The Way of Saint James
Want to see the Spanish countryside? And get loads of outdoor exercise to boot? The Way is the Way!
Many people experience this pilgrimage every year. They come for different reasons, and there are different ways to accomplish the Camino. I do not purport to be an expert as I have only just finished my first one, but I can give the basics and then, for my family and friends, the details and photos from my own journey.
- Walk or bike or horseback ride to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, ending at the Cathedral where Saint James is buried.
- Start from France, Portugal, or southern Spain. Follow the stone pillars, spray-painted arrows, and scallop-shell tiles that point the way.
- Carry all basic supplies on your back and find an albergue, or refugio for the pilgrims, to spend the night in.
- To document your efforts, collect stamps from cafés, churches, and albergues along the route every day. Show the stamps to the Santiago Office to become a certified Pilgrim!
My friends and I chose the Caminho da Costa, or the Portuguese Coastal Way. Why? Because we only had two weeks for the trip (Lisbon would add many days to the walk) and because I loved visiting Lisbon last year but never got to see Porto! Also, the idea of walking along the oceanside appealed to us.
Mayur, Nic, and I gave ourselves a day and a half to see Porto first! We explored the city on our own and walked all over. From our chic hostel, Gallery Hostel, we started with the Crystal Palace gardens and the photogenic ‘Porto’ sign.
Next, we stumbled upon a restaurant full of locals! Now this is what I myself and other tourists dream of – authentic experiences! In fact, I won’t say the name of the place because I don’t want it to appear on any real tour guides. Suffice to say, it was packed with mostly old Portuguese men. (Unlike previous European trips, this trip through more rural areas meant less English-speaking natives.) These men shared their food and their music with us. We were treated to three Portuguese guitar players as one after another of the patrons got up from their tables and took turns singing Fado for the packed café. Through hand gestures, I learned that the first performer was 90 years old! And each one was so talented!
We were sorry to leave after they had graciously welcomed us outsiders, but we wanted to see more of the city. Next, we climbed the Tower dos Clerigos and sat in the nearby rooftop park. I recommend both as the Tower is relatively inexpensive and the park is a chill spot for young groups to cluster.
Mayur, Nic, and I began the following day with another touristy attraction, the Livraria Lello. Yes, the bookstore has gained fame à la Harry Potter, but it would be a stop for me either way with it’s wooden structure, stained glass window, and book selection.
We also took in Igreja Paroquial de Santo Ildefonso, Estação de São Bento, and Sé do Porto. TIP: If you are beginning the Camino from Porto, get stamps from either or both of these churches the day before you leave (they don’t open as early as you should be departing on the Way)!
Next, we crossed Ponte Luis I bridge for the views and in order to reach the Port Wine Caves on the other side of the Douro. We shared two selections from Taylor’s – a bit upscale for lowly pilgrims!
Back across the river and among the crowds, we ate lunch at an unremarkable café. Even Mayur’s Francesinha, a local specialty, was unremarkable. On our way back to the hostel, we discovered that the yellow arrows of the Camino led right by our street! Gelato, relaxing at the rooftop park, dinner at Brasa dos Leoes, and card games and wine made up the rest of our day.
Day 1 – Porto to Vila do Conde, Portugal
If you do the coastal route, you can and probably should walk down to the Douro River and then west to the Ocean before heading north toward Santiago. We did not…and I do NOT recommend you do what we did: we followed the arrows near our hostel, on Rua de Cedofeita, out of the city. This seemed to be taking us toward the Central Route in Portugal. We followed it for 15 kilometers to the airport (not going to lie, walking 15 km only to be back at the airport?! why?!) before pulling up a map and making our own route to the coast. The highlight of this was coming across a stray luggage cart and riding it past the airport (thanks, Nic!). And, of course, we were super relieved to arrive at the Coast at last!
Waves and wind! Now that’s what I’m talking about! The hike would take us through such varied terrain, from the side of highways to cobbled streets to muddy trails, but it sure is peaceful to be on the boardwalk! We would wind along the boardwalk for another 20 kilometers to get to Vila do Conde for the evening.
