Almost exactly a year ago, my mom and I set off on a landmark adventure in both our lives: Tackling 240km of the Camino Portugues.
We shouldered our backpacks and laced up our boots in the Portuguese city of Porto and only really unburdened ourselves at our end destination in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Prior to our departure, I couldn’t find too much relevant information on the internet, so in an effort to help future pilgrims on their way, I thought I’d put together a practical and comprehensive guide to the Camino Portugues.
History and traditions of Camino de Santiago
Known as the Way of St James in English, the Camino de Santiago Compostela was one of the most important Catholic pilgrimage routes during the middle ages. Along with those to Rome and Jerusalem, pilgrims could achieve plenary indulgence (removal of all punishment due for sins) on completion.
It comprises a network of routes that converge on the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in north-western Spain.
While it has always featured in the Catholic canon, it’s garnered major secular interest over the past century or so, drawing people of all creeds, cultures and walks of life.
READ: A different way to experience Italy: The Way of St Francis
Why Saint James?
It is said that when Christ’s apostles divided the known world into zones for the purpose of preaching the Gospel far and wide, Saint James the Great was sent to the Iberian Peninsula. He spent a number of years preaching there, concentrating on the area of Galicia, and then eventually returned to Jerusalem.
Here, he was beheaded by Herod Agrippa I in 44 AD. Somehow his remains found their way back to Galicia - where he had managed to establish a following of devoted believers - and were buried in a small shrine. Many centuries later, the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral was built around his shrine.
When you start doing research about the Camino de Santiago, you will soon discover that there are two symbols that are synonymous with this pilgrimage route: a scallop shell and a yellow arrow.
Now, there are various myths and legends surrounding the significance of the scallop shell – including the perfectly-preserved body of Saint James washing ashore in a scallop shell after the ship it was being transported in from Jerusalem had perished in a storm. The most reasonable explanation, however, is the fact that in the first few centuries of establishing The Way, pilgrims would walk beyond Santiago de Compostela all the way to the coast, ending up at Finisterre (the end of the earth). Here, they would pick a scallop shell off the shore to take home as proof of the completion of their journey. These days, you will see pilgrim’s walking with scallop shells attached to their bags or worn around their necks from the very start of their walk.
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The yellow arrow, on the other hand, is a relatively recent and very practical means of wayfinding. Up until the 1970s, the Camino de Santiago had no signposts to direct pilgrims on their way – they simply followed in the footsteps of those that went ahead of them.
As The Way started gaining more widespread popularity in the twentieth century, however, the need for some sort of signage was identified. The parish priest in the Galician town of O Cebreiro took it upon himself to tackle this mammoth task, marking the entire Camino Frances with yellow arrows pointing in the direction of Santiago de Compostela. There is no mystical reason behind the choice of colour, he merely picked it for the brightness.
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Although the Camino Frances (the French Way) is by far the most popular, there are actually many paths that lead to Santiago de Compostela.
Currently, there are eight major routes and several smaller ones:
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Why choose the Portuguese Way?
Due to the popularity of the French Way, it tends to get crowded, especially during peak season (June – September). Which could detract from the reason why most people want to do the Camino in the first place: finding some inner peace and maybe a bit of solitude.
Among the many roads that lead to Santiago, we found ourselves drawn to the far less famous Camino Portugues.
Although the route technically starts in Lisbon, most pilgrims set off from the charming riverside city of Porto, which we did too. This makes for a roughly 240km journey, which is also a lot more attainable for those who have limited leave and/or pressing commitments back home.
Apart from this, we were also both keen to explore and experience some of the Portuguese culture, cuisine and countryside.
Camino Portugues routes
The Camino Portugues itself is split into two routes – the Central and the Coastal Way.
We opted to do a combination. For the first two days, we followed the yellow arrows and scallop shell etchings along seaside boardwalks from Matosinhos (just outside Porto) to the popular resort town of Vila do Conde. A stiff breeze accompanied us all the way, which seemed to aggravate the heavy loads on our backs.
Fortunately, this seemed to dissipate as we cut inland toward Barcelos and stuck to the Central Route for the remainder of our two-week journey.
Most pilgrims complete the Camino Portugues in 10 days, but since my mom and I had set aside three weeks for the entire trip, we decided to give ourselves a full 14 days.
