Our family are more travellers than pilgrims – long distance ‘cycling across borders’ by preference, raising funds for the worldwide, medical-aid work of Médecins Sans Frontières…
Sintra to Ericeira, 2 April – 27km, 436m climbing
Our Caminho (with wife Elly and ‘gap –year’ son Jordy) began in Sintra near Lisbon, on ex-rental bicycles purchased locally. Pedalling towards the coast, we hit the beach at the picturesque blue-and-white painted, surfing town of Ericeira. With no pre-booked accommodation, we tried the council camping ground. Did they see us coming… “We only have 1 cabin… there is a one-night premium… an Easter Week premium… and a government tax”?!
Ericeira to Obidos, Good Friday 3 April – 65km, 764m climbing
Turning inland, it was one village after another with seemingly unkempt parcels of rock-fenced paddocks between. Past Torres Vedras, it was blue gum plantations and brickworks to a hilltop village with well-located church steps for a picnic lunch. Jordy promptly fell asleep, the church cross above him providing a scene reminiscent of the journey to Calvary! Appropriately, later at Obidos we joined the ‘Stations of the Cross’ procession. The evening was completed by a candlelit, funereal march around the tiny streets, accompanied by a haunting dirge performed by the town’s booming brass band. Unforgettable.
Obidos, 4 April
Caldas de Reinha has a bountiful fruit and veg market, and a serene botanical gardens with Portugal’s first dedicated, but little visited, art gallery housing the works of famous ‘Naturalism’ artist Jose Malhoa, the ‘painter of Portuguese people’. In contrast, the nearby ‘Gardens of Art and Peace’, at a very rich man’s winery, are well touristed. The gardens were commenced after the Taliban destroyed the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. Incensed at the wanton destruction, he recreated the statues, amongst contemporary art installations, vines and cork trees. It is something between tacky theme park and a culture lover’s gift to the masses.
Obidos, Easter Sunday 5 April
Jordy has a theory that after rest days it is hard to get motivated to resume cycling! This day-off was spent at the (monthly) Obidos flea market. There’s some junk about… all over the world!
Obidos to Leiria, 6 April – 69km, 743m climbing
The twist with travel? We temporarily step out of our everyday life, but the clock doesn’t stop and meaningful events occur in absentia. An overnight email informed me my long-ago English teacher had died suddenly. Tearfully, I followed the others past the yellow Caminho arrows, to the famous monastery towns of Alcobaca and Batahla. The former complex is the more impressive to visit: the austere interiors belie the fact the monks led ‘colourful’ lifestyles by the early 1800s when they were sent packing by the disillusioned local community! In nearby Leiria we were also decadent, eating dessert first at a café dedicated to Nutella. Bike-riding food!
Leiria to Coimbra, 7 April—76km, 1054m climbing
An unspectacular sector; we hugged the shoulder of the major arterial IC2, trusting the truckies for a wide berth. With few exceptions Portuguese drivers are considerate on the road. (However, tragically two weeks later 5 walking pilgrims were killed by a car on this section.) After Pombal Jordy mastered his phone internet mapping, so backroads to Conimbriga (‘best Roman ruins’ in Iberia) and Coimbra (stunning university city with miradouro/views).
Coimbra, 8 April
Sightseeing: the Cathedral for the obligatory pilgrim stamps with bonus free entry; the 750 year old university campus which dominates the city with several museums to visit; and, a ‘fado’ concert (a musical style performed by male musicians who are students or ex-students of the university). The trio’s most beautiful song was ‘The Farewell Ballad of the Graduating Law Students of Coimbra 1988/89.’ My university cohort upon graduating in the 1980s only produced a rudely captioned t-shirt!
Coimbra to Sao Joao, 9 April 99km, 1292m climbing
The Caminho northwards is well-marked, and initially gentle cycling though after Agueda the roller-coaster begins. But a delight to ride! For some sections through blue gum plantations it was mountain-biking material, in towns it was road-racing on smooth-running bitumen, and in between some touring on paths following creeks and railways.
