francés begin in Sarria and walk just over the minimum 100km required to receive a compostela. Sarria is an especially popular starting point among Spanish walkers and groups, including school groups, and first-timers who want a taste of the camino. This means there is unmatched pilgrim infrastructure in terms of albergues, bars and restaurants. On the other hand, the trail is usually crowded and there’s more of a ‘holiday’ atmosphere rather than the contemplative spirit of earlier in the camino. As a result, this is my least favourite part of the Francés.
If you only have 4-5 days to walk a camino, possible alternatives to Sarria off the Camino Francés include the Camino Inglés (English Way) from Ferrol, the final stages of the Camino Primitivo from Lugo or the final stages of the Camino Portugués from Tui, all of which will qualify you for a compostela.
Pros: Enough for a compostela, many others start at the same spot
Cons: Barely long enough to get a taste of the camino, very crowded, gives a misleading impression of what the camino is like outside of this section
And there you have the six most popular starting points for the Camino Francés. If you have the time, budget and knees for it, starting at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port will give you the richest experience, but all of these starting points have something to offer. ¡Buen camino!