I can’t remember when I first heard of the Camino Aragonés, or when it became a walk that I added to my “list”, or even when it moved to priority status. I just know that at some point, somewhere, I must have read more about it and thought, “Huh. Sounds like a pretty good Camino.”
I’ve already written about why I found the Aragonés to be a nearly perfect Camino, and if you haven’t already read that post, I think it makes a good companion piece to this one, especially if you’re considering planning a walk. But for now I’ll say that yes, indeed, it was a pretty good Camino.
This Camino Aragonés guide post will attempt to delve into some of the more practical considerations, and I hope it will give you a sense of what the walk is like, useful tips, and some inspiration to add it to your list. (Otherwise, sit back and enjoy more photos!)
First of all, the basics
I love taking a good alternate route, and it turns out that the Camino Aragonés (or, the Aragonese Way) can be considered one long alternate to the beginning of the Camino Francés. Rather than starting in St Jean Pied de Port and crossing the Pyrenees into Spain by ending in Roncesvalles (as you would on the Camino Francés), the Aragonés begins at the pass in Somport- which sits on the border of France and Spain- and continues for 170km until it rejoins the Frances at Puente La Reina.
But this is a route that has a long history, a route that was popular in the Middle Ages and served pilgrims who were walking the Via Tolosana (the Arles Route), which begins in Arles and continues to Somport (and the Via Tolosana was one of the four major pilgrimage routes cited in the Codez Calixtinus, a sort of first “guidebook” to the Camino written in the 12th century).
The Aragonés, beginning in Somport (border between France and Spain) and ending in Puente La Reina (Spain) is typically divided into 6 stages (more on that below). It is possible to extend this Camino by beginning in France somewhere on the Arles route, or continuing on the Camino Francés once you reach Puenta La Reina.
Why would someone choose to walk this route, rather than begin where everyone else does, in St Jean Pied de Port?
This is a great question. The Camino Francés is typically the first Camino for most pilgrims, and for those who choose to cross the Pyrenees, they do so by starting in St Jean. I did this too, when I first walked in 2014. At the time, while I vaguely knew that there were other Camino routes, I had no idea that there was an alternate Pyrenees crossing that would eventually lead me back to the Francés.
So I think for most pilgrims who find their way to the Aragonés, it is not their first Camino. It is often a pilgrim who has already walked the Francés and is coming back for more- and has maybe returned to the Camino a second, or third, or fourth time- who discovers the Aragonés and decides to see what it is all about.
On the other hand, during my walk on the Aragonés this summer, I met pilgrims who were embarking on their first Camino. One had chosen the Aragonés because he’d studied Spanish history and wanted to walk through Jaca (a city along the route). Another because she’d heard that the Camino Francés could be very crowded, so preferred to have a quiet experience to start.
I think the Aragonés could be a great option in either case: whether you’re returning for a second, or third, of fourth (or more!) Camino, or if you’re walking your very first. For a first Camino it may take some additional planning, and beginning in Somport won’t give you the same sort of Camino fanfare as beginning St Jean would, but it would make for a special and very unique experience.
In a nutshell, what is so great about this route?
You can refer to my last post, where I go into more detail of why I loved the Camino Aragonés. But to sum it up: the scenery is varied and beautiful. The route is quiet but you probably won’t be totally alone, and you’ll build a nice pilgrim community with others on the path. There are well-spaced albergues that provide just enough infrastructure to make you feel like you’re truly on a Camino (unless you want to make shorter stages, there is no need to stay in hotels or pensions. Although you certainly could opt to stay in other lodging!). Locals aren’t used to seeing crowds of pilgrims, so you’ll experience kindness and openness and maybe even some curiosity.
What is the way marking like, am I going to get lost?
I thought the waymarking was very, very good on this route. If you begin in France you’ll want to follow the white and red stripes of the GR-653, and in Spain there are the traditional yellow arrows and scallop shells (though you may also continue to see the white and red stripe markings).
Overall the signs and arrows are plentiful, and I honestly can’t remember a time when I got confused. Well, aside from when I walked for an hour in the dark (due to a heatwave), but that’s no fault of whoever painted the arrows along that section of the path. They were there, I just couldn’t find them with my flashlight.
And speaking of finding your way, is there a guide to this Camino?
That’s another good question. I didn’t use a guide for my walk, and instead just referred to the Gronze stages (a Spanish website that gives information for various Camino routes, including basic maps of each stage, an elevation profile, and albergue information, as well as where to find food and other services). I thought that the Gronze stages- even without knowing Spanish- were sufficient, and along with some prior browsing and note-taking on the Camino forum, I never needed a guidebook.
