Sacred Steps: Walking the Camino Portugues 2019
In the summer of 2019, I set out on my first Camino de Santiago pilgrimage along the ancient route from Portugal into Spain to Santiago de Compostela. I chose to walk the Camino Portugues for my first Camino for a number of reasons: the historical connection of the route to the ministry and life of St. James, the relative but not overwhelming popularity of the way would mean opportunities for both solitude and socialization, because the walk is well supported with pilgrim infrastructure such as albergues and cafes along the way, and for the opportunity to experience the Camino in two different countries with their unique flavors, traditions, and languages.
As a bit of background, the Camino Portugués is the second most popular of the recognized Camino routes with nearly 70,000 pilgrims walking this way in 2018. At approximately 380 miles in length, the full path of the Camino Portugues stretches from Lisbon through Porto and into Spain through Tui and Pontevedra. The Portuguese Way is generally divided into two main routes: the more popular and well-supported route through Central Portugal and the Coastal route that roughly follows the coastline of Portugal to the border with Spain. Both routes converge in Spain before entering Santiago de Compostella.
CAMINO PORTUGUES 2019
Vila Nova de Cerviera, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain (140 KM)
Day 1: V.N. Cerviera to Valenca de Minho, Portugal
Day 2: Valenca to O’Porrino, Spain
Day 3: O’Porrino to Redondala, Spain
Day 4: Redondola to Pontevedra, Spain
Day 5: Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis, Spain
Day 6: Caldas de Reis to Munios, Spain
Day 7: Munios to Santiago de Compostela, Spain
SACRED STEPS: A PILGRIM’S JOURNAL
The Camino Portugues 2019
“Let it wash over me. Ready to lose my feet.
Take me on to the place where one reviews life’s mysteries.
Steady on down the line. Lose every sense of time.
Take it all in and wake up that small part of me that day to day I‘m blind to see.
And find how far to Go.
Everybody got their way
We’re just catching and releasing
What builds up throughout the day
And it flows right through your blood
We can tell each other secrets
And remember how to love.” — “Catch and Release” – Matt Simons, 2014
DAY 0: Porto, Portugal to Vila Nova de Cerviera, Portugal (via bus)
Today I arrived in Portugal on the eve of my very first Camino de Santiago. I took a cab to the Se Cathedral in Porto and arrived to find myself completely overwhelmed by emotion. I was overcome by the intense release that comes when dreams and plans give way to reality. The gleam of the stained glass in the western sun. My pack sitting next to my first ever Camino marker. The sound as the stamp was cast in my Camino passport. And the incredible fulfillment of hearing these two words: “Bom Caminho”.
Frankly, this entire experience is overwhelming. Here I am halfway around the world, reliant solely on my own experiences and devices embarking on a journey that I struggle to tangibly relate to even my closest of friends. But it never seemed so in my planning. The knowledge that people have trodden the same path for centuries made the thought of walking it seem somewhat plausible, like something anyone could accomplish if they had thick enough socks and a little too much self-confidence.
So tomorrow I shoulder my pack and set out for Santiago de Compostela. After today, I’m confident only in my plan and looking forward to everything else that I may find along the Way.
DAY 1: Vila Nova de Cerviera, Portugal to Valenca de Minho, Portugal – 19.5 KM
And so I begin. Today I depart upon the Camino de Santiago from Vila Nova de Cerviera, Portugal.
Like my hometown, Vila Nova de Cerveira is a lovely small town overlooking a river. A single bridge separates Portugal from Spain. I journey down the hill from my room to the church just as I did weekly as a boy to take my place on a path both physical and spiritual. I am simultaneously away and remarkably at home.
So it is from this familiar place that I begin my own pilgrimage; one step followed by another and another and another for 100 miles. I carry a few basics within and a shell upon my pack, leaving with all that I am to seek all that I may find.
DAY 2: Valenca de Minho, Portugal to Porrino, Spain – 19.6 KM
A very tough but rewarding day on my Camino, as I crossed over from Portugal into Spain. I need to take (a lot) of time to unfold my emotions, but a few of the day’s notable highlights include hobblestones (perfect word for a centuries-old phenomenon), laying a shell at the cross of San Telmo, and walking the original Roman Road – Via Romana XIX.
DAY 3: Porrino to Redondola, Spain – 16.5 KM
Today was a shorter day – as planned – and much needed due to a stone bruise. No shot at resting it; just tape up and go. 90% of today’s path was on concrete with an 800m increase in elevation followed by a 900m sharp descent on asphalt. Not a good day for the stone bruise! I slalomed down the hills much to the chagrin of a few pilgrims behind me. But all of the concrete was a reminder to enjoy nature!
I’ve met some wonderful pilgrims along the Way. Today I shared lunch with a lovely couple from Canada. I’ve met a father and his two daughters from Texas, an interesting couple from Brazil and many, many Europeans. Invariably our conversations lead to one question: “Why are you walking the Camino?” It is a question that unites diverse people and languages along The Way.
