Camino Frances vs Camino del Norte: which is “better”?

“Which Camino did you like better- the Frances, or the Norte?”

It’s a question I started to get a lot as this year’s Camino was ending, and oh boy, what a question. But people want to know, they want to know how these Caminos compare to each other, which I liked better, what I preferred about each of them, how they are different.

And it was too difficult to figure out an easy way to answer. Eventually, I began to answer like this- “I’m so glad that I walked the Frances first.”

But I don’t think that’s much of an answer at all. How can I compare? Both Caminos were wonderful, and in very different ways. I’m not sure that I would have loved each as much had I not done them in the order I did (and I wonder how the timing would have affected my experience, had I let more time go by in between the two walks).

This is how I look at these two Caminos: it was all, actually, just one big pilgrimage. When I arrived in Santiago at the end of the Camino Frances, all I could think was that I wanted to keep walking. I wanted to walk for at least another month, for another 500-miles. I felt like I was just beginning to reach deeper into the experience of my pilgrimage, just starting to identify the lessons that the journey was showing me, just starting to practice some things that I suspected I’ve long needed to practice. I felt like I needed to go back.

The Camino Frances, for me, was sort of like the guidebook for how to do a pilgrimage. It was the start, it’s what I needed to do first. It showed me a little (sometimes a lot) of everything: a physical challenge, social interaction, time alone, art and culture, religion and history. I was thrown into it all, and I sort of waltzed through: this dizzying, swirling, laughing dance down a long trail. I moved through the Frances with so much energy, and overall I felt like I had incredible good luck- a charmed experience, in a way.

But the meat of my pilgrimage? I think I got that this summer, on the Norte and Primitivo. I certainly got bits and pieces of it on the Frances, but it was almost like I needed the lessons of the Frances in order to be able to practice them on the Norte. And that experience- feeling like I was able to quickly settle into a ‘meaty’ pilgrimage and have hundreds of miles to walk and think and face challenging situations and practice being strong and independent- that made my 2nd Camino beautiful. It made it so, so special to me, in a different way than the Frances was special. I felt like I shared the Camino Frances with a hundred other friends; I felt like the Norte and Primitivo were all for me.

However, had I started with the Norte, I think I would have had a completely different kind of experience. I’m certain that I would have loved the scenery and the walks along the coast. I would have loved the interactions with other pilgrims. And if I had signed up for this Camino thing in order to have a long walk- a trek across a country- the Norte would have satisfied that expectation completely.

But I decided to do the Camino for a little more than that. I wanted the spiritual journey as much as I wanted to trek across a country, and in some ways, I think I needed to walk the Frances first. The Frances is the Camino, and I could feel the mystique surrounding it: words like ‘magic’ and ‘aura’ and ‘fate’ and ‘angels’ kept popping up. So many people connected to and noticed the magic of the Camino, and the more we talked about it, the more we experienced it. Every day had this energy to it, this feeling that anything was possible, anything could happen. It was a spiritual journey for me: I stopped in churches, I said little prayers, I thought a lot about what it would mean to arrive in Santiago.

Madonna in the Pyrenees, Camino de Santiago

The Norte and the Primitivo were somehow more… real. Immediate. Grittier. Dirtier. More painful. I felt like I was trekking, in a different way than I did the year before. My friend Elissa and I noticed this instantly, after the first few days of walking. “This is not the Camino Frances,” we said to each other. While on the Frances I had gone to bed thinking, “What magic will await me tomorrow?”, on the Norte, my bedtime thoughts were either, “Will my blister feel better tomorrow?” or “When will the walking start to feel easier?”

This was a true physical journey for me, with rain and blisters and very long days of walking. And it was an isolated journey- I walked alone and stayed alone for so much of the Camino. I treasured this time, especially the entire days when I wouldn’t encounter a single other pilgrim. It made the pilgrimage feel like mine- it made it both more beautiful, and more challenging.

Walk to Pendueles, Camino del Norte

But after saying all of this, I understand that everyone’s experience is so unique: many, many people get into the meaty stuff of the pilgrimage on the Frances. In the end, I think I needed a good, solid 1,000 miles for the pilgrimage experience I’d hoped to have, but for many, 500-miles is more than enough. 100-miles is more than enough.

So to answer which I liked better- the Frances or the Norte? I don’t have an answer, not a real one. And they are so difficult to compare, but I will say this: both were incredibly beautiful. I just spent a minute looking through my photos from my walk out of St Jean Pied de Port and through the Pyrenees, and I marveled, all over again, and how majestic that day was. And then I look through some of those coastal shots I took on the Norte. Is one route more beautiful than the other? Is one route better than the other? They are impossible to compare.

