Solo or No?

Being both the Queen of the Dumb Question and the Queen of Ridiculous Theories About Everything, my most recent camino – the Caminho Portugués – gave me the perfect opportunity to empirically test my latest theory, “that I can walk solo across a foreign country for an extended period of time AND enjoy it”. Hardly a ground-breaking theory but, being the off-the-scale chatterbox/extrovert that I am, it could prove to be way out of my comfort zone.

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A special piece of original Roman road on the Caminho Portuguese

I have come to the pursuit of long distance walking late in life so maybe it has been a bit of a vagabond mid-life crisis. In 2013 I walked the Camino Frances – from St Jean Pied de Port in southern France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain – with my husband. I had visions of marital bonding over deep and meaningful conversations with The Brave Man* but did not plan for the fact that we walk at completely different speeds so we spent very little time actually walking together. Or maybe he walked extra fast on purpose to avoid the aforementioned conversations?

In 2014 I walked the Camino Via de la Plata – from Seville in southern Spain back up to Santiago – with a lovely Canadian couple I met on the previous walk. This walk was long – over 1000km – and yet we managed to navigate any slight differences of opinion and remained firm friends at the end of the 41 days of dust, sweat, blisters, rain and stunning scenery.

When I was contemplating another camino, I was inspired by the Australian author, Ailsa Piper and her book, Sinning Across Spain. She walked solo to Santiago, all the way from Granada in the very south of Spain, and I figured that this might also be a good challenge for me. With my need for constant chatter and feedback from another, could I walk a camino solo?

DSCF4977The short answer is – Yes.

Naturally 660km gave me plenty of time to think and reflect on everything from the role of religion in society to the need for new socks, the lack of public toilets, and the crippling nature of cobblestones. It also gave me time to consider whether solo walking was for me, and I progressively developed a list of pros and cons.

Pros:

  • Ultimate Flexibility. Walking solo means you can start when you want, stop when you want and do whatever you damn-well please even if that means smelling and photographing every flower from Lisbon to Spain.
  • The Quiet. My mind wanders and I am able to follow every random thought down every rabbit hole for minutes or hours on end.
  • The Quiet. Allows me to tread gently and to enjoy the local fauna such as lime green lizards, snakes and a large and loud bullfrog chorus.
  • Being Present. I think walking solo allows you to be more ‘present’ in the moment. That may sound a bit wafty, but I did my best to simply absorb my surrounds and appreciate what I was seeing and experiencing. Not having to worry about anyone else meant I could just focus on the ‘now’ and what was in front of me. It is a difficult thing to do when our lifestyles/society expect us to be constantly on the move to the next ‘thing’.

DSCF5135Cons:

  • Sharing the Good Times. Unfortunately walking solo meant that I had no one to share the beautiful sunrise, the gorgeous blooms or the singing frogs with. A few times I did say out loud, “Wow, look at that!”, but it lost its impact when there was no one there to respond.
  • Sharing the Challenging Moments. Going solo meant it was completely up to me to navigate maps, find missing arrows and translate questionable directions. Two heads are always better than one (well, almost always), even if it just to share the blame of an unplanned ‘detour’. Two heads or four eyes are also better at spotting tricky arrows that insist on hiding in bushes and up trees, or fading to nothingness.
  • Taking Risks. If I had walked with someone, I would have felt a bit braver about taking that detour or exploring an appealing path. The Coastal route took me inland 90% of the time. If I had walked with someone else, perhaps I would have been more game to explore paths right next to the sea.
  • Sharing the Load. Walking with others means it is not just my responsibility to find somewhere to eat, sleep, shop and wash my clothes. The simple logistics of living in a foreign country can get a tad tiring after a while.
  • Eating. I am not a foodie so I was happy to snack and graze. I suspect I would have eaten more and better if I had been travelling with someone else. Then there is also the issue of dining out at a table-for-one with a very large ‘L’ for loser on my forehead.
  • Sleeping. A single room is ALWAYS more expensive than a double or twin room on a per person basis.
  • Safety and Security. I am a tough bird but I know people at home were concerned for my safety as I set out on my own. I am sensible and didn’t take risks, but there were lots of raised eyes and furrowed brows amongst family and friends.

