Short Stories

Portuguese Camino to Santiago de Compostela 2024

Posted on: 31 May 2024

PORTO 11th May 2024

A day of arrivals, meeting new people and catching up with friends. Lunch was followed by a visit to the handily placed Decathlon store, to purchase warm clothes that we had hoped not to need. Then, after a trip to the pilgrims’ hostel to buy our Camino passports, it was an afternoon of sightseeing. A brief glimpse of Porto, a fascinating city that deserves a second visit (preferably when the new metro line is completed and the disruption to the centre has ended).

A day of walking, preparations, laughter, jugs of sangria and glasses of port.

An early night after a long day. Thankfully we were not in the pilgrims’ hostel, three to a room in a four star hotel ensured a good night’s sleep, to set us up for the start of the Camino tomorrow.

Day 1
A brief summary:
After breakfast we took the metro to Campanha. We had an hour to wait for the bus to Caminha, in a bus station reminiscent of Digbeth in the 1970s but with better coffee.
The bus was late but the connecting bus to Caminha was held for us. The second driver overtook everything as we drove along the coast road. We arrived on time. Then things went a little awry.

We went to find lunch in the delightful square in Caminha before starting our walk

We ordered. Seven beers, one wine, seven toasted sandwiches, one burger. One beer and one wine arrived. We waited. After a few minutes six beers appeared. Then after a short delay, one burger and one sandwich arrived. We waited, And waited… The first two meals were finished. The beers going down. We waited. The one member of the group with any Portuguese, went to ask. The waitress had misunderstood the order. Six sandwiches were ordered. We waited. Twenty minutes later, they arrived. They were good but it’s questionable whether they were worth the wait.

We finally started the walk just before 3pm. We had 14km to do, or so we thought. The walk followed the river passed small towns and after a brief spell on the road entered and beautiful wooded area, fragrant with eucalyptus, the path wide and bordered by wild flowers. It meandered up and down, gently undulating. The weather was sunny and warm. For a time we were accompanied by Eva woman from Czech Republic bravely travelling the route alone.

Day 2
It rained. It was raining when we set out. It was not heavy, just raining as we followed the yellow arrow along cobbled roads.

Happy to be on the road. The rain got heavier but we were dressed for it (and after all we are British). 

After we’d passed Vila Nova de Ceveira’s industrial area and scrap yard, we found a restaurant open for coffee. We watched as the rain got heavier. Coffee drunk and passports stamped, we set out again and walked, in the rain, until we reached Valença, our last stop in Portugal.  The rain was so heavy, as we entered the town, that we dived into a supermarket cafeteria and ate and drank all sorts, while watching the water run down the road. At last it seemed to stop but as soon as we ventured out, the rain started again. The fort built to repel the Spanish, was explored in the pouring rain and we all resisted the temptation to buy anything from the multiple shops selling bed linen and towels. I imagine it would be a lovely place to explore on a sunny day. 

We said goodbye to Portugal and crossed the river Minho to Tui in Spain.  The hoped for ‘sunny Spain’ didn’t materialise, so we made our way to our one star hotel, without any sightseeing.  As soon as we had shed all the wet weather gear and unpacked rucksacks (only to discover random wet patches on various items of clothing), it stopped raining and the sun came out.  It was late to tempt us from the hotel with its bar and restaurant.  While our clothes dried, strung around the rooms, we enjoyed an excellent, well earned dinner.
The journey to Vila Nova de Cerveira was in fact 17.5km, those last unexpected 3.5km were a slog, chatter was replaced by grim determination, as we walked through the closed featureless town to find our hotel. Legs aching(from when the undulations weren’t so gentle), feet throbbing(from the heat) we arrived just after 7pm.
We asked about restaurants for dinner, the hotel kindly owner phoned while we went to our rooms to shower, change and recover. Half an hour later we regrouped in reception. The hotel owner’s wife, taking pity on us, drove us to the old town in two batches. There, reassured by the sights we expected to find (church, big square surrounded by cafes and fort), we were revived by food, wine and laughter and managed the walk back to the hotel in good spirits.

