The Longest Journey September 2017

Upon reflection when I decided to do this Camino pilgrimage reccie I didn't really consider it, assess it, check the mileage on a serious basis and certainly had no concerns with the terrain. Upon reflection, if I had I would certainly have felt unable to take on such a challenge and miss out on the feeling of such a success whilst also enjoying the most wonderful experiences along the ‘Way’.


It was a walk of sheer beauty with the Atlantic Coastline to the left and in the distance the green mountains calling to be climbed. Historical churches and old crumbling monuments lined the winding country paths through tranquil villages in contrast to the modern statues and metal bridges in the cosmopolitan towns. Small back garden vineyards with the hard hand picking workers handing us a delicious bunch of fresh grapes and even more delightful a bottle of local wine with our meal well-earned at the end of a long day; a true taste of the area we visited. Divine, delicious and daring are the words I would use to sum up the whole journey.


Thursday arrival day. Porto our starting point was a big surprise even though I had already visited the capital city of Portugal; Lisbon. It had the feeling of a more cosmopolitan city with the bustling feeling of a working community mixing with the tourist visitors. I'd travelled with seven friends and upon arrival we experimented for the first time with the metro. Travelling in other European countries has proved to be so much more efficient and cheaper than in the UK and Porto was just as cost effective with a seven Euro travel card to use within 24 hours. Our metro ticket worked well to take us from the airport and to our heart of the city hotel and then in the morning to Matosinhos for the start of the Camino.


Friday we begin. Opening the window to let in the 7 am sun I gazed excitedly at a wakening up city. We needed to get breakfast and leave by 8 am. We had to get to the coast and although our first days walk was fairly short in comparison to the rest of the week's challenges, we needed to break ourselves in gently. It seemed a shame to wave goodbye to Porto so quickly as it would have been a pleasure to spend a few days wandering the old town, sitting by the river drinking coffee and taking a cable car to the other side. But we were on a mission.

 

Unfortunately I hadn't considered working hour on the metro, being in holiday mode and we were jammed like sardines with our backpacks tightly around our ankles. The commuters didn't seem too fazed by this group in walking gear and boots against their slick suits and shift dresses. Hey I was so glad I was not them and I think they knew what we were up to and probably felt the same, well maybe a few. Gradually the train emptied and we were the last to escape through the automatic doors up the stairs and into the sunshine. We had hit the coast and within a few steps were on the Camino heading to Vila do Condo.


Our first day proved a nice break-in walking day with a wooden causeway to follow along the coastline. Apparently there is a more difficult route to find with an old rocky path but I was quite happy to enjoy this easy underfoot walkway although it was well favoured by locals in lycra out for their daily run. A lovely sunny day with the breeze of the coast offered a great opportunity to strip off the layers, unleash the shorts and well- covered with sun cream; greet a tan. At the end of a nice 15 mile stretch how could the group complain about the half a kilometer uphill slope to the end of the day hotel?


Situated over the estuary at Vila de Condo we walkers were treated to the luxury of an indoor pool, steam room and sauna. I clearly explained not to expect this level of hotel throughout the tour but we had been limited with choice within this area. My group, including myself don’t do hostels and love our hot shower, crisp bed, great food and wine at the end of our day. I appreciate we often get called 'Plastic Pilgrims' by those who carry their sleeping bag and clothes on their back whilst getting up at the crack of dawn to ensure they have a space at the end of the day village hostel. Let them ridicule me as I know how hard our walk was even with luggage transfer our back packs were quite heavy with essentials. End of. After all it is a holiday!

Saturday Early breakfast and off we set with the morning sun shining to Esponde; once again hitting the wooden causeway with more lively locals in lycra. One guy especially made me chuckle as he seemed to be marching along the way, perhaps he was training for military. That is the joy of the Camino as often you are walking through towns and villages and of course; other people's lives. They never seem to mind our intrusion and are happy to redirect us onto the route if we take a step off the Camino. Most of the journey here is well signposted but sometimes a bit of greenery covers an arrow or a little moss goes a bit yellow throwing you off course. Occasionally I wonder if the local children take out their paint pots for a bit of 'let's watch these weirdos wander around our village?


