Home Again

Jump to first day of Caminho Português

It’s difficult to get from Santiago to New Jersey.  Nothing is direct (bus to Braga, bus to Porto, train to Lisbon, plane to U.S.) so I knew before I went to sleep that today was going to be a long day.

Yeah…that’s an understatement.

The less said about this day and the next the better.  Let’s leave it at:

  • Fevers all night
  • Bus breakdown
  • Can’t think of polite euphemism, so let’s just say: side effects of what I later found out was dysentery
  • Missed connection due to storms
  • Hotel room given away by someone who didn’t understand the principle of a credit card hold, entailing a 1.5 mile walk at 10:00 p.m. with…you got it…side effects dysentery
  • Plane flight spent in sleeping bag on galley floor, shaking with chills, while nice doctor man from first class doled out fluids…when I wasn’t in the head, of course

170+ miles of villages, drinking water out of fountains, and all it takes is one cafe in the big city to take me out.

Thank goodness it happened once the journey was all done because I can still count the trip an unqualified success.  Dirk sent me this picture after we got home.  In a way I can’t really explain and makes no sense, it is my Camino…

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…although I laugh when I realize that, while I have my compostela in my left thigh pocket, the shape of my right one tells me I’ve still got my Brierley in it even though I wouldn’t be looking at it again.

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The Chapter of this Holy Apostolic Metropolitan Cathedral of St. James, custodian of the seal of St. James’ Altar, to all faithful and pilgrims who come from everywhere over the world as an act of devotion, under vow or promise to the Apostle’s Tomb, our Patron and Protector of Spain, witnesses in the sight of all who read this document, that: Mr Tad Alan Deffler has visited devoutly this Sacred Church in a religious sense.

Witness whereof I hand this document over to him, authenticated by the seal of this Sacred Church.

Given in St. James de Compostela on the day 04 month May A.D. 2014

Segundo L. Pérez López

Dean of the S.A.M.I. Cathedral of Santiago

Valença to Porriño

Jump to first day of Caminho Português

I was up and out early, heading down to the river.  Leaving the fortress was the only point on my entire camino where I actually considered digging out my headlamp.  The tunnel under the walls was dark to start with but then it started a series of switchbacks that cut off all but the faintest glimmers of light.  Had it been just 50 feet longer, I think I’d have taken the pack off and started rummaging for illumination before I smashed my nose into a wall.  You can barely see down to the first turn here, and that’s with the camera adjusting the exposure to make it seem like daylight…rather than the crack of dawn with the sun not actually in the sky yet:

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Once out of the fortress it was a quick walk down through the town to the bridge to Tui. Halfway across, the Rio Minho became the Rio Miño…and bom caminho became buen camino or, more properly, bo camiño as they speak Galician in preference to Castilian Spanish in these parts.  Apparently, the previous evening was a party night as I had more than one encounter with a group of inebriated fellows insisting that I give them cigarettes.  It seemed to baffle them that I didn’t smoke.

Aside from them, Tui looked like a fascinating town.  I could see why Marcia wanted to take a rest day here.  I was particularly struck by the communal laundry areas.  Later in the trip, I saw one with women gathered around, scrubbing their clothes on the slanted stones.  However, despite the appeal of a look around, I felt I needed to keep moving.  For some reason, it seemed important to get back to walking and take my mind off the fact that I was, once again, walking alone.

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I basically had to make a choice between making up my day by pushing all the way to Redondela (32-ish kilometers) or doing it later in the trip.   Since the first 17 km were going to be a long, hard slog on pavement through industrial areas (or so I thought) I chose the latter.  I’d stay in Porriño and move on to Redondela the next day.  Making up for lost time could occur at the end.

However, to my pleasant surprise, a Friends of the Camino group had built a number of detours around some of that industrial area.  The detours added 5+ kms to the trip, but allowed me to walk through forest paths and alongside small streams.

