Having followed the Camino Português to Santiago de Compostela on the main route from Porto, I remained curious about the Camino Espiritual, which leaves the main trail just after Pontevedra and rejoins it in Pontecessures near Padrón.
Now that I’ve done the Variante Espiritual, as it’s also known, or Salnés Spiritual Variant, I can honestly say it’s both stunning and special.
Part of the appeal lies in traversing the only maritime Way of St. James in the world by boat, which not only saves you walking, it’s peaceful, interesting and meaningful.
According to the legend, the boat that carried the body of the Apostle James the Greater all the way from Palestine arrived in Galicia in the year 44. The boat travelled through the Arousa waterways and up the Ulla River before landing at Iria Flávia, now called Padrón. From there, James’ disciples continued their journey overland to lay him to rest in what is now Santiago de Compostela.
The Camino Espiritual is based around the voyage through the Ria de Arousa and is known as the Traslatio.
Because of this deep connection with the water, the scenery, villages and towns on the Spiritual Variant are different and in many ways more beautiful than on the standard route between Pontevedra and Padrón. You’ll need to allow an extra day on your itinerary if you wish to take this Variante Espiritual.
Here’s my experience, once again as a pampered pilgrim using the services of a local tour operator to organise accommodation, luggage transfers and information.
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Day 1: Camino Espiritual from Pontevedra to Armenteira (approx 21.5 km)
We joined the hoards of pilgrims making their way out of Pontevedra (this was September, which is a busy month for the Camino) and reached the point where the route splits after a couple of kilometres.
It’s easy to spot as there’s a notice board before the main Camino goes to the right, under railway line at the end of the gravel path. The Variante Espiritual Salnés goes to the left and suddenly we were alone and in the countryside proper, following dirt paths past chestnut groves, fields and vineyards.
The waymarkers for this route have a beautiful cross and scallop symbol, as well as the usual yellow arrows.
I was pleased to spot a petroglyph in the small outdoor gym area at Lugar de Campaño. This Bronze Age engraving of concentric circles had been moved from its original location on a stone road to prevent damage and to allow it to be appreciated by more people.
We were also delighted to stop for a coffee at Hotel Campaniola’s very pleasant outdoor terrace.
A little further on, at around 8 km, is the imposing Benedictine San Xoán de Poio Monastery, which dates back to the 7th century and is well worth the €2.50 entrance fee. Two cloisters host amazing artwork including marble sculptures and mosaics made of local stone.
The second cloister is lined with a mosaic mural that depicts the French Camino, with motifs and imagery that represent the Spanish cities and traditions that the route crosses.
Poio is also the first place where you get a glimpse of the Ria de Pontevedra. From here, we headed down the hill and followed the path along the water’s edge to reach the small fishing town of Combarro.
As well as charming stone cottages with overhanging balconies that face the water, this village is known for its waterfront grain stores, aka horreos, some of which now have cafés beneath them.
A wander through the historical centre is well worth taking. As well as interesting architecture, you’ll see plenty of shops selling lurid coloured liqueurs and an array of witches.
I was surprised by these so I did a bit of digging and discovered the connection between the 7 stone calvaries dotted around Combarro and witches. Apparently, these crucifixes were typically placed where pagan practices and witchcraft had a strong influence. The fact that there are 7 in this small village suggests that witches were plentiful, hence the souvenirs.
We had lunch at O Peirão, the first of several restaurants overlooking the water, with open air grills and amazing seafood.
The climb up the hill towards Armenteira was not as bad as we feared. It started off with a few steep sections but it’s worth stopping to look back at the views anyway so breathers serve a dual purpose.
Most of the climb is fairly gradual and as you get higher, especially after the Miradouro do Loureiro viewing platform, there’s plenty of shade as you walk through the forest on wide, easy tracks.
The stage ends at the 12th century monastery in A Armenteira, which is still in operation and free to enter the cloisters. You can also attend a pilgrim mass here. The gift shop is manned by the resident nuns and sells soaps and other biologically produced cosmetics that they make.