Apart from being easier on our legs, feet, backs and shoulders, it also enabled us to enjoy the process more.
Best time to go
As I mentioned earlier, the peak time for the Camino de Santiago is definitely during the European summer months, with May to September being the most popular.
We wanted to avoid some of the crowds as well as the heat, so opted for late September. This really worked out well for us, as we enjoyed some wonderful interactions with fellow pilgrims, but never felt crowded or smothered.
As for the weather, it was mild throughout, with the exceptions of one or two scorching days and another two or so of cold and rain.
Going any time between late October and early April isn’t advisable, as it tends to be cold, wet and miserable. Not ideal conditions for walking by any means!
Getting ready for the Camino
I’ve always been pretty laid-back with preparing for travels, but soon realised that doing any one of the Caminos calls for some serious prep if you want to enjoy the experience, avoid injuries, save time and even save some money.
Here are the things you need to have in place before you leave:
If you’re travelling on a South African passport, you are going to need to apply for a Schengen Visa. The best would be to work through the embassy/consulate of the country that will serve as your point of entry.
We applied through the Portuguese consulate in Cape Town. They get booked up pretty quickly, so be sure to make your appointment well in advance. Despite the fact that they have to send your passport all the way to their embassy in Pretoria, their turnaround time is pretty quick and you should have yours back within 10 days.
Before going for your appointment, do ensure that you have all the documents required:
- Application form
- Passport valid for 6 months beyond your date of return
- A recent passport photo
- Return flights from Portugal to South Africa
- Proof of pre-paid accommodation. As a pilgrim, you probably won’t have this, but you will receive a letter of recommendation from the Confraternity of St James.
- Proof of sufficient funds (+/- R700 per day)
- Travel insurance
- Cash to pay for your visa
SEE: UK, US and Australia visa costs: What South Africans can expect to pay in 2018
- Pilgrim passport & letter
In order to be considered an official pilgrim, you need to register with the Confraternity of St James of South Africa (CSJSA) for a fee of R100. For a further R100, you will also receive your Pilgrim passport/credential which allows you entry into albergues (hostels for pilgrims) and gets stamped throughout your journey in order to receive your certificate of completion at the end.
Apart from getting a pilgrim passport, the CSJSA’s visa letter is hugely valuable in your application process, especially if you have no pre-booked accommodation.
While I don’t think you can ever be 100% ready for a multi-day pilgrimage on foot, there are a few ways you can prepare yourself slightly:
- Speak to people who’ve done it
A few weeks before setting out on the Camino Portugues, I sat down to do some online research. I typed ‘Guide to the Camino Portugues’ into Google and got an overwhelming list of results. Despite this, not even one could really answer all my questions at once. I think I spent about half-an-hour clicking on various links and then just closed all the tabs and never went back.
Fortunately, my mom had friends who had done it a year before and they were eager to share their first-hand knowledge with us. In retrospect, their tips and general guidance were by far our most important resource.
If you don’t now anyone who’s done it, you’re welcome to pop me an email with questions or ask the CSJSA for some advice.
- Get your hands on John Brierly’s guide
If ever there were an expert on the Camino de Santiago and all its routes, it would undoubtedly be Irish chartered surveyor-turned-pilgrim-and-author John Brierley.
We relied heavily on his Guide to the Camino Portugues for important information regarding albergues, routes and interesting attractions to check out along the way.
- Download the Wise Pilgrim app
While my mom was the keeper of Brierly’s book, I bought and downloaded the Wise Pilgrim app as a complementary guide. This worked really well, as the app had more recent information than the book we were using, but didn’t necessarily share as much of the history and significance of the towns, cities and areas we were walking through.
You can find it on Apple and Android.
Since you won’t have the luxury of accommodation to return to or a rental car with boot space, packing effectively is of the utmost importance. And since you will, basically, have nothing more than the bag on your back, the clothes on your body and the shoes on your feet, having the correct gear is absolutely essential.
Here are a few important things to keep in mind:
- You don’t want a huge backpack that tempts you to fill it up with stuff. Look for one that’s under 50 litres. (Mine was 35 litres and worked perfectly)
- Once packed, your bag shouldn’t exceed 10% of your body weight. This is really tough! We didn’t actually manage to stick to this.
- Wear your most comfortable walking shoes. While a well-worn pair of hiking boots work really well (that’s what I wore), I saw many pilgrims in ‘tekkies’ that swore by choosing them over hiking boots.
