We arrive in Santiago de Compostela

After two weeks on the road (12 days walking and two days of rest in the halfway point of Tuy) we have arrived footsore and tired but very satisfied in the pilgrim city of Santiago de Compostela. We covered around 230 kms from our beginning point in Porto, northern Portugal.

Over the next few days I will try to “back fill” my thoughts and our experiences over the six-day sector of the Camino from Tuy to Santiago. Stay tuned. Meanwhile, greetings from the capital of Galicia in north west Spain.


I get medical treatment in Tuy

The three-day walk from Barcelos in northern Portugal to Tuy on the Spanish border took us through the picturesque old town of Ponte de Lima, and across easily the most difficult terrain we had encountered on the Camino.

As we lay asleep in our hotel in Ponte de Lima, the quiet, antique streets and riverside park outside the hotel were transformed into a choppy sea of white awnings. At nine in the morning we stepped from the hotel straight into the town’s famous weekly market. There were stalls selling huge stacks of cured pork, fruit and vegetables, clothes, sausages in every possible shape and size, ridiculously cheap shoes, farm tools, rocky mountains of breads and pastries, home-made toys, intricate lace-work and beautifully embroidered linen, books, CDs …

The crowd was so dense that Emmy and I became separated. How could we have foreseen this? We had no contingency plan for finding each other in the alleys of a market that had unexpectedly materialised around us. It was almost half an hour before we managed to locate each other. We crossed the long medieval stone bridge – the “bridge of limes” that gives the town its name – and picked up the arrows of the Camino in the narrow cobbled streets on the northern bank.

For a time we walked through quiet, tree-shaded lanes. We came across a shepherd with a long stick keeping watch over (to my Australian eye) a mangy collection of about a dozen sheep. The villages, like most we passed through in Portugal, were deserted, the neat stone houses tightly shuttered with guard dogs barking in their front yards. Occasionally we encountered an elderly man or a black-clad woman and we exchanged greetings: “Bom dia”.

North of Barcelos the Camino has become a steep, stony rut

The path bent upwards and narrowed. We began a long, steep, physically demanding ascent into wooded hills. In places the Camino shrank to a stony rut in the hillside. For the first time we made heavy use of our walking poles. Repeatedly we stopped to drink and draw breath. We were utterly alone. As we approached the summit of the ridge we walked into a drenching mist – not wet enough to warrant unpacking our wet weather gear, but wet enough to cover us in a clammy film of water. Around us the trees stood silent and fingers of mist reached out to coil around the track’s way markers.

It was a long day, but we survived, and two days later we walked across the “international bridge” over the Minho River into Spain. From the beginning we had planned to take a two-day rest in Tuy, the halfway point between Porto and Santiago de Compostela. Since my fall in Barcelos I had been troubled by a sharp, sometimes excruciating, pain in the right side of my rib cage. It had been difficult to sleep and difficult to carry a backpack. I thought I might have cracked a rib, perhaps worse. For three days I had been living on Panadol. So the break in Tuy gave me a chance to do something about the injury.

The following morning I asked the hotel receptionist to recommend a good doctor who could speak English. He frowned, then frowned more deeply, then rubbed his brow and slowly shook his head.
“What about a hospital? Is there a hospital here in Tuy?”
The clouds lifted at once.
“Just around the corner. No more than two hundred metres away.”

We went around the corner but saw nothing that resembled a hospital. Across a small plaza I noticed an ambulance parked in a street side parking space beside a parking metre. Behind it stood a low, unmarked building with a small crowd of people milling around its corner entrance. There it was… the Tuy general hospital.

Inside I queued up with about a dozen other outpatients. After five minutes I made it to the counter and was greeted by a triage clerk who spoke halting but passable English. I explained to her what had happened and why I needed treatment. She entered my passport details and the gist of my story into her computer, but she kept shaking her head and pursing her lips. The signs were not good.

