There are many pilgrimages throughout the world that inspire awe and provide space and time to detach yourself from modern life and focus on the internal for a while. The Shikoku Trail in Japan and the Inca Trail in Peru are outstanding examples of pilgrimages, but when it comes to the mightiest of all, you have to look to the Camino de Santiago. While this incredible journey can start in many places, but finish only in one, we are going to focus on the start of the most popular Camino of all - Camino Frances - Stage 1 - St Jean Pied de Port to Logrono.
In a Nutshell:
Where: The Camino Frances begins in France, hence the name. It starts in the little town of St Jean Pied de Port, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees, a few miles from the border with Spain. You then cross the Pyrenees on your first days walking, crossing into Spain, before continuing through glorious Navarra until you reach the capital of the Rioja region, Logrono.
Distance: This stage of the Camino is 154km long (96 miles) and it is generally walked over 7 days, so you are averaging around 22km (14 miles) every day. This can be split down a little if you want to customise your trip, but if you have a decent level of fitness, you should just go for it.
Grade: We have graded this section as Moderate to Strenuous and most of this is to do with the first day. Crossing a mountain range is always going to be tough, but you shouldn't focus on how difficult it is going to be, if you are reasonably fit, you will make it. I did it in extremely adverse weather conditions and while tough at parts, the pros more than outweighed the cons. For more info on the first day you can take a look at our video below.
Why Walk Here?
Many people start their Camino journey with the final stage, from Sarria to Santaigo de Compostela and then branch out afterwards and head back to the start. When they get there, the find a completely different experience, something that feels more like the 'real' camino. The final stage is full of people and is a celebration of walking, but this first stage is where the real spiritual journey begins. The tranquility, the cultuaral immersion and the stunning scenery all combine to make for a truly magical experience.
Perverse though it sounds after just writing about how difficult the first day is, this is definitely a highlight and something I always think about. Crossing a major mountain range, crossing a land border between countries, is not something you do every day. The skies are dotted with large birds of prey, wild horses roam the hills and the views are nothing short of spectacular. The descent is arguably tougher than the climb, but I guarantee you will have the best glass of wine of your life when you arrive in Roncesvalles!
Before I talk about the towns I should mention the food as they are intrinsically linked. While on many nights you will be well fed with a Pilgrims menu, which is around €12-15 for three courses including wine, I would urge you to get out into the larger towns and explore the famous Pintxo bars. This is where tiny morsels are sold, many lining the bar and you just have one or two of these flavour explosions before moving on to the next bar. In many places it is worth looking at the blackboards behind the bar, as this is where the hot Pintxos are listed and they are generally well worth asking for.
The towns that you visit along this route are a massive highlight too. Towns like St Jean, Los Arcos and Akerreta are typical little Basque villages with a relaxed feel, a couple of little restaurants and not much else. Then there is Pamplona (Iruna in Basque), a thriving hive of delightful Basque life. This will be your first taste of true Pintxo life and once you get hooked, you will be craving more. Sitting in the main square, reading a bit of Hemmingway, drinking some cold Txakoli may be a bit of a cliche, but one I would highly recommend.
At the end there is Logrono, the capital city of Rioja, which means that if you are fond of a little red wine, you are in the right place. In many of the Pintxo bars you can get a wide variety of Riojas by the glass. Most locals just drink 'Crianza' which has been aged for two years, but you can ask for Reserva, or Gran Reserva and in many places even pick out the specific brand you want to drink. Add this to the feast of Pintxos in Calle Laurel (a long narrow alley full of Pintxo bars) and you have a night of gastronomic heaven.
Planning and Preparation
Getting to the start of Stage 1 of the Camino Frances is not too difficult. We recommend flying into Biarritz in the south of France, then taking the local bus to Bayonne where you will catch the mountain railway up to St Jean.
On the return, you can take a bus up to Bilbao or a train to Madrid to catch your flight back home. For more information on this you can check out the video below.
If you have any questions about the route, don't hesitate to contact one of our Destination Specialists, who will be more than happy to help.