Not everyone was happy about the detours, though.  There were a number of false waymarks directing pilgrims off the track, particularly around Orbenlle.  Supposedly, merchants bypassed by the detour were trying to get pilgrims connected back to the original route. We had been warned about these and I didn’t get taken in by any of the false ones.  However, early in the day I did think that a real waymark done with an unusual shade of paint was a fake one and ended up taking a wrong path for quite a ways.  By the time I realized my mistake, I was high on a railroad bridge looking down at the real path below.  Rather than backtrack, a fellow pilgrim and I tossed our packs over the fence, scaled up and over, and then slid down through the nettles and pricker bushes to rejoin the way.  A few scratches didn’t detract from an otherwise nice day.

And, in fact, the good things weren’t over.  Literally at the door of the excellent albergue in Porriño I ran into Dirk from Belgium.  We had see each other off and on but he, too, was walking alone, having left his previous companion, Jürgen Lazarus (what a surname for an 80 year old man walking the camino!), from Germany behind.

And then, about an hour later, I hear, “Shhh! Shhh! Don’t say anything,” and Dirk starts laughing.  Peering around to see what was going on, I was stunned.  There’s Judy!

“I really started having fun when you joined us, Tad.  After an hour of trailing around Tui behind Marcia and Craig and not being content, I said, ‘I have to go’ and they didn’t see me for dust.”

The trio that would walk into Santiago together was set.  Great day, indeed!

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São Roque to Valença

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Marcia felt a little better, so she and Craig sent their packs ahead by taxi and she decided to walk.  The morning brought some of the nicest walking we’ve encountered so far: nice dirt path cut through the woods with the sound of water never too far away.  The rain also started breaking up, which was welcome.

 

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In another of those moments where you encounter something unexpected, we walked by a house in a small village where they were raising exotic birds…peacocks, macaws and I don’t even know what this one is.

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By late morning, the forest paths turned to pavement as we walked through villages and small towns.  At one point, I sat down to take a short break and suddenly a new friend sat down beside me.  Judy walked up shortly thereafter and caught the picture.

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The cobbled roads of the villages gave way to the asphalt of Valença.  This town is right on the Minho River and was the first line of defense against Galicia.  The albergue for the evening was located inside the walls of the old fortress, along with a little market area where every shop sold exactly the same things: linens.

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It was pretty cool to walk through the old fortifications and see the evidence of a functioning fortress from medieval times side by side with modernity.   You’d be walking through the gate used by cars and see asphalt under your feet and signal lights on the wall, yet look up and and you see meurtrières (murder holes) for pouring boiling oil down on your attackers and the walls lined with apertures for peppering them with arrows.

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Since it’s a popular tourist destination, there were plenty of sidewalk cafes where we had a pleasant dinner and beer.  I said my goodbyes as I would probably be up and out before the others in the morning.  Judy, especially, made a point of saying she wished we could continue to walk together but, circumstances being what they were, hopefully we’d run into each other again someday.

I wasn’t happy at the thought of going back to walking alone and, since most days we only saw one or two other pilgrims, I thought that might be the rest of my journey.  However, time pressures aside, I realized that the highly-social walking with regular cafe stops wasn’t what I needed. I didn’t want to have to hold up my end of a conversation all the time.  Moreover, I didn’t really want to listen to someone else all the time, especially telling stories about a lot of people I didn’t know.

What I wanted was to talk occasionally about the experience we were having, talk even less occasionally about things important in our lives, and most of all, spend time just being on the Camino and thinking about things it was opportunity to think about.  I was much happier having my bit of bread and cheese sitting on a rock wall beside the trail than I was doing so in some cafe.

I really did have this sense that everyone walks their own camino and I didn’t mind that Marcia and Craig wanted to walk theirs a certain way.  However, in what was a rather stunning departure from my normal martyr complex, I realized the “everyone” included me.  I needed to walk my own camino and that meant that, truthfully, I needed to move on even if I ended up being a bit alone.  I would miss Judy because I had begun to sense that she shared my viewpoint, at least to some tiny extent.  However, I understo0d her situation.