Then, trying to embellish my story, I mentioned that I was walking the Camino. Her demeanour cleared instantly.
“Do you have your pilgrim credencial, your pilgrim’s passport?”
I handed it over. She took it in both hand, propped it against the screen of her computer and copied its details. Then she disappeared into a back room. Though a window I could see her talking on the phone, waving her hands and nodding very fast.
When she came back she was smiling a beautiful smile.
“A doctor will see you,” she said speaking slowly and clearly in her very best English. “Please go upstairs to room twenty-three. Understand?”
She held up two fingers. “Two.”
Then three fingers “Three…. you understand? Twen-ty-three.”

I understood and sprinted perhaps a bit too hastily up the stairs. In front of Room 23 about a dozen people were sitting or standing in various stages of somnambulance. I saw at once that I could be in for a long wait.

But I was wrong. After about ten minutes the door flew open, a patient staggered out, and the doctor appeared. He looked over the queue, pointed at me and said “You!”
He was short, middle-aged, balding and very businesslike. He spoke no English.

Inside, I tried to mime what had happened to me. Exaggerating as best I could I walked around the room bent double under a 50 kilo backpack. I stumbled and crashed on to one of the chairs showing how the backpack had caused me to topple and had crushed my abdomen flat. I pointed at the right side of my rib cage and grimaced in anguish.

The doctor looked on astonished. Then suddenly, without waiting for my performance to finish, he grabbed my right arm and yanked it. I gasped in pain. He nodded then grabbed my left arm and yanked it in the same way. This didn’t hurt at all, so he nodded again. Then he pressed his stethoscope to the right side of my chest, presumably listening for crushed ribs grinding against one another. Again he nodded, this time with satisfaction.
“Credencial,” he commanded. I handed it over. He copied something from it then lifted the phone and unleashed a burst of Spanish.
“OK. Go.” He pushed me into a neighbouring room, shook my hand, and left me there with a nurse. She had huge shoulders, a huge bosom and a huge smile. She was also holding a huge syringe with a very long needle. She stood with legs apart like a medieval knight astride a horse about to lower his lance and charge into the jousting lists. With a very feminine wiggle of her bottom she suggested that I lower my pants.

I pointed at the syringe. “What is that?”
Amid the torrent of Spanish that followed I recognised the word “anti-inflammatorio”. This reassured me (though only a little). I uncovered a buttock and she plunged the needle in. Then she handed me a small stack of blister-packed paracetamol pills.
“Dos tabletas cada ocho oras!” and she pushed me towards the door.
I rubbed my thumb and forefinger together. “How much?”
She just laughed and shoved me out the door. My treatment was over.

In Tuy hospital Quinn (black eye still visible) is feeling much better after Spanish-style medical treatment.

In the waiting area I sat down for a moment to consider what had happened. Already the pain in my side was subsiding and I felt much better. I had received the very best possible medical care. It was quick, it was lo-tech, it was effective and it was free.

I thought back a few months. My GP in Canberra had referred me to a surgeon to have a tiny black mole removed from my left calf. The mole was not cancerous, its removal was simply a precaution. Over the years I have had some six or seven similar moles removed, usually by a local GP in his rooms.

But on this occasion, much to my surprise, I was formally admitted to Canberra Private Hospital. I was instructed to remove all my clothes and put on a backless surgical gown, paper underpants, a paper cap and paper slippers. I was then instructed – against my objections – to sit in a wheelchair to be pushed the 25 metres to the operating theatre. At the entrance to the theatre a nurse with a clipboard checked on my awareness of what was going on.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
Actually, I had not the slightest idea why I was sitting in a wheelchair in a surgical gown and paper underpants. But I knew this was not the moment to be smart-arsed.

Something has gone badly wrong with medical care in Australia. Why can’t we do it like they do in Spain? Quick, lo-tech, effective and free.
Sure, not all medical conditions can be treated in this way. But most problems are minor, like my benign mole, and can be treated in this way. Increasingly, fear of legal action, obsession with hi-tech solutions, and the transformation of medicine into a profit-generating industry is destroying simple, inexpensive care in Australia.

