July 17, 2018

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, they mostly merge into a route from France or Portugal, which are well-marked and have hostels along. The closer to the goal, the more convenient infrastructure there is. So, some people choose to get to either of these routes and start their journey there. That was the subject of an email I got from a friend at the beginning of the summer, whether I'd want to join her on the walk from Portugal.

To be honest, I didn't see an appeal of the pilgrimage as some sort of spiritual ritual. 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. However, the idea of taking a stroll through two countries I haven't seen yet and sleeping on beaches to soak up the atmosphere and save the budget sounded exactly like my type of vacation! Moreover, my name is a translation of James — if I take up a pilgrimage, I might as well do one dedicated to someone I was named after. And besides, I grew up in Europe, where Christianity shaped the surroundings more than any other religion. Right, "I am in," I responded.

The plan was to fly into Porto, Portugal, and walk from there. It is a short version (we ended up walking a tad over 250km / 155mi) of the path. More adventurous folks take it up from Lisbon, which 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 to boarding the flight; the weather was excellent, and I looked forward to seeing the Pyrenees, a mountain range on the French-Spanish border, from the bird's eye. However, my packing method (I started at 3 a.m. on the day of departure, as usual) took its toll, and I fell asleep even before the plane left the runway — I missed the border. No big deal tho, I woke up not too long after and still saw neat outlooks over the peninsula.

The plane made a neat loop around Porto; unfortunately, I was seated on the other side of the plane than the one that got the view. No bother, tho, because I got a decent alternative instead: a vista on the coastline. "I'll be walking there soon;" I was thinking, while Richard's Selected Ambient Works added a nice touch to finish the atmosphere as we landed.

From the airport (Porto has a nice one), we took a subway to 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 following morning! It was vivid, full of attractive streets and people.

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

There was something appealing on every corner. Roads, lit by delightful evening light, were filled with cars making their way through a myriad of people — many locals wore classy dresses or suits, 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 movie.

Normally, if I walk around with a camera and see an interesting street, I wait and let someone or something get into my frame to form a nice picture. Here, however, I had to skip this instinct because the time was tight, the remaining daylight short, and the places to visit were abundant. So, we just ran through, and I made only a few snapshots on the go.

The main point we 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 that gives out a nice view of the city — mainly during sunsets.

Under the bridge is one of Porto's nightlife centers, and as we walked by, we 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 unveils 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 a 172m / 564ft long span, which was once the longest of its type in the world. So cool!

With the bridge marked off the list, I texted a Portuguese friend whom I met in Poland, and she said, "In Porto, you have to eat a francesinha!" and recommended a place where to get it. Sweet, that'll do, it was supper time anyway! Now, 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 try 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 not to greet people here in Polish. In the restaurant, this magnified beyond my 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.


The next morning was foggy but atmospheric nevertheless. After 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, we soon found a former railroad track...

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

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

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

These stairs took us to the main cathedral, an interesting take on 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 to 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 were playing soccer, the adults sipped coffee during their siesta, and 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 was 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, hygiene stuff, 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 top up my stuff overnight. But I managed to lose 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.


A decent way to wake up.

Do you know that feeling when you wake up having a song or quote stuck in your head? I woke up thinking about "The smell of napalm in the morning." That felt random, and I wondered why my mind was thinking of Vietnam. Then I looked at my arms, and I got the message. 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 the last five years, I never got such severe sunburn - I got a feeling that I had become more resistant to the sun, but it 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 human-made environments that 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. Attempting to memorize some phrases from the "Portuguese for Dummies" book the night before had some effect. At one point, 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 the shade, they were impressive from the architectural and decorative point of view. Every single one was different, with some unique features. 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, "Ain't Sherlock your name?" But then the brain kicked in: "Nod and smile, you are doing business with this dude." So, I nodded, smiled, and got a €10 discount. All right!


This morning I woke up in a good mood; "Today will be grand!" I thought. 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 and 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 showed 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, as there was a lighthouse sticking through the horizon, so we wanted to see it up close.

It was a good call: just underneath 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 to 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 wonderful paths.

On one of them, I had a second interaction with strangers that day, rather brief this time. A couple stood motionless, blocking the path.

"Hello!" I said.
"There was a snake!" the girl responded.
"Oh, yeah?" I looked around but saw nothing.
"Oh yeah!" she added.
"About this long!" she continued while making a roughly four-foot-wide gesture. I scanned the ground; nothing. I looked at them, still frozen in the middle of the trail, and thought about whether we would just gonna stay here standstill waiting for another one, or what solution they propose. The girl answered before I asked:
"You can go first if you want." Still nothing.
"Well, might as well. Cheers!" So, we went ahead, paying a bit more caution to those rustles in the grass around. We saw no snake, and soon, the path merged with yet another amazing beach.

There, we got into a properly strong wind. One had to shield their face because the wind picked the sand from the beach and was literally sandblasting everything in its way. It reminded me of a similar experience from Scotland, only there it was ice instead of sand. But I have good memories of 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. Yet, while it was sunny, 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 thought: "being in Portugal and skipping 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 to safety reasons, but man, it felt great! And the sunset, well, it wasn't too shabby either.


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. Behind 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 inland, and 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 South 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 time zone), and a bit closer to our goal, Santiago's cathedral.


Thanks for reading!

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Stories