We learned some valuable lessons about the Camino on the first day of our trek. A First Aid kit, especially alcohol swabs and sharp blister-popping implements, are worth taking. Pop the blisters and wrap them as you go. Re-pop them as needed. Second, albergues do fill up, which means you should either book rooms at hostels the night before you expect to arrive in a town or seek out ones along the road that might not be so well advertised. A third option is to schedule more days for your journey so that you can walk shorter distances, explore towns along the way, and even enjoy whole days off from walking altogether. With my feet in a lot of pain that first night, I have to say making reservations in hostels was worth the money rather than facing full albergues and/or extra walking to find an open one. We used booking.com from here on out. For Vila do Conde, we stayed at quaint family-run Pensao Patarata, ate dinner at nearby Mezzaluna, and went to bed pretty early.
Day 2 – Vila do Conde to Esposende, Portugal
Be careful, Coastal Pilgrims, there are arrows from Vila do Conde that will send you back to the Central Route! Don’t blindly follow them! It took us 2 miles to realize our mistake, which you guessed it, means retracing those arrows another 2 miles. This will be costly for two reasons: extra walking on already blistered feet and misspending the coolest hours of an otherwise sunny day. Much like the previous day, we had to use a map to get ourselves to Povoa de Varzim and then to the ocean and back on the boardwalk.
What do pilgrims eat and drink?
If you want to get a lot of walking in, especially before the hot midday sun, you grab food from a café or supermercado and eat on the go (while walking, at a busstop, in a church yard). The liter of water per person rule is true (we generally bought new water each day, but town fountains, at least in our experience, proved safe to drink from.) Of course, by mid-afternoon, when you have been walking all day even through the noonday sun, there’s nothing like a mom’n’pop restaurant near Jardim do Largo Comendador Correira Leite for a Portuguese lunch. After lunch, we crossed the bridge from Fão to Esposende.
What do pilgrims do when they finish walking for the day?
These pilgrims shower and/or nap. Eat dinner in town or in the hostel (depending on our pain/energy level). Share wine and play card games.
Day 3 – Esposende to Viana do Castelo, Portugal
Just north of Esposende, we walked through Marinhas where we came upon carpets of flowers by the Igreja das Marinhas and along the town’s streets. I believe that these must have been tapetes, a decoration sometimes used to celebrate religious holidays.
This reminds me of another of the Camino’s traditions which is leaving rock piles on top of the stone road markers. Sometimes people built mini cairns, but usually they weren’t piled this way. Or a flower may be placed on a marker instead. In reading about this, I came upon angry comments as not everyone likes cairns. But I actually found that the stones or flowers placed along the Camino were friendly and created a sense of community. [As a side note, I was also very impressed by the lack of stickers or painted graffiti (aside from the arrows) along the route. It was only in Spain, after the Coastal Route merged with others, that we saw wooden arrows with names scribbled on them.] My companions and I came up with our own traditions along the route, and I’m sure that they would agree that this made it special and fun for us.
After Marinhas, we passed Mar and Belinho. Several travelers found Supermercado Almeida & Cruz Lda to be an opportune spot for food and rest. Here we were joined by several German hikers that we would meet in passing on and off for a few days. One woman gave us her most valuable advice: to prevent blisters, do NOT change your socks or even take off your shoes until you are done walking for the day. She had done the 800 km French Route and so I had to believe she knew what she was talking about. As I had been changing socks the past few days and was covered in blisters, I adopted her technique for the rest of the trip. (Can’t say I didn’t get any new blisters but maybe if I had tried this from the beginning??)
This was the first day that really took us through some woods and on a dirt hiking trail. We would come upon a small bridge that also makes for a nice resting spot.
Beyond the bridge, however, we approached both hills and the punishing hottest hours of the day. Again, with our hostel reservations now made in advance, we could have taken our time, but my companions wanted to push through and cover more ground. Hours later we finally stopped for lunch in a sports café in Chafé.
The Camino is set up, I believe, in such a way as to provide pilgrims with nice scenery (like the winding boardwalk along the Ocean) but also to pass by many churches. One of the distinguishing features of the Portuguese landscape, in comparison to the Spanish, is its white churches.
Finally, we reached one last steep hill before the descent into Viana do Castelo. The descent is so long that we needed a quick break before crossing the 500+ meter Ponte Eiffel into the city.
Our hostel, Hospedaria Senhora do Carmo, was not easy to find as it was disguised as a linen shop on the ground floor. Pro: hilarious Tiger comforters. Con: sharing a bathroom with a very grumpy traveler. Actually, both are pro’s because we would laugh about our neighbor for days.
