July 17, 2018 - 6 comments

Camino de Santiago Pt.1: Portugal

How I went on a pilgrimage…

The Camino de Santiago, also known as the path of Saint James, is a road leading into the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of the northwestern division of Spain, Galicia. It’s been a major Christian pilgrimage since the 9th century.

While people walk it from all over the place, the most common road leads from France. The second most favorite direction is from Portugal and that; well, at the beginning of the summer I got an email from a friend, whether I want to join her on it. Bam!

To start with, I'll be honest. I think that If someone wants to be a good person, they can start instantly in the place they are. And if someone is an ass with no will to improve, they can walk to Lhasa, Mecca, Santiago, to the moon and back, and still be an ass.

On the other hand, the idea of taking a stroll through two countries I haven't seen yet, sleeping on the beaches to soak up the atmosphere and save the budget.. that actually sounds exactly like my type of vacation! Moreover; my name is a translation of James - so if take up a pilgrimage, might as well towards someone I was named after. And besides the name, Christianity shaped my life more than any other religion. Right, I am in.

So the plan was to fly into Porto, Portugal, and walk from there. It is a short version (we ended walking a tad over 250km / 155mi) of the path, the full deal starts in Lisbon and is more than twice the length. We picked this solution as it offers scenic outlooks, the distance is easily doable within a 2-week vacation, and we didn't want to die. Simple as that.

Fast forward, boarding the flight in the Central Europe, the weather was good and I was looking forward to see the Pyrenees, a mountain range on the French-Spanish border, from the bird's eye. However, my packing method (I've started at 3am the day of departure, as usual) took its toll and I fell asleep even before the plane left the runway - and I missed the border. No big deal tho, as I woke up not too long after and saw a good portion of the peninsula.

The plane even made a neat loop around Porto, unfortunately I was sitting on the opposite side from the one which got that neat view of the city. But I got a decent alternative instead: the view on the coastline.

"I'll be walking on that soon;" I was thinking, while Richard's Selected Ambient Works added a nice touch to finish the atmosphere.

From the airport (Porto has a nice one), we took a subway to the downtown, where we had a hostel for a night - That way we could set off nice and fresh the next day. But having the evening free, of course we went to see bits of the city.

Within a second, it was clear that the city would deserve A LOT more time than just an evening and the next morning. It was vivid, full of interesting streets and people.

Portugal's famous Azulejo tiles, covering many local facades.

There was something appealing on every corner. Roads, lit by a nice evening sun, were filled with cars which were making their way through a myriad of people - many locals wore a classy dress or a suit, and tourists had fun tasting wines and enjoying the vibe in general. Above all of that, seagulls were circling in the sky and to me, this unit was a far better visual to watch than any TV show or a movie.

Normally, if I see some interesting street, I'd wait and let someone or something get into my frame to form some composition I'd like, a nice picture. Here, however, I had to skip this instinct because the time was tight, remaining daylight very short, and the places I wanted to visit abundant. So I just run through, making a few snaps on the go. Oh well.

The main point I wanted to see was the Dom Luís I Bridge.

If there's one must-see point of the city, it is this. It is an impressive piece of civil engineering which gives out a nice view on the city - mainly during sunsets..

Under the bridge is one of Porto's nightlife centers and as we walked by, you could hear someone down playing guitar and singing Floyd's Wish You Were Here. I was a happy human being, let me tell you.

Just behind the bridge is the monastery Serra do Pilar, another good observation deck, which actually unveil the bridge in its full beauty:

It was built by the end of 1886, and besides pedestrians it handles a light rail and vehicles. It has 172m / 564ft long span, which was once the longest of its type in the world. Very cool!

This off the list, I was texting with a Portuguese friend who I met in Poland, who said "In Porto, you have to eat a francesinha!" and recommended a place where to get it. Sweet, that'll do! It was the supper time anyway. If you're like me and never heard of francesinha before, imagine a sandwich, but replace all the salad, tomatoes and any other vegetables with meat, meat and more meat. The cheese is on the top, partially melted, and the whole thing is soaked in a sauce. Interesting.

