Camino Portuguese (We Made It!) – The Day By Day
Done, dusted and complete! A mere 15 days and ~280km after our group started at the Albergue in Porto we walked into the square of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and yes, I may have shed a tear or two.
As with all long walks it seemed to take forever, yet it was over just as we all were getting into the swing of things.
Camino Time became our hourglass, a parallel dimension where time seems to both slow and speed up. Our days slowed to the step of our feet, our forward progress a snails pace of what is “normal” in this world. Yet in that simple rhythm we packed in so many sights, smells and ever-changing views that our brains could barely remember everything we experienced from one hour to the next. Our days were so full they flew by, even as moments stood still while we were on the trail.
Us girls bonded like sticky glue, the good kind.
We were 4 women who barely knew each other before we started (really), but we’ve all been RVers/travelers and I think that meant a lot. Living in small spaces is something we all felt quite comfortable with, and spending 24/7 with someone else is something we’d all tried before. I truly wasn’t sure how it would go to travel in a group like this, but I can honestly say the company turned out to be one of the things I enjoyed the most about this trip. We dubbed ourselves the “4 Cheeky Chicas” and we had a blast.
And of course we had good days, and bad days, rain and sun, mishaps (even before I started) and I once again managed to do something silly to myself. A regular Camino, whatnot.
Let me take you on the ride….
Our Route Was Great (But It Was NOT Flat)
If you recall from my last post the Camino Portuguese has several routes you can follow through Portugal into Spain.
In our case we ended up taking the Senda Litoral Route out of Porto, then the Coastal Route for 2 days before we switched over to the Central Route (we taxi’d over in fact, as the cross-over portion of this walk is awful). We then followed the Central Route for 8 days, split onto the Spiritual Variant for 2 days, took a ferry up the River Ulla (a legit part of the Spiritual Variant) and walked the final 2 days on the main Camino into Santiago. For the map-curious amongst you, naturally I created an interactive map 🙂
The route ended up being great, but one thing it was certainly not was flat.
You see there’s this persistent rumor on the internet that the Portuguese Camino is “easy” and “doesn’t really have any hills”. I got suckered into this idea much like everyone else, so admittedly I didn’t study any elevation maps before I went. Plus the first few days on the coast were such a breeze, I actually started to believe the rumors were true.
But hey-ho, what is a pilgrimage without unexpected challenges, eh?
We encountered our first inclines Day 4, then some rolling hills the next few days before the Camino eased us into our first real slog of a climb Day 7. Thereafter there were several more, the largest of which was on the Spiritual Variant where a part of an incline was so steep I thought my nose would drag on the floor. Admittedly the mountain ranges in Portugal are not nearly as large as those you cross on the Camino Frances, but it’s not a walk in the park either.
A Rough Start (Yet Again)
Just like last year believe it or not, my trip to start my Camino this year did not go as planned.
The day before I was scheduled to leave, I clicked online to check-in to my flight and received the following sunny message from Easy Jet “we’re sorry, your flight has been cancelled”. French traffic control strikes had hit home and there were no alternatives for that day, the next or even the day after. Oh no, not again….
Thus started a scramble of a recovery to get out of France which had Paul driving me to Andorra at 5:30AM, then taking a 4 hour bus to Barcelona and finally catching a last-minute flight from there to Porto. Incredibly it all worked out and a mere 12 hours after leaving home I was in the Pilgrims Albergue in Porto meeting up with Linda (thechouters.com). I must have sighed 10 times walking into town that night for dinner, all the stress from the day finally seeping out.
I couldn’t believe I’d actually made it!
The next day Linda and I explored the wonderful city of Porto together with it’s very hilly roads, narrow streets, majestic avenues and plethora of incredible blue-tiles. These “azulejos” date back centuries, originally bought to Portugal by King Manuel I (r. 1495-1521) after he visited Seville, and they weave a unique mosaic through houses and church. Oh, and of course we ate ourselves silly on Portuguese food & drink discovering Pastel de Nata, Galão, Bacalhau and so much more.
That night the rest of our pilgrim team (Erin and Kate (IG: The Scenic Route)) gathered and we enjoyed our first real dinner together. The next AM, April 1st our pilgrimage would start and we were all very ready for it.
The Coast (Days 1-3)
The Coastal portion of Portugal is frankly incredible.
It’s a rocky and wild, breezy and clear, with a sea that goes from deep blue to feral grey depending on the day. A good portion of the walk from Porto, at the least the few days is along a wooden boardwalk and if you get the right weather it’s some of the prettiest scenery you’ll see. It’s super easy walking too, right by the ocean, and unless the wind picks up (which I’ve heard can get pretty crazy) it’s just so incredibly pleasant.
Honestly I went into the “zone” here so fast I barely saw it coming.