However, there are a few guidebook options out there. I can’t speak to either of them, but I’d imagine they’d only give you more information than what you’ll find online. The first, The Confraternity of St James’ guide, Arles to Puente La Reina, is in English. You’ll want Part 2, which is ‘Toulouse to Puente La Reina‘ (this will include the Aragonés). There is also the Miam Miam Dodo guide (in French), which includes the Aragonés. I used a Miam Miam Dodo when I walked the Chemin du Puy and while I can somewhat understand French, I found that you don’t really need a grasp of the language to get what you need from the guide. The maps are easy to read, and icons will show you where there are albergues and restaurants/bars.
I keep hearing mention of the Pyrenees; how difficult is this route?
If you begin in Somport- also referred to as the Col du Somport or the Canfranc Pass, and sits at an elevation of 1632m- the most difficult part of the entire route will probably be the walk down to Canfranc Estación. The path drops over 400 meters in about 7km, and some parts can feel steep and may be tough on the knees. I didn’t think it was particularly challenging, and just went real slow at times (then again, climbing hills has always been more difficult for me than descending them), but if this descent is a concern you would always have the option to begin the pilgrimage in Canfranc Estación, or Jaca. Otherwise, the path of the Aragonés is often flat, or else has you climbing relatively small hills- not unlike anything you would find on the Camino Francés.
If you begin back in France, and decide to walk up to Somport, then be advised that you will be ascending quite a bit on the final stage from Borce to Somport (the final 6km of the 17km stage have you ascending approximately 600 meters, and the total elevation gain for the stage is nearly 1000 meters). This basically means that you’ll be climbing, and climbing through the Pyrenees. I was pretty intimidated heading into the day’s walk: I’d been alone in the albergue (gîte) in Borce, didn’t pass another pilgrim for the entire day, and walked mostly in the rain with sometimes poor visibility. Aside from snow, those were probably the least ideal conditions, and yet, despite all of that, it wasn’t as bad as I feared. It helped that 17km isn’t a huge distance, so I had plenty of time. There was one point when I was only a few kilometers from Somport (and high in the mountains) when I worried a bit because I hadn’t seen a way marker in awhile, but as soon as I started to worry I found one. The rain wasn’t fun, but then again it never is, and I can only imagine how wonderful that stage would be in clear conditions.
And the bonus of the day was finding some Camino magic: someone had set up a little pilgrim rest area under some pine trees by their home. There were tree stumps to sit on, a tin with biscuits and tea bags, a stack of mugs, and a thermos with hot water. I had what might have been the best cup of tea in my life, huddled there under the dripping trees, chilled from the rain, all alone in the middle of a long climb. The tea warmed me up, the notebook where I signed my name reminded me that I wasn’t totally alone.
What time of year should I walk?
I’d say spring, summer or fall; winter will likely have snow up at the pass and what I can imagine would be dangerous conditions down to Jaca. I’d also be careful in late fall and early spring, where there would also be a chance of walking through snow.
Are there any special sights along this Camino?
Yes!! Here are what I consider the ‘Big 5’:
1. Canfranc Estación. 7km into the Aragonés you will enter Canfranc village, where it is hard to miss the ruins of an enormous old railway station. It’s been abandoned since 1970 but recently there has been renovation work and a plan to restore the building to its former glory (and, I believe, restore the railway line). It was officially opened in 1928 and serviced the Pau-Canfranc line, which crossed under the Pyrenees, and had quite an interesting history during World War II. I believe it’s possible to take tours of the station, though I’ve read that they need to be booked online and in advance, and that the tours will only be in Spanish (and possibly French). I didn’t take a tour, and it seemed like the station was only accessible if you had that magic tour ticket, but it was still such an impressive sight.
2. Detour to Monasterio de San Juan de la Peña (Saint John of the Cliff). There are two monasteries here: old (10th century) and new (17th century), and while the new monastery is worth a visit, it’s the old one that’s the real reason to detour from the Camino. The incredible building is camouflaged against the cliffside, some rooms carved directly into the stone. There’s an impressive Romanesque cloister and even a legend that the Holy Grail was sent here for protection!
A note on getting here: Don’t do what I did. This was the thought continuously running through my head as I climbed a series of mountains on narrow, steep, extremely rocky trails. It took me a long time to reach the monasteries after some pretty challenging hiking, and once I did, I was told that the old monastery would be closed between 2:00 and 3:00 (I arrived at 1:40, and I still had a 1/2 mile walk to reach the old monastery). I had still had a fair amount of walking to to do after I finally toured both monasteries (in order to reach Santa Cilia), and overall it was a long day. Worth it, but long. There’s a detour that’s listed in Gronze’s stage that I followed, and there’s a sign along the path of the Camino that points out the detour 5.2km from Jaca. DO NOT FOLLOW THIS UNLESS YOU WANT SOME LONG AND STRENUOUS HIKING, UP AND DOWN AND UP AND DOWN THE MOUNTAINS. I walked 36km and some of that was very slow going. Instead, there are a few other options.
