Pilgrims’ progress: the Portuguese camino

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


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.

In the garden at dusk, on a rickety homemade barbecue with a car number plate (09-82-PZ), Abel rustled up delicious fresh grilled sardines, grilled peppers, salad, bread and cheese, all washed down with Graham’s port.

The best part was the laughter and the chat with him and Alzira and with Irma, an Italian woman whose prospective husband was walking the Camino del Norte along Spain’s northern coast.

We retired, embraced by the magic of the camino, ready for the walking.

The Portuguese camino north from Oporto isn’t very pleasant, it has to be said, at least not initially. There’s a lot of hard footpath and cobble-paved road and it takes a while (about 17 km) for the countryside to assert itself.

Also noticeable was the comparative absence of manifestations of faith – most of the churches were closed, one did not keep coming across monasteries or convents or other places associated with St James and all the rich history, much of it pre-Christian, associated with the main camino, the Camino Frances from the Pyrenees across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

For a pilgrimage route, this absence surprised me and, as a semi-detached Protestant, it surprised me that I missed it so much and wanted it to be there.

But there were glorious wooded walks, shaded glades with sparkling streams, whose waters twinkled the more as they flow over granite stones and sand; farming communities where life revolved around the dictates of mixed produce – dairy cattle, chickens and pigs; fields of maize and beans necklaced by arcades of vines, and vegetable plots, all well tilled and producing most, if not all, of a family’s needs.

Much of the camino follows the path of the Via Romano XVI, as evidenced by 2,000-year-old flag paving and steeply-arched bridges, erected on already well-trodden paths but improved by the Romans so their legions might conquer and subdue Hispania.

And there is pleasure in town after town – Barcelos, Ponte de Lima, Valença and Pontevedra – places of no great size but each clearly cherished byinhabitants (medieval buildings and bridges, and public spaces all spruce and well-maintained) aware of their heritage.

The closer one comes to Santiago, the more one feels the presence of James. One of the less-visited gems of Padrón, a small town on the river Ulla, just in from the Galician coast and about 30km from Santiago, is the Santiaguiño do Monte.

About a kilometre off the camino and up a steep climb of stairs that is apparently sufficient to deter many pilgrims, there stands a cross atop a mound of boulders.

It was from here, legend has it, that James first preached Christianity on his arrival from Jerusalem shortly after the death of Christ.

And it was to here, also according to legend, that his body was returned after his beheading in AD 44.

The mooring post, to which the boat that brought him back for secret burial was attached at dock, now lies beneath the altar of the Iglesia de Santiago y Padrón which stands in the lee of the Monte.

People place coins onto the top of the stone stump. When we dropped in, fresh from visiting the Monte, a young woman was prostrate before it, tightly hugging her knees when bent forward, clasping her hands in front of her breast, rigid as if her life depended on it, each time she rose to face the stone.

She was in great emotional distress, sobbing and whispering prayers.

A few minutes later, we saw her walking with a spring in her step down a sunlit street, her skirt billowing behind her. She looked pretty, and as though she hadn’t a care in the world.

How to ... camino Portugués

Get there: Peter and Natasha Murtagh flew from Dublin to Oporto with Ryanair (ryanair.com) on May 31st for €157 and on June 12th from Santiago de Compostela to Dublin with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) for €180.

Stay: On the camino, they averaged 26km a day and stayed in pilgrim hostels, each costing €6 a night for a dormitory bunk bed. Most were municipal, new and excellently run. Most cafés and restaurants en route cater for pilgrims, with evening meals for about €10.

For a one-night break at the end of their camino, they took a bus from Santiago to Finisterre and stayed in the Mariquito hotel/hostel by the harbour in a twin room for €36 (hostalmariquito.es).

Abel’s pilgrim refúgio in Oporto is at 264 Rua Vasco Santana in the suburb of Senhora da Hora, about 4km from the city centre and 1km from the camino.

Tel: +351-960-227134; viaportuscale.wix.com/ viaportuscale

Peter and Natasha Murtagh are co-authors of Buen Camino! A father, daughter journey from Croagh Patrick to Santiago de Compostela (Gill & Macmillan, 2011)

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