Viana do Castelo was a nice little city to spend the night in, but I just couldn’t tell if the streets were empty because we were eating out during an off-hour or if the town really was pretty empty. If you are massively hungry, try the mixed meat dish at Tasc a Dentro – it could feed an entire table.
Day 4 – Viana do Castelo to Caminha, Portugal
I am not truly superstitious, but this day started with a number of bad omens. I mean if a black cat crossing your path is bad luck, then a black cat crossing your path and then puking can’t be good, right?
After working our way out of the city, we entered hillsides of mist and thunder. It was somewhere along these rocky paths that I may have stepped wrongly and hurt my ankle. I would have greater pain descending than ascending elevations from here on out. I would meet other hikers who said the same. Or perhaps I just didn’t listen when message boards recommended thick soles (for the cobblestone streets) and ankle support.
We stocked up on provisions at a nice little Mom ‘n’ Pop type supermarket in Carreco. Beyond Carreco, the Way alternated nature hikes with more small towns. We would come upon these stone benches, perfect for our picnic lunch. During this hike, we would each select our walking sticks: literal sticks that would accompany us for the remainder of our hike through Portugal and on through Spain. I may have named mine José Saramago…
The Camino returned to the coast again near Vila Praia de Ancora and continued oceanside until Caminha, Portugal. In Caminha, we rented a room above an appliance store. We did not use an appliance but rather the bathtub for hand washing our laundry that night.
Day 5 – Caminha, Portugal to Mougás, Spain
From Caminha, the hills of Spain (and the town of A Guarda) are a mere ferry ride away! Little did we (or the other hikers) know how unreliable the ferry service is, so rather than spend the morning at the docks, we took a taxi down the Minho waterway, across the nearest bridge, and back into A Guarda (25 km – a full day’s hike) and onto the path of the Way. Hola, España!
Spain, in turn, greeted us with rain. The coast beyond A Guarda consisted of rocky fields rather than beaches or boardwalks. The yellow arrows also led us to the guardrails of motorways. Somewhere between the fields and the motorways, my backpack rain cover disappeared, but in true hobo fashion, we rigged a plastic bag replacement.
We had a very late lunch in Oja (or Oia), where a girl acted as translator for us and also explained the difference between sandwich and bocadilla.
Beyond Oja, we passed several hikers who were already enjoying the respite of their happy albergue. Ours was another 20 minutes down the road, and while I was sad to miss out on yet another chance to chat with fellow hikers, the camping ground bungalows turned out to be a surprisingly nice establishment. In fact, it was a whole mini-community of privately owned and rental bungalows, pool, restaurant, mini-mart, and playground located directed by the ocean. After dinner, we shared a calm evening atop the darkened boulders, listening to the waves crash upon the rocks over and over and over again.
Day 6 – Mougás to Nigrán, Spain
Another misty morning in the Spanish hillside! Spotted the picturesque Vigo Islands for the first time as the Vigo inlet would lead us away from the coast and finally inland for the remainder of the Camino. We had café con leche and pastries (drinks often came with treats) in Baiona. Walked on through Ramallosa before stopping for the day after a mere 11 miles! Short and sweet!
I was happy for my feet but also to observe a flavor of local town life. I’m not sure that the neighborhood we were in even had a name, but Nigrán was close by to it. Our hotel was really the upstairs to a family’s house – which I only figured out after walking right into their dining room like it was a hotel lobby, oops! The nicer hotel across the square was hosting a large family gathering while we lunched – turned out to be a First Communion party – and a wedding reception when we supped dinner. And in the town square itself, two teams of women held bocce ball practice, wearing uniforms and everything!
This was also the spot we had designated for our fourth pilgrim to join us! Bienvenido, Jimmy!
Day 7 – Nigrán to Redondela, Spain
Just when you think you won’t get lost again…we suffered another frustrating morning of walking a ways without spotting more arrows and having to backtrack quite a bit. Hence, each and every arrow, stone marker, shell tile that you see is precious and meaningful. In fact, this was one of our ‘traditions’ on the hike – one of us would tap the arrow with hand or walking stick. Nic, especially, would (limp a) cross a street to do so.
Back on track, this section of the trail was hilly at first. As we often did, when we came to a convenient spot for sitting after we had covered a decent bit of ground, we sat and ate the apples and muesli bars that we had bought the day before for breakfast (a bus stop with Vigo Islands in view again).
