Eight Days Walking: The Portuguese Coastal Route to Santiago de Compostela

route-of-the-pilgrimsThe well-marked Coastal Way is Atlas’ preferred route to St. James’ bones.

The rain wouldn’t let up. It came beating down on our heads as we were 30 kilometers into the third day of the Camino. Packs dripping, blisters bursting, we kept up our aggressive pace toward the town of Oia when we saw it: No, it wasn’t Coelho’s possessed black dog blocking our path, nor was it a vision of St. James beckoning us forward, it was salvation of a different kind; a saintly Ballentine’s served neat with a godly pinxo (tapa).

Atlas’ 225km walk from Esposende in Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, was a fast-paced pilgrimage of our own making. It was early enough in the season to miss the peregrine traffic typical of warmer months, and late enough to see the fields in bloom – the vineyards were beginning to produce the region’s typical albariño (white wine grape). The Portuguese Coastal Way as opposed to the traditional French Camino or the route inland via Braga was selected based on our general penchant for coastal views, salt spray, seafood-centric gastronomy, and lesser-known points of interest. In retrospect, the Camino delivered in all of the expected ways; additionally, it brought insights into the similarities between the Galicians and the Portuguese that only come from submerging slowly in one culture and emerging into the next, through a timeline of battles and occupations, victories and losses, kilometer by kilometer, one weary step at a time.

(For the sake of protecting Atlas against over-litiginous pilgrims: Our pace was, how shall we put it, incredibly masochistic. Also, guidebooks — and GPS — will diverge wildly about distances. Ours were tracked with, uhm, technology. Proceed at your own risk.)

knives-mary-heart Cathedral of São Romão in Chafé, with Roman graffiti behind a very conerned Santa Maria.

Day 1: Esposende to Viana do Castelo 22km  

For a Bom Caminho: Frutaria on N13 +/- 2km from Belinho
Recommended Pitstop: O Laranjeira Pensão for a low-cost boutique hotel

We exited the ALSA bus from Lisbon to Esposende at around noon realizing that we had to move pretty quickly to get to Viana do Castelo before nightfall. We marched toward National Road 13 looking for signs of the yellow arrows that substitute the north star on our Milky Way journey to Santiago. Since we didnt see any, we decided to walk north along the coastline rather than walk through the one-café town along a two-lane road. As we had 4km to go before the first checkpoint, Belinho, we thought we might as well start it off with a more scenic route.

Our shoes experienced a muddy baptism the minute we stepped off the pavement, which was fitting to the quest ahead. We passed a wall separating us from a field of green clover. As an introduction to our Way, it was perfect. An inlaid-stone archway had no gate and was trimmed with scallop shells pressed into the walls — the symbol for peregrinos. The central portal led into the outdoors: to the sky, to the hills and valleys, the sea, the rocks, the trees.

camino-esposende-to-belinhoArchway to the Camino near Esposende

We had somehow hit the proper trail to the Camino, and over the next six hours followed it over the Rio Neiva through the villages Chafe and Anha, over the Eiffel bridge at Rio Lima to our first day’s resting point. All the towns were marked by seemingly identical white churches with a single belltower and simple rectangular floor plan, sometimes with a transept or two, sometimes without. Usually you could find and adjacent cemetery and a fountain where passers-by could fill up their gourds and pay their respects. This style of church would be the staple along the way, making for unmistakable checkpoint landmarks. The downside was that they were seldom unlocked and some were outright abandoned, guarded by an overgrowth of stinging nettles and, on one occasion, a psychopathic ant army.

camino-church-anhaThe church in Anha with its take on the traditional Camino style

The first of these churches we came to was the one in Belinho. At the Junta de Freguesia, we got our first ubiquitous peregrino stamp. At first, the stamping process seemed childish, an attempt to have adults go on a scavenger hunt, but as time went by it became an obsession. As a pilgrim, you need credentials to show you have traveled the Way in order to stay at albergues, (hostels specifically for pilgrims). This makes traveling the Camino for weeks at a time affordable. You can’t argue with 10 euros per night for a clean pillow and a bunkbed (Note: lightweight sleeping bags are advised).

Once we entered the city of Viana do Castelo, Atlas required a bit more than an albergue could provide: a bathtub, dependable wifi, and free breakfast. Since there were two of us, it made sense to split the difference and get a well-stretched and freshly bathed jump on the second day of our trip and we did just that at O Laranjeira Pensão. Elena, our hostess, gave us our third stamp for our first day and invited us for a midnight soup which, sadly, Atlas would miss out on (thank you, Elena!). But we did find the traditional cabrito (goat) to give us dinnertime fuel for the next day’s push, accompanied by a fantastic celebratory bottle of a 2011 Douro served by an amicable waiter at Casa do Pasto.

yellow-and-red-camino-milky-way-gateDay two’s route passed by unexpected bits of grandeur mixed with abandoned palaces and intriguing quintas (farms).

