This Is The Way: My Journey Along The Camino Portugués

The Portuguese Way is the second most popular route to Santiago de Compostela. While the majority of pilgrims on the Camino Portugués begin in Tui, just across the border in Spain, I decided to begin my trip in Porto, Portugal. The route covers almost 250km and is generally broken up into ten stages. The Brierley guidebook is the most common resource for pilgrims on the Portuguese Way, and I found it incredibly helpful for planning and executing my trip. I ended up arriving in Santiago after eight days, from which I then continued onward to Finisterre and Muxía. It was an indescribable trek, both beautiful and challenging. What follows is the overview of my walk, which will hopefully paint a candid picture for anyone else considering a journey along this ancient trail.

My adventure began at the cathedral in Porto, which seemed like the most fitting place to start my pilgrimage. As the sun rose over the sleepy city I made my way through the winding streets to the coast, where I walked along the boardwalks and beaches of western Portugal toward Vila do Conde. It was a bright and sunny start to my trek, and the warm weather allowed me to soak my feet in the ocean during my breaks as I watched the waves kick and crash against the shore. Truly, I could not have asked for a more perfect beginning.

The second day saw me head inward, from Vila do Conde toward Barcelos. It was here that I was introduced to the old and uneven cobblestone of the Camino Portugués, which was a nightmare for my feet. While it added a quaint and cozy feeling to all the villages that embraced it, it was a less than ideal surface for walking. Already I had blisters forming, mostly due in part to my enthusiastic pace from day one; my quick and jovial speed kept the friction hot on my toes, and it wouldn't be long before my long strides became a painful hobble. Surprisingly sore – and sunburned – I arrived in beautiful Barcelos and finally encountered some other pilgrims, for thus far my trip had been a solitary one, with but mere sightings of other travellers along The Way.

At the advice of another pilgrim, a hardy Swiss hiker whom I chatted with over the days to come, I went to the old church in Barcelos in search of a sello – a stamp for my pilgrim passport. While I didn't find one, I was drawn into the cool dark of the aged building. Ornate decorations lined the cavernous walls of the empty church, my solitary shuffling footsteps the only sounds to be heard. I limped my way to the front the the church to see the altar up close...but also to see if there was, in fact, a sello to be had. There was not, but I took at seat in the first pew regardless, resting my sore feet as I basked in the holy silence.

That sacred quiet enveloped me as I sat, my weary body and quiet mind my only companions. I was alone. And in that solitude, vast and profound, I suddenly became overwhelmed. Out of nowhere, I wept. Instantly, warm tears flowed down my red and sunburned face as I sat motionless on the hard wooden bench, now worn smooth and polished from its unfaltering use. Under the watchful eye of Christ crucified I wept until my stomach muscles were sore and my eyes dry and raw. And then, like the passing of a sudden summer rain, I smiled into the emptiness before me. I stood up, and with my walking stick in hand I hobbled out of the darkness and back into the cool air of spring.

Barcelos, Portugal

Barcelos, Portugal

The third day of my Camino took me from the cozy riverside town of Barcelos to an equally cozy riverside town further along the way: Ponte de Lima. It was a 34km stroll, and while there were still many cobblestones to plague my footsteps the journey itself was mostly through fields and hills. It was here, surrounded by acres upon acres of freshly cut grass, that my allergies kicked in. Every other minute I was sneezing into the warm air, my eyes begging to be scratched as the itched and burned. Between my allergies and my injured feet my pace was slow, but the beautiful views of Ponte de Lima were well worth the struggle.

My high-tech solution to a runny nose...

My high-tech solution to a runny nose...

A picturesque medieval bridge spanned the width of the flooded river that divided the town. While small, the town itself was bustling with tourists and pilgrims alike, the town centre dotted with cafes and restaurants. Considered the oldest town in Portugal, Ponte de Lima is something of a popular tourist town and common waypoint on the Camino. After a couple of solitary days, it was a welcome change of scenery. It was here that I caught up with the Swiss pilgrims I met prior, and we enjoyed a few drinks by the water under the warmth of a setting sun.

Day 4 marked one of the more challenging sections of the hike. Mostly up hill, I trekked north as the rain fell off and on for the better part of the humid morning. While hardly a downpour, it still left sections of the trail washed out and slippery. Yet the rain was refreshing, a new experience to embrace and overcome on my Camino.

A group of Portuguese cyclists stopped to rest at the top of one of the many hills along the Way, and they very kindly offered me some of their food as I passed. Seeing that it was some sort of fried meat, I politely declined, explaining that I was vegetarian – vegetariano – but that I appreciated the offer. There was not much food on this section of the Camino, and so far the only (vegan) food I had found was that which I brought with me...and I didn't bring a lot. Fortunately, the cyclists also had some cookies with them, which they ever so graciously offered instead of the meat. Serendipitously, they happened to be vegan.

As I turned to depart and continue along the steep and rocky path, one of them raised the dish of meat back up. The cyclist then exclaimed that it wasn't, in fact, meat – it was fish. Not getting into the debate, I simply gestured that I couldn't eat fish either, feigning a choking noise to get the point across that I couldn't eat fish. They all had a good laugh, and wished me bom caminho. With a smile – and a few cookies – I trekked onward to Valença and the border to Spain.

As luck would have it, day 5 was a beautiful day. With the rain now behind me and the trail only occasionally encumbered by mud and water, I headed to my next destination: Mos.

I crossed over the border to Spain within a few minutes of beginning the day, leaving the fort town of Valença, and Portugal itself, in my wake. Of course, I stopped along the bridge that divided the two nations to be in two places a once.

