Head Up – Don’t Miss the Arrow
A walk along the Portuguese Central Camino
It’s quiet and unusually hot in Portugal for early October. Prior to my departure to Oporto I studied John Brierley’s Guide to the Camino. Having no sense of direction I started as he had recommended a few miles from Porto Cathedral thus skipping the rigours of the road out of the city and a long difficult journey through the suburbs.
The Portuguese Camino starts in Lisbon near Fatima but it is very difficult terrain so I decided to start in Porto which is a distance of 156.4 miles to Santiago. It takes about ten days to complete the ten stages. The distance covered each day varies, the longest one- day walk was 21 miles and the shortest 11 to 13 miles. Underfoot is mostly hard granite flag stones, asphalt or sharp rocky stones covered with sand so good hiking boots are essential. Around 50% of the route is along quiet country lanes, eucalyptus and pine woods or through the beautiful wine region of Vinho Verde. Some stretches are along busy motorways. Traffic is travelling very fast and you have to really pay attention, however it is clearly marked out with large yellow arrows or a scallop shell.
The traditional way of the pilgrim over many centuries is to travel alone by foot carrying all the material possessions you need for the journey. I opted to have my bag transported. The scallop shell with its two values meaning love your neighbour and God above all others was the symbol of the pilgrim and most people proudly display them on their rucksacks.
After completing 21 miles on day one I arrived at Villa Do Conde, a truly beautiful town with the very impressive Convento De Santa Clara built 800 years ago which dominates the landscape and has a remarkable 18th century aqueduct.
The liveliest town on the whole Camino is Barcelos with its many festivals and its famous coloured Cockerel which has become the National symbol of Portugal. The Barcelos Cockerel is based on the miraculous story of the cooked cock that rose from the table of the judge who wrongly condemned a pilgrim to hang. The pilgrim had proclaimed his innocence and stated that if he was wrongly condemned to hang a dead cock would rise from the judge's table in proof of his righteousness. The innocent lad was about to be hanged and sure enough the roasted cock stood up on the judge's table as he was about to sit down to dinner that night. The bewildered judge hurried from his table to find that the pilgrim due on the gallows was saved by St James. One of the delightful sounds on the Camino is the cocks which are nearly in every farmyard crowing.
Part of the Camino goes through Spanish territory and the border crossing is at a place called Tui. The border is half way across the river Mino which has the most beautiful scenery. The largest city on the Camino is Pontevedra where you can visit the tiny chapel called Santuario da Aparicions where our Lady appeared to Sister Lucia the third of the Fatima children on the 10th of December 1928. Sister Lucia died on the 13th February 2005.
In the town of Padron which is 15 miles from Santiago there are many legends associated with St James The Apostle. He is said to have arrived from Jerusalem by boat and the mooring post which the boat carrying him and his fellow Apostles was tied up on the quayside along the river Sur bank can be seen in the Church of St James. After his martyrdom the remains or relics of St James were transported by his followers to Galicia and said to be buried in Santiago.
In order to stay in the pilgrim hostels you must have a Credencial that has been stamped along the way. To apply for a Compostello two stamps must be collected on route each day and as proof that you have walked at least the last 100km. These are available in Churches, hostels and even in bars. Public Pilgrim hostels cost €6 per night for a basic bunk bed in dormitory type accommodation with up to fifty people sleeping in the same room. Private hostels or albergues are also fairly basic and prices vary from €12 to €14 per night.
The hectic pace of modern life means that many more people are drawn to walk these Caminos. Pilgrimage offers us an opportunity to slow down and reflect on the deeper meaning of life and come back refreshed both spiritually and mentally.
Portugal was a joy to walk. Some of the way is through the Vinho Verde wine region. October is harvesting time and farmers were harvesting the grapes by hand. October, I feel, is the perfect time to walk the Camino. If it’s churches you like, all along the Camino there are magnificent churches, richly decorated with gold and gems. Most of them were built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when Spain and Portugal were at the height of their power and a plentiful supply of gold was available from their colonies in South America. My favourite Church was the Santuario Da Peregrina in Pontevedra which is built in the Baroque style to a floor plan of a scallop shell. It is one of the many treasures on the Camino.
Arriving in Santiago with fellow pilgrims met on route is very emotional. On entering into the Cathedral there is a great sense of peace and love. Then all pilgrims ascend the High Altar and the stairs to where there is a huge statue to St James which many people hug and lay their forehead on his broad shoulders. A pilgrim Mass takes place at 12 noon. The swinging of the great incense burner Botafumeiro was originally used to fumigate the sweaty or disease ridden pilgrims. It required six assistants known as Tiraboleiros to swing it.
Next morning I collected my Compostello and beside the office there is a small chapel where you can reflect on your experience. I took the bus back to Porto which is over a four hour journey. Porto is a very vibrant city with a beautiful Cathedral and railway station and a very efficient Metro. Then a well deserved glass of Port and a custard tart in the beautiful art deco Majestic café.
John O Donoghue’s beautiful quotation says it all
At its heart, the journey of each life is a pilgrimage