A part of my “mop up Camino”, I spent 3 days in May walking the Coastal Portuguese Way of St. James from Vila do Conde to Caminha, on my own. I’d already completed a 4-day stint in Galicia between A Guarda and Redondela (where the coastal and central routes merge) so this was my chance to find out what the Portugal section is like. As with my other experiences of walking the Camino, I learned some valuable lessons.
Although the coastal Camino ostensibly starts in Porto, the official Way leads through an urban jungle and most tour operators advise pilgrims to start walking in Matosinhos and just follow the coast to Vila do Conde if you’d rather spend a day by the ocean.
Coastal Camino: Vila do Conde to Esposende
I was pushed for time so picked up the official route at the parish church in Vila do Conde. If you have time and it’s open, it is worth going inside, or at least taking a moment to admire the doorway from the outside. I was reluctant to leave this attractive town behind but had a long day ahead of me, covering more kilometres than I would ordinarily choose.
I found the first four kilometres between Vila do Conde and Povoa de Varzim rather frustrating, simply because I was keen to see the sea and felt trapped between buildings. Once I reached the coast, my mood lifted as I walked past signs of preparation for the summer season in this still sleepy resort town.
I spent next couple of hours alternating between wooden boardwalks through flowered sand dunes, pavements and quiet tarmac roads. There are no cafés directly on this stretch of the Camino but I spotted an awning in Barranha and found a welcome pit stop.
Once the boardwalk ends at Aguçadora football club, the Way heads inland along an old cobbled road through several kilometres of market gardens before and after the village of Apúlia. Several trucks trundle up and down this lane so you need to have your wits about you.
If I was doing this again (and the weather was good), I would take a detour to the beach at Apúlia and spend the night there. As it was, I needed to get to Esposende and was already tired so I stayed on the main Camino, through the forest to the village of Fão, passing a rather unusual statue on the way.
After crossing the bridge over the River Cávado, I was irritated to find the Way taking me away from the waterfront once more. Instead of following the river (which you could do, since the Way emerges on this road later on), it leads you through the residential outskirts and into the small but attractive historical centre of Esposende.
If you only have time to visit one church in Esposende, make it the Igreja da Misericordia for the Lord of the Mariners’ chapel. The city museum, housed in a former theatre, has beautiful Art Nouveau tiles inside and out if you have time and energy to visit.
Coastal Camino: Esposende to Viana do Castelo
This is one of the days when the name ‘coastal’ has no real bearing on the route. There are times when the Atlantic is visible in the distance but most of the time is spent walking through villages and countryside. Although I liked the craggy mountains that backed the first string of villages, the first highlights of my day came when I entered the forest near Antas. Walking along dirt tracks through trees with glimpses of rocks and river is my kind of happy place.
After crossing the River Neiva on slabs of stone, a steady climb leads up to a church dedicated to St. James in 862. You also get a splendid view of the coast and countryside.
Another forest section, this time with glittering mud and stones, ended at the rather grand São Romão church and monastery and steps up to a sanctuary. The azulejo panels that line the steps apparently depict the stages of the cross and other biblical scenes but I decided to conserve my energy rather than climb unnecessary steps.
After that came more country lanes interspersed with villages, an unusual shrine to a murdered man and a downhill stretch towards the river.
The Eiffel bridge across the River Lima is possibly the longest I’ve ever crossed on foot. Apparently, it’s just under 600 metres but it felt much longer, partly due to the force of the wind coming from the ocean (I wouldn’t fancy it in bad weather!) and partly because of the extremely narrow pavement and constant stream of traffic. The views downstream and of Viana do Castelo are due compensation though.
Having visited Viana do Castelo a couple of times, there were still places I was keen to check out so I opted to take a rest day here. It’s a fascinating old city once you start to scratch the surface and there’s more than enough to fill a day of your time, especially if you go up the hill to see the Santa Luzia Basilica and the Celtic settlement behind it.
Coastal Camino: Viana do Castelo to Âncora
While many people particularly enjoy this stage, I found it challenging. Perhaps it was because the anticipated distance (27.4 km) was already daunting, despite the day’s rest in Viana. Or maybe it was the light rain that persisted for most of the day. Or the fact that I didn’t encounter any other Camino walkers. Or that I wasn’t by the coast (I was surprised at how much that bothered me, even though I had known that I wouldn’t be – the next two days are mostly coastal, by the way).
I think the biggest problem, at least during the initial stretch after Viana, was the high walls in all the villages I passed through. I don’t know what’s behind them that warrants such protection but I found them oppressive and depressingly grey.
I started to cheer up when the path opened up at Quinta Boa Viagem. A low bridge crosses a boulder-filled river and, although it was misty, there were views of nearby hills and countryside. Although there were a few more high walls after this point, they were interspersed with views and attractive spots like the Fonte da Preza and River Cabanas with its succession of mini waterfalls.
From there, it was a steady climb up through a eucalyptus forest and out again into a village with an ancient stone water tank. I should have stopped at O Forno café for a rest and a bite to eat but instead I went off on a fruitless detour in search of a cooked lunch.
Tired and still hungry, I rejoined the Way to head for Âncora. Unfortunately, I missed a poorly marked turning to cross a field and ended up going at least a kilometre in the wrong direction before I realised what had happened. By the time I got to a café in Âncora, I was past caring what I ate and just grateful that they had something leftover from the lunchtime specials.
Rested and fed, I continued through Vila Praia de Âncora to finally rejoin the ocean by the fortress and fishing harbour. There is a wide sandy beach here with dunes and a river running through it and mountains behind. If you plan your Camino accordingly, it’s a good place to relax for a few hours.
The Way follows the yellow ecovia along the coast for a short while then steers you away from the water to follow the train tracks almost all the way to the pretty town of Caminha. If I hadn’t been so tired and desperate to get to the hotel, I would have taken the detour from Moledo beach to walk through the pine forest and along the riverside boardwalk to reach Caminha.
Tip: Plan ahead and bring a substantial packed lunch with you (or stop for snacks in Carreço and O Forno and have something more substantial in Vila Praia de Âncora).
Note: Next year I intend to try out the alternative route between Viana do Castelo and Âncora, which follows the coast and avoids the hill. I’ll let you know how that goes.
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