I am on my second Camino having abandoned the Lisbon route after developing shin splints after two and a half days (and 30 miles). The Lisbon route was brutal with little support and a poorly marked route. After three hours of city walking, the arrows led me to a raised path beside the Rio Trancao, where I slogged through mud for over two hours and continually wondered if I'd missed a turn. I fell twice, the second time losing my glasses down the steep wet bank. I was grateful I had another pair tucked in my backpack. When I saw a village in the distance, I almost cried. However, upon entering the village I discovered there were no accommodations and had to walk on. I walked sixteen miles that day before I found a hotel-a four star one at that-and wasn't sure they'd give me a room with my wild eyed look and mud caked almost to my knees. But they gave me a good deal and threw in breakfast, too. And stamped my Pilgrim Passport! A very auspicious beginning to my Camino and my birthday to boot! The second day out of Lisbon was a significantly better trail, a boardwalk through a marsh and then a waterfront running trail and I logged ten miles that day before checking into a hostel. But the damage had been done the day before and I felt pain I'd never felt, specifically in my right hip and left shin. When I left the hostel the next morning, the kind morning manager Paolo, suggested I stay one more night. But being my stubborn self, I pressed on. After three miles I knew something wasn't right and I decided to take a train to Porto at the next train station I found. I had met no other walkers in my two and a half days aside from a German man at the cathedral in Lisbon who I walked beside for a few hours through Lisbon's city streets. Now, on a sandy path following the train tracks, I had to rest my leg and leaned up against a fence. Within minutes I heard voices and a couple about my age with backpacks and walking poles came down the road. They stopped to talk and, when I told them about my leg, diagnosed shin splints. "Maybe the most common Camino injury!" The man, Robert, told me to get off my feet as soon as possible and let it heal. When I mentioned my idea to take a train to Porto, rest up and start again, they concurred. When I lamented my poor start, Robert told me this was his seventh Camino and he'd never seen such poor conditions as the route outside Lisbon. He himself had fallen three times!
The train to Porto was a sad ride. I felt defeated and wimpy. Was my Camino over already? I found an inexpensive hotel in the center of Porto and booked three days. I went to a farmacia (pharmacy) and spoke with the pharmacist. His English was pretty good and he looked at my shin and pressed from just under my knee to my ankle. He said that I needed to elevate my leg frequently, apply ice and no long distance walks for three to five days. I hobbled back to my hotel with a tube of Reumon Gel in my pocket. I spent five days in Porto and every day my leg and my attitude improved. The Reumon Gel was a big help with my hip as well as my shin. I ventured out on increasingly longer walks every day. Finally making my way to the cathedral of Porto to get a new Pilgrim Passport. And on Monday, April 11th, I took off from Porto determined to walk short stages every day. The difference between the start in Lisbon and the start in Porto was stark. Porto is the much more common starting point and the support is phenomenal. The route is way marked so frequently, I can't imagine how one would get lost.
The first day I logged a bit over six miles. I was glad to see the sign for Casa de Laura at 1:30 in the afternoon and was the first to check in. I elevated my leg for two hours before any other pilgrims arrived. In no time the albergue was full. (An albergue is a hostel that provides beds to Camino pilgrims-usually in a dormitory type setting- at a very reasonable rate) A south African couple, a Dutch couple, two elderly Frenchman and a French woman about my age took the other beds. There is a wonderful camaraderie that occurs in the albergues. I was the newbie and everyone offered advice and suggestions. It was all welcome. The second day I had planned to stop at a albergue six miles away, but I arrived so early (11:15), it was closed for cleaning. I bought a few bananas and some yogurt at a small mercado and moved on. I was a little nervous as there were few places to stay in the next leg, but by 2:00 I'd arrived at the next stop and checked in. Within two hours, three German men checked in to fill the remaining beds in the small room. The albergue and bar (a bar here isn't a bar per se, but a cafe of sorts serving coffee and meals as well as alcohol) was run by a dynamic man named Antonio Ferreira. His bar was a shrine to jazz and jazz musicians with old instruments on the walls and countless framed photos of jazz legends. Terrific jazz music was always playing in the background. He served an equally terrific Pilgrim's meal of vegetable soup, cod fritters (a traditional food here) and brown rice and beans. I went to sleep that night to the snores of my bunkmates, but happy nonetheless. Wednesday was another short day, six miles, and at 11:30 they let me check in to the albergue