Northern Portugal

Porto —> Coimbra

The ‘come down’ after finishing the Camino lasted a lot longer than either of us expected. All of a sudden, after having a goal and a ‘purpose’ each day for 35 days, we found ourselves a little bit lost. The Camino provided us with milestones, time frames, something to do everyday and allowed us to concentrate on meeting our basic human needs whilst we took in the beauty of our surroundings.

In Santiago, at the end of our Camino, we were a bit lost in what to do as regular backpackers.

To escape the dreary weather we’d had in the last few weeks, we decided to head straight into Portugal. It was amazing to us that we just had to buy our bus tickets and 5 hours later we would be in another country. We had booked a double room in Porto since it had been over a month of staying in dorms with very little privacy. The hostel was beautiful and right in the centre of the city.

Adam discovered a Porto delicacy called the Franceshina. This heart-attack inducing sandwich consisted of steak, bacon, ham, salami, chorzo, pork fillet, fried egg and two pieces of toast covered in melted cheese and neapolitan sauce. It was a little too much for me so Adam kindly offered to eat half of mine as well.

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The weather, however, was terrible and didn’t appear to have an expiration date. None the less, we persevered and saw all of the sights to see in Porto. It turns out J.K.Rowling was living in Porto when she first started writing Harry Potter and found a lot of inspiration from some of the architecture around Porto. The Majestic cafe and famous Libraria (a book store) were amazing inside and you could definitely ‘see’ some of Hogwarts in the ceiling and decorative statues.

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Portugal is very different to Spain. The first thing we noticed was how much English was spoken. We would attempt to talk to shop owners and waiters in our very poor Portuguese but the conversation would quickly turn to English. We felt a bit spoilt but it also meant that a lot of the everyday language-struggle of being in a foreign country disappeared in Portugal.

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Port-wine tours are a must in Porto. On the other side of the river are countless port-wineries and cellars that do tastings. We started at one of the more famous ones: ‘Taylor’s’ which was a considerable hike up a big hill. The tour was 5 euros and talked us through all of the processes in making port-wine. Who knew there were white ports and ruby ports as well? The tastings were generous (as in most places) and the views over Porto were spectacular.

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Hilariously, Adam and I got a little over-excited by the prospect of tasting port wines all day and visited about 5 wineries/cellars in total. This resulted in a not-so-memorable stumble home to our hostel, followed by a port-induced slumber at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and ending with a two-day hangover. Sadly neither of us know if we will ever be able to drink port wine again.

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In saying that, port wine is delicious (in small quantities) but you should never underestimate the alcohol content.

Next we visited Coimbra – a famous university town south of Porto for a few days. Highlights were the fountain of love which was in a beautiful 14th century garden that an old King devoted to his wife and a Fado concert. Fado is a portuguese type of music involving a singer, a fado guitar and a regular guitar. It was quite impressive.

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Coimbra is a lovely old city. The history there is overwhelmingly rich and there are so many museums and old monuments to visit but the post Camino blues was something we were both finding quite hard to shake. It sounds so silly and we were disappointed in ourselves and our apparent lack of resilience. After all, we were on a once in a lifetime trip, in the middle of Portugal and here we were being sad-sacks. The weather seemed to be dictating our moods and staying in double rooms as opposed to dorms in hostels meant that we weren’t socialising with other travellers. After a few irritable moments, we decided to make some changes starting in Lisbon. We booked two bunks in a dorm room at a ‘party hostel’ and jumped on the bus in search of some sunnier weather.

The End – El Camino de Santiago – Day 31 to 34

Portomarin >>> Palas del Rei (24.8km) >>> Arzua (31km) >>> Pedrouzo (20km) >>> Santigo de Campostela (22km)

= 97.8km (Total: 774.6km)

Our last 4 days on the Camino were full of highs and lows. Jane had been suffering from a bad stomach bug and a very sore back injury that was flaring up again. We weren’t worried about not finishing, we just thought that we might be delayed a few days (if Jane needed it) to recover. But she was a trooper and pulled herself together each morning trying to walk off the pain.

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The weather was terrible, surprise, surprise! We had bouts of snow, hail and of course rain from Portomarin to Pedrouzo. On our way to Pedrouzo, the sky opened up on us for the entire 20km and the wind was almost cyclonic. In one of the little cafes we stopped in the lady told us that we needed make sure we were under cover by 3pm as there was a dangerously strong wind warning on the news. We arrived at our albergue in the nick of time but also completely drenched.

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One amazing thing that happened over our last week on the Camino was that we gained two new walking buddies. Christian the Italian and Laura the Spanish girl we met in Villafranca de Bierzo joined us every day and we enjoyed their company as we walked through the Galician countryside. Every night we would eat together, compare our injuries and get into bed early so we would be ready for the next day of walking. The days started flying by and before we knew it we were 22km away from Santiago.

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Something happened to us in the morning of our last day on the Camino. We woke up feeling like it was Christmas Day and couldn’t start walking soon enough. We ate breakfast at a cafe but were too excited to eat lunch during our walk and only stopped twice over the course of the day. All of our injuries seemed to have magically disappeared and our spirits were very high.

The weather finally decided that we were due for a break from the onslaught of rain and strong winds that we had been enduring over the few days prior. It wasn’t brilliant sunshine, but it might as well have been with the way we were feeling.

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The day flew by. When we reached the town that was 4.5km out of Santiago we couldn’t believe it. On the hill was a beautiful monument devoted to the Camino. We looked down over the city of Santiago hardly believing that it was now only just down the road.

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Walking into Santiago was a blur. We got a little rush of excitement and quickened our pace when we saw the cathedral steeples getting closer and closer. The little cobblestone streets in the old quarter wound round and round like a maze making us a little crazy with anticipation as we neared the church.

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We had finally arrived. We cried, laughed and congratulated each other. It was such a special moment and we relished in it.

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It wasn’t as if there were crowds of people cheering us on or congratulating us on our achievement. The people in Santiago don’t blink an eye when they see pilgrims in the streets. But none of this mattered. We found the little office behind the church where pilgrims go to get their certificate of completion or compostela. They wrote our names in Latin, stamped our pilgrim passports for the last time and handed over our compostelas. It was done.

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I would like to say that we celebrated long into the night. But after a few wines and some tapas we were in bed by ten and were feeling very satisfied with how everything had turned out. The relief of knowing that we wouldn’t have to don our packs and walk again the next morning was enough to send us all into the deepest of sleeps.

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An Italian pilgrim we met the night before we walked into Santiago told us about a large and expensive hotel that would feed pilgrims who had just finished the camino. Apparently they would give free meals to the first ten pilgrims who arrived for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We decided to try this out on our last night in Santiago. It was a wonderful evening. It was raining heavily as we crossed the plaza in front of the church towards the hotel. At the side door a hotel concierge met us and the four other pilgrims who had gathered and led us through the numerous courtyards and corridors before we reached the hotel kitchens.

We were given trays of food which consisted of blanched vegetables, garlic roasted chicken and potatoes with bread, wine, a few slices of fresh bread an a green apple for dessert.

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We dined with the other pilgrims and shared our stories of the camino down in the small pilgrim’s dining room underneath the kitchens.

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Tomorrow we will say a very sad goodbye to Jane who will continue her travels through Spain.

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And Adam and I will board a bus to Portugal in search of our next big adventure.