The Camino de Santiago: Camino Portugués

Just before the dark broke I left Santiago. It was strange. Everything had been leading to the city but now I was leaving it. I was heading in the opposite direction of the arrows. When I found them. And there was a bit of checking my phone map, especially by the motorway. Eventually, I got on a trail of blue arrows, though less frequent than the yellow ones. An hour got me out of the city proper but it took half the day to escape the suburbs, the satellite towns and the motorways. The morning was foggy and misty but free of rain. On occasion, I passed tired but excited pilgrims finally reaching their destination and I got a few curious looks, going against the grain.

As the day passed I finally felt the heat of the sun again. No more double rain layers, I walked in a T-shirt and merino later. I even sat in the sun just for the sake of it. People asked me if I was ok. Oh yes.

The villages almost joined each other along the way. Forest tracks, narrow roads, twisty streets where houses were thrown up randomly by each other. A few locals thought I was heading the wrong way. I passed by a woman pushing a buggy and I asked if I could sit in. Of course! She asked where I had come from. St Jean, Santiago, Finisterre, now to Portugal. ¡Caramba! More than a few times I received praise and I realised I’m on my second Camino.

The 26km felt long enough in the end, especially all the food I picked up in the supermarket, and I was glad to arrive in Padrón in the late afternoon. Sitting by the river for a while watching the local pet goose sleep until he was woken up for food, I eventually managed to cross the river to the municipal albergue. Clean, warm, and the stone building full of character. I discovered that you could also get a certificate for this mini stage if you got a sello in one of the holy locations in the Jacobean tradition and I set off for the church to see the stone commemorating the landing of the boat which carried Santiago from Jerusalem.

Again I only left at 8am and again a mixed day of walking between trails and roads. A few stretches were along the motorway but again it was a very pleasant day for walking, if the occasional light shower of rain. I could get used to this. I saw lambs and even two escaped on the loose. I walked back to the farm and found an old woman hanging out laundry. She called her granddaughter to help her and we walked on to find the escapees. Gracias chica.

Caldas de Reis is a pretty town with a particularly lovely small Romanesque bridge and a pleasant walk down by the river. I now had a load of errands to do, tape, washing, food as the next day was Sunday; leaving it too late to have anything for lunch bar a pasteleria pizza on someone’s doorstep, avoiding the rain which had held off until now.

Mostly people you meet on the Camino are very nice, or at worst not your cup of tea but harmless. Unfortunately I had one of those rare experiences with a very strange and also drunk, possible perigrino. Apparently I was in no way Irish because I have black hair was one of the many strange and weird things he felt he had to share. An uncomfortable experience that left a bad taste.

I left the town reasonably early in mild conditions and though the first half of the day was fairly unremarkable in terms of scenery, some nice forest paths and a bit of sunshine by mid morning improved my mood. It being Sunday a few gunshots were heard in the distance and then the Lycra-clad Sunday morning cyclists began whizzing by. Most bright and cheery, some sullen and unwilling to share the path, nearly cutting you in two if you turned to look at something. There were even a few out horse riding.

After some long breaks in the sun I finally arrived in Pontevedra in the early afternoon. A really beautiful large town with some beautiful buildings including a pilgrim church. I think if I continue the Camino Portuguese I would start from here and spend a full day enjoying the parks and many tapas bars.

The municipal albergue was at the far end of town so I spent a few hours eating and walking around before heading on. The hospitaliera and her grandson took very good care of me and the boy asked if I liked a type of Galician football. I had to plead ignorance. During a long chat she began showing him my journey and all my stamps. I have a small sense in pride in this trek, and to keep going despite the injuries and all else. After a shiatsu massage at the albergue I was chatting with another young perigrina about all the usual Camino topics when she said “ah you’re the one who did the Francés and Finisterre”. Apparently so. There was a man she met who did none Caminos. Though he wasn’t so old, he was thirty eight. I suppose it all looks different when you’re twenty.

I started the day along a fairy industrial route with busy Monday morning traffic and Bon lorries whizzing by. At one small village I stopped to have my breakfast, remembering I had a few portions of cheese and a banana. Actually I had one and a half portions. One being half eaten by a mouse when I left the top pocket of my rucksack open the previous night, and who I later discovered had also been nibbling on my dirty laundry bag which had also been on the floor. If he had eaten a hole in my socks there would have been hell to pay for the little fat bastard but apparently the smell hadn’t been that appetising and I can’t say I blame him.

