“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.
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.
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.
For others who have walked multiple Caminos- what are your thoughts? The Frances or the Norte? Do others ask you which route you preferred? Do you prefer one route to another?