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Ponte de Lima to São Roque

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Marcia woke up with a lot of pain in her shin and decided to taxi to the next stop.  The Brierley stage would have gone to Rubiães but we were a little concerned about the bicyclists:  the albergue in Rubiães was only 34 beds and we had used 58 the night before.  So, we decided to stop just short in the town of São Roque, which had both pensions and a new albergue.  Marcia would go ahead and find a place with room and then sit out front to flag us down as we walked by.

It was another rainy day and the muddy paths were turning to flooded paths.  Sometimes we had to cut out into farmers’ fields.  Sometimes we walked along the tops of the walls next to the paths that were a six inches under water.  Sometimes we just had to hop from stone to stone, very glad we had trekking sticks as extra balance points as those who didn’t ended up with wet feet.

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We started to enter the hills that Brierley warned us about and there was very little level ground for the next few hours.  For some reason, this day we encountered a fair bit of livestock on the road, farmers with their cows…

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…and their sheep.

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It made me think of Ireland.

The highest point of the day was the Alto de Portela Grande.  It wasn’t the actual altitude that made it a tough spot—only 405 meters up—but how steep it was.  The path became a literal climb as people stowed their poles and used their hands to pull themselves up.  For the most part, the cyclists took a different route over the hill but we did run into Andrea from Slovenia the next day and she said she slung her bike on her back and climbed it, a bit to her regret later.

We had a nice break at the top.  We found a large rock to sit on.  The boots came off and lunch came out.  Lucy from Sweden came by shortly after and joined us.  She was an architecture student and had convinced the faculty that a walk through Portugal “studying the buildings” was quite the thing to do.  We saw her off and on for a couple days but she was a slower walker and we gradually lost track of her.

The hills and our different walking paces strung us out quite a bit after that.  This made Craig pretty unhappy.  “I like to talk,” he told us and, so, Judy and I made a point of staying at some rest points long enough for him to join us and we all walked into São Roque together and stayed the night in a pension that Marcia picked out. The room was freezing cold but the proprietor did wash all our laundry for us!

I had thought about things a bit during the day’s walk and told the others that I’d be leaving them the day after tomorrow.  Not only couldn’t I afford the layover they were planning in Valença/Tui, but I needed to complete Tui to Santiago in one less day than they had planned.

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Lugar do Corgo to Ponte de Lima

Jump to first day of Caminho Português

The morning dawned rainy and chilly and we spent the morning walking mostly muddy paths.  Here are Marcia and Craig as the day began.

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Most of the day was spent walking through farmers’ fields and quiet little villages.  Every once in a while there would be this moment when you’d see something you just didn’t expect, like this shrine to St. James someone had built into the wall along a little lane for tractors.

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We walked as we did the day before: after a short period, Judy and I began to pull ahead, separated from each other by a few minutes.  When we’d stop for a break we’d all reunite and talk for a bit and then gradually separate once we started again.  I don’t think this was the Shavers’ preference, especially because, as the day progressed, Judy and I ended so far ahead that only the two of us would be together at a stop.  However, for me, part of the experience was simply to “be there” and soak in what was happening without distractions of conversation.

Judy caught a shot of me sporting my gaiters…quite stylish with the shorts, I think.

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It was a short day, only 15 km or so before we began to enter the outskirts of the ancient town of Ponte de Lima and saw the millennia-old Roman bridge leading across the Lima River.

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I was definitely beginning to feel a bit of concern about my overall schedule.  The other three were leaving Europe several days after I was and could afford the short days of walking.  I knew I’d have to look at a calendar soon and decide what I needed to do, especially since I knew Marcia had planned a rest day for the group in Tui, which was only a couple of days away.

The albergue was in an old building in the center of town that had been remodeled.  This was the only washing machine I saw on the entire journey…or did I see it?

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The place was quite nice and quite crowded.  It was the start of the weekend and large groups of cyclists were setting out toward Santiago.  It was a 60 bed albergue and I think we ended up with 58 of them filled.  It was also one of the noisiest places.  Not only were the mattresses covered in plastic, which rustled a lot as people tossed and turned, but we had quite the symphony of snorers.  I was near Craig, Dirk and Brazilian Guy (I never did get his name despite seeing him for days).  Craig had a loud, irregular snore.  Dirk had a loud snore, period.  Brazilian Guy had the deepest snore I’ve ever heard in my life.

