Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Caminho Portuguese Reflected ....and a few comparisons to the Camino Frances

While we have already mentioned in detail throughout our blog many of the ways in which the Caminho Portuguese is both similar and differs from the Camino Frances.  As such – we don’t think that you can hike the Caminho Portuguese thinking it will simply be another Camino Frances. While it is one of the countless routes on the Way of St. James with similar signage, stamps, and symbols, it is ultimately its own trail with its own sites, culture and challenges. In short, they are different hikes, in different countries, with different levels of trail development and a completely different pilgrimage focus – as such your expectations have to shift accordingly.

Lisbon to Porto

There is a great deal of nay saying about the Lisbon to Porto section – in guidebooks, online forums, blogs, facebook, etc. – and it is hard to tell if this is a “chicken and egg” situation or merely a Camino section in development – but certainly the Lisbon to Porto section is itself very different than the Camino Frances.

First, between Lisbon and Porto there are certainly fewer amenities on the Caminho than there are on the Camino in Spain.  There are fewer (and smaller) albergues and generally less options for accommodations and greater distances between bars/cafes and rest stops. 

Second, as we and others have mentioned before, the Caminho Portuguese traverses over much harder surfaces including cobble stone roads, tile, and concrete sidewalks.  In general the trail in Portugal involves road walking than trail walking in sections.  This can be a shock compared to the relatively gentle beginnings of the Camino Frances and Via Podiensis.  As a result, even seasoned hikers seem to have sore and bruised feet after a day or so of hiking.

Third, from Lisbon to Coimbra many of the guide books detail some very long stages averaging about 30 km per day of trekking.  While 30 km a day is possible to traverse, especially for younger and more experienced hikers, it is not a comfortable distance to cover in  your first few days of trekking.  From the outset we recognized our limits and found accommodations in other towns than were suggested by the Brierley guide. While many of the hikers we trekked with similarly divided these early stages up, several still choose to rely on the longer days.  As a result we soon discovered that some pilgrims we had met in Lisbon had left the Caminho and got a train to Pampalona to rewalk the Camino Frances 'as the lengths of the days in Portugal were not what they were looking for', while others began to 'slack pack' out of their hotel in Lisbon utilizing the local transit system to hike without their backpacks each day (to lighten the load on the trail),  and still others took several days off the trail to recover which we discovered when we caught back up with them in Tomar and Coimbra.  Ultimately, given the number of days people trekking the long distances took off the Caminho meant that their pace and ours was relatively equal after the first 7-10 days.  While we all ended up in the same place at the same time it seemed that our more relaxed itinerary made the first week of hiking more enjoyable for us.

Forth, the way marking along the Caminho Portuguese is very good.  there are lots of yellow Santiago arrows and scallop shells from Se Cathedral in Lisbon onward, and when these fail you find yourself relying on the blue arrows to Fatima which are at times more prevalent.  Note: After Tomar these same blue arrows to Fatima will point in the opposite direction to the yellow arrows to Santiago so be ready to shift your thinking about whether you should be following or moving away from them.

Fifth, while on the Camino Frances generally most hikers are on their way to Santiago the fact is that in Portugal the focus of the pilgrimage is often on Fatima.  As we have mentioned before, we chose not to venture to Fatima either on foot or by bus, and it is our largest regret not to have gone to this holy site.  Fatima is clearly a large part of the Portuguese cultural experience which should be incorporated into a pilgrimage if you have the time and opportunity.  The focus on Fatima also adds an interesting element to the pilgrim trek in Portugal since from Lisbon until Tomar you are often hiking with people who are not headed to Santiago, while from Tomar until Tui you are often on the trail with hikers heading toward you (en mass in yellow vests) heading to Fatima.  Indeed many Portuguese who talked to us first asked if we were going to Fatima and seemed both disappointed and politely dismissive of us when we informed them that we were not. 

Sixth, from Lisbon until Porto while there are, at times other pilgrims (headed to either Fatima or Santiago) the route is generally not very crowded (or as busy as the Camino Frances).  We traveled amid a group of about 10 people who we regularly saw until Porto and often stayed into albergues who had not seen pilgrims in the previous days or weeks before hand.  To this end, those you meet you will likely see repeatedly as in many of the smaller towns there are only one or two places for pilgrims to sleep and eat.  This doesn't mean that things aren't wonderful along the Caminho Portuguese.  Indeed, there are some great albergues and bars/cafes that feel as though they are out of the unrefined and less touristy days of the Camino Frances - a point which several hikers mentioned to us was that the Caminho Portuguese now is like the Camino Frances was in the late 1990s - less developed and less over run.  This can be wonderful if you are with a great group of people or if you enjoy having time to reflect think and hike, but it can also be unnerving if you aren't used to so much solitude or limited options. 

