By Bill Lawyer
Back in the spring, a friend from my college days, Bob Shull, and I started planning a trip to Portugal and Spain. For me, it was to enjoy the outdoors and handle the tests that nature brings your way. For Bob, there was also a spiritual component, following Christian traditions and principles and applying them to daily life.
After doing our research, we put our faith in the Portugal Green company, which transported all of our luggage from stage to stage of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage walk and made all of the hotel arrangements. They also provided us with maps and trail guides and emergency numbers to call.
I hiked through nine of the 12 stages without a hint of discomfort. I was unfazed by the stage between Ponte de Lima and Cossourado that our guidebook called “the most challenging of the Portuguese central Way of Saint James, due to its irregular terrain (you have to climb Labruja Mountain) and distance.” That’s 1,328 feet.
The morning we set off to reach stage 10, from Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis, which is less hilly than many of the previous stages, I was feeling pretty confident. After all, I was physically fit, and people have been making the trip since the Middle Ages — long before L.L. Bean and Patagonia came along to provide high-tech hiking gear.
Perhaps I was a little too confident that morning. I didn’t bother doing my normal stretching exercises, nor did I take the time to balance the weight of the things in my backpack. And I drank more coffee and less juice and water than I should have at breakfast.
Midway through stage 10, with the sun beating down on us, my lower back began to hurt, and I felt woozy. I struggled to sit — rather than fall — down under the small patch of shade provided by a vineyard next to a cornfield in the Galician countryside.
As I reached for the water bottle in my backpack, I realized I’d left it at a café a few meters back. I thought too about the homemade walking stick I’d left by the path so that someone else could use it.
I stumbled to the ground, but before I could attempt to get back up several fellow-walkers came forward and brought me water and packets of instant hydration fluids.
Within minutes I revived. And, by an amazing coincidence, our stop for the night was the Balneario Acuna Hotel and Spa with thermal springs bubbling up throughout the village.
News travels fast on the Camino, and by that evening people I didn’t know were asking how I was doing and what could they do to help. And I knew why had done the walk — one day at a time.
No doubt I could write a book describing all the people we met, the things we saw, and the lessons we learned. These are just a few of them.
We started at the village of Mosteiro, a few kilometers north of Porto, to avoid dealing with urban sprawl. It’s just one of many charming, old-fashioned communities, with very narrow roadways and no sidewalks.
Apparently, no one told the farmers that they should drive their huge tractors slowly, as we kept having to squeeze up against the many walled roads. Also, we were just a few miles from the airport, which served as a reality check.
As things became more rural (and less truckish), we started meeting up with other pilgrims who had begun that same morning.
A few of them settled in at our pace, and we enjoyed talking and learning what the trip meant to them. The path was generally narrow, but fairly level. One couple — a retired policeman and a social worker — hailed from Bristol, England. Another was from Holland. The wife had developed a bad blister on her heel, and we predicted that she would be dropping out soon.
As we got closer to our destination, we crossed two rivers, the Ave and the Este, by means of bridges dating back to Roman times. I thought of the fact that our Tappan Zee Bridge lasted fewer than 100 years.
The countryside took on a recurring pattern — cornfields, vineyards, local cabbage, orchards, eucalyptus trees (some wild, some planted for forest products), cobblestone paths, and boundary walls.
We knew that three of our stage lodgings were not located within villages, but rather old farmsteads that had been converted to rustic but up-to-date bed and breakfasts. Everyone had Wi-Fi!
The first farmstead, the Quinta de Sao Miguel de Arcos, was at the end of stage one. It had two swimming pools, bicycles for use by the guests, and a large hall for weddings and other events. They also did laundry for us.
We got off to a great start the next morning, and 12 miles later we crossed the Cavado River (via a Roman-style bridge) and arrived at one of Portugal’s hidden treasures, the city of Barcelos. In the center of the city sits a large and handsome main plaza surrounded by flower gardens. A large flea market was in progress, and people were setting up for a major bicycle race the next morning.
In the small world department, we met a Hungarian woman who works in the British consulate in Budapest — we had seen her a few miles back but she was travelling at a much faster pace. We stayed in a traditional hotel that night.
The next morning, breakfast was served on the 4th (top) floor. There was so much fog that you couldn’t see a thing. But by the time we left, the fog was burning off and out came the sun.
The path this day involved several ups and downs, but that’s the nature of the Portuguese/Spanish Camino. The hills run from west to east, so the streams and rivers follow along. Thus to travel north, you encounter some major waterways, which kept those Roman bridge builders so busy.
Our second farmstead lodging, the Quinta da Cancela, sits in a rural community known as Balugaes. The whole farmstead is surrounded by high stonewalls and both the gates were locked. It was a Sunday, after all.
