My Camino journey came about as a result of Killeagh GAA’s involvement in the GAA Healthy Club project. One of the initiatives undertaken as part of this project was the establishment of a walking group which meets on one Sunday morning each month for hikes which have varied from the very local (Youghal, Ballycotton, Ballyannan woods etc) to the more adventurous, including a climb of Carrauntoohil, Ireland’s highest mountain. Somewhere along the way, the idea of a trip abroad was born, and so it was that on April 18th, 2019, thirty-three of us, ranging in age from seventy-something to thirty-something, departed Dublin airport to walk the last 125km of the Camino Portugues, the Portuguese coastal route, from Baiona to Santiago de Compostela.
Now I am generally a preparer, and I had read all the packing lists, the blogs and the advice I could get hold of, but I don’t think anything can really prepare you for this journey. I should point out at this stage that we did it the ‘easy’ way – we stayed in hotels and our luggage was transferred between them for us so we only needed to carry the daily essentials on our backs. I have massive admiration for those who do it carrying all their belongings and staying in hostels along the way! 125km is a lot to fit into six days of walking.
Our flight was slightly delayed leaving Dublin, but we eventually arrived in Baiona, on the border between Spain and Portugal, on the Thursday evening. It’s a really pretty little seaside village with gorgeous narrow paved streets and an impressive castle – our only regret was that we didn’t have more time to spend there! The Hotel Pinzon was basic but clean and comfortable, though the staff appeared to have very little English and were not the friendliest. We had a lovely dinner in the nearby Restaurante El Túnel (amazing paella), which was able to accommodate all thirty-three of us! It was Holy Thursday night, which seems to be a night of celebration in Spain, and some of our party got very little sleep due to noise outside – ear plugs are an absolute essential on the Camino! Breakfast was basic the following morning – tea or coffee, juice and a slice of toast – but we had been warned to expect this and I had brought instant porridge with me (I have a yeast intolerance so bread is a problem).
As an aside, we found that many hotel and restaurant staff either don’t have much English or don’t want to use it, so be prepared! I have some Spanish so I was able to get by and some of our group found it helpful to show photos of what the wanted or to use Google Translate. I sometimes find that there’s an expectation that people in other countries will be able to converse easily with us in English, but how many of our own hotel and restaurant staff could chat readily to Spanish tourists in their own language??? Breakfasts vary very much in quality too so it’s advisable to bring your own supplies on a trip like this. None of the hotels we stayed in had tea or coffee-making facilities in rooms, and few had hairdryers, so a travel kettle and hairdryer could be useful things to bring if you need them.
Day 1: Baiona to Vigo, 24km
The first thing you need to know if you’re doing the Portuguese Coastal Camino route is that it is not very well signposted, particularly in towns. Be well prepared, have a good map and study it in detail so you don’t get lost! Asking locals is not always useful as many don’t seem to have much English and in bigger places like Vigo, may not be familiar with the route anyway. We walked a couple of kilometres along the seafront from our hotel before we eventually found our first scallop-shell waymarker, and we had one experienced traveller in the group so I can imagine it might be more difficult if you were completely unfamiliar with the route. The shell symbol below, or sometimes just a yellow arrow, appear along the way to keep you going in the right direction, but not frequently enough until after the coastal route joins the main Camino Portugues at Redondela. It’s very well signed after that.
We decided to start as a whole group at 8am the first morning, but of course it was probably 8.15 when we got going and this was really quite late. I’d recommend starting earlier if you can, and we did so every other morning apart from Day 3, which was our short day.
The group quickly split into the goal-oriented, who just wanted to make it to the next destination as fast as possible, and the journey-oriented, who were happy to take a little bit longer and enjoy the journey. (I’m sure those who know me will easily guess which group I was in!). On the practicalities, if like me you frequently need to use the bathroom, the first one you come to is on the prom in Nigrán, which also has a beautiful beach. Before that, there are some options for going in the wild, a necessity on some parts of the route unless you have an exceptional bladder! We also had our first coffee stop in Nigrán, and there are plenty of cafés along the route after that. Don’t forget to get your pilgrim credentials stamped along the way – you need two stamps per day to get your compostela or certificate of completion at the end. Collecting stamps became something of a competitive exercise as we moved along the route!