-After leaving Jaca, you can continue along the Camino (past the sign for the turnoff to the monasteries) to a turnoff on the left about 10km in, just before the Hotel Aragon. From here it’s about 6km to Santa Cruz de la Seros, which is a beautiful little village. I’m not sure what this path is like and I suspect it may be a bit challenging, but it’s got to be better than the 12.5km of mountains that I went through. There’s no albergue here (oh, if only!) and the only accommodation was a hotel- Hosteleria Santa Cruz de la Seros- that was a little too expensive for me (45 euros in high season for an individual in a double room. It’s still quite reasonable but when compared with the 10 euros or less I was paying for the albergues, it becomes a significant difference. However, I heard it’s great). But if you want to splurge this would be a great place to stay: you can drop off your bags at the hostal and then continue up to the monasteries, the old monastery is 3.5km up a rather steep path (or you could follow the road for 7km; because of the difficulty of the path the time distance is roughly the same). Tour the monasteries and then return back down the path or by road to Santa Cruz. It would be a long day, but I think a bit easier than what I attempted.
-The other option is what the hospitalero in my albergue in Jaca told me to do, but I didn’t listen to him. And that would be to stay in Jaca for an extra night and take a bus (or taxi) to the monasteries and then back down to Jaca. I suppose you could take the bus up to the monasteries and then just walk the rest of the way down to either Santa Cruz or further to Santa Cilia too. The albergue in Jaca had information and time tables for the bus, as well as the tourism office.
This all sounds really complicated and I tried to think of an easy way to explain it, but it’s tough. There’s simply not an easy way to walk to the monasteries AND to stay at an albergue, unless you want a very long day (I didn’t arrive to the albergue in Santa Cilia until 7pm, which is very late for the Camino). But it’s an incredible place and despite the effort it took for me to walk there, it was kind of magical to arrive on foot.
3. Detour to the Foz de Lumbier gorge. This is a detour that’s just a few kilometers after leaving Sangüesa (2.4 km into the walk, you’ll want to bear right off the path of the Camino. If you’ve reached Rocaforte, you’ve gone too far). I intended to take this detour but because of a heatwave had left early and was walking in the dark, and completely missed the detour. But I’ve heard that this is a beautiful part of the Camino, taking you to a narrow gorge that’s cut by the river Irati, and the footpath leads you between steep rock outcrops and through a tunnel where a headlamp or flashlight could come in handy.
4. Church of Santa Maria de Eunate. I wrote about this in my last post, but the 12th century Romanesque church with a unique octagonal plan is not to be missed! (It’s right on the path of the Aragones, and a 4km detour from the Frances).
5. Puente La Reina bridge. In the 11th century, Queen Doña Mayor (wife of King Sancho the Great) had this bridge built in order to help pilgrims cross the River Arga on their way to Santiago. (Puente la Reina means ‘Bridge of the Queen’). 1000 years later the bridge is still being used, and is one of the iconic images of the Camino.
Any advice on how to get to the start of the Aragonés?
Travel to the Somport pass isn’t simple, but it’s certainly not impossible. If traveling through Paris, your best option is to take a train down to Pau, and then transfer to another train to Oloron Ste-Marie, then a bus to Somport. (Or, if you have the time, I’d recommend starting the walk in Oloron; it’s three days up through the Pyrenees to Somport, a really beautiful walk! You can even begin walking in Pau if you have more time).
Coming from Barcelona, you’ll take a bus or train to Zaragoza, then a bus (from the same station) to Jaca, and from here another bus or taxi to Somport.
These are some links to bus and trains that may help you plan your journey:
ALSA (Spanish bus company)
Renfe (Spanish train)
TER (French regional rail)
Typical Stages for the Aragonés:
This walk is usually completed in 6-days, though pilgrims who detour to the monasteries of San Juan de la Peña will likely add an extra day. If you want to walk shorter distances (for instance, the first stage from Somport to Jaca is 32km!) it is often possible to find additional albergues, hotels or pensions. *Note, some of the albergues between the typical stages aren’t exclusively for pilgrims, but you will often find other pilgrims staying there.
Day 1: Somport to Jaca, 32km.
