Our guest author Maggi undertook the famous Camino Walk – from Portuguese O Porto to Spanish Santiago de Compostela. In this experience report, she ponders why it was a lifechanging experience, shares her Camino highlights and downs, and gives tips to future Camino trekkers.
How I stopped to fear and started loving the path
There are many reasons why people decide to walk the Way of St. James. Mine was a very mundane and practical one. I hadn't taken a vacation in a long time and since I disliked all kinds of ‘classical’ vacation (staying in a nice, comfortable hotel with the beach across the road) doing Camino de Santiago seemed to be the right choice for me. Travelling all by myself in a foreign country, not knowing where I will spend the night, was always a dream of mine, but I was simply too scared of trying it out. Now, since I have taken this journey, all kinds of possibilities to travel started to pop up and I am often on the road, exploring this beautiful world. In short, the Way of St. James or Camino de Santiago was my first step in my career as an adventurous solo traveller!
How to pack a backpack for Camino - and repack it 3 hours before the flight
First, I got in contact with a friend of a friend who had walked the path recently. She was very welcoming and showed me a lot of beautiful pictures of the sun shining on small villages, vineyards, forests, coasts and beaches and explained everything about the way. She gave me a list of what to pack in my backpack, a list of hostels. Even though she described everything in detail - including the way from the Metro in Porto to the starting point of the route - I was still in doubt if doing Camino walk would be that easy. Now I can assure you: it is!
Holding those amazing stories and pictures in my mind, I booked the flight and started choosing my gear: backpack, hiking boots, 2 pairs of quick-drying underpants, 2 pairs of hiking socks, a sun hat and so on.
And finally, there it was: the day of my departure. A wonderful hot and sunny, 30-degree day in Berlin at the end of May, had finally arrived. The key to my apartment was dropped in the mailbox of a friend and here I stood, with a small 36-litre backpack on my back, containing all that I should be needing within the next 16 days.
My departure would certainly not have been such a memorable moment if one little detail would have been different about it: The night before my departure I had checked the weather in Portugal and it showed that there were heavy storms, rain and no sun at all forecast for the entire period of my travels. And eventually, it turned out that this forecast was precise, in extreme contradiction to the usual weather in Portugal in May.
At least my flight was scheduled for the evening, so this had left me with a day to swap out half of the carefully chosen content of my backpack. When I finally took my seat on the plane, I felt ready for what was coming.
Instead of spending three days in Porto, I left on the second rainy day, heading with the Metro Line A to the last but one station “Mercado“ in the northern part of Porto. Having had to switch to new, water-resistant shoes that I had not broken in yet, I thought I could use one more day for walking.
Even in the pouring rain, Porto is such a beautiful city that I was sure to come back someday anyway. I walked over a long steel bridge to cross Rio Leca, headed to the beach and soon found my first sign (big and clear) that I was on the route of the Way of St. James and I was introduced to the two words I would hear the most within the next week walking in Portugal: "Bom Caminho".
I spent my first night in a little albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) in Labruge just 10 kilometres from where I left off. It was just at the right time, as my feet started to show signs of developing blisters, due to my new shoes. Luckily I was able to protect my feet from blisters during the whole trip. I took care of every sign immediately by slowing down, taking rests and taping patches all over my feet.
In the albergue in Labruge I would meet the first handful of people, I would pass and be passed by again and again during my journey, always exchanging some words and stories until, one day, without being aware of it, it would be the last time of encounter, and they would slip out of my memory, naturally, while before, being a firm and constant escort of my wandering mind. Every step I took, added to the sum of people that would share their journey with me in this sporadic way. We all would meet in cafés along the road, restaurants, just taking a break from the constant rain. Trying to dry a bit, just to soon get all wet again. Sometimes there were unexpected opportunities to take a rest all by myself in the landscape, like under a highway bridge, in a tiny chapel or an abandoned beach house.