Eventually I made it back to the forest in brilliant sunshine. I always have the sun in my eyes now as I head south, making it a bit harder to see the fletches. The road was quiet with few pilgrims despite this being the second most popular Camino route. I started thinking about how many kilometers I had done, probably a thousand when I finished up, and how many I still had on this long day. Along the way I saw horses and goats before turning down a path that was literally a series of small waterfalls after the rain. I chatted a bit with the owner of the goats, following his dog for the easiest way down.

In the next town, Pontesampaio, I met a Maltese pilgrim. An opera singer who had sung in Santiago for a festival he was dressed as if he was going on safari.

Pontesampaio is a very pretty town by the sea and has a very famous bridge, a crucial location in the Napoleonic War on the peninsula. Several people stopped me to tell me I was going the wrong way and I had to keep explaining I was heading to Portugal, not Santiago. Maybe I need a sign.

Again another stretch by the main road and a particularly dangerous crossing by a hairpin bend, where I had to sprint before huge trucks hurtling by. Not much fun. I had been going a fair clip that day and on the uphill stretch into the hills my foot started aching. Clearly running with a 10kg pack wasn’t to its liking.

The forests were peaceful and I took a break to lie in the sun and call my friend back in Iceland where it’s raining cats and dogs. After Finisterre I’ll be happy not to see rain for a while. I had lunch in Redondela, a pretty and very hilly town where it would have been nice to stay but on this trip at least I needed to press on. Even in the town here it’s not uncommon to see a yard with chickens, goats or turkeys.

Pontevedra to Mós - A Rúa, Spain, Camino Portugués.
Pontevedra to Mós – A Rúa, Spain, Camino Portugués.


Caldas de Reis to Pontevedra, Spain, Camino Portugués.
Caldas de Reis to Pontevedra, Spain, Camino Portugués.

The small roads leading in through the joined-up villages don’t leave much room for walkers and the motorists have little patience, more than once I was nearly flattened though I was practically clinging to the wall by the road. After a particularly horrible hill, I was rewarded by stunning views over the harbour and got caught rotten in a carpenters yard sneaking a photo through his fence. Again the route turned into stretches of forest punctuated by small villages and I was glad of the peace, as I tried to motivate myself for the last ten kilometres. I passed an old Roman mile marker, wondering how many thousands had passed it before me. Eventually, I made it to Mos, a very pretty and tiny village, one of three pilgrims for the night and the only headed south.

As is typical after a long day I was very slow to get started the next morning, not leaving until 08:30, but still the first out the door. It was cold and frosty, my misty breath the sign of a beautiful day once the sun would warm the land. There are two types of dogs in Spain. The aggressive ones behind fences and the ones who behave themselves and are therefore let out. This one was from the first category but with the privileges of the second. A tiny little thing I was shouting and clapping at him, ready to give him a kick as I was sure he was going to go for me and his owner, a little ways off, was totally unperturbed. I passed the 100km mark after a half-hour, meaning I now qualified for another Compostela certificate. If I was heading in the other direction to collect it.

Coming into O Porriño I met the few groups of Santiago bound pilgrims, some in Santa hats. Between my late start and an hour spent on the supermarket and breakfast my morning was gone, but it wasn’t wasted at all, when as I went to pay for the breakfast, the cafe owner, a multiple-time pilgrim himself, gave me a present of a shell when he noticed I didn’t have one on my bag. I spent the rest of the day smiling at this small yet huge act of kindness and generosity.

Walking through the town, busy with Christmas shoppers, people looking at the Christmas lights going up and a busy market of hawkers, meant that I had to skip the complementary route and instead spend a few hours on a long, terminally boring route in a heavily industrial area. It’s only notable feature, a Kerry Group factory. I was glad to get back to the woods, with birds of prey perched on trees, and a small unassuming bridge where a famous pilgrim, whose name I forget, got a gripping stomach fever and died.

Tui, my destination of the day is set on a steep hill, it’s tiny streets and many steps hard work at the end of the day. It’s also home to St Elmo, patron saint of Tui and sailors, whose shrine is in the cathedral. A basic albergue with a sick and therefore rather grumpy hospitaliera, was going to be the setting for my last night in Spain. Across the river lay Portugal. Two months, less one day, to the day I crossed the Pyrenees from France into Spain.

I shared the albergue with one other pilgrim, a young guy who said that the previous night he felt so good he decided to sleep outdoors in the wood. In a sleeping bag in a hammock. In December. It was nice for the first three hours apparently.

