the Camino Francés ("French way") is the most famous pilgrim road through Spain: from the French-Spanish border between St-Jean and Roncesvalles to Santiago. (Distance: about 790 kilometers).
the Camino del Norte ("Northern (coastal) road") starts also at the border, but on the Atlantic coast, in Irun. In fact, it is not one road, but several ways: "Los Caminos del Norte", which in different places leave the north shore to connect to the Camino Francés, through the coastal mountains. In practice, "Camino del Norte" often refers to: the route from Irun, through Gijón, Ribadeo and Vilalba, to Santiago. Another route leaves the coast before Gijón and goes through the Camino Primitivo (through Oviedo and Lugo) to Santiago. Distance both routes: about 835 kilometers. (Other alternatives leave the north coast much earlier).
So far, every year more pilgrims set out on the Camino Francés. But keep in mind that in 2011 almost half (!) of them started in or after Ponferrada. (That is 200 kilometers before Santiago).
In recent years the number of pilgrims on the Camino del Norte has grown rapidly. Partly because people who previously “did” the Camino Francés want to take the road again and then choose, for example, the “Norte”. Partly because people who go on the pilgrimage for the first time prefer the “Norte” as an alternative to the "full" Camino Francés.
But when "suddenly" relatively many people opt for the alternative ... it gets busy there. Relatively busy, of course. Compared to the Camino Francés the “Norte” is still quiet. But where on the Camino Francés the infrastructure for years has kept pace with the growing number of pilgrims, that is much less the case on the “Norte”. So in 2010 we heard the first reports of a "full" Camino del Norte, or at least parts of it ... In those cases, pilgrims often had to resort to relatively expensive places to stay, because the north coast is very popular with tourists.
Our advice, especially if it is your first Camino: choose the Camino Francés, it is the classic pilgrim road through Spain and the atmosphere on the way is unique. You will find varied landscapes, a rich culture, a tight network of "albergues" (pilgrim’s hostels) and... the unmistakable consciousness that for more than 1,000 years millions of pilgrims have preceded you.
And for the last, busy 100 kilometers there are good alternatives: close this window and see > question 4.
If in Saint-Jean you decide to continue along the Camino del Norte, then you'll find some tips here > Saint-Jean – Camino del Norte (Distance: about 80 kilometers).