We also had a lovely lunch along the way (food is SO cheap compared to Irish prices) and finally arrived at the Hotel Junquera in Vigo at around 3.40pm. It was a tiring day, and I found the last seven or eight kilometres tough going, but after a shower and a little rest, I was ready to explore Vigo. As it was Good Friday, all the shops were closed (cafés and restaurants were open), but I had a nice little wander around this hilly city, and walked down to see the Jules Verne monument at the port (I’m a big fan of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth).
I had been advised by a number of Camino veterans that Vaseline on the feet can ward off blisters, and was pleased to find that it had worked – I have quite troublesome feet and often get blisters on my daily walk, so I was very relieved that I made it through the first day without any. We were all tired that evening, so decided to eat at the hotel, and the food was lovely. They had a Pilgrim Menu which was very good value, and the staff were lovely even when faced with a large unexpected influx of Irish walkers! In Spain, as in many European countries, they eat much later than we do in the evenings, and it was impossible to get dinner anywhere before 8pm and often not before 8.30pm. I struggled a bit with this as I’d have liked to get to bed earlier, but a girl must eat!
Day 2: Vigo to Arcade, 24km
We thought it was tricky to find the Camino route out of Baiona, but it was a walk in the park compared to getting out of Vigo! We were on the right track (having received good advice from home to keep the water on our left!), but it was a good five kilometres before we found our first yellow arrow (to much jubilation!), followed by our first waymarker of the day. I cannot understand why the route is not better marked.
The route was very hilly, with some wonderful coastal views followed by a trek through woodland. We stopped that morning at a pretty little bar just off the trail which had really lovely fresh orange juice. We walked through Redondela, which is a stop-off point for many pilgrims, but as we neared Arcade, I was absolutely starving and knew I needed lunch if I was to finish the route. As we reached the top of one of the many hills, just as I felt I could go no further without eating, the Camino delivered! There were two restaurants at either side of the road and some of us stopped off for a feed. I was really glad I had done so, as the final stretch into Arcade was really hilly and tough, and it was 26 degrees in the sunshine too so those last few kms were very slow… But we got there in the end and checked in to the Hotel Duarte. By this time, I had my first (and only, but very troublesome blister!), so it was lovely to cool my feet in the shower and have a little rest. I discovered that Arcade had a beach, and a short stroll took me there (tip: do NOT use Google Maps to find the beach; you’ll end up at a dead end…). I had a paddle and sat in the sun for a while before returning to the hotel, where I had dinner with the gang before collapsing into bed!
Day 3: Arcade to Pontevedra, 13km
Easter Sunday was my birthday, so I was delighted that we only had a short walk that day (relativity is amazing – 13km is now a short walk!). The hotel breakfast wasn’t till 9am, but the early risers amongst us wanted to get away around 8 and reach our destination early, so we stocked up at the supermarket and headed off. Our route was short but very hilly, mainly through woodland. There were some boulders to navigate which could have been difficult on a wet day (hats off to the family who were pushing a two-year-old child in a buggy with them!). At a fork in the road nearing Pontevedra which showed two Camino options, we stayed on the main route which was quite open, but I think the other option would have taken us through some more woodland.
Pontevedra is a significant stop on the Camino Portugues, and it is a beautiful town featuring the unusual rounded Church of the Virgin of the Pilgrims, a wonderful pedestrianised main square bordered by a Franciscan monastery, lovely little narrow streets and delicious food! I had a large helping of scallops for lunch and enjoyed a relaxing hour or so at the square reading my book. The church is well worth a visit, and for just €1, you can go up a little spiral stone staircase to the cupola and walk around (I went up, but vertigo struck so I did not walk around!).
That night, we ate at Il Piccolo, an Italian restaurant near the hotel, which was really impressive – I can highly recommend the seafood risotto! At the end of the meal, I had a lovely surprise when my fellow travellers arranged a birthday dessert for me, complete with candle and the singing of Happy Birthday!
