The overwhelming majority of people walk the Camino Frances. This is the route popularised in countless books and in a couple of recent movies. Beginning in the French town of St. Jean Pied de Port, the Camino Frances covers 800 km to Santiago through three distinct stages, each representing about a third of the distance. From France until Burgos the route is across gently rolling farmland. Then there is an abrupt change, as from Burgos to Astorga the way lies across a flat, straight, dry plain called the Meseta. Lastly, from Astorga onwards, the path climbs up and down over hills and through valleys where there is farmland and forest and many charming little towns. I think the Camino Frances is the most pleasant and varied and interesting of the routes, but its main problem is the abundance of people. This is not a problem most of the time as they are all going the same way, and although there is usually another pilgrim in sight of you, they are well spaced out along the track, meaning, that by speeding up a bit or slowing down a bit, you can have as much or as little company as you want. The problem arises in towns where the competition for beds and for space in the cafes can become intense. Paradoxically, the great benefit of the Camino Frances is the abundance of people. As the numbers of have increased over recent years, so have the facilities to cater to them. No matter how early you start walking or how late you stop you'll generally find an open shop of cafe on the Camino Frances.
The Northern Caminos, the Norte and the Primitivo, are quite different in character.
The Norte follows follows the Bay of Biscao through affluent coastal Spain where the villages have been gentrified and where there are housing developments all over the place. The beaches are beautiful but they are sometimes crowded and the prices charged are tourist prices, not pilgrim prices (both of which are higher than local prices by the way). The track often uses roads and formed footpaths, so much of the Norte is paved which can be a big problem unless you have very good boots. There are many more large towns on the Norte and although there are some very pretty little villages they are nowhere near as common as on the Frances. Because there are far fewer pilgrims, the facilities are not as developed. Most days you wont find a cafe open much before 11 am for instance, and the alberges are far fewer, although, as the Spanish government is trying to promote the Norte to take some pressure off the Frances, some are very new and very comfortable.
The Primitivo, which branches off the Norte, is sometimes rugged, and, as the name suggests, ancient. It follows a mountainous path from Oviedo through to Lugo, and is, in places, very beautiful. While there are comparatively very few pilgrims, the infrastructure is still very good.
In a little over a year we will return to Spain and walk the Camino one more time. I'd like to hope that this won't be the last time, but realistically there are limits placed on us by finances and by our ageing bodies. Possibly, in later life one of the short caminos - the Ingles at 125 km or the Potugues at 200 km - might be a possibility and both are comparatively flat and very scenic. Clemency is keen to walk the Camino Frances again, but I would like to take a route not familiar to me. The Via De La Plata or the Camino Mozarabe are options but both would involve about 1100 km of walking, much of which would be through the hot, arid heart of Spain, and Clemency is not keen. So our compromise solution might be to walk one of the French Caminos, probably starting in Le Puy-en-Velay and then following the Frances once we got to Spain. We have been told that this route through Central France is spectacularly beautiful, and that while there aren't as many dedicated pilgrim hostels there is abundant accommodation. And it's France, so there is nothing to complain about when it comes to food and wine. To avoid crowds and the summer heat we would want to be in Spain as early in April or as late in September as we could manage, but we'll see how the year turns out.
And if I was advising someone new to the Camino? The best first camino, in my opinion, for the completeness of the experience and the range of facilities available, would be the Camino Frances in early Spring or late autumn.