It was within the winding roads of Tui, the Spanish border town, that I met up with two British girls. We fell into step and spent the day walking together, trading stories and singing songs as we tramped along the Spanish countryside. It was the most social I had been all trip and was a nice change from my solitude and contemplation. Mos itself was quite small, and we arrived on a Sunday which left us with few options to find food. The owner of the albergue, however, owned a small cafe where we grabbed some food and enjoyed the relative quiet of the empty town.

It was on day 6 that my feet were back to their old self, hardy and calloused. I made quick work of the 29km day and arrived in the city of Pontevedra by lunch time. Pilgrims seemed to appear from out of the woodwork here, and by evening our albergue was brimming with travellers. I met and chatted with many in the old town of Pontevedra, which was a wonderful place to explore as the evening wore on.

I was greeted by a cool dawn as I left under the cover of darkness toward Santiago. The day eventually grew hot, prompting me to take a short break in Caldas de Reis. It was here where I soaked my feet in the (uncomfortably) hot waters of a thermal fountain. The tap runs constantly, filling a small pool where pilgrims can soak their tired feet before continuing on their journey. In the midst of a 36km day, a nice break and a good soaking were most appreciated...though the water was a tad too hot to thoroughly appreciate.

The day ended in Valga, which was rather a lacklustre stop. The municipal albergue there was little more than tolerable, and the roadside cafe and restaurant offered little of note. I enjoyed a few more hours of sun beside the pilgrim statue before heading to my creaky bed, my final night before I reached Santiago de Compostela.

The final day of my trek to Santiago was a cold one, the heat of the day slow to arrive. Unfortunately, the route into the city was marred by construction and detours which detracted from the significance of my ending. After something of a slog around the city, I arrived on exhausted feet before the cathedral. Here I stood, in completion of my journey, like the dozens of pilgrims around me and the thousands who have come before. But my journey was not ending here. After picking up my Compostela – my certificate of completion – I wandered in search of an albergue. My eyes now looked toward the journey to Fisterra, or Finisterre, a place once considered to be the end of the world.

The Journey to Finisterre

The distance from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre (Fisterra) is approximately 90km. This can be done in 3-4 days, depending on your pace. I completed the walk in 3 days, with stops in Negreira and Olveiroa before eventually arriving in Finisterre. The path itself is well marked, and I was able to manage without a guidebook. This section offers some of the most beautiful scenery in all of the Camino, with rolling hills crowned by bright white wind turbines and marked by a patchwork of farms that dotted the slopes. Under a clear and bright sky these sections rivalled even my favourite stages of the Camino Frances.

In the windy hills just past Olveiroa I listened to songbirds welcome the dawn as I walked. I listened to the gravel crunching under my feet as I made the incline upward, the slow churning of those wind turbines like waves, constant in the background. Specks of stars leaked through the grey clouds as a blue horizon gave way to light. Threads of colour inched beyond the skyline toward me, guiding me forward toward the final section of The Way.

The last section to Fisterra ends along a beautiful beach, where you can kick off your shoes and walk barefoot in the sand, giving your feet some well-earned reprieve. The Romans considered Finisterre to be the physical the end of the world, which makes it a rather special spot to end your Camino. It is at Cape Finisterre where the final marker has been placed, near a lighthouse on the coast. Here, pilgrims have often lefts their walking sticks, and many have embraced the tradition of burning their boots or shoes. The rocks along the water are scorched with burn marks from many a fire, visible scars from generations of pilgrimages. It is a great place to sit, rest, and reflect upon your journey.

Unfortunately, both Finisterre and the cape have become tourist draws over the years. Busloads of people come and go from the cape every day, and the quiet fishing village of Fisterra is long gone. It is for that reason I continued onward to Muxia, for a calmer end to my Camino.

To Muxia!

The section from Finisterre to Muxia was not very well marked, unfortunately, and without a guidebook I often found myself hunting for clues to keep me on the right path. In fact, I spent 30 minutes searching for the path itself in Finisterre, a minor setback as I started my day in the cool, pre-dawn dark.

The path itself is not a terribly scenic one, but it offers plenty of time for silence and reflection. There are very few places to stop along the way, and you will encounter very few pilgrims. As most people walk from Muxia to Finisterre (instead of Finisterre to Muxia; there are more busses leaving Finisterre than Muxia, making it a more convenient end) I encountered not a single pilgrim walking to Muxia, and I passed only a handful walking toward Finisterre.

I found the chapel in Muxia to be a very fitting end to my Camino. While still a tourist draw, it was much less busy than Cape Finisterre, and the town seemed much quieter. Having spent the majority of my Camino alone, I found the the solitude and calm in Muxia a more suitable ending for my journey.

12 days. 350km. 5 blisters. An epic journey, to say the least.

Upon completion, when I mentioned to people that I had been walking 30-35km days most seemed to support the endeavour, and some were even admirable of it. But there were some who seemed to think that such long days went against the spirit of the Camino, that I was hurrying or rushing by walking so quickly. And perhaps there are some people who do rush, who hurry through it purely so they can snap a few pictures and take home a Compostela.

But it's important to remember that we are all out here for different reasons. We are each walking our own Camino.

For me, this was not a holiday. This was not just a scenic stroll along forest paths, through farms and villages. It was not just a vacation, it was also a test. A challenge, of physical and spiritual proportions. It involved dedication and commitment, an open mind and an open heart. It involved suffering. For me, that's an essential part of the Camino: pushing your boundaries, physical and spiritual and emotional.

But that's just me. For you, it may be something completely different – and that's perfectly ok. The Way is what we make it. So, Buen Camino