I asked Judy if my snoring was a problem and she just laughed, “Just loud breathing really, not even a snore.”

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Barcelinhos to Lugar do Corgo

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We woke up to rain and the forecast was that we’d have it off and on all day.  Judy constructed a pair of gators for herself out of a garbage bag and duct tape.  These would become standard wear for all of us in the coming days.  I almost wish I had kept mine; some day these are going to be fashion chic and I would have been able to say I had a Judy Howard original.

Marcia sent me this picture—it’s actually taken the next day when we were setting out for Ponte de Lima—of us rocking our rainwear.  Quite stylish, no?

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At one point, we found a family taking the saying, “make hay while the sun shines,” quite literally during a brief break in the rain.  The gentlemen on the left was funny:  as soon as he saw us with cameras he straightened up and stood stiffly the entire time.  Meanwhile, his wife and kids kept gathering.

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Looking back, today was the start of me finding my own camino rhythm.  Around mid-morning I realized that I wanted to walk along just in the silence of my thoughts and so I pushed ahead a bit and put some distance between the others and myself.  After a couple of hours, Judy pulled up beside me but was also content to walk in silence.

One of the things is that you find yourself passing through these tiny villages whose names you don’t know and, therefore, that don’t serve well as milestones.  We started through one such village, thinking we still had a few kilometers to go, when Judy and I suddenly found ourselves at a sign for Casa da Fernanda, our destination for the evening.

There’s a lot written on the Web about this welcoming haven on the Caminho Português and I won’t repeat it here.  I’ll only say that it was, hands down, the highlight of the trip for me in terms of hospitality and generosity.  Raingear whisked away, cold beer pressed into my hand, comfortable beds with wool blankets, laughter, and food…more food that you could shake a stick at:  grilled sardines, home fries, salad from the garden with vinagrette, home-made vinho verde and bread…and that was just lunch.  Three hours later: pork medallions in paprika, fresh green beans, cheese made by the neighbor, chorizo made by the grandmother, an entirely different salad picked moments before, more homemade bread, more vinho verde and vinho rojo (the Rodrigueses make 10,000 liters of wine a year from their vineyard), port wine, homemade limoncello.  All eaten with Fernanda, Jacinto and their daughter, Mariana, in their kitchen.

If you walk this camino, take a break there regardless of whether it fits into nice stages for you.  Make sure that you ask Fernanda how she got started at taking pilgrims into her house; the answer will bring a lump to your throat.

The four of us had the nine bed bunkhouse to ourselves.  The only other guests that night were a pair of Finnish women who were definitely of the glass-half-empty mindset.  They arrived complaining of Portugal, the rain, the temperature, the walk, the food.  “It’s no good,” was their mantra.  The next day they left complaining about Portugal, the rain, the temperature, the walk, and the small leak they saw in the corner of their room.  Fernanda had taken one look at them and had them bunk out on a glassed-in sleeping porch, telling us, “You just take the bunkhouse for yourselves and don’t be disturbed.”  Funny, we saw them days later in Santiago and they were still complaining.

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São Pedro de Rates to Barcelinhos

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And we started on at the streak of dawn; but God! [w]e looked ghastly pale.”  We weren’t Sam McGee, but it was airless and noisy in the room the night before and the guy in the bunk above me had tossed and turned all night.  We were tired but game.

The promised rain showed up, making for some great rainbows and a bit cooler hiking.

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We didn’t make particularly good time but we didn’t need to.  Marcia and Craig had originally decided we should stay in Barcelos, which was only 16 km away right across the Cávado River.  However, after seeing how many people got turned away from the albergue in S. Pedro de Rates, we started wondering if we should stay with the masses or try to get out of step with them.  When we learned that there was a major, noisy festival in Barcelos that night, the decision got made to stop in Barcelinhos just on the near side of the river.  However, that made our day just 13 km.  I had thought we might try doing it the other way, pushing beyond Barcelos to the albergue at Alto da Portela another 10 km away, but the sights of Barcelos beckoned.  This was the start of some time pressure for me in later days.

