Our final day on the southern Camino Portugués…
Agueda – Albergaria A-Velha
The day started like every other day, strapping feet and repacking our backpacks. After a rest day, the swelling in my big toe had subsided. Plus there, was plenty of flexibility in my new trail runners to make the fifteen-kilometre stage viable.
It was an overcast morning; the air was cool, perfect weather, for what looked like an easy walking day. The pathway took us out into the countryside through small villages of decaying mansions. We passed barns with stockpiles of autumn crops, signalling that winter was approaching.
The terrain was flat. However, it was a relief when the asphalt road was replaced by a woodland path. It led us into a magical setting, and I felt as though I was walking into a moss green Monet painting. This ancient Roman dirt road led us across a restored medieval bridge. While there was none of the vibrancy of Giverny, the blanket covered stream conveyed the tranquillity of Monet’s garden.
The serenity of this scene was quickly replaced by a steep hill wending up to a Church and cemetery. We wandered past, then walked down the steep hill. At the bottom of this hill, yellow arrows beckoned us across the N-1. We crossed and began walking alongside the motorway on a narrow pedestrian pathway. Within minutes we found ourselves on a flyover bridge. Partway across the bridge, we saw the reason why. The original bridge over the river Vouga at Pontilhao had a section missing. Had it been bombed? Was there an earthquake? There was no time to discuss, as the yellow arrows indicated we needed to cross back over the N-1. Suddenly the highway had turned into a race track complete with convoys of trucks, north and southbound at speeds not less than 120Km/h.
Finally, there was a gap in the traffic. My heart still racing, I started the ascent to the village of Serém de Cima.
We stopped for a break at Serém de Cima. I chose an iced lemon tea. I watched a fellow pilgrim drinking a beer and thought that might have been a better option. We were under the impression that the next 0.9km through a eucalyptus forest would be very pleasant. However, the straight pathway indicated on the map meandered in different directions, leaving us confused and directionless. Eventually, we emerged into suburban streets. Walking towards the town centre, which we hoped was Albergaria-a-Velha, our spirits started to fade. We found a bakery, had some lunch and discussed the day’s walk and the route to Porto.
The final stages to Porto…
Ahead of us lay soulless stretches of industrial areas occupying most of the remaining original medieval pilgrim route into and out of Porto.
The heat from the asphalt roads continually siphoned our energy. While the constant search for yellow arrows left us little time to enjoy the fleeting picturesque moments. And the accommodation issues that transpired that day left us deflated. So we made a collective decision and took a taxi to Porto. Lisa and Chrissy found us an apartment to spend three nights; to allow our feet and spirits to recover. This was the stunning view from my room.
Caminho da Costa – the friendly Way…
The likelihood of Atlantic onshore winds and sand storms seemed more appealing than “more of the same” pathways on the interior route. Hence we all opted to walk the lesser-known Way from Porto – Camino Portuguese Coastal Way (Caminho da Costa). This was Queen Isabel of Portugal (1271 – 1336) pilgrimage route. Knowing this added a certain je ne sais quoi to our journey.
Our guidebook only devotes two pages to the Coastal route. However, we decided that if we kept the Atlantic Ocean on our left and, where possible, avoided getting our shoes full of sand, we’d be okay!
Warning! This route is weather dependent…
The weather forecast looked favourable for the Coastal Route. However, we also decided to heed Brierley’s warning that “despite the comprehensive waymarking, this first stage out of Porto is likely to prove taxing” and take the metro out of Porto to Mercado. The Matoshinos Ponte Móvel bridge in this outlying suburb of Porto felt like a symbolic farewell to city life. The reality was more suburban streets. We walked towards the Ocean with overzealous pilgrims and local exercise groups.
Finally, the Atlantic Ocean appeared on our horizon. The track stretched out ahead of us. It was a vast promontory built on the seawall rocks. My shoulders relaxed. The remaining first-day nerves departed when we reached the first boardwalk. Lisa had stopped, was smiling and pointing at the official Camino markings.
