'Buen Camino!’ Walking the Portuguese Way

Traveling in Portugal.

Brian and Rinat Jablon at the Cathedral of St. James  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Brian and Rinat Jablon at the Cathedral of St. James
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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.
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.