So, overall? Yes, I enjoyed it and it was a memorable experience.

Would I walk solo again? Yes, I would if I had to but it would not be my first choice. As mentioned previously I am an extrovert and I love interacting and sharing with others. The fact that my walking day started early – usually around 5.45am – meant that all the sane people were still fast asleep and I walked the majority of the day on my own. The early starts maximised the cool temperatures and the gorgeous sunrises, but on the downside, I was a lone figure in the dawn landscape.DSCF5175.JPG

Hmmmm, maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all………..

 

May/June 2016

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

 

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Porto Woos and Wins A Heart

I am a country girl at heart and an urban landscape has to be pretty special to hold my interest and attention. Porto, in northern Portugal, has not only captured my heart but it has carried it away.

It seemed to take forever to walk into the centre of the city. The Camhino Portugués, and its yellow arrows, took us through the Porto suburbs for hours but even in the outlying areas there was a subtle buzz. The hubble bubble reached a crescendo as my walking companions and I arrived at the spectacular steel bridge that connects Gaia on the southern side of the River Douro and Porto proper. We all uttered a clichéd ‘WOW’ and proceeded to snap far too many photos – just like all the other tourists.

Porto is a city of around 230 000 people and is an effective blend of the old and new. The centre of Porto is classified as World Heritage but there is room for innovation via graffiti art, murals and quirky sculpture. Porto is home to two particularly famous graffiti artists who are now contracted to complete murals on behalf of business and the community.

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A sample of Porto’s street art.

Maybe this is something we could be doing in Australia to harness the creative energy of taggers and other graffiti ‘vandals’?

You would think that when I arrive in a city I would have had enough of walking for a while but, after a little rest, I always try to join a walking tour. In Porto I signed up for the free walking tour. I love the initiative of the guides and you pay/tip what you think the tour is worth. Unfailingly their love of history and passion for their city is infectious and guarantees an enjoyable and value-for-money four hours.

My chosen walking tour really ticked off the highlights of this magical city. The old vs new contrast was showcased by the shopping centre UNDER the garden – Jardim da Cordoaria. The shopping centre is a three layer affair – underground carpark, split level shops and then a spacious garden and park built on the roof of the centre, complete with 50 year old olive trees. A clever use of space generally but the inclusion of green space is even more important in my book.

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A McDonalds like no other.

Another ‘new’ aspect was the McDonalds in the centre of town. Not that I am a McDonalds fan – however they have set up home in a glorious art deco café BUT they are not allowed to change a thing on or in the building. Picture a McDonalds with chandeliers and expanses of stained glass – trés chic even for a fast food outlet.

Porto is a very popular short-break destination and on the walking tour there were English, Polish, German and French tourists. I met a young Lithuanian cardiologist and GP couple, and did my best to recruit them to move to Mudgee! You can’t blame me for trying.

The old railway station is a hive of activity as visitors come and go but the station is a tourist attraction in itself. The foyer is covered with 20 000 hand-painted tiles telling the story of Portugal’s history as well as the development of transport in the country. Definitely worth a visit even if you aren’t going anywhere.

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The foyer of the main Porto railway station.

The tour continued through the old city back to the bridge that I originally walked over into Porto. The bridge itself has many stories, and interestingly it was designed by Gustave Eiffel’s company – yes, of Eiffel Tower fame.

We progressively wended our way through tiny back streets to arrive at the River Douro (River of Gold). Love it or hate it, this is probably the most touristy part of the city complete with multiple buskers and touts trying to lure tourists into their cafés and restaurants with promises of authentic Portuguese fare. This area – called Ribeira – has a vibrancy that needs to be seen and experienced to be believed. A constant flow of people, boats, music and hawkers. This is the main hop on/off point for river cruises – something I didn’t get time to do – and it would have been a picturesque way to fill in a couple of hours and get a different perspective on the city.

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Ribeira area

I am kicking myself but I also didn’t get time to visit any of the port wine lodges that fill the southern banks of the river. Obviously Porto gets its name from this historic and prolific industry, but the port lodges are actually located in the town (now suburb) of Vila Nova da Gaia, opposite Porto itself. It would be possible to spend days exploring the many different port lodges if you had the time and the stamina, but this will have to wait for my return trip.