Now, every time on the road, I'm trying to interact with the locals. To do so in foreign lands, one often needs some language skills. Which; unfortunately, isn't my prime. When I moved to Poland last year, I couldn't understand Polish a single bit, so my brain made an equation with China, where I stayed before (and also struggled to understand). So when I went to some store on my first day in Poland, I had an awkward moment when I said things like "hello" and "thanks" in Chinese. Then I learned bits in Polish, and suddenly, here in Portugal, I had to convince my brain to not greet people here in Polish. In the restaurant, this magnified beyond the comfort zone as I slipped out a few Polish phrases. Gosh, I wish I would be better at languages.

Anyway. Time to get some sleep.


DAY1

The next morning was foggy, but atmospheric nevertheless. After a breakfast we needed to check in inside the local cathedral. To get there, I picked a direction that involved the riverside. Although the map said that there's no route, I thought to give it a shot anyway. Sure enough, soon we joined a former railroad track...

...which was utterly neat and offered sweet views all over. This is something I trully love; go off the common roads and discover some proper gems that no tourist guide tell you about.

What an observation deck. And all for ourselves. Good call.

Once in the downtown, we had to join the ordinary streets and sidewalks. It was all right, they were nice too.

These stairs took us to the main cathedral, an interesting take on the Romanesque architecture..

There we picked up the pilgrim's passport, a document into which you collect stamps from churches or local businesses along the way, to prove your journey. Then we started - going north, going to Spain.

A maze of neat streets slowly evolved into residential areas, warehouses, and eventually we made it on the Atlantic coastline. Excitement, even the sky has cleared out.

As it wasn't the main season yet, the beaches were mostly empty. But the neighborhoods were alive and fun to observe. The kids play were playing soccer, adults sipped coffee during the their siesta, every now and then the fresh ocean air got scented by a blend of weed... stereotypical Portugal at its finest!

Leaving the city behind.

By 4 p.m., we crossed many beaches and walked through the rural countryside.

Also, by 4 p.m., my backpack, which weighed around 9 kg / 20 lbs, felt like I am carrying a dang rhino. It was expected, the first day of backpacking is always the worst, then the body adapts and by the end of it you don't even feel that you have something on your back. But now, oh uh.

Speaking of the backpack, this is what I had:

Relatively an old model, but a keeper. It survived many adventures across continents.

The biggest portion of bulk took my sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Besides these, I had a few shirts, socks and underwear, stuff for hygiene, a jacket and two pairs of shoes and trousers.

Then, you can see a solar panel strapped to it. I charged my devices straight out of that. Usually I'd use it to keep my powerbank juiced, which would then top up my stuff overnight. But I managed to lost it just before the trip. It took me a good inner dialogue to get over it.. "Well at least your backpack will be lighter ~ imbecile" Anyway, 9 Kilos.

After a snack break, we took a small diversion from the path to check out the Apulia windmills on the coastline.

Then we enjoyed the evening sun, found a good camping spot and called it a day.


DAY2

A decent way to wake up.

You know that feeling when you wake up and you have a song, or quote stuck in your head.. So I woke up, while thinking about "the smell of napalm in the morning." That was random, so I was wondering why is my mind thinking of Vietnam. Looking at my arms, I got the impression. They were properly (sun)burnt, having the color of a rare steak. Ah. Maybe "the smell of fresh barbecue in the morning" would be more fitting, but that's no famous quote I guess. Over some last 5 years I got a feeling that I became more resistant to the sun. Turned out that the countries where I lived have no sun, at least compared to Portugal.

Whatever. We packed our stuff, cleaned the forest from some rubbish we found (when I sleep outside, I always like to leave the place cleaner than before I came) and set off to make some progress.

Walking through neat rural, natural areas..

..and some man made environments which looked like a cool movie set.

As we were walking down the trail, I tried to greet other people we encountered. "Bom dia," piece of cake. The "Portuguese for Dummies" book I've tried to memorize the night ago had some effect. Once we were passing an elderly lady who worked on her garden. Just as I greeted her, she reached into a prepared bucket and handed me a bottle of water with a small pack of biscuits. I was surprised and wanted to politely refuse - I am sure there were others more in need. But no matter, I had to keep it. The kindness of people won't cease to amaze me. "Obrigada, obrigada."

a river + an old stone bridge + a mill + gum-tree forests = a path I like.

