Walking the Portuguese Camino – by Amanda Panazzolo
Scanning my Facebook page you would deduce that I have very few interests outside of travelling, in particular, travelling to Spain to walk the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela and you would be correct in this assumption. Even though I love travelling to the wide variety of destinations the world has to offer I’ve returned to this path three times in the past three years.
My first Camino from Pamplona to Santiago de Compostela and then to Finisterra occurred after life pushed me to pursue my dream of seven years in the making. I’d devoured everything Camino from forums, books, film and blogs. I was a Camino sponge and not to brag but if there’d been an exam on the subject I feel I would’ve done okay.
To declare I was a Camino tragic would have been an understatement however I was living vicariously through other people’s travels. I was saturated with information and now I had to realise my dream and just do it.
When Dreams Turn Into Reality
The opportunity arose in the Northern winter of 2015/16 my husband, Adrian and I flew to Barcelona and caught a train to Pamplona where we began our walk around 65 kms short of the traditional starting point at St. Jean. This journey was amazing and the Way revealed to us the simplicity of life that we were not enjoying at home, with a sick elderly parent, stressful jobs and children starting their own life journey’s as young adults, we relished in the basics of walking. At the end of our walk we spent about ten days discovering Portugal because we were so close and it was a destination that I’d always wanted to visit. As we walked around Porto we noticed the familiar yellow way markers painted on the ground to guide pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela and wondered what it would be like to walk the Portuguese Way.
When we returned to Australia it wasn’t long before I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Luckily it was very treatable with surgery and I spent the latter part of the year in radiotherapy while trying to reduce the stress in my life. As I was healing the travel bug bit again and I had a chance meeting with Lisa from Big Heart Adventures, the Camino beckoned me again but this time I was going to do something on my own without the safety net of a tall man by my side. Almost a year from my last radiotherapy appointment I left Australia and began my own solo pilgrimage again from Pamplona. This time the Camino taught me that I could travel comfortably and safely on my own, it helped me to heal from some past challenges and it nurtured me when I needed it. It provided friendship, amazing conversations, terrible singing (mine that is) wonderful food and a variety of accommodation from rooms in people’s homes to beautiful old monasteries.
Before my solo Camino I was in talks with Lisa about co-hosting a women’s Camino from Sarria to Santiago, a 115 kilometre journey which we led the following year. This was an opportunity for me to share my experiences with like-minded women who preferred a guided experience. When we successfully arrived in Santiago, like all travel obsessed people we immediately began considering other Caminos. With so many to choose from it was fun to discuss all of the various routes however with the burgeoning interest in the Portuguese Way it was decided that this would be the next one. Finally after three very different walks on the Camino Frances I was to venture out and discover a new Way.
When Caminos Become An Obsession
The Portuguese Camino was fairly unknown to me. I know most of the Frances like an old friend however this new guy was going to present me with some challenges. Firstly there was a new language to learn so Spanish was bumped from my Duolingo app in favour of Portuguese. Oh and a quick trip to the US to visit my son and fly back to Australia just before we were due to leave for Porto ensured that our bodies had no idea what time frame they should be on.
There was a guide book to purchase and luckily my favourite bookshop had only one to choose from so I grabbed it. However it was in a different format and not written by the usual Camino author that I was used to so there would be a learning curve here as well. With two or three different paths, four if you include the spiritual variants, of completing this path there was a lot to consider. There was gear to pack for the late autumn walk. Learning from my recent summer Camino where I packed way too much, a rooky mistake, I pared down my luggage to mimic my first two walks where around 10% of your body weight is the ideal amount to carry. However we had a bag transported to our accommodation every day so this was not so much a big issue for us.
Adrian who was keen for another Camino jumped at the chance to caddy for me on this trip and we endured the trial of more long haul flights over a 24 hour period. In all we’d flown on 13 flights in about two weeks. It was a test in stamina but we were going to do this.
Porto, Portugal – Ruffled Beginnings
We arrived in Porto around 5pm in the twilight of evening and with little understanding of our body clock time we booked into our hotel in the old part of town. To revive our spirits we quickly went out for a stroll to remind ourselves of the beautiful architecture of the old town buildings which are famously festooned in blue and white tiles and we soon noticed a familiar yellow arrow pointing towards the Porto Cathedral. We heard the constant sing song of the gulls, reminding us that we were in a port town on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean and the beautifully lit bridge spanning the River Duro connects Porto to the famous port wine cellar doors on the southern shore. With a little wait for the restaurants to open, generally around 8pm, we stocked up with snacks from a small supermarket to sustain us on the road ahead because we weren’t sure what, if anything would be open the next day. At the designated time we found a quaint little eatery a five minute walk from our hotel where the delicious food helped us to quickly fall asleep when we arrived back in our room.
