Thursday July 14th dawned clear and warm over the cobbled streets and the tattered buildings – packed like upright sardines – of Porto’s antique centre. An army marches on its stomach, and, contrary to popular opinion, so do those claiming (or pretending) to be engaged in spiritual pursuits like pilgrimage. A hungry pilgrim is a distracted pilgrim, so Emmy and I both ate a big breakfast in the dining room of the Vila Gale Hotel. I took on board a writhing snake pit of bacon rashers, a big shipment of chipolata sausages, and two fried eggs in a nest of scrambled eggs. This was followed by a potpourri of fresh fruit starring delicious, sweet and very juicy slices of orange. Emmy tucked in to a small mountain of cornflakes with fruit followed by an assortment of breads, croissants and pastries liberally treated with butter and jam.
After breakfast I did a final check of my backpack.
First aid kit.
Sun screen and lip balm.
Leatherman multi-function folding tool.
Wet weather gear (rain jacket and leggings).
Maps, guide book and pilgrim passport.
Filled water bottle.
Muesli bars and chocolate.
Yep, I agree… far too much stuff.
We had booked accommodation along the Camino through Follow The Camino, a company headquartered in Dublin that specialises in pilgrim travel for the deluded Catholics of that island, and this company also arranged for the “safari” transport of our two suitcases from point to point. Following the advice given by the “Pope” of Camino pilgrims, John Brierly, in his Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Portugues, we decided to make our start from Maia in the northern suburbs of Porto. So, leaving our suitcases at the hotel, we checked out around 9.00 a.m. and headed for the nearby Metro station.
Half an hour later we were standing disoriented in the middle of the modern local centre of Maia. It took a little scouting around before we found what must have once been the focal point of Maia but now passes almost unnoticed on the edge of the town’s hard new heart: the old tile-clad church known to locals by the slightly sinister name (in this age of terrorist bombings) of the Capela de Nossa Senhora do Bom Despacho. This is the local starting point for pilgrims heading north, and right beside the church – much to our relief – we spotted the first of the succession of yellow arrows that are going to conduct us all the way to Santiago de Compostela in the distant north-west corner of Spain.
Now we started walking in earnest. Conditions were perfect, with a temperature of around 22 degrees and a refreshing breeze in our faces. But it wasn’t all easy going. For a start, we walked the whole day on public streets and highways. The highways were busy, traffic travelled fast, and there were no footpaths. The local roads and streets were equally challenging – they were very narrow, stone cobbled, and often without footpaths, or with precariously narrow footpaths.
But it was good to be on the move. Slowly we emerged from the industrial estates of Porto and entered a world of cornfields and whitewashed houses with orange tiled roofs. Some houses were painted light yellow, pink or a beautiful peach colour, others were covered in an exotic façade of tiles with blue motifs on them.
We stopped once or twice to draw breath and drink. Around 1.00 p.m. we had lunch in a small café in the tiny village of Vilar, about 25 kms north of the centre of Porto. Lunch was a “hamburger” (the only item I recognised on the menu). I use the term “hamburger” loosely and
with reluctance because I can’t think of any other term to describe the thing that was put before us with a proud flourish. It consisted of a
very dry slice of cold and tough crumbed chicken, fried schnitzel style, between two halves of a Portuguese pao bread bun (also tough). No salad, no sauce. Its only saving grace was its price, just 1.35 euros (less than $2.00 Australian).
But somehow we were grateful for the nourishment, and its culinary shortcomings were more than offset by the hospitality of the lady behind the bar. I made the mistake of saying “Bom tard” to her (Good afternoon, I think) which triggered a torrent of Portuguese that broadened into a vast lake of story, complete with (if I understood her gestures correctly) tall-turreted castles with damsels in distress hanging from windows and an army of Don Quixotes galloping to the rescue. (Emmy thinks she might have been talking about something else, but I can’t image what that might have been.)
Our accommodation at the end of this first day (where I am writing this now) was the Quinta das Alfaias in the village of Fajozes, about 2 kms off the Camino route. This beautiful colonial-style guest house is built around extensive tree-filled grounds of dazzling green. Just to enter its simple rooms is restful, the water in the bathroom is plentiful and hot, and our hosts Teresa and Joao strike the right balance between an effusive
welcome and the hands-off service that tired walkers need.
In the evening Teresa prepared a memorable meal: an entrée of delicious Portuguese alheira sausage mashed up on a bed of spinach, followed by grilled dourado fish with roast vegetables and a dessert of profiteroles doused in chocolate sauce, all accompanied by local wines that lingered long on the tongue. We ate this banquet in the ornate dining room seated with two other guests around a large dark dining table lit with candles
that glinted on a pair of antique silver biscuit hoppers with fold-down flaps and mysterious doors.
Joao… look after your liver. Teresa… help Joao look after his liver.
(With apologies to readers of this blog for formatting and other technical difficulties I’m having with this posting. Good computers and fast internet connections seem to be hard to come by here in the country areas of northern Portugal.)