Canberrans on the Portuguese Camino
Our Camino Walk started in the World Heritage city of Oporto, Portugal. The Portuguese Camino begins at Lisbon or Oporto from where pilgrims travel north, cross the Lima and Minho Rivers to reach Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, the final resting place of the remains of James the Apostle.
But first we had a sojourn in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, staying in a cosy apartment adjacent to the Castelo de S. Jorge – a National Monument in the privileged area of the old medieval alcacova [citadel], which dates back to the mid-11th Century during the Moorish period.
Situated on the northern banks of the River Tagus (Rio Tejo), Lisbon is breathtaking: its inner areas served by myriad narrow winding cobble-stoned laneways up steep, steep hills, tightly-packed houses in various shades of ochre and other pastels, cafes, wonderful fish restaurants, historical buildings, museums, and very hospitable locals. Hordes of tourists from many nations are out and about well into the evenings, and Lisbon’s many cathedrals and churches are testimony to Portugal’s strong Catholic roots.
And while in Lisbon, we spent a day in Fatima visiting the place where in 1917, an angel and Our Lady are said to have appeared to three children – Jacinta, Lucia and Francisco, asking them to pray for world peace. Fatima was then a tiny village. Nowadays a 10,000 population services its many attractions, chapels, cafes, hotels, museums, and gift and retail shops. The Basilica of the Holy Trinity, a Catholic church designed by renowned Greek architect, Alexandros N. Tombazis, houses the tombs of the three children.
A visit to the World Heritage town, Sintra (25km from Lisbon) and Cascais gave us a chance to see the area’s luxuriant green backdrop and luxury mansions, hotels and palaces, where many wealthy business, political and sporting identities have holiday houses. Sintra’s attractions include the Palacio da Vila (Town Palace), the Pena Palace at the top of the Sintra Mountain and the very imposing steep walls of the Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) – reminders of wars and battles from many years ago. Sintra’s Cabo da Roca (Cape Roca) is the most western point of Portugal and Europe as a whole so we couldn’t resist running out to the point despite heavy rain and gale-force winds almost blowing us away.
Sunday 8 May saw us board a train for Oporto, keen to meet our guide, Diane, the director of the Melbourne company, Travel Enriched (www.travelenriched.com.au) which runs “Camino With a Difference” tours, and our walking companions, academic/writing tutor, Heather, and travel consultant Penny, both also from Melbourne. Steady rain sprinkled across hilly Oporto’s slate-coloured, medieval-looking churches and buildings, blending in with a deep-purple, heavy grey sky. Oporto is one of Europe’s most important cultural centres and once played a significant role in leading maritime discovery voyages to the “New World”. The rain didn’t dampen our enthusiasm and we enjoyed great food and discussed logistics at Tapabento restaurant before making our way back to the Hotel Moov for the night. Diane has been taking groups to this part of the world since 2009 and knows of great places to eat and stay. This three-star hotel option included daily transfers of baggage so we didn’t carry heavy backpacks. The Moov Hotel is very comfortable (similar to other hotels we were to experience), breakfast time ever lively with world travellers (including 10 fit-looking middle-aged men/pilgrims from Melbourne) tucking into generous breakfasts including hot food, fruit, cereals, many types of bread and cakes.
Monday and it was gloomy skies, rain and wind, but the five amigos – my spouse Michael the token male – set out to explore Oporto’s attractions, as locals went about their daily business. Little souvenir places served us well where we bought big, decidedly-unglamourous plastic rain jackets and over pants. Ditto a sports shop where we bought their last pair of walking poles for Michael and I to share. Diane kept the amigos happy including with a visit to the Livaria Lello & Irmao Bookshop “the most beautiful bookshop in the world” where JK Rowling was inspired to write the Harry Potter series. A short trip on the Rio Douro (“River of Gold”) meant seeing the city from a different angle and later a guided tour of a port distillery, Porto Calem (www.calem.pt) gave us a chance to sample fine ports. The many homeless people around streets and doorways with their blankets and swags reminded us that social problems and poverty are ubiquitous. We felt very blessed to have a warm place to stay. Evening fell, the rain continued and after much walking along cobble-stoned lanes and passages and down at least 1000 stone steps past what is said to be the “oldest door in the world”, we arrived at a fish restaurant by the Rio Douro. More Portuguese fine fare.