Finally, after some vigorous knocking and yelling, a man opened the “blue” rear gate — he was the only guest and he didn’t know where the manager was. It turned out that she had gone home for lunch.
When the manager got back, we unloaded our gear and went to a barbecue takeout place just a few a few hundred yards away. It turned out to be the gastronomical highlight of our trip thus far — three hard-working women were preparing and filling orders extremely fast, and we took ours back to our hotel. We liked it so much we went back dinner. Plus, there was a great bakery just a few hundred yards in the other direction.
It started to rain in the late afternoon, and continued overnight. That was the only significant rain during the whole 12-day trip.
The accommodations were very up to date, with heavy use of granite, one of the main bedrocks of the region. The only problem with our room was that there was no hot water — not a good thing for dusty pilgrims.
The weather was clearing when we started out the next morning, with views of the various mountains that feed rainwater into the rivers below. This was also the beginning of a bit of fun for our group of pilgrims.
We were walking along when we spotted something white on the trail up ahead. It turned out to be the van of a Spanish tour company. They had seven women participating in a modified Camino walk on the safer, less strenuous sections. Their driver deserves credit, because it’s not easy to get a van onto many of the trails.
From that day onward, we had a running contest as to when we would see the women and their van again. Sometimes we ran into them more than once.
Then came one of my favorite parts of the trip, the delightful city of Ponte de Lima. You enter from a pedestrian allée of plane trees parallel to the Lima River, and soon find yourself in a lovely medieval city. Several restaurants had service on the large plazas. My friend Bob decided to get a massage, as he was worn and dirty from the lack of hot water. I was just happy to have a hot shower.
By this time, a dozen of us had formed an informal alliance and enjoyed moveable feasts at restaurants providing discounts for the daily pilgrim meal.
This was the stage following the Labruja River up to its source near the top of the mountain. We started the morning by coming upon the highly unexpected Pescaria Café and Fish Farm, consisting of ponds for raising fish, and people trying to catch them. And they sold walking sticks. They also do programs for schools and other groups. Check out their posting on Facebook (www.facebook.com/pescariaribario/.)
Having gone on to conquer the Mt. Labruja challenge, we had a fairly steep descent and then 4 kilometers uphill to the third of our farmstead B&B’s, the Casa da Capela.
Run by a fun and hospitable family, the facility has been very recently renovated and plenty of hot water was just one of the perks. We shared a delicious multi-course supper with fellow pilgrims, and we got some more laundry done.
Day 6 and Onward
The next six stages had a somewhat similar pattern to them — hiking over manageable hills from valley to valley, and staying in charming, medieval towns and pleasant hotels. In order, going from south to north, they are: Valenca, Porrino, Arcade, Pontevedra, Caldas de Reis, and Padron.
People really take advantage of the many public plazas and parks for socializing, shopping, recreation, and entertainment. And they make the most of the rivers where they are located to enhance their lives. It’s the industrial areas located away from the residential areas that provide much of the income, but it’s also clear that tourism helps keep their heritage alive.
My favorite of the towns was Valenca, which is on the Portuguese side of the Minho River, marking the border with Galician Spain. High on a hill, the extensive 17th-century fort designed by the French architect Vauban looks out over the valley.
That day’s hike was only eight miles long, so we got there in time to have lunch and tour the fort, which is now used by the city for commerce, residences, and restaurants. We noted that the “FATUM - Casa de Fados” restaurant had outdoor seating and indoors within the wall of the fort had a great menu of local foods and featured Fado music. Live music is only offered on Fridays, but they play recorded music the rest of the week.
We came back about 7:30 and had some beer while waiting for the dining area to open, at 8. A man stopped by and asked us about the restaurant. He turned out to be Hans de Hoog, a Merck agricultural scientist doing training work nearby. We asked him to join us when we went inside.
We had been studying the menu for a few moments when a woman came in and sat at a table by herself. Recognizing by her speech that she was an American, we asked her to join us as well. We had a great evening, with Fado music in the background and a delicious multi-course meal at our table.
This is typical of the way people get to share their experiences along the Camino.
What I remember fondly from the trip is the seafood at Arcade, those very timely hot baths and massages at Caldes de Reis, lending a walking stick, and our late afternoon get-togethers.
While we made it to our destination in Spain and had our “passports” stamped, certifying that we had made it through all the stages of the 141-mile journey, what was most important to me was all the things that happened along the way.
Bill Lawyer and Bob Shull, a friend from college, in front of a direction post
The author on the Ave Bridge
The bay at Arcade
Dining in an old fort