The Way of St. James - Northern and French Ways

There are plenty of great reasons to travel the Way of St. James when visiting Spain. However, the first decision that you’ll have to make concerns which route to take. There are two primary routes: the Northern Way and the French Way. In the past, the path that you took depended on where you were starting your journey. Today, the route that you choose will depend on what you’re the most anxious to see. Below, we’ll explore the highlights of each route so that you can make the most informed decision possible. You’ll see that each one brings many fine opportunities to the table.

The French Way

In the past, the vast majority of the pilgrims who traveled to Santiago de Compostela originated in France. As a result, the French Way - or the Via Regia - has been popularly used for several centuries. The journey traditionally begins in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, and ends at the final resting place of the apostle St. James at Santiago de Compostela. Below, some of the most important stops along the way are highlighted.

Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port

The name of this quaint French town roughly translates to mean “St. John at the foot of the pass.” It is a commune and is situated on the river Nive, approximately five miles from the Spanish border. Access to the Roncevaux Pass is easy here; that pass is the starting point of the journey across the Pyrenees. This small village boasts lovely cobblestone streets and is a pleasure to explore on foot.

Roncesvalles

After the arduous journey across the French Pyrenees, this small village offers welcome relief. Its humble church has long been a popular resting spot for pilgrims; to this day, blessings to travelers are given here.

Pamplona

If you time your trip properly, you could pass through Pamplona during the San Fermin Festival at the beginning of July. This, of course, is when the world-famous Running of the Bulls occurs. The town’s Gothic cathedral is another highlight.

Burgos

This small town was founded in 884 and boasts many ancient convents, monasteries and churches.

Leon

As the last major city before reentering mountainous terrain, Leon is another great place to rest up.

The Northern Way

Considered by many to be a more scenic option than the French Way, the Northern Way was originally used by pilgrims to avoid Muslim-occupied lands to the south. It follows the northern coastline of Spain, offering dramatic views of the sea. However, it also involves more arduous hiking. An overview of the main towns and cities that you’ll pass through is outlined below.

Irun, France

This is where the journey traditionally begins. Be sure to check out the Junkaleko Andre Maria church.

San Sebastian

Lovely beaches abound in this gorgeous city. In addition to exploring its many architectural delights, then, you can enjoy a bit of a beach holiday while here.

Guernica

Heavy bombing during the Spanish civil war destroyed a lot of this town’s old attractions. However, several others survived and are well worth exploring. The city is easy to explore on foot.

Bilbao

This major seaport has a population of more than 300,000 people, making it the most populated place that you’ll visit along your journey to Santiago de Compostela.

Oviedo

Be sure to roam around the old part of this city, Casco Antiguo, to take in some truly remarkable sights; several well-preserved palaces can be found in this district.

At Arzua, the Northern Way merges with the French Way. From there, it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to Santiago de Compostela. Whichever route you take, you are sure to marvel at the many amazing sights that you will encounter - and you will never forget this iconic journey.

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