Day 3
We set off from Tui via the cathedral and headed towards Porrino. 

Dodging the torrential downpours was impossible but at least the sun came out in between. 

The wooded countryside allowed us to shelter under trees when necessary and the paths were good. There was a choice of route at one point, one path ran through the industrial area and a more scenic route was promised on a longer path. In spite of the weather, we took the longer route which took us across ancient bridges and was largely through woodland.

We arrived at Porrino. It was the most dismal place (so no photos). There were a couple of interesting buildings designed by an architect who favoured a brutal style.  To be fair it’s an industrial town by the side of a massive quarry, so it has no reason to be pretty. Thankfully the first cafe we found served excellent tortilla da patatas with salad and that set us up for the final walk of the day.

More rain, more sun, more hills and, as usual, a longer walk than we thought. 25.9km today. We found the house for five of us, (as we turned off the Camino, to head for the house, a local woman ran out of her garden shouting at us, worried that we had lost our way.  We reassured her that we were looking for our accommodation for the night). 

We called David, the local taxi driver and he took the remaining three to the other house. At eight he returned and the five of us crammed into his car and he drove us to the local restaurant. Fed and watered we walked back to our respective lodgings, enduring the last soaking of the day. Bed by ten thirty, to be ready for a very long walk tomorrow.

Day 4
We met for breakfast in Flora’s in Mos, The briefing for the day was: walk up hill, walk down hill, coffee; walk up hill, walk down hill, lunch; walk up hill, walk down hill, hotel.  And that was precisely what happened. 

We set out in the rain, although It didn’t rain all day and the sun shone occasionally. The first up hill was a long slow climb and the first down hill near vertical – an early morning challenge. Well earned coffee in Redondela.

 We risked life and limb crossing busy roads and went over the second hill to Arcade and found the only place open for lunch while the heavens opened. We ventured out, when it stopped and were completely at a loss as to which bridge to cross to continue our journey to Pontevedre. Seeing our dilemma, a woman driving  up the road leapt out of her van to tell us how to get to the correct bridge.

Writing this after 32km, feeling bone tired, with sore feet and painful knees, I am finding it difficult to find words to describe what was a long but very good day. 
There is little to say about the towns we passed, but the  countryside was beautiful, the route long and challenging, It was the hardest but the most enjoyable day, with the best and most varied scenery, with steep hills, views of the coast, ancient cart tracks running with water and muddy paths.

 We were all exhausted after taking the scenic route by the river instead of walking along the road. The route was indeed scenic but the path was muddy, churned by mountain bikes, crisscrossed with exposed tree roots and long.

We ventured only as far as the hotel bar and restaurant, Faulty Towers was mentioned on more than one occasion but they fed us well and charged us little.

Day 5
I couldn’t believe it when I woke feeling somewhere near human. I got up, got ready, went to breakfast and parts of me that I thought would never move again, seemed to be moving completely normally.

We set out in the rain but it soon stopped and the walk took us through woodland, then agricultural land and vineyards.  Now that the coastal and central Portuguese Caminos have combined there are lots more pilgrims walking along the path.  All shapes, sizes, ages, abilities and nationalities.

There was one manageable hill and the only other challenge, during the rest of the 22km, was putting on wet weather gear when the sky looked threatening and removing it a few minutes later when no rain appeared.

Lunch stop was at a farmhouse cafe that was doing a brisk trade in tarts of octopus, tuna or chicken, tortilla, tomatoes, bread, cakes, fruit and chorizo (which for some reason they smothered in alcohol and set alight). All the family was involved and all the preparation was in their kitchen and living room.

The walk after lunch to Caldas de Reis was just over 5km and all was going well until one of our number said “We haven’t had to retrace our steps yet,” seconds before we realised that we were going the wrong way for our accommodation and had to go back the way we’d come.

We stayed in a many roomed apartment (with heating and a washing machine – luxury) The walk was shorter but we all felt that we’d walked enough for one day. Energy levels fell as we neared the accommodation, but we still managed to  get thoroughly overexcited about the washing machine and making a cup of tea.