Like the previous day, we stopped by some churches. Besides the chance to refill water bottles and take a break in a shade, they were interesting from architectural and decorative point of view. Every single one was different, with some unique feature. Like this entrance street, for example.

The afternoon was turning into an evening, and our plan was to establish some spot in a forest nearby as our bedroom for the night. But it was quite overgrown and filled with mosquitoes. These suckers were hungry, so we cleared the position and opted to give a try to some hotel in the nearest town. The first one we tried had one last free room, but the owner couldn’t stop laughing: "You look like a lobster, haha." My first thought for the response was something like "Yeah, ain't Sherlock your name?" But then the brain kicked in: "Nod and smile, you are making business with this dude." So I nodded, smiled, and got an €10 discount. All right, that's the way to do it.


DAY3

This morning I woke up into a good mood; "Today will be grand!" And it was.

elegant industrial addition into a nice landscape; aye,that's always a good way to start a day.

To enter the city in front of us, Viana do Castelo, we had to walk on ~1.2 km / .7miles long bridge, which also carries a railroad. We passed a group of locals having a morning walk, when a freight train showed up. The group started waving, and the train honked in answer. Everyone had fun, good times. I started thinking of reggae, and we entered the city:

After a bit of walking, we got into Montedor. there we met some Germans, who were a bit lost. So I shown them the map and we chatted a bit. Then the guy asked "Let me guess; are you from Scotland?" Ha! Usually, when people take a guess, they say the Netherlands. This was the first time someone actually spotted the place I live in, based on my accent. Sweet!

We went off the marked path, 'cause there was a lighthouse sticking through the horizon and we wanted to see it up close. Also a good call...

..because just underneath of it was another windmill, even more interesting than the ones we saw previously.

...then we saw more cool windmills, some modern residential architecture...

...and returned by the ocean.

That was just as excellent. Millions of flowers, nice rock formations, beaches...

..where we waded through warm rivers, watched windsurfers..

...explored a few fortresses from the 17th century...

...and walked some amazing paths.

On one of them, I had the second interaction with strangers that day. There was a couple standing frozen in the middle of the trail. "There was a snake, about this long," the girl said and made roughly 4 feet wide gesture.  "Oh, yeah?" ~ "Oh yeah. You can go first, if you want." ~ "Might as well, cheers!" So I went ahead, paying a bit more caution to those rustles in the grass around.

In no time, the path merged with yet another nice beach..

...where we got into a properly strong wind. One had to shield their face, because the wind was literally sandblasting everything in its way. It reminded me a similar experience from Scotland, only there it was ice instead of sand. I have good memories on both.

That beach got us into the town called Vila Praia de Âncora...

..where we decided to stay for the night. To me, it was also a good opportunity to go ahead and finally swim in the ocean. To be fair, it was sunny, but the temperature wasn't in very high digits, and the wind didn't help to prove this decision either. Another slightly worrying aspect was that there was, besides a few surfers in wet suits, literally nobody in the water. But I was thinking "being in Portugal and skip on swimming the ocean, pfff. That's not happening."

High tide was coming hard, bringing massive waves. Although the access couldn't be better, it was a tad of a challenge to get into the water without falling. I didn't swim far due safety reasons, but man, it felt great. And the sunset, well, it wasn't too shabby either.


DAY4

Get up, get some fruit, get going.

Along the way, one of the plastic clips that held my backpack's straps broke, but making an extra knot did the trick. Only if every problem had such an easy fix. From one curve, this view opened on the path winding ahead of us:

That hill above is in Spain already. However, between it and us was the Minho estuary. There are two options, one path leads into inland, the other stays on the coast. As we liked the oceanside, we went for the second. So once at the estuary, we boarded a small boat, together with two ladies from S. Korea, who walked all the way from Lisbon...

crossing the border towards Spain.

That boat took us towards new adventures, an hour forward (Spain is in a different timezone) and a bit closer to our goal, the Santiago's cathedral.


CLICK FOR THE PART 2

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Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories

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