What is a perfect Camino? Can such a thing even exist? In late June I walked the Camino Aragonés, a 10-day pilgrimage from Oloron-Ste-Marie, France, to Puente la Reina, Spain. Technically, the first three days of my walk were on the Voie d’Arles, a route in France that runs from Arles to Somport, but for the sake of simplicity I’m including those three days when I say I walked the Camino Aragonés.
First, some basic info. The Camino Aragonés is a 160km route that begins on the border between France and Spain in the Pyrenees, and continues down through the Aragón region of Spain, crossing into Navarra where it joins with the Camino Francés just east of Puente la Reina. This distance is typically walked in 6 stages. If you begin in Somport- the beginning of the route- you are at an elevation of 1600m and the initial descent on the first day can give your knees a pounding. Some prefer to begin in Canfranc Estación or Jaca (end of the first stage and 32km from Somport), to avoid the initial descent (or because transport to Somport can add some extra steps). Others, like me, choose to begin walking a little further back, in France, where you have the chance to walk up and into the Pyrenees.
And this brings me to my first point on why the Camino Aragonés is the perfect Camino. The scenery! Even if you don’t choose to tack on a few extra days in France, you will still get to experience the Pyrenees mountains if you begin in Somport or even Canfranc Estación. I had one day of bad weather walking up to Somport, and one day of beautiful and clear weather walking down to Jaca, and each of the days were stunning. And I found both to be a very different experience to walking through the Pyrenees on the Camino Francés. The terrain isn’t so different- it’s the same mountain range, after all- and that makes it difficult to articulate why I found it different. I didn’t encounter a single other pilgrim or hiker on the day when I walked up to Somport, so maybe that was part of it; the mountains felt a little more wild and raw, the peaks higher, more jagged. It was just me, taking on the mountains, and that was exciting and adventurous in a different kind of way than I’d experienced on the Francés.
But then, very quickly, the landscape changes. All that saturated mountain green is replaced with colors more subdued, bleached and faded by the sun: dusty whites and deep golden yellows and soft browns with tinges of orange. The terrain evens out, flattens, and you can see a white road stretching and curving until it fades into the horizon. Fields of wheat, dotted with red poppies, wave in the wind.
This is similar landscape to what you see on the Camino Francés, and so for me, this is classic Camino. In fact, you might be thinking that what I’ve described so far is very similar to the Camino Francés, and you would be right! I think this is one reason why I’m calling the Aragonés a perfect Camino. Ever since I first walked the Camino Francés in 2014, I’ve been chasing after that elusive “Camino feeling” that I experienced on that route. Other Camino paths- the Norte, the Primitivo, the San Salvador, the Chemin du Puy- certainly were wonderful and unique in their own ways, but each felt very different than the Francés. I think I was searching for some particular combination of landscape and community and Camino magic, something that I felt on the Francés. It’s hard to articulate or define, I just know I felt it again on the Aragonés.
It was the landscape, but it was the community too. Sometimes other routes can feel too crowded or too isolated, but the Camino Aragonés felt just right. There was a sort of core group of about 10-15 of us, the numbers shifting a bit each day but mostly everyone walked the same stages. 15 pilgrims on any given stage is certainly not a lot, and unsurprisingly, I often didn’t see other pilgrims during the day’s walk. But in the afternoons, we’d all arrive at the same albergue, and so after only a few days you got to know everyone else. This is certainly the experience on other Caminos as well, but it was so easy and natural on the Aragonés. Because there weren’t so many albergues, it was difficult to walk different stages from the other pilgrims. And because there were only ever about 15 others walking the same stages as you, you got to know the group fairly quickly.
And for me this was perfect. I think the numbers can certainly fluctuate- in Arrés, the hospitalera told us that there had only been two pilgrims the night before!- and I suppose the time of year can influence the number of pilgrims walking, as well. So maybe I lucked out, though from reading through posts on the Camino forum, it seems that others tended to meet up with at least several pilgrims each night. But it’s this: the combination of quiet and solo walking during the day, with a known and comfortable little community in the evenings, that make a Camino so special to me. I worry that if I walked the Francés again, it would feel too crowded. Even the Norte, a route much less populated than the Francés, felt a little crowded when I walked it again this summer. So a combination of solo days and social nights on the Aragonés was just right.
There was an ease that developed among my Camino Aragonés cohort; for a few days we were walking through an intense heatwave, and everyone checked up on each other. We ran into each other during café con leche breaks. I gave some shampoo to the two young Spanish girls. I went grocery shopping with Micky, from Japan. One night, Javier cooked his famous tortilla for the whole group. In Sangüesa, we propped our cameras against an old stone wall and set the self-timer and gathered together for a photo. But there was a looseness, too, it wasn’t like we had purposefully picked each other to be part of a “Camino family”. We were just all walking the Aragonés at the same time. That was enough. That made us family.
The fact that the Aragonés isn’t a popular route may lend a little extra “Camino spirit” to the experience. Sometimes I wonder if, on more populated routes, there can be this sort of monotonous feeling, like it’s one more day and one more big group of pilgrims, and towns and villages are used to it, they absorb the pilgrims, it’s all sort of normal and automatic.
