The Way – part 14: Caldas de Reis to Padron – penultimatum

Before I begin with today’s walk, there are a few more observations from Caldas de Reis:

  • Our hotel had a “thermal mineral pool”, which we spent over half an hour in before deciding we needed dinner. Apparently the town is famous for such pools and spas, although it seems economically depressed.
  • As a result of said economic depression, many of the local restaurants and bars appear to have been shuttered. Those that remained open were quickly packed with pilgrims. Getting a table anywhere proved challenging.
  • Two of Google’s recommendations for restaurants were a complete bust, one of them apparently no longer open, and another clearly not an establishment worth visiting. A third was not a restaurant at all, but a cool bar with great music, fantastic wine, and a very pleasant proprietor.
  • The Spanish clearly do not care for breakfast. Or they don’t understand it. I believe it is the former. They want you to eat dessert for breakfast, with cakes and sweet pastries in abundance. There is cereal, but you will have to search, sometimes in vain, for cold milk. What I (and, in my opinion, all sensible people) want is something savoury, ideally a form of protein, even more ideally not square-cut ham. An egg. An egg would be fantastic. Bacon would be an excellent accompaniment. Or good, Spanish ham – Serrano, say. Keep the sweet nothings for the lunatics who want them, but please, allow me an egg.

Now that’s out of the way, we can begin. Today, of course, was the penultimate day of our Camino. Tomorrow, we will arrive in Santiago. But that is tomorrow. I shouldn’t begin with an ending – and not even today’s ending at that!

After a desultorily sweet breakfast, we set off into the cool, grey morning. Mist hung over the river, and muted the sounds of our footsteps on the quiet streets. We followed the yellow arrows out of town, and into the countryside.

We moved almost silently, among other almost silent perigrinos, through woods, following a pathway that itself followed a stream. Then the woods thinned out, and we moved through villages, the low clouds snagged on roof tiles, or caught in the tree tops, not willing to tear itself free.

We spoke with other travelers. A pair of women from Ireland. A young woman from Ukraine. A couple from Austria. Some had done Caminos before. Others, like us, were doing this for the first time. Some had taken the coastal route. Some had started in Tui, or later. Everyone has their own journey. No one can take it away from them.

Eventually we arrived in Padron, home of exquisite grilled peppers that we’ve grown to love over the past few days. Our hotel is just outside the town proper, in the bordering community of Lestrove. It is exquisite, inside and out. The closest thing to a drawback is that pool is frightfully cold. I can forgive that.

Tomorrow, as I mentioned, we’ll begin the final stage of our journey. We’ve already walked more than 200 km. There are roughly 25 to go.

But all endings are beginnings of something else.

The Way – part 8: Cossourado to Valença

I am sitting in the shade outside a kitschy shop in Valença that doesn’t re-open for another five minutes. Adele has has wandered off on me, but was aiming to come to this shop, so I’m hopeful that she’ll be here soon. It is hot today. The weather app says 33 C.

Today’s walk was a short one, which was a good thing after yesterday’s slog. We sauntered from Casa da Capela to Hotel Lara in about 3.5 hours, in mostly downhill trajectory, with little to report. We stopped in a couple of capelas to light candles for people. The second time Adele put in €2 and about 10 candles lit up, so everyone should feel well covered. We also stopped at a restaurante & bar along the way, where the barman made us fresh squeezed lemonade.

After checking in early at our hotel, we’ve come up to the old walled city, which is where Adele and I briefly parted ways. Now back together, Adele tells me that she meant the tourism information office, which I point out is not a shop. ‘Whatever, I can’t find it.’ I say to follow me, and set off down the cobbled road.

‘It’s not down that way’, Adele calls to me.

‘Yes, it is’, I say. ‘Trust me.’

‘It’s closer to where we came in.’

‘No, it’s this way.’

I am right, of course. We go to the tourism office and get our pilgrim passports stamped, look around in a few shops, and then return to the hotel. It’s too damn hot for unnecessary walking, and besides, we have a long day tomorrow. We’ll be leaving Portugal and getting our first look at Spain.

The Way – part 7: grinding in northern Portugal – Ponte de Lima to Cossourado

I’m drunk. Since arrived at our hotel, I’ve had about a bottle and a half of vinho verde. Yes, I’m a lightweight. I’m old. -ish. Get lost.

Today was a hard day. The guide book said it would be, although it softened it by saying this would be “the most challenging day” of the Caminho. Christ, I hope so!

If you’re at all familiar with Vancouver, you’ll understand when I say it was like plunking half the Grouse Grind into a half marathon route. We gained 405 m – 1330 feet, for those of you who still think in such terms – during our ‘walk’ today. Most of it concentrated in a relatively short distance.

But we made it, somehow, and were even the first to arrive at our hotel. More drinking time for us! Winning!

For quite a while this morning, I wondered if they’d oversold the ‘challenging’ aspect of this stage. The we reached the grind – or what I’m now referring to as the ‘Portuguese Pummel’.

Thankfully we had purchased (and remembered to pack) trekking poles – although one of Adele’s crapped out, so we each used one. (Fair’s fair, right?) These proved invaluable in getting us up the rock-strewn gullies that appeared about 12 km into our 22 km hike.

It wouldn’t have been nearly so bad, though, if not for how hot it was. The temperatures reached the upper 20s C by 11 a.m., and by the time we reached the peak of our climb we’d hit 30 C, maybe more. The view, though, was spectacular.

Even after that zenith, though, today’s walk was a slog. The last time I drank this much water in a day (not counting the wine) was when I quit smoking, a little over 20 years ago.

