The Por­tuguese Way

Walk­ing the Por­tuguese Way

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By BRIAN JABLON

For the first time in five years, Ri­nat and I had a month free this sum­mer. Tak­ing ad­van­tage of this rare op­por­tu­nity of no kids at home and no work, we made a plan to hike the Cam­inho Por­tuguese (the Por­tuguese Way) a 12-day, 260-km. back­packer trail from Porto, Por­tu­gal, to San­ti­ago de Com­postela, Spain. Je­sus’s apos­tle St. James the Great, also known as James son of Zebedee, is buried in the cathe­dral there. The Catholic faith­ful have been trekking along the me­dieval pilgrimage route since the 12th cen­tury. The trail, while chal­leng­ing in parts, is doable by any­one in de­cent shape with­out ma­jor phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions.

Ten days af­ter book­ing tick­ets from Tel Aviv to Porto, we were on the cam­inho fol­low­ing the yel­low ar­rows and scal­lop shells to­ward San­ti­ago. Con­sid­er­ing that nei­ther of us have ever trekked more than a few days, and rarely with a back­pack, it was a chal­lenge – as well as a leap of faith – that we would ar­rive.

On Satur­day, we stopped at Porto’s Sé do Porto Cathe­dral to col­lect our cre­den­cial, the car­net that al­lows pil­grims to lodge at in­ex­pen­sive pub­lic or mu­nic­i­pal al­ber­gues (hos­tels) along the way. To ver­ify that you are do­ing the walk and to re­ceive the of­fi­cial Com­postela cer­tifi­cate of com­ple­tion from the Pil­grim’s Of­fice in San­ti­ago, walk­ers must have the pass­port stamped at least twice a day dur­ing the last 100 km. This adds an el­e­ment of fun to the walk as you col­lect stamps in restau­rants, cof­fee shops, churches, hos­tels and busi­nesses. Some are unique, and pil­grims com­pare their cre­den­cials tak­ing pride in those that are most col­or­ful.

De­part­ing on Sun­day, we fol­lowed Por­tu­gal’s gorgeous rocky At­lantic coast, walk­ing 22 km. north through pic­turesque fish­ing vil­lages to Labruge. As it was the week­end, fam­i­lies and tourists were en­joy­ing their time at the beau­ti­ful beaches and hid­den coves. Our first sello (stamp) was from the Bar Pe­dras do Corgo in Lavra, where we stopped for morn­ing espres­sos. Other pil­grims passed us by and we won­dered, a bit ner­vously, are they all headed to the same hos­tel? Would we have a bed there tonight? The route was well sign-posted with the ubiq­ui­tous yel­low ar­rows or scal­lop shells point­ing the di­rec­tion. Pil­grims and lo­cals passed by greet­ing each us bom cam­inho (a good road).

By mid-af­ter­noon, we reached the hos­tel and yes, there was space. Af­ter get­ting our cre­den­cials stamped, we were shown to a spa­cious dorm room. Pay­ment at this al­bur­gue was by do­na­tivo (do­na­tion), with €5 the ex­pected min­i­mum. Af­ter a wel­come hot shower and hang­ing up laun­dry to dry in the strong sun, we vis­ited the town in search of din­ner. Find­ing a lo­cal bar that looked promis­ing, we or­dered the grilled sea bass. It was cooked to per­fec­tion by the friendly chef who chat­ted with us to en­sure we were en­joy­ing the meal and the lo­cal red wine, but most im­por­tantly, that we cleaned our plate! That evening we col­lapsed and were awak­ened at 6 a.m. by the sounds of those pack­ing for an early start.

CON­TIN­U­ING ALONG THE SPEC­TAC­U­LAR COAST, we fol­lowed the board­walk in a misty fog pass­ing sev­eral vil­lages and beaches. Af­ter stop­ping at the en­thu­si­as­tic tourist of­fice in Vila do Conde, vis­it­ing the town’s high­lights and hav­ing a pic­nic lunch, we fol­lowed the ar­rows to cross over to the Cen­tral Way, the main route to San­ti­ago.

Here the path was not con­sis­tently marked, in sharp con­trast to the rest of the cam­inho. Friendly Por­tuguese pointed the way if we took a wrong turn or looked con­fused. Sev­eral hours later we breathed a sigh of re­lief as we reached Ar­cos. From this point, the route was clearly sign­posted, and we con­tin­ued walk­ing through pretty vil­lages, over Ro­man bridges and past farms, reach­ing São Pe­dro de Rates, where we spent the night in an­other mu­nic­i­pal hos­tel.

