El Camino de Santiago (Portuguesa), June, 2017

El Camino de Santiago, Portuguese Route, June, 2017

(Mark and Vicki are near the end of three months RVing in Spain and Portugal. They took 10 days out in June to walk part of the Camino Santiago, Portuguese route. More on their Spain and Portugese RV trip next month. Pictures of the walk are at Mark's blog www.roadeveron.blogspot.com).

Several years ago Mark and I traveled in northern Spain and saw all the Camino Santiago signs and pilgrims. We have been teasing each other ever since about walking The Way in order to lose weight. This year with our three months in Spain and Portugal and having watched the movie The Way, Mark kept bringing it up again—especially since he found information about the Camino Portuguese. What he read was that it was easier, cooler, more scenic, and best yet, actually along our RVing path. In Madrid we located John Brierley's guidebook, and I found a campground in northern Portugal that advertised that it was close to the Camino. I agreed to go only if daytime temperatures would be less than 80 and weather predictions were not for a lot of rain. Fortune smiled and we decided in Lisbon that everything looked good. Brierley's book actually starts in Lisbon, but most folks start in Porto. We didn't have the time or interest in that long a hike though. You need to walk 100 kilometers to earn your Compostela, so folks interested in that usually start in Tui, Spain, 114 k to Santiago. But then you never actually walk in Portugal. The campground proved an ideal starting point about 135k or 85 miles, allowing us to do the Portuguese route and actually walk a bit in Portugal.

Mark's blog has a day to day guide with pictures, so I will concentrate as always on the practical side. We spent two nights at Camping Convivio at 13E a night with our ACSI discount card. The campground is owned by a Dutch couple and is not far from Vila Nova de Cerveira. It was a little hard to level there but we managed. The cost to store the camper was 7E a day and we were able to use the camp refrigerator so didn't even have to burn any propane. For 5E each way they drove us to the trail and then picked us up at the bus stop on our way back.

We had not planned ahead and so had only one decent backpack and a daypack in Europe. I did have my boots and Mark had sturdy walking shoes. We packed as light as we thought prudent and Mark had 20 pounds with 1 liter of water and his beltpack and I had 14. We did not do any conditioning so my shoulders hurt the whole way. In retrospect we didn't need our polartec sweaters or our silk sleeping bag liners. Our rain parkas would have been plenty had it even gotten chilly in the evenings but the lows temps were not below the 60s. We did take our disposable rain ponchos which we needed for a couple of hours one day. Since it was 80 that day, it was nice to wear them instead of an even lightweight rain jacket. Basically we carried one extra outfit each and 2 pair of underw and socks. Everyone wears one outfit during the day, showers and then changes into clean clothes for the late afternoon and evening. My flip flops broke right before we left so I took a lightweight pair of water shoes. That turned out to be great because I didn't have to wear my boots to dinner. We both had hiking poles—not a necessity but saved me from a couple of trips. I liked having light boots but most folks were in athletic shoes.

We took the silk sheets in case we had to stay in a dormitory (called auberges). But we never did so didn't need them or the small travel towels we carried. However, if you want to carry more stuff it is easy to arrange for transportation for packs or luggage between stops. I think it costs 5-10E a day. We ran into lots of folks who were doing that and who had also had travel agents make reservations at hotels along the way. We did neither as we had no idea how far we would be able to walk each day or whether we would even make it all the way.

Starting in Porto, Brierley divides the walk into 10 stages or days, with the longest 20 miles. Most folks divide those up again. Our walk was 6 stages, which we did in 8 days plus one rest day. Our first day started about 10am after getting the camper stored away. We walked on an off shoot of the main central way, but it was still well marked. We walked about 10 miles to Tui, Spain and this was absolutely the flattest hike I have ever taken. We spent the night at a really nice hotel for 60E (Hotel Blanco) with a super breakfast. We had considered doing the alternate coastal path from Vila Nova de Cervica to Mougas and then over to Tui, but it would have lengthened our walk by 15 miles or so and made our first day at least 15 miles, so we decided against it. Note that you lose an hour when you cross the border into Spain.

Second day after our nice breakfast, we hit the road about 9am and walked to Porrino, about 10 miles and half a stage. We did not take the scenic detour which was a mile longer, so trudged through the industrial area. We took no scenic detours! We spent two nights at 45E each at the Parque Hotel. We took June 8 off as it was our 49th wedding anniversary. Plus without conditioning, our feet and hips were feeling the wear and tear. Upside was that the hotel, though a little older, and non English speaking, had an oversize jacuzzi tub in the bathroom. As an aside, every place we stayed had lovely marble or granite bathrooms—it is the cheapest material in this part of the world and we passed several quarries. Again the terrain was very flat. This hotel was much less if you paid cash. That is not a problem as there are abundant ATMs in every town so we only carried about 200E or less with us. I will say we felt perfectly safe on the entire walk and we saw lots of single women doing it on their own.

Day three of walking brought us about 11 miles to Redondela. We usually tried to stay in the first hotel we came to as we were tired. This time we stayed in a small pensione. Nice bedroom for 36E with bathroom on the next floor. The lady owned the shop next door and the pensione had 6 double or twin bedrooms. All along the walk there are cafes and where not, often vending machines or folks turning their garages into snack bars. Also there are water fountains so carrying 1 liter of water is usually enough.