My all-time highlight of the visit was the Livraria Lello book shop. I am a book nut from way back but this store is definitely worth the €3 entry fee. It is ranked in the top 10 most beautiful book stores in the world and JK Rowling supposedly based the library at Hogwarts on its interior. Established in 1906, it features sweeping timber staircases, floor to ceiling book shelves, and elaborate wood paneling and balustrades. It is possible to enjoy a coffee on the top floor but I was happy just to sit and be surrounded by the decadent abundance of literature. Yep, I am a book geek, but I believe there are worse vices.

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My photos simply do not do justice to this amazing book store!

My rest days in Porto were over all too soon and if I had my time again I would have allowed at least three full days to truly absorb all that the city has to offer. What I did plan well was my accommodation at Sao Bento Apartments – convenient, comfortable and private. Just what I needed after sharing rooms with 35 other pilgrims and their nocturnal noises for the previous 10 days.

Porto has converted this country girl and it continues to call my name.

 

May 2016

Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Portuguese, purchase it from Book Depository

Stopping to Smell the Roses

As I flew into Lisbon (a day late and without my backpack…..but that is a WHOLE different blog post) I was dazzled by the blanket of green on the horizon. In my jetlag fog I had forgotten that it was Spring in Portugal.

When researching each camino I spend a bit of time on a comprehensive web forum where passionate walkers share their experience and knowledge of all the different caminos. It seemed that walking the Caminho Portugués in Spring was a popular option, so I thought I would give it a whirl. My two previous caminos were in Autumn so subconsciously I was expecting a golden landscape – not such lushness. I quickly got myself into the new mindset and adjusted to damp, grey skies.DSCF4716.JPG

Yes, my wet weather gear got a bit of a workout but this was a small price to pay for a green vista in every direction. There was such abundant growth that at times I struggled to follow the dirt paths, especially when the path was only about 40cm wide and the grass was up to my waist. It is hard to manoeuvre walking poles through such groundcover and it dramatically reduces their usefulness. In the end I just had to hold the poles up high and hope one of my two left feet didn’t trip up. I also thanked my lucky stars I was walking in Spring before the snakes got busy or the chance of bushfire dramatically increased. I understand both are common throughout Portugal.

The apparently unseasonal wet weather, which I struck when I started out from Lisbon, meant that streams and rivers were high and busy gurgling away. It seemed that every turn in the path revealed another perfect photo opportunity – water streaming over rocks with an ancient stone bridge and shady trees forming a picturesque arch. A photographer’s paradise.

DSCF5048.JPGThe rivers and creeks were fed by streams of water oozing out of the hillside, forming spontaneous waterfalls but also quagmires. There were times when I literally had to head to the scrub to circumvent the path that was either now a mud bath or a foot deep under water.

As I walked this camino solo, I decided very early on that I would take my time and stop whenever I damn-well pleased. So, I was conscious to savour every breathtaking view and allow myself time to stop and smell the roses – as the old cliché says. I may have looked a bit silly sticking my nose into every rose I saw – and there were many of them – but I wanted to absorb all the beauty that surrounded me every day.

Coming from drought-stricken Australia, it was a luxury to walk amongst fields of scarlet poppies and brilliant yellow daisies – all growing naturally. Wild roses twined their way through roadside trees and draped over stone walls, and Arum lilies were as big as dinner plates.DSCF4859.JPG

My sense of smell was rewarded on a daily basis with wild honeysuckle, jasmine and lavender sending out their signature scents. You can’t imagine what a pick-me-up it is at the end of a tiring day to be engulfed by their heady perfumes. It was the perfect distraction from aching shoulders and tired legs.

The Portuguese are dedicated gardeners on both a large and small scale. For days I walked through tomato, capsicum and corn farms as well as amongst grapevines as far as the eye could see. While I am very used to grapevines in Mudgee, there is something extra special about walking through vineyards at sunrise when the dew is still fresh on the young tendrils.