The Walk Begins
Up early the next morning we ventured down to the breakfast room to discover the usual European breakfast fare of cheeses, meats, a selection of yogurts, cereals, bread for toasting, freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee and of course a selection of cakes and pastries including (drum roll please) the famous Pasteis de Belem or Portuguese tarts. I was so excited to see these little pastries filled with custard that I’d enjoyed on our previous trip to Portugal. With a belly full of yummy sugary treats (not what I normally eat for breakfast but when I’m away it would be rude not to indulge in the local specialities) and our backpacks packed, walking poles at the ready and our one piece of forwarding luggage remaining in the lobby we began our walking journey north.
Our starting point for the day was 10 kms from our hotel in Porto so to reduce the number of kilometres we needed to walk, our accommodation for the night was 4kms north of the traditional first day which could have made it a 37km day so we decided to catch a cab to the Matosinhos Market (another recognised starting point). We found a taxi rank close to the hotel and there my Portuguese failed miserably. I took out my guide book and began fumbling for the correct page, trying to pronounce Matosinhos correctly and pointing wildly at the wrong place on the map. I dropped my gear on the footpath, backpack one way and my walking pole into the gutter. My jetlagged nerves were shot but Adrian was there to collect my gear and place it serenely into the car while somehow the cab driver finally understood me and subsequently dropped us off at the correct place with little fuss on his part anyway.
We’d walked a fair way and eventually found a small seaside café that was still open to locals so we took our chance and enjoyed our first Portuguese Camino coffee as the heavens emptied it contents onto the beach and battered the small café with gale force winds. We’d arrived just in time. As water seeped into the café from the flimsy café blinds and with little language I managed to order us some delicious cheese toasties and we ate them while we watched nature’s spectacular lightening show. When the storm eased we ventured from the safety of our cosy café and continued through post card cute fishing villages with their huts painted in bright colours and fishing pots stacked neatly around the path.
Towards the end of our first day’s walk we veered from the boardwalk and into the streets of Vila Do Conde. An imposing hill top monastery watched down on us from a hill as we crossed the bridge over the river and found ourselves in a pretty town housing an impressive 5km long aqueduct. We continued through the town and onto our destination for the night.
The following days saw our walk continue close to the seaside boardwalks and then for a change in scenery we turned past, the soon to be common local site markers, football clubs. We were heading inland along roads through market gardens of leeks and ice-berg lettuces before we found ourselves briefly walking through pine and eucalypt forests. We had walked about 15km when we found ourselves hungry and in need of a rest so we found a pilgrim café that was open and full of locals.
The waiter handed me an English menu but I was interested in the daily specials which were advertised in Portuguese on a blackboard. Looking around the café I noticed local diners were eating only one or two different dishes and I was keen to sample the local food. When my food came it was served in a large sized casserole pot with a massive spoon to dish out my many portions. Adrian had his own meal and I had enough to give him another meal sized portion from my casserole of mainly rice and chicken on the bone which was simple but tasty and filling. Our meal was more than enough fuel to power us through the drizzly weather and to our next hotel. This café was also a good opportunity to use the facilities, as public toilets are not really a thing past the beach front in Portugal, or Spain for that matter.
The Journey Continues
From Esposende to Viana do Castelo we continued away from the coast and onto paved and cobbled streets of the seaside villages which hugged the hillside to the right and with sea views to our left. The way markers rarely took us through main streets but rather via the back streets of towns where cafés were often closed for the season. Luckily there were a few open for coffee but our supplies of protein bars were coming in very handy.
I had read ahead in my guide book that there was a river crossing imminent and with the amount of rain we were experiencing I was worried that the walkway would be flooded. It had come time for us to enter the woodland where the crossing was situated and we could hear the river gushing down the hill with great force. Occasionally, we caught a glimpse of the river through the trees and we could see that it was flowing with a lot of energy and power and I began to think that we would have to divert around this section of the path. We finally emerged from the forest at the crossing and saw that the walkway was well above the river which gave me some peace of mind however with no guard rails I was still going to cross very carefully. God knows where I would have ended up if I’d fallen in, out to sea that’s where.
