Camino Portugues Part I

While it already feels like a long time has passed since completing the Camino Portugues in May, I feel like I am due somewhat of a report. Currently sitting in an empty tavern in the family holiday destination Brean and feeling like an entirely different person to the one who started the Camino less than three months ago, I am struggling to find the right mindset to tell this story, but I will consult my journal and do my best.

The first small waymark spotted next to the Sé Catedral in Lisbon – one of my biggest fears at the beginning was to get lost or not to find any waymarks

The first journal entry on the 2nd of May, a day before starting my rather long walk[1], is a bit of a worried chaos with the main concerns being:

– Not being able to find (cheap) accommodation on the way

– Getting lost

– It being a bigger physical challenge than anticipated

– Neglecting my training (in terms of handstands and flexibility which I both lose quickly without regular practice)

– Being incapable of being present in the moment/enjoying the pilgrimage

The “little bit of walking” on the first day was definitely a challenge, I started with a solid 32.2km (just over 20 miles) from Lisbon to Alverca on one of the hotter days of the year. At this point, I owe my Mum for blessing me with Portuguese skin – despite the fact that I only bought sunblocker on the second day, I did not burn one bit! I met the first other pilgrims, first and foremost an elderly Italian well in his seventies who had started walking Caminos a few years prior to express gratitude to a higher power for a positive turn of events.

My first camp in Alverca at Fundação CEBI who welcome pilgrims to sleep in a school gym for a small donation – the floor was very inviting for some handstand training!

Rereading my journal entry after the first day of walking, I read the words of someone very upset about having lost her inner compass and instead rushing from one goal to the next in order to define herself instead of finding joy in what I was doing and I declared it my aim to have a direction but be happy about every day’s walking (both literally and metaphorically).

I wanted to document the effects of my pilgrimage in before and after pictures. This is the first one I took.

The following days were sunny and enjoyable and while fellow pilgrims complained about the heat, blisters, pains, aches and discomforts, I felt like my body was finally doing exactly what it was designed to do: set one foot in front of the other. The sun didn’t care to burn me, the mosquitoes found my flesh appalling and my slow metabolism allowed me to walk six hours on a milky coffee and a piece of pastry while I was happily disconnecting from social media and only ever used my phone to take pictures of my surroundings. Arriving in a town in the afternoon made me emotional, appreciating comforts and luxuries otherwise taken for granted, such as the incredible selection of cheap and fresh foods in a local ALDI or the low prices at cafés and restaurants in small towns.

My daily rhythm changed: Suddenly it wasn’t a challenge to get up early, but a delight to watch the sunrise on the Camino

While the southern section of the Camino Portuguese between Lisbon and Porto isn’t as popular as the second half (Porto -> Santiago) , it gave me the opportunity to get to know my fellow pilgrims, a surprisingly large number of Italians and retired people who claimed to finally have the time for adventures exceeding their holiday allowance and while I enjoyed the company of others in the evenings, I couldn’t seem to match my pace to anyone else’s and preferred walking in solitude.

The first day of torrential rain was followed by rewarding views the next morning – sunrise over Santarém

I felt my rhythm changing and going to bed early as well as getting out early wasn’t a challenge any longer, I was happy to start the day and see more of my mother’s country – a country that somehow was part of me, despite my little knowledge of it.

Upon arrival in Tomar, around 155km in, I had finished one of the most satisfying and easiest days of walking so far, the landscape was beautiful and little hills finally made the walking more interesting, the weather was back to comfortably hot without any rain or wind (my favourite type of weather) and in spite of it all, I couldn’t shake a feeling of irritability and moodiness, increased by the fact that there was no good reason for it.

Luckily for me, this did not yet bear fruit – otherwise I couldn’t have resisted the sweet temptation of their refreshing juice and they would have left me with pricks in my tongue and cheeks for days.

Eventually, a couple of irritating conversations[2] in the local hostel later, I decided to write my journal next to the Rio Nabão that meandered through a scenic park in the middle of Tomar where I observed a few locals bathing in the river. I scolded myself for not bringing a bikini, but I had wanted to keep the weight of my pack down. Trying to focus on my writing and permanently distracted by the temptations of the cool river at my feet, my eyes kept darting to the swimmers and I noticed a boy of around 13 eyeing the river just as reluctantly as I was.