From here, we de­parted early to have time to ex­plore Barce­los, yet an­other quaint Por­tuguese gem, where we en­joyed ice cream and cap­puc­ci­nos on the pedes­trian street. With me­dieval tow­ers, churches, few tourists and gorgeous scenery, this pic­turesque city was the per­fect place to re­lax. The friendly cashier at the 15th-cen­tury Torre do Cimo da Vila tower let us in at clos­ing time and gave us a stamp, and we rushed to the top to ad­mire the in­cred­i­ble view of the sur­round­ing area. Lodg­ing for the night was In Barce­los, a new hos­tel in the town cen­ter. Our well-fur­nished pri­vate room with bath­room was lux­u­ri­ous com­pared to our lodg­ing the pre­vi­ous two nights! Din­ner was a de­li­cious “take-out” grilled chicken from the well-known lo­cal chur­rasquierea res­tau­rant, Furna, eaten in the hos­tel’s kitchen on the top floor.

The fol­low­ing day, we con­tin­ued on to­wards Igreja, a small town where we had booked a stay in a pri­vate hos­tel as ac­com­mo­da­tions were sparse on this part of the trail. On the way, we stopped at the Ponte das Tábuas, a 16th-cen­tury bridge over the Neiva River and a lo­cal swim­ming hole. The weather was hot, the cold wa­ter crys­tal clear. Af­ter a re­fresh­ing swim we con­tin­ued, pass­ing never-end­ing corn­fields. The wel­com­ing hos­tel in Igreja, ad­join­ing the fam­ily’s home, of­fered a washer/dryer that we sorely needed, and a kitchen/din­ing area that was per­fect for the in­cluded break­fast. Thank­fully, we shared the dor­mi­tory with only one other pil­grim, which al­lowed for a quiet evening and rest­ful sleep.

On day five, we were faced with a dilemma – to walk 10 km. to the town of Ponte de Lima or 32 km. to Ru­biães, which would make up for the pre­vi­ous shorter days and pro­vide an ex­tra day for us to re­lax at the end of the walk. How­ever, this stage in­cluded a long and steep up­hill in the last sec­tion in­clud­ing a hik­ing path over a moun­tain. We de­cided on the longer walk, booked a hos­tel in ad­vance, and de­parted at 7 a.m. It was a pleas­ant walk in the mist pass­ing through sev­eral quaint vil­lages. The light rain kept the tem­per­a­ture down.

By the time we reached Ponte de Lima, a large town and the rec­om­mended overnight pil­grim stop, it was rain­ing hard. We stopped for lunch un­til it ta­pered off.

Fi­nally reach­ing the cathe­dral, we felt a blend of eu­pho­ria, ex­cite­ment and ac­com­plish­ment

AT CODEÇAL, we started the long as­cent through sev­eral small vil­lages fol­low­ing the moun­tain hik­ing path through the for­est. Climb­ing over boul­ders and fol­low­ing the yel­low ar­rows, we reached the peak, Alto da Portela Grande, at 6 p.m. We re­filled our wa­ter bot­tles, en­joyed the re­mark­able view, and slogged our way down­hill to Ru­biães, reach­ing our hos­tel, ex­hausted, as the sun was set­ting. At a lo­cal res­tau­rant for din­ner, we gave our­selves a round of ap­plause for com­plet­ing the ar­du­ous trek and col­lapsed in bed, the sole oc­cu­pants of a six-bed dor­mi­tory.

The fol­low­ing day, we for­aged for snacks at a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket and fol­lowed the cam­inho along the re­mains of the Quarta Via Ro­mana, a Ro­man road. We even­tu­ally reached Valença do Minho, the last town in Por­tu­gal. Af­ter check­ing out the large walled com­plex and many tex­tile shops, and get­ting our cre­den­cial stamped at sev­eral churches, we crossed the River Miño on the In­ter­na­tional Bridge built in 1894, into Tui, Spain. The Por­tuguese bom cam­inho turned into the Span­ish buen camino. Our hos­tel was con­ve­niently lo­cated in the mid­dle of this pic­turesque Gali­cian me­dieval city with an im­pres­sive cathe­dral con­se­crated in 1225. We set our clocks ahead an hour and, in the evening, no­ticed one of the ma­jor dif­fer­ences from Por­tu­gal. Even at 11 p.m., en­tire fam­i­lies with their young kids were eat­ing in the many restau­rants and en­joy­ing the city’s nightlife, while in Por­tu­gal, the side­walks had been rolled up two hours ear­lier.

De­part­ing Tui early in the morn­ing, we walked to O Por­riño, a fairly easy 16-km. hike through stun­ning forests and beau­ti­ful vil­lages. The num­ber of pil­grims be­gan in­creas­ing from Tui since it is the start­ing point for many who are lim­ited in time but still wish to walk the camino and re­ceive a Com­postela in San­ti­ago. As it’s 116 km. from San­ti­ago, it ful­fills the re­quire­ment to walk at least 100 km. to re­ceive the cer­tifi­cate. Af­ter en­joy­ing a won­der­ful meal in town, con­sum­ing too much san­gria and ex­plor­ing this small vil­lage, we crashed early that evening af­ter Ri­nat tended to her blis­ters, a com­mon af­flic­tion amongst walk­ers on this trail.

