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Portugal A Pilgrimage from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela


100+ Posts
By Dennis Switzer from Alberta, Canada, Fall 2004
Dennis invites you to share his pilgrimage journey from Porto to Santiago. Comments and suggestions regarding both cities and places in between are in the text.

This trip report was originally published on Slowtrav.com.


The itch was on me again. After all, it was a Holy Year; the weather had turned cool in Calgary; the web cams showed a sunny Santiago. However, now we had a grandson who is a special gift. Margaret was firm: she was staying home with Jonah. I’d be on my own. There would be no one to temper my rash decisions, correct my poor map reading skills, or tend to my blisters along the way. All very important things since I was going to walk a different, less frequently travelled route, the Caminho Portugues, from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela.

I boarded the plane armed with an English–Portuguese dictionary, a reservation at a hotel in Porto for two nights and the hope that the folkloric saying “Santiago will provide” was true.

A brief stopover at Heathrow in London and onward flight aboard TAP, the Portuguese national carrier brought me into Porto’s small, nicely laid-out airport. I took advantage of TAP’s promotion of free transport to downtown Porto on the airport shuttle bus by presenting my boarding pass to the driver. The city shuttle bus stop was across the drop off lane in front of the main doors. The schedule was posted.

Cruising into Porto was an eye opener. The Portuguese may be Europe’s worst drivers. I saw four accidents with two ambulances in attendance and our driver was making signs to other drivers that could not be construed as friendly waves! There were no stop signs and the "rule" appeared to be that you yield to the right - if you're so inclined!

Picture San Francisco with cobbles and steeper streets and crazy drivers and you have Porto, give or take a couple of centuries of building. After 17 hours in the air and in airports, I welcomed the fact the desk staff spoke English at the Grand Hotel de Paris. My room on the third floor (European count) was clean and quiet. Thank heaven there was an elevator. The place was built in 1886 and had antiques throughout. The bathroom was new. At Eu32 for a single room with breakfast, I recommend it highly as excellent value for money.

I wandered out for a quick recon of the area. I quickly learned Portuguese for a glass of beer, canaca, and introduced my self to Porto’s answer to Quebec’s poutine (nickednamed heart attack on a plate. It was francesanha: a toasted sandwich that has a thin steak, ham, and two kinds of sausages for a filling. It was topped with melted cheese and a poached egg then covered with spicy gravy and served with pommes frites. It was the special of the day and I got a quarter litre of wine with it for Eu4.50).

My reconnaissance established that my place was a block from the main boulevard in Old Porto. The ambiance of the bars and sidewalk cafes was something that could tempt one away from a walk.
Day 1 - Around Porto

Breakfast wasn’t your effete continental croissant and coffee but a genuine buffet with cereals, fruit, quiches, ham, eggs, fresh bread and large cups of coffee.

Fortified, I started to explore the City of Porto. Azulejos (coloured tiles) were in evidence on many buildings. Some particularly fine examples are at the train station waiting area, Cathedral’s cloister, the churches of Santo Ildefonso and Santa Clara and the Almas Chapel.

Individuals seeking “donations” for AIDS groups were a minor annoyance. In speaking with a police officer about these “scam artists”, he labelled them more colourfully, “Here we call them #!**# drug addicts”. Police are the same the world over.

I’m a sucker for markets and the Porto main market did not disappoint. There were more handicrafts than one usually sees in markets. What struck me most was the friendliness of the vendors and their willingness to be photographed. I asked permission first and offered to email a copy to them. There were cafes and restaurants where a snack or meal could be purchased reasonably.

I wanted a Credential to record my walk to Santiago and gain entry to refugios. A visit to the Cathedral produced no results other than the address of the Pilgrims’ office where one was available.

“Come back tomorrow. It will be open,” said the lady next door to the Pilgrim's office. Ah well, it would be a later start than I wanted. Much later, it turned out.

The rest of my day was spent walking the streets of the old town to view the colourfully decorated fin de siecle, art deco coffee houses and shops. A walk along the Duero in the Ribeira district was a perfect place to have a picnic lunch on the benches before crossing the Luis Bridge (designed by Eiffel, of tower fame) to the port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia.

The Tourist Bureau provided a pamphlet of the lodges that had tours, the hours of operation and price, if any. Just across the bridge representatives of the port lodges were on hand to guide me to the lodges. There was even a free hop on, hop off minibus to the tastings. I found you got what you paid for. The lodges that charged a fee (around Eu3) offered a wider selection of better ports to taste. There are great panoramic views of Porto from the hillside lodges.