The first night, was a little shock. I was well aware that I am a light sleeper, so I was prepared for nights with many interruptions, due to snoring. But for some reason, I had no idea it could be that tormenting! I head some earplugs but also a light infection in the ear and plugging in the plugs, intensified the itch, so I decided to get used to the sounds. (Forget it! You can't!) For those having troubles with earplugs, that you can buy in a drug store for a couple of euros, there are also other, more expensive options available and trust me: they are a good investment!
The next day was the last day I would spend walking alongside the coast. Luckily, the rain stopped in the first walking hours and eventually it cleared up, and the clouds made room for the only day with a few hours of sun. And I was happy that I could spend them walking alongside the coast, resting at lonely beaches and just freaking out by witnessing the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean and taking a few baths.
The third morning on my path I woke up in Vila do Conde in a small albergue with a wonderful rooftop. I had my breakfast in a small café. Black coffee, a sandwich made from baguette and cheese and a sweet pastel de nata, the most common sort of one of the many sweet, little, immensely delicious cakes you can get in every café or pastelaria in Portugal.
On Camino walk, you either prepare your breakfast in the albergue or you choose to take it in one of the many cafés, that are located close around the hostels or alongside the way.
Difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations
Here, in Vila do Conde the path splits into two options: you can either stay and continue to walk on the coast or start hiking into the inner of the country. I was advised that the part further from the coast would be the more beautiful and diversified way. So I waved goodbye to the ocean and started walking into the direction of Tui, away from the coast and into the inner countryside of Portugal, walking up and down many mountains, passing beautiful villages and vineyards and forests with many eucalyptus trees, but without meeting any koala bear. I spend nights in Marcieira de Rates, Barcelos, Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes. Ponte de Lima is a really beautiful village that you should not miss if you take the route in the inner of the country. The way from Ponte de Lima to Rubiaes is the most beautiful and also the hardest part of the way. You will climb a huge mountain, which already took effort to hike with low temperatures and cooling rain, but walking it in broad sunlight, will surely be extremely exhausting. However, nature is wonderful and you will have the most rewarding views during this part of the trail. So it is possible to enjoy almost every step of it if you in advance learned to take good care of your feet, concerning blisters. I highly recommend blister patches by compeed, if you have sensitive skin like mine, that easily rubs off. It will stick firmly and protect you well from further rubbing.
Why it is important (or not), to become a certified Camino trekker
Tui is the first town on the Spanish part of Camino, a beautiful one. It is located about 100km away from Santiago and lots of people and pilgrims start their journey from here. So now, the way is more crowded and additionally, also a lot of mountain bikers start passing by all of a sudden. It is very beautiful and full of tourists.
If you want to get a certificate, that proves, that you walked the Caminho, you have to start collecting two stamps every day into your pilgrim's pass beginning from Tui and when you arrive in Santiago de Compostela you have to show the stamps to a person in an office, he then will give you the certificate. The pilgrim's pass is very important for the camino walk. You cannot check in to an albergue, if you haven't got one. I suggest you purchase it on the internet in advance of your trip, but you can also get it somewhere near the cathedral in Porto, usually, there are long lines. You can get stamps to your passport in every hostel, hotel, café or restaurant alongside the way. Some of the people like to get as many different and interesting stamps as possible and there are also albergues, who let you choose from a variety of stamps
However I never cared much about them and I also preferred rather walk around Santiago de Compostela, instead of standing in line for hours to receive a certificate. But if you want to get a certificate, you should start getting stamps in Tui.
The late bird gets the worms
Most of the times, I was one of the last people to leave an albuerge in the morning, Most people started their days around 6 o'clock. I usually started between 8 and 9. This might have just been possible because there was no sun burning down. However, this is why I walked many passages of the trail all by myself. Before Tui maybe every 10 minutes someone passed me saying: Bom Caminho or I passed someone, saying Bom Caminho. After Tui it was maybe every 4-5 minutes, with still smaller periods, the closer I got to Santiago, and the greetings switched from "Bom Caminho" to "Buen Camino". However, I never felt it was too crowded. It was just perfect to keep in touch with other pilgrims. Meeting every other day at some restaurants, hostel or in the middle of the road. Spain is more expensive than Portugal, but what is nice, to every beer you get some chips or bread or something like this. People are really friendly in both countries and whenever I felt lost because I could not spot a yellow arrow (which was the case only about 4 times) I could be sure that some car would stop and honk at me and a friendly person in it would point out the correct direction.