Orisson, Pyrenees, Camino de Santiago

Coastal route, Camino del Norte

For others who have walked multiple Caminos- what are your thoughts? Do others ask you which route you preferred? Do you prefer one route to another?

20 thoughts on “Camino Frances vs Camino del Norte: which is “better”?

  1. I’ve actually been thinking a lot about this question! I was asked several times which route I preferred when people on the Norte found out I’d done several others. And I was never able to pick one. I think of each as a journey, not just a route – it doesn’t feel complete to examine them out context, without thinking about the people, the weather, my own state of mind, etc. They were all so different that I can’t really compare.

    With that said, if I were forced to think about which one made me the happiest, I’m pretty sure I was grinning like a loon most of the way on the Norte, just delighted to be trekking between the mountains and the sea, despite anything that was happening around me. I’m glad I did the Frances first, and it was certainly my most spiritual one, but route-wise, that might be my least favorite. (Although maybe I should repeat it to be sure!)

    I think you and I will have to have a longer chat about this over some tinto de verano at some point.

    • Definitely warrants a longer chat over tinto de verano (which, for some reason, I didn’t have much of this time around! I don’t even really like beer all that much, but on the hot days, I found that I was craving it more than the tinto de verano…)

  2. Nadine,

    As you know, I’ve walked 8 Caminos now. My first two Caminos were on the Francés, I loved it and still do, I would walk it again in a heartbeat. Then I’ve walked several Camino Portugués and even led a tour on one – it was lovely each time albeit shorter in distance. I’ve walked the Inglés and the Costa da Morte as well.

    I can’t say which I liked better. I love walking – I love the entire concept of pilgrimage – I love the history – I love the people, both the pilgrims I meet and the locals I’ve met – I love the food – I love the culture – I simply love the Camino!

    The Camino has given me my life and I will continue returning as long as these old legs will allow. I’m thinking about walking the Via Francigena as well as the 88 Temples Pilgrimage in Japan, maybe you might want to consider one of those in the future.

    And by the way, yes I am constantly asked which route I enjoyed more. I’ve enjoyed every one, every time and cannot choose one as the best.

    Arlène

    • Thanks for your comment, Arlène, I was actually thinking of you as I was writing up this post (knowing that you’ve walked multiple Caminos, and wondering if you had any thoughts about it all!).

      It seems like this is the consensus, for those of us who have walked more than one… can’t choose the best, all were different, enjoyed them all but in different ways.

      The 88 Temples Pilgrimage has sounded intriguing to me, too… and like you, I just love the concept of pilgrimage. I have a feeling that whenever and wherever I travel, I will want some sort of walk/trek/pilgrimage within the experience! I’m so happy that I’ve found this while I have- God willing- years and years left in these legs. Already I’m echoing your statement… that I’ll continue to return as long as my good ol’ legs will allow. May that be many, many times for the both of us!

  3. Gorgeous write-up about your 2 different Camino experiences. I totally agree with you that these kinds of things are so, so individual. It reminds me of when my hubby and I tried the medicine plant ayahuasca on the outskirts of Bogota with a Colombian taita and a bunch of locals. (It was definitely not one of the made for tourists experience that are so common in those parts these days, and we didn’t really seek it out – it found us). We had such different experiences from doing the exact same thing, in the exact same environment, but in the end, I think we both got exactly what we needed from it…

    • Ah, I love that example: you were with your husband doing the exact same thing, but what you took away was very different. And it’s so true, that these experiences are so very individual… depending on so much! The circumstances of our lives, our temperament, the people we meet, the seasons we travel in, the questions we ask ourselves… I could go on and on but I’ll stop now. Thanks for the comment, and for reading! 🙂

  4. I think the same things could have been said if you had walked the via de la plata instead of the norte. It was harder, grittier and there were day when I didn’t meet any other walkers. But like you I would not have appreciated the many differences if I had not walked the camino frances first. I would say that the frances was good preparation for the other walks.

    • Yes- exactly- I don’t think I would have appreciated the differences if I hadn’t walked the Frances first. I love how you put that… and thank you for commenting, and it’s so interesting to hear that you also found a second pilgrimage to be harder and grittier. I wonder if most of them feel that way, after the Frances? I guess it means I’ll just have to walk another! 🙂

    • Ha! The eternal question, that no one really ever wants to answer… (or can answer, for that matter).

      I’m looking forward to reading more about your walks on the Norte… do you have another section planned anytime soon?