Feeling peckish and not yet ready for supper, I visited a pastry shop. I didn’t have to look far. Pastry shops beckoned from every corner. My favourite was a pastel de nata, a decadent custard tart made with a very short, very flaky, crust.

After more sightseeing I opted for an early supper, at around 9 pm. The side streets off the main thoroughfare offer a wide selection of cafeterias, restaurants and bars that have meals in all price ranges. Menus and specials are prominently placed on windows or chalkboards. I found that a half potion was more than enough for a meal.
Day 2 - Porto to Braga

An early start for the day ahead. But wait, the Pilgrims’ office was closed again. “Maybe only a little late. Come at 11,” others in the building said. By now I was wondering if I’d ever leave Porto.

Eleven came and went. No credential. Was I on the Portuguese version of Punked? What now? Well if a Credential wasn’t available here, there would certainly be one in Braga, the religious capital of Portugal. Nothing for it, but to hop a train and find one at the Cathedral there. Besides, Braga was on the route I was intending to take.

About an hour and a half later, via a local train, I was standing in front of the curate’s desk in Braga. No luck, but the man suggested perhaps the Archbishop’s palace had them.

A final frustration was that all the pensions were filled. It was University enrolment time and parents came with their children. It was enough to put the “grim” in pilgrim.

I finally found a place at Eu50 a night, including breakfast. The air conditioning and large sized tub were welcome after the day I had.
Day 3 - Around Braga

The Archbishop’s residence was guarded by a high wall and steel gate. I announced myself via a small button at the side of the gate. "Entrar" came a voice and the gate majestically swung open to reveal an Eden. I believe I saw a unicorn peeking around a corner. I was met at the door by the reincarnation of my grade four teacher, Sister Eusibia. “Nao fala inglese”. Others were summoned. And, although the Archbishop didn’t come, one of his factotums did.

Somehow with French, English, and pigeon Portuguese I conveyed my need.

"Nao, no credenciales here, only in Porto!" GULP!!! "But perhaps a letter would help?”

"Sim" (yes!!)

A minion was summoned and he led me out of Eden (no time for photos) to the Archbishopric’s administrative offices. There, I received a letter signed by the registrar of the diocese with an embossed seal asking all and sundry to lend assistance to SWITZER WILLIAM DENNIS as they would any pilgrim (at least that’s what I think it said).

I asked for the best way out of town and after a crowd gathered there was consensus: “Nao” to Barcelos but “sim” to Ponte de Lima. A woman provided me with the original of her map. She had just completed the walk. Any cost? “Yes, give Santiago a hug for us.” I was going to owe the Saint big time for helping pull this one off.

For the rest of the day I visited the Church of Bom Jesus about 5 kms from the city centre. Just a nice tune up walk. This Church is the one featured in all Portuguese promotional material. Baroque in origin it has a massive staircase with fountains and statuary depicting the five senses, the three virtues and other holy matters. For those wishing to ride, a bus runs regularly from Braga centre to the base of the staircase. There is a funicular to the top for the climbing impaired.

I enjoyed an evening at a sidewalk bar near the University. Especially amusing were the hazing activities associated with the new students. The upper-class students were decked out in their heavy woollen academic garb; the first years in shorts and tee shirts. With temperatures in the day in the high 30C range I wondered who was getting the worse of the hazing rituals.

And yes, I’d recommend Braga. It is clean: nary a dog poop to be seen. There are lots of parks and fountains and gardens and wide streets and two big scoops of gelato in a sugar cone cost only Eu1! Tomorrow I would finally walk.
Day 4 - Braga to Ponte de Lima

I like an early start. By sunrise, I had passed the ring road and was enjoying the countryside. The route in Portugal is not as well marked as in Spain and by 9 am with unerring inaccuracy I found myself lost. Ah well, it was time for a coffee anyways. The bar owner thought I should have turned left a km ago; the patron with the brandy thought I should continue straight ahead. After all, the border was north of here and I’d hit it eventually. The tie breaker was Santiago, this time in the guise of a milk delivery person. I was too far west. He would drop me back on the trail.

I walked alone for the rest of the day. I joined the route from Barcelos just outside the town of Ponte de Lima and walked into town along the Rio Lima.

After about a 35kms day, I decided to have a rest day here after only one day on the trail. I was not disappointed with this choice. Ponte de Lima was a delightful town.

