Walking along path of history on the Camino pilgrimage

Walking along path of history on the Camino pilgrimage

5 June 2019

THE faint sound of a church bell ringing in the distance, a cockerel crowing under a leafy olive grove at sunrise or the thunderous crash of an Atlantic wave as it beats off a rocky shoreline in northern Portugal became a welcome replacement to the bustle of Downpatrick last month.

For 12 days, my friend Shona and I ventured the 175-mile trek of the Camino Portuguese from the beautiful and vibrant city of Porto to Santiago de Compostela in neighbouring Galicia, in northern Spain. 

Time stood still as we listened to the rhythmic crunch of sandy gravel underfoot and breathed in the soft pine-scented woodland pathways that led to an ever increasing number of pilgrims making their way up through the captivating beauty of the Camino da Costa — just one of many routes leading to the famous cathedral which is the final resting place of St James the Apostle.

Our journey began after a seriously hearty breakfast in one of the many fabulous street-side cafes in Porto on Thursday, May 9. The traditional merchant city is situated on the ‘River of Gold’. It was here in the 12th century that Portugal took its name. Much of its fine architecture in the old medieval quarter and a mandatory wine tasting session of the world famous ruby-port wine warrant a return trip in itself some day. 

Hugging the coastline, this first stage meanders along a low lying shoreline of boardwalks and sand dunes to Vila do Conde where we took lodging for the night in a guest house as the town’s albergue offered only mattresses in a hallway. 

Day two saw us slowly begin to adapt to the rigours and demands of the Camino. I secretly longed for the day to be over before it began and was relieved that not just a few of us were wondering the same thing. Yet, 15 miles later, with a one and a half stone weight packed inside our rucksacks and the unwelcome emergence of a cluster of painful blisters forming, we were singing with joy as we arrived at the popular surfing resort of Esposende in the Braga district later that afternoon.  

Day three began in much the same way, neither of us forgetting the miracle cure that can be derived from a good night’s sleep. We crossed the Rio Nieve to the first of two 500 foot peaks leading to Viana do Castelo where the majestic Monte Santa Luzia stands atop of a steep hill overlooking yet another captivating beachside town. 

Half way between Esposende and Viana do Castelo is Igreja Santiago de Castelo do Neiva, where an altar inion relating to St James and dated 862 AD was found during the reconstruction of the church.  This is the oldest consecration to the apostle to be found outside Spain and has put this relatively recent route firmly on the official routes map for pilgrims. 

Onwards we hiked to Caminha on day four, where more beach board walks, pebbled pathways and sand dunes morphed into woodland trails, offering welcoming shade from the midday sun. Another steady uphill climb helped us reach here before crossing the Spanish-Portuguese border the next day. 

Farmers still tend their crops by hand in this part of the world, which harks back to a bygone era, leaving it untouched by modern intensive farming methods and giving us a window on the past.

The fifth leg of our journey began by being ferried across the border in a row boat which had a small motor installed, leaving behind the harbour town of Caminha for the Spanish town of Garda a few short miles round the bay. 

Further up the coast we trekked, for 12-and a-half miles until we reached the quaint seaside hamlet of Oia and its famous Cistercian monastery, Real Monasterio de Oia, which dates back to 1185. 

By this stage our trek was getting easier as we adapted to the distances we were hiking each day. By way of a measuring stick as to how far we’d come, we got chatting to a couple from Kent who had made their way to a villa they had rented out for a short break. 

They had driven from Porto in a hired car up the motorway the day before and it took them 90 minutes. It had taken us five gruelling, but extraordinarily peaceful days to reach the same point and we laughed at how easy it could have been. 

Each day we handed over our pilgrim passport to be stamped by church sacristans, post office workers, tourist office clerks, cafe and hostel owners, each of them eager to put their mark on our pilgrim way as we followed another hand-painted yellow arrow or scallop shell, dutifully painted and maintained by locals proud to be part of a 1,000 year-old Christian pilgrimage, which has exploded in popularity in recent years not only with Christians, but also with the unbeliever, the doubter, the atheist and the sceptic — all eager to take on its challenges in a bid to escape the rigours and stress of modern day life. 

