Spiritual Variant

CAMINO PORTUGUESE: Coastal and Spiritual Routes : Part 1

PORTO to SPAIN : 4 days: 90 km

Emerging from the airport at midnight we only had a few minutes walk to a modern little boutique hostal where free beers awaited in our room. No sooner drunk than a knock at the door bought glasses of pink sparkling wine and cake, and at 6.30 in the morning a breakfast hamper of all we could wish for.

A few meters around the corner we came upon our first yellow arrow of our journey in prosaic form. A painless start from plane to path- we were off down the still misty cobbled streets, past crosses and shrines and gardens and verges rich with the colours and scents of flowers wild and cultivated.

We kept crossing paths with Michael, a German Pilgrim of our vintage who we bonded with over the next few days before our schedule pulled us ahead. After nearly an hour we cleared the end of the runway and the sun burnt off the mist as we followed miles of cobbled road through eucalyptus forest and freshly cut fields of grass. Running alongside the busy motorway and shopping centre for awhile we were glad to return to the ancient streets of Mindelo. Stopping briefly for a tiny super strong cafe and local treat pastel de nata, it wasn’t long before we were crossing the river Ave into Vila do Conde beside the massive monastery of Santa Clara.

Another hour of urban walking brought us finally to our destination for the day after 20 km, the albuergue in Povoa de Varzim where the cafe opposite fed us well while we waited for the albuergue opening hour of 2 o’clock. The obliging host gave us a private room as a married couple- a first for us. We rested, showered, laundered and eat and drank in a sunny beach side restaurant pleased to have succeeded the first day at least.

In the early morning light we headed off along the seafront and onto a boardwalk that took us through the dunes for 8 km. The seaside resorts had not really awoken after winter yet so pilgrims, locals and fisherman were all that were about. Many men were fishing for something on the rocks and in the shallows with gaffhooks , something I had never seen before. It didn’t look like they were having much luck. We passed the remnants of windmills and many neatly stacked and covered piles of seaweed.

Eventually the thousands of decking boards ran out and we were led inland through an area of intensive poly tunnels and fields of crops, all of interest to us gardeners. They were harvesting spuds already!

Through a nice quiet stretch of woodland where we rested for breakfast and on into Fao where pilgrims gathered. We followed the arrows cut into the road over the river Cavado and along the prom in Esposende, a busy town rich in pilgrim sculptures.

Nearly 25 km done, under a hot sun on a lot of hard cobbles, we were getting weary and stopped at a mini market for beers and the makings of breakfast and lunch. A thankfully short distance later we arrived at our Albergue for the night in Marinhas, housed in a beautiful old building, where the shower, rest, drink, eat , sleep regime was a welcome end to the day.

A lot of movement early as some pilgrims were up before 5 making bedtime redundant, so we were out the door before 6.30 heading up more cobbled back streets past the now common mix of traditional and ultramodern homes and well kept veggie gardens. Out of town we began our first real track, a lovely stretch through woodland alongside the river Nieva complete with watermills and an ancient clapper bridge. Many feet had passed over it through the ages.

Our first climb, of about 100m, took us up out of the woodland on wisteria lined narrow cobbled tracks between fine granite walls to the church of Santiago de Castelo do Nieiva, the oldest church outside of Spain dedicated to the Man, with a carved dedication from 862ad. Stopping awhile for a rest and chocolate/ banana breakfast we were soon back on a lovely sandy track through the young oak and unstoppable eucalyptus.

Down into Chafe for coffee and Coke and on over more granite cobbles along more narrow lanes past large ancient houses then steeply up past stone and timber corn houses and decorated washhouse to hilltop shrine and cross.

With Viana do Castelo in view on the other side of the wide river Lima we descended steeply on road and track festooned with wild flowers and crossed the bridge built by Eifflel in 1878 to reach the city where, with over 20 km done and another 10 km to do before our beds, and Sallys feet ailing bad, we did the right thing and caught a bus.

20 minutes bus ride saved us 2 or 3 hours of walk and Sally a lot of pain. Alighting in Carreco we had a beer whilst waiting for the mini market to open then continued to the joyously beautiful Casa do Sardao Albergue, a funky and lovingly restored and converted family farmhouse. The place hummed with good vibes and architectural integrity. The friendly owner showed us proudly around with stories of generations past. I wish I’d taken more pictures. A gem.

A good nights sleep but we were up early under the flashing of the lighthouse on the coast to take the tea before once again setting off on granite cobbled lanes between granite cobbled walls. I don’t know if the plant life is particularly rich here or if the granite is a very hospitable environment but it was a joy to have so much at head height.

We were soon led into the forest on massive granite slab paving where countless thousands of pilgrim feet have trod, passing the very many pillars and crosses where pilgrim hands have placed offerings.

We passed the beautiful but forlorn Quinta de Cabanas, home to the poet Pedro Homem do Melo as well as a huge 280 yr old magnolia tree and site of a monastery since 564AD. Restoration and landscaping is in progress around the huge riverside complex and it will be rewarded. The path took us away up through the wool bombed forest to reach the little chapel of Our Lady of Amparo where the guardian family were deliberating the best placement of the May Day wreath of yellow broom.

The ancient ritual of Maias in Portugal sees people gathering broom flowers on April 30th to adorn their gates and doors before midnight, to protect from evil for the coming year. Nowadays even machinery and vehicles are likely to be fortified in this way, although I was surprised that super safe Volvo needed it.

After another peaceful stretch of forest on a wide cobble road we descended quite steeply towards the coast, crossing the river Ancora on the medieval stone slab Ponte da Torre and passing another old water mill.

The seaside resort itself was buzzing with Mayday celebrations and markets. After coffee in the square I headed on out of town on a dirt track beside the railway, waving as the train past expecting to see sore feet Sally on board. (But she hadn’t found the station and had hitched- getting dropped off far further than wanted and had to hike back to meet me.)

On reaching the crescent beach in Moledo I followed the esplanade till the end and continued on soft sandy tracks through the forest to the Boat Taxi across the broad river Minho where Sally joined me for the ride to Spain.

Jumping from the speed boat onto the sands of Spain we lost an hour so had a quick lunch and carried on to A Guarda on the boardwalk, through the gallery forest and beside the rocky shore, to finally reach the harbour town bathed in sunshine rising up steeply from the sea. The sight of a long steep flight of steps was enough to convince us that a stay in the converted 16th century convent at the bottom was a well deserved treat after 3 nights in dorms.

We’d made it to Spain.