Our first day was non-stop rain, but the adrenalin of starting the Camino kept us all in high spirits, and of course Olaf made his debut keeping me cozy and dry.
Our next two days were brilliant sunshine and I was just swimming in a happy cocoon of my own. I kept falling back from the group, getting distracted by all the pretty stuff, reveling in the salt air and beautiful views, soothed by the sound of the ocean as I walked. Both nights we dined gloriously and in Matosinhos we ate gelato on the seawall as the sun set, one of our favorite memories of the entire trek.
Perhaps most surprising for me was how many pilgrims we saw here. The Coastal Route seems to be gaining popularity in Portugal, so much so that Day 2 the donativo (by donation) public Albergue in Labruge had so many pilgrims they splayed onto sofas and floor, packing in at least twice what the place had bed space for.
Still, I can’t deny had a pang of regret when we left the coast to go inland. Maybe one day I’ll come back and walk the rest?
The Central Route (Days 3-11)
We crossed over to the Central route in the middle of Day 3, taking a taxi to avoid a horrible highway walk along the cross-over, a “cheat” I would absolutely do again.
Once on the central the entire atmosphere of the Camino changed yet again.
The weather was heavier here without the ocean breeze, a mix of towns and forests, trails and road with scents of eucalyptus and cow dung, flowers and farms. Our first night we stayed in a shiny new Albergue with only 4 others, so quiet and pleasant we wondered where all the pilgrims had gone. I felt brilliant and strong, marched straight up the stairs to bed and then felt my knee give out.
The whole thing just kinda caved suddenly, like it would no longer support my body. Mechanically it was fine while my leg was straight, but there were shocks of a pain if I bent it with any weight on it. I briefly pondered if my Camino would end on Day 3, and surprised myself by being OK with that. I’d walked a Camino before, I’d had a good 3 days on the trail (zen days, glorious days even), so what if I had to go home?
That’s when we met our first Camino Angel, a fellow pilgrim who just happened to be a walking pharmacy of sorts. She sorted me out with creams and pills-of-unknown-origin (we are such a trusting lot, us pilgrims), I contacted a backpack forwarding service to take most of my load the following AM (Pilbeo), slept on it and figured out how to walk without bending my knee too much. Day by day, step by step, and surprisingly the knee did get better (slowly) and I made the entire walk…..classic Camino stuff.
Our next days on the trail were fabulous.
Day 4 we ended up in Barcelos, a UNESCO heritage town known for its ceramics and the Rooster of Barcelos (Galo de Barcelos) which has become the classic symbol of Portugal. We stayed at a wonderful little place (Casa de Ana), explored town and just had the best time. This is a town I’d happily visit again.
Day 5 was a highlight. It was a long 22km hot day where Olaf gained multiple admirers, with pretty scenery, lots of cobblestone walking (oh, so much of that hard stuff!) and the night at a private apartment next to Casa da Fernanda, an Albergue famous throughout Portugal for it’s warm welcome and communal meal. We participated in the latter with ~25 others, eating, drinking and singing until well after dark when we finally managed to sneak off for some much-needed rest. Honestly, this was one of our best experiences.
Day 6 we walked through grapevines and a breathtaking valley blanketed in Calla lillies. We ended up in Ponte de Lima at a little hole-in-the-wall for lunch, over-heated but happy. The latter is a beautiful city known as the oldest villa in Portugal with a gorgeous stone bridge, a portion of which was built by the Romans in 1AD. They say you leave your past lives behind and start anew when you cross it, a step we would take right at the 100km mark the next day.
Day 7 was our first real challenging uphill. “4km straight up” so we’d been told the day before by a local, his hand tilted at an alarming incline for emphasis. And indeed it was. It was hot, it was pretty, it was hard (really, really hard on the knee) and we were all wobbly by the time we made it to the top. But hey we made it, to walk another day….
Day 8 we crossed into Spain. It was another long 23km day with way-too-much cobblestone (the Portuguese really loooove their cobblestone) but we had several pretty forest paths and the surprise of seeing the fortified city of Valença, an imposing town of Roman origin which was quite unique. That night we were so trashed we didn’t even go out to see the local fiesta in Tui. It was a long night too, in troll-sized metal bunk beds, the worst stop (at least for me) of the entire trail.
Day 9 & 10 were easier days in Spain, mostly because…no cobblestones! A mix of trails and road with a few steep hills thrown in, our first bagpipe players (yes, it’s a thing in Galicia), several river-walks and nice stays. We ate brilliantly, squeezed in three breakfasts (yeah!) and encountered our first bout of truly heavy humidity, a weight that would stay with us through to Santiago de Compostela.
