When we hear pilgrimage, we tend to think of religious people on their way to a holy place, often walking a troublesome way to get their sins forgiven. But this is not the only way this can be done. I’m not religious and walked the Camino Portugues from Porto to Santiago de Compostela for other reasons – and it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life so far.
With two weeks of holidays on hands and our mind set on doing our first pilgrimage we chose the route from Porto to Santiago de Compostela. The 260 km of the coastal way are mainly flat and there are many places to stay along the way so it’s perfect for beginners.
While you absolutely can do the walk on your own – also as a woman – I chose to do it with a friend and can highly recommend it. It gives you all the options: you can walk together and chat or you walk behind one another and just think or enjoy the landscape. We enjoyed having someone to talk to at the end of the day, recapping what had happened and how we felt. It also eases the accommodation as a double room was about the same price as two beds in a dormitory (24 EUR per room. vs. 20 EUR for two bunk beds).
After repeated repacking I had my backpack down to about 9 kg. That wasn’t too bad considering that I brought some luxuries like a small travel hairdryer and an immersion heater for nice hot coffee in the morning and some porridge.
We flew to Porto and stayed two nights. The idea was to have time to visit the beautiful old city but also to make a clear cut between our everyday life and this journey. And oh boy was it worth it! Porto is beautiful and we fell instantly in love with its a bit morbid charm. The facade of the victorian buildings in the old town centre has suffered over time, but there’s lots of building going on to restore the beauty of the olden times. That’s not as noisy as it sounds though, one can hear the many buskers around the city who provide a wonderful atmosphere.
We stayed close to the metro station Sao Bento, which is a gem in itself: covered in the blue and white tiles called “azulejos” that are so typical for Lisbon and Porto. On Saturdays there are plenty of markets spread over the centre, we found one urban markets with plenty handmade items and some interesting flea markets where you could buy beautiful old things. We didn’t buy anything as we would have had to carry it all the way to Spain. No thanks! That’s also a way to work on your shopping addiction… 😉
When in Rome, do like the Romans they say. So we tried the local red wine from the Duoro valley and the port wine of course. Hmmm so tasty! Actually even in the supermarket you can’t do much wrong and get gorgeous wines for about 5 EUR.
I definitively recommend to go over the bridge Ponte Luis to Gaia. Find a bar or restaurant you like at the bank of the river Duoro and enjoy a sundowner and / or a meal while marvelling the picturesque view of Porto’s old town.
Hiking the Camino
I had never done hiking holidays before so this was going to be a completely new experience. Apart from the physical challenge, the speed – or the lack thereof – was different to what I was used to. Walking gives us the time to take in the views, to stop and take pictures and have a chat with people on the way.
In contrast to most pilgrims my friend and I started our days rather late with sleeping in and then first having coffee and porridge before we got ready to leave. That was partially owed to our natural rythm of night owls but also to the fact that these were our holidays. And what’s a holiday without sleeping in? It’s worth to mention though that this only works if you don’t sleep in dormitories with lots of other pilgrims who tend to get up even before dawn.
Make new connections
Walking on a “busy” path makes it easy to connect with people, if you like. There were all kinds of people walking the way so there were lots of different characters to choose from. Some had a similar walking rhythm and we met them again and again – until finally we exchanged phone numbers and agreed to meet in “real life” again after the Camino. We’re still in touch with the two ladies from Spain who me met “off Camino” last year twice and we’re planning to meet again soon.
Time to reflect and feel free
It seemed as if everybody was on a different journey during a pilgrimage, but they had one thing in common: they all seemed to be looking for something, including us. Some few walked for religious reasons, but the majority of those we met were either there to get over something that happened or were looking for enlightenment to what they should do next in life. It worked for me and several people I spoke to. It wasn’t even necessary to discuss “the topic”, the Camino kind of worked it out with my subconscious mind. Maybe it helped to be away from everything without too much distraction, maybe it was the meditative process of just walking every day. Or maybe it was the fact that all you owned and needed at that moment you had in your backpack on your back. This was the ultimate feeling of freedom and a nice change from our otherwise often cluttered lives.
I’ll be back, that’s for sure! 🙂