Our final day’s walk in Portugal, before we crossed into Spain, really challenged our spirits over the course of 27km. The wind had set in to a gale and it had drizzled for most of the day. It was with relief when we finally reached our beautiful four star hotel overlooking a beautiful estuary and Spain as it was becoming dark outside. Adrian and I looked guiltily at our wet selves and backpacks as we tried not to drip too much on the beautiful lobby floor while the receptionist slowly booked us into our comfortable room overlooking the pool deck. It was hard to stand still after being on my feet all day and my legs and feet were killing me, I just wanted to sit down. When I could walk comfortably again, at breakfast the next morning, we were welcomed by a gorgeous pink sky framing Spain on the other side of the river mouth. At the end of a big day like that we always think that we will never be able to walk like that again until you have a restful night’s sleep and then we’ll happily do it all over again the next day.
The storm had passed and the water was mirror like. We were to catch a ferry into Spain to continue our journey to Santiago but instead the Camino had other plans for us. We were headed for the ferry terminal in Caminah but this was also a place where the inland coastal route crossed the coastal route (can become a bit confusing) so we continued out of town, against my better judgement and walked for another 10km. We must have been getting fitter because this didn’t seem so far but when we stopped to rest and looked at the map we had walked a fair way on the wrong Camino path.
As we considered walking back to Caminah or catching a cab back to the ferry terminal a small car pulled up beside us. The occupants were older than us and spoke very little English but they could see the confusion on our faces. We asked if they knew of any taxis operating in this small village on a Sunday. I wasn’t confident but the driver consulted his wife, in the passenger seat by way of eye contact and promptly gestured for us to get in the car. They would drive us back to Caminah. I was ready to trust these people purely because I didn’t want to walk any further in the wrong direction so we hopped into the car and the driver cranked up the radio while he sang along to the latest music and waved wildly and tooted his horn at his friends standing outside of the local cafes. Adrian and I just looked at each other with our knees around our chins, our backpacks at our feet and just grinned at each other. (What are we doing? Going with the flow)
When we arrived in Caminah with another English speaking passenger (our host’s friend) wedged into the back seat with us, we saw that the ferry terminal was closed and the ferry was on dry docks. There was’nt enough water in the estuary for the ferry to cross at that time. Before I could finish worrying about our next step our driver turned the car around and said that he would drive us to the ferry terminal on the Spanish side of the river via a bridge that is about 10kms up stream. Talk about Camino spirit which had well and truly helped us out. It turns out that our kind driver and his friend were heading over to the Spanish side of the river anyway to buy petrol where it was cheaper. As we said our goodbyes and profusely thanked our driver, his wife and his friend, we were left with a profound sense of joy and gratitude for the tremendous good will of these people.
Spain – yay!
We were now in Galicia in Spain. Hooray, the sense of relief was amazing and now we only had to walk about 5km to reach our destination of A Guarda. We were able to spot our first way marker that was so familiar from previous Spanish Caminos and we immediately headed up a hill into a eucalypt forest where we spotted a variety of fungi. Entering town almost alongside participants from a fun run and past the finish line gave the day a sense of achievement. After settling into the hotel we found our way to the harbour where seafood restaurants lined the curve of the shore. We chose a restaurant at the end of the vast selection, the one with the cheapest menu del dia, this is a tourist town after all and prices reflected its status. Here we enjoyed a lovely lunch in celebration of our adventurous day.
The next day we once again walked with the Atlantic Ocean by our side where we watched as we walked, perfect surfing sets rolling onto the beach. As we walked out of town we noticed for the first time that there were four other pilgrims walking on the path ahead of us in the distance. Because of the season we rarely saw another pilgrim on the track. It was after about an hour that we caught up with them and while we were still behind them I noticed that one of the pilgrims was walking with only one leg while supporting himself with a pair or crutches. I considered the different type of paths and hilly terrain this young man had to face as he walked his Camino. As the paths steepened we were able to pass the Italian pilgrims easily but it made me appreciate my two legs which carried me along the path and I marvelled at his ability to conquer the uneven wet and narrow lanes that would easily tire an able person. We crossed paths with the four pilgrims throughout the day but then that was the last we saw of them.
We headed to a pretty coastal town of Baiona the site of a medieval fortress and Parador, luxury accommodation for well healed pilgrims. The path followed the coast for much of the day and apparently there was a turn off at some point to cross the headland instead of going around it but do you think Adrian and I saw the turn off? We appreciated the stunning sea views and took our time to sit by the ocean and munch on our protein bars. Once we arrived we saw an appealing town with its tree lined promenades, quaint old town alleys where we found good food and a yacht harbour overlooked by the fortress.