There was no way I was sleeping outdoors. A sleeping bag, fleece liner, and all my clothes and I was still cold. It was a freezing morning and I was in four layers until lunchtime, mostly helped by steep hills.

When I threw on my backpack it felt weirdly light. Had I forgotten something or was it just a particularly good day despite my poor night’s sleep. The light was just coming up when I crossed the bridge saying ciao to Galicia, adios to Spain and bom dia to Portugal. I was a little sad to leave Spain after all the kilometres I’ve spent walking here, but the next part of the journey awaits and with no fanfare whatsoever I crossed another international border. Instantly there was a different feel and it was strange to suddenly not be able to communicate, I can say very little beyond the basics in Portuguese and my comprehension skills are very rusty without practice in the last years.

The fort over Valenca do Minho is amazing and the old textile town is so pretty I spent a few hours walking around and taking photos. Portugal is an hour behind Spain so people were only just getting up. Climbing up on to the parapets got me some very wet feet in the feet grass and some beautiful views back to Tui for my trouble. The fort leads to the old town through a quite scary tunnel and I stopped for breakfast.

I’d spent the last few days trying to figure out the last part of the trip. Initially, I thought I’d just get to the border, maybe a day beyond and that would do me. Then I realised how close I was going to be to Porto but not able to complete it. The boy was arriving in Porto in a few days. Would I skip some, get a train from Valenca, keep walking, do a long day, but where was the next accommodation- the possibilities were plaguing me. In the end, it was late, I was frozen in the low, stubborn mists and I ploughed on. At some point, I hit the 1000km point in my journey, where I’m not exactly sure without working it out as Portugal doesn’t use km markers like Spain.

The landscape hadn’t changed considerably from southern Galicia, rather just the style of the buildings. I met a man pruning in his garden, Avelino, and stopped for a chat. People so far seem uninterested or very kind and friendly. But it’s strange to speak in English to people again. Plenty of small villages with stretches through the familiar late autumn forests, the only difference being the old Roman road was stone, uneven and uncomfortable to walk on. Still, it was better than the mud-fest I found at one point. I was heading into the hills again, why are there so many ups? Why must I meet the crazy dog just on the steep hill when I’m crawling along?

By lunchtime the heat finally hit me and after a break, I decided to slow down and head for Rubiães. The next viable accommodation was another fifteen kilometres and that was too much. Alone in the albergue I curled up under almost every blanket in the dorm. No hammock for me thank you.

I miscalculated the dawn which broke at 7am, and it was bright half an hour later. As I walked through the forest during the cold morning I could hear dogs yelping in the distance as usual. This stretch was hard to navigate with almost no blue fletches and the path was nonexistent in places. A slow descent over rocks, mud, slippery pine leaves would be an even harder ascent, crisscrossed with cobwebs. At one point the path was a river as I tried to swing from one tree to another over it.

Along the way a stone cross in memory of the dead and of those locals who ambushed Napoleon’s retreating troops sits in the Dee forest. It was a peaceful and quiet morning in the weak autumn sunshine and when I finally broke out into a beautiful valley of scattered villages I tried to push on to make up time as the last 6km had taken me two hours and I had a long 30km day ahead of me. I saw a man bringing a cow for a walk, elderly women with sheep or hoes over their shoulders and sickles in hand clearing the fields. A strange stop to chat (in Portuguese where I didn’t understand much), with an old man was uncomfortable when he insisted on a kiss. I stopped for a short break at a bar and met my first pilgrim of the day, a twenty-something Australian girl on a gap year.

The small country lanes are made scary by crazy drivers who barely pass you as they whizz by, but I was soon back to a forestry stretch and passed a couple more pilgrims. The Aussie girl had said there were about six she kept encountering. Something different in Portugal is that sometimes, not always, you can actually find public toilets in villages which are nice.

I arrived in Ponte de Lima in time for some lunch and a break. Welcomed by a pretty church which was being restored so I only had a peek, though the workmen offered me to go in, a sculpture called Bom Caminho stands by the long medieval and Roman bridge. A beautiful town, jazz music floated in the air as I crossed the bridge where a crowd had gathered to watch an otter. The town rubs by the river with many restaurants and on the hot glorious day it made me want to stay but I still had another 12km ahead of me. At the tourist office I met a British pilgrim and between him and the helpful lady there I was sure of having lodgings somewhere on the route, my app not always having the most up to date info.

I power walked the next stage, stoping every 4-5km. There was a lot of cutting and burning going on in the yards and farms. At one point I was thrown up on a wall, backpack still on, when a woman came over and gave me an armful of oranges from her garden. Then asked me if I wanted any more. Deliciously sweet this act of kindness made me smile all afternoon.