And now a rhetorical question. Can you imagine a doctor in Australia giving you priority because you hold a pilgrim’s credencial?

From a mini masterpiece to a wallowing hippopotamus: The country cuisine of northern Portugal

If you are a vegetarian you will starve to death in the country areas of northern Portugal. Most dishes are built around meat. Pork is the most popular, followed by beef, but surprisingly chicken does not feature prominently on most menus and is often absent altogether. Teetotallers may also have a hard time. On the several occasions when we ate without ordering wine – choosing instead tea or Coca Cola or (horror of horrors) water – we were met with glances of polite incredulity.
When you sit down in a café or restaurant in Portugal a couvert instantly appears. This is a small basket containing chunks of fresh bread and floury, crispy-crusted rolls. Sometimes it is accompanied by butter, cheese and olives. You nibble on this while your meal is being prepared.

Here are some of the dishes we ate during our six days of hard walking through northern Portugal from Porto to Valenca. I have ranked them from best to worst.

Alheira sausage on a bed of spinach This wonderfully savoury dish was prepared by Teresa at the Quinta das Alfaias in Fajozes just north of Porto. It was a served as an entrée before the equally savoury but more conventional main course of grilled dourado fish and roast vegetables. The alheira is a large U-shaped smoked sausage that – Teresa told us – contains many different meats, but no pork. It was originally invented in the middle ages by the beleaguered Jews of Portugal. To protect themselves from the Inquisition they pretended to be good Christians. They convinced the Inquisition (who – being religious fanatics – were none too bright) that there was pork in the alheira sausage. It was a sausage-based, life-or-death, strategy for the Jews. By eating alheira they saved themselves from torture. They also enjoyed a fine delicacy, had a quiet laugh at the expense of the Catholic Church and ultimately made lots of money when alheira sausages became popular among the “real” Christian population. The interesting history of the delicacy gave it extra tang as we devoured it. Teresa served the alheira finely spiced and chopped on a bed of shredded, lightly blanched spinach. This dish would ornament the menu of any restaurant in the world. ✭✭✭✭✭

Melon and pork entree in Ponte de Lima

Melon with cured pork We encountered this surprising entrée at the otherwise totally undistinguished Restaurante Imperio do Minho in Ponte de Lima. The melon was of the pale-fleshed, honeydew variety, only much better than the honeydew melons of Australia: fresh, dense, juicy, sweet and smoothly textured. It was cut into chunks and surrounded on the plate by thin-cut slices of dark, slightly salty, cured pork. The combination of melon and pork in this dish was unusual and delicious. ✭✭✭✭✩

Cecilia's "pilgrim's menu" at 8.50 euros

A “pilgrim’s menu” Many restaurants and snack bars along the Camino offer what they call a “pilgrim’s menu” which is usually a bit cheaper than other main items on the menu. The components of a pilgrim’s meal vary from establishment to establishment. Here is one such meal that we ate at the spacious Casa Cecilia restaurant between Gaia and Arcos. The meal started with a bowl of thin and fairly tasteless vegetable soup. This was followed by a main course of chicken schnitzel served with rice. The chicken was rather oily but reasonably succulent. Its coating was batter rather than bread crumbs but the coating was neither soggy nor overly dry. The rice tasted hard or under-cooked by comparison with the norm in Asia, and it came mixed with sweet raisins. The raisins were not seeded, so from time to time the teeth grated and crunched on these small hard seeds. The meal concluded with a refreshingly delicious baked apple served whole and flavoured with sticks of cinnamon protruding from the core. This was straightforward, honest fare, and something of a bargain at 8.50 euros (about $13 Australian) including a Coke (for me) and a small bottle of apple juice (for Emmy). ✭✭✭✩✩