Day 2: Viana do Castelo to Vila Praia de Âncora 18km

(for side trip to Santuário de Santa Luzia add 3.5km, 1km of which is just stairs…)  
For a Bom Caminho: Take the funicular (uphill tram) to Santa Luzia
Recommended Pitstop: Try the Bifana at Cervejaria Bavaria in Vila Praia de Âncora

After an invigorating night’s rest and the complimentary pequeno-almoço (breakfast), our legs were ready for another day. We left the pensão, our pockets stuffed with fruit generously given to us by the hotel’s cook, and headed to the most logical spot we could think of to get back on the trail: the Basilica Santuário de Santa Luzia, set atop the biggest hill overlooking the city. We had already gotten used to churches being our guides aside from the yellow arrows, so it was a natural conclusion to come to. Unfortunately for our legs, we were mistaken.

The kilometer of stairs, curving ingeniously to make you believe prematurely that you have reached the top, was daunting to ascend, but a worthwhile venture. The views above the city atop the dome of the basilica were magical. We could see what lay before us, what had passed behind us, and we could most certainly feel the adrenaline that ran within us. Another upside was that we had received our first stamp of the day. The downside was we still had no idea where to meet the trail.

lovely-camino-view-from-basilica View of the coast from the steps of Sta. Luzia in Viana do Castelo.

Atlas descended on the funicular for a well-spent 2€, thinking we should try to conserve our energy. In front of the hospital near the funicular’s exit, we spotted the yellow arrows leading us out of town. This part of the walk took us through winding cobblestone streets flanked by high stone walls that hid rustic houses and fields for horses. Unfortunately, the medieval zen of our surroundings was broken by the odd act of hubris: cheap Frank Lloyd Wright knockoffs with glass banisters stared over the walls. These McFallingwaters were generally few and far between, but occasionally you could find a cluster of them that always seemed to turn our conversation from the history of St. Francis of Assisi to the art of money laundering.

Despite these modern eyesores, the walk past the first town of Carreço via Areosa and the Ribeiros de Pego toward Cabanas was one of Atlas’ favorite stretches (about 10km). It included some very Tolkein-esque stone bridges, babbling brooks, imposing gates, abandoned residences overtaken by green moss and foliage, and, occasionally, the ever-welcomed dirt roads — our feet could finally relax! Our eyes learned early on to search the ground for the indulgence of a muddy section we could walk through without mucking up our shoes. Oh, the delicious joy of a squishy step after kilometers of stone!

stone-path-on-the-camino-de-santiago-de-compostela

Narrow passages between medieval walls near Carreço.
We arrived at our destination at Vila Praia de Âncora and quite unexpectedly decided we would end our pilgrim-ing for the day. We had intended to press on for another two to three hours to reach the border town of Caminha, but once we caught sight of the sandy beach under the warm, welcoming light of the afternoon sun, we couldn’t resist taking off our shoes and setting up a picnic blanket. What began as a pitstop fast-forwarded us to just before sunset thanks to an impromptu two-hour nap on the sand. What bliss!

We found lodgings at the pilgrim-friendly Hotel Meira, which outfitted us with a cozy room (with a bathtub!) for the night, and gave us our second stamp for the day. That night we dined at the seafood Restaurant Portinho, whose staff was completely immersed in the Benfica/Braga match but managed to break away from the TV to expertly prepare our lampreia com bequim (river snake, or lamprey, wrapped in bacon) and taco na pedra (beef on a hot stone). We were glad to find there were huge Benfica fans up in Braga territory. They had even gone so far as to name one of the ship models that decorated their walls “Barco Benfica”.

caminho-to-caminha
Rocky beach between Vila Praia de Âncora and Caminha

Day 3: Vila Praia de Âncora to Oia 32km

For a Bom Caminho: Plan to spend more than 5 minutes in Caminha
Recommended Pitstop: The Saturday farmer’s market in La Guarda

The breakfast buffet of the gods was spread out in front of us that morning at Hotel Meira. We loaded up on croissants, scrambled eggs and the like, uncharacteristically foregoing the
complimentary champagne that sat next to the peach juice: an almost-ready bellini for the road. We left with our signature free fruit, this time accompanied by two hard-boiled eggs and a few pairs of sink-laundered socks air-drying on our packs, which we had the courtesy to unfurl only after we had left the dining area.

The walk out of town crossed over the railroad tracks heading north along the coast — we were finally walking in the open salt air we had been craving. Picturesque rocky beaches met sand and grass slopes dotted by the rollos (crosses marking the Camino) along the 12km to the ferry that would take us from the town of Caminha across the River Minho into Galicia. Unsure of the ferry timetable, we kept at an uncertain pace that quickened as we
watched the dark clouds roll in. We hoped to dodge whatever was coming but we knew almost inherently that things were going to get wet. We prepared our rainflies and untucked our hoods in anticipation of the inevitable, just as the first droplets fell from the grey sky.

