The Via de la Plata and the Camino Francais


  Via de la Plata Camino Francais
Solitude Clearly the winner. I've walked whole days in April and May when I saw only one or two pilgrims once I left town. The VdlP has about 10% the number of pilgrims compared to the Camino Francais. You can easily walk alone, but you will pass or be passed by many pilgrims during the day. If the VdlP can be described as like a monastery, then the Camino Francais is a circus with three rings and different things happening all the time.
Rustic You walk often through poor farming towns that depend more on agriculture than the pilgrims who walk through. When I got to the Camino Francais I noticed that I was no longer smelling animal or human waste most of the time. The towns on the Camino Francais are manicured compared to the VdlP. If you want quaint, well cared for and beautiful, the Camino Francais is for you. If you want honest and rustic, go on the VdlP.
Infrastructure On many stages there are few if any cafes, albergues, water fountains and other infrastructure between the start and end points. You often need to pack a full day of supplies when you leave in the morning. When you get to the town at the end of the day, there may be only one albergue and a couple of cafes or restaurants to choose from. You have desayuno at the albergue before you leave at 7:30 am. You have second breakfast at a cafe at 9:00 am and, if you don't feel pressured, third breakfast at another cafe at 11:00 am. When you walk into a town at the end of the day there are multiple albergues to choose from, as are the cafes and restaurants. They may be full, but you have choices.
Quality of Albergues Some are spectacular (Zamora and Embalse de Alcántara come readily to mind) and some are "meager". You take what you get and get used to it. Most albergues are far superior to what you find on the VdlP. I felt spoiled many times on the Camino Francais. Towels, clean sheets, blankets, heat?!
First Timers If this is your fist Camino, be prepared for some rough times for the first two weeks. Most of the pilgrims have already walked the Camino Francais, know what they are doing and see the VdlP more as a hike than a pilgrimage. They set a high standard and it took me awhile before I felt comfortable around them. And there are not a lot of other newbies around for consolation. But after the first few weeks, I had learned and experienced far more than I would have on the Camino Francais. It was tough, but it was worth it. Clearly the best place to start for a new comer. The only problem is the crowds. If you can deal with them, then you will do fine.
History The VdlP goes along the old roman road that runs north/south through Spain. The road is rich in history with many ruins, miliarios (Roman mile markers) and old worn stones from the original road. Hannibal likely used the road when he invaded Italy. The Camino Francais is the primary route on the El Camino and has been in use for over 1,500 years. Millions of pilgrims have walked the route. You can still see the cathedrals, hospitals, hostels and forts that were built in part to house, feed and protect pilgrims over the ages.
Distance On average, I walked the same distance each day on the VdlP and the Camino Francais. However, on the VdlP, you sometimes have no option as to how far you will walk that day, there is only one albergue within a reasonable walking distance. Overall the VdlP is about 200 kilometers longer than the Camino Francais (if you start in St. Jean) On the Camino Francais there is more infrastructure and more opportunities to walk longer or shorter distances on any given day.
Overall I loved both routes. I needed the VdlP for its solitude and the challenging experience. Once I had learned how to be a pilgrim, I needed the Camino Francais with far more people with which to interact, a greater history and culture, and better infrastructure. By walking from Sevilla to Astorga and then on to Santiago, I got the best of both worlds.