Day four upped our mileage to 12.6. Of course, the entire day usually was longer when we would walk a way to find dinner. Dinner in most of the towns was at 8:30 with perhaps one cafe opening earlier. Today's route passes an inlet of the sea—this part of Spain is almost fjord like, but luckily the two hills we needed to climb are less than 500 feet and not bad at all. We also spent some time on Roman Military road XIX—complete with chariot ruts. Mark and I have walked on Roman roads before but never for this length of time. The Camino actually follows quite a bit of Roman road XIX and XX, but usually you are lucky to even see the original mile posts. All total we saw perhaps five of them. We were somewhat concerned when we reached Pontevedra as we tried several hotels by phone and they were all fully booked for a Saturday night. We had purchased a Spanish SIM card in Tui. A fellow pilgrim suggested Hotel Avenida—nice room for 36E, and a Dominos Pizza across the street. First American food we have had since April and it tasted wonderful to me. Pontevedra has a lovely medieval center with a famous scallop shaped pilgrim Church of the Virgen Peregrino.

Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis is 13.8 miles so since we were ready for a break, we had decided to stop about half way. The hotel we were looking for was a short way off the trail and somehow (I think because we were talking to a mother-daughter couple from Texas) we missed it. It made for a long day and we spent the night in another pensione “La Moderna” for 30E with only two rooms on the top floor and two bathrooms. It didn't matter that it wasn't connected to our room. There was also a kitchen which we didn't use, but we did use the free washing machine. The drying rack was right in front of a sunny window and we were able to give our “day clothes” a good wash. The owner's wife also provided us with hot potato sandwiches—common fare in Galicia. Think sliced baked potato in a roll. Not to my taste really, but that with some peanut butter crackers we had sufficed for my dinner.

Day 6 of walking brought us 11.9 miles to Padron and the unremarkable Chef Rivera Hotel for 45E. We had called a few hours ahead but when we finally arrived no one there spoke English. Not a problem until we let the water out of the tub and it promptly came up the floor drain and flooded the bathroom. Ensconced in another room, we definitely decided we weren't going to hike the 15.9 miles to Santiago in one go. Another peculiarity of the these large and small Spanish towns is that almost nothing opens before 10 am—including cafes and grocery stores. We were trying to get on the trail by 8 am and though I could buy a coke the night before and drink it warm, Mark was suffering from lack of his first cup of coffee. Next time we would bring one of those plug in water heaters, some sort of an unbreakable cup and instant coffee.

Day 7.We split the last stage, stopping at a nondescript pensione in A Picarana. The room at the hostel Glorioso with ensuite bath as the Brits would say, was a reasonable 36E. Only problem was the Italian couples staying in the two rooms next to us. Loud talking until 11:30 and then the first pilgrim of the morning banging the front door open at 6:30 am. For dinner we went across the street to Milagrosa, another pension. My hamburger and fries were completely inedible—the burger, more meat stretcher than meat and the fries only partly cooked in rancid oil. Mark's pork loin and fries turned out to be some sort of Spanish Spam—but then he likes Spam. Luckily, I still had some peanut butter and crackers left and certainly didn't want to end up with them in Santiago.

Day 8, we made the last 7 miles to Santiago by about 12:30. We tried to make the noon pilgrim's mass but it was not to be. We found out later that you usually have to arrive 45 minutes early for that one anyway, and you can't enter the church with any pack bigger than a small daypack. Luckily, our room was ready at a very nice, newly opened hotel ½ block from the cathedral, Plaza Quintana. At $82 the room was small but lovely and what a location. Included in the price was a fridge in the room and a 24 hour breakfast room complete with beverages, yogurt, fruits, breads, pastries, ham, cheese, and turkey. We actually ate lunch there that day as well as breakfast the next morning. After shower, a nap, and lunch we headed to the Camino office a couple of blocks away and waited in line for about a half hour to pick up our official Compostela document—in Latin of course. That evening we went to the first part of the Pilgrim's Mass at 7:30—full, but we got seats even arriving at 7:20. Unfortunately, the main facade of the Cathedral is completely covered in scaffolding for restoration work. But then, we saw it before in 2009—but not after having walked to it for 85 miles. Dinner was at the Gato Negro, a fresh seafood joint. I had the Iberico jamon.

All in all, we enjoyed the walk. We lost almost no weight, which was a bitter disappointment but the experience was unique and really within the grasp of almost anyone—average physical shape is plenty. We caught the bus first to Vigo (at the bus station they seemed to have no idea how to get to Vila Nova de Cerveira. Then in Vigo caught another one to Vila, paying on board this time. Total cost about 14E each. We had emailed ahead and the campground owner was there to meet us.

Later as we headed east across Spain in our RV, we passed hundreds of folks walking the Camino Santiago Frances, from France. Much of the trail parallels the highway, very little shade, and temperatures now were in the upper 90s. A shop keeper in Leon told us that the weather was more like late July than June. This Camino looked way less inviting than the Portugese version and way more crowded. Anyway if you decide to do any or all of any of it, Buen Camino, from Mark and Vicki.