We had a mere 15 minutes to walk in the drizzle before we entered the beautiful main square in Caminha. We realized we might have made a mistake in choosing the beach town for the night, but thought we would certainly have time to explore the town as we waited for the ferry out. However, the nice lady at the tourist office (who additionally gave us the day’s first stamp) informed us that the boat would leave in three minutes and we “might” be able to make it. She pointed a finger “that way” and off we hobbled. It was the first time we had attempted an all-out run with our packs, and having already traveled a fair piece, our gate was humorous in a pathetic sort of way. Somehow we managed to enter the town, get our credentials stamped, run five blocks, cross the highway, buy 1€ tickets, and find a seat on the ferry in less than ten minutes. Therefore, Atlas apologizes to Caminha for not giving it the time nor the photographic tribute it so obviously deserved. We truly hope to return one day.

atlas-stamped-pilgrim-passport-caminoPeregrino stamped credentials, shell, pins, and guidebook

We crossed the Rio into Galician territory as the drizzle continued. The ferry docked at a somewhat-abandoned harbor town in the Santa Tegra region with no passport check, no military,no turnstyle, just some dudes with a boat at a fisherman´s cafe next to the ticket office. As we walked along the paved hills winding past small houses (and the dogs that guarded them), we noted the slight changes from Portuguese to Galician on the road signs. The Portuguese Jardim (garden) became Xardim. The Junta (parish council) became the Xunta. One and half kilometers later, we entered a path in a wooded area that gave us some cover from the rain. The smell of damp eucalyptus and pine gave us a free 2km aromatherapy session as we avoided the giant mud puddles with some fancy footwork here and there.

In La Guarda, we came upon a closed Xunta (Damn! No stamps!), but our
spirits were lifted as we entered a small farmer’s market, complete with several cheese vendors and a chouriço monger. Atlas stocked up on enough cheese, sausage, red wine, and freshly-baked bread for at least 2 picnic lunches. The worry over the hour-ahead time change and the impending onset of lunchtime stomach rumblings had been put to rest. We had 17km left to go before the next town of Oia, so we would certainly need our strength, especially in the drizzle.

The sun came out right as we descended a cobblestone staircase down the slope of a residential hillside. The houses petered out and the seascape opened up. Aside this welcoming rocky coastline were a few picnic tables awaiting a pair of weary pilgrims who knew they were about to leave civilization behind for the next 4 hours. We sat. We ate. We rosied our cheeks with red wine from our bota (leather canteen). Finally feeling warm (except on our feet), we navigated the trail past sea-view building projects that had long been forgotten and had since been reclaimed by teenage campfires and other illicit activity despite the fences built to keep them out.

The woods hid private campgrounds complete with pavilions and grills, locked up to outsiders like ourselves who were constantly seeking shelter as the rain picked up. The walk continued alongside highway PO-552, and sometimes on the side of it, which made us feel less like pilgrims and more like hitchhikers. We were wet, we were getting tired, but we refused to let our spirits dampen. There was still 3km left to go to Oia, 10km left to Mougás, and the rain wasn’t going to stop.

exhausted-in-oia-at-the-bar-caminhoThis is the face of cold exhaustion meeting warm, honey-colored salvation: Ballentine’s neat at Casa Henriqueta facing the final 3km of Day 3. The Oia Monastery can be seen in the back.

We rounded a corner in a village of stone with a polished pedestrian street. In the distance we saw a pair of wooden barrels and an Estrella Damm sign beckoning us forward. Was it a mirage? Was this Oia already? By our count we still lacked 2.5km to make it to the center of town. Obviously we needed to take a moment to assess the situation. Calculations like these require patience and concentration. And Ballentines. Neat.

As we sat in the bar warming our fingers and slyly loosening our boots, we debated our next steps. Originally we had intended to make it to Mougás, but as we had already racked up a considerable amount of kilometers (every one of which we were feeling in spades) and it was getting late, Oia seemed to be the best option for the night. We had bought ourselves enough time for another cup-full and felt ourselves beginning to dry out enough for the last push. The downpour had reduced to a light drizzle, which was our cue to put on our packs and get back on the trail. The first time anyone had said Bom Caminho (good walk) to us was right as we neared the beautiful (and closed — again, no stamps) Monastery of Oia. Good walk indeed: we were close to stopping!

When we saw the red “HOTEL” letters atop a nice-looking building off the highway, our spirits lifted. Soaking wet and haggard, we walked up to the front desk of the Hotel Glasgow where we asked to see a room, again forgetting the albergue a mere 7km up the road. The
attendant bade me to follow her and she walked towards the elevator. Before she pressed the button, she made a sharp right and started up the stairs. THE STAIRS. My heart sank as I counted them. There were 32. It might as well have been Everest. I ascended with a wince and hoped our hostess would not see the daggers I had coming out of my eyes.

