The Camino de Santiago (the Way of Saint James) is a pilgrimage in Southern Europe that begins in countries like France, Spain, Germany, England and Portugal and ends in Santiago de Compostella in Spain. There are many different routes that pilgrims take to walk the Camino, and some of these routes are over a thousand kilometres long and take many weeks to walk. It’s one of the oldest and most famous pilgrimages in Christianity, dating to about 813 AD, and meanders through some of the most culturally rich parts of Southern Europe. And apart from all the churches along the route, there are lots of pastries and cakes, espresso, beer and wine to enjoy (and the Portugués have a beer called Superbock that I am developing a spiritual relationship with that is growing by the day)
I only had two weeks to do the Camino, so decided on the Camino Portugués from Porto in Portugal to Santiago de Compostella in Spain (a distance of about 240 KMS over 14 days). Anyone can do the Camino for whatever reason, you don’t have to be Christian, you can be a tourist, a health conscious person, or just curious like me (but do remember, this is a Christian pilgrimage). And if you are wondering what a pilgrimage is, I found this excellent definition in a book of maps of Camino Portugués by John Brierley.
All of us travel two paths simultaneously; the outer path along which we haul our body and the inner pathway of the soul. We need to be mindful of both and take the time to prepare ourselves accordingly. The traditional way of the pilgrim is to travel alone, on foot, carrying all the material possessions we might need for the journey ahead. This provides the first lesson from the pilgrim – to leave behind all that is superfluous and to travel with only the barest necessities. Preparation for the inner path is similar – we start by letting go of psychic waste accumulated over the years such as resentments, prejudices, and outmoded belief systems. With an open mind and open heart, we will more readily assimilate the lessons to be found along the ancient Path of Enquiry.
Day one: Porto
I started the Camino Portugués in Porto, which is the most attractive place to start this particular route, but some pilgrims also begin in Lisbon (but I am told that there is a lot of walking on roads from Lisbon to Porto). Porto is one of my favourite cities in Europe, built in a river valley with a old town centre of cobblestone alleyways and beautiful mosaic-decorated houses and public buildings, including the main train station (and I have a long, black Porto cape, similar to what the students wear, that I don on special occasions).
The first day of the Camino from Porto is pretty dull as it takes almost the entire day to get out of the city through the endless suburbs. It is best to get the Metro to Vilarinho and start the walking from there (but I didn’t know this at the time, and I wish that I had spent one more night in Porto at the Tattva Hostel instead as it is one of the best hostels I have ever stayed. Hostels have come a very long way, and Portugal has some of the best ones).
After the endless walk out of Porto, and feeling a bit grim, I came across this big spooky monastery where I spent the first night. Pilgrims stay in places like this that are called Albergues and they are very affordable at only 5-6 Euros a night. Only one other person was staying at the monastery, an older Spanish man who spoke no English (and I have no Spanish nor Portugués language skills). And almost no one speaks English in this part of the world, so I reluctantly prepared for the inner journey of the Camino!
Day three: Barcelos
The Camino got a lot more interesting after Mosterio de Vairao as the path wasn’t all ashfelt, suburban streets. The Camino trail is clearly marked with neat little yellow arrows that are painted on rocks, fences, houses, signs, and almost any inanimate object. In Spain yellow shells are used as well; the symbol of the Camino.
Day four: Lugar de Corgo (Casa de Fernanda)
The Camino today followed some original Roman roads that wound through many old school villages and wineries (and notably, the population is likewise, pretty old in this part of the world). I stayed in a private alberque for the night which was a homestay run by a friendly lady called Fernanda who cooked fish and potatoes for dinner and provided some great Portugués port and conversion. This was excellent for my “inner Camino” because I hadn’t talked to anyone in four days, only pointed at pastries and bottles of Superbock in cafés.
This is an idyllic Portuguese town, built around a town square and a stone bridge. I got to Ponte de Lima in the early afternoon so had plenty of time for cakes and beer. All the town squares in Portugal have free Wi-Fi, so it is possible to check the dating apps to see what all the Christians are up too.
I stayed in a wonderful private Alberque this night called Quinta Estrada Romano, which was new and only had one other guest. In the private Alberque ‘s, dinner and breakfast are usually supplied, and they are much better than the Association Alberque ‘s which tend to be a bit stern (and have 10 PM curfews and no Superbock). Still, the Camino is all about walking and this day I walked 33 KMS. The physical walking isn’t that difficult, but geeze, I am doing some hard, lonely soul work).
Day seven: Valenca (Portugal) Tui (Spain)
Today I only walked about 10 KMS because I stumbled across two of the most beautiful towns so far on the journey, Valanca in Portugal and Tui in Spain (that are close to each other, separated by a river and a national border). Valenca’s old town is within a fabulous fort, entered through long tunnels in the fort’s wall. And Tui is built on a hill around a cathedral and square.
Tui was having a festival this day, so I sat in the town square and drank some Superbock, watched a paramilitary/religious parade, and saw a lot of Spanish dancing (the Spanish seem as though they want to break out and dance at any moment). I ate a hamburger because it was the only thing on the menu I could recognise, and it turned out to be a foot in diameter. I will be the only person in the entire history of the Camino to put on weight!