We would eat another snack of nuts and gummy bears on a church bench as latecomers rushed into service. Finally, we put together sandwiches on a bench in Parque de Castrelos, a big park in the city of Vigo.
The Camino follows the creek in the city park for a while before becoming the Water Trail, Senda del Agua. The water trail isn’t actually along water but instead follows along the side of a mountain and overlooks the towns and roads that are down closer to the Vigo Inlet. Unfortunately, our accommodations for the night were down the mountain and off from the Camino a few kilometers before Redondela.
An 18-mile day, we were rather tired of walking by the time we got to Bahia de Chapela. After a nap and an awful dubbed tv drama (think Lifetime movie), we discovered that the hostel’s restaurant was closed (Sunday and possibly a holiday of sorts). With no other dining options in the immediate proximity, we went back to our room without dinner and went to bed.
Day 8 – Redondela to Pontevedra, Spain
Getting back onto the high green ground of the Water Trail sapped me of the little energy that I had. Not the boys! They were trucking along at a solid pace and didn’t let up for 10,000 steps! (I looked at my pedometer.) At this point, we were just on the outskirts of Redondela.
Once inside the city, we would stop in a random café that happened to be along the city roads marked for the Camino. The café was completely empty except for the old man running it. This would also piss me off – not the rotten apples that the old man brought us but the ruthless manner in which the boys would put him down! Seriously?! Where’s your sense of humanity? After all, he did make up for it in fresh watermelon slices.
As I mentioned before, the coastal route had left the coast a few days prior to head inland. At Redondela, the coastal route was now joining up with the central route. We did indeed start passing more and more hikers from here on out. Some of the highlights of this walk were the scallop shell shrine made by hikers, the roadside vendor where we would finally acquire our own shells (1-2 euro each), and crossing Ponte Sampaio in Arcade, Spain. Like me, many hikers seem to be stamp-hungry! There was a veritable traffic jam at a tiny chapel along the road with an available stamp!
The remainder of the walk to Pontevedra is one of the most pleasant ones we had had since leaving the Portuguese beach boardwalks. For a few miles, the trail is flat and shaded on the dirt path by a creek. Lucky for us, our hostel was one of the first buildings when you emerge from the woods. In fact, it’s sidewalk café attracted many hikers who only wanted a break before continuing on to wherever they were actually staying in Pontevedra.
We enjoyed a few drinks at the sidewalk café too, but eventually I was able to at least get the guys to go into downtown Pontevedra. Sip your beer with a view of Praza da Ferraría and Xardin de Casto San Pedra instead! I know I was at least enjoying the people-watching. For example, I spied at least three toddlers with soccer balls, girls in school uniforms, women in heels, and people of all ages with their dogs. I also popped into Cappella da Peregrina and Convento de San Francisco, which were right there. Because we had made the decision on the outset to pool our money and thus pay for all bills this way, Mayur and I got pizza and chocolate and pistachio gelato cups for everyone.
Day 9 – Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis, Spain
From our hostel, the yellow Camino arrows led us through central Pontevedra and then back into the countryside. Two vending machines on a random little road were a welcome oasis for us and many other wary hikers – coffee is coffee when you’re desperate! In San Amaro, there were two cafés. We chose the second one, Don Pulpo (octopus) for our lunch of bocadilla. There is now a photo on Facebook of me and a group of German hikers! #photobomb. Really though, cafés are just starting Facebook pages to attract people, and these hikers motioned for me to join in. I took 1,000 photos on this trip myself (1,000 more than Nic or Jimmy) and could have taken more, so I welcomed any photo op.
Another game my troop played on the road was truth and a lie. With four of us, this morphed into one person walking ahead while the others each chose a single lie or truth to tell. I faired poorly at this game! Oh well!
When the day heats up and the walk starts to drag on, I would lose the energy for games or even talking. We came upon an ice cream truck set up in the middle of an empty intersection. This was at about noon and with 7 km to go. A welcome respite for us. We would also break in a field by the path for a half hour stretch.
Caldas de Reis has a few nice areas for sitting and relaxing. One was the patio of Ultreia, near the river. Another was the square by the town’s central church. We stayed outside of town at a funny hotel with a posh swimming pool, Hotel Sena. So while even I didn’t really want to walk back into town, at least I got the boys to leave the room and sit poolside for a bit. I was happy to see some fellow travelers and genuinely enjoyed getting to know them by the pool. This foursome had actually met and joined forces on the Camino, and it sounded as if they were having a delightful time together – Buen Camino! I wish them well!