All was forgotten as we entered the room: The view was spectacular — the sunset over the ocean was framed in our window and to my unexpected delight, I turned to find a jacuzzi in the bathroom. We’ll take it! I won’t remember the very nice meal we had in the hotel restaurant, nor the group of forty blue-hairs who were having their 7pm dinner next to us (followed by a strange conga line), but the great thaw: the hour spent in the jacuzzi, the warmth of the jets on aching feet, the freshly washed socks drying on the heater, the firmness of the mattress, those things will
never be forgotten.

oia windmill
A distant windmill on the coast between Mougas and As Mariñas near Pedra Rubia

Day 4: Oia to Vigo 45km (you read that right)

For a Bom Caminho: Book a hotel in Vigo in advance or risk complete collapse.
Recommended Pitstop: Carne na Brasa and Pizzaria in Ramallosa (no website available)

We knew we were in for a very long day but theory and practice are two very different things. This was to be the longest and farthest either of us would have ever walked. The best thing to do when you square up to a challenge like this is: just don’t think about it. We did our stretches, put on our dry socks (thank god), packed our things, and went down for a somewhat disappointing bread and butter breakfast. We set out with tender feet onto PO-552 towards Mougás. The morning air was wet but pleasant. The highway bent and twisted along the water and passing neon spandex-clad cyclists gave gruff good-mornings (if any) as the sun darted in and out of the clouds.

Our first 8km went by surprisingly quickly even though the first kilometer felt a bit wobbly. The Camino brought us alongside an abandoned campground and later up into a driveway past a rusted bedspring gate: clearly someone’s fenced-in backyard meant for cattle or sheep grazing. Unsure if there would be roaming dogs (par for the course on the Camino), we picked up a few rocks in case my lulling upper registry dog-whisperer voice didn’t work out.

This section of the trail was what I imagine the back hills of Scotland might be like: moss-covered rocks jutted out everywhere with a rich carpet of unbelievably green grass in between. It was here that the drizzle returned, but the scenery was so magical that we weren’t at all bothered. The incline was a bit of a downer, as were the massive mud puddles that required rock-hopping here and there on weakened ankles, but no matter. The stimulating visual take-away was one of my favorites, with the sea over our left shoulder and sprawling pastures over our right.

camino-private-puddle-rocks-santiago-de-compostelaPrivate property meets the Camino outside of Mougás

The next 17km were a bit of a blur. Cobbled roads led to paved ones first through sparsely-populated and then more densely-peopled towns like As Mariñas with
beautiful views of the Cíes Islands. We caught the best view on our picnic pitstop atop
the highest point of the town using a stack of freshly-logged cedar trunks as a wind blockade and dining table. We gobbled up the remains of our farmer’s market cheese and sausage and continued another 7km into Baiona which, while very quaint, one Atlas correspondent called “the armpit of the Camino”. A junior league football match was going on across the street from Sunday mass, where those waiting in the center aisle to take communion had to sing their hymn over the horns blowing from the bleachers. One of the first churches we had seen open was otherwise occupied and therefore, again, no stamps. Damn it.

The town of Ramallosa was not as exciting as I had imagined, though the 13th century Puente Vello (ancient bridge) across the river was quite cool. There are stories about fertility rituals associated with it, as well as jousting tournaments held by Knights Templars who had been sworn to protect pilgrims along the Way. It had triangular alcoves built out from the central artery and in the center stood a rollo dedicated to Santiago. I saw some people
ignore it completely as they made their way across. Some sat across from it and gazed beyond it to the water. Others knelt down in front of it. I simply sat down and sent a silent prayer to whoever’s up there for the strength to make it 20 more kilometers as my legs were already feeling the first 25.

ramallosa-bridgeThe Puente Vello in Ramallosa along The Portuguese Coastal Camino.

After navigating the narrow cobblestone streets out of town, we came to one of the more delightful stretches of the Camino around the Rio Muíños area. Not only did we finally have some sun to dry out our packs, but the stunning visuals that popped up here and there had us snapping photos more than any other part of the trail. Lots of churches (of course) dotted the Way, offering fountains to refresh our water bottles. Overgrown ruins with beautiful stonework details led us up and down slopes trimmed with vines and runaway cascading gardens of orange trees, passion fruit vines, and wildflowers.

There were lots of dogs in this area, one or two, it seemed, for every house. They constantly egged each other on as we approached. One would sound the alarm and the rest would go bananas until we were out of range. It was then we realized what a nightmare the peak season must be for those mutts. By September they must be near exhaustion, with a terrible case of laryngitis, ready for a long hibernation period come fall.

mossy wonderlandMoss covered ruins along the way kept our spirits up and our minds off our feet.

Between the towns of Priegue and Coruxo (kilometers 31 to 37), auto-pilot kicked in. We had entered our third wooded pathway of the day and clung to dirt, grass, and muddy areas as if pebbles and stones were hot lava. What a difference it makes for the shock to absorb beneath your feet rather than on your heels.

This was the two-hour period where I began to hallucinate. I matched my breath with my steps. I let my legs carry me forward. I thought about the history of this path and those who had walked it before: the royalty who sought power, the knights who sought glory, the soldiers who sought new lands, the saints who sought communion with god. The peasants who could not afford to buy indulgences for an assured spot in heaven. The scholars seeking enlightenment. The authors seeking inspiration. All desperately seeking to walk through the Gates of Glory in Santiago.