The short day made for a fun evening.  We weren’t footsore at all.  The albergue was one of the best and uncrowded.  We could walk across the river into Barcelos in five minutes to see the sights and enjoy delicious farturas (fried dough covered in powdered sugar and cinnamon).  Then we could walk back and watch the fireworks before going to sleep in relative silence.

We had a great meal in Barcelos at a tiny restaurant staffed by an ardent patriot who extolled all things Portuguese (in general) and from Braga District (in specific).  He plied us with samples of food and drink to try.  I particularly loved the chorizo that was heated over a ceramic bowl filled with flaming agua ardiente (firewater), a kind of grappa made locally.

On the walk back I did a double-take on a phone booth.  What do you do with these dinosaurs in the age of cell phones?  Self-service library, of course.

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I met Dirk from Belgium that night, who was to become a walking companion later in the trip.  Half of the bottom of his foot was a single, giant blister.  Ouch!

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Vila do Conde to São Pedro de Rates

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Coming out of a bakery early in the morning, I ran into Marcia & Craig from Seattle and Judy from Grafton, Australia.  I asked if they would mind if I walked with them.  They didn’t and, immediately, the day felt a bit brighter.  Marcia and Judy had walked part of the Via de la Plata together and had decided to do the Portuguese.  They had been in-country for a couple of weeks walking through the Douro valley before starting their camino in Lisbon.  However, a couple of days walking through the Lisbon industrial parks convinced them that Porto was a better starting point and they moved up north.  At that point, Craig freed up from work and had flown over to walk with them.

Our journey up to rejoin the waymarked route around Arcos progressed in spurts.  I needed sunblock badly.  Marcia’s feet were a mass of blisters that needed a little care.  Craig had picked up some serious chaffing in the manly regions and needed to keep ointment on them.  Only Judy seemed unfazed.  Still, we had fun chatting as we walked along.  The road surface was almost entirely cobblestone and, by that afternoon, I had re-christened the Caminho Português as the Caminho dos Paralelos…the Cobblestone Camino.

As we moved inland, the valleys began to open up and the scenery was quite beautiful.  Older iPhones don’t make the best cameras, but:

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We saw no other pilgrims until we reached S. Pedro de Rates.  Our route had joined the main route about 4 km back and pilgrims trickled in all evening until, finally, the albergue filled completely and they started turning people away.

My first albergue.  Only a single set of communal showers at this place, so men and women took shifts.  I learned what was to become my invariable routine:

  • Shower
  • Wash clothes and get them out in the sun as fast as possible
  • Get off my feet for a half hour while everyone else does the same
  • Track down a place to buy some food for tomorrow morning

I learned that premium laundry line space is more valuable than gold.  I learned that the gym shorts I brought to sleep in were a waste of weight as albergue etiquette just had men moving to and from the bathrooms in boxer briefs.  I learned that I was very glad I put together the permethrin-coated silk sheet as the mattresses and pillows were disgusting pretty much everyone…by far the worst of the trip.

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Porto to Vila do Conde

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If anyone asks me if one should walk the alternate coastal route out of Porto, I would not hesitate to say yes. By all accounts I’ve heard, the slog on the waymarked route through the industrial parks alongside fast-moving traffic is no picnic.  Some folks I met later used public transportation to get past this part and started at Maia; they said that wasn’t too bad.  However, the coastal walk is quite beautiful and, despite a shortage of waymarkings, simple to follow:  Atlantic on left.

If anyone asks me if you should walk from the cathedral to start that route, I probably would say, “Only if it’s really important to you.”  It’s a lot of pavement and adds somewhere around 10 kilometers onto what is going to be a long day with no good bail out options.  Further, 90% of those kilometers are through parts of the city that simply aren’t very attractive.  I think the Metro or bus to Matosinhos station and then a symbolic start over the drawbridge crossing the Leça River is the way to go and what I’d do if there was a next time.

