El Camino Portugués: Santiago to Porto

dscn184322/9/2016, Thursday. Back in 2013, Cheryl rode the Camino Francesa and the Via de la Plata, the latter stretching from Santiago to Seville. Remembering the ugly suburbs and industrial zones south of Santiago, and the heavily travelled N-550, she suggested taking the train to Vilagarcia de Arousa. After Vilagarcia, we biked the Michelin three-star roads of the Rias Bajas peninsulas. dscn1848Striking out west to the ocean, we first visited the isthmus of O Grove and the island of La Toja (Illa da Toxa in Galician). The island is essentially a gated community of pricey homes, a golf course and a yacht marina. It sits off the peninsula that leads through the shallows to the town of O Grove, famous for its seafood (in coastal Spain, that is saying something). dscn1858We had lunch in O Grove, then rode back to the north shore of the Ria de Pontevedra. We knew that we could not reach Pontevedra in time to find room in the albergue before it filled with pilgrims heading the other way, so we booked a hotel in the historic city. The Rias Bajas Hotel proved to be a bargain on booking.com: modern and comfortable. img_20160922_224114Pontevedra earned one star from the Michelin guide, with good reason: a clean, well-maintained historic center, good food and shopping. It was easy to find our way around. I liked the purple lights that illumined the steeples of the Sanctuary of the Virgin.

23/9 Friday. We woke up early, well-rested in a comfortable bed in a quiet room. dscn1867The hotel desk clerk stamped our credenciales; by 1100 we were rolling along the winding coastal roads from Pontevedra to Cangas, on the south side of the peninsula. This territory was new to both of us. We had to climb a ridge over the westernmost promontory but Cangas was easy to find. The ferry across the ria operates like a city bus: frequent and cheap. At 1530, we crossed from Cangas to Vigo. The ride out of Vigo to the Atlantic town of Baiona took us past a large beach-park and along an easy coastal highway. dscn1874Baiona was a delightful town, with a charming historical center, a scenic city park spreading out below the Parador that used to be a castle on the point, and a long, wide paseo maritimo, which was filled in the evening with strolling families and youngsters.

dscn188424/9 Saturday. First thing, we rode to the Vodaphone store outside Baiona to renew the tourist plans on our phones. We wanted them to be working after we came back to Spain after riding through Portugal.

dscn1887As forecast, a cloudy sky and stiff headwinds made hard work of the easy rolling road from Baiona to Portugal. However, the southerly wind blew between the rain system at sea and the high hills to our left, pushing the squall line about 300 m off shore, and keeping us dry.

dscn1884After the ferry ride from A Pasaxe in Spain to Caminha in Portugal, Cheryl took off on the gently rising and falling N-13. I watched her disappear into the wind, but with my greater weight and sail area, I could not close the distance. We met in Vaina do Castello and settled into a pilgrim’s refugio at the Carmelite Fathers monastery. dscn1869We were the only bikers. Almost all the pilgrims had grey hair. By now, the “kids” had gone back to work or school.

Both of us were frustrated with our phones. The clerks at the Vodaphone stores in the big shopping malls did not seem to be able to say anything more than “Vodaphone central has a problem.” I was getting by with the EU-mandated minimum service plan using my Italian SIM card, but not being able to contact Cheryl when we got separated was more than annoying. It took us all afternoon to find each other. She had gone into the historic centre, and I had gone astray in the suburbs southeast of town.

The weather continued to worsen as we settled into the refugio. We were glad that the hosts had us park under the shed where they parked work vehicles, because it began raining after we came in for the night.

dscn188825/9 Sunday. The rain came and went during the night. I know that, because the snoring from the bed across the room measured 7 on the Richter scale. No one was rude enough to wake him.

Our frustration with the phones continued. Cheryl got sick from a shrimp empanada (my guess: it’s the only thing that she ate that I did not in Viana), and was not up for riding. We took the train to Guimaraes, which was a beautiful town in every touristy detail. dscn1889The host of the Apartamentos con Historia in the historic centre was not there. I called him and determined that he was still an hour out of town. We locked our bikes to posts in the square, and raced down the cobblestone-covered, steep roads to a supermarket to buy water and food. dscn1892My heel was very unhappy about the hurry, but the host was there when we returned to the apartment. Cheryl could not eat, so I fixed a big salad and ate it while she watched. After the long day on trains and walking around, we slept well in the clean, quiet room.