And there we were, too, not sure what we should be seeking but realizing that the search itself was the important thing. Search we did as on we walked.

img_3254Rollo outside of Vigo at the early onset of sunset.

Our quest included a place with barstools and the whiskey that had worked like a charm the day before. We had finally hit civilization, a mere 6km from Vigo, according to our map. We calculated that we could be checked into a hotel after two more hours of walking. As I read though the description of the trail, the line “you reach an industrial estate . . . proceed along the banks of the river until you hit a wall with graffiti” kept rolling itself around in my head. I did the math: sunset should happen right at that point. It didn’t sound like the kind of place you wanted to be in the dark. We took the Swiss Army knife from the now-empty lunch sack and put it in my pocket. I wondered what would happen if I had to run. I resigned myself to a knife fight to the death.

Standing up took some doing, not because of the whiskey (NEVER because of the whiskey!) but because our legs were close to reaching their limits of usefulness. I noticed my shoe’s right sole was coming off. The left one was loose. We tried our best to be cheerful. All I had to do to mentally energize myself was to count my blessings — we had each other, we had a knife, we had our health, and it wasn’t raining. Until it was.

It got dark right when we thought it would. We knew we had less than a kilometer to go before we reached the central park in Vigo where we were certain there would be a plethora of hotels. The kilometer came and went without a hitch, and finally there we were, standing at our destination point.

With no hotels in sight. My partner was on his phone clicking through booking.com frantically as the rain picked up to an all-out downpour.

“I found us a nice hotel!” he announced. He sounded uplifted. He clicked on the map.

“Three kilometers away.” His voice sounded decidedly less enthusiastic.

I wept. I tried not to show it, but even in the rain it was obvious. He suggested we sit down on a park bench, but I was certain that if I sat down, I wouldn’t get back up again. He offered to hail a taxi. After having already achieved 42 kilometers, I could not fathom it. At that point, the last three kilometers would be done on foot as a matter of principle, come hell or high water. The rain picked up, making both a distinct possibility.

Vigo is comprised of about six million hills and we walked over all of them for the next three hellish, wet kilometers. After we had gingerly descended the last staircase, I felt like jumping for joy, but I reconsidered. We entered the very grand lobby of the Hotel NH  Palacio de Vigo. Our battered bodies and bloodshot eyes could still appreciate the humor of two pilgrims standing at the counter of a four-star hotel (Hey- don’t judge us. After 45 km we earned it.) stinking like hobos and dripping like wet dogs. The receptionist was amazed to find our reservation in his system and begrudgingly gave us the keys. I fell asleep on my room service steak dinner. I fell asleep in the tub. I fell asleep in my dream, which some say means you die for a moment.

Vigo vineyard ruinsFormer vineyard framing the sky outside Vigo

Day 5: Vigo to Arcade 24km

For a Bom Caminho: Fix shoes in Vigo on Rúa do Canceleiro at Rosalia de Casto
Recommended Pitstop: Oysters at Restaurante Bonsai, Arcade

We got a much-needed late start in the day after waking up much later than usual. I had to have my boots fixed at the shoe shop a blessed three blocks from the hotel, so in the meantime we sent off emails to our families assuring them we were only slightly dead. After the adhesive had worked its magic and my boots were ready for another beating, we followed the hotel’s directions along the Ría do Vigo to get back onto the Camino. By noon we had found the yellow arrows that pointed us northward, out of the city of a zillion hills. Honestly, I was glad to say goodbye to Vigo after the unexpected tour the night before.

Getting out of town proved to be a longer undertaking than we imagined. Vigo is huge and sprawling and its suburbs and sub-suburbs seem to go on forever. The Way led us up into the hills with splendid views over the river and its marina and the many floating mussle-farming rafts along its inlets. Gradually, paved streets gave way to cobbled ones and finally the city disappeared behind and opened up into the Rego das Cabras (goat’s ditch) region. We walked for a long while along a hiking trail that had been very well maintained. We gradually descended a paved slope that took us into the town of Redondela.

We entered the town after having walked the 17km of our first leg. After we crossed the old stone bridge, things started to get a little confusing. There were arrows pointing us to the right and arrows pointing us to the left. We opened our guidebook, which turned out to be quite useless, and made our best fifty-fifty guess. Do we walk towards the chickens or do we wlak through the old town? This was a choose your own adventure moment. It wasn’t until we had walked half a kilometer or so that we got the feeling we weren’t going the right way and turned back, hoping to see a distant rollo, a tile shell, a yellow arrow – anything at all, with no luck. We returned to the circular town center (hence the name Redondela), looking for clues and finally discovered that we had chosen wrong. Through the narrow passageways of the old town we got back on track — but we had wasted valuable time and energy which, on day 5, is a bitter pill to swallow.

img_3265 A wall of scallop shells left along the Camino atop one of the last hills between Redondela and Pontevedra.