It felt like we had finally started our Camino pilgrimage. It was the first time we encountered local people who had walked the Camino, the first time we had heard the words Bom Caminho. We learnt that it was the route Portuguese people walked to Santiago de Compostela, and it was called “the friendly Way”. I was excited that Chrissy was finally getting a taste of our Camino Frances experience. The boardwalk took us into Casa do Mar, a traditional fishing village, where outdoor steel drums with grills were firing up for the mid-day meal.
We continued to walk. The narrow path connects with a boardwalk, which winds around the rocky shoreline. To protect the endangered sand dunes, walking on the long remote beaches is discouraged. Instead, long narrow wooden pathways branch off to local villages and serve as a promenade for the elderly and running tracks for the fit and able. Bicycles were prohibited; however, that didn’t stop cycling pilgrims from ignoring the signpost and nearly pushing us off the narrow boardwalk as we approached Vila do Conde.
The wind off the Atlantic Ocean was brisk and fresh. Given the wild and unpredictable nature of this Ocean, I urge fellow pilgrims to check the weather before walking this route.
The pilgrim experience…
Porto was a time to decompress, which we did by exploring the city, relaxing in the apartment and going out for dinner. Hence, the Camino Portugués guidebooks were left untouched. By the time we arrived at
Vila do Conde, the town where we would spend the night, the tourism office was closed. We had walked 22.1km, needed showers and to do laundry. Thankfully, we found the local Albergue, secured a room with four bunks, and quickly took over the lower beds. The Albergue seemed deserted. But we were ecstatic to discover they had an actual laundry room, not an outside stone basin. Another first was the need to use the towels and sleeping bags we’d carried from Lisboa. Finally, Chrissy was getting the quintessential pilgrim experience, sleeping in an Albergue.
At Viana do Castelo, both Chrissy and I had our first convent experience when we stayed at Albergue São João da Cruz Dos Caminhos.
Once again, the laundry facilities were a stone basin outside. Given we’d arrived late in the day, the only option was to recycle our walking gear. Thank goodness it was all made of high tech anti-wicking materials. Oddly though, we were given clean sheets and a pillowcase.
Our stop for the night was the beautiful town of Viana do Castelo. Both Chrissy and I had our first convent experience when we stayed at Albergue São João da Cruz Dos Caminhos. The check-in and compostela procedures were carried out at the convent’s office. As we left, our host stopped in front of the church and beckoned me to follow him up the stairs. He pointed out the time for mass. It was clear he expected that we would attend the service.
The cloisters of the convent looked so inviting, peaceful and serene. So you can imagine my dismay when we continued past, rounded the corner into a side street with a high barbed wire fence and entered the compound. This was the entrance to the Albergue. Once again, the laundry facilities were a stone basin outside. Given we’d arrived late in the day, the only option was to recycle our walking gear. Thank goodness it was all made of high tech anti-wicking materials. Oddly though, we were supplied sheets and a pillowcase. Then, when I tried to put on my fitted sheet, the mattress inverted into a banana shape, sending the three of us girls into fits of laughter.
Only one of our Camino family is catholic; however, we all attended mass that night. We were the only pilgrims in the packed church. The priest delivered his sermon, which my non-lingual brain quickly translated as a unique service for pilgrims, leaving us feeling very blessed.
An ill-fated day departing Viana do Castelo for Caminha…
As we endeavoured to navigate ourselves out of Vaina, do Castelo and onto the coastal boardwalks and roads that would hopefully take us up to Caminha, we stumbled upon this small fishing port.
Chrissy and I then wandered out past the harbour and around an old fort that sat on the headland, here we found this most magnificent monument to the sea.
The rest of the day is a longer story, one I wrote about in my blog Camino Santiago finito. Yet, to this day, I wonder what I could have done to have prevented the unfolding of an event that would impact my health for the next few years.
The greatest gift…
Has been my friendship with Mike, Lisa and Chrissy. Along with the hilarity of the moments like the local waiter telling us that previous evening his boss was a mother f***ker because he did not care for people, only the money, which makes the sore feet, the aching back palatable. The “we’re in this together” attitude of comradery is, I believe, the greatest gift of walking the Camino.
Note – original post revised November 2021