In February’18, I quit my studies of French and economics in Münster, Germany, out of a great despair what to do with my life. That;s why I decided to walk the the Portuguese Way of St. James.
During the first semester at university, I realized more and more that I had to challenge myself in a different kind of way, that I had to come out of my comfort zone to admit to myself: I am not interested in economics and French, not at all. But at the same time, I didn’t have a „plan b“.
What I decided then was that I had to get out of all places and kinds of living that I had known before.
Quickly, the idea of the Portuguese Way of St. James came to my mind. At that time I wasn’t a very experienced traveller, this would be my first trip having to rely all on myself.
Because of that, the Way of St. James seemed to be perfect: Portugal and Spain are not that far from Germany and I would be away from home for only four weeks.
I walked the „Camino Portugues“, which begins in Porto, Portugal. Experienced Hikers can walk the distance of 250-300km (depends on which route you choose) within two weeks or less. I wanted to take time so I calculated three weeks of walking.
Preparation Is Everything: Don’t Forget The Credential
The experiences that I’ve made on the way and how I got to know myself more were more than enriching and until today I often miss the time on the „Camino“, how it’s called among pilgrims. Let me share a few impressions of my Camino with you! In case you have never heard of the Way of St. James or you are interested in walking it, you will find some information at the end of the article!
After a few weeks of hard work the day of departure had finally come. I didn’t really know what to expect of my upcoming trip so I was pretty nervous. But the most important things like my hiking shoes or plasters were packed, so nothing could go wrong…
The Camino Portugues starts in Porto, so that was my first destination. Before I started walking, I wanted to spend two days in Porto itself because this city is really worth an „own“ trip! The Old Town is beautiful, there are kilometre-long beaches and very cool bars and restaurants.
Two days later, I filled up my water bottle, bought some bananas at the market and walked to the old cathedral in Porto, the official starting point of the Camino Portugues. Arriving there, I got my first stamp in my Credential, which made me really proud.
Porto- the Starting Point of the Camino Portugues
The first distance that I had to face was about 23km, from Porto to a Camping resort in the small town Lavra. Even though I wasn’t used to hiking at all and even less to hiking with a 10kg-backpack, I was really motivated and optimistic. But this would change the next days, little did I know…
I got to know a young man who also walked the Camino and we had some very interesting talks which made the time go by very fast. Everything seemed to be so easy! After around 17km, I had a break that was maybe a bit too long… and as I wanted to continue, my legs were really really hurting…
There was a pain in my legs that I had never felt before and my shoulders and knees were trembling. But I had no chance except walking and hoping to finally arrive.
This was the first lesson the Camino gave me: If you achieve something, be proud but do not relax for too long on your accomplishment, otherwise you will have to take several steps back. In the evening I finally arrived and immediately slept like a baby.
The Camino Leads You Through Beautiful Winefields
The following day was really hard for me. I had to admit that I had overestimated me and my body, so I changed my plans and shortened the daily distances to 10 to 12km. Of course the first blisters had come what made walking even harder.
But since I used to start my way in the early morning, I always arrived in the accommodations very early so that I could rest in the afternoon and have nice conversations and drinks with other pilgrims. That’s pretty much what makes the Camino special.
You get to know new people and it’s like you’ve known them for years. You share your worries, pain and feelings with them and goodbyes in the early morning are very emotional. Sometimes you meet them again which is often very funny.
Hiking With a 10kg Backpack- My Body Wasn’t Used to This
In Valencia, I met three Scottish students, Linda, Rudiah and Kevin. Kevin had huge problems with his knees so he had to walk very slowly the next day. As I passed him by, I saw that he was in pain and struggled walking.
I couldn’t do anything for him, but I remembered that I had some cookies in my backpack, so every hundred meters along the way I placed one on stones, stumps or fence posts for him. In the evening, Kevin arrived and he gave me a hug, saying I made him laugh even in terrific physical pain what made me really happy.
Meanwhile I was also struggling with my own pain. At that point I had around ten blisters on every foot. And I didn’t really know how to handle them so things weren’t about to get better. Everyday I asked myself: Why are you doing this, why?
But at the same time, walking became like an addiction- as if something pushed me forwards, as if there was a great will to find something; I don’t know what.
I met two Dutch people who were also hurting and together we sang „Always look on the bright side of life…“ while walking what made me forget the pain for a while.
I remember that one special day when I had to hike the highest point of the whole Camino. The mountain I’m talking about is just 400m high, but with a 10kg-backpack it feels like 800m.
The path that was marked went steeply up to the top of the mountain, pilgrims are rather climbing instead of hiking because it’s so steep and slippery.