We ascended an incredibly steep hill in the farming village of Alto da Lomba, past a scallop shell fountain from whose spout shot deliciously cold water that helped to revive us midway up. I splashed the water on my face and couldn’t help feeling like Rocky Balboa. “It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward… ,” right? Once at the top, we caught our breath and enjoyed the views over the small village of Sete-fontes (seven fountains), with the Ria do Vigo behind us in the distance. To our left stood a giant wall of wire, decorated with shells of pilgrims past. It was a lovely discovery and we left our offering in the form of a blue ribbon that had been given to us by some children (for reasons still unknown) in a previous town. It was all downhill from there, three more kilometers to Arcade.

A strange thing consistently happens to your body when it knows there are only three kilometers left to go. It slowly begins to shut down, aware that the fight is almost won. First you begin to feel a slight pain in your knee, then your heel, then your foot, then your toe. You begin to notice the way your shoe keeps rubbing against the same area over and again and wonder how on Earth you stood the pain for so long. Your knees begin to buckle and you become aware of your hips. The bag on your back becomes uncomfortable. How long has that thing been sticking into my back? Has it been like this all day?

People say there’s something magical about the number three, but in our case this was black magic. The Albergue Lameiriñas was just past the official entrance to town, and it was a six-minute walk to the nearest seafood restaurant (Arcade is famous for its Galician oysters). Sold. That night we dined like kings. The day had been relatively easy after the one before, and the white wine and oysters prepared three ways at the Restaurante Bonsai made us giddy. Things were going to be okay. We made it back to the albergue just in time for our 10:30 curfew (most albergues close their doors early out of respect for exhausted pilgrims), unfurled our sleeping bags, and drifted off to la-la land.

img_3272The historic bridge in Sampaio over the Rio Verdugo, which played host to the victory of armed citizens against Napoleon in the War for Independence.

Day 6: Arcade to Caldas de Reis 35km

For a Bom Caminho: Try the Camino in flip flops
Recommended Pitstop: Delicious Candy Shop, Pontevedra

After a refreshing croissant breakfast at the Acuña Pasteleria we were ready to begin what some had described as the most lovely part of the trip along the coastal route. To me, what had come before would be tough to beat, but I was excited at the prospect. The first point of interest was the stone bridge in Sampaio (or Sanpayo), which was the place where Napoleon’s troops were defeated by armed civilians in the War for Independence. They say dogs in the region are given French generals’ names as a result. I didn’t have the opportunity to meet any by name, so I can neither confirm nor deny this.

It didn´t take long for me to understand why this stretch received such good reviews. The yellow arrows guided us through a valley where we could see vineyards being prepared for the summer heat. A white cat sat lazily surveying the lush field of green clover and yellow wildflowers around her while a cheeky crow heckled her from the wooden fence. The sun came out and warmed us between treetop gaps as we twisted through the dirt path between cypresses and eucalyptus. A gaggle of geese honked at us from the yard of a retired mechanic selling the spectrum of Kas soda flavors (not suitable for human consumption unless you want to have standing appointments at the dentist and the gastroenterologist). The wind was fresh and steady at our backs and it gently pushed us the next 10 kilometers into Pontevedra.

Igrexa da Virxe Peregrina Igrexa da Virxe Peregrina in the center of Pontevedra

Pontevedra is a charming town with a history that dates back to the end of the Trojan War, and you really feel it as you enter the city. It is now centered around the 18th-century Igrexa da Virxe Peregrina (Church of the Virgin Pilgrim) whose footprint is in the shape of a scallop shell. On the facade and atop the altar, Mary stands dressed as a pilgrim, complete with her hat, cloak and cane. Outside in the corridor, a volunteer sells peregrino credentials, and yes, doles out stamps (score!).

Candy stores, tailors, cafés, and sandwich shops steered us out past the 12th-century Burgo Bridge. We had stocked up on candies for the remaining 23km to Caldas de Reis and now just needed a place to rest. Once outside the town, we came to a fountain in a wooded area where we unlaced our boots and dipped our feet into the water. What sweet elixer of life! As our feet dried, we sipped red wine from our bota, and watched a friendly pug give his owner the run-around. If only we could have bottled that dog´s energy.

The approach to Caldas de Reis stretched between yellow fields, underneath runaway vineyard vines, and alongside pastures. We walked through old stone towns and next to mossed-over rollos. At times we found ourselves walking on the highway, but finally the trail met up with the ancient Roman road that delivered us into the medieval town of Barro, book-ended by two small (closed) chapels. There, we sat down for a drink and tapas at A Pousada do Peregrino in the back garden next to the hórreos, the stone mausoleum-looking structures for corn and cereal storage typical of the region. We were in awe of the beauty around us, but as you can imagine, we were weary. We had 12km to go, but tried not to think too much about that and instead take in the scene.

yellow flowersRollo in a field of yellow wildflowers just past Barro

After we had gone about halfway of what was left, we managed to miss the arrow on the opposite side of the highway. It wasn’t long before we realized we hadn’t seen a marker in a while and we got out our map and compass, neither of which we had used thus far considering how well everything had been marked. A woman in a house nearby saw us and pointed us “pobre peregrinos”  (poor pilgrims) back the way we had come. Since the sun was out and our bags were already open, we took the opportunity to change our footwear. We strapped our boots to our packs and took out the secret weapon: flip-flops. Deliverance.