Day 10 – Caldas de Reis to Padrón, Spain
Almost there! It is funny how much I complained early on in the hike and how even with my blisters and joint pain I noticed that I was complaining less by this point in the hike. Nic never really complained (despite his destroyed feet) as is his nature, but well, Mayur actually started complaining more and more the closer we got to Santiago! He called it the old grumpy man inside him.
By and large, I found this walk to be pretty pleasant. After 3 3/4 miles, we had our apples and breakfast biscuits on a stone bench. The weather was cool for another few miles before the sun came out. Farther along, however, I did some nasty damage to my pinky toe – hey, each one is more crucial than you think! – and rebandaged it along the side of the road. It was enough to get me to Pontecesures and nice little Café Chaves. We enjoyed a coffee and let the proprietors take our photo for their Facebook page.
Lucky for me, this was another of the shorter 11.5 mile days, and we arrive in Padrón at 12:30. Since it was too early to check into our hostel, we sat along the waterway Sar in the park Alameda de Padrón. I found this heavenly! I don’t know – a combination of the shade, the water, the wind rustling the trees, the short walk, and my newfound zen. Here’s my self-portrait from that moment:
This hostel was in the town for once (pro) and our room had an amazing balcony (pro) but really inadequate bathrooms (con) and really really rude owner (con!). Mayur and I had the time and energy to do some sightseeing for once. We saw Padrón’s prominent churches, Convento do Carme and Santiago Apostolo. We also checked out the botanical gardens and had a drink in one of the plazas.
Back at the hostel, I briefly caught up with my four poolside friends from earlier in the trip! Then my group made the journey to the next door bar, Retro Visor, for more sitting about and drinking beer. I must give them credit though: the cafe uniquely plays retro rock music like Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and “Earth Angel.” For dinner, we went to a café with the usual meat and fries but also the local specialty of seasoned green peppers.
Day 11 – Padrón to Santiago de Compostela!!
Last day of hiking! Unbelievable! No really, there were definitely points on Day 1 and Day 4 when I wondered if I’d last the whole trip. And much in the spirit of the trip, the last day would start off with me popping a blister by the side of the road! Ha! Still there was some pretty good conversation among our group this morning, which must mean that I was still feeling pretty good despite my bad little toe and all the other blisters/aches/pains. Something about this last day of walking was actually magical.
We started to pay more attention to the stone markers as they ticked off the remaining distance to the Cathedral (which is Kilometer 0). At 3.2 km to go, the path splits in two, and along with most pilgrims we chose left (“Franco”) as the direction that would lead us into the urban roads of Santiago and then on into the older but commercialized streets surrounding the Cathedral. At long last but also all of the sudden, you are in Praza do Obradoiro! where along with many clusters of bikers and hikers, you sit among the flagstones and look up at the cathedral.
We waited our turn for a photo in the center of the square. Then we found our way to the pilgrim office. Here’s Nic at the end of the line:
The wait for our Certificate was a mere 90 minutes! We’re told that we actually came at a pretty good time though, and I chatted with an older couple who had been hiking for 7 years (2 weeks at a time) from Switzerland, all leading up to this moment! Wow!
Next, we checked into our hostel which was down a quiet street and still had a nice view of the cathedral (pro) plus a pleasant backyard garden (pro) but, I think, bed bugs (con). Unfortunately, it was too late in the day for the noontime pilgrim mass, but Mayur and I still walked around the cathedral and discovered many of its interesting features (if you want to find them all, however, read up on the pilgrim rituals in a guidebook). Carballeira de Santa Susana, a hillside park near our hostel, provided nice shade and views as well.
“The Reverse Camino”
This is my nickname for the bus ride that we took from Santiago back to Porto, Portugal the next day. There are other transportation options, but this was pretty cheap and easy. In no time at all, we had drive back to Porto, following fairly close to the Central Portugal route. Of course, one could also travel to Madrid in order to fly home again. Back in Porto again, we stayed at the same hostel; I fit in the photography museum (pretty nice and free) but mostly relaxed as my blistered feet recovered.
Additional Information about El Camino:
- A webpage detailing Camino Portugues and other useful links
- A nice blog entry about the symbols and rituals of the pilgrimage