The tourist information office suggested a couple of places that might prove suitable for a couple of night’s sleep. Suitable? After a first day of 40Kms, a rope would have been suitable. However, I got much more. It was a large room with a good solid double bed, TV, and modern bathroom in the heart of the town for Eu25/night. Ask at the Restaurante Encanada to see a room.

I was ready for dinner. The Encanada was a little pricey for me so I followed the local people to a small restaurant by the river It had about six tables and an open kitchen overseen by a delightfully patient (with my pigeon Portuguese) older lady. It was the Restaurante Casa das Chelas.

Learning from an earlier experience I ordered a meia dose (half portion) of the cod fritters. The meal was seven large fritters, rice and the ubiquitous potatoes. Also there was caldo verde, a vegetable bean soup, half litre of white wine, bread and coffee for Eu6. I couldn’t eat it all.

Evidently the couple across from me liked the look of the fritters. They had just finished their soup and had started on their bacalao (massive pieces of fried unbattered salt cod) with their potatoes and rice. They ordered a dose (full portion) of fritters (with rice and potatoes of course). As they were leaving they ordered up two veal cutlets to go. To their credit they had water for a drink.

When walking, food becomes a common lingua franca among pilgrims. Where to get it, the portion size, the preparation, and sharing of same all occupy inordinate amounts of time.
Day 5 - Ponte de Lima

In my meanderings, I came across a wine Co-op and asked for a tour at the gate. Could I wait a half hour? Certainly. A lady arrived on the dot and I had a personal tour of the facility in English. It was particularly rewarding because the harvest had just started a week ago so things were in full tilt with farmers hauling their grapes in large wooden barrels. Branco (white) production outstrips tinto (red) by about 10 to 1. This Co-op is the largest in the region with over 2000 farmer members. And there are many in the region.

Later, I wandered to the Ponte university extension campus. They specialize in nursing and physiotherapy. I met the administrator who showed me around. He was from Brazil (near the Uruguay border), about 55 years of age and had a German father and mother from Siberia. I bet there’s a family tale to tell there!

I finally was able to obtain an “official” Credential and guide book from the local Pilgrims’ office.

I discovered the Portuguese government has a wonderful free service called Espaçio Internet. It’s free but as with all government services it comes with rules. If a person is waiting, the person on longest relinquishes his/her computer. There were nine brand new computers with high speed access. Other rules were: no smoking (that probably cut out two thirds of the potential users!) and no games.

My old bones told me that walking into Valença in one day was not a good idea. I booked a room at the one place available about 18km out of Ponte.

Ponte is a delightful place with lots of squares, fountains and gardens. Its Roman Bridge was really reconstructed recently (about 1550). I would recommend it as a base for anyone wishing to explore northern Portugal away from larger centres.
Day 6 - Ponte de Lima to San Roque

The climb out of the Lima valley was strenuous. There was lots of activity in the fields. The corn harvest appeared to be over; grapes were ripe; edible chestnuts were falling and citrus blooms were just coming out.

For Eu15, The Residencial San Roque was more than I expected: A good bed, clean en suite and a quiet patio off the room. I used the clothes line out back to dry my washing. No meals are served here but the proprietor made arrangements with her nephew to drive me to a restaurant/bar for supper. Hurtling through the countryside in the dark I imagined I was going to dine at the “Restaurant at the End of the Universe.”

On offer was a pilgrims’ menu. No half portions were available. For Eu5, there was soup (chicken noodle), bread, three large pork steaks, rice and potatoes, a dessert (that I declined) coffee and wine (half litre). Chicken and beef were alternative main courses. Included in the price was my “cab” ride.
Day 7 - San Roque to Tui

Looking back, this was my finest day for walking. Sunny, calm and warm. All but the last trudge through the outskirts of Valenca, was along a quiet rural trail. I enjoyed the company of a French couple for part of the way. They were to be the only other walkers I was to meet in Portugal and only two of ten for the whole journey.

A magical moment occurred as I was walking out of a valley. I heard John Philip Sousa melodies played on a calliope. I never found the source but the music put an extra spring in my step.

Individuals all along the way offered me grapes from their vines and on one occasion some wine. One farmer went back to his home to give me chilled water for my flask.

I crossed the bridge between Valenca and Tui and was back in Spain again. I was a little over a 100kms from my destination.