Each day too locals seemed to appear out of the midsts, as if by magic, beckoning us with a whistle or a car horn to prompt us to turn around if we had mistakenly taken a wrong route — for which we were very grateful because each step we took seemed to matter a great deal. 

On day six the town of Moughas gave way to the mountain village Baiona, from where we walked to Ramallosa, famed for its historic sites and narrow medieval streets. 

Day seven presented a continuous series of spectacular vistas, each imprinted upon our minds until the day we die, such was their beauty, until we reached the large city of Vigo. 

Between Ramallosa and Vigo we met with a retired local man out walking his dog along the seashore. Silently he studied the two of us slouched exhausted over a park bench at mid morning. We could almost hear the mechanisms at play within his mind. 

“Where are you from?” he enquired in a fair attempt at English. 

“Northern Ireland,” we both replied, knowing that he was going to say something witty. 

“Ah, Paddies,” he said, as if waiting our next move in a chess game.

Ah, you must be Pedro,” we retorted, intending no harm. 

“Where are you walking to?” he enquired. 

“Santiago de Compostela in Galacia,” we both said.

It was a trigger. After telling us quite succinctly what, over the last several decades, he had slowly come to realise life was about and how it should be lived, he asked: “Why are you doing it?”

Neither of us was prepared for his directness but I showed him my rosary beads nonetheless. “It’s a sacrifice,” I said straight out.  He paused before he shook his head and said: “You’ll never make it.” 

As he watched us stand up he was only too eager though to hold our rucksacks as we reached into them again after our short but thought provoking rest. 

After wishing us buen Camino, he asked us to remember him when we reached the tomb of St James. 

Day eight and the noise and bustle of Vigo soon gave way to 600 feet and a steady climb of mountainous terrain and shady woodland trekking until we reached the refreshingly rural town of Redondela. 

Quiet country lanes led to 13 miles of more pebbled rustic pathways and stony gravel lanes on day nine until we reached the city of Pontevedra. As good fortune would have it, Friday, May 17, was a public holiday across Galacia and every shop, except cafes and wine bars were closed. We did mange to explore the magnificent Roman town though in the evening, but our bank balance didn’t suffer too much. 

Pontevedra paved the way on day ten with more forest trails and waterfalls. Our first climb of the day was to Caldas de Reis, home of the famous volcanic foot spa where for centuries pilgrims have been dipping their sore and weary feet in water of 40 degrees. 

Our penultimate day saw us take on the dizzy heights of Mount Corgullion before reaching the famous city of Padron, where we sampled the world famous padron peppers with dinner in the evening. 

Padron is 16 miles south of Santiago and is the starting point of St James’s ministry in Spain and to where his remains were brought following his martyrdom in Jerusalem. His remains were later taken to the cathedral in Santiago where they lie in a tomb. 

We gazed in awe at the great Jacobean treasure and the original stone mooring post of Padron, from which the town gets its name. 

On the twelfth day a final temptation presented itself in the form of a train station that was situated directly opposite our lodgings that evening. Fellow pilgrims laughed at the idea that a train would take us to Santiago in 18 pain-free minutes, if we weren’t up to the final trek and the almost 1,000 feet climb. 

I wasn’t laughing. I seriously eyed up the possibility, going as far to check train times. It was a stroke of good luck when I learned there was no other half way stop between Padron and Santiago. After what we had endured over the last 12 days, not to walk the final few miles would have been an obvious regret. 

And so we reached Santiago on foot shortly after 3pm on May 20, overjoyed and in a state of euphoria. The city of Santiago was worth the hike. It’s as beautiful and charming as it is captivating. 

The camaraderie and craic shared among all us pilgrims who made it from Porto to Santiago that day was incomparable to anything I have encountered before. The memories will stay with me until the day I die.