Day eight: Mos
Today I woke at 5 AM because, for whatever reason, the psychopathic Alberque in Tui turns the lights on at this ungodly time. Thus, I didn’t get a lot of sleep, but at 5 Euros a night, who am I to complain. I started to walk at 8 AM and forgot to go to a cafe for breakfast and couldn’t find one for a grumpy two hours. I had croissants and espresso, then continued my journey. Spain is a lot different to Portugal, there are a lot more people, and it has industrialised in an uglier way (I suppose we call this richer in the Modern world). At least, this is the bit I saw today as there were a lot of industrial and commercial estates to walk through. After walking a respectable twenty KMS, I arrived at the alberque in Mos at 2 PM and thankfully, there were no other annoying pilgrims there. This was good as it gave me the space to read and write, some of the best aspects of traveling (and I am just beginning to like my company).
Today I walked for about twenty-five KMS, which is not as far as it seems, or, at least, it is not as far as I thought it was going to be at the beginning of the journey. You get used to walking this distance pretty quickly, and I usually finish my days walking by 1 or 2 PM. But this depends on how many cafés and bars I stop at along the way and what time I have lunch (which is usually 2 or 3 in this part of Spain). A tip for the Camino is not to start drinking too early!
I stayed at a fabulous private albergue called Lar De Pepa, with the first bunch of pilgrims that I liked! The albergues remind me of backpacking in the 1990s, lots of traveler camaraderie and authentic travelers (or in this case pilgrims). A bunch of us went to a local bar and watched a Champions League football match in the evening.
Day Ten: Pontevedra
It rained today, so I didn’t walk that far. I walked to Pontevedra, which was only 12 KMS away. The track wove through some lovely forests, full of lots of eucalyptus trees, not sure how they got here, some Australian pilgrims long ago perhaps. Plus there were few hills, but the hills are never more than a few hundred meters high, so they are very easy to traverse.
Day Eleven: Alberque Briallos/ Portas
Today was a pretty uneventful day because it rained! So I didn’t end up walking very far (but it was fun walking in the rain). I ended up in a large, deserted, municipal albergue and rang a number on the front door and the caretaker told me where to find the key to open it up. So I had the whole place to myself which was pretty good after spending the previous night in a 60+ pilgrim dorm (walking through Pontevedra first thing in the morning was the best thing with all its cafes, always the cafés!)
Day Twelve: Caldas de Reis
Today it rained for most of the day (again), so I only walked about 10 KMS to the next town, Caldas de Reis. And what a beautiful town that is was, with lots of cafés, a couple of free municipal hot baths, a botanical garden, and endless espresso. The Alberque was next to a stone bridge and bubbling creek and comfortable (and again, at a bargain-pilgrim price at only 6 Euros a night). It is fantastic that a sophisticated network of albergues exist all over southern Europe so pilgrims can walk all the way to Santiago. And I am only about forty KMS away now, and could walk this in one day, but I am ahead of schedule and am enjoying the slow pace (and for the record the Camino Portugués is physically accessible, and anyone with a reasonable level of fitness could do it, possibly in a few days, but then again, it isn’t a physical endurance test, it’s a soul test!).
Day Thirteen: Pedron
Today I woke early after not getting much sleep in the Alberque because it was full of snoring, geriatric, pilgrims. And remember if you do the Camino, you don’t have to stay at the albergues, there are plenty of other options, but hey, I’m on a budget!
And the morning walk was spectacular. It was Sunday morning, there was a thick mist, and I walked through forests and ancient wine groves with the sound of church bells in the distance. I walked the twenty kms to Pedron where the Sunday market was happening. I had lunch in a packed and frenetic tent (squid, bread and potatoes with two bottles of Superbock). I also had coffee that the waiter topped up with what looked like rum. I asked the ladies next to me what it was, and they said “turpentine” and we all laughed. The waiter continued to fill it with turpentine and then Baileys Rum so I was a bit drunk when I checked into my Alberque (before the 10 PM curfew).
Day Fourteen: Santiago de Compostella!
The last twenty KMS of the pilgrimage were comfortable. I feel like I could walk another few hundred kilometers, and I will do the 800 KMS French Camino one day and hats-off to all the people who have done that one. Admittedly it has been hard doing the Camino alone, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Physically I found the 240 KMS of walking relatively easy; it was the battle with the self that was the hard bit. Sometimes I felt my soul screaming out in pain, of the loneliest highways I have ever seen, of days without talking to anyone in English, of huge dorm rooms packed with Christian pilgrims, of torrential rains and then bright, sweaty hot days, of lonely villages with a few sheep and goats for company (no, not what you think), and of deserted albergues where I was the only ghostly pilgrim.
Does the Camino change you? I’m not sure, time will tell, but it is certainly one of the strangest paths I have ever walked. It is a deep path, of over a thousand years, and all sorts of memories and emotions came to the surface while I walked it, some pleasant, some not so nice. But I feel pretty good about doing it and would recommend it to anyone who wants to think about life for a moment while doing something physically healthy and culturally significant.
Now I am prepared for South America, for a much longer journey, to another Santiago.