The backyard gardeners love their vegetable patches, flowers, potted plants and a diverse range of questionable garden ornaments. I imagine most of these are tended by older people, as the majority of towns and villages are empty of people under the age of 60. It was not uncommon to walk past fields and yards where old people were down on their hands and knees with a hand scythe trying to tame the Spring growth.DSCF4828.JPG

It would be interesting to find out if this gardening obsession is driven by tradition, habit or necessity. I learnt that in Portugal, 60% of the population has an average monthly income of only €520! Any home grown produce must be a useful addition to the housekeeping budget.

As well as the abundant flora, animals and insects were prolific. One morning I was walking and heard ahead the most almighty racket. I slowed and walked quietly to peer over a rock wall. There were 11 of the largest, fattest frogs sitting on the edge of a tank, croaking their hearts out. Such a happy sound, and it made me smile.

DSCF4997.JPGI also enjoyed watching the lime green lizards that were common on the Coastal route. They weren’t camera shy at all and were happy to be observed as they sunned themselves. I became quite the naturalist!

Springtime in Portugal was a feast for the eyes, ears and nose and a totally enjoyable experience. Not that a lot of what I saw was unique, but to spend days walking through such beauty made for a truly memorable camino.

May 2016

Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Portuguese, purchase it from Book Depository

Camhino Portugués – Top Ten Tips!

It is difficult to distill all that I saw and experienced in 23 days in Portugal down to 1 000 words, so I thought I would attempt to capture the essence of the walk in ten dot points. It’s not a definitive list and I’m sure there will be many tips that occur to me after I hit the submit button – but here we go:DSCF4762

1. Be thin before you arrive!: Portugal, unlike Spain, has a delicious range of cake shops or pastelaria. It is possible to eat your body weight in cakes – especially pastel de nata – every day! You will be walking every day so I think this gives you the perfect excuse to sample all the delights the cake shops and cafes have to offer. All in the name of research, of course!

2. Take good shoes/boots: I estimate that over 80% of the walk is on hard surfaces, i.e. tarred roads, edges of highways and kilometres and kilometres of mongrel cobblestones. Even the smallest, remotest village has wall-to-wall cobblestones underfoot and this becomes a special kind of torture at the end of the day when legs, feet and ankles are already tired and sore.

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The blue boot points south to Fatima and the yellow points north to Santiago.

3. Friendly locals: you will find the Portuguese people unfailingly friendly and welcoming. A word of warning when asking directions. Be prepared for a long and loud stream of Portuguese with much finger pointing and arm waving. All to help you of course, but it can be a bit overwhelming when you only pick up every 50th word! Then the neighbours join in and give their 50c-worth of alternative routes and it becomes quite the community debate. Often I found that after this long conversation the person would insist on walking with me, grabbing my arm to lead me along, to ensure I got back on track. Very caring and nice to experience in this day and age when few people have time for strangers. (I did return the favour one day when I helped an old lady muster her sheep by using my walking poles to corral the recalcitrant sheep down the road! But that’s another story.)

4. Dogs: while the humans are super-friendly, Portuguese dogs would like to have you for breakfast. The security-conscious Portuguese all have bored, frustrated and very angry dogs of all shapes and sizes to protect their properties. While these are mostly behind locked gates and fences, it is still off-putting to be assaulted by a cacophony of barks and growls as you creep by. Then there are the packs of roaming dogs. They certainly give you pause but I quickly learned to use one walking pole as a prodder/barrier and then raise the other as if ready to strike. The dogs soon got the message and I walked on unharmed…but always with one wary eye checking behind me.

5. Plan rest days wisely: I am kicking myself that I didn’t allow more flexibility in my schedule to stay longer in a few places. I had rest days in Coimbra and Porto which were interesting and enjoyable, but I would have loved a rest day in Tomar to immerse myself in the Knights Templar history of the town. A couple of extra days in Porto could also have been easily filled with the sights and sounds and beverages of that amazing city. I would consider an extra day too in Valença/Tui on the border of Portugal/Spain. Its walled cities and cathedrals were worthwhile exploring.

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A lovely vista on the Coastal Route

6. Consider the Coastal Route: I only walked 5 days on the Coastal route and was kicking myself (again) that I didn’t allow time to walk the rest of the route from A Guardia up to Rendondela (along the Spanish coast). The sea breezes, port cities, and the lonely cry of a seagull, made for a completely different camino experience for this chick from the bush. The terrain was interesting with a smattering of Roman roads, and the route was well-marked and relatively free of crowds.

