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).