Day 11 was a tough day with two huge uphills and downhills. More buckets of sweat here, a few close calls on the highway and a wonderfully tropical forest that dripped like mist all around us. That night we ended in the city of Pontevedra, a well-preserved old town famous for its extensive pedestrian area. Another place I’d love to explore further.
The whole of the Central Route was very “Camino like” if that makes any sense. Small, interesting towns, interwoven with forest trails, road and rural areas. The biggest difference between this and the Camino Frances that I did last year were the cobblestones on the Portugal side….oh, so many of those darn cobblestone paths. It’s hard walking even for the best of shoes and we were all relieved to see the last of them once we entered Spain.
I loved Portugal…the food, the towns, everything….but by Odin I will not miss those stones.
Spiritual Variant (Days 12-14)
The Spiritual Variant is a newer Camino path that was created to follow the route that the remains of Santiago the Apostle James supposedly took from Jerusalem to Spain in ~41AD. It splits off from the main Portuguese Route ~4km after Pontevedra and adds ~73km to the overall walk (less if you take the ferry).
These few days off the main trail were some of the best and hardest of the Camino for me.
Day 12 was an insane day, 22km with a never-ending (or so it seemed) uphill that had us sucking air and walking almost horizontally in spots. But it also gave us some of our most stunning views of the trip, high pine forest and a thrilling arrival to an open café (with cold drinks!!) as we dropped into the 16th Century Monastery at Armenteira. We stayed with the sisters that night and got blessed at their singing service, both memorable events.
Day 13 was an even more insane 26km day that started with a hike through the most magical kind of forest. Moss-covered banks, waterfalls and 17th century stone mills combined into a fairytale trail that had me deeply in the “zone”. Then came the longest, most mind-numbing flat hike that lasted an eternity, or about 18km (which felt about the same), followed by ~5km of side-ways rain and howling wind at the coast that were too much for even Olaf to endure. It was the best and the worst.
Day 14 we took the ferry, an accepted part of the Spiritual Variant that takes you up the River Ulla through mussel farms, medieval forts and ~17 “crucieros” (stone crosses), the only Maritime Via Crucis in the world. Apparently anyway, for our day started in grey and rain, and that’s pretty much all we saw.
Overall the Spiritual Variant was far harder than I expected, but also well worth it. I’d choose it again in a heartbeat.
Main Route (Day 14-15)
On the last few days of the Portuguese Camino ALL the routes converge into one as you walk to Santiago. Like always seems to happen for me, I go somewhere else on those last few days, deeper into a more pensive place, joyful but also sad in some ways.
The end of Day 14 Galicia threw all the weather at us and our walk from the ferry to our destination had us stopping and starting, taking our ponchos on and off as cold rain swept through followed by baking sun. It was a frustrating walking day, but that night was another highlight for all of us. We rented a private house and had a lovely, simple girls night together. Linda made tuna pasta, we drank Albariño wine, we vegged and we just enjoyed our last time together.
Day 15 just swept by. A 17km hike of which I don’t remember much, a celebratory beer before our arrival in Santiago and hugging each other in the Cathedral Square once there. Such a special moment.
I wrote this on my IG Posts the day we arrived and it’s deep enough for me that I’ll repeat it here. It’s always strange finishing something like this. You plan and dream of it for ages, you love and curse it when you’re on it, and then suddenly it’s over and the void that’s left brings you back again…and again. I truly feel this.
This was a long post (with perhaps too many pictures, apologies), but I wanted to get all this down in one.
I actually continued my journey after I left the girls Day 15, getting a lift from Erin, her hubby and their dog Mr.Cool to Muxia and then taking a bus to Fisterra, towns known to medieval pilgrims as the “end of the world”. I’ve always wanted to visit these to see that 0.0000km Camino sign and to end my pilgrimage at a lighthouse, the gorgeous 1853 Faro de Fisterra. It was a fitting finish, and sitting in my hostel room overlooking the ocean that last night I thought how lucky I was to have experienced yet another pilgrimage, with great company to boot.
Last year I needed to do something extreme, to get me out of a deep rut and reconnect with my inner strength, and the Camino gave me that. This year was not the same, I was in a different head-space with a group (not by myself) and it was only 15 days. What could possibly be achieved in such a short time?
Yet I found I needed to reconnect again in a different way, re-set my compass so-to-speak, and once again the Camino gave me that. Perhaps it’s the physical challenge of doing something like this, or perhaps it’s the people you meet all walking towards the same goal, but I do believe you come out of experiences like this stronger, more connected, more confident. And truly, it’s a joy to find that again.
I thank the Camino and the 4 Cheeky Chicas for that.
Post-Post Note/ I have another post coming on this Camino, perhaps a more practical one with stats, differences etc. (I’m still deciding)? Either way, DO feel free to ask me questions below and that may help steer my course. And thank you all for taking this journey with me on the blog.