- You really don’t need a lot of clothes. Having two pairs of pants, three shirts, a week’s worth of underwear, at least three pairs of socks, a light-weight rain jacket, a sun hat and a pair of sandals/slops is more than enough.
- If you don’t have light-weight luggage organisers, use zip lock bags to divide the contents of your bag sensibly. This really helps cut down time that would be spent rummaging through your backpack for that one shy sock! I know we’re trying to cut down on plastic, but listen, I’m STILL using some of those bags today, a year later.
And a few essentials to pack:
- Muscle relaxing rub
- Magnesium pills (helps minimise muscle pain)
- Anti-inflammatory pills
- A water bottle
- Very light-weight sleeping bag
- Sleeping bag inner for extra warmth and to keep your sleeping bag clean
- Micro-fibre towel (very important!)
- Insect repellent (especially if you’re going at the height of summer)
- Light rain jacket
A vague route you plan to follow
Even though the way is marked clearly with yellow arrows these days, it’s important to have an idea of the towns you’ll be heading through and where you’d like to overnight.
To be honest, we only did this in our Porto Airbnb room where we spent one night before setting out on our pilgrimage.
The Wise Pilgrim app came in very handy for this, as it gives you distances between towns/cities and information about albergues, restaurants, shops and other attractions.
Beautiful Portugal:Take a detour to 3 of the country's lesser-known towns
While on the Camino Portugues
Where to stay
If you want to keep your budget in mind, municipal albergues are by far your best bet. They charge around €7 per night and work on a first come, first served basis. There is no pre-booking, which can be quite stressful in peak season. Also keep in mind that most are very rudimentary - you will be in a full-on hostel setup with bunk beds and strangers snoring right next to you.
If you have more leeway with money, you can pre-book private albergues on Booking.com as you go. These tend to be smaller and slightly more luxurious, with bedding, towels and some privacy. We did this for the last few days of our journey, as a few of the Ways converged in Galicia, Spain.
A few of my favourite albergues we stayed in include:
Restaurants all along the way offer special meals for pilgrims at discounted prices. These would normally include either a starter or desert; a wholesome (but plain) main with meat, veggies and rice; and a glass of wine. They normally go for about €8.
While we had one or two of these, my mom and I enjoyed preparing our own simple meals more. We’d find the local shop (Mercado), stock up on some cheese, bread, a meat of sorts, a tomato or two, some fruit and two beers/a bottle of wine and enjoy it somewhere scenic. This would also normally work out cheaper than the pilgrim meal even!
Getting rid of baggage
In a beautiful reflection of the soul-work that happens on the Camino de Santiago, sometimes you find yourself wanting to shed some of the heavy physical burden on your back.
By the time we reached Tui, the first town in Spain, my mom and I were desperate to lighten our loads.
Fortunately we found out about Tuitrans that offers a slackpacking service to pilgrims. We didn’t want to shrug off our backpacks entirely, however, and were happy to find out that they also offer a once-off baggage transport service to Santiago.
We bought a big blanket bag and stuffed some of the items we had discovered to be unnecessary in there and sent it off to our end destination for a fee of about €20.
While walking the Camino de Santiago, you are sure to become rather adept at handwashing socks and underwear out of necessity. However, many of the albergues do also offer washing machines and tumble dryers, which come in really useful every three days or so.
Meeting other pilgrims
One of the great joys of the Camino de Santiago is the interactions you have with other pilgrims.
The official pilgrim greeting is ‘Buen Camino’ and while it feels a little odd at first, it will start rolling off the tongue as you go along.
We met many Germans and Americans, some Canadians, a lovely Ukrainian couple, a sweet French group (yes, some French people can be sweet!) and even a trio of South African gentlemen!
What I discovered about the Camino is that no one lands there by accident. Everyone has something they’d like to work through – the kinds of aches only very long walks can heal.
Apart from the pilgrims, you will also meet kind and accommodating locals all along the way! One farmer we encountered was busy transporting a whole tractor load of grapes and when he saw us, stopped and invited us to help ourselves to a bunch off the back.
You will also find that many families have little refreshment stations for pilgrims outside their homes with water, sweets and a shady spot to sit.
If you aren’t looking to do a complete digital detox while walking the Camino Portugues and want to share some of your experiences with friends and family at home, the good news is that most albergues, restaurants, coffee shops offer free wifi.