      • I ran into some financial problems, but I am thinking, as long as I am over this cold, that I should be able to do Laredo-Santander in a two (or three)-day stretch to reach my 2015 goal of making it to Santander, and finishing it up next June. That’s what I’m hoping, at least!

  5. You sum it up so perfectly. My first Francés was spiritual, healing, essential, emotional, painful, joyful, everything I expected and so much more I didn’t. I haven’t yet had a large enough chunk of time to walk another whole camino in one go, so I’ve not attempted another one. Instead I’ve returned to the original one, this time doing it in small chunks, and having a totally different experience. However, I am so looking forward to doing the others, and I’m confident that they will be delicious.

    • And this is so true, as well! Even returning to the same path will be different every time. In some ways, I’m terrified to do the Frances again (maybe not the best word…), and only because that experience just felt so magical. But I think another go-around on the Frances (or a chunk of it) wouldn’t have to be ‘lesser’, it would just be different. And possibly equally magical. 🙂

      I can’t wait until you hit another trail, and to hear all about it…

  6. Very timely post, as I was going to ask you this exact question. I like the aspect of the solitude and how you really owned this pilgrimage and made it yours. The Frances was such an incredible communal experience, and one a pilgrim shares regardless of whether they want to or not. Like you mentioned, maybe the Frances is just a primer or a warm up for the Norte. Almost everyone says they don’t want to stop walking when they reach Finisterre or Santiago. The spirit of the pilgrim has just been awoken after 500 miles and needs more time for introspection. I’m glad you were able to find it by heading back to Spain to walk the Norte.

    • You know what your comment made me think of? It was a thought I was going to include in my post but completely forgot: that in the Middle Ages, when a pilgrim reached Santiago, that WAS only half the journey. They then had to turn around and walk back home.

      So maybe what I was feeling- and what so many others feel- is seeped in a lot of history. The “way” really isn’t finished for all of us in Santiago. We need to walk the second half to finish our journey.

      Any plans to walk another Camino??

      • That was one of the interesting bits of history I read as well. It’s incredible to think of how far pilgrims walked to reach Santiago, only to turn around and have to walk back home. I think you’re right, Santiago is only the beginning for some of us. I definitely have plans to walk the Norte some day. Walking the John Muir Trail was a dream come true this summer, and I’d like to walk the GR20 in Corsica for 2016. I’m thinking a Camino after the GR20 would be timely, as it would be the five year anniversary of walking the Frances. Do you have any plans laid out, or is it still too soon after finishing the Norte?

  7. Another lovely post, Nadine.
    Isn’t it funny that people want to know which camino route is best, which one you preferred…it’s like filtering the enormity of life and asking to pick one thing without realizing that all your decisions and experiences are interconnected.
    I’m still catching up on reading through your posts but there were days when the photos alone were enough to stir my heart into wondering about my next camino. So, thank you for that 🙂

  8. Nadine, I’ve really been enjoying browsing and reading your extensive blog. My goodness, it is so informative and I love your photos. My husband and I were “called” to do the Camino about 3 years ago but we have not had the opportunity to go yet, and it has become our greatest shared passion now. Several circumstances have continued to prevent us from going each time we make plans, so we keep waiting and studying and hiking and dreaming….
    One of the biggest challenges for us would be to take 5 weeks off of work to do the Camino Frances. That amount of time is simply not feasible at this point in our lives. Two weeks, definitely. Three weeks, would be difficult but we could probably make happen – but no more than that. So, we’ve felt very sad thinking we would have to wait for another 10 years until we retire to go to Spain and do “Our Camino”. I’ve felt strongly that if we put it off, we may NEVER get a chance to go together. As we have continued to do so much planning, reading, studying ,etc over these years – we have always been completely focused on the Frances route. We never even considered looking at any other Ways of getting to Santiago. But now I’m opening up my mind. The more I read about the Primitivo, the more I think it is the one that could be a perfect fit. But, I often hear everyone say that you “have to” do the Frances first. I’m sure that is the general consensus – but, couldn’t we just do the Primitivo now, and then do the Frances in the future after we retire and can give ourselves lots of times to walk and savor it?
    I’ve even started to wonder if that is why so many things have gotten in our way to do the Frances. Perhaps we are meant to do the Primitivo first?
    I am not finding very much about the Primitivo as compared to all the info about the Frances. It also seems that there is not a guidebook written in English that anyone feels is useful. So, I would really appreciate your thoughts. Any advice and tips we should know to prepare for the Primitivo as compared to the Frances?
    Thanks!
    Holly

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