Thursday, May 2, 2019

Reflecting on Lisbon to Porto – the first 370 km

For us our time on the Camino to Santiago began in 2016 along the Camino Frances and came after 18 months of struggling. One of us experienced a collapse in their life after a year of loosing almost everything and experiencing extreme online harassment from a former colleague. At the same time we had begun to lose a family member to video games, and we both began to struggle with questions surrounding our work-life balance. In short we were lost. The Camino began for us a last ditch effort to save ourselves and along The Way of St. James we found the way forward. This is likely the reason that 6 months later we were back on the Via Podiensis in France and shortly after that on the Caminho Portuguese and the Camino Finisterre. Hiking and being outdoors can be wonderfully addictive.

Like Many people who are inspired by the Camino or who have trekked some part of one of the routes to Santiago (and been hooked by the venture), we spent months trying to recapture that same excitement, the wonderful experiences we enjoyed, and the feeling of meeting new people and sharing one another's stories with each other as we walked. To this end - the sights, sounds, wonderful food, wine, albergue experiences, great people, and clear way-marking - the Caminho Portuguese is excitingly familiar. However, the route from Lisbon to Porto is also in many ways not the Camino Frances - this is both challenging and wonderful!

For those yearning for the familiar from Se Cathedral in Lisbon northward, the Caminho Portuguese is filled with little yellow arrows, shells, cafe's, amazing albergues and credential stamps.  However the differences are also immediately evident.  There is more urban trekking through cities, along sidewalks, down the sides of roadways, tiled pathways, and on cobblestone streets.  There is no denying that Caminho Portuguese traverses over much harder surfaces than the other routes we have trekked. In general the trail in Portugal involves more 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.

Go for Shorter Stages, take some extra time

I think the most importance piece of advice I would have for any English language pilgrims who are using John Brierley’s guide to the Camino Portuguese would be to break up the suggested stages and allow yourself extra time to enjoy the way.      

From Lisbon to Coimbra John Brierley's, as well as several other 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 such guides. This means that from Lisbon onward we have been doing shorter stages than those in the book (all less than 30 km), and we’ve stayed at some beautiful albergues each time we deviated from the suggested stops. Matthew Harms' Village to Village Map Guide – does a great job of shortening many of these days which helps a great deal. More than the length of these days, we found that the stretch between Lisbon and Porto to be harder on our feet than any trail we have hiked before. While the terrain is mostly flat, there is something about the sloping, tiled sidewalks, cobblestone streets, and miles of busy, paved roads that are part of this section that is tiring.

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 or Burgos to re walk 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 the shorter days lead to a more relaxed itinerary which made the first week of hiking more enjoyable.
Pilgrims, amenities, and beautiful villages

In terms of amenities there is a concern by many that along the Caminho Portuguese that there are fewer accommodations and less pilgrim infrastructure than on the Camino Frances.  The simple answer is that there is no denying that there are fewer options for over night accommodation, that the albergues are smaller, and that the distance between bars/cafes and rest stops is greater. However this does not mean that there are no amenities. Indeed the Caminho Portuguese does allow you opportunities to visit local stores for food supplies and there are an adequate number of cafes along the route such that trekking can be done in comfort.

Indeed, from what we could tell, there are fewer amenities and smaller albergues along the way because there are fewer pilgrims and less facilities dedicated solely to the needs of pilgrims. This of course does not mean that there are no pilgrims in this stretch. While certainly there are not the shear number of hikers that you encounter on the Camino Frances, not only did we find more and more pilgrims en route to Santiago, but we found that there also appears to be an almost endless stream of pilgrims in Yellow vests and shirts headed southwards to Fatima.

Overall, the Caminho from Lisbon to Porto is a safe route, filled with friendly and helpful residents, with enough opportunities for accommodation, rest, and refreshment to ensure that the trek is enjoyable.

Finding your way

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.


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 Porto 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.

A wonderful experience!

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 Caminho Portuguese - especially between Lisbon and Portugal - can be refreshing or they can be unnerving depending on your perspective and expectations.

From those we have met and talked to that did not enjoy the Caminho Portuguese most seemed disappointed that this route was not identical to the Camino Frances. While we can appreciate the desire to continue the adventure and experiences we had on our first Camino, there is also no denying that there is beauty in the everyday and new experiences you have in Portugal. While the familiar is there, the Caminho Portuguese is not the Camino Frances - instead it is a new adventure, which is both challenging and wonderful!

After Lisbon to Porto there is a remaining 240 km from Porto to Santiago
Recommendations and must stay places:

Azambuja - Abrigo Do Peregrino - small and quaint

Porto de Muge - Quinta da Burra - warm, welcoming, and the hostess is amazing!

Alvaiazere - O Pinhiero albergue - the Credential stamp alone makes this a must stop!

Grijo - Albergue San Salvador de Grijo

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