After a day walking a section of the Portuguese Way of St James pilgrimage route, I’ve somehow been persuaded to come back and do the full 227 kilometre walk at some point. When I arranged to do one stage of the Portuguese Way with Portugal Green Walks I had no intention of walking from Porto to Spain. Ever. I just wanted an interesting walk through the pretty countryside of northern Portugal.
So why, when the attraction of pilgrimages has always baffled me, would I want to do one?
Update: I have actually done it! Not only that, I also walked the alternative Coastal Camino so instead of 227 km, I walked over 400 in total.
The walk from Ponte da Lima to Rubiães
Stage 4 of the Portuguese Way starts in Ponte de Lima and ends 20 km later in Rubiães after climbing a rather steep hill. Paulo and José, my guides for the day, delight in telling me it’s the toughest section of the route. “It’s also the most beautiful,” Paulo assures me.
It’s perfect April weather; sunny with a light breeze. The fields and roadsides are bursting with colour from flowers, most of which I recognize, but there are some I’ve never seen before. The bright green leaves of the countless grapevines we pass are beginning to sprout and the birds are chirruping away.
We walk past fields and vineyards, through villages and forests, along streams, over Roman bridges and climb steep, rocky footpaths. Sections of the route follow tarmac roads, too, but there’s hardly any traffic.
The first couple of hours are easy, although we pass a group of cyclists who are having so much trouble with their packs and the uneven paths that they decide to abandon the route and head for the tarmac early. And that was before they reached the steep bit.
The difficult part of the Central Camino Português
We refill our water bottles at a roadside spring, the last officially drinkable water source before the hard climb begins. José and Paulo have tortured me with their descriptions of how challenging it is so I’m relieved to find that the steep bits come in short bursts after which the track levels out a little.
After the first hilly section, we recover by the French Cross. This is where the local villagers ambushed and killed the few remaining French soldiers at the end of the last invasion. They then felt so bad about having killed such young soldiers – some stories say one was a drummer boy – that they put up a stone cross.
It’s covered with stacked pebbles and personal items like football scarves, rosary beads and messages. There’s even a brass plaque in memory of an Australian woman. Each year, the pile of tokens left by pilgrims gets so big that it has to be cleared away.
What exactly is a pilgrim?
I ask José and Paulo about the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim and they laugh. It’s a continual subject for debate, especially among purists who feel that the route should be restricted for use only by true believers.
Those that undertake the personal challenge of walking the Way of St James have a myriad of reasons for doing it, not all of them related to religion.
For some, it’s a safe way of hiking in Portugal and Spain with time to enjoy the scenery and observe village life close up. For others, it’s a personal ambition, even a ‘bucket list’ item.
The general consensus is that if your intention is to make it to Santiago de Compostela, that makes you a pilgrim, not just a tourist. If you get your pilgrim’s passport stamped along the Way, you’ll get a certificate at the end to prove it.
The effects of doing a pilgrimage
Doing the pilgrimage can change your outlook on life, too.
Paulo tells me how he found it a liberating experience to walk the Portuguese Way carrying a backpack which he quickly realised was too heavy. “It teaches you what’s really essential, what you really need and what you can live without,” he explains.
Both Paulo and José have both completed the route several times. “Every time I arrive in Santiago de Compostela, I experience different emotions,” says Paulo. “The feelings are always powerful but it’s also different each time you go. Everyone reacts in their own way so you are surrounded by strong emotions. People often cry when they arrive.”
The tears are not necessarily about religious devotion.
Walking 20 to 30 kilometres a day is tough going, even for fit people who have prepared well, and not everyone manages to walk as much of the Camino de Santiago as they had hoped to. The sense of personal achievement, coupled with relief, on completing the route often evokes profound emotional reactions.
José has racked up over 20 trips and buys a celebratory T-shirt each time he gets to Santiago de Compostela. Today, he’s wearing one with a bright yellow arrow on it, just like the painted markers along the route.
José describes the atmosphere created by the giant incense burners swinging through the old cathedral, dragging sweet smoke behind them.
It’s relatively easy to imagine but it’s something you’d really need to experience in person to get the full effect.
Between them, they have convinced me to walk the whole route one day. I might even buy a T-shirt.
If you’re thinking of doing the Portuguese Way of St James, here are some tips:
When to go: April, May and June are the best months for flowers and warm weather. July and August are far too hot to be doing this kind of extended walk but by September, the temperatures should be more bearable, plus the vines will be ready for harvest. After October, your chances of cold, wet weather increase but the route is open all year.
Where to sleep: There are hostels, a.k.a. albergues, along the route where you get a bunk bed in a massive dorm room with anything from 30 to 60 other people on a first come first served basis for about 6 euros. I wouldn’t recommend them if you actually want to sleep.
Thankfully, there are other accommodation options which you can arrange yourself or go through a specialist tour operator that will arrange clean, comfortable places to stay, such as Casa da Capela, and meals along the route.
They can also arrange for luggage transfer between hotels.
Prepare yourself: Seriously. You can’t expect to go from sitting behind a desk all day to walking for 11 days without getting your body ready for the exertion.
Disclaimer: I was a guest of Portugal Green Walks on this section of the Portuguese Way.