Day 2: Camino Espiritual from A Armenteira to Vilanova de Arousa (approx 25 km)
Although it’s dauntingly long, this is probably the most beautiful stage of the Camino Português so give yourselves plenty of time to take breaks and enjoy the journey.
The first part of the route is utterly delightful. You follow the local walking trail, known as the Ruta da Pedra e da Água (Route of Stone and Water), through captivating woodland alongside the A Armenteira Stream. Dotted along the waterway you’ll find old stone watermills in various states of ruin and an old sawmill.
Legend of Don Ero and the little bird
This idyllic woodland is most likely the location of the legend surrounding the Armenteira Monastery. The monastery was founded by Don Eros after he and his wife received a message from the Virgin Mary to say that their attempts to have children would continue to be fruitless and that his only heir would be spiritual. He built the monastery and became its abbot but, having received no further reward or messages from on high about earthly paradise, he began doubting that the Virgin Mary was listening to his prayers.
Feeling frustrated, he went for a walk in the nearby woods and sat on a stone beside the river. As he enjoyed his surroundings, a little bird came to join him and sang to him so beautifully that he forgot his worries and became totally immersed in the beauty of the moment.
When he returned to the monastery a few hours later, he was greeted by a monk he had never met before. There was some understandable confusion and disbelief on both sides when Abbot Eros explained who he was. Somehow, 300 years had passed by while he spent what felt like a few hours contemplating the glory of paradise in the company of the little bird!
Towards the end of the woodland section, a slight detour leads you to Aldea Labrega, a collection of stone sculptures that celebrate traditional Galician village life, some of which are cute and amusing. I particularly liked the piglets.
After this enchanting forest, the route follows the wider Umia River through vineyards, offering plenty of opportunites for birdwatching and fish spotting.
There are a few cafés on the first part of this stage, the first of which is near the roundabout shortly after the picnic area in the woods (approx 5 km). We were aiming to have lunch at Ponte Arnelas, which we did, but the restaurant was further than we anticipated and we were over tired by the time we got to O Moucho Peregrino. You may want to pace yourself a bit better and take a break by the river before hitting the roads.
After lunch, we climbed steadily through vineyards and villages to a high point at 110 metres then began our descent towards the Ria de Arousa.
From our first glimpse of blue through the trees, we became giddy with glee.
The tide was in and the weather perfect so we walked beside an idyllic expanse of blue dotted with small green islands and backed by small sandy beaches to reach the bridge into Vilanova de Arousa.
The first thing we did after arriving at our hotel was to grab our swim stuff and head back to the beach for a swim.
Day 3: Camino Espiritual Vilanova de Arousa to Padrón
The best way to get to Padrón, and one of the main reasons for taking the Spiritual Variant, is the boat journey from Vilanova de Arousa to Pontecessures. As mentioned above, legend has it that the body of St. James was transported along the Ria de Arousa and then the Ulla River to Padrón.
The journey itself is beautiful and varied, even though we had to set off in the dark.
The boats can only travel when the water level is high enough so timetables are dependent on the tide. Ours left at 7:45 am so we got to watch as the day got lighter and we could see all the floating mussel beds that are a major part of the local economy.
We were on one of the larger boats, which had an open upper deck and an enclosed lower deck although I spent most of the time up top, enjoying the views and fresh air.
And taking pictures of the stone crosses that make up the maritime Way of the Cross. There was commentary on board, in English and Spanish, although it was difficult to understand at times.
Pontecessures is not the most attractive place to end the boat trip as it’s dominated by an enormous factory. However, once you rejoin the main Camino, it’s only a short (2 km) walk into pretty Padrón.
This is a pretty small town and the legend of the boat voyage is strong here – you’ll see plenty of related imagery around town, especially at Fuente del Carmen, as well as in some shops.
Inside the Church of St. James, behind the altar, you’ll find El Pedrón, the stone mooring place where the boat carrying the body of Apostle Santiago made landfall.
Padrón also has plenty of small squares and eateries and a delightful botanical garden with some unusual trees like the twisty Judas tree, shaped like a crown of thorns.
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