26/9 Monday. Guimaraes occupies an important place in Portuguese history, being the principal city of the frontier between the Christian kingdom in Asturias and Galicia and the Moorish lands of Lusitania (as the Romans called Portugal and Galicia). dscn1907It is as pretty a royal city as any medieval town that I have seen, and definitely worth a trip. In the morning, we walked to the Saint Michael’s Castle and the Ducal Palace before catching the train to Porto. I tripped on a stone at the castle gate, sending terrible pain up from my right heel. Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed the exhibit in the castle, which traced the history of the areas from Roman times to the establishment of the Kingdom of Portugal. It filled in the many blanks in my understanding of the Middle Ages in Iberia, because the timeline included occasional reference points about what was happening elsewhere. For example, I learned that the mother of the “Illustrious Generation” of Portuguese kings and navigators was none other than Phillippa of Lancaster, which explained the long-standing commercial, military and political relationship between England and Portugal since the 15th Century. Phillippa’s biography on Wikipedia is a good read in its own right: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philippa_of_Lancaster.

dscn1928By now, we knew our way around Guimaraes, so finding the train station and going to Porto was easy. Cheryl had found us an apartment in a 200-year-old building recently renovated by a young, enterprising partnership. Our place was as charming and scenic as one could hope. I tripped again at the door to the building, setting the recovery of my heel back a week. The city market across the street yielded mussels and black spaghettini, It felt good to be choosing and cooking our own food.

dscn1978Porto is a big enough town that we finally visited a real Vodaphone store. It turned out that the others had been franchises (one cannot tell the difference without asking), and the woman who waited on us had the problem solved in just a few minutes. Cheryl’s phone came online about 1900. I was still relying on my Italian SIM card, but I hoped that I was on my last day of charges to Wind.

img_20160926_18455227/9 Tuesday. We rose to fix ourselves a breakfast of nourishing toast, butter, jam, and nectarines in yoghurt. Breakfast is a foreign concept in the Iberian Peninsula, so making our own proved to be one of the great advantages of hostels and apartments.

My new Nexus 5X phone came on about 1000. I turned off my old Nexus 5 with the Italian SIM card, and left it on the charger to fill up. dscn1971After a stop at the post office to mail unneeded maps and some post cards, I took a sightseeing bus tour, while Cheryl walked briskly to the historical centre to take pictures. With the pain in my right heel, I could not keep up with her. The bus tour allowed me to see as much as possible without walking.

Porto is big, beautiful and varied. In general, like most Portuguese cities, it is particularly bicycle-unfriendly. dscn1973Most of that is due to the Portuguese fascination with cobblestones. They think that the medieval road surface is attractive. I watched the locals stumbling on them. The drivers are killing the suspensions of their cars. The rest of the menace to cyclists comes from the driving habits of the operators. Riding in Portugal is more like New Jersey than any country in Europe that I have seen. And yet, Portugal had some of the most beautiful, smooth roads, and some of the most unspoiled coastline we saw. dscn1933With the economic problems that it had while the rest of Europe was hurtling into the present “prosperity,” the country has an old-fashioned feel that borders on nostalgic. The Portuguese have an opportunity to make progress intelligently and avoid some of the mistakes that their neighbours made.

dscn1982That evening, Cheryl and I shared impressions of our respective tours. She had walked across the river to the town of Gaia, climbing steep hills and logging several miles of cobblestones. She had taken advantage of the tasting offers at the wineries, and had investigated the back streets. I had seen more sights than I could have ever walked or biked to.

The smooth bed felt oh-so-good.

Until next week,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,


2 thoughts on “El Camino Portugués: Santiago to Porto

  1. Jonathan,
    Fascinating. I completed El Camino Frances during Lent this year–walking. Mary Jane walked the Camino Engles in October and she would like us to walk the Camino Portugues. She asks: how precipices and high bridges? (She panics with heights over 3″)

    Your ‘work while riding’ appears to be mostly ‘riding.’ Or is that a poorly drawn conclusion?


    • Dear James —
      Thanks for the input. IMHO, the Camino Portugues is not as challenging as the Camino del Norte. I would compare it to the Camino Ingles for difficulty. Remember that we were riding roads near the walk, but often, the walking trail went, unpaved, into the hills without us.
      As for the “work while riding” paradigm, I should clarify that the long stretch of posts about riding with Cheryl describe pure bicycle touring. I learned in 2014 circling the Eastern Provinces of Canada, that I cannot “work and ride” while touring with her. This year, I managed to take notes for the blog. For the summer tours, I turn on my email auto-responder and go on holiday like any other worker. That I can take a vacation for two months instead of two weeks is one of the benefits of being a freelancer. FWIW, I am back in Italy now, and on the job. The blog should catch up with the present in a few weeks, and I will have more revelations and lessons learned at that time.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.