Also starting from Tui, a lot of private hostels for pilgrims suddenly popped up. Those usually were also very nice hostels and I did not need a sleeping bag anymore, like in the albergues of Portugal. All in all, I was very relieved to find all of the albergues to be very clean, organized and tidy. There were no giant moths, spiders or other unpleasant insects, as well.
From Tui, I started walking to O Porrino, where I took my first hotel room because I had not slept well for a lot of nights. It was a wonderful luxury and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was a delightful, comfortable night in a less beautiful town.
From O Porrino I started walking longer distances since my feet were used to the shoes now and I could walk 20 km a day instead of 15. Most people do the Caminho Portuguese in about 10 days, I wanted to take it slow and did it in 14. I slept in Redondela, Pontevedra, Caldas de Reis, Iria Flavia until I finally arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
The cathedral of Santiago is gigantic and the city is incredibly beautiful. Although I had walked almost all of the way by myself, the last meters in Santiago I shared with an Italian girl, and when we arrived at the cathedral we started taking pictures of each other in front of the gigantic building. Of course, the sun did not decide to show up for this nice occasion either, but at least the rain had stopped. I stayed for a long time, sitting on the floor, looking at the great cathedral.
It was late, but people from the path showed up occasionally at the wide square in front of the church. Without backpacks, and some of them suddenly in beautiful clothes, that they had bought in one of the many stores in Santiago. I could hardly recognize them. Usually, all of us were walking covered in huge brightly coloured rain ponchos. I even developed a technical move that I called „The Ponch-Throw“. I curled up against the rain poncho and threw it over my head, so it landed perfectly on the top of my head and the backpack and I only had to jump a few more times so it suited me perfectly from just one effortless throw. I wanted to make a little poncho-throw tutorial, however, I forgot.
There are also a lot of pedicure places around, and a lot of pilgrims treated themselves to a nice pedicure or a foot massage after this long walk. It is smart to locate a foot temple here.
Saying my farewells
My last days in Santiago, I hung out with my fellow trekkers. I visited a mass in the cathedral with a bunch of pilgrims from the hostel I stayed in, they had walked the French Caminho for over five weeks. Then, I grabbed some chips, bread and vino with a Slovenian guy I met on the path. Together we went up to a nice spot where we had a fantastic view over Santiago and the grand church. The next morning I kept meeting people and it was my last opportunity to say goodbye to them.
In the afternoon I took a Flixbus back to Porto. It was, how should I put it, a little strange, to pass so many places I had been trekking through for 14 days within less than 4 hours.
I was happy that the rain had stopped finally and so I could take a relaxed walk through beautiful Porto, sit down on the shore of Rio Duoro have my last wine and watch the night falling on the town.
This was the end of something but it was also the beginning of something else.
Doing the material Camino walk resembled walking the path of my life. Places, goals, surroundings, people, circumstances and situations appear and disappear. The only constant thing on this path is me, walking, slowly and firmly, from a starting point towards an end.
PS: Quite to the contrary of the main content on this blog, this article is more about following exactly the beaten path. ☺ Solely considering navigation and organization, the Way of St. James is a very easy journey to undertake.
There are plenty of options to spend the night along the path. The most traditional and very affordable option, the pilgrim's albergue (prices range from 6 – 12 Euros per night for a bed in a dorm, sometimes it is even only for a donation) you will usually find every 10-15 kilometres. You might have a destination, where to spend the night, already planned in your mind or you will just see how far your legs may carry you on this particular day and then watch out for an albergue, hotel or a spot for your tent (if you carry one), as soon as you start feeling like it. Albergues, cafés and restaurants are signposted alongside the way, early enough, and with the help of a smartphone, you will always find a hotel room, if you decide to have some more luxury for a night or two.
So literally all you have to do is to keep walking and since your mind is not occupied with organization and planning, it is free to wander itself or to become quiet and still, just as you prefer.