You can also opt to buy a Vodafone sim card on arrival in Portugal, which will offer you connectivity at all times.
Keeping a journal
Strangely, I’m normally quite bad at documenting my travels, but with the Camino I kept notes almost every day. There’s just so much magic that you won’t want to forget.
On the very first day of our walk, my mom’s phone fell in the toilet and I think her heart broke just a little bit at the thought of not being able to snap shots as she walked. She did use my phone on the odd occasion, but it’s not the same. So, if you’re afraid of something like this happening, you might want to take a lightweight camera along, because, truly it’s just too beautiful not to capture!
I, on the other hand, had decided to take an old film camera along as part of my commitment to being a bit more mindful. I wore it around my neck throughout, which wasn’t always the most comfortable, but my shots came out more perfectly than I could have imagined and I’ll treasure them forever!
In Santiago de Compostela
Walking into Santiago de Compostela can bring either an overwhelming flood of emotions or something of an anti-climatic sense of relief. It really depends on the mood you’re in on the day.
However, once you reach the end point of your pilgrimage, there are a few things you should do to mark the momentous occasion and experience this beautiful old Spanish city to the full
Spend some time soaking in the moment on the square
Plaza del Obradoiro marks the end to most pilgrims’ Camino. This square is located in front of the Santiago de Compostela cathedral and offers a magnificent view of the impressive architecture.
Because it’s the spot where pilgrims from all the different Camino Ways converge, there’s an incredibly special energy to it and definitely warrants a good half-an-hour (minimum) of soaking it in.
Go on a tour of the cathedral, attend mass, hug Saint James
Once you’ve admired it from outside, you simply must experience the cathedral’s even more majestic interior. It’s open from 07:00 to 20:30 every day and there are two opportunities to partake in Pilgrim Mass every day – 12:00 and again at 19:30. It’s very popular among pilgrims, so arrive early to get a seat.
While in the cathedral, one of the age old traditions among pilgrims is to climb the stairs to the altar and hug (from behind) the gilded statue of St James that presides over it. John Brierley encourages pilgrims to whisper what it is that brought them onto The Way into the Saint’s ear. By sharing your original intention with him, you place a sacred seal of sorts on your journey.
Get your Compostela
To officially end your Camino de Santiago, you need to visit the Pilgrim’s Office and pick up your Compostela aka certificate of completion.
In order to receive one of these, you would have had to complete at least 100km on foot or 200km on bicycle, ending at the Santiago Compostela Cathedral.
In order to prove that you have complied with these rules, you need to present your pilgrim passport with all the stamps you collected along the way. If you are only doing the last 100km, you need to collect two stamps per day.
As you can imagine, it tends to get quite busy at the Pilgrim’s Office and a queue forms relatively quickly. You have one of two choices: either make peace with the fact that you’ll be waiting a while or you can arrive super early (before they open at 08:00) to be one of the first in line.
Explore the city – drink hot chocolate!!!
Now that you’ve ticked off all your Camino must-do’s, it’s time to explore the city – it’s full of interesting plazas, statues and architecture, but also restaurants, eateries and gift shops.
One of my biggest highlights of the entire trip, was sitting down to drink the thickest, creamiest, chocolatiest hot chocolates of my life at a little café on a rainy day. Seriously, there’s nowhere in the world you’ll get hot chocolate like this!
Head back to Porto/Lisbon by bus
If you’re flying out of Portugal again, like we did, the best way to return to your city of departure in by bus. The ticket office is quite conveniently located right next door to the Pilgrim Office.
Basic cost estimate per person:
Flights: R7 800 on Taag
Gear: +/- R3000 (backpack, towel, sleeping bag, sleeping bag inner)
CSJSA membership: R100
Pilgrim passport: R100
John Brierley book: R365
Wise Pilgrim app: R80
Albergue accommodation: +/- €130 (R2 147 - we spent about half the time in municipal albergues and the other half in pre-booked ones which were slightly more expensive)
Food: +/- €7/day (R116/day). So about €100 (R1 650) for 14 days. Coffee, beer, wine, cheese, bread and yoghurt are generally priced comparably to South Africa (in some cases, a lot less), while vegetables, fruit and meat tended to be a bit more expensive.
Bus back to Porto: €34 (R561)
In total: R16 754