The plan on returning from Porto was to write a daily account until my final stage in Agueda. Well, as the inactivity on this blog can show, that clearly didn’t happen. I had one post written and my mind went on strike! It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the Camino. It was quite the opposite. I made the mistake of not writing a journal at the end of each day. But I can squeeze all of this in one post for your reading pleasure.
So I guess I will start with some of the reasons why I chose the Portugués Camino from Lisbon in the first place?
1. It is quiet…but, a little too quiet
If you have walked some of the more popular Caminos, I’m looking at you Camino Frances and Camino Portugues from Porto, you will notice quite a few pilgrims, especially in the summer months. In September, it is epically busy with queues outside the Pilgrims Office in Santiago and many private albergues booked up in advance. From Lisbon, there is none of this as you will be lucky to meet other pilgrims walking. That said, you will meet plenty of pilgrims in the albergues or hostels in the evenings. Some of you may be quite happy to walk alone for hours on end but for other pilgrims, the social side is a big part of the Camino. I was delighted to walk with Carsten, my German buddy, until I made my way home.
2. The History behind the towns add to the Camino
It really tells you something about the Camino when you have been walking for hours and then stumble upon a town that calls itself the Gothic capital. I mean, you don’t see that on the French Way? However, there are enough examples of Gothic buildings in the town to warrant that name. And then there is Golegã that considers itself to be the capital of the horse. Everywhere we went and every person we talked to talked with dedication about the horse, especially the National Horse Fair held every November. Tomar has a Knights Templar Castle sitting on a hill and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.
Just south of Coimbra is Condeixa-a-Nova, we witnessed a superb sunrise here one morning. Leaving the town, I learned that there used to be a Roman settlement not far from this place in Conimbriga. We walked along a dried-up river on this day. That’s quite a difference.
And we can’t forget Porto. I didn’t stay long here as I needed to fly out the next day. But I did take a walk to the old town to get a stamp. The city was heaving with pilgrims and tourists. Something I had not been familiar with over the last two weeks.
3. The People
I can’t talk enough of the people we met along the Camino in Portugal. I had limited time in Lisbon but it is a tourist town. There is no pilgrim feel to the place and I was eager to get moving as soon as I arrived. The cathedral in Lisbon started the engine and the arrow pointed me in the right direction. Generally speaking, people in Portugal were very friendly and once they knew you were a pilgrim, they were kind of taken back that I had walked so far. Most young people had a good understanding of English and I made sure I knew enough phrases in Portuguese before I left. Bom Dia, esta bem?, obrigado / obrigada. Some words translate well from Spanish but others do not.
Walking into a packed pasteleria (bakery) in Mala was a highlight. The shop was full of locals drinking coffee and we had walked miles from Coimbra. All of the sugar was in front of us. We were tired. But the locals were helpful and kind. Another example was walking from Tomar to Alvaiázere. It was particularly hot and we were low on water. It was myself, my German friend and Kyo from Japan. A lady popped her head out of her house and asked “agua?” Without negotiation, we said, yes and she opened her gate. After 5 minutes of awkward conversation with her husband, she brought out tea and chocolate biscuits! I couldn’t say Obrigado enough!
The owners of the albergues and hostels work tirelessly day in and out for pilgrims. I will talk about the places I stayed elsewhere but I just want to talk about a highlight. That would be in Alvaiázere – Albergue Pinheiro. It is run by Carlos. Here there is no bed race, there are just 14 beds, actual beds. His sellos are by far the most decorative I have received in all the Caminos I have walked. He gives 3, not 1. Another piece of information is John Brierley stays there when he walks from Lisbon.
And finally, where else does the mayor meet and shake each and every pilgrim’s hand that enters his town? On reaching Golega, I was greeted by Mayor Manual Duarte who welcomed me and told me how special the horse is to Golega. Well, I’m just a pilgrim!