This evening's hotel was also a nice surprise described on the booking site as 'hidden in shady woodland' more like ‘a shady hotel in woodland’. Talk about time travelling into the 50s. But hey my fellow walkers now understood we would be staying in a wide variety of hotels and this two star hotel's main selling point was its interior dark wooden decor thoroughly varnished throughout. One match and we were up in flames. Friendly Cara on the desk was one of the few receptionists along the way who spoke good English and recognising our end of a long walk needs quickly served us cold beer in the lounge area where an old man sat watching what looked like a black and white bordering on porn film. How could he fall asleep?


We opted for a hotel dinner as we were too tired to explore, which we were very excited about. On Saturdays there was a dinner and dance for the locals and for 18 Euros were we offered an array of chicken’s liver, a variety of other offal with fresh potatoes and vegetables and a choice of desserts, with local wine. Then the music started. Our table went in silence for the first time as the mature diners spilled on to the dance floor; the ladies with well sprayed beau font hair and the guys in their three piece suits moving into their first waltz. Somehow here we felt like the outsiders and after a few giggles at the strange situation we were in, we resided to the bar, luckily minus the old guy and porn film. Sleep came easy even though we all checked our nearest fire escape prior to going to our rooms.


Sunday After lots of coffee and croissants' fuel we set off for our longest walk so far; 17 miles to Viana de Castelo. The terrain was a refreshing change with cobbled streets, winding lanes and stone paths through traditional villages. We also encounted the church with a 1000 steps or more and this will certainly be an optional challenge on our 2018 tour allowing an hour to enjoy the muriels on the journey up and down.

We started to meet more pilgrims all shouting 'Bon Camino'!  A brave Australian lady of about 65 who had taken two planes to start the route in Porto, a Denmark guy keen to share his woes and two very pretty girls just out to have fun. I was well into the community of the Camino now having experienced how many walkers take on the ‘Way’ for time out to make decisions, recover from relationship breakdowns, find themselves or simply get blisters, lose weight and take on the challenge- oh that was me!

Our hotel for the night was a few miles out of town in the coastal village of Aerias Clarius, so the plan was to have a beer in a bar by the iron bridge, where we would start our walk the next day. A bottle later and our taxis arrived to take us to the seaside. My under soles and heels were very sore and my boots felt like they had let a few small stones in. Unfortunately on removing them I could see they had taken a hard toll with a crack along the base of the left boot. They were not going to last till the end of the journey, well one of us had to go. But would they last another day? Action needed to be taken as the next opportunity to buy footwear would be in Vigo a few days ahead. I ventured out and found a local beach shop and should I say the only beach shop as it was the season end, that sold everything from fishing nets, toiletries, house hold cleaning products and yes I spotted flip flops then trainers. My heart raced and there was hope. A very attractive Portuguese lady listened to my woes and went through a pile of boxes to find a pair of black size 39 rapper style plastic boots. A quick try on and swap of 17 Euros and I am sure a sprinkle of magic from St James as those boots were a miracle life saver.


By now I was finding the challenge of walking then getting up the next day and walking again making me extremely tired and I was always the first to hit my pillow. I was organising the tour so I also had the responsibility of the hotel at the end of the day actually being what we booked. I'd got my booking.com app on my phone but in some Wi-Fi free zones and with very few hotel receptionists or owners speaking English it could also be part of the challenge. I was the youngest on the tour and always the first in bed. Some of the gang partied till early hours but not this lady; I needed to check my pacing.  I tried to sleep but my feet ached from the never ending pounding so a few painkillers assisted my snoozing. A good tip I learnt was to rub the soles and ball with Vaseline to prevent this alongside taking a couple of pairs of clean socks in my bag to regularly change them. Another good tip is to be sane and take a beach holiday in Ibiza.


Monday Wearing my dancing trainers but hanging my old loyal boots as a back-up, tied to my backpack, I headed to breakfast much to the humour of the gang. Our taxis awaited and we headed to the bar we'd been collected from the night before ready to cross the bridge into the centre of Viana de Castelo. A gloomy start to the day with rain and wind so donning our ponchos we started our search for yellow arrows. Other backpackers are great to follow so that's what we did until they turned around and asked us the way?? Ok everyone turned to me – the leader who didn't know but needed to be resourceful and find a solution. Aah a police station across the street I would show them. Once inside several officers chatted in Portuguese with the occasional English word; hospital, train station, tower. Ok so one officer who spoke the best English offered to direct me on the map, but I needed support from another map reader or an actual map reader so of course I had to invite this most handsome ever seen policeman to join our group. A few jaws dropped as I showed just how resourceful I could be when pushed.