We begin our excavation of the Cozido a Portugueza

Cozido a Portugueza When we entered the small “Restaurante Pedra Furada” in the village of Pedra Furada south of Barcelos it was 1.00 p.m in the afternoon, we had walked around 10 kilometres, and we were hungry. We were given an effusive welcome by Antonio, the proprietor. After placing a basket of breads on the table he returned with a glass of chilled red wine for me. (Emmy – being more cautious and abstemious – stuck with apple juice.) Drinking red wine cold was a local tradition, Antonio told us, and so was the lunch dish he was about to serve. Half an hour later a platter of Cozido a Portugueza was carefully lowered onto the table. At first it looked innocuous… like an ancient burial mound that concealed a mysterious interior. Around its foothills there were jagged boulders of boiled potato and long ridges of boiled carrot. The slopes and summit were thickly clad in vegetation… it looked like boiled kale but is known locally as couve cabbage. When we cleared some of this away we found what was indeed a kind of burial ground, a jumble of pork chunks and slices of pork sausage. The chunks came from various parts of the pig: there was muscle meat with thick fat clinging to it, there were bony joints with meat to be winkled out from nooks and crannies, and there were bacon-like rashers. Some chunks were boiled, others seemed to be fried or roasted and were pretty greasy. Lurking among them there were diagonal slices of at least two kinds of pork sausage.
The couve kale disappeared quickly and we levelled quite a lot of the potato and carrot. But we did struggle with the meat, and when we rose from the table much of it was still awaiting excavation. The Restaurante Pedra Furada is described as “award winning” in John Brierly’s Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino Portugues. As we hoisted our backpacks on to our backs and stepped out onto the road, we wondered: who bestowed the award? ✭✭✩✩✩

Francezinha: it should be arrested and put on trial for endangering human health

Francezinha I saw Francezinhas on the menu in most of the snack bars and cafes we visited in Portugal and I was determined to try one. I got an opportunity at the “Churrascaria Maritone 2” restaurant and snack bar in Tuido, just south of Valenca, where francezinhas were a house special (labelled Francezinhas a casa on the menu).
This dish is an outrage. It makes the food at McDonalds or KFC or Red Rooster look like Michelin three-hats haute cuisine. It makes damper and billy tea look like a gourmet banquet. It is probably called francezinha so the Portuguese can blame the French for it. It is a crime against humanity and a gross violation of human rights.
I am going to describe the francezinha that I had for lunch as unemotively as I can, so you can rest assured every syllable of my description is accurate and unexaggerated.
A francezinha is a kind of steak sandwich, but to say it is a steak sandwich is a grave insult to steak sandwiches. Between the two slices of bread in my francezinha there was a (very tough) slice of roast beef. Under that there was a layer composed of sliced Portuguese chorisa sausage. Further down there was layer of sliced ham, and under this a layer of sliced pork sausage. At the very bottom there was a thick slice of cheddar-style cheese. There was no sign of any vegetable matter (apart from the bread, of course). An egg was cracked over the top of all this and it was covered with a thick tarpaulin of mozzarella-style cheese before being placed in a kiln (sorry… kitchen oven) to melt the cheese and fuse the egg to the top of the bread.
Stick with me, dear reader, I haven’t finished yet. When the stack emerged from the oven it was doused very liberally in a kind of thickish, mildly spicy, brown sauce, like a combination of tomato sauce, barbeque sauce and Lee and Perrins HP sauce. The whole lot was served in a high-sided, flat-bottomed bowl. The francezinha appeared like a yellow hippopotamus wallowing in a mud hole.
I worked very seriously on taste-testing this abomination but managed to eat less than a quarter before feeling slightly ill and giving up. I turned with gratitude to the big side dish of rather thin and soggy potato chips that came with the main dish, but this too remained 90% uneaten when we made our escape from the restaurant.
“Zero stars” is much too generous for the francezinha, but what rating can I give it below zero? Hmmm, after careful thought I have decided to award it five “black holes”. ●●●●●

Fajozes to Barcelos: Disaster! (almost)

Our host at the Quinta das Alfaias in Fajozes was the cultivated and quietly eccentric Joao, husband of the indefatigable Teresa. As he introduced himself he raised his hand and pinched his nose.

“Joao,” he said, then insisted that I too pinch my nose as I said his name, to ensure I got the nasalised Portuguese pronunciation correct.

