So someone asked me what the differences were between the two routes I’ve walked. Now I won’t say one is better than the other or which I preferred. It would simply be an impossible exercise. Apples and oranges and all that, and the camino is so much more than walking a route and the landscape you encounter along the way. It is the people, the conversations, the jokes, blisters and much more.
The Primitivo is more physically demanding than the frances even though the latter is longer (350km vs. 775km) the reason for this is quite simple, the primitivo has a lot more climbs and descents to navigate which is a bit harder. Granted the first day on the frances (starting in St. Jean) is alot of UP and then DOWN again the same day, after that it is somewhat flat with some hills. Then you encounter the two other peaks Foncebadón (and a bit more to get to Cruz de Ferro) but this is after many days of flat terrain including the meseta. After this there is days before a small climb to Pradela and then on to O Cebreiro and after that it is flat all the way to Santagio de Compostela.
So while the distance you cover make it more a mental challenge, in the beginning, the knowledge that you now have embarked on an 800km trek across Spain and you might be uncertain how or if you can manage it in the time alotted. My walk on the Frances took me 34 days to complete, and after a while, this uncertainty just melts away, you still will occasionally question your sanity for undertaking the adventure that is the Camino Frances.
And though it is flat that is not to say it easy, it comes with blisters, pains and aches, etc.
The Primitivo however is shorter and having completed the frances last year I knew that the distance was not an issue, I had walked further and thus planned accordingly. I had also looked at the elevation map and tried to prepare myself for the challenge. The Primitivo has climbs and mountains every day, not all are mountains but there is a guarantee that there will more than one hill every day. The climb into A Fonsagrada is good example, first you walk up to Alto de Acebo which is 400 meter in elevation gain from Grandas de Salime, which in order to reach you descend (800 meter elevation loss) into a valley to walk up the other side which is 400 meter elevation gain. So when you reach the sign for A Fonsagrada you have the choice of trial or road, The trail is shorter in distance by 0.6km but with a steep incline that takes about 45 minutes to climb…
So while I still think that most people can walk the Primitivo, it is without a doubt more physically challenging and requires absolute ruthlessness in packing light. I was able to carry my 16kg backpack for the Primitivo, but I suspect that the weight of it is one of the reasons I contracted tendinitis in my knee. There might have been other contributing factors to, like jumping and what can be charitably be described as dancing for a brief period of time when Martin and I felt silly and needed to have some fun in order to give us some energy to keep going that day.
Climbing up will only result in sore and stiff muscles and sweat, descending down after a climb up however will impact your joints and put a strain on them that they might not let you get away with. Packing light will help alleviate this.
So in short, the Primitivo is more strenuous day by day, the Frances is less so but not devoid of physical challenges. Both are great adventures and will provide you with memories that you will keep with you for the rest of your life. There is really no wrong choice between the two.
A final warning; Do either, and you will soon find yourself doing the others… Frances, Primitivo, Via de Plata, Portuguese, Norte, Invierno, Aragones or just step out from your front door and walk from there as more than one person I’ve met has done.
A quote from Greg, which I met in Santiago at my Albergue.
Of all the people I met, none seemed to be on their first camino. Everyone seemed to be on their 2nd, 3rd or 15th
Do not this discourage you, though, people who have walked any Camino before and is walking it again will happily walk with you, perhaps also with slight envy wanting to have that experience of walking their first Camino again, but alway happy to share the walk with anyone.
Two done, more to go…. ¡Ultreia!