7. Calls of Nature: in contrast to Spain, public toilets do exist in Portugal and can be quite plentiful in some places. Unfortunately nine times out of ten, they are locked! Be prepared to dive into the bushes if nature calls but choose your location carefully. Beware of:

  • Blackberry bushes and their thorny brambles that will snag socks, clothing and anything else exposed to the elements.
  • Stinging nettles that hide themselves in the above-mentioned blackberry bushes
  • Unsuspecting locals wandering by.
  • Preferably choose a spot where mint grows wild. Your very own ‘open air’ air freshener.

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    No – I didn’t have to wade through this but it was marked as an option on my map.

8. Weather: prepare for everything. I guess springtime can be rather unpredictable but be ready for weather of all sorts. There are few fountains, or few with potable water, so ensure you carry water with you. Sunscreen is vital. It can also get pretty windy and there were a few days I did Marilyn Monroe imitations with a billowing poncho – rather undermining its effectiveness. Needless to say there was NOTHING else remotely Monroesque about me during the entire walk!

9. Be Bilingual: it is quite a culture shock to walk across the long bridge at Valença/Tui. Within minutes you are in a different time zone speaking a different language. Instantly it became ‘Gracias’ rather than ‘Obrigada’ but the locals are forgiving. If this is not doable for you, English is pretty widely spoken and it is possible to muddle through without a word of either Portuguese or Spanish.DSCF5105.JPG

10. Prepare for Crowds: it is relatively quiet and relaxing from Lisbon to Porto but that changes noticeably from Porto onwards, and especially from Valença/Tui (the border). What are all these strangers doing on my walk?? It is yet another small culture shock, and the competition for a bed ramps up significantly, but is it wonderfully social.

Portugal is a spectacular country and I was amazed on a daily basis by its abundance and the profusion of flora and fauna. I was expecting a more Mediterranean look and feel and, while the stone houses and crumbling villages were very similar to Spain, the people and the atmosphere was a whole new identity.

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The atmospheric Ribiera district of Porto.

I haven’t done it justice in just ten dot points but hopefully it is enough to tempt you.

 

May 2016

Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Portuguese, purchase it from Book Depository

Caminho Portugués – the Nuts & Bolts

Freshly home from the Caminho Portugués I thought it might be timely to share the nuts and bolts of this camino with those who may be considering a similar stroll. I have found that we peregrinas (or peregrinos for the blokes) are great sharers of information – all with the view of making someone’s future walk more enjoyable and/or easier.

So here are the simple logistics of this camino. I intend to wax lyrical about this adventure in future blog posts but I will try to restrict myself here to the basic data:

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This map doesn’t show the Coastal Route. Basically just follow the coast from Porto and cut back in land to Valenca/Tui.

Start Day: Thursday 12 May 2016, from Lisbon, Portugal

Finish Day: Sunday 5 June 2016, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Route:

  • Central: Lisbon to Porto (approx. 400km)
  • Coastal: Porto to Valença (approx. 138km)
  • Central: Valença to Santiago de Compostela (approx. 122km)

Distances:

  • Total: 660km (estimated. Both the Portuguese and the Spanish have a very flexible approach to measuring and recording distances. Maps and actual signposts vary dramatically).
  • Daily Average: 28.7km
  • Longest Day: 35.4km
  • Shortest Day: 16.4km (my last day into Santiago! Woo Hoo!)

Days:

  • Walking: 23
  • Rest: 2 (Coimbra and Porto)

Times: early starts made the most of cooler temperatures and regularly featured gorgeous sunrises. Average walking times varied from 5-8 hours each day dependent on distance.

Terrain:

  • A lovely mix but predominantly hard surfaces such as tarred roads and &^%$# cobblestones – which I estimated to be 80+% of the whole walk. The detour I took to include the coastal route meant that I enjoyed many kilometres of walking on timber boardwalks. These were heavenly as they had a bit of ‘give’ in them – perfect for tired ankles and knees.
  • the range of hard surfaces would make this camino ideal for cyclists or ‘biki’
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    A pretty bush track on the Coastal Route. A bit muddy but that’s OK

    pilgrims.