And while my **need** to walk the Camino is very clear, my reason – the why – is less so. I can see a glimpse of my answer at the top of the next hill; its shadow just past the fog on the river; its muffled voice competing with the toll of the bell and sounds of the world and of life itself. Maybe I am seeking it; maybe it is seeking me. For now, I have found comfort in my own lack of clarity.
I hope you find a reason to notice something beautiful today. Buen Camino!
DAY 4: Redondola to Pontevedra, Spain – 20.4 KM
“Why are you walking the Camino de Santiago?” It is a question that unites diverse people and languages along The Way.
And while the need to walk the Camino is very clear to me, the reason – the why – is less so. I can see a glimpse of my answer at the top of the next hill; its voice competing with the toll of the bell and sounds of the world and of life itself. Whatever it is, I have found comfort in my own lack of clarity, knowing that I will recognize it in due time.
Until then, I walk.
DAY 5: Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis, Spain – 21.8 KM
What a day from Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis. It was the day I “feared” – middle of the trek, long and hot, easy to get distracted and make a mistake or – worse yet – hurt yourself. But my fears were once again just something I carried like the weight in my pack – it was a great day.
The highlight was walking through a field and approaching a group of stopped pilgrims. I was tired, the bruises on my foot were almost unbearable. I was pushing on but lamenting how far I had left to go – a tired and hurting pilgrim was I. As I approached, they moved to either side of the trail. As I went through, they started clapping and high-fiving me, saying, “Buen Camino. We are so proud of you!” And I just lost it right there. Tears fell as I walked, high-five and eventually began hugging these pilgrims. I will never be able to thank them for showing me the spirit of pilgrimage but I know that I will never forget this moment.
Regardless of where you are, how you feel, what doubt or burdens you carry – you are never alone. Whatever you are doing, someone is cheering for you. And whatever pains you endure, they are meaningless when measured against your achievement.
DAY 6: Caldas de Reis to Munios, Spain – 25.1 KM
Today’s trek took me from Caldas de Reis to Padron, one of the most significant places in Jacobean history. It was from Padron that St. James began his ministry in Spain and also where his body was returned following his martyrdom.
For me, this was my longest day of my Camino and – luckily – the hottest. I spent much of the day walking alone to reflect. A few hours into the morning, I found a quiet spot beneath a tree to have my apple. It was not particularly impressive or photo-worthy – it was a moment that would be hard to justify to someone else; to explain why, out of all the things I could have done and all the places I could have chosen to be, I had chosen to be there. But the truth is that beneath that tree, I was doing more than ‘seeing’ Portugal, or Spain, or the Camino de Santiago. I was a part of them, the way countless pilgrims before me had been for centuries.
Tomorrow, my Camino takes me to Santiago. It is said that those who make the pilgrimage may make one prayer directly to God in Santiago’s hallowed Cathedral. And with the benefit of time and reflection, I think this is why I have come to walk the Camino.
So tomorrow – Santiago. Buen Camino!
DAY 7: Munios to Santiago de Compostela, Spain – 21.6 KM
Today I arrived in Santiago de Compostela exhausted both physically and emotionally by my Camino. But as I entered the Praza and stood before the Cathedral all of that struggle was lifted away. My family was there to welcome me and support me as they have the entire Way. I kissed Jack and he said, “We want you to go have your moment, Dad.”
I walked to the center of the square, looked up and began crying – pouring out the pains, the fears, the excitement and the sense of completion this journey has given me.
I began my Camino a week ago uncertain. I arrived today as a pilgrim. It is renewing to see so many pilgrims come together in Santiago and they are easy to recognize: they limp and hobble, bandages hiding great pains and they have the biggest smiles, the warmest greetings, and a light in their eyes for everyone. I take great pride in walking the Camino, but that was not what called me to this place. I have met wonderful people along the Way; that was not what called me. I have laughed and cried and leave richer than when I began; that was not my reason.
What I came to know this week is that the reason for my Camino is to offer one prayer of thanks. Eleven years ago aboard a medivac helicopter, I prayed for God to spare my life. Since then, I have been blessed with a richness of experiences: I’ve traveled the world. I’ve met my son. I’ve spent eleven more years growing in love with my wife. I’ve met wonderful friends. Many more gifts than I can count. And I have tried to pay back these “bonus years” in service and spirit but all of it has fallen short.
This past week, I have given my body and soul to the Camino to become a true pilgrim. I have chosen this path of struggle and sacrifice for this day. As I enter the Cathedral and pray I do so humbly and earnestly in hopes that my prayer of thanksgiving may be heard in this venerated place.
Lord, may the shell which I bring to this place be a sign of pilgrimage to Santiago. When I reach my final judgment, pour out my heart and tip the balance of my life in favor of my good deeds. Please forgive my sins and help me to better carry my burdens in life. Amen.
Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. In 2020 and 2021, I’m walking the California Missions Trail in the United States, as well as England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.