Pilgrims’ progress: the Portuguese camino

The Portuguese camino takes a while to get into its stride, but it’s worth it

Sat, Aug 2, 2014, 01:00

The Portuguese camino has a way of revealing its secrets unhurriedly. Running from Oporto to Santiago, 240km to the north, it takes a while for this particular walk to get into its stride.

From the vantage point of an office desk and computer in Dublin, the Refúgio de Peregrinos Senhora da Hora appeared to be exactly what was required for a late Saturday night arrival in the capital of northern Portugal. A few weeks later, however, with the clock ticking towards midnight, standing outside what appeared to be a disused, steel shuttered and utterly abandoned garage, the choice of bed for our first night didn’t seem like such a good idea after all.

The man with his dog who led my daughter Natasha and me through the dimly lit street, past the suburban flat blocks, vacant lots and overflowing wheelie bins assured us that this was indeed the pilgrim hostel.

A phone call (suggested by the number scrawled on the gatepost) and a further 10 minutes’ wait confirmed he was correct when along bumbled roly-poly Abel, a dead ringer for Danny de Vito – full of bonhomie and, more importantly, in possession of the keys that would effect entry.

Inside, the apparently abandoned garage (and garage it once was) turned out to be a clean, bright, well-maintained and fully furnished pilgrim hostel, or refúgio, kitted out with all mod-cons and run by camino devotee Abel and his wife Alzira.

“Signs?” said Abel, as though an extraordinary suggestion had been made. “I don’t need signs. The real pilgrims will find me without signs, just like you did.”

Beds secured, rucksacks offloaded, and it was back down the road, to the inviting cafe-cum-bar beside the metro station for a well-earned (and very much desired) cold beer.

Abel invited himself along too.

Where were we from? Why the camino? Ireland! He wanted to know all about Ireland, he said, insisting that he pay for the beer and nibbles. Most of all he wanted to explain why he, an electrical engineer in his late 40s with grown up children, had given it all up to run his camino pilgrim hostel.

“Stay two nights!” he insisted. “Tomorrow, you go to the cathedral and the Ribeira. And then I cook you sardines and we eat together.”

And so after a good night’s sleep and a day lazily exploring the Sunday delights of Oporto and her Ribeira (an uncomfortable amalgam of slum homes and chi-chi restaurants tumbling down to the Douro where we napped in the sunshine on the grass outside the riverside rows of caves do vinho do Porto), we ambled back to our garage.

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