Day 2: Jaca to Arrés, 25.4km
Day 3: Arrés to Ruesta, 28.4km
Day 4: Ruesta to Sangüesa, 22km
Day 5: Sangüesa to Monreal, 27.2km
Day 6: Monreal to Puente La Reina, 30.6km
Below are my stages, including where I stayed. The first three stages were on the Voie d’Arles, and beginning in Somport I crossed to the Camino Aragonés. My detour to the monasteries of San Juan de la Peña added a day to my itinerary, so with 3-days on the Arles route and 7 on the Aragonés, I walked for 10-days total.
Day 1: Oloron Ste-Marie to Sarrance, 20.6km
Accueil Pèlerins Le Relais du Bastet (*where I stayed in Oloron… very good)
Accueil Pèlerin Communauté des Prémontrés (*where I stayed in Sarrance… must-stay!)
Day 2: Sarrance to Borce, 22km
Gîte communal de Borce
Day 3: Borce to Somport, 17km
Day 4: Somport to Jaca, 32km
Albergue de peregrinos de Jaca
Day 5: Jaca to Santa Cilia, 36km (with detour to monasteries)
Albergue de peregrinos de Santa Cilia (*very good albergue)
Day 6: Santa Cilia to Arrés, 10.2km
Albergue de peregrinos de Arrés (*this is a must-stay albergue!)
Day 7: Arrés to Ruesta, 28.4km
Albergue de Ruesta. (*very good albergue)
Day 8: Ruesta to Sangüesa, 22km
Albergue de peregrinos de Sangüesa
Day 9: Sangüesa to Monreal, 27.2km
Albergue de peregrinos de Monreal
Day 10: Monreal to Puente La Reina, 30.6km
Albergue de los Padres Reparadores
What is your packing list like?
I brought the same things on this Camino that I have on my others, and you can find my pretty comprehensive packing list here. For this Camino I’d definitely recommend walking poles or a walking stick, particularly for the stretch between Somport and Jaca. A wide brimmed hat to protect your face and neck from the sun would also be helpful; much of the route was open and without tree-cover.
Tips for the Camino Aragonés:
-Be prepared for solo walking. If you’re looking for a Camino where you’ll meet a lot of people and always have someone to walk with, then this may not be the Camino for you. I nearly always walked alone during the day, and rarely saw other pilgrims. In the afternoons and evenings, however, I always met up with the same 10-15 pilgrims, staying in the same albergues. This lent a beautiful and small community feel to the Aragonés, but it will certainly not be the boisterous and sometimes party-like atmosphere that you can find on the Francés. It is possible that you may not encounter many pilgrims in the evenings, either, so be prepared for a quiet Camino.
-I’d recommend loading your phone with a local SIM card, if you’re traveling from the States or a country outside of the EU. There isn’t always wi-fi in all of the albergues, and because there were days when I didn’t encounter another pilgrim on my walk, I felt secure in having a working phone on me. I never needed to use the phone to call the albergues when I arrived (which I’d been worried about), though I think the first pilgrim who arrived in Sangüesa needed to call a number on the door to notify the hospitalera that we were there. I don’t think a SIM card is necessary, but I was glad to have one. Especially because I was able to help a fellow pilgrim when she dropped and broke her phone; she was able to use mine to communicate with her parents and figure out some transportation options (this was at the monastery in Sarrance, where the monk in charge didn’t have a smartphone).
This link takes you to a thread on the Camino forum that has good advice about setting up a SIM in Spain. The Orange Holiday SIM (which I’ve bought at Charles de Gaulle in Paris) has always worked well for me.
-On the stage from Arrés to Ruesta (28.4km), the only services available are in Artieda. If you’re not sleeping in Artieda and walking all the way to Ruesta, there’s a shortcut that avoids the climb up the hill to Artieda. You might be tempted to take this- and certainly could (because that hill looks big!)- but this will be your only stop for food and it might be the only fountain on the day’s stage as well. I’d recommend walking up there, filling up your water, and finding the Casa Rural that has also has a restaurant/bar. I had one of the best sandwiches of my Camino there.
-If you stay at the albergue in Arrés, you’ll probably get a village tour from the hospitalero/as. Take them up on this offer, and if they don’t mention the best spot in the village to view the sunset, ask them. And then go see the sunset. I had a mostly cloudy evening but still got such a peaceful and beautiful view.
I hope this little Camino Aragonés guide helped show you more of what the route is like, and that it could be useful to you in planning your own walk. Let me know in the comment section below if you have any questions, or email me at nadinewalksblog @ gmail.com. I’d be happy to tell you more about my experience! In the meantime, I’m going to be dreaming about when I might be able to return to walk the Aragonés again.