The refugio in Tui was an old rectory near the Cathedral. It was well-appointed with comfortable bunks, new bathrooms with hot water, and a clothes washing area. I had only three other walkers sharing the whole facility. They were just starting out and left me alone in one of the dorms. The Cathedral is worth a visit. Galician refugios are funded by the local and provincial governments and pilgrim donations (recommended Eu3 to Eu5).
Day 8 - Tui to Porrino

Another nice day for a walk. After a fine morning, I hit what must be the worst 5kms of any of the pilgrimage routes. It is the walk into Porrino through an industrial park. It was Sunday so there was no traffic. I can only imagine the road on a business day. The road walking did me in. More precisely, it did my feet in. Blisters rose on my heel and on my toes. I took time to lance them with a needle and thread. After draining them a bit, they received Comped Bandages. I highly recommend Compeds for blisters.

My distress was relieved when I reached the town centre. There was a fiesta, Porrino’s annual Festa de Callos. It was a celebration of tripe! There were five vats of tripe stew fuelling the large crowd. For Eu3, festival goers received a plate of callos stew, bread and a bottle of wine. Later, I read that had I walked 10kms farther, I could have clebrated the apple pie festival in the next town. Memo to self: check the events calendar regularly.

Because of the festivities I chose to get a room rather than stay at the refugio. There was to be no curfew for me. The Hotel-Residencia Louro provided a clean quiet room for Eu19.50. That evening I enjoyed the numerous street parties. Stages were set up in various areas of downtown and catered to young and old. There was a full-blown travelling carnival show in the town’s park.
Days 9, 10, 11 - Porrino to Pontevedra

I awoke to rain and it only got worse as I neared Redondela. The refugio there is a gem. It is a fifteenth century manor house. However, it has modern conveniences. Especially welcomed were the clothes driers. Only four other pilgrims shared the sixty bed facility. Highly recommended.

To paraphrase Mae West, “Is that an umbrella in your pocket or are you just glad to be in Galicia?” It was time. Rain was in all the forecasts – not just rain but TORMENTOSAS!

Permanent residents carry two umbrellas, a small one for showers and a larger one for downpours. I settled for one. For the rest of my trip it became my good friend. It held up so well that it even warranted a name, BLU, Brave Little Umbrella.

Day 10 - Redondela to Pontevedra

The day was mainly overcast but to make matters really disagreeable, occasionally, squalls came off the ria. When weather doesn’t co-operate I’m not inclined to dawdle. I travelled the near 20kms before noon.

Friendly staff at the refugio permitted me entrance before opening time. Their kindness was repaid later that night with a shared bottle of wine.

I had visited Pontevedra before with Margaret. The city appeared changed. It seemed cleaner, more cosmopolitan than my other visit. I decided to stay an extra day. I was not disappointed with my decision. Because one can only stay in a refugio for one night, for Eu20, I secured a room near the city hall.

Day 11 - Pontevedra

There were many highlights in my day in Pontevedra. The Pontevedra Museum had an extensive collection of Roman gold, silver and glass work. Lena Plaza with its old crucerio and the area in front the church of San Francisco were alive with people. There was a new, contemporary fountain in Santiago’s square. Mary, Peregrina, looked as serene as ever in the church named for her.

There was electricity in the air. Fishermen from all the Rias Baixas were gathering to protest the continued closure of the rias to fishing and shellfish collecting. The gatherings were more festive than angry. It appeared they were enjoying the respite from their difficult labouring life.

I was also in for a culinary surprise. On a whim, I went to a Chinese restaurant. I had the best hot and sour soup I’ve ever eaten. The whole meal was topnotch.. It was the Restaurante Chino Hong Kong at Avda. Eduardo Ponal 3. The menu del dia had many choices and cost Eu6.50.
Day 12 - Pontevedra to Padron

I was getting close. Today would be my longest day on the route. There was little time for sightseeing and by 7:30 pm I was registering at the Refugio in Padron. Including a small break in Caldas de Reis for a beer and seafood pie at a local bar and a short lunch on the road, I covered the 40kms in a little over 12 hours.

Padron was a disappointment. It struck me as grubby and having little charm. It was at Padron that Santiago’s funeral boat is said to have come to rest. A church was built over the site. The priest was kind enough to open the doors below the altar to let me see the boat’s alleged mooring post.
Day 13 - Padron to Santiago de Compostela

I was awakened at a little after midnight by the sound of wind and rain beating on the refugio’s roof and windows. The storm that had been forecast had arrived. By morning the rain had lessened but it would still be a wet walk into Santiago.