early. I took a shower, washed my clothes in a washtub and hung them to dry in the courtyard and put my leg up while writing in my journal. Other folks began showing up around 1:30 and soon this big albergue was almost full. I had grabbed a bed in a room with only three beds and the French woman from my first night at Casa de Laura was one of my roommates and an American woman from Boston, Jackie. The first American I'd met! We ate dinner together that night in the bar next door-vegetable soup, a huge piece of perfectly cooked salmon, a salad and French fries along with half a litre of local wine. Jackie and I discussed the next days walk and decided on a small albergue that slept ten almost twelve miles away. I was concerned I couldn't go that far although my leg and hip were feeling pretty good. If I got there too late and all the beds were taken, I'd have to walk an additional two to three miles to the next place to stay. Jackie, a fast walker, promised to save me a bed when she got there. I arrived 40 minutes after her and claimed the ninth bed. An elderly Englishman, Dennis, arrived minutes after me and took the last bed. This particular albergue is run by a woman and her husband, Fernanda and Jacinto, who have lived on the Camino Portuguese trail for many years. They began welcoming pilgrims to stay quite a few years ago, sometimes just offering floor space to throw down a sleeping bag. A few years ago they built a timberframe bunkhouse. Ten beds, two full bathrooms with a big welcoming porch. Fernanda served a huge meal in the evening in her home and it was a rambunctious affair. She started off with appetizers of codfish fritters and homemade wine. Then the ubiquitous vegetable soup, rice, chicken, sausage and vegetables with more wine. There was a lot of laughter and sharing of stories. I couldn't help but think about what kind of person it takes to open your house night after night to groups of unknown pilgrims. To shelter and feed them and all on a donation basis. Fernanda's huge garden provided all the vegetables for the meal with the exceptions of the carrots because, as she explained, hers had been tiny this season.
She was as warm hearted as anyone I've met and her husband was just as kind although much more in the background. Their 14 year old daughter Mariana, was in and out and acted like a house full of strangers was nothing new, which of course it wasn't. That night was a symphony of snores and made me glad I'd actually booked a hotel room for the next night. The next morning, after a nice breakfast in the main house we all said our goodbyes, sad to leave such a wonderful place. Every day this week it has threatened rain. A few times it would shower for five to ten minutes, but it was never a downpour. Yet most every night it poured, frequently with thunder and lightning. It seemed at dawn, the rain would stop in time for us to begin our walks. But that morning at Fernanda's the rain kept on. Not hard, but persistent. I was the first one to leave that morning and it wasn't too bad. The rain was gentle and the temperature mild. The first mile was through vineyards and so lovely I couldn't help but stop frequently to take pictures. The paths were sandy trails or narrow cobblestone roads and it was pretty easy going. After four miles I congratulated myself on still having dry shoes and socks. Then the skies opened up and dumped torrential rain down on me. After twenty minutes I gave up trying to walk around puddles because the cobblestone path I was on had turned into a stream. I was soaked through my raincoat and three layers of shirts. The temperature dropped a bit and all I wanted was a hot shower. The heavy rain continued the rest of my walk into Ponte de Lima, another five miles. Surprisingly though, it was one of my favorite days thus far. The landscape was magical, vineyards and orchards, eucalyptus forests and waterfalls. I was entranced. In previous days, when I had to walk down a rocky or moss covered cobblestone slope, I'd tense up afraid I'd lose my footing and fall-maybe remembering my falls outside of Lisbon. But yesterday I decided to loosen up and relax as I walked down the wet trails. I was still very careful where I placed my feet, but let my body slacken. It was a revelation! I arrived in Ponte de Lima yesterday at 12:45, soaked to the bone but free of any pain! When I saw my room (a bathtub!), I asked for an extra night to have an opportunity to dry all my clothes and my backpack (even though I had a rain cover, my backpack took on some water). So today I went to the farmers market, the farmacia and the ATM. I had coffee and a croissant at a bakery and will cook myself dinner in my tiny kitchen. Tomorrow morning I'll cross the Medieval bridge (rebuilt in 1368 on Roman foundations) over the Rio Lima and head on. I'm now less than 100 miles from Santiago. In a couple days I'll cross over into Spain. I can only hope the rest of my walk is as magical as it's been so far. It is not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but it is satisfying and fulfilling.
Waterfall beside the road
A woman walking her goats
Lots of medieval bridges...
and cobblestone lanes.
The lively group at Fernanda's.
The peace of wild things.