The backpack makes it very hard to find the right balance so I had to concentrate the whole time. One wrong step, one slip-up could’ve ceased my Camino. Arriving at the top was breathtaking, there was a farmer who gave free water to the pilgrims and for half an hour, I laid on the ground and enjoyed the view.
Santiago De Compostela: Only 40 Kilometers Left
And then, suddenly only 70 kilometres were left, meaning only 4 days of walking. The pain was still my daily companion but I kind of accepted and got used to it. Two days later, I saw a traffic sign saying „Santiago de Compostela: 40km“.
I remember this moment very well because for the first time, I realized that I had left more than 200km behind me walking. Not a single bus, cab, train, car,…walking. Uplifted with mixed feelings, pride on the one hand and grief on the other hand that my time on the Camino would be over soon, I continued my way.
I wanted to enjoy my last day of walking, so I chose Teo as my last stop before Santiago de Compostela with only a small distance of eleven kilometres. I will never forget the day arriving in Santiago.
For the first time I had no pain at all and wandering through the streets of Santiago, it felt like the cathedral was pulling me like a magnet towards itself. Not finding the way was impossible.
I arrived at the great place in front of the cathedral at the same time like many other pilgrims. Suddenly, before I even realized I had arrived, one of them grabbed my hand and together with around 20 other pilgrims we ran towards the cathedral and had a little big party.
I had never seen one of them before, but we hugged each other, laughed and tears of joy were shed. The atmosphere was incredible, hundreds of pilgrims arrived by bike, horse or foot.
What a Feeling – Arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela
I just sat in front of the cathedral for a very long time, watching people arrive while looking back on my Camino. I’ve learned so much during these special three weeks. Not only about life but also about myself. Every day I had to reflect on myself and my body which can be really hard.
I got to know so many amazing people with interesting life stories and saw breathtaking landscapes. During the walk, I pushed myself to the limit, learned that hard work pays off and got more attentive of other peoples needs.
Sharing plasters can be as fulfilling as sharing a bottle of wine… I can really recommend this experience to everyone who needs a „time-out “. Because on the Camino literally everything happens in another timezone. Be brave, be open, do it!
Information & Tips to Know Before Walking the Camino Portugues
1. Way of St. James- What the Heck?
The ways of St. James -there are many all over Europe- lead you through the locations where the apostle St. James allegedly spread the Christian belief. What unites them is that all of them will lead you to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where you will find the grave of St. James.
For hundreds of years, people were walking the way to Santiago de Compostela out of religious intentions, but it becomes more and more a spiritual and sportive attraction. You can choose between many Ways of St. James. They differ in levels of difficulty and of course the duration.
The most popular routes start in Portugal, France and Spain. Hearing of a pilgrims way like the Way of St.James, most people think they have to be religious to go there. You really don’t need to be, I promise. Personally, I did it all for myself without religious intentions, just like many, many other pilgrims that I met.
But everybody who walked the Camino once will confirm: There is a special spirit in the air and among the pilgrims. Time runs by fast and is stopped at the same time. And as soon as you’re back home, you miss the daily pain in your legs and your new friends you laughed, cried, suffered and got drunk with because of too much bad wine.
2. Okay – But How Do I Know Where I Have to Walk?
There are yellow arrows along the way that lead you to accommodations and finally to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Sounds too easy? Trust me it is! On the Camino Portugues, I had no problems to stay on the right path.
Plus, there are very good pilgrim maps that you can order online. I can only recommend them since most of them also give information about accommodations and hiking conditions along the way.
3. Walk, Eat, Sleep, Repeat… Where?
Don’t worry, you don’t have to sleep in the wild and feed yourself with berries like our old friend St. James. Being a pilgrim has become very easy in the past few years. On the popular routes, you won’t struggle to find a bed for the night in the pilgrims accommodations.
They are very cheap and most of them are clean. Bring earplugs, you will share rooms with many other (snoring) pilgrims (again: don’t worry, everybody gets used to this at some point).
Finding a nice place to eat was never a problem to me. There are very nice restaurants that even offer pilgrim menus for very good prices. Plus, many locals gain money by offering drinks and snacks to pilgrims passing their houses.
4. Most Important Things to Bring
Hiking shoes: Whether you can enjoy your Camino or have to suffer the whole time depends on your shoes. Do not underestimate the worth of good hiking shoes, they really are a must-have. Remember to run them in. I didn’t. Not my best idea!
Plasters: I haven’t met one pilgrim that didn’t have at least one blister…
Your personal Credential: Before starting your trip, you need to order a special Pilgrims ID-Card, the Credential, which allows you to stay at the pilgrims accommodations along the way. This is a very important and absolutely required document! You can order your Credential here.
For more information you can visit the website of the pilgrims office.