This was a good day and a bad day.  It’s was certainly good because it was Day #1 and I was excited.  It was also good because the sun was shining and the scenery was dazzling.  This is the Black Coast.  Until a lighthouse was finally built, it was a major source of shipwrecks in Europe.  However, regardless of the hazard it might seem if you were in a boat, for the walker, it was great!

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One thing that surprised me was the beaches.  In New Jersey, every beach that is even remotely nice is cheek-by-jowl full of vacation properties.  Here, I saw miles of really nice beaches and they were either empty or covered with the equipment and debris (and odor!) of fishing.  That really brought home the economic gap between the two places.

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For a few hours in the morning, the walk was along springy boardwalks that the town had built over the dunes.  They felt great on my feet and made navigation simple. Matosinhos has spent a lot of time and effort trying to preserve the dunes and they’ve put up plaques explaining the wildlife and plants you see along the way.

About halfway through the day, around Labruge, the boardwalks ended and the paths turned to cobblestone.  These are hard on the feet (I’ll have more to say on this in coming days) and I was starting to feel the the sunburn on my neck because I was an idiot and forgot sunblock and there were no mercados.  I was tired.  By the time I got to the start of the 2.5 km slog across the sand leading to Árvore, I was a lot less enthusiastic than I had been a few hours previously.

The real thing dampening my spirits, however, was that I was completely alone.  I didn’t see a single pilgrim this entire day of walking…not even one.  Nor a single waymark.  Nor hear a single “bom caminho” from the few local people I passed.  I had this vision from my sister’s stories of the Camino Francés and this wasn’t matching up.  Looking back, I shouldn’t have expected it to but, at the time, I did.  It was only the fact that I knew I was 5 or 6 kms from the day’s end that kept me putting one foot in front of the other.

There’s no albergue in Vila do Conde, so I stayed in a hostel, Hospedaria O Manco D’Areia.  Perfectly adequate; nothing special.   The manager seemed rather offended that I had gotten a stamp at the tourist office and really wanted me to take his advice to walk the highways rather than byways for distance reasons but, since he had never walked a camino, I didn’t feel too impelled to do so.

I had dinner with a couple from the U.S. who were trying to figure out when to start a camino.  Their primary criterion was finding a period when no rain was in the forecast and they had some dire comments about what I was facing. *shrug* Everyone walks their own camino and I was tired, so I just smiled and headed off to bed…hoping tomorrow would bring a bit more “camino” to everything.

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Newark to Lisbon to Porto…

Mostly just a travel day: a plane from Newark to Lisbon and then a subway from the airport to the Oriente train station.  The airport really isn’t a very nice part of the city.  What I could see was grimy and industrial.

From Oriente the three hour train ride was okay up to Porto, the town that gave Portugal and Port wine their names.  The train was nice but a lot of the route was through those same industrial-looking landscapes, rather than the river valleys I had hoped for.  However, after a switch and a couple subway stops beyond the regular train terminus, I found myself in Porto’s historic center, a few blocks from Porto Cathedral and a couple more to my hotel.  I checked in quickly and then walked around a bit on my way over to the cathedral to get my first carimbo (a stamp in English, a sello once I got into Spain) in my credencial, or pilgrim’s passport.

This part of the city sits right down on the Douro River.  The buildings were colorful, either with paint because they were covered in ceramic tile.  I was told that this was done hundreds of years ago to prevent the Atlantic weather from eroding the old, softer cement of that era.  The dark blue building, second from the left, is covered that way.

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Many of the streets were narrow and winding and even the houses left gray became colorful in the evening light.

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I love the simple weathered stone of the outsides of the Portuguese churches and the cathedral was no exception.   However, as seems the norm for me in European churches, the insides are so gaudy that I find them unattractive.  Here’s where it all starts.

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I also had my first bowl of the wonderful potato and cabbage-based vegetable soup that I would come to love, sopo legumes, and forced myself to stay awake until 8:30.  Finally, I hit the sack, nervous about Day #1 of walking.

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