We walked on with a spring in our step and met up with the trail we had missed by a couple hundred meters. We entered the last stage of our Camino for the day as we skirted private vineyards, sometimes walking through and under the stone and wire supports and occasionally meeting large sections of mud that forced us to leap (at times unsuccessfully) over large areas of sludge. Perhaps the flip-flop idea had been a poor one, but we were committed.

We knew we were only 3km away from reaching our destination when our bodies began to show major signs of fatigue (that 3km thing!). When we saw a sign for the Albergue Catro Canos just 1km from Caldas, we simultaneously gave each other a pleading look. It had been settled. Half an hour later we were checking in and ordering two Estrella Damms at reception from the proprietor, José, who turned out to be quite a character and our companion once the sun had set.

His sidekick, Sia, joined our reverie and proved to have a wealth of knowledge about music history as it applies to Memphis, Tennessee — my hometown. He even knew what B.B. King named his famous guitar (Lucille). José and Sia recommended sights for us to check out during our extra two days after we reached Santiago. We owe them a debt of gratitude for insisting we head out to Finisterra (the Galician end of the world), which some pilgrims choose as their final destination, over Santiago. The rocky cape with its blocky lighthouse is a different kind of finish line, indubitably preferable for those who aren’t interested in the religious rituals involved in entering the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela.

img_3320Colegiada de Santa Maria de Iria Flavia in Pádron, the old Episcopal seat before it was moved to Santiago de Compostela

Day 7: Caldas de Reis to Padrón 19km

For a Bom Caminho: Agree on a pace.
Recommended Pitstop: Camiño Cafe, Padrón

After having traveled 180km with someone without a hitch, time can be your enemy. That’s a lot of quality time without much distraction. Opposing ideas about the best pace and procedure on a short day’s hike can bite you in the pilgrim posterior. The day started out as most others had: frail feet, surgically stuffed sacks, and the quest for coffee. This would be our shortest day on the Camino and our guard was down as a result. We thought it would be a walk in the park, and that’s just the way it went until after lunch.

Caldas de Reis is a small town built over natural hot springs that attracts bathers and toe-dippers to its center to reap the healing effects of its waters.  The path takes you through the center of town (you can get your credentials stamped at the fancy thermal hotel/spa), past the historic church of Santa Mariña de Carracedo (stamps!), down cobblestone sidewalks, over a stone bridge towards the valley of the Río Bermaña, and up to the town of O Cruxeiro, which features a few typical Galician-style stone homes, several small churches (no stamps) and a cafe. Most importantly, on top of the hill stands a kindergarten named the Escuela de Educación Infantil de Carracedo, whose teacher should be given the key to the city. As we passed by, he chased out after us, excitedly asked us where we were from, and begged us to give a presentation to the children about our hometowns and where we were living now, and maybe teach them some words from our language. I ended up doing a rendition of Hound Dog by Elvis Presley, which was filmed and, I´m almost certain, is currently floating around on Facebook somewhere. My partner decided not to attempt an Amalia fado and tried to be more informative. The children gifted us shells for our feeble attempt to entertain them, and of course they all wanted hugs. Atlas salutes the school and the children and hope we didn´t scar any of them for life.

A few more kilometers down the way, we crossed the Río Valga and entered San Miguel, where we stopped to buy some bread and white wine to go with the leftover pizza we had toted along from Pontevedra. We got our credentials stamped at the Capela Virxe da Saúde and continued into the forest trail, where we alighted on a high stone wall for our first stop. Things were going well until the wine was gone, exhaustion had set in, and our individual needs got in the way.

I was anxious to arrive in Padrón by keeping up our pace despite the small amount of track ahead. My partner was more interested in taking a load off and enjoying a little siesta. The situation was not handled delicately be either party and it became clear that our pilgrimage would be more advantageous for both if we walked the last 5km solo and met at the final stop for the day.

Going it alone for a stretch can help accelerate your thinking. Small issues like blisters and fatigue fall away to shine light on bigger problems in ourselves. Your inner poet comes out. You picture two flames. You think of a name for your personal demon, as Coelho named his Astrain. You try to speak to him or her in whatever language he speaks. While I certainly don’t subscribe to the tasks set before our hero in The Pilgrimage, I sure as hell felt like that one exercise might have something to it.

clouds-trees-padron-caminhoThe grand entrance to Pádron at the tree-lined main square.