Excellent meal in local restaurant (16€ for three courses including wine) but whether the bottle of Malaga Virgin (an impulse buy on the  way home) was a mistake, remains to be seen.

Day 6
We left Caldas de Reis without finding the promised hot springs. As ever we were dressed for rain with sunglasses optimistically to hand.

A gentle 22km walk along a river, through woods and it didn’t rain until lunchtime.  Perfect.

Just one long hill (up and down) and one very heavy rainstorm.

Pilgrims lunch – meatballs, rice, bread, drink and coffee- all for 6.50€.

We seem to have this down to a fine art now.

The rain came down after lunch and the views became more industrial as we got to the outskirts of Padron- our stop for the night.  Just one more day to Santiago.

Sadly two of the group couldn’t join us today having lost the battle against burgeoning blisters but hopefully the rest will have helped. (It was interesting to hear how many Camino pilgrims were on the bus with them).

Finished the day with set menu dinner for 12.50€ including wine. Stuffed Padrón peppers, steak and chips, Grandma’s pudding, a (custardy chocolatey thing). They certainly look after the pilgrims. 

Early start tomorrow.

Day 7
Early start, early breakfast with hundreds of other walkers, cyclists… Rain was pouring down.

The walk was through woods and hamlets, no major hills or challenges. A brief coffee stop, when we finally found a cafe that was open.  The last 24kilometres disappeared. We took a tiny detour off the Camino for further sustenance (in my case coffee and the biggest pain au chocolat I’ve ever seen – more of a loaf).

It was still raining when we got our first glimpse of the cathedral, at about 8km away. You perhaps won’t be able to identify it on the photo, but it’s there.

As we reached the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela the rain stopped, as did the signs and arrows guiding us on our way.  More by luck than judgement we found the cathedral and after obtaining our certificates – all computerised, no monks in a scriptorum any more, we finally stopped walking and relaxed. 

 I just rested and celebrated the fact that I had no blisters and my feet were in no worse state than the day I set out.

Final thoughts
There were no road to Damascus moments. But the feeling of belonging, of looking after each other and the random acts of kindness along the way made it feel very special.
There came a point towards the end of each day when it seemed impossible to lift your foot high enough to get onto the kerb, and then, someone would make you laugh or another person would need your help and all of a sudden you’re up the kerb and you’ve walked another kilometre.

People were very kind along the way: from the woman who dashed out when we walked past her house on our way to our accommodation. She had seen us turn off the path and wanted to tell us that we were no longer on the Camino; and the woman who seeing us standing on a road bridge, flummoxed. We knew that we had to cross the river, could see the bridge that we should take but didn’t know how to get it. She pulled up, jumped out of her van and pointed us in the right direction. There were people who made space in crowded cafes and those who provided us with good cheap food. The arrival in Santiago was not as emotional as last time, until I went into the cathedral and it fully struck me where I was and whose remains were buried beneath.

St James
There are many myths and legends surrounding the story of how St James came to be buried in Spain. This version may or may not be true:-

St James, the patron saint of Spain, was the first of Jesus’ apostles to be martyred for his faith (Acts ch12 v2). He had returned to Jerusalem after spreading the word in the Iberian peninsula, was captured and beheaded by the orders of King Herod. His remains were secured by his supporters and taken by sea to Padron in Roman-held Galicia, before being carried inland by cart to his burial site in woodland. Two aides were left to guard the tomb and were buried by his side when they died.

Under Roman rule, visits to holy sites were forbidden and the burial site was forgotten for hundreds of years until in the ninth century, a hermit, named Pelagius saw unusual lights and heard strange noises in the wood where St James was reputed to have been buried. The ruins of a building were found and the remains of three men as the ancient scriptures had detailed. The remains were declared to be St James and his aides and King Alphonso11 ordered that a church be built on the site. It is said that the name Compostela comes from campus stella—field of stars.

Santiago de Compostela has been a site of pilgrimage since.

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