Guest contributor Rebecca Brown is a translator, bookworm and avid traveler. She’s hiked the Camino de Santiago. Here, she shares what she’s learned about the popular French Camino route.
The Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of Saint James, is one of the most inspirational pilgrimages in Europe.
It’s comprised of several ancient routes that stretch across three countries – France, Portugal and Spain.
And each of those routes leads to Santiago de Compostela, the Spanish city where the remains of St. James lie.
The most famous route is the French Camino (or French Way), designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Best things to see on the French Camino de Santiago
The crown of this epic walking adventure is the spectacular Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.
But it’s just one of many rewarding Camino de Santiago highlights.
So lace up your hiking boots, because you’re going to discover the top 10 things to see on the Camino de Santiago, French Way!
History of the Camino de Santiago
This fascinating pilgrimage dates back to the 8th century.
Many believe that the history of the Camino starts with the discovery of the remains of St. James – one of the original twelve apostles.
According to legend, Saint James the Great had preached Christianity in the Iberian Peninsula.
Upon his return to Judea, King Herod beheaded him. His disciples transported his body to the northwest coast of Iberia by sea, then took it inland for burial.
The remains lay there for some 800 years until they were discovered by a hermit named Pelayo.
When the news broke, King Alfonso II travelled to the site to verify the stories. By doing so, he unknowingly became the first Christian pilgrim to the shrine of St. James.
Ever since, Christians from around the world have been making pilgrimages to the site.
Interestingly, historians believe that the path the Camino follows near Santiago de Compostela existed long before the remains of St. James were found. It led to what was then believed to be the end of the world – Cape Finisterre.
The cliffs of Finisterre that overlook the Atlantic Ocean are a 55-mile (88-km) walk from Santiago de Compostela. Romans made pilgrimages along the Via Finisterra, and some believe the Celts had done the same before in ancient times.
Today, Christians make up just one portion of the pilgrims who walk the Camino.
The Way of Saint James has become popular among hikers, adventurers and wanderers from all walks of life.
The Camino doesn’t discriminate – it welcomes the religious and irreligious alike.
Which Camino route is the best?
Arguably, the best Camino route is the most popular one – the Camino Frances – the route I cover here.
Many pilgrims choose to walk the French Way simply because it features all of the most beautiful parts of the Camino de Santiago: charming medieval towns, stunning landscapes, excellent wine, delicious cuisine, the kindness of the locals and the camaraderie of pilgrims coming from every corner of the world.
Perhaps you’ve seen the 2010 movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen? The Camino Frances is featured here, as well as in the 2017 documentary “I’ll Push You.”
The trek starts in the postcard-pretty French market town of St Jean Pied de Port (just across the border from Spain, east of Pamplona).
The total length of the French Way is about 500 miles (804 km) long, taking about 35 days to complete.
But if this is too much for you, you can start your Camino at a later stage of the route.
Keep in mind, though, that in order to receive the Compostela – the certificate that accredits your completion of the pilgrimage – you need to walk the last 100 km (62 miles) on foot.
The last few stages of the Camino Frances are also the most social part of the route.
Why walk the Camino de Santiago?
Completing the Camino, French Way, is no easy feat.
You need to be really motivated to walk some 15 miles (24 km) every day for more than a month.
Many pilgrims, especially Catholics, do it for spiritual reasons.
But what about the others? Why would you want to walk the Camino?
Some people who walk the Camino are in a time of transition – newly divorced, recently retired, suddenly jobless. They walk the Camino to find themselves.
Others do it for the communal experience.
Walking the Camino is a great way to meet lifelong friends. I met an amazing woman on my Camino hike, and we’ve been friends ever since.
Then there are those who do it for the challenge and the exercise. They want to test themselves physically and mentally.
No matter why you decide to undertake this journey, however, the Camino will show you the way.
10 highlights of the French Camino
Now that you’re ready to step out, here are the top 10 sights on the Camino Frances.
1) Vierge d’Orisson (Virgin of Orisson)
Just a day out from St Jean Pied de Port (right at the beginning of your trek), you face one of the most challenging walks on the pilgrimage.
You literally have to climb over a mountain during this stage, over the Pyrenees, into Roncesvalles.
But it’s a hardship laced with beauty.
Because at an altitude of 3,500 feet, about halfway up the climb, stands a statue of the Virgin Mary – the Virgin of Orisson – watching the rivers of pilgrims climbing up the mountain toward her.
2) Alto del Perdon
The French Way continues to the lovely city of Pamplona in Spain, famous for its “Running of the Bulls” festival. (Pamplona is about 41 miles or 66 km from St Jean Pied de Port.)