In my best Portuguese, I asked if he was afraid of jumping in. He denied any fears but said that he was worried it would be very cold. Being the older (and possibly more stubborn one), I now felt an obligation to find out more and dipped my feet in; that’s it, I thought, the temperature was too perfect and I finally decided to jump into the river in my clothes in spite of the confused looks of various tourist groups trailing through the park. And soon enough, I left all my concerns and moodiness in the water, striking up a conversation with some of the Portuguese swimmers and drying off upside down by the side of the stream, cracking out some overdue handstand training.

Freshly river-bathed and happy in Tomar
“I know what I’m doing and on any given day I could stop doing it. Today isn’t that day. Tomorrow won’t be either. Buen Camino” – Inscription on the wall of a pilgrims’ hostel in Tomar

A few more days of easy walking, averaging around 30km per day, I noticed my sense of smell becoming much stronger and adding to the sensual input on the Camino way more than I was used to in everyday life. The hours of walking gave me time to focus on things that seemed important to me and I spent a long time thinking about those dear to me, family, friends, (ex)partners, causing me to take little breaks from my social media/electronic connection abstinence to let those close to me know that I was doing fine and to send some happy vibes their way.

Cattle seeking shelter from the sun under a bunch of trees

Occasionally, I would now walk with a companion, usually only for bits of the day’s walk as our paces would differ and I often felt like carrying on when others preferred breaks. Luckily, almost everyone I met seemed to share the opinion that it was best to walk at one’s own pace instead of trying to force it in order to hike with another pilgrim and we all had faith in meeting again at the end of the day, the week, or even the whole walk.

Lush Paths North of Tomar

Little did I know that the true pilgrimage experience, both mentally and physically, lay still ahead of me.

Soon enough, the clouds and rain returned and the first physical ailments made their appearance. My right ankle and my left knee were aching with every step and seemed strained, my mind was not in the game and progress seemed excruciatingly slow after the first week. I decided to listen to some uplifting tunes to get me through the thick of it, but rather than help, the music reminded me of loves lost, mistakes made and all the things I had done wrong, all the poor decisions I made, everything I could have – should have – done better and a wave of guilt and sadness washed over me, accompanied by the sudden urge to apologize to those I had been involved with for my shortcomings. For hours, I cried and walked and walked and cried and didn’t even care about setting one foot in front of the other, I just let it happen and allowed the path to carry me on until the crying stopped and my exhaustion forced me into a roadside café. One of the indisputable benefits of a simple lifestyle is that it makes the conveniences of an average life in Western society luxuries again. You learn to appreciate the basics and shelter from rain, warmth, a cup of coffee and something sweet to eat will inevitably make your day.

Luxuries on the Camino: Coffee, sugar, and food is on its way

Refreshed by a chat in Portuguese, learning a new word (gorjeta, the tip for a waiter) and with a coffee and a piece of “Pão de Deus” in my tummy, I cracked on and as so often, the Camino provided me exactly with what I needed: a companion on a tough day, someone to chat to in order to get out of my mind and back on track. And that’s when I saw Judy, one of the most amazing pilgrims I have had the pleasure to walk with. I had met her at an albergue – a cheap form of pilgrim accommodation – the night before and was astonished that she must have overtaken me at some point.

Poppies and streaks of blue sky kept following me

While I had slowed down due to the pain in my knee and my head game, I was not prepared to find that the 74 year old socialite from Guernsey had click-clacked past me with her walking poles, light pack and indomitable smile. She literally brought me back up to speed and we idly chatted the remaining miles for the day away, discussing matters of the heart, life, guilt, divorces and other human struggles and I was grateful for her company. We would walk together quite a few more times before parting ways and I ended up regretting that I never asked for her contact details[3].

But soon enough, the Camino would send me a very different companion.

Read about it in Part II of the Camino Portugues which I will hopefully get to very soon if I have time, electricity and Internet all at the same time which is sometimes difficult as I am currently living in a field with Chaplin’s Circus until the end of the season at the beginning of September but I’ll tell you all about that another time.

[1] As I am planning future endeavours, I have to admit that a little over 600km don’t strike me as particularly far anymore, but more about that later.

[2] I found it puzzling how people always seemed to find something to complain about and sometimes it was tiring to arrive after a day of beautiful solitude, filled with the scents of blossoming trees and flowers, free fruit growing by the side of the trail and the ease of walking, just to meet a bunch of whining pilgrims saying their shoes were to tight, their feet to week, their blisters too big, their packs too heavy, the weather either too cold, too hot, too dry or too wet,… you get the idea.

[3] If, by any lucky chance, you read this, Judy, please know how much I enjoyed your company. I wish you all the best on your future adventures.

One Reply to “Camino Portugues Part I”

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