The French Way of the Camino de Santiago

Tim, from Responsible Travel, is describing Vet Wrap: “I think they use it for horses,” he says, as we look it up. “It’s magic stuff.” The Google results page shows a colourful bandage wrapped around the fetlock of a showy-looking horse. “That’s it,” Tim says. “Wrap your feet in that.”

Foot care is a serious business on the 800km French Way, or Camino Francés. Mostly paved, it’s the most popular of the many different Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trails. Our specialist operator, Magic Hill Vacations, has another trick for feet. In the weeks leading up to your walk, they suggest applying surgical spirits to harden your skin. Then, on your walking days, smother your feet in Vaseline. Tim’s face falls when he finds this out. “I think we did the opposite of that. We got pedicures before.” And how were your feet? “They were buggered,” he said.

Tim, who is one of Responsible Travel’s directors, might have become addicted to the Camino Francés. He started out walking just three days of the 800km route with friends to celebrate some big birthdays in the group. He tackled the start of the trail, from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Pamplona in Spain. But he’s going back in October, and eventually wants to walk the whole thing. “I loved it,” he said.
Bronagh Carroll, from our Camino specialists Magic Hill Vacations, has walked 2,500km of Camino since 2014. I told her Tim’s ambitions. She laughs. “That doesn’t surprise me at all. You get addicted. It’s so easy to get addicted and keep walking.” People are drawn to the simplicity of it all, she explains – herself included: “Life is so easy on the Camino. You get up and you walk, and you talk and you listen; life is very simple.”
The French Way runs through Spain from Tim’s starting point at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It’s considered the most well-marked long distance trail in the world, and the best known pilgrimage route, attracting hundreds of thousands of walkers.
The most popular part of the Camino is the last stretch, from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, across the region of Galicia. You’ll follow the path through villages and open meadows, under trees and over rivers. You’ll pass cattle that have seen it all before, and dozing dogs that are used to being petted by pilgrims. It’s so very easy to be at peace. “There’s nothing else to do except walk, and that’s very therapeutic,” Bronagh says.
Addiction keeps people like Tim and Bronagh coming back, but people are first drawn to the Camino Francés for a variety of reasons. “For many people, the Camino is a promise,” Bronagh says. “In a hard time, they’ve promised that if they get through, they’ll walk the Camino.” Hundreds of people live out these promises every day on the path. Hundreds more are here to celebrate – like Tim, it might be a big birthday. But it might be a hopeful diagnosis after illness, or a last walk together.

It’s the stories from the people you meet, rather than the state of your feet on the paved paths, that stick with you. United by a shared goal, pilgrims fall in step with each other. “It’s lovely because you’re all going in the same direction,” Tim says. He spoke to many different people. “We met a German footballer who had given up his career to walk,” he says. Bronagh loves meeting people on the way: “You are privileged to be surrounded by experienced and interesting and educated individuals. You get some mind-blowing conversations,” she says.

Tim ended his trail with a mass in Pamplona cathedral. Similar pilgrim masses are held all along the route, most importantly at the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James, Santiago himself, are visited by thousands. Here, at mass, every pilgrim moves as one; at last they’ve all caught up with each other, and can finally, happily, rest their feet.

What does this trip entail?

There are many ways to walk the Camino. You could do it all in one go, taking a few weeks off work to walk the 800km of the French Way. Or you could do it in sections, a 100km stretch at a time over a space of a few days.
Go with a responsible operator who uses local suppliers. They’ll do everything for you, from luggage transfers, to rooms in charming guest houses. They’ll also provide detailed maps and telephone support; ring up for everything from help with directions, to getting a taxi if there’s a downpour.
As mentioned above, the most popular section of the French route is the final 100km or so from Sarria to Compostela de Santiago. Here the trail becomes busy, and the anticipation of the finish crescendos on Monte del Gozo, (‘Mount of Joy’) from which you get your first view of Santiago’s cathedral.
If you walk over 100 continuous kilometres of the Camino, ending in Santiago de Compostela, no matter how long it takes, you are entitled to the Compostela – a Latin certificate which historically guaranteed believers a pardon for their sins. For some, the Compostela marks their achievement in miles alone; for others it’s an emotional liberation. “It’s amazing when you finish,” Bronagh says. She herself has lost count of the number of Compostela certificates she’s garnered for her walks.

Some pilgrims attach a scallop shell to the back of their rucksack, a traditional marker of the pilgrim on this trail. But pilgrims are easy to identify; everyone on these trails counts as one. “We felt phoney at first,” Tim said. “There were people doing it properly, with huge rucksacks, and going into every church along the way.” But Tim soon realised that there is no proper way to do the Camino, and no snobbishness, whether you’re walking 5km a day, or eating up the kilometres by bike. Bronagh estimates that only 50 percent of pilgrims do it for expressly religious reasons.

How fit do I need to be?

You’ll see people of all ages and abilities on the French Way. You should prepare your body for multiple days of walking, and don’t underestimate how walking on concrete can be harder on your feet than turf. Whilst the Camino Francés isn’t particularly hilly, a few weeks of gentle training is sensible. Tim recommends walking poles; “Most people were using them,” he said, “as they can take the strain off your knees.” Practise using them before you go.
Travel Team
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Keeping it responsible

Whilst a lot of tourists come to the Camino – some 280,000 is a conservative estimate for 2018, they represent a very small proportion of Spain’s annual visitors. “This is not southern Spain,” Bronagh qualifies. Galicia relies on Camino tourists as an income stream. Between 1994 and 2010, the percentage of the local population employed in tourism more than doubled, from 4 percent to 10.6 percent, and it continues to grow. By the turn of the millennium, it was estimated that tourism had created over 1,000 jobs in the region, and as interest in the Camino grows, so do the figures. “This is their bread and butter,” Bronagh says. “The hamlets where you stop, where the locals hand out tea, coffee, cake. And of course there’s a ripple effect; the Camino offers economic viability for these hamlets, for cleaning services, for restaurants.”

When is the best time to hike?

Tour operators run trips from April to October. In the winter months, there’s risk of snow, and lots of rain; Northern Spain is lush and green for a reason. In the summer, May and June are popular times to be a pilgrim. In July and August some find it a bit too hot, but temperatures are normally in the mid twenties. In September the trails are busy; less so in October when it’s cooling down again. The last 100km of the French way are busy no matter which month you’re walking the walk.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Tim Williamson] [All article photos: Tim Williamson]