Seventh, many of the albergues did not offer meals.  This meant that there was more reliance upon either self cooked dinners and spontaneous communal meals rather than the Menu del Dia in the albergues of Spain.  This also means that generally, after a day of hiking you need to locate the local supermarket (pray that it is open) to buy supplies or find a nearby bar/cafe (which is not always possible in small towns) to have dinner.  This situation offers hikers the opportunity to foster either a more sociable and communal Caminho or a more solitary and personal trek.  

Eighth, while the national treat - the Pastel de Nata - is amazing, after a week of eating them for breakfast, snacks, lunch, and snacks you get tired of them quickly.  By the time you get to Coimbra almost any other food looks beautiful.  After all there are only so many rich pastries you can eat and remain happy.  Enjoy them when you get there but be ready to find something else when their novelty wears off. 

Overall, the trek between Lisbon and Porto is wonderful and an entirely different experience than we had on the Camino Frances or than we expected.  There is no denying that this section is a challenge but one which we were nonetheless grateful to have trekked.  Starting your Caminho in Lisbon gives you more time in Portugal, allows time to foster a better understanding of the culture and country, and chance to meet lots of great experienced pilgrims.  The differences between the Camino Frances and the Camino Portuguese - especially between Lisbon and Portugal - can be refreshing or they can be unnerving depending on your perspective and expectations.

While the trek from Lisbon to Porto is substantially different than the Camino Frances in Spain, once you reach Porto things change both subtly and dramatically.   From Porto onward there are more big cities, more bar/cafes/restaurants, more albergues and accommodations, but with these things come more tourists and more tourist destinations and more crowds.  As a result from Porto forward this means that you often spend more time negotiating around tour groups in cathedrals and cities, spend more nights in hotels or pensions rather than albergues and more time eating at restaurants rather than cooking.  In addition to the increasing urbanization of the trail Porto is also the primary starting point for most pilgrims on the Caminho Portuguese.  This means that on a trail which previously had a dozen or two dozen people on it you now have hundreds of new hikers.  In response to this you also get the accompanying rise in advertisements, yellow arrows, luggage transport, taxi services, regional Camino mascots, and pilgrim tourist shops.  In short, from Porto to Santiago the Camino Portuguese feels more like the Camino Frances.  This is neither good nor bad, it is simply a noticeable difference.  

In short, if you loved the Camino Frances with the larger number of hikers, range of amenities and Camino culture, and want more of the same, then this is definitely the section for you! The pace of these changes increases again after Valencia / Tui (the 100 km marker and Spanish border) with the further addition of more pilgrims, more signage, and more amenities.

Subtle differences

There are of course some subtle differences between the Caminho Portuguese and Camino Frances which take some getting used to.

For us it felt odd to hike north, since the trail in Portugal runs north-south,  with the sun rising and setting on each side of us rather than trekking west into the sunset each day. 

Next, while at times it can be a challenge to find open bars/cafes/restaurants, there is also no denying that when you do the food in Portugal is generally better and more varied than is found along the Camino Frances.  As you get closer to the ocean or the larger urban centers with better marketplaces the food gets fresher and better.   In addition, throughout Portugal most meals and food options are cheaper, it means that you have a recipe for gastronomic heaven as you hike!

Third, while the structure of the towns and albergue system is generally the same as in Spain, the culture is more hospitable and welcoming.  However, it is worth pointing out that it seemed that every town and every property along the Camino Portuguese had security dogs ...in addition to which there seem to be a large number of roaming dogs along the trail. As such, while we never had problems,  hiking poles are advised.

Finally, for whatever reason we found it hard to adjust to the shift in time zones and languages once we reached the Spanish border.  Trekking in the dark in the mornings and remembering to change your responses from the Portuguese Obrigada shifting to back to Spanish phrases such as Gracias did not come seamlessly after 30 days in Portugal.

With all of this said, our largest challenge along the Caminho Portuese came in navigating the hours in which albergues, bars/cafes/restaurants, and supermarkets would be open.  This situation was made more difficult by the need to negotiate many of the small towns which celebrated the regular stream of local and national holidays, regional festivals, and community funerals during April and May.  En route we encountered Easter, Freedom Day, funerals, Happy Mass, Labour Day, Mother's Day, the Flower Festival and Mondays (most businesses were closed on Mondays).  Our advice then is to be aware of and to prepare for when Portuguese holidays are and plan accordingly (and then expect a few you never heard of).  We did not and it made for some very long days hiking further than we had anticipated as well as two days without any dinner time meals.

Now don't get us wrong,  Portugal is wonderful, the people are kind and courteous as well as generally fluent in English or French.  We had a wonderful time in Portugal, it is a beautiful country with amazing people and inexpensive to travel through - but before setting out on the Caminho from Lisbon to Portugal it helps acknowledge the differences from the Camino Frances and to be prepared. 

As we have said before 'expect the unexpected' and you will be fine. As always remember 'a challenging day today is a funny anecdote tomorrow'.

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