The day was catching up with me. God, I was tired. I passed little rest stops people had set up in their gardens, sometimes with little treats for pilgrims. One had stones and I left one with my name. By 17:45 it was dark and even with a torch I wasn’t comfortable walking along narrow roads in the dark, traffic being as it is here. I stopped in Igreja, happy to just shower and go to bed. Wondering if I had picked up some critter buddies from the previous night.

Another cold morning as I set off at a bright 07:30 with a beautiful sunrise. Unfortunately, I made some new bed bugs friends the other night. Again. BBs have nothing to do with how clean you are, the place is, or how cheap it is. They were even resistant to my repellent spray. So disinfection evening it is.

This was going to be my last solo camino day. I was walking 22km to Barcelos, but as was typical after a long day previously I was tired and couldn’t quite keep the pace I wanted.

I almost wished I had kept going the extra 3km the night before, until I passed the Hound of the Baskervilles, snarling and narking viciously. I then realised I had gone wrong and had to walk past him again. If I jumped out of my skin in the daylight I’d have probably died of shock in the dark.

The valley spread out into farmland, blanketed by mist. Throughout the morning my soundtrack was church bells, roosters, bleeding goats with their bells, yapping dogs and the odd stream. An old woman crocheting at a bus stop told me I was headed the wrong way for Santiago, as I passed several pretty churches as the leaves fell from the trees.

After passing what must be a refreshing spot by the river for a summer swim, I slipped and slid all over the place in the thick mud churned up by the tractor, now ploughing up old corn stalks. I ploughed up onto the hills, schoolyards with children playing, turned onto a narrow main road where I walked in a drain to avoid the cars. Coming down past a church I was chased by a small and most definitely crazy dog. His lackadaisical owner, completely unbothered as he walked on glued to his phone.

The midday haze wasn’t great for photography, but as I headed downhill I was mostly in suburban landscapes it didn’t matter so much. I seemed to be getting a lot of quare eye from people as I passed. Definitely not as friendly as the day before. By lunchtime, I flopped down on a bench by a church. 30m from a cafe that I was too tired to reach.

The scent of eucalyptus was in the air and I finally passed my first pilgrim of the day, a little while later the second. All spunky and swinging her poles. If I thought I looked bad when I first reached Santiago I mist be a fright now. Almost 1200km under the boots.

A little further I was in Barcelos with just enough time for a crepe, a quick stop at the tourist office for a sello and a little trip to the old town. I was in a rush to get the train to Porto where, as I told the taxi driver I chatted to outside the station I would rest for a few days with the boy, who was arriving that afternoon, and go back and complete the last bit together.

Porto, after so many days on the road, is a really beautiful city. The old windy streets made for excellent exploring, but oh my god there are so many hills. Thankfully after the Camino they weren’t as bad as other people’s faces suggested. Boat rides, tram rides, bicycle rides led us all around the beautiful buildings and in the warm sun we could sit out and relax.

After a couple of lazy days around Porto that consisted of eating, sightseeing and more eating we got up at an ungodly hour of 05:30 to get a metro to Varzielajust just near Vilarinho, only 27km from Porto. Then began the trying to get a taxi saga. Eventually, we did and the driver pronounced me crazy as I explained our destination and why. After a quick breakfast, we were off just before 9am. Definitely the latest I’ve started on the Camino. As was usually there were plenty of small villages but only a little bit of forest. The stretch into Porto is very built up with plenty of industry. Not the prettiest of walking days and in hindsight not the best introduction for someone as a first day of the Camino.

The cool morning warmed up quickly and it was strange, though very nice, to have company and the day passed quickly. The drawback of this stage was is was almost completely on cobbled road which is really hard going on the feet. We passed a retry church atop a wooded hill and plenty of older locals wished us bom dia. I introduced the boy to the pleasure of eating your lunch at a bus stop just because it has a seat and we eventually made our way into the city proper after about 10km of suburbs and satellite villages.Arriving at the cathedral was less the emotive relief that I had at Santiago. In part, because the woman at the desk was incredibly grumpy but also as this was only my finishing point amongst several tour groups and local people. No great fanfare. But as we watched the sun set along the river I was able to think I’ll always be able to say “Hey remember that time I walked from France to Portugal for the craic?”

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The colourful houses of Ribeira, Porto, Portugal, Camino Portugués.
The colourful houses of Ribeira, Porto, Portugal, Camino Portugués.

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