The idea to walk the St. James Way was always in my plans for someday, someday when I had a month or more to spare and the desire to spend every day in scorching heat walking on my own. The St. James Way has gained in popularity over the last years, especially in Germany after a book entitled “Ich bin dann mal weg” which loosely translates to “I’m off then” by a German comedian hit the shelves. After some research and accepting the fact that I was not fit enough to walk for six straight weeks, I decided to take the slightly less travelled Camino Portugues from Porto to Santiago. This route only takes around two weeks to walk and is better suited for beginners – being flatter and shadier than the Camino Frances.
It takes you along the coast, along sandy dunes and seaside villages, along shady vineyards and historical towns you’d probably never visit on a normal trip. You get to see rural Portugal and Galicia.
A friend also decided to join me, which technically defeats the purpose of the Camino, but I was very glad she did because the miles would have been dull without her. Anyone else taking the road alone can be assured of meeting people on the way, if he/she doesn’t want to walk alone. We only walked by ourselves 50% of the time.
Starting the Journey
So, on the first day we got up at the crack of dawn, shouldered our backpacks and set off. When leaving Porto, you need to make a decision if you want to walk the historically correct route or the one along the coast. The “real” route leads north out of Porto through boring industrial areas and suburbs. I firmly recommend taking the coastal route that leads you from the heart of Porto along the Douro river and to the coast. It offers stunning views across the Atlantic and the cool ocean breeze is a relief in summer months. Almost the whole way has been laid out for Camino walkers on a wooden path, so it’s hard to loose your way.
After leaving the centre of Porto behind us, we walked for a few hours along beach front holiday homes and hotels. It’s a little scary to actually start the walk. I was afraid I’d just be exhausted or fed up after an hour. But that isn’t the case, once you’ve flown all that way, bought the gear and find your stride, you just walk and don’t look back. It was fortunate that my friend and I have the same pace – because both walking slower or faster than you would on your own is tiring.
Matoshinos – Lavra/Labruge
On the way, you reach a tourist centre in Matoshinos next to a moving statue of women crying out to the sea. It was created in memory of a tragic storm hitting four fishing trawlers in 1947, killing 152 fishermen while their wives and children could only watch from the beach.
Around here it’s probably necessary to take out your guidebook because you are walking through the town and the way isn’t clearly marked. After another couple hours, we started to leave Porto and it’s suburbs behind us. We hit the wooden walkway, which welcomed us to the Camino de Santiago. After walking the whole morning, we were glad to find proof we were on the right way. A couple of people started to wish us a “Bom Cominho”.
The first night we stayed on a campsite between Lavra and Labruge in these hostel-type tents. It wasn’t an offical Camino Portugues Auberge, so we had to pay 10€ for the night (if I recall correctly), instead of the 5€ you spend in one of the St. James Way Auberges. It was worth it though, because on the first day we wouldn’t have made it much further anyway.
Lavra to Rates – Wayside drinking and a lot of farmland
Our goal for the second day was to reach Rates, 24km away from Lavra, where we had set off that morning. The next day continued along the same beautiful coastline. We stopped on our way in Villa do Conde for lunch. In a lot of places along the way, you can have a meal consisting of salad or soup, a main course (usually fish of some kind) and a coffee for 5€, if you show the café your Camino stamp book.
Vila do Conde itself has quite a few historical sites, the first one being the huge Santa Clara Monastery from the 1300s. You can’t miss it when you walk into town, it stands massive on the side of a hill looking over the ocean. It also has a roman viaduct that still stands as it did back in the day:
We left Vila do Conde by lunchtime and left it with renewed energy, buzzing from the rush of sugar and caffeine. The Camino Portugues now took us inland on rural paths, mostly under the boiling sun, or for brief stretches through shady woods and villages. In Rates the coastal detour meets the direct, “real” St. James Way and continues north to the border.
Before reaching Rates, we had a bit of a low moment when all of our water ran out and we just lay at the side of the road in a patch of shade. We must’ve looked pretty feeble, because a Portuguese man took pity on us and invited us into his house to fill our water bottles. His wife offered us chips, salami and beer, so we stayed for almost two hours. We left tipsy and a lot happier about continuing.
(my friend happily swigging the beer)
I was so exhausted after the second day, I didn’t take any pictures in Rates. We arrived just as the sun was setting, so it was dark before we got to the Albergue. It’s a lovely hostel though, it has a pretty courtyard and a part of it has been converted into a museum with old farming equipment and other historical artefacts from Rates. Because we arrived late and left early, we never got the chance to go in so I can only say what I saw through the large glass doors leading into the museum.
I’ve added a photo from the Rates Roman Church (from wiki), so that you can get an idea of the place. Rates is really small, only one pub/bar was open for us to get some dinner, but the area around the church is pretty.
If you’re still with me and interested in continuing the story, here is Part 2.