If you start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, you tackle the Pyrenees on your first day of walking.
This seems to be a common question among people who are planning to walk the Camino: I have X amount of time. Where should I start?
Obviously there’s no one definitive answer, since it depends on more than just the amount of time you have. But I’ll list some questions you can ask yourself to come up with an informed decision.
Although I’m talking specifically about the Camino Francés here, a lot of this could apply to any walking trip.
How much time do you have?
Your main limiting factor is likely to be time and/or money. How much time can you take out of the rest of your life to walk the Camino? If you want to do the full route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or Roncesvalles, you’ll probably need four to five weeks.
Another factor that can limit your time is if you have to meet someone at a certain place on a certain day. For example, maybe your mother wants to walk with you for the last week, and doesn’t have time to wait around for you to arrive.
How far are you able to/do you want to walk in a day?
This is tricky if you haven’t done any serious walking. When I started my Camino, I had no idea how far I could walk in a day. I started out averaging about 15 kilometres a day on the Chemin du Puy, but a lot of people seem to walk over 20 kilometres (12.5 miles) every day from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
Of course, the best way to figure this out would be to spend a few full days walking at home—preferably on varied terrain. You can’t really tell from the first day alone, since it’s all about the pace you can sustain, but even one day would give you some idea of what you can comfortably manage.
You’ll probably want to consider the terrain when you’re deciding how far you can walk. Other factors include the likely weather (if it’s bad, walking is harder), how fast you can walk, and any injuries you have that might slow you down (an old knee injury, for example).
Do you want to walk over a mountain on your first day?
The first day out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port usually involves a 27-kilometre hike over the Pyrenees. If you don’t want to do that, you should probably start in Roncesvalles or later.
However, you can break up that first day by staying in the gîte d’étape at Orisson, about 10 kilometres out of Saint-Jean. I’ve heard it’s very nice, but like most other other places in France it’s more expensive than Spain.
How much money can you spend?
How much have you budged for the trip? Once you take out one-time expenses like airfare and travel insurance, how much will you have left for day-to-day expenses?
How much do you plan to spend per day?
Consult your guidebook for the latest prices on pilgrim refuges, or hotel rooms, if that’s where you’re planning to stay. Estimate how much you’re likely to spend per day on food and drink. You can save by cooking for yourself and picnicking, or you can eat out a lot. If you want to be on the safe side, you can add a few euros to the amount you think you’ll spend, so you have some money for emergencies … or extra chocolate.
Then, divide the lump sum you have for day-to-day expenses by the amount you plan on spending per day. How many days does that give you? If it’s over 28 to 35 (depending on how far you can go in a day), you should be fine starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, money-wise. Otherwise, you might want to consider starting closer to Santiago.
Is there a part of the route that you most want to see?
Is there a part of the route, or a city, that you just have to see? If so, and you have less than four to five weeks, you might have to consider the next question.
Are you willing to skip parts?
Some pilgrims skip parts of the route by taking the bus or the train, either because of time constraints, to catch up with friends, or to skip a part they don’t think they’ll enjoy. As far as I know, the Meseta is the part of the route that is most commonly skipped. I’ve also heard of people skipping the (very industrial) approaches into Burgos and Léon. You might also have to skip part of the route if you have to meet someone in a particular place at a certain time, and didn’t walk as far as you thought you would.
A disadvantage to skipping is that you often lose the friends you’ve already met on the Camino. And personally, once I’ve started walking, I don’t like to take any other kind of transportation, since it jolts me out of my slow walking-world. But that might just be me.
Do you want to take any rest days?
Sometimes it’s nice to give your feet a bit of a break and turn tourist for a day. Big cities seem to be the most popular places to take a rest day, but there are a lot of nice small towns along the route as well.
You’re only generally allowed to spend one night in each pilgrim refuge, but refuges in all the big cities seem to make exceptions, and allow pilgrims to stay two nights. At least, they did when I was there in October/November. You could also treat yourself, money permitting, and splurge on slightly more up-scale accommodation.
Do you want a Compostela?
To get a Compostela certificate for completing the pilgrimage, you must walk the last 100 kilometres (or cycle or ride a horse the last 200 kilometres), starting around Sarria. People have been known to walk those 100 kilometres in three days, but I’d imagine that’s a pretty intense three days unless you’re in great walking shape to begin with.
How long do you want to spend in Santiago?
After you’ve walked all that way, it’s worth spending a few days enjoying your destination. Santiago is a wonderful city.
So after all that, where should you start?
I hope these questions will give you a bit of an idea. Take the number of days you can walk, subtract rest days and Santiago days and—if you like—a “just in case” day or two. Then multiply the number of days you have left by the number of kilometres you think you can average in a day. The number you have left is the number of total kilometres you should be able to walk. Then you can take your guidebook and find city or large town about that distance away, and check bus/train connections. Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, Roncesvalles, Pamplona, Burgos, León and Sarria are all common starting places.
Here’s an example: imagine I had thirty days in total, wanted two rest days and two days in Santiago, and figured I could average 25 kilometres per day. I would start with 30, and subtract the four non-walking days to get 26. Then I’d multiply the 26 days by the 25 kilometres I planned to walk each day, giving me 650 kilometres.
Looking at my guidebook, I notice that Estella is 661 kilometres from Santiago. I figure I can handle 11 extra kilometres—especially since that’ll allow me to visit the Fuente del Vino (wine fountain) at the Monasterio de Irache, which is fun. Google tells me there are four buses a day between Pamplona and Estella, so I figure I can get there relatively easily—although not as easily as I’d be able to get to the big cities. But on my hypothetical trip, Estella seems like a good place to start.
If you have an extra bit of time, it’s well worth it to start a few days before Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, along the Chemin du Puy or one of the other French routes (the three routes you could take all meet up in Ostabat, about a day’s walk before Saint-Jean). That way you get to experience a bit of France, and get used to walking before you have to walk over a mountain.
But be warned: France is more expensive than Spain.