Maybe it’s like this on the Aragonés too, but it didn’t feel like it. It all felt special. Like the route was a secret, one that had been around for a long time, and those of us who walked were lucky to find ourselves on it. There was a sense in many of the villages that I was popping in to very local spaces. In one town, I’d arrived just at 9am, and was walking through the quiet streets looking for an open bar. I ran into a man who started asking me about my pilgrimage, and then he walked me to the bar and said that we were arriving just at opening time. He waited with me until it opened, then went in and had his usual: a café solo and a croissant. He drank his coffee at the bar while I sat at a table, but when he left he nodded and smiled and wished me a Buen Camino and it all made me feel- even though I was just passing through- that I was welcome there. Even, maybe, that I belonged there.
And then there are the albergues. There are just enough on this route that you never have to stay in a hotel or pension, and while there aren’t so many that you can stop whenever you feel like it, I think there are enough that you can walk reasonable distances. There are other Camino routes in Spain that I’m interested in walking- in particular the Invierno– but the lack of albergues on that route have made me hesitate. I’ve heard that it’s a wonderful Camino and I’m sure I’ll check it off my list at some point, but being able to stay in albergues has always been a huge draw of walking a Camino.
Some of the albergues on the Aragonés are really special. At the albergue in Santa Cilia, there were two clean and small bunk rooms: one for peregrinos, one for peregrinas. I was the only female pilgrim that night, and so I had the room to myself! In Arrés, the two hospitalerars were volunteering on a two-week stint, and they took us on a tour of the village before preparing a big dinner. We ate outside, crammed around two long tables: there was wine and water and juice for the kids, and a big green salad and pasta salad and soup and bread and melon for dessert. We toasted, one of the French pilgrims sang “Ultreïa!”. In Ruesta, the albergue is part of a crumbling, abandoned village; if there weren’t signs pointing the way, you might walk right by. There was a communal meal here, too. In Sangüesa, the albergue was simple and the kitchen was small, and while there was no organized communal meal, we made our own.
What else makes this a perfect Camino? After the descent to Jaca, the majority of which is during the first 7km on the first stage, the path mostly evens out and the walking isn’t very difficult. The way-marking is thorough and the only time I got a little confused was when I was walking in the dark at 5am (this was during the heatwave), and I had to wait for others to catch up with me to figure out where to go, because it was hard to find the arrows in the dark.
There are a couple of alternate route options that lead to incredible sights: the detour to the Monasterio de San Juan de la Pena, and the detour to Foz de Lumbier gorge. I’d intended to take the Foz de Lumbier variant but that was the morning I began walking at 5am, and I completely missed the turnoff. Other pilgrims who walked showed me their photos, and it looked stunning. But I did take the variant to the monasteries and it was probably my toughest day on the route- I went the long and difficult way, not paying close enough attention to notes I’d made from pilgrims who’d done this before. I plan to write more about this in a future post, outlining what I recommend and do not recommend in terms of getting to the monasteries. But in the end the effort was worth it: the old monastery is tucked away deep and high in the mountains, carved into a cliffside. You almost can’t believe it’s real.
And then, just before the Aragonés ends by joining up with the Francés before Puente La Reina, the path runs right by the fabulous Church of Santa Maria of Eunate. I’d been here before, back in 2014 when I walked the Francés, and that little detour was one of my favorite parts of the entire walk. I turned away from the other pilgrims, heading left into the fields of Navarra, and in a remote location with seemingly nothing else around, out of the fields rose the 12th century Romanesque church. Its octagonal design and free-standing cloister, along with its remote location, make this a truly unique sight. It had been closed the day I detoured there in 2014 (a Monday), but this year I passed by when it was open. This felt really special to me- not just seeing the church again, but walking the path that leads straight to it. When I first walked the Camino and detoured to Eunate, I’d been vaguely aware that I’d crossed onto another Camino route, but it was something I’d just pushed from my mind. Back then, the Camino Francés was the Camino, nothing else seemed to matter much.
But now, having walked all over northern Spain and through parts of France, I have a different perspective. Pilgrims walked to Santiago from all over Spain but from all over Europe, as well. The Francés is just the most popular route today; in the Middle Ages and over history, it was a different story. And by walking the Aragonés and stopping again at Eunate- where scallop shells have been discovered among the remains of what are believed to be pilgrims, lying beneath the church- I felt even more connected to the history of the Camino.
Finally, the Camino Aragonés ends in Puente La Reina, which is a wonderful town on the Camino Francés, with storks in their nests high in the church towers, and an iconic 11th century bridge. With daily buses to Pamplona and beyond, this is a convenient stopping point. Or, if you have more time, you could continue walking on the Francés, as some pilgrims do.
There’s so much more about the Camino Aragonés that I want to share, and I anticipate writing a round-up post of planning and walking tips, to help future pilgrims. But for now I’ll end by saying what I’ve said at least a dozen times: this felt like a nearly perfect Camino. I’m not sure why more people aren’t walking this Camino. Maybe, at just 6 stages, it feels too short (although by starting a few stages back in France, or continuing on the Francés past Puente La Reina, you could make this into a longer Camino). Maybe it’s because it doesn’t end in Santiago. Maybe it’s just that not enough people know about it, or are uncertain of what they’re about to walk into.
I hope that I can help spread the word about the Aragonés. Yet, even with an increased awareness, I don’t anticipate flocks of pilgrims suddenly descending and flooding the path. But I do hope more come to walk this way. The infrastructure is there, the beds are waiting to be filled, the locals are ready to greet you with a ‘Buen Camino’ and a great big smile.
Add this perfect Camino to your list. I’m so glad that I did.