  • some stiff climbs but nothing like my previous caminos. Perhaps an hour or two of ascent, then the pain was over and I could enjoy the view and the descent.

Weather: Being Spring there was a bit of everything, including a handful of wet and windy days. Generally, daytime temperatures ranged from 8°C – 21°C – but then there is the ‘real feel’ equation to consider. One day was forecast for 27°C but the real feel was 32°C – far too warm for walking for this peregrina. Otherwise perfect walking conditions – cool and clear.

Maps & Guides:

  • as mentioned above, adopt a very casual approach to any distance markers or maps. These should be used as guides only. Make sure you allow yourself extra time and carry enough water and snacks to cover an additional 5km should it occur.
  • John Brierley’s 2014 edition of the guide to Caminho Portugués is woefully out-of-date in both content and maps. I trust the later edition is more accurate and useful.
  • for the Coastal Route, I used interactive maps from www.caminador.es. I printed hard copies for the sections I walked and just tossed them at the end of each day. (I didn’t carry a mobile phone so couldn’t access the ‘live’ version. This system worked well for me.)

Way-marking:

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Follow the yellow arrows for Santiago or the blue arrows to Fatima

  • generally very good with enough yellow arrows, shells, tiles, etc., to keep me on the right track.
  • Beware: leaving the town of Tomar as the arrows are faded, are few or are confusing.
  • Valença /Tui to Redondela Stage: at Orbenlle, the Camino Association has developed a new route (heading north/west) which means you skip the ugly slog into Porrino via the industrial estate. This has obviously upset a range of business owners who now insist on blacking out the Association’s yellow arrows. Just as you hit the outskirts of Orbenlle you will see a war of black and yellow paint. Turn left down a small, dirt track and you will be rewarded with a beautiful walk through forests and on country backroads. Similarly when you get into Porrino, just under/after a large overpass, you will see another paint fiesta. Again, turn left and enjoy a peaceful walk into the city on the edge of a river. In both instances, the arrows start to appear again after about 100m.

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    Way marking on the Coastal route.

  • Coast Route: sometimes the arrows disappear completely so it is handy to have the maps to allow you to guesstimate which direction you should head (east or west) to intersect the route again. The caminador.es maps show two different routes – one right on the coastline and another further inland – the arrows take you on the inland path.

Accommodation:

  • the early stages in the Brierley guide are long, mostly because of the lack of conveniently-located accommodation. I am sure this will change dramatically in the next few years as the locals realise the business opportunities associated with the passing pilgrims.
  • Lisbon to Porto: few purpose-built albergues but plenty of reasonably-priced hostels from €10-25. These include all linen and may also include breakfast.
  • Porto to Valença (Coastal): albergues are more common but the youth hostels are also an excellent option with discounts for pilgrims. You do not need to be a member of the youth hostel association, but book direct for the best deals. Prices ranges from €7.50-12.
  • Valença to Santiago de Compostela: you name it, it’s available. Albergues are plentiful, as is 4-5 star accommodation. Prices from €6.00.

Food:

  • similar to my comments in the accommodation section above, this aspect will change to be more pilgrim-focused in the future.
  • From Lisbon to Valença (via the coast) I found few menu do dias or pilgrim menus but generally eating is very reasonable. A large omelette with chips and salad can cost as little as €4, and a café Americano (black coffee) ranges from €0.55c to €1.20! A very cost-effective way to make the most of a caffeine addiction!
  • Supermarkets usually have a good selection of pre-prepared meals including salads, tortilla española, pizzas and pastas etc.
  • Pastéis de nata are delicious and you have a perfectly reasonable excuse to consume these cakes on a daily basis. Prices range from €0.26c to €0.50c.DSCF5009.JPG

I am now an official fan of Portugal and can’t wait to return one day to play tourist. The country is gorgeous and the locals are so friendly and welcoming – just be careful of rapid-fire Portuguese when asking for directions!

A highly recommended camino. Enjoy and Bom Caminho!

May 2016

Read About It: For a copy of Brierley’s Guide to walking the Camino Portuguese, purchase it from Book Depository