Camino Portuguese: An Unexpected Solitary Experience

 One of many waymarks you may or may not find along the Camino de Santiago.  This one is in Santo Domingo de la Calzada along the Camino Frances.

One of many waymarks you may or may not find along the Camino de Santiago.  This one is in Santo Domingo de la Calzada along the Camino Frances.

Pilgrims who have walked the Camino usually end up in one of two groups at the end of their walk.  The first group of pilgrims are satisfied with their accomplishment of walking across Spain and have no desire to ever walk again.  The second group of pilgrims are satisfied with their accomplishment of walking across Spain and are already starting to plan their next walk before they even finish their first one.  There is a term for this addiction, it’s called “Camino-itis” and it can be highly contagious.  I’ll give you one guess which group I belong to.

Shortly after finishing my first Camino walk in 2010, I was already plotting a return.  I had walked the Camino Frances, the most popular of all the routes, and for good reason.  There are towns every 5 to 10 km, cafe con leches are just around the corner, and the people are used to seeing pilgrims along the Way.

I spent quite a bit of time researching the other routes.  There are many ways to get to Santiago and I wanted to pick one that would allow me to take my time but still give me time before and afterwards to explore.  I chose the Camino Portuguese, but instead of starting from Lisbon, I decided to begin in Porto.  This would allow me a solid two weeks of walking, and a cushion on either end to sightsee in Portugal and Spain.  I like to be different (this is not quite the shocker to friends and family who know me well!) and make things a bit difficult and challenging for myself.  Instead of doing the “Caminho Central”, I chose to do the “Orla Litoral” and the “Caminho da Costa”.  This route isn’t in any of the guidebooks and I was using a series of PDF files I found online that were in Portuguese with a mish-mash of Google Maps showing the route.  I chose to walk in October because I like the moderate temperatures and there’s less pilgrim traffic so there isn’t a run for beds.

For those of us who have walked the Camino Frances, I think we can agree it is a communal experience.  You are walking with hundreds of people every day.  You sleep in albergues with thirty, forty, fifty or more pilgrims all snoring in a sweet symphony.  You eat together at the albergue or a local bar in the evening, sharing your thoughts on the days walk.  Yes, you can have a solitary experience if you choose to be antisocial and not talk to anyone or stay in hotels the entire way.  For me, I enjoy the daily interactions with pilgrims from around the globe.  Even if we don’t share a common language or culture, we are all headed in the same direction with the same goal in mind. Many of us are contemplating the same questions.  What am I doing with my life?  How do I be a better person?  What’s the next step?  What am I supposed to learn while walking 800 kilometers?  How do I stop getting blisters?  Why do cafe con leches taste so good?  You get the idea.

I had high hopes for my walk from Porto along this lesser known route following the coast of Portugal (literally, in some places, I was walking on the beach!).  I was looking for a challenge and this route did not disappoint.  I will be sharing my daily reflections in upcoming posts, but I do want to touch on one aspect of this route I was not expecting: it was a solitary experience.

From the first steps I took across the bridge near Matosinhos, I became aware of the fact there would not be a lot of pilgrims this time of year walking this particular route.  I got a few odd looks here and there from people out for their daily stroll.  I kept walking, hopeful I might run into a pilgrim or two along the way.  I didn’t see a single pilgrim for the next four days.  

Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy solitude.  I backpack by myself a few times a year, either out of necessity or choice.  I go hiking by myself occasionally too.  During those instances of solitude, I am able to prepare myself mentally and physically for the experience because I know I will be by myself.  With the Camino, I had prepared myself to see other pilgrims along the way, or at the very least, at albergues.  This was not the case on the route I chose for the Camino Portuguese.  The first four days I spent walking by myself, staying in youth hostels or hotels by myself, and eating by myself.  I barely spoke at all.  This was not what I had prepared for.  I was miserable.  I didn’t know what to do and finally on that fourth day, I made a difficult decision.

I was in the small coastal town of Ancora.  There wasn’t a pilgrim hostel (or a youth hostel for that matter) in town, but I did find a reasonably priced hotel. I decided to splurge on my own room to see if it would lift my spirits a bit.  It did.  I took a luxurious hot shower and a nice nap.  I found a grocery store and stocked up on food for breakfast and lunch the next day.  I ate one of the most memorable meals of my trip at a small restaurant where I was the only customer due to my early eating habits (which by the way, I don’t think 8p is early!).  I had a very attentive waitress who made sure I was well taken care of.

I went back to the hotel and continued a conversation with my Portuguese Camino Angel who had been guiding me along the way from afar in Lisbon.  I told him about all of my struggles and asked what the rest of the coastal route was like.  It was made clear to me if I continued along the coast into Spain, I would not encounter pilgrims for a while, if at all, along with uncertainty about the waymarking, which was already causing me tons of problems.  I decided to take the train the next morning to Valenca, then continue walking on the central route everyone walks.  I hate taking transportation when I am capable of walking but I knew I couldn’t do another day of walking with no one else to share the experience with.

The next day, I took the train to Valenca, walked into Tui, found the Cathedral and almost attacked the first pilgrims I saw, I was so happy to see them.  I stayed in an albergue that night with six German pilgrims and four French pilgrims.  I had a grin on my face as I slept, I am sure of it.  My solitary experience was over.  I was ready for the community of pilgrims.

Stay tuned for my Camino Portuguese journal over the coming days….

Have you ever experienced something differently than you prepared for?  What changes, if any did you make?