Tuesday and more exploring – including the 16th Century Church of Mercy – Igreja da Misericordia but after hot soup at the delightful Majestic Tea Rooms, by early afternoon we were transported to Oporto’s outskirts to tackle the inland route of the Camino Portuguese, bound for the small seaside harbour town, Vila Do Conde (pop 31,000).
With rain set in, it was decided to walk only 12 kms. Diane set a cracking pace and it wasn’t long before we were grateful we each had a walking stick. Heather ran tutorials on writing about the walk, reminding us about reasons for taking the journey. In his book, Walking the Camino: A Modern Pilgrimage to Santiago, former Canberra diplomat, Tony Kevin, noted the importance that some European Christian churches place on the pilgrimage for religious revival and consciousness-raising in the youth. Writing about his eight-week walk across Spain from Granada to Santiago, Tony noted that doctors and mental-health professionals see the therapeutic value of the pilgrimage for mind and body and that pilgrims to Santiago are strongly motivated by their spiritual needs. He also wrote that the pilgrimage seems to appeal alike to practising Christians and non-Christians and to determined humanists [which] “…confirms that something interesting is happening here in terms of spirituality and personal growth”. For us it was largely about increasing our self-knowledge, resetting life’s priorities, taking time for reflection and prayer, learning of others’ lives/cultures/beliefs, getting fit, experiencing places and landscape, and escaping from “real life for a while”.
It wasn’t long before we faced long, steep hills, cobbled and muddy uneven surfaces amid green fields and country fences of tightly-packed stones, many draped with red, yellow and mauve flowers and ground covers. Grape vines, grazing cattle, farmhouses, abandoned structures and myriad religious shrines were witness to our movements and privy to our conversations. Shrines dedicated to Our Lady and other religious figures dot The Way. The many locals wishing us “Buen Camino” were cheery and kind, often showing us the right way if we lost sight of those vital yellow arrows pointing towards Santiago. Other pilgrims greeted us. The 10 fit-looking Melbourne men bounded past, never to be seen again by us except briefly at the next morning’s breakfast.
The rain was intermittent. But lightning and thunder encouraged us to shelter in the Sao Pedro de Rates Cafe for tea and a quick dry-off. We heard young German women chatting animatedly and noticed their very large backpacks: they were “serious” pilgrims we agreed. Diane’s pace slowed. She reassured us that she only walked quickly when needing to keep out of traffic. We passed along tracks, cobble-stoned roads and forests and climbed a few small hills. Soon we were greeted by very helpful staff at at Vila Do Conde’s, comfortable Estalagem Do Brazao Hotel, the next day’s generous breakfast fuelling us for a day of walking.
On Wednesday we embarked on an 18km walk to Barcelos (pop 21,000) from Sao Pedro de Rates (where we’d been transported to avoid an industrial area). Barcelos is the home of the legendary cockerel and each Thursday hosts a large, lively market. En route with only light rain, no plastic over garments were needed. The countryside varied. Secluded woods and vineyards competed with busy roads. Buildings were often set close to the narrow thoroughfares. Motorists sped past, thankfully car noises on cobbled-stone roads gave us fair warning. Here and there a few largish ornate houses on small blocks in gated-like precincts appeared, not unlike some of Australia’s newer suburbs. Pedra Furada’s cafe run by Antonio was a beacon and gave us a chance to rest our feet, dry off and sample home-made vegetable soup and delicious cake. The cafe is a favourite of Diane’s and hardly surprisingly the owners treat her like royalty.
Little settlements between bigger villages with churches, shrines and town squares where people mingle and chat, were a constant. Whether chatting or silent, we helped each other, our conversations at pit stops sometimes about sore feet, blisters and distances ahead. Quite wet, bedraggled and a tad weary, it didn’t seem long before we’d arrived at another comfortable place, the Hotel Bagoeira in Barcelos. Later, walking around the village meant visiting churches and significant buildings. And we found a sports store where we bought their last set of walking poles. Gold!
Thursday morning’s late departure allowed us a stroll around Barcelos’ markets with its many offerings, ranging from live chickens and produce, to clothing, household goods and many types of furniture.