Unfortunately, my blister of the previous day had not improved, and I had developed a tightness in my calf, presumably as a result of trying to keep pressure off the blister, so after dinner it was off to the late-night pharmacy near the hotel for some pain-relieving gel and more blister plasters…
Day 4: Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis, 22km
I was sad to leave beautiful Pontevedra, but at least we were straight on to the Camino when we left the hotel around 7.30am. There were very few places to stop on the first 11km of this walk, but plenty after that (the bushes came in handy again!). Around 14km, I started to have serious trouble with my calf muscles and really needed a stop, and sure enough, the Camino delivered… I had fallen back a bit behind the leading group due to the sore leg (thankfully a fellow traveller hung back to keep me company) but we found them stopped at a really quaint little place which was obviously part of a family home. I borrowed a painkiller and put on some of my heat cream, which got me going again, but not before we sampled some of the amazing tapas laid out in the kitchen! They also had vats of wine in a little room just off the main eating area, and they were so nice and friendly that we were really charmed. It was so cheap too – a bottle of water, a glass of wine and a slice of some kind of seafood pie came to just €7.
I was really glad to make it to Caldas, as I was feeling sore and very miserable by the time we got there – my allergies were playing up along with the pain. As we walked over the bridge, we got a lovely welcome from the earlier finishers, who had just stopped for lunch at a restaurant just to the left of the bridge. This had a three-course Pilgrim Menu for just €11, and we duly took advantage, enjoying a delicious meal before making the short journey to the Hotel O Cruceiro. As we were checking in, one of my eagle-eyed fellow travellers spotted a sports massage therapy centre across the road (just €20 for half an hour!) and a number of us booked in. The massage was lovely, and I took a very brief walk after to one of the natural hot springs baths which give Caldas its name, but that’s really all I was up to at that stage. The water is really hot and very relaxing, but bring flip-flops as the bottom of the pool is a little scummy. The evening was wet and I didn’t go out for dinner but had an early night instead.
On a side note, part of this hotel is also a hostel and there was a very useful washing machine and dryer available at just €3 for a wash and €1 for drying, so I freshened up some of my clothes while I had the opportunity.
Day 5: Caldas de Reis to Padrón, 19km.
This was our first wet day, and it really was wet! I had packed a poncho, but the hotel was distributing free ones, so a number of us took those with us. It was an easy walk from the hotel to the Camino route, and we were quickly on our way. I was really struggling with the leg, and after a few kilometres I wondered would I be able to continue, but thankfully one of our group cut me a stick in the woods and when the painkillers kicked in, I was able to keep going. At that point, I was seriously regretting leaving my own walking poles at home (I’ve never really used them for hikes, but definitely will in future) but one of the girls had a spare one in her luggage and gave it to me that evening.
Our route lay once again mainly through woodlands and small farms, and was, thankfully, not particularly challenging (i.e. there were few hills!) but was not spectacular either. The nicest scenery was definitely on the coastal part of the route. We made it to Padrón around lunchtime and the approach to the Hotel Rosalía was not the most attractive. The hotel is a little out of town, just opposite the train station, but very convenient for getting back onto the Camino the following day. It also had an electric heater in the room, which was really useful after such a wet day! We arrived at the hotel wet and cold to find that our luggage hadn’t arrived yet – a first, as it had always been there before us, even on the shortest day – so we had lunch and as we were finishing up, the bags arrived. Hallelujah! The Camino weather at this time of year reminds me a bit of Ireland – we started in 24 degrees of sunshine, and ended in the cold and wet!
I didn’t like Padrón as much as some of the other places we’d seen, but the church there is very significant in the story of St. James (Santiago) and the historic centre is pretty. There’s a lovely park, and I was also fascinated to see a statue to poet and writer Rosalía de Castro, who lived in Padrón – it’s so unusual to see a woman honoured in this way. You can also visit her house, which was near our hotel. If you have the energy (I hadn’t!) there’s a 125-step climb to the mount on which St. James is believed to have preached. Again, there are some lovely cafés and tapas bars, and I had my first helping of the Spanish favourite, chocolate con churros, which was of course delicious!
We ate at the hotel that night, where the Pilgrim Menu was just €10, and then it was off to bed ahead of the long last day. I was really hoping that my leg would hold up, as to miss out on the final stage would have been heart-breaking! We had a lot of minor ailments between us by that last night, but some of the group, including the older members, were doing fine and were an inspiration to the rest of us.