Sao Joao to Porto, 10 April 39km, 637m climbing
A leisurely breakfast, flat tyre, steep trail section, views worth stopping for over Porto (Portu) from the Gaia (Gal) side of the river, and stamps at the Cathedral meant a late arrival at our airbnb accommodation. Heeding a recommendation from our host for authentic ‘mountain’ Portuguese cuisine, we ate like monarchs for under $10 a head: soup, sizzling served-at-the-table beef loin, rabbit stew, and pork schnitzel complemented by the ubiquitous Portuguese potatoes and salad. The best value, best tasting food in the country!
Porto, Saturday 11 April
First stop the market – loaves and fishes of a hundred varieties. (Does it all get sold, and what happens to it when it isn’t?) The day’s highlight was sporting – a soccer match between the famous FC Porto and their lesser known Rio Ave neighbours. Security outnumbered the latter’s supporters but a riot was unlikely as the continuous Porto chanting and drums inspired a comfortable win.
Porto, 12 April
The Bolsa Palace, built as the stock exchange in the mid-1800s, is the most visited attraction in northern Portugal. The interiors, fittings and furnishings are superb, especially in the Moorish-styled drawing room. Pictures tell a thousand words here, except they will not translate the three Arabic inscriptions repeated throughout the ornate painted plasterwork: ‘Praise to Allah’, ‘Allah Above All’, and ‘Allah protects the Queen’. In this ultra-Catholic country almost two centuries ago ecumenical tolerance was expressed most vividly. If only we could live it today… God-adherents and non-adherents alike.
Douro River, 13 April
The spectacular train trip to Pinhao follows the broad, winding Douro River upstream through a valley of ancient, terraced vineyards. Elly and I curbed our imbibing to one winery; we have yet to be informed what Jordy likes less than wine-tasting, but evidently there is “only one thing”?!
Porto to Barcelos, 14 April – 86km, 915m climbing
All seemed perfect on our 55km run up the inland Caminho to Barcelos, but when we ticked over the 55km we were 20km away… on the coastal route. Beware! We followed the yellow arrows diligently, and our overpriced, useless Caminho map, but the annoyance was brief as the mainly off-road path had been enjoyable, picturesque, and of easy-moderate difficulty. Rural landscape sounds and smells dominated: silage-making, timber harvesting… and tractors outnumbered walking pilgrims.
Braga and Barcelos, 15 April
Braga spacious and clean with a heavy dollop of upmarket shops… for a university town. The architecture is great, covers all periods, and there are lots of attractions – but for some reason it didn’t grab us. But Barcelos did – especially the town statue of its mascot cockerel.
Barcelos to Tui, 16 April – 81km, 947m climbing
The centuries old, Barcelos Thursday market transforms the town square into densely-packed stalls selling everything from composting crickets to clothes, from pet parrots to produce. A local told us that over generations, families buy from the same seller’s passed-down stall. The Caminho to Ponte de Lima is a lovely mix of brook-side and forest trail, and village streets. From there we chose the main road towards Tui; a 5km slow climb to begin, with roadside entertainment of granite stonemasons crafting sculptures and ornaments. OH&S wasn’t a priority the artisan injury-rate must be high? Cold and drizzly in the afternoon, we were pleased to arrive to our Tui albergia.
Tui to Santiago, 17 April – 117km, 883m climbing
Arrived Santiago with beaming smiles, after eight hours of cycling and absolutely soaking wet. Again the trail was appealing, but occasionally we took to the main road to move more quickly, and not scare quite so many pilgrim walkers as we cycled up behind them! The rain held off until the last 10km – then we were bucketed on. It was some welcome to town… and the Cathedral Square. Immediately registering at the Pilgrims’ Office, we obtained our certificates of completion (see photo), ticking ‘spiritual’ as our purpose rather than ‘religious’ or ‘tourist’. Total km ridden = 661; Total m climbing = 7661.Would we do it again? Yes, tomorrow! A wise pilgrim anonymously scribbled on a wall on the outskirts of Santiago: “Life is a journey; travelling lives it twice”.
Santiago de Compostela, Saturday 18 April The midday Pilgrims’ Mass at the Cathedral was in Spanish, though we understood the warning not to take photos or video! ‘Nodding off’ during the sermon was probably taking the Spanish siesta practice a bit too far? But it was a recovery day, before our Camino travelling continued… to Arles in France…