Saturday, May 11, 2019

Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis

Today was another beautiful walk through what we are coming to realize is typical Galician countryside. There were gently rolling hills covered in forests, small vineyards, and fields filled with yellow and white wildflowers. For much of the day tall, steep, forested hills topped with wind turbines provided a peaceful backdrop to the landscape. We also passed several flocks of sheep, some goats, and two very friendly donkeys.

As beautiful as the landscape was, and as easy as the walking was, today seemed more like a day of internal reflection than one of appreciating external things.

We now have less than 50 km of trail left before Santiago. At this point it feels like there have been three relatively distinct parts to this walk, and of them all, this last is the most difficult for us.

In the section between Lisbon and Porto the walking was hard, and the path was still under development, meaning we walked through some less picturesque areas and along the shoulders of some very busy highways. Most pilgrims in this section were heading to Fatima. However, there was a small group of people from around the world that were hiking together, and ended up staying in many places together and sharing what we have come to think of as the Camino spirit. We felt in this section like we were given a glimpse of Portuguese life and culture beyond what a tourist would experience, and we loved what we discovered.

In the section between Porto and Tui there were markedly more pilgrims, with the numbers seemingly increasing every day. The path took on the feel of the Camino Frances, with a lot more Camino artwork, signage, monuments, shells, and commercialization. However, there was still an atmosphere of respect, kindness, prayer, and Camino spirit among the walkers. We enjoyed this section very much, but started to find the experience less comfortable when we felt surrounded by competing services aimed at catering to 'pilgrims' rather than experiencing more of the regional culture.

In this final stretch of trail between Tui and Santiago the dominant culture on the Camino seems to have changed, and we find ourselves struggling to understand or appreciate it. The Camino spirit we enjoy can still be seen in the groups of pilgrims sharing an evening meal in the towns, or in lone pilgrims sitting in quiet corners writing their journals. It is still there, but on the trails - when people slap your leg with their hiking poles to get you to move, or refuse to let an older pilgrim sit down so that they can keep their bag on a chair, it is becoming more difficult for us to see.

The trails are now very full of hikers. Respect, self-reflection, and contemplation of any kind seem to be all but gone. We have seen pilgrims shoving each other out of the way, offered a helping hand only to have it stepped on (literally), waited to pass groups of pilgrims on the trail as one after the other they climbed up and swung by one arm from a stone crucifix while taking selfies, and observed pilgrims complaining because the quality of service in 3 star hotels, bars, and restaurants wasn't up to their standards.  I don't think this is simply the result of there being 'new' or more pilgrims since Tui, as we also experienced the huge influx of hikers in Sarria on the Camino Frances in 2016.  However the changes to the trail in this final section of the Camino Portuguese seem to reflect an attitude of entitlement which we do not remember experiencing or witnessing in our first Camino.  I don't claim to know what a pilgrim's experience should be.  I try not to judge the behavior of others, and I know we all do walk our own way.  However, I don't necessarily enjoy being a part of the pilgrim culture that dominates this section of the trail, and I wonder what the lesson is that I need to learn here.

Anyway, when we reached Caldas de Reis in the early afternoon we found a very nice town on the river. We ended up staying in a room in a residence for the elderly, which was very nice. The building looked like an old Victorian hotel and spa, and it was possible to swim in the hot springs in a pool that the Romans built in the basement!

We checked in, did laundry at a laundromat near the hotel, and then headed down to a cave by the river with a view of pilgrims crossing the bridge. We enjoyed a delicious lunch of cheese salad (lettuce, dried tomatoes, melon, onion, walnuts, raisins, strawberries, and cheese, topped with old and vinegar). This was followed by a coffee pudding for good measure.

As we sat there Peter and Sue crossed the bridge and joined us for a while in the shade of the patio. We also saw a group of German pilgrims we've been walking with since Porto.

After our wonderful meal we set out to explore. We visited the church, which was surrounded by a grove of tall palm trees. Although this was the church Saint Tomas, it had a statue to Saint Roch, the patron saint of walkers and dogs. We've attributed many lovely days on the trail to this Saint, so were happy to pay tribute.

After visiting the church we walked down by the river, exploring the botanical gardens. These gardens didn't look particularly botanical, but they were beautiful. We were delighted to see several children with binoculars, and saw some intriguing birds ourselves.

After that we returned to the hotel and had a swim in the hot thermal springs, which were the reason the town was originally founded. It felt very decadent, but if there is a Roman pool with hot springs (that had no discernible odour), wouldn't it be a waste to not visit them?

After our soak we went back out to explore the cobblestone streets of Caldas de Reis. It is a beautiful small town. For dinner we went to a busy tapas bar on the river, and tried bread, country cheese, and the famous pimiento peppers of padron (which tasted a lot like ocra, and were extremely good)! It was a nice evening, spent on the banks of a river in the company of very well-dressed Spanish people.

After dinner we walked around the town, and then turned in. It was a wonderful end to a challenging day.

Accommodations: Balneario Devila
Distance: 21.3 km

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