Looking out across Barcelos in the morning morning through the double-glazed windows of a comfortable hotel room confirmed that we definitely weren’t doing it as tough as those staying in pilgrim hostels. We were perhaps tourists, not purist pilgrims. Thursday’s walk encompassed 23km to Ponte De Lima which is reportedly the oldest town in Portugal and has Portugal’s largest concentration of baroque manors. This part of the walk was 50 per cent forest tracks and vineyards, a rigorous trek because of rain and we needed to trudge through mud. The pungent smell of animals and wet hay, a constant along the walk, was almost overpowering. There were rewards: picturesque scenery, tranquil sights of animals grazing in the fields and friendly locals wishing us Buen Camino. We just had to stop and pat the many cute, barking dogs perched on high fences protecting their owners’ properties. Camino cats were a different kettle of fish, responding to our eagerness to befriend them with hautiness and nonchalance, just like their feline cousins elsewhere.
Arriving in charming Ponte De Lima (on the southern bank of the River Lima) on Thursday afternoon, we hastened to our digs, the ARC’otel, a beautifully renovated hotel adjacent to an historic bridge near a pilgrim hostel. The hotel’s older facade contrasts with its modern, Scandanavian-looking guest rooms. And in true Portuguese style, the staff very helpful and the breakfasts, generous.
After dinner we walked along the River Lima, taking in various attractions including the Igreja Matriz 15th Century parish church on the Main Street. From the gallery of the Paco do Marques (the tourist office) we had a bird’s eye view of the town while the magnificent Chafariz fountain in the square, was a great backdrop for photos.
Continuing heavy rain and potentially dangerous hills made it impossible for us to walk to Rubiaes on Friday. Diane arranged transport for the 20km trip. But we had more time in Ponte De Lima, hence morning tea at the Ameadella Pastelarias cafe. And as if we hadn’t already been treated to enough great hotels, the Casa da Capela (a family-run guesthouse) in Rubiaes was superb. We’d been looking forward to this guesthouse. We weren’t disappointed. Convivial conversation with our hosts, generous serves of drinks, a hearty three-course evening meal, and breakfast on Saturday 14 May, fuelled us for a longish walk to Tui in Spain.
After Rubiaes we had a relatively-easy climb to Alto San Bento da Porta Aberta with its breathtaking views over the Minho Valley, followed by a downhill stretch of natural pathways, riverbeds and quiet country roads, and forests of eucalyptus, oak and pine trees. Crossing the border into Spain, the river became the Mino and we spent a short time in Valenca before crossing the bridge into Tui. We’d hoped for a break in the weather but this was not to be, though the rain did ease off somewhat. We had to carefully negotiate boggy tracks and painstakingly pick our way through slush and puddles, desperate to avoid slipping on the greasy rocks.
Apart from getting hurt, we thought of the loss of dignity if we were to fall into mud and slush. Our walking poles were invaluable especially where tracks had become muddy “mini rivers” and when avoiding the “rivers” meant becoming entangled in mesh wire fencing on the track’s side. The amigos helping each other was a reminder that a even a little “adversity” brings out the best in people. We arrived at the medieval castle-turned-shopping centre (a landmark we’d been looking out for).
But there were more stone stairs and a high bridge to negotiate, a bridge not for the fainthearted or those afraid of heights. The walk was long. But eventually we arrived, wet, bedraggled and with very muddy shoes, at Tui’s Hotel A Torre do Xudeo, which in earlier times, had been a gracious private home. Some time back, this dwelling was bequeathed to a long-term staff member who modified it for 12 people (six rooms). We scored a very comfortable and spacious attic, though its low ceilings meant bumped heads at times.
We ventured out into the quiet early evening just as the town was coming alive, people congregating around cafes and town squares for their traditionally-late dinner. We’d enjoyed a generous meal of tapas earlier, so had time for some serious people watching. It’d been a longish day of rain and mud and slush, not at all like some of our other European holidays of river and ocean cruising, fast trains, wall-to-wall cafes and restaurants, art galleries and modern shops. But then, this holiday wasn’t at all a hardship.
Later we followed the Atlantic coastline to tiny Oia to the magnificently-situated Cistercian Monastery before arriving in historic, Baiona, with its spectacular seaside fortress, the Fortaleza de Monterra , erected in the 11th century.
In 1493, a ship from the fleet of Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus, the Pinta, docked there for repairs, and the “discovery of the Americas” was announced. Exploring the spectacular seaside fortress before a superb lunch in the tiny fishing village, Panxon, gave us a chance for relaxed walking. Later in historic Pontevedra (on the River Lerez) we settled into a very comfortable suite at the Hotel Dabarca.
