The answer for a lot of people is Sarria or St. Jean but I’ll come back to that shortly!
The idea of writing a blog had been on the radar for quite some time, so the idea of asking “Where do I begin?” had a very different connotation at the start. Doing a bit of research only served to confuse; the first “expert” said “short and snappy, the second expert said “substantial”. So I’ll just motor away and see where it all ends up.
Expect a new post about once a month, unless someone is out and about on the Camino, in which case they might be a bit more regular (the blog posts that is, the pilgrims can account for themselves). If somebody reads these and enjoys them, great – on the other hand, if it’s only an echo chamber, then that’s just as great. But if anybody ever wants to write a guest article, then better still!
I want to walk on the Camino – where do I begin?
If you’re thinking of your first venture to Caminoland, your first step is always to find someone to fire a load of questions at. In one sense, there are two types of people who walk the Camino; those who sort out all their own arrangements and those who ask somebody to do that for them. Personally, I’d consider myself to be one of the former but I try to earn a living from the latter!
The latter is where somebody like Camino Groups comes in – just ring or email no matter how clueless you might think you are. By the time you’re finished, at least you’ll have a better grasp of what might or might not work for you. At that point, if we can help you with your booking, then fantastic, but if you decide to do your own thing, Buen Camino to you too….
Where (physically) do I begin?
Ok, some Camino figures for you…
In 2019, 347,578 people got their Camino cert in the pilgrim office upon reaching Santiago, a record. What the stats don’t or can’t record is the number of people who walked on the Camino that did NOT get a cert – maybe they didn’t finish in Santiago, maybe they weren’t interested in getting a cert etc. I once read about research done on this and it was estimated that a multiple of 3-4 times that number might be walking on some part of the Camino each year. So let’s say a million people and keep the change.
Amongst all the stats, the pilgrim office keeps a record of where people started their trip – you enter this around the front cover of your pilgrim passport.
Staying with 2019, almost 28% of all pilgrims arriving in Santiago began their journey in Sarria. Sarria is the first town on the Camino Francés route that is more than 100km from Santiago, 100km being the minimum walking distance required to obtain your cert.
Sarria itself is 115km from Santiago, but the pilgrim office will accept Ferreiros as fulfilling the 100km requirement. Ferreiros is only a tiny hamlet though, that’s why Sarria is such a popular starting point.
For school tours, Sarria or Ferreiros is an obvious starting point because they are limited as to how many days they can spend away from school. I’ve yet to find a teacher willing to escort a group of students for 30+ days across the Camino!
In 2nd spot is Porto with a little over 12% of people beginning there – from Porto you have the option of walking the Camino Portugués along the coast (Senda Litoral or Coastal routes) or walking inland along the Central route. The Central route will eventually pass through Valença and Tui, where 9.5% of walkers began. When put together, that gives it 3rd spot!
Saint Jean Pied de Port
For long-haul starting points, Saint Jean Pied de Port in number one (about 9.5% of total numbers as well). Go back to the blog title – where do I begin? – and many will tell you that St Jean is the answer, that St Jean is the beginning of the Camino Francés. The truth is that there is no such thing as a starting point.
The Camino is a network of paths that have a common end point (Santiago) but you can start from anywhere! I sometimes wonder about what I would do if I retired – walking from Clare to Santiago would certainly be an interesting challenge!
St Jean is a gem – it’s one of those little towns that you could while away a couple of days, lots of coffee (or stronger), good food, just watching the world go about its business.
Mostly from April to October (the mountain pass is declared off-limits other than that, though you can still take the Valcarlos route from St Jean), there is a daily influx of pilgrims into St Jean.
It’s an international mix too – it’s definitively perceived as being the ‘starting point’ in the international community. Funnily enough, because St Jean is in France, many Spaniards would actually begin somewhere in their own country – you pass the border between France and Spain on your 1st day’s walk out of St Jean.
I don’t know why though!
It reminds me a lot of the success of Doolin in Clare as a tourist destination. Somewhere along the line, Doolin got itself a reputation as being a good spot to go to for trad music and craic. Now so many people go to Doolin that there will be a positive vibe about the place just because of those people – it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s Tourism 101 – the template for anywhere that wants to draw tourists in the future!
St Jean is similar – I still have a vivid memory of coming off the train there in 2010 and getting the sense that I was about to start something that was bigger than the world I thought I inhabited. Within a couple of days, you have started to open up to others as the faces become familiar, a week later you’d nearly think that you had known these people long before you set foot in St Jean!
St Jean is also well-connected from a transport point of view. If travelling from Ireland, you can fly to Biarritz (Ryanair, from Dublin) and get a bus, train or private transfer to St Jean. Pilgrims travelling from further afield can fly into Paris and train it down to Biarritz/Bayonne from Paris.
Crossing the border into Spain on Day 1 is a selling point too, there’s something exotic about it! But most of all, I think it’s that stunning first day’s walk through the Pyrenees with incredible scenery all around you. Even the sheer difficulty of that day’s walk heightens the sense of achievement when you stroll/roll/fall/ collapse into Roncesvalles.
Which or whether, St Jean is a gem – and it’s my chosen, though flawed, answer to the original question!
P.S. Covid permitting, I’m dreaming of setting off from St Jean again this coming September/October (if not, maybe May 2022). Just me and my rucksack for a few weeks, knowing that I’ll make new friends along the way. If you ever thought you’d like to put life on hold for 5 weeks and have the experience of a lifetime, be sure to let me know!