Camino Portugues Part III
19th August 2017
Two weeks in and the adventure continued with a stretch of 34km that I made short work of. At some point, the actual walking becomes easy and when you don’t walk, you feel restless. Rest days, where not absolutely necessary, feel like a waste of time and I only took one on the whole Camino. The stretch to Porto constituted the last stage of the first section, the Portuguese Camino being split into the less frequented half between Lisbon and Porto and the more popular half between Porto and Santiago, so I was in for many new faces, mostly incredulous when confronted with the fact that others had had the time and nerve to walk the whole way.
I had, by now, made a few friends such as Marcia from Australia and Gerda from South Africa as well as three Italian guys who would speak to me in Italian and I would answer in Portuguese – basic small talk and chat about the way was usually easily understood. Increasing my walking pace after two weeks on trail, I lost many familiar faces who decided to walk at a more leisurely pace or took a rest day in Porto, which, albeit a city, was surprisingly nice. Another thing that I learned on the Camion was that my teenage love for big cities had dwindled and I was now longing for more remote areas, the charms of small villages or vast forests and fields in between.
While not a fan of the touristy city vibe, I relished the use of technology – and, especially, Internet – and used the opportunity to book plane tickets to see my mother for her birthday. I enjoyed every minute walked alone, however it made me also value community and those close to me and I thought a lot about friends and family, so a little surprise visit to my mum’s seemed in order.
Navigating bigger cities on any trail can be a bit of a hassle as waymarks are harder to find and plenty of distractions make it easier to get lost and harder to stay on trail. Focusing hard on the waymarks in Porto so as not to get lost, I walked past my end point for the day and completely overlooked the huge cathedral. So much for being present in the moment and enjoying my surroundings.
In general, the path became more and more beautiful the further north I got and I thoroughly enjoyed the summery weather and the nature surrounding me.
Did I mention that long periods of walking on your own give you a lot of time to think your life choices through? I discovered that I had a hard time permanently committing to things, such as quitting smoking and drinking. For some reason, it made me feel restricted to say I was never going to do something again and the more I focused on NOT doing something, the more I obviously ended up thinking about it… another decision, and a particularly difficult one in places such as Portugal and Spain, was for me to become vegetarian. While I had previously half-heartedly tried it for economic reasons, walking past (farm) animals every day had me thinking that it made no sense for me to be involved in the killing of animals where it was not absolutely necessary for my own survival. Sure, I’d rather eat a steak than starve, however, in today’s economy and society and in the circumstances I find myself in, I don’t need meat for my survival and I don’t suffer any dietary deficits if I don’t eat it. That being said, I only committed to it once off the Camino as the poor (or often non-existent) meal choices for vegetarians in Portugal and Spain made it difficult to eat in public places (i.e. when not cooking for yourself).
All the walking and thinking was clearing my mind and I discovered that a pilgrimage was a great opportunity to come full circle and connect all the little bits of life I had lived that often seemed to hopelessly unconnected – the me I had been at school, the one at university, the girl that used to be engaged once upon a time and the one that ran away with the circus. If it was possible to pass through so many different landscapes, encounter so many different characters, towns, languages, foods and experiences on one trail through only two countries, surely, it was possible to find the connection, the golden thread, between all the events of my life and all the different roles I had played so far.
I felt generally optimistic despite missing those pilgrims I had met between Lisbon and Porto (I would only meet a handful of those who had started with me in Lisbon again before finishing the Camino) and the nagging pains in my right ankle were slowly fading, allowing for some beautiful, long days.
The first of the longer stages happened two days after Porto and was around 25 miles/40km.I arrived early at the end point for the day according to the guide book but it somehow didn’t feel right. The little town of Barcelos was welcoming, picturesque and, in the words of another hiker “way too nice to stay there”, it was windy and the bulky clouds on the horizon didn’t bode well for the afternoon and I was clearly in a valley, meaning that the only way to carry on was up and over the surrounding hills, but, after a long break for lunch, my restlessness pushed me further and when I arrived in Portela late in the afternoon, the long walk had been well worth it. My legs were tired, the restlessness was gone, the clouds’ structures were fascinating to look at when I came closer and nonetheless proved harmless as it didn’t rain all day. I left the valley and barely noticed the hills and while I had been concerned about the weather and my own demons shortly after departing from half way in Barcelos, I got calmer the closer I got to the day’s end point, accepting that while many things were out of my control – such as the weather, the recurring pain in my ankle or the hills and the restlessness within – I could just let go and trust that it would be ok, and it was. I spent the evening doing some much needed handstand training at an albergue and chatting to countless Germans who had apparently all started in Porto.
The next day, I decided early on to carry on from Portela, the advised section end point, to Rubiães, a total of 27 miles/43km. The second leg of the day’s stretch was the most beautiful so far with little waterfalls next to me, an unnecessary yet refreshing river crossing (half way through the river we discovered a bridge nearby that we somehow hadn’t been able to locate from the riverbank) and a climb up to about 1400ft.
A road sign to “ESPANHA” towards the end of the stage reminded me of a fateful road trip a few years ago and put me in a sentimental mood bordering sadness as I lost a lot on that road trip. However, I realised that it was ok to have memories that will forever make you sentimental or melancholic and that nothing is ever mine to keep, so all great moments are prone to pass and it is human to feel sad about a loss, but it also reminds me of how deeply I care(d) about some things in life. I came to understand that the intensity of my grief and sadness shows the depth of my heart, and, shedding a few tears towards the end of the day’s walk, I felt at peace with the summer 2015 for the first time. As an ex of mine once put it: The bad days are the good days, because they show you that you care. And the good days? They are the great days.
In Rubiães, I followed the advice of the guidebook and walked past all of the official albergues only to find the cozy “Ninho” – Pilgrim Nest run by Marlene, her mother and her partner. And maybe it was the charming little kitchen in which I could cook myself an omelette after the long day’s walk, or the rustic stone walls, or the pictures and paintings of Frida Kahlo – whose clear resemblance to Marlene, the hostel owner, was hard to miss – or the two little dogs that greeted me with their wet noses and unrestraint enthusiasm, or the enchanting stories that could be found in various places around the albergue,… but the “Ninho” was the most wonderful official pilgrim’s accommodation I stayed in on the whole Camino Portugues and if you decide to walk it, this spot is not to be missed.
Marlene and I discovered we had a few interests in common, such as my circus and her dance background, a creative side and passion. She was suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, a rare spinal disease, and as she and her husband offered free accommodation and food for volunteers helping with the running of the albergue, I decided to stay for another day and take a break after the longer walks, allowing other pilgrims to catch me up and helping those kind, generous people around the house. While Marlene wasn’t about much, I helped her mother, an elderly but fierce lady with chopping bamboo for a mysterious cause and other chores around the house and their hospitality was overwhelming. I got itchy feet in the morning when seeing the other pilgrims pass by the gates but I knew that soon enough, I would be walking again myself…
Stay tuned for the last few days to Santiago and my endeavours at the local circus school.
 It turned out it was needed as supporting sticks for the vines, but thanks to my poor knowledge of the Portuguese language, I didn’t understand that until I followed the old lady carrying the bamboo off site much later in the day.