Down the subway and over the grey tower and we were on our way to Caminha our first really long walk over 20 miles testing our built up fitness and stamina. Today's route was varied terrain with breath taking coastal pathways and with the rain settled but a strong breeze; waves crashing against the rocks. This was one of my favourite days and I breathed in the cool air trying to capture every moment whilst in the peace of my own company listening to the Camino Shell for guidance. The group had gone ahead and I kept a fine pace whilst assuring that I ˜smelt the coffee'. Moving inland the route led along winding pathways crossing rippling streams and brooks. We stopped for a picnic peeling off our boots and dipping our sweating feet in the cool waters. Did we really need to move on or could I walk in flip flops?  No we had to put on our boots and walk the long uphill climb in increasing temperatures followed by a welcome descent into Caminha our destination..


Our group of 8 decreased into 7 for dinner as one lady felt sleep more important than food. Pizza seemed a quick easy option as we needed to get up early to take the ferry to Spain. After a quick dinner I checked out the local supermarket with a blow up Shark and fishing nets hanging on the outside for a small bottle of evening spirit. Inside I could buy a nurses outfit, handcuffs, toothpaste and swimming costumers so a nice mixture.  The vodka option was a very large bottle or a tiny single shot which was the best idea I thought as I didn't want to miss the ferry.


Tuesday It seemed strange to leave Portugal at 9 am and within 20 minutes be in Spain at 10am. Costing 1 Euro the ferry journey offered great views of the land left behind and more of what was to come. Upon arrival we had to remember a change of country and different language although luckily one greeting seemed to cross all barriers ‘Bon Camino’. We knew we had a tiring day especially with the loss of an hour but we kept a fine pace reaching Oia with its Santa Maria de Oia monastery, which gives its name to the route “Camino Monacal” (Monastic Way).  This exciting but tiring day for the feet finished at Baiona which I translated to ‘cold beer’. Baiona proved to be several of the group’s favourite spots; a lovely fishing town renowned for its architectural delights and on my next tour I intend to enjoy a rest day here.

 

 

 

Wednesday We were well prepared for today's terrain as we knew we would be facing some hilly challenges before we reached the stylish city of Vigo. Part of the guide book warned us with ‘ Then a  gentle climb up “Mount San Roman” and  a little higher to “Castro Alto da Medoña” after which we reach Vigo following the river Lagares. Reaching Vigo was the easy part but  I hadn't realised at the time of booking our accommodation just how large Vigo was though and it took another hour from arrival into the city until we reached our hotel on the east side. But it was well worth it for a lovely hotel right in the heart of the lively tapas city, where we relaxed in the warm evening.

 
Thursday Luckily we may have gone an hour off piste the previous day but we were close to St Rita's Square where the yellow arrows were immediately in front of us to lead the way to our next destination of Arcade. A nice coastal path to start the day then a steep pathway up into the mountains. The route seemed well marked with a yellow and green squiggle along the side of the road all nice and clear then two arrows; one to the left and one to the right. Which to take? It was like a life decision. I knew the walk for today involved a lot of hill walking and the arrow to the right led up the hill. I telephoned the guys in front but they had gone left and wanted to continue along the coast so a couple of us headed uphill and uphill and when nearly there around the corner more uphill. At the start of the ‘Way’ I would not have been physically able or even mentally to take on this level and length of steep climbing but the uphill steps actually gave my tightened calves a rest using different muscles and I was feeling so much fitter.  My magic boots may have helped and the views were well worth the climb overlooking the River Vigo.


We were joined by Carlos a Portuguese dentist simply 'giving himself space ‘and a German heavy breather as in he was a little overweight and struggling. We all needed a beer as it was now hot and we were thirsty after our 2 hour ascent. Most of the route had offered occasional little coffee shops which also served as local bars but the only one we found today was closed for refurbishment, our Portuguese friend explained. Luckily he also spoke Spanish and having spoken to a local guy, encouraged us with the promise of a bar a couple of miles ahead. Another guardian angel enroute a bit like my policeman and I was beginning to feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz looking out for the tin man and the lion.