Then about 8 miles (13 km) after you leave Pamplona, you climb the “hill of forgiveness,” or as the locals call it, Alto del Perdon.
At the top of this windswept path, you’re greeted by an iconic metal sculpture of 12 pilgrims, erected in 1996.
Some of the pilgrims are on horseback, others are walking. They represent the progression of pilgrims towards the tomb of Saint James throughout the centuries.
Look closely, and you’ll see the phrase “Where the path of the wind meets the stars” inscribed on the structure.
The modest but inspiring sculptures, combined with the panoramic view of Pamplona, make Alto del Perdon one of the best sights on the French Camino.
3) The Cave of Fuentemilanos
There are many quaint and beautiful villages along the Camino de Santiago.
Belorado is one of the most notable ones. On the outskirts of this cozy village, you find one of the Camino’s hidden gems – the Cave of Fuentemilanos.
Boasting mesmerizing stalactites and stalagmites, the cave is an awe-inspiring natural phenomenon. There’s even a river that flows through the cave.
The trickling sound of water adds to the atmosphere of tranquility.
4) Pulchra Leonina (House of Light)
The French Camino passes through the Spanish city of Leon, home to a cultural treasure trove of convents, cathedrals and other historic buildings.
Pulchra Leonina, or House of Light, is the nickname of the star jewel, the Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral. Its striking stained glass windows have earned it that name.
The construction of this Gothic cathedral started in the 13th century. The artists completed the windows by the mid-15th century.
Today, the windows (in total, over 130) are one of the oldest and best-conserved collections of stained glass in the world.
It’s remarkable how much light the stained glass windows capture and reflect!
There’s no question. The 130+ windows (nearly 19,000 square feet of gorgeous stained windows) make the Pulchra Leonina one of the best places to visit on the Camino.
5) Puente de Hospital de Órbigo (Bridge of Hospital de Orbigo)
About 15 miles (25 km) beyond Leon, you cross a 13th-century bridge to enter the town of Hospital de Orbigo.
Called the Puente de Hospital de Orbigo (or Bridge of Hospital de Orbigo), this age-old stone bridge has twenty arches, and it stretches over 600 feet.
The bridge is famous in part because of the medieval love story associated with it.
Legend has it that in 1434, a knight named Don Suero fell in love with a lady by the name of Dona Lenor. As often happens, the affection wasn’t mutual.
To symbolize how he was enslaved by her love, he decided to wear an iron collar around his neck. He told the king that he’d remove the collar only after defeating 300 men in jousting over the bridge. All of this, of course, was to impress Lenor.
The knight ended up breaking 200 lances over a month.
By then, the king grew tired of the whole thing and simply ordered his judges to remove the collar from the knight’s neck and release him from his vow.
But the knight’s earnest valor won him the heart of the fair lady Lenor.
In honor of Don Suero’s impressive feat, a medieval jousting festival now takes place at the bridge each year in June.
If you time your pilgrimage right, you can join in on the fun.
6) La Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross)
Journeying through the French way, you come across an ancient town called Rabanal del Camino.
From the 10th century on, the Knights Templar were stationed in Rabanal del Camino. Their mission was to ensure pilgrims could safely pass over the mountain.
Standing on a hill just a few miles past this town is one of the most famous symbols or things to see on the Camino de Santiago (French Way) – La Cruz de Fierro (the Iron Cross).
The cross is unmissable – rising atop a towering wooden pole – a landmark pointing the way. Many say that the cross was put there by Saint James himself.
Whatever the truth, you may want to place a stone at the foot of the cross.
Pilgrims have been leaving rocks at the Cruz de Fierro for centuries. The rocks symbolize the sins they’ve committed.
According to tradition, you can leave your burdens behind when you leave a stone here. How freeing is that!
7) Vineyards of the Camino
Spain, as you no doubt know, produces a wide variety of wines due to its geographical make-up. And the people of the Iberian Peninsula have been making fine wine ever since they first inhabited the land.
So, naturally, you end up walking past many vineyards and wine cellars along the Camino Frances.
When you arrive in La Rioja, you find yourself in one of the most famous wine regions in Europe. The region produces red wine varieties such as Tempranillo and Garnacha.
The last region of the Camino, Galicia, is famous for white wines called Godello Albarino, as well as a red wine called Mensia.
Grab the opportunity to stop at wine shops and cellars and taste Spanish wines along the French Way. (Or just enjoy a glass of fine wine with dinner.)
Even if you’re not fond of wine, walking through the vineyards of the Camino is quite a heady experience – and one of the highlights of the Camino French Way.