THE NEXT DAY TOOK US through more stun­ning scenery and me­dieval vil­lages end­ing in Re­dondela, where the Por­tuguese Coastal and Cen­tral routes con­verge. We took the last two top bunks in a four-per­son room, shar­ing it with a woman from Brazil and an­other from Spain. A lo­cal dance fes­ti­val near the hos­tel lulled me to sleep.

We de­parted early as we wanted to have enough time to ex­plore Pon­teve­dra, our next overnight stop. An out­stand­ing and well-pre­served me­dieval city cen­ter makes this a won­der­ful des­ti­na­tion. We went to­gether with Gisele, a teacher from Canada we met on the trail, to visit the me­dieval sites in­clud­ing a church ded­i­cated to pil­grims. Af­ter the siesta ended, we en­joyed a won­der­ful din­ner to­gether swap­ping sto­ries from our non-camino lives in Al­berta and Ra’anana.

The next morn­ing we de­parted for Cal­das de Reis, a small town made fa­mous by its hot springs dat­ing back to Ro­man times. Walk­ing through sev­eral Gali­cian vil­lages and vine­yards with large grapes on the vines, this day was a de­light and easy on the feet. A walk around the well-pre­served vil­lage, soak­ing our feet in one of the hot springs, a visit to the lo­cal church and a din­ner of scal­lops with our pil­grim friends made for an­other mem­o­rable evening.

DAY 11 BE­GAN with break­fast at the lo­cal bar and then off through more vil­lages with crum­bling build­ings wait­ing to be re­stored into bed and break­fasts. Pass­ing fields of wild­flow­ers and crosses erected by pil­grims from years past, we stopped in Padrón, made “world fa­mous” by the small pep­pers that bear its name. The tasty lunch there – of course – in­cluded these pep­pers grilled and cov­ered with salt.

To shorten the walk on our last day, we con­tin­ued to Vi­lar, a fur­ther 5 km., to stay at O La­gar de Jesús, a hos­tel that was lov­ingly re­stored and dec­o­rated over a pe­riod of five years by the owner, José. With only 16 beds in two very spa­cious rooms, tasty food pre­pared by a won­der­ful chef, and space on the prop­erty for walk­ers to min­gle and re­lax, it’s no won­der this hos­tel is con­sid­ered one of the best on the camino. We poured our­selves some vino and re­laxed out­side while read­ing our books. Per­fecto!

With mount­ing an­tic­i­pa­tion, our last day en­tailed the fi­nal 20 km. to San­ti­ago de Com­postela, pass­ing though more beau­ti­ful vil­lages with stone ru­ins. Reach­ing the city, we fol­lowed the other pil­grims to the cathe­dral where we took our oblig­a­tory self­ies, and met fel­low walk­ers in the plaza. How can one de­scribe the feel­ing of fi­nally reach­ing the cathe­dral? It was a blend of eu­pho­ria, ex­cite­ment and ac­com­plish­ment. We vis­ited the Pil­grim’s Of­fice pick­ing up our Latin Com­postela and “cer­tifi­cate of dis­tance,” testaments to our walk.

THE NEXT DAY we hugged the St. James statue at the cathe­dral, a pil­grim tra­di­tion, and saw his sepul­chre, where his body is in­terred. (Though St. James preached in Gali­cia, he was mar­tyred in Is­rael by Herod An­tipas, and his head was buried in Jerusalem’s St. James Cathe­dral in the Ar­me­nian Quar­ter of the Old City.)

We vis­ited the out­stand­ing and modern Mu­seum of Pilgrimage and San­ti­ago that de­scribes the his­tory of St. James, the start and growth of the pilgrimage route, and the de­vel­op­ment of the city. In the evening, we en­joyed a night on the town cel­e­brat­ing the end of our jour­ney.

Walk­ing the Cam­inho/Camino is an ideal way to clear your head from the stresses of day-to-day life back home, spend time in na­ture while hik­ing through stun­ning scenery, meet in­ter­est­ing peo­ple from around the world and lose a few ki­los along the way. Bom cam­inho!

Af­ter 27 years with the US De­part­ment of State as a for­eign ser­vice se­cu­rity engi­neer­ing of­fi­cer, the writer re­tired in 2014 and moved to Ra’anana with his fam­ily. He is a free­lance travel jour­nal­ist fo­cus­ing on unique travel des­ti­na­tions as well as travel by mo­tor­cy­cle within and out­side of Is­rael. Fol­low him on his blog at mo­totrip­pingin­is­rael.com or @mo­totrip­peris­rael on In­sta­gram.

(Pho­tos: Brian Jablon)

THE WRITER poses on a well-marked stretch of ‘camino.’

(TOP) THE rocky At­lantic Coast, af­ter Labruge.

WITH WIFE Ri­nat at the Cathe­dral of St. James.

From top: PONTE DAS TÁBUAS swim­ming hole. PONTE DE BARCE­LOS, a quaint Por­tuguese gem. ST. JAMES Pil­grim’s Plaque.

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