Walking around Pontevedra (pop 65,000) we visited the magnificently-restored old quarter with its small squares and granite streets, again seeing the slow awakening of the central area from about 5.00pm, people of all ages venturing out to socialise, eat, drink and be merry. And we visited galleries, cafes and churches, including the 16th C Basilica de Santa Maria A Grande.
Monday’s 16 May walk followed the Camino across the Ponte do Burgo beside the remains of an original Roman bridge, meandering via the peaceful villages, San Amaro, Barro and Rotonda to Tivo, to the historic Caldas de Reis. A small spa town, Caldas de Reis was once occupied by Celts. It has botanic gardens and thermal springs, so we took the time for foot and back massages and spas. The day’s 21km walk was fairly flat, but hot. Refreshment breaks had been most welcome, giving us a chance to have a spell, take off shoes and socks and cool down. Diane and Penny often strode ahead, their fitness obvious. Chatting as we walked, Michael took lots of photos, often joining Heather and I in solving many of the world’s social and political problems. We also took time to admire the magnificent wildflowers scattered around and across fences and walls. There was time for contemplation too. Tony Kevin’s Camino experience “…the pilgrimage takes your mind into new territory and encourages bold, lateral thinking [and]… can offer a piercing clarity of vision of the world, as well as sharpening appreciation of our common humanity…”, had some resonance for us.
Lunch that day was a delicious tortilla in a Barro cafe behind an open garage door under a house, not unlike houses in Australia, though it’s unlikely our local authorities would approve such eateries, well not without reference to myriad by-laws, regulations and rules.
Located near an historic bridge along the river, the Hotel Balneario Acuna in Caldas de Reis later provided comfortable accommodation, with ambience not entirely unlike some of Canberra’s hostels from the days when Canberra was growing rapidly. We ventured out into a cold windy night in the town to the Igrexa Santo Tomas, narrow winding streets and passageways and a main street which has remained unchanged for centuries.
By Tuesday 17 May we were excited to be on the home run as we departed Caldas de Reis for the 18km hike to Padron, where legend has it that St James the Apostle commenced his ministry to spread the word of Christianity in the first century AD. We trekked through woodlands dappled with sunlight and shade, similar to around Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin. But sections of deep green rainforest had a sub-tropical appearance. We walked on country roads alongside the picturesque Rio Valga to San Miguel, and along the banks of the Rio Sar, enjoying ever-changing rural landscape and wildflowers. Villages were dotted randomly throughout valleys, with a mixture of agricultural, residential and commercial properties and ever-present churches and religious shrines. As with previous days, many farmers waved as they toiled in fields. Others drove past with their families in heavily-laden tractors, greeting us, their trusty little dogs wagging their tails Buen-Camino style. It’d be easy to think of these Camino locals as having very simple and unsophisticated lives. But given the fast pace and complications of many richer societies, it’s debatable just who’s the more sophisticated.
On Tuesday afternoon, we arrived at Padron’s, Pension Jardin, a small family-run guesthouse in an historic villa, its old sandstone exterior perhaps belying its home comforts. Our later tapas dinner included some famous Padron Peppers from nearby Herbon, and as usual, we strolled around the village to check out local landmarks including the 18th century Convento do Carme.
Wednesday. Before leaving Padron we posed for photos near the Bronze Statue of Pilgrims, ready for the leg to Santiago de Compostela. This was a good day of walking, much of it through eucalyptus, oak and pine wooded areas. The rain had stopped and we were often in charming lanes, and as usual, trying to befriend a few dogs and cats, though a number of pigs caught our eye too. We seemed to encounter more pilgrims than previously, perhaps those keen to clock up the requisite 100km to qualify for a certificate proving they had walked the Camino. We passed by many homes with well-cared-for gardens, often only a fence separating us from their flowers and generously-laden inviting fruit trees. Most of our over-20km walk had been relaxed. We managed to tackle a few hills rather speedily once we reached the town and Santiago Cathedral was in our sights, though it seemed to take aeons to get there. As with the many other churches we’d visited in Portugal and Spain, the Cathedral is very impressive, its ornateness, statues and altars verifying the importance of God and religion to these nations.
After several visits to the Cathedral, and a congratulatory drink at a local bar, we settled into the well-located hotel – San Martin Pinario: Hospederia Seminario Mayor – a converted 16th-century stone monastery. Comfortable and modern, the hotel has a relaxed atmosphere, great breakfasts, and welcome alcoves and lush gardens to sit and contemplate – where we chatted and shared a sense of achievement.