8) The Castle of the Knights Templar of Ponferrada
The last large town before Santiago de Compostela is Ponferrada.
Here, the Knights Templar built a castle (locally known as the Castillo Templario de Ponferrada) as another stronghold to protect pilgrims.
Construction of the castle started in the 12th century. The architecture of the castle is stunning, and so is its size.
This whole historical site covers an area of more than 86,000 square feet – and it’s well worth visiting this fascinating Knights Templar castle.
9) The eucalyptus forests
Eucalyptus trees are not native to Galicia, and some say that they’re a threat to the indigenous forests.
Controversies aside, though, some of the most beautiful sections of the Camino de Santiago pass through lush, enchanting Eucalyptus forests.
The rustle and smell of the eucalyptus leaves are absolutely spellbinding.
10) The streets of Santiago de Compostela
Of course, the cathedral that houses the relics of St. James is the best part of the Camino de Santiago for many pilgrims.
During special masses, the enormous Botafumeiro (incense burner suspended on chains) swings through the air, filling the cathedral with smoky scented incense. It’s a extraordinary sight!
But the cathedral is just one of many wonderful things to see in the city of Santiago de Compostela.
Make sure to wander the cobblestone streets of the city after you complete your Camino. Explore the small alleyways in the historic quarter of Santiago, ducking into the shops, palaces, restaurants and bars.
Be sure to see the San Pelayo Church and Monastery and wander the gardens in Alameda Park.
Also don’t miss the San Francisco Convent. The building used to be an 18th-century Franciscan convent but now serves as a restaurant.
Best time to walk the Camino de Santiago
The best time to walk the Camino depends on your preferences.
In terms of weather, it’s best to walk the Camino in spring or early fall.
Personally, I think walking the Camino in April or May is ideal.
During these months, the migratory birds fly in, wildflowers come out and the weather is very pleasant. However, you can expect to have a few rainy days.
Many pilgrims like to make wine tasting a big part of their Camino experience. If this includes you, you’ll be interested to know that grape harvests in Spain take place in early fall. During these months, you’ll find many local wine festivities along the way.
Otherwise, the Camino in autumn is serenely quiet, but it can get rainy from mid-October onward.
The most popular months to walk the Camino are July and August.
The routes are very busy then, however, especially the Camino Frances, and it can get very hot. But if you want to experience the camaraderie of the Camino, this is the best time for your Camino.
The summer also gives you the advantage of more hours of sunshine.
Best places to stay on the Camino de Santiago
Most pilgrims choose to stay in albergues – pilgrim hostels. They offer cheap accommodation and a lot of opportunities to fraternize with other pilgrims. But, let’s be frank, they’re not the most comfortable and convenient option.
If you want to indulge in a bit of luxury at the end of each day’s hike, no one can blame you. Luckily, there are quite a few nice hotels on the Camino de Santiago, especially the French Way.
Here are 4 of the best hotels along the French Camino:
Gran Hotel La Perla, Pamplona:
Right in the heart of Pamplona, the 5-star Hotel La Perla (built in 1881) was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite place to stay when he visited the city.
Rooms are individually decorated and feature antique furniture and enormous bathtubs.
Gran Hotel La Perla: Check rates and availability
Hotel Real Colegiata San Isidoro, Leon:
To experience the historical riches of this ancient pilgrimage, stay at the Hotel Real Colegiata when you find yourself in Leon.
The hotel is located in the historic center of the city, in the 11-century San Isidoro Collegiate complex, and shares a plaza with the Basilica of San Isidoro.
The former monks’ quarters feature stone walls and wood floors, and you can feel the centuries of history as you walk around the tastefully preserved building.
Hotel Real Colegiata San Isidoro: Check rates and availability
Casa Indie, Rabanal Del Camino:
In this rural part of Spain, the Saradino family built a hotel that combines old-world timelessness with new world amenities – turning a 400-year old maragata house (local stone building with large doors) into one of the most charming hotels on the Camino.
Casa Indie: Check rates and availability
Hostal de Los Reyes Católicos, Santiago de Compostela:
The famous Spanish chain of luxury hotels – the Parador network – runs this magnificent hotel right next to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
Dating back to 1499, its name translates to the “The Hostel of Catholic Kings.” But no matter which faith you belong to (or don’t), rest assured you’ll feel like a king (or queen) here – think four-poster beds, exposed stone walls, tapestries and a wealth of antiques and art.
This gorgeous 15-century hotel is widely considered to be one of the best hotels in the world.
Parador de Santiago de Compostela: Check rates and availability