We eventually arrived at our hotel, the exquisite Casa da Capela, at around 4 p.m., having left Ponte de Lima around 8:15 a.m.

It was a gruelling day, but I feel amply rewarded by the hotel, the food they served us for dinner, and – of course – the wine. (Oh, they also have a pool, not heated, which was great for soaking our feet in.)

Tomorrow, thankfully, will be a shorter walk, and mostly downhill.

The Way – part 3: And… go! Porto to Arcos

Adele hiding from the camera behind a way marker.
Today the Caminho became a reality for us. Up at half past six, we had our bags (and ourselves) in the lobby two hours later, as instructed. Then we were driven through suburban and industrial areas not suited to walking, and dropped in the village of Mosteiro on the outskirts of Porto. After saying goodbye to our driver, we strapped on our packs and began the roughly 17 km walk to Arcos.

It was a bright, sunny morning, and the cobbled roads wound between tall stone walls interrupted every now and then by houses, their walls frequently decorated with blue and white tiles depicting saints, or scenes from biblical stories. We heard church bells announcing nine o’clock from towers in several directions.

We stopped at a small church dedicated to Santo Estavo (St. Stephen), in part because of its beautiful tile facing, and in part because a sign indicated “Public W.C.” After using the facilities (adjacent to the car park), we looked through the small cemetery. I’ve never seen so many elaborate grave markers in such a small space. As we were leaving, some fellow pilgrims, a group of six from Brazil, waved us over and told us that someone had gone to fetch a key so we could all look inside. It was astonishing, all the statues and decoration. I’m not religious, but it was impressive how much effort went into making and preserving this place.

We continued on between fields cornstalks a good seven or more feet high. The sun shone brightly and the morning warmed quickly. It was to become a very warm day for walking.

Cornstalks towering over Adele

By noon we reached the village of Vairao, which was a little beyond the halfway mark of our walk. We stopped at a churrasqueira near the town square for lunch. Nearly every table was already reserved, but the owner made room for us. The place soon filled with locals, and queue of others formed while we ate. Adele had BBQ chicken, and I ordered the fried octopus. The food was delicious, the staff were incredibly friendly, and it only came to €16.

The afternoon walk was hot. We went through most of our water, and stopped for lemon sodas about 3 km from Arcos. I’d made the decision not to bring my water pack, and I didn’t regret it. The added weight would have been a pain.

We arrived in Arcos about half past three. The Hotel San Miguel de Arcos is a beautiful place. With stone walls and wood floors. It’s a great place to end a day’s journey, and a blog post.

Ready, set, ….

The preparations are done. The BBQ has been cleaned & brought in for storage. The house is closed up. Our bags are packed. We’ve checked in for our flight.

In a few hours, we’ll be in our way. Porto via Amsterdam, then the long walk to Santiago de Compostela. A pilgrim route. And maybe a sort of pilgrimage, too, if not a religious one. A journey of discovery, and of celebration.

I don’t know what I hope to find. Some of it will have to do with places we stop and the people we meet along the way. Some of it will be things we learn about ourselves. Traveling reveals so much about the traveler.

The celebration is less uncertain. It has to do with my continuing life with Adele. We’ve known each other for 28 years, lived together for 27, been married for a little over 25. It amazes me that two people can be together so much and for so long, and still love each other.

It often felt as though we’d never get to this day. There were so many months between the first idea of this journey and this moment. So many things we had to do to prepare. So many tasks that had nothing to do with it, but that we’ve had to do before going: at work, at home. Life seems always to get in its own way.

But here we are, finally, at the starting line: ready and set, and waiting to go.

Pilgrimage

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in gods or spirits that are disconnected from bodies, or souls that survive after a person dies. I believe we are physical beings, with an all too finite span of existence, and that what many people call a soul is really just a part of mind or personality. Of course, I could easily be wrong about this, as is the case with any belief, but I haven’t seen any evidence or argument that has convinced me that I’m in error.

And so it may seem strange that I will be making a pilgrimage this year. Not just a journey that has personal meaning, but an actual pilgrimage. Later this year my wife and I will walk one of the several official pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela – known at one time as a ‘way of St. James’, as people once believed (and some may still) that the remains of St. James were located in Santiago. Leaving aside the vast amount of historical fraud associated with so-called relics, pilgrimages of this sort have been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages, and many people of more religious bent still embark on such journeys – and the Camino, in particular – for religious or ‘spiritual’ reasons. For me, however, this will be a very long walk through places I have yet to visit, where I hope to meet many people, encounter new foods and wines, new music and art, expand slightly my meagre linguistic capabilities, and learn more about myself.

I have long been of the opinion that walking has benefits that other forms of mobility do not. The physical benefits are obvious and well known – and something I can use more of in my far too sedentary lifestyle. In addition to those, walking (if done right) helps to clear the mind and improve our ability to attend to the world around us, in a manner that other, faster forms of travel preclude. The faster you move, the less you take in, and the less time you have to think about and absorb the information around you. If you really want to know a place, you need to walk it.

Before we travel to the start of our journey, we’ll spend more time walking in our own, more familiar environment. We need to get used to walking more than 10 km – usually 15 to 20 – every day, if we expect to be able to walk the 240 km route we have planned in two weeks. So, over the course of the spring and summer, we’ll begin walking more, building up to the distances we need to able to cover. In doing so, not only will our physical health likely improve (did I mention I spend far too much time sitting?), but I expect we will come to know our home town, and ourselves, in new ways.

If anyone has done a similar journey, please let me know about it in the comments. And if you’ve blogged about it, send me link.