The secret Camino: Europe’s greatest pilgrimage – with coastal views and no crowds
As I set off on my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I was in a tetchy mood. The sky was blue, the sun was blazing but, for piffling reasons, my brain felt as angry as the Atlantic by my side. I beat myself up further; this was wholly inappropriate for the “spiritual journey” that lay ahead. But then I realised: actually, I’d come to just the right place.
Because as I left the Portuguese town of Viana do Castelo, passing the gulls and the terns, the windmills and the seaweed-pickers, my funk frittered out with every step; lifted by the sea breeze, swallowed by the dunes. My only task was to put one foot before the other, like a moving meditation. It was impossible to remain cross. When, a few hours in, a stranger gave me my first “Bom Caminho!” I realised: yes, I was already having a “good way”.
The Camino de Santiago is a fascinating walk. Not least because it’s barely a walk at all. Technically, you’re hiking. But the Camino is so much more: a challenge, a ritual, an adventure, a calling; a cleanse, a slog, a step closer to God. It’s a journey as individual as the pilgrim who makes it.
Also, it’s not one walk. While most pilgrims follow the Camino Frances, which starts in the south of France, there are numerous “ways of St James”. I was tracing a small part of the Coastal Camino Portugués, which begins in Porto. Only recognised as an official route to Santiago in 2016, it hugs the Atlantic before joining the traditional inland Camino Portugués. This means seaside days of relative solitude, then a home straight shared with many other pilgrims.
Indeed, I saw few fellow walkers as I hiked out of Portugal, up to the border with Spain; a few more as I traced the Galician coast. Walking from the handsome town of Baiona, where in unpilgrimlike fashion I stayed at the luxurious parador – a medieval fortress-cum-hotel on its own peninsula – I fell in step with a peregrina (pilgrim) from Vladivostok. Marina said she chose the walk because she loves the sea and the variety: “If you walk a long way in Russia it stays the same but the Camino is always changing.” Together we strolled past a chapel attacked by Francis Drake, took a wrong turn along a bird-filled estuary and chatted work, life, Brexit and Putin. We parted ways after an hour or so, when she decided to go for a paddle in the sea.
Shamefully, I was pleased. I didn’t have the energy to decipher Runglish all day, but goodbyes are difficult on the Camino – we were clearly heading in the same direction. I wondered how others coped: was there a polite knack for disentanglement? Or was I just a grump? I juggled this thought for the next several miles, as the Cíes Islands rose offshore and the beaches came thick and fabulous – some sweeping, some secretive. My favourite was the tiny one-café cove of Praia Portiño, worth a pilgrimage in itself.
Later, down a quiet lane, I met an American peregrina coming towards me. Counter to the norm, she’d started in Santiago and was spending six weeks walking to Fátima in central Portugal (the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared there in 1917). Embarrassed, I told her of my own all-too-short journey. She smiled. “You’re doing it your way. Least you’re doing it. Some people put things off forever.” As she continued uphill, I realised I’d have happily chatted for far longer.
Human interaction became unavoidable on my last three days, when the coastal and inland ways merged. Leaving the old riverside town of Pontevedra after breakfast, there was a Pied Piper vibe: dribbles of pilgrims – all toting backpacks hung with scallop shells – started converging from the medieval alleys and archways, from the covered market and the panaderías, from the Sanctuary of the Pilgrim Virgin (patron saint of the Camino Portugués). Slowly we became a single flow, funnelled between a leafy stream and a railway embankment where graffitists for and against homosexuality, feminism and vegans had waged a war of words.
That sun-soaked morning I heard the world. Loud Australians, quiet South Africans, Spaniards, Brazilians and Portuguese, Germans wearing Camino-themed socks, Americans limping on bandaged knees. The café I stopped at midmorning had an atlas of flags strung outside. Inside, I met twinkle-eyed Mañolo who, he said, had spent the past 65 years crafting metal pendants of pilgrims. He spread his wares on the countertop as we drank coffee and he flattered me brazenly. Yes, he made the sale.
I was an easy target, because by now I was in total Camino mode. It’s not the most beautiful walk – some bits are scruffy or close to big roads. I wasn’t even doing it “properly”, eschewing albergues (pilgrim hostels) for sometimes quite spectacular accommodation. But it had me. The sense of shared purpose, the centuries of history tramped into the soil, the rhythm, simplicity and joy of walking day after day – I was sold on it all.
On my final day, having overnighted in Padrón, I made a slow start. It was partly to let the masses walk on ahead, but largely because it was a Sunday, when the town hosts one of the biggest street markets in Galicia. Along the plane-shaded riverside promenade, hundreds of stalls were selling cheap shoes and handbags, queso gallego and xamón, fruit, flowers and hot peppers; vendors deep-fried crisp churros and stirred vats in which octopus boiled to a bright Martian red. Before I knew it I was sipping a bowl of rough vino tinto with a man called Carlos. It wasn’t even 10am.
But Padrón is also the origin of the St James story. Its name derives from the pedrón, the Roman stone to which the boat carrying the apostle’s dead body was allegedly moored, after being guided here from the Holy Land by angels. Fortified and intoxicated by the market, I visited the town’s Church of Santiago, where the pedrón is kept, before keeping my date with the saint.
It was yet another glorious autumn day. I walked along unlovely highways and through vineyards so pungently ripe I felt drunk. I wriggled through twisty-street villages and past locals in Sunday best, chewing the fat outside church. I plucked a peach from a box-full that a farmer had left out for pilgrims and passed a stone cross dating from the 15th century. I saw hórreos, the raised granaries so typical of Galicia. And nearly-there pilgrims replastering their blisters – another classic Galician sight.
Oh, and I also reached Santiago. But, as is so often the case, it wasn’t really the point. Gazing up at the cathedral’s phenomenal facade, I thought back to the Polish banker I’d met earlier that day. He’d started in Porto, 12 days before, and told me all about his journey: his struggles, his motives, the people he’d met en route. He said he didn’t know how he would feel when – in a handful of miles – he reached the end. “The Camino is stories,” he’d added. “And I have a feeling that the walk is the goal itself.”
The super second… Camino Portugués
Start point: Lisbon or Porto
Length: 371 miles (598km) or 155 miles (250km)
Time required: At least 26 days (Lisbon) or 12 (Porto)
Though this is the second most popular Camino choice, it’s far quieter than the Frances. Starting in Lisbon, it winds north to Santarem (following the Caminho de Fatima) and then Coimbra to the coastal city of Porto before continuing into Spain and Santiago. It follows roads and is particularly quiet on the earlier stages to Porto – many pilgrims choose to start walking from here, a distance doable in two weeks.Coimbra Credit: getty
The new kid on the block… Coastal Camino Portugués
Start point: Porto
Length: 110 miles (178km)
Time required: 10 days plus
This seaside route, an alternative to the traditional inland Camino Portugués, was only officially recognised in 2016. Starting in Porto, it hugs the Atlantic shore before veering east to join the inland route at Redondela. Though growing in popularity, it is still little-trodden in comparison and less well waymarked in places.