4. The Terrain
Before arriving in Lisbon, I wanted to know if this Camino would cause me any kind of difficulty but I didn’t do any kind of research until a week before leaving. This is probably the wrong thing to do, for many reasons. If you are to walk from Lisbon, this is a big undertaking and not something to take lightly. I guess the best way to describe it is walking the meseta for 2 weeks during the hottest part of Summer. Now, it is not all flat like the meseta on the Camino Frances. The first 3 days to Santarem start off flat. And it gets hilly from Santarem onward. That said, for anyone who has walked over the Pyrenees, you shouldn’t find walking from Lisbon an issue.
The Camino sticks to the River Tejo for the first week or so, so this is good company. Another companion is the rail line which connects Lisbon and Golega. The design of the train station is something else. I spent a few moments checking it out in Vila Franca de Xira. It is possible to walk a few kilometres from Lisbon, and catch a train back so you can see more of the city. Then the next day, it is possible to catch a train to where you stopped walking. Oh, and I need to mention that there is a good deal of road walking.
Like with all Caminos, it was so easy to meet other pilgrims. Day 1, we met no one. Day 2, we met an American couple and an Italian couple. And this is what I love about the world being small. The Italian couple lived and worked in Dublin. At the end of the day in Azambuja, we met pilgrims from Russia, Ivar, and Alexander, They had zero English but we managed to communicate. There was Alex from Hungary – the youngest of the lot of us and always writing in his journal. A wise thing to do! We met a pilgrim from New Zealand who had both her hips replaced and was walking to Santiago. An amazing achievement. Then there was Noel from Spain who offered me great tips on how to practice my Spanish. He was unable to understand English.
As the days went on, more pilgrims we met. Another pilgrim from Hungary, another Irish man at Coimbra, a New Zealand pilgrim who liked to sleep outdoors in his tent. There were Canadians, South African and French. All walking in the direction of Santiago. We also met some pilgrims walking to Lisbon and Fatima but these were few and far between.
Walking from Lisbon was a joy but it was not the Camino Frances. If you do have any plans on walking this, keep the following in mind:
1. Length of Stages
I walked from Lisbon to Agueda in 10 days – 345 km. According to Brierley’s guidebook, the stages can be long and it wasn’t until Day 8 until the stages shortened a bit. We walked each day at an easy-going pace and had most of the day free to go about pilgrimy things. Now you could argue that I didn’t have to walk those large distances and you may well be right. However, there is intermediate accommodation that you could stay at if you feel you can’t walk that far. If I was to walk from Lisbon again, I would reconsider the distances as some days were too long.
2. The Heat.
I quickly learned how hot it can be in Lisbon when I arrived. I had a t-shirt and walked from the hostel beside the Castelo to the Cathedral. I was covered in sweat. It was close to 30c. That first day I had 2 showers. But on the Camino, you have to adapt. On the first day, we started walking at 7.30 am. On the second day, we decided to leave earlier as it was much too warm for walking. By doing this we would have a good amount of walking done before the sun comes up and then we can relax going forward. It’s funny though, I didn’t feel these long days and I was at the albergue before I knew it. Maybe it was the company? Maybe it was the thought of meeting up with other peregrinos? Maybe it was easy walking? Who knows?
3. Lack of Services
There are many days where there are huge distances between towns. I can think of one instance on the Camino Frances – after Carrion de los Condes, 17 km and here there is somewhere to buy drinks. On the Camino Portuguese from Lisbon, it is not unusual to have distances from towns of 10 km. In this case, you will need to carry as much water as you can, especially when it is warm.
4. Signage leaving Lisbon
There is an arrow on the Cathedral in Lisbon, another beside it and after that, you are on your own. You need to really search for pale yellow painted arrows on walls, on lamp posts or on signs. If you walk in the morning, as we did, you will have great difficulty. We found our first real arrow about 2 km out. I suppose GPS helps. Once you leave the outskirts, signage is much better.
I’m glad I have had this two weeks to reflect. Overall this Camino has been good to me but I need to rethink a few things. Is the Camino all about walking 30 km every day? If so, it will have an effect on your health.
If you are prepared for the heat and you can handle long distances, then I give this Camino the thumbs up. Let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear from you!