Once I reached Pontecesures and continued down the slope onto the pedestrian track at the Rìo Ulla, a sense of loneliness kicked in. I couldn´t seem to find anyone or anything between the two flames Coelho told me I should envision in my mind. Not even my demon wanted to walk with me. I figured it was best to focus on making it to Padrón´s famous church and get myself to the nunnery. Literally. I rounded the corner and saw a vast, sprawling park ahead of me, lined with bizarre Dr. Seuss trees, which pulled my focus inward to the steps of the basilica. A narrow stone bridge to the left of the church directed me toward a hilltop convent, a wing of which had been converted to The Albergue de Peregrinos. With my newfound dedication to chastity (perhaps less of a dedication and more of a consequence), I got my stamp and found a bunk in the loft space.

Despite the roaming charges and my less-than-saintly behavior, my partner channeled Pharaoh and the Israelites to pursue me via text message letting me know he had arrived. I calculated the distance to the Red Sea and realized I just didn´t have the fight in me so I agreed to meet him at a nearby cafe called Orixes. The alone-time had helped to clear the air and we were ready to reconcile our differences over a glass of wine and a calamari bocadillo (oversized sandwich, of which 80% is bread). That night was more or less a quiet one, with the exception of the disappointed fans shouting at Real Madrid on the television. Resurrections (of relationships or otherwise) can be exhausting.

pilgrims-at-santiago-at-sunsetSantiago de Compostela main square at sunset

Day 8: Padrón to Santiago de Compostela 25.2km

For a Bom Caminho: Stay at the Hotel Avenida
Recommended Pitstop: Café Raña in Cassalonga; BeerLab in Santiago de Compostela

The morning was abuzz in the albergue. Pilgrims were excitedly gearing up for the final six hours of their trip. Some had tried to time it just right to arrive for the midday pilgrim service at the cathedral in Santiago. We were mainly focused on finding a clean pair of socks. Once we had sniffed our way to the last of our clean pairs, we put on our packs and shuffled out. We made it a ways out before we stopped for a bite at the cafe of the Hotel Scala about 4km out of town. It had a diner setup with bar stools at a high counter, 1970s tile along the back wall, and a modern espresso machine whirring in front with all its chrome bells and whistles. We finally felt prepared for the last leg as our peace treaty had been drawn up and signed as they have historically been: over a croissant and a breakfast buffet.

Once we left the cafe, we skirted the N550 highway through the sparsely populated villages of Cambelas, Anteportas, and Vilar. We passed the church of Nossa Senhora da Escravitude (closed), and about a kilometer later we finally deviated from the main road. The path had finally taken us to a more scenic route. Sprawling fields smelled of lavender and were sprinkled with small white houses. Dogs halfheartedly lifted their noses to the air as we passed (they seemed used to it) and some even came to the fence ready for their daily dose of pilgrim pats. We stopped here and there for coffee breaks (stamps!) as we made our way along the ancient road that carried us across the moss-covered Roman foot bridge over the narrow rushing Río Tinto.

We first saw the city of Santiago de Compostela from the tallest hilltop of the tiny town of Agro dos Monteiros near Milladoiro. It seemed so close it was almost unreal. We couldn’t see the top of the cathedral, but there was no doubt about it, we were 8km from marker zero and all that was left was a slightly downward descent into the city outskirts, crossing the highway one last time, and then the final uphill ascent. And that’s just the way it went, up until 2km from the church of Santiago de Compostela, when we passed the BeerLab Cerveceria Artesana and thought it would be wise to arrive fresh-footed and hopped-up on IPA. It turned out to be a great idea.

img_3345Success! Atlas standing at mile marker zero, in front of the Catherdal of Santiago de Compostela

The moment had arrived. We had washed our faces and I had changed my shoes to prepare for our moment of glory. Neither of us knew what to expect when we stood in front of the church with our feet on the final marker. I can’t speak for every pilgrim, but I must admit it was a bit anti-climactic. Made in China shells were for sale everywhere. People by the busload were being ushered in from all angles. The church itself was under construction so even the iconic snapshot was pretty much out of the question. To add insult to injury, we could only do three of the many pilgrims’ rites and rituals we had been reading so much about.

Things were not as we expected them to be, which I think in the end was a good thing. Even getting the Pilgrim’s office stamp and Camino certificate wasn’t as we expected — we had come 225km to find out that the registry had been moved one kilometer further away: a slap in the face. The hotel proprietor gave us attitude when we asked for breakfast the next morning and told us since we hadn’t asked for it the day before we weren’t entitled to anything. Hmm. The lack of peace and serenity outside the church and the outright gaudiness inside the church (the fat cherubs!) itself made us respect the Way more than the destination.

Ultimately, that is what the Camino is. It’s not about a piece of St. James in a gilded box. It’s not about hugging a bejeweled statue of him either. It’s about inner reflection, pain, pride, fortitude, and fastidiousness. It’s about finding your limits and pushing them one step at a time. It’s about the song stuck in your head at times, it’s the wind at your back, the company at your side, the rain falling down your neck, the warm whiskey, the hot bath. It’s the distance that is the place of worship, not the cathedral, not the Portico of Glory. There had to be an end point somewhere, and I guess that’s as good a place as any, but the take-away from the experience is the Way itself. No matter your religious affiliation or lack thereof, this is where you find god within yourself. And maybe a demon or two.