Our next stop was in a town called Vigo which is actually about 4km from the Camino pathway. This was a big walk into town but with finer weather it seemed more doable than our struggle into Caminah. Our hotel was situated in the old town where the streets had just had its festive lights illuminated for the season. Locals engaged in the evening stroll through the festively lit gardens and sipped drinks in the many tapas bars which lined the avenues. Unfortunately for us walk weary souls we couldn’t wait until 9pm when the restaurants opened so we found a supermarket and bought some food there. The next morning after a helpful local confirmed that we were on the right path, we returned to the top of the hill (what goes down – must go up??) to the predominantly flat Camino path which winds around the coast providing glimpses of the magnificent coast line.
The Last Hoorah – What A Feast
For the next few days Adrian and I walked in various gradations of rain, it had become the new normal. Our path wound around beautiful medieval villages where we stayed in a variety of different styles of accommodation from small business hotels to larger tourist hotels and casa rurals which were slightly off the path but situated in beautiful locations. On our final day before leaving for Santiago de Compostela we arrived at our Casa Rural very bedraggled and dripping wet. As the restaurant was across the path from the accommodation we were a bit confused as to where to go first. A man (turns out he was our host) spied us from the restaurant and invited us in for a free coffee. Adrian and I stripped off our dripping wet rain gear and entered the boutique restaurant and sat at one of the tables while our host made us a coffee. After we’d finished our coffees our host was giving us all the time in the world however, perhaps a little ungratefully I just wanted to get out of my wet clothes, have a shower and relax. Finally he got the hint and we were able to check in. It wasn’t long before I realised that we hadn’t eaten and it was Spanish lunch time – past 2pm at least. With the rain still pouring down we ventured back to the restaurant where we enjoyed a beautiful meal and when it was time to pay he said come for dinner you can pay then. When dinner time arrived he opened the restaurant early at 7:30pm for us non-Spanish time eaters. Again we were the only diners but the three course meal was amazing and he only charged us 15 euros each. Breakfast was also an epicurean delight and was a highlight on our last day of walking. Also, it’s one of the reasons why despite the long distance walking every day that I didn’t lose any weight.
Do You Ever Really Finally Arrive?
The rain had eased overnight and by the time we were half way to our final destination we had to stop walking, remove our rain coats and don our sun glasses. This walk which had presented so many challenges was now easing off and the sun was coming out to welcome us into town. As we walked into Santiago along a new path (for us) I reflected on the trials we had overcome to reach this far. Arriving in the square in front of the Cathedral we stood alone as the only pilgrims for a good while. It was unlike the constant stream of arrivals that I had witnessed just a few months previously in September which felt a bit weird because we were not sharing this arrival with anyone else. It had been a fairly solitary Camino experience.
As my fourth arrival into the square I was somewhat familiar with the layout of the town however this time in particular brought a different mood with the fewer numbers of tourists. The town had closed in on itself and the familiar alfresco café tables and chairs were relegated to a more comfortable placement inside the buildings and even though I’d been looking forward to a delicious ice-cream for most of the journey, the ice-cream shop was now closed for the season. However, the food market was open and we wandered back into the park, paid our respects to the local icons, The Two Marias and wandered through the Christmas markets. Strolling through the streets of Santiago felt like a home coming where I was a regular now and there was no need for big display from my temporary adopted home.
The challenges I’d faced completing this walk brought with them a change in my state of mind which is the Camino way of doing things after all. We began the walk severely jet lagged and it had rained for most of the journey which held the potential for some nerves and grumpiness but the Camino has a sneaky way of unravelling you. At first I was unfamiliar and unsure of the Portuguese Way and its language but I was now comfortable as I’d communicated with the new language and even though we did get lost a little bit, I could find my way along the Portuguese Route and I kind of know my way around Santiago really well. Best of all I had my best friend along to enjoy the ride, wet gear and all. My prescription: Walk a Camino soon to find some inner contentment and a change in your state of mind.
I appreciate and have much gratitude and love for the people who nurture my sense of adventure and travel especially Adrian, and Lisa who offered me this assignment. Thank you so much.
Amanda Panazzolo is an aspiring author, teacher, mother, wife, carer and valued member of the Big Heart Adventures Leadership Team.