With an early start, and with BLU, my trusty umbrella, I made it to Obradoiro Plaza in front of Santiago's Cathedral before the noon Pilgrims’ Mass. To my astonishment, people filled the Plaza. Here it was October and I had met few pilgrims on my walk. After questioning some people I came to realize I had entered the perfect storm of pilgrimage congestion. Many elements had come together. It was a Holy Year; my day of arrival had been designated “Day of the Pilgrim” throughout Spain; Spain’s Prime Minister and the Infanta (Royal Princess) and her family were attending the Mass; it was a long holiday weekend.

My priority was to find a room – at a reasonable price. There wasn’t any room at any of the inns I was familiar with from previous visits. Even the special, more expensive, hotel where Margaret and I stayed previously was full.

Tired and hungry, I stepped into a little shop on the Rua del Vilar. There he was again. This time Santiago was in the guise of a well-dressed, cheerful, English-speaking shop-keeper, Maria. After hearing my troubles, she gave me the address of a hostel and told me to tell the caretaker he was to find me a room. The caretaker had no rooms. All was filled for the weekend. I returned to the shop. Maria marched me back to the hostel and had the caretaker give up his room for the night with the assurance a room would be available the next day. True to her word, I had a room for my stay in Santiago. It was spotless corner room with two small balconies, one with a view of the Cathedral’s clock tower. I was 200 metres from the Cathedral. For Eu25 a night I had to share a bathroom and there was only a sink in the room.

When Maria noticed I had draped my sodden clothes out to dry, she gathered them up and washed and dried them for me. Truly a manifestation of the maxim “Santiago will provide.”

I went to the Pilgrims’ office and presented my credential. In return, I received my Compostela. My pilgrimage was at an end; I was a tourist again.

For the next five days I reacquainted myself with the sights and sounds of Santiago. I attended the Pilgrims’ Mass, paid my respects to Master Mateo, the designer of the Portico de Gloria; gave Santiago his hug; watched the arrival of other pilgrims.

Along with the sacred, I engaged in the profane. Daily visits to the market provided me with fresh bread, cheese and chorizo sausage. I toured the roof of the Cathedral. With the presentation of a Compostela one receives a discount on the admission. The views are unique. If you time your tour, you can see the Botafumeiro swinging to the ceiling. The tour was in Spanish but the guides attempt to answer questions from English speakers.

The bars and restaurants offer fresh seafood. The Galician specialty, pulpo gallego (octopus) was much in evidence. It is served simply on a wooden plate. The tentacles are cut in coins and sprinkled with olive oil and paprika. Seafood-filled Empanadas also provide a filling meal.

Another staple is Cocido Gallego, a slow cooked stew of garbanzos, cabbage, beef, ham, sausages and potatoes.

Even in October, there were street entertainers and musicians. Particularly skilled were university students playing in bands called Tunas. They performed on medieval instruments.

The Santiago Tourism office in the Rua del Vilar was very helpful. They can provide visitors with a full list events and concerts in and about Santiago. They were also very helpful with bus and train schedules.

I found that prices for food and drink were about 10 to 20% cheaper in places outside the Cathedral quarter.

Iberia offered half price flights out of Santiago to another Spanish city if a Compostela was presented at the time of ticket purchase and the customer stated the travel was "for religious purposes". RENFE issued a card valid for three months that entitled possessors of a Compostela to reductions on train trips.

I returned to Porto by rail. With a wait at a transfer station near Vigo, the trip took about six hours.
A small reading list

I found these books interesting and/or helpful:

Hitt, Jack: Off the Road - light-hearted read of his walk of the French Way.

Selby, Bettina - the title escapes me but she did the French Way by bike from Paris. She has other books of other bike travels.

Cousineau, Phil: The Art of Pilgrimage - a general book on pilgrimage and it's components. It's subtitle says it all: A seeker's guide to making travel sacred. I believe it would be of interest to any "Slow Traveller."

Lozano, Milan Bravo: The Pilgrim's Road to Santiago - may be out of print. At one time the Spanish Tourism folks sent it free to prospective pilgrims. Maps and commentary of what one sees along the way.

Ward, Robert, Virgin Trails: A Secular Pilgrimage - Humourous and thoughtful, it is written by a self-confessed agnostic.

Of all the guide books, I've found the one done by Pila Pala press the best for maps, directions and general info However, things get out of date quickly and one needs to check for the most recent edition of any guide book.

Lonely Planet's Walking in Spain has a good overview.

Once in Europe there are numerous guides. One with a yellow cover seemed to have the best maps (French, but I think there is an English version too.)

The Confraternity of St.James publishes route guides for all the Caminos.

The Friends of the Portuguese Way publish a very good guide of that route.

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