At dinner on Thursday night, Emmy and I were joined by a bishop of the Lutheran Church in Norway and his social-worker wife. Joao gently turned the conversation to religion. The bishop gave an up-beat assessment of Christianity in Norway, claiming that 78% of the population were Lutherans and that religious faith was gaining ground among the young people of his country. He was not boastful, but he did sound more like a PR man or an accountant than a priest of the church.

“And you, Joao,” I asked. “What is your religion?”
“Of course I am a Catholic, like almost all Portuguese.
“And what does Catholicism mean to you?”
He was silent, his long, mournful Iberian face and large eyes suddenly sardonic.
“I will tell you,” he answered in deep, slow, heavily accented English. “It means three things: be honest, pay your debts, and do no harm to anyone.”
“That doesn’t sound like mainstream Catholic dogma,” I said. “It sounds more like Confucius or an ancient Greek stoic.”
He seemed pleased with this comment, but made no response. Instead he put an artificial cigarette to his lips and drew on it, causing its tip to glow with a bright red, smokeless electric light. Behind the light his eyes were inscrutable.

As we slept on Thursday night a thick fog unrolled its silence over the countryside. Looking out on the garden in the morning the trees emerged and faded away like rigid ghosts, and the quinta’s pet birds made their shrill cries from behind a white-grey curtain. After a late breakfast, Emmy and I headed away from the quinta towards the Camino route with mist still blurring the distant tree-scapes. We were alone again, following a serpentine path through cornfields and stands of tall eucalyptus.

The previous night I had asked Joao about the Australian eucalyptus trees that dumped their leaf litter along the roadsides of Portugal and scented the hot air of mid afternoon with eucalyptus aroma.
His eyes smouldered momentarily. Joao disliked eucalyptus trees. In fact it would be more accurate to say he despised them.
“They are an Australian disease. They suck up water and destroy the environment that supports native plants.”

Nowhere to escape: trapped between traffic and high walls

On the Camino again we found ourselves walking on the edge of a narrow highway. The road was jammed between stone walls, sometimes for a kilometre or more at a time, with no footpath, nor even much of a shoulder or gutter. We walked on the left hand side so as to face on-coming traffic. Again and again we had to press ourselves against the wall beside us as big, fast-moving cargo trucks passed breathing hot air and diesel exhaust on to our necks.

For the first time, we heard the special greeting of the Camino. Two cyclists, splendid in elongated space-age helmets and shiny lycra, gave us a cheery “Bom Caminho” (pronounced /bong-ka-MEEN-yo/) as they buzzed past. And later in the day, in a rare moment of seclusion in a wooded section of the way, we came across our first fellow pilgrims. They were a husband and wife sitting on a rock drying their feet in the sun. The husband was tall and thin with a cavernous face, black hair and a swarthy complexion. His wife was short and plump with blond hair and a very fair complexion. We exchanged the “Bom Caminho” greeting. They were from Spain. The husband had started his walk in Lisbon and had been joined by his wife in Porto. Her face was streaming with sweat and she grimaced as she massaged her feet. She was doing it tough. But neither knew more than a word or two of English, and I knew only the numbers of Spanish, so after a couple of minutes waving our hands and pointing hopefully here and there, all communication stopped and we parted.

We were now walking deeper into the rich farmlands of northern Portugal. Huge sprinklers arched water over endless, dark green vistas of corn. Every house had its shady grottos of grape vines with small chandeliers of green berries already weighing heavy on the wires that supported them. Many houses were more like mini-mansions with Renault cars shining in their driveways. Tractors chugged up and down the roads.

But behind the outward signs of prosperity in this part of Portugal (elsewhere, especially in Porto, genteel poverty is more the rule) primordial religion seems to be thriving. Repeatedly we encountered roadside shrines that were obviously still in daily use. Characteristically these shrines are set into alcoves in roadside walls or in the facades of houses. About the size of a small window they hold an icon-like picture representing Christ, or Mary, or a local saint, or the “holy family”. Most of the images are painted on tiles and form the backdrop of the shrine. In front of them candles burn and small posies of fresh flowers stand in tiny vases. The whole recess is gated with iron trelliswork that shuts like a door flush with the face of the wall.