With a regroup at the pretty town of Redondela where lots of Camino routes cross we joined the many pilgrims enjoying that 'almost home' feeling. Many back packers were staying there for the night and were already queuing to ensure their place at the local hostels. We felt slightly guilty knowing we had our lovely hotel a few miles ahead in Arcade, where we enjoyed a lovely night of great fun, good food, local wine and of course a good night’s sleep in a hotel bedroom.


Thursday Feeling like the end of the road was ahead we set off and now started to see trig points on the road with the familiar Camino kilometres to Santiago count down. This now felt more like the Sarria to Santiago French Way I had done twice, the busiest route but I always enjoy the buzz along this road. The more tourist aspect of the ‘Way’ began to show with people selling shells, yellow arrow keyrings and fridge magnets on the road. Kind locals were out slicing pineapples to quench our thirst and regular bunches of grapes were dropped into our hands. A lovely, lively easy underfoot walk to Calas de Reis although at 21 miles my feet were on fire.


Friday One more day of walking and I can't believe how much I have achieved but I had to believe in myself for one more day. I got up and tried on the size 10 shorts my friend have given me expecting to wear them on the tour. Unfortunately at the time I was shocked as I couldn't squeeze in them after 6 months of working in an office and regularly snacking on cakes, biscuits and crisps throughout the day. But yes I got into them and was elated. I hadn't dieted obviously due to the nutritional needs of the walk, but with the long walking and not so much evening wining and dining my muffin was gone.

It was only 24 miles to Santiago and with the adrenalin of the day and chit chatting to fellow pilgrims it would be an easy finish. We all started well and got a nice steady pace working out we would reach the hotel about 5 to meet for a beer and then a photo shot and beer on the Cathedral steps. Arriving in Padron; where I now realise most sane people stop between Calais de Reis and Santiago I decided I could let my walking boots go. I had worn them a couple of hours earlier as the terrain was light underfoot and I wanted to ensure my trainers held out. So into the bin they went and it felt like more than boots had been left behind- some personal baggage also went into that bin.

 

 

The second half of the walk became very hard with a tougher terrain and seemed a little further than expected. Taking regular small breaks to prevent seizing up we finally got within 10 kilometres of the city and began to celebrate. However just when we thought we were getting closer the kilometres went up instead of down on the trigs. Several of us pilgrims were asking ourselves if we had gone around in circles but no we were on the right route it was just the ‘Way’ it had been planned out. This made the last stretch a test on your mind as you weren’t really sure how far you had to go.

 

However just when I thought I couldn’t go any further I found that last ounce of strength. When I felt I couldn’t take one more step a friend gave me the encouragement. I kept thinking in a few hours, then a few minutes I would be at the cathedral. Then we arrived and sat enjoying the promised cold beer only two hours behind schedule and my faster fellow walkers. But we all made it; every one of us at our own pace and in our own time.  

 

Upon reaching the hotel I was so tired I couldn’t get a quick shower and go out for a meal it was a hot bath, a supermarket snack and sleep. I slept most of the next day too.  How some of my fellow walkers just showered, went out that evening and then were up bright and early to go sight-seeing all day I don't know. I had seen Santiago before and it is an amazing city, but I wasn't moving apart from to climb in and out of the bath which I did four more times.


This walk was so much more of a challenge than I dreamed. Physically my body ached mainly by burnt feet and sore soles. But I was so much fitter when I got home and healthy. Mentally it was tiring organising the route with 8 people and ensuring everyone was happy although they were friends and I must say they were amazing.. Emotionally I got happy, excited, elated and also angry, sombre, exhausted and often engrossed in deep thoughts and at the end decided it had been a very strong growth period in such a short time.


I learnt I have more strength in me then I have ever thought possible. I also learnt to trust people around me. To trust the universe as just when I thought I had lost the way, an ‘angel’ came to guide me. Just when I thought I didn't have what I needed someone came to help. I learnt if I learn to trust in my life, the angels will come, the yellow arrows will show me the way and never mind what obstacles come or if I go off the right way, that will be my lesson in life to put me on the right journey; my Camino and the right way.

Join me on our 2018 September Portuguese Camino and let the yellow arrows lead your way! Thanks for reading Di

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