Day 6: Padrón to Santiago de Compostela, 25km
It was painkillers and heat cream for breakfast again on this last day, and it was another wet one. I felt good, if a little tired, for the first 11kms or so, and we had a coffee stop (hot chocolate for me as it was really miserable!) after about 8km. We were all feeling the cumulative effect of the week at this stage, and had another couple of short stops after. It was obvious that we weren’t going to get to Santiago until mid-afternoon, and we knew we would need lunch but couldn’t seem to find anywhere. Once again, however, the Camino delivered, and as we laboured up a hill (the last stage is VERY hilly) about 9km out from Santiago, we saw one of our party waving at us from outside a very welcome restaurant! We gladly refuelled and set off again on the last lap of our journey. We were counting down the kilometres on the waymarkers, but these seemed to disappear as we neared Santiago (why, oh why does this happen?!). As you near the cathedral, the end point of the journey, the signage becomes very sparse, with just the odd yellow arrow to let you know you’re headed in the right direction. We finally got there, however, in the midst of a downpour, and I think the discomfort of the rain probably contributed to a something of an anti-climax. We wandered in the cathedral for a little while, but it’s undergoing extensive renovations at the moment, so while you could visit the crypt of Santiago, there wasn’t much else to see. After some debate, we decided to go to the Pilgrim Reception Office straight away to get our final stamps and collect our compostelas. The office runs fairly efficiently, and we were only waiting about half an hour. Then it was back to the hotel to get showered and into dry clothes and hope for the rain to stop!
And reader, it did stop – or at least reduced to showers. Once I had cleaned up and rested a bit, I bought an umbrella and went to take some photos of the cathedral and wander the pretty little streets. The group had a booking for dinner at 7.30pm, and by that stage, I was so tired I almost fell asleep at the dinner table! The more resilient people went on to celebrate at an Irish pub, but I was only fit for bed!
Day 7: Santiago and home
Having had a good sleep, I got up reasonably early and had another little wander around Santiago, which is a really lovely city. If you have the freedom to do so, I would suggest spending a couple of days here before you go home, and also booking into a really nice hotel if your budget allows. We stayed in the Hotel Avenida, which is well-located right on the edge of the old town and just a few minutes from the cathedral, but it’s far from luxurious! I enjoyed another helping of chocolate con churros for my elevenses, and tried the local speciality, octupus, for lunch (delicious!).
The bus collected us for the airport at 2pm, and brought a really wonderful trip to its conclusion. How do I feel after it all? Well, I’m really proud of myself for doing it, and slightly annoyed that I picked up an injury along the way, but it could have been so much worse! Our group was brilliant also, and I would definitely do something similar again. Everyone’s experience is different, but one common thread in our conversations was how easy it was to forget about the world outside when you really have to focus on just putting one foot in front of the other. Buen Camino, everyone!
- Vaseline on your feet will definitely help to prevent blisters
- Bring Compeed plasters with you every day
- If you develop a blister during your walk, try to get your Compeed plasters on it as soon as possible – it’s tempting to keep going, thinking you’ll sort it out at your destination, but the damage will be a lot greater by the time you get there!
- Bring two pairs of walking shoes – eg hiking shoes/boots and runners, and sandals/flip-flops for the evening
- Make sure you have good, seam-free socks for walking
- You’ll need snacks like cereal bars etc, and if you like a hot breakfast, instant porridge is a good idea
- If you’re staying in budget hotels, a travel kettle would be a good idea
- Ear-plugs and eye-masks will be useful
- Bring a good poncho that will also cover your rucksack
- I would definitely recommend walking poles
- I found a hydration pack more useful than carrying bottles – water is very cheap to buy along the Camino
- Be prepared to use the bushes for some of your bodily functions!
- Carry change with you – there are vending machines and public toilets along the route, and a little money goes a long way
Things about the Camino that surprised me
- Poor signage in many towns, particularly on the coastal route
- Some of the scenery is unspectacular, and a significant portion of the route is through urban areas and along main roads
- Many of the locals don’t use English (this is not something that should have surprised me, but it did) – a little Spanish helps
- If you go at Easter, shops will be closed on both Good Friday and Easter Sunday
- I thought we would meet more fellow travellers – the route was never crowded
- Food is very cheap and Pilgrim Menus offer really great value in hotels and restaurants
- You won’t get dinner before 8pm anywhere along the way
Would I recommend it? Definitely!
*Our group trip was organised through J. Barter Travel, Cork. Huge thanks to Liz Sinclair, who made it all happen, and to all my fellow travellers!