A typical wayside shrine

After a night in the one-tractor hamlet of Arcos, sleeping peacefully in a restored, medieval stone house that was now a quinta, we headed out on to increasingly quiet and narrow rural roads towards the old town of Barcelos.

On the edge of Barcelos we turned into a suburban avenue of middle-class houses and shady trees with old, park-bench seats under them. Nineteen kilometres had glided by since we left Arcos, and I was feeling good. In fact I was feeling downright pleased with myself. To this point neither Emmy nor I had felt the need to use our walking poles. Apart from the danger of passing traffic, the walk had been straightforward compared with some of the preparatory walks we had done around Canberra. So far so good, I thought.

SLAM!! Something hit me hard in the face.

It was the ground. I was stretched out, stunned, my mouth full of sandy dirt. For a moment I couldn’t get up. I lay gasping, groping about for my glasses.
Emmy helped me to my feet and sat me on the park-bench we had just passed. She handed me my twisted glasses. I was suddenly frightened – were the lenses broken? If they were, we were in big trouble. As Emmy pulled our first aid kit from my backpack I fitted my glasses, all curled awry, on my face. The lenses were intact, and after straightening the wire frames as best I could, I took stock. One side of my face was bleeding, my knees were skinned and a small demon was stabbing me in the right side of my rib cage.

Emmy swabbed the blood off my cheeks and lips and smeared white antiseptic powder on the abrasions. Slowly my head cleared and I assembled a picture of what had happened. I had been walking with a spring in my step along the front edge of a park bench, when the bench – obviously tuned to my complacent thoughts – had thrust out a concrete foot and tripped me up. Top-heavy under my backpack, I had fallen very hard.

We trudged on over the final kilometre towards the centre of Barcelos, crossing the town’s medieval stone bridge and labouring up a small hill under the dark grey of a medieval church. In the small plaza beside the church we stopped and had a quick drink then pressed on through the picturesque old centre of town with its narrow cobbled alleys and high narrow buildings flanking the streets like bar-codes.

We passed a “Church of the Good Jesus” and, on impulse, I said to Emmy “Let’s go in and get our credencial stamped.” (More on the institution of the pilgrim’s credencial or “passport” in a later posting.) The old, outwardly grim stone walls of the church hid an extravagant interior. High above the altar a small portrait of Jesus was framed by a towering, elaborately carved baroque alcove painted entirely in gold (see picture). On the floor to one side stood a bigger than life-size, realistic carving of Jesus skewered on a crucifix.

The warden, wearing a tie and neatly pressed trousers, spoke not one syllable of English, but his eyes brightened when we presented our credencial for him to stamp. He hurried into a small office to one side and busied himself at a big desk. Meanwhile I sat on one of the backless benches in the body of the church and took in the small echoes and creaks of the airy vault above me.

Extravagant interior of the Church of Good Jesus, Barcelos.

When we emerged from the church I felt better. The Camino is not your average walking trail. It has surprises and lessons. Its mystique compels the walker to see its vistas and moods and events in a moral light as if it was a living thing – a living teacher. For me, the lesson of my near-disastrous fall was that stamina alone is not enough to complete the walk. Unflagging concentration is required as well. And a certain humility.

But humility is hard to do. As I sit writing these words in our hotel room in Ponte de Lima, I see my reflection in the mirror above the standard hotel table.

A bit blanched by camera flash, but you can still see my pride and joy.

My fall has given me a big black eye. I’ve never had a black eye before. It’s a beauty. I feel quite proud of it.

Day 1 on the Camino

Emmy and me in the lobby of our Porto hotel about to take our first steps on the Camino.

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).

Walking poles.

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.

Near Maia church, Emmy was the first to spot one of the Camino´s famous yellow arrows (on the wall beside her knee)

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.)

Country-style hamburgers in Vilar north of Porto

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.)