How I walked the Camino de Santiago and lived to tell a tale (Part I)



Me, The Camino and basketball


At early evening, while sitting together at a coffee shop at Porto, it hit me. Listening to the sounds of seagulls, exhausted from a night that included a best friend’s wedding and a long flight, too tired to talk and each just contemplating how tomorrow will look like. Tomorrow – the day we are going to start walking the Camino de Santiago, the Portuguese route and become pilgrims, or Peregerinos.


While my comrades were thinking about the beginning of our journey to Compostela, I was busy contemplating how the hell did I get here? I didn’t even want to be here in the first place. A year ago, I decided I should get my act together. I quit smoking, relaunched my fitness plans and went back to shooting some hoops – I’m an avid basketball fan and former player.
it started rough as I haven’t played in so many years, the results were horrid on the court; I lost severe amounts of oxygen (the kind of loss that dictates wearing an oxygen mask), one left hand that forgot how to reach the hoop and a right foot that just wouldn’t obey. All in all, it was a general slow-motion mode for me while everybody else were fast forwarding. Off the court things weren’t looking so hot as well; cramped muscles, occasional vomiting and that dull pain in my lower back that has been haunting me for years.


As time went by, I could feel the slow process of improvement. I could breathe again, my arms and legs obeyed and I started aiming for the little leagues. I was playing again professionally, few minutes here and there. But unfortunately, my old back pains kicked in again and I was forced to hang my basketball shoes for good. Optimistic as I am, I was sure the back pain was going to subside. It did, it subsided to all other parts of my body. So, while wallowing in my self-pity I kept coming back to the fact the soon I’m supposed to walk the Camino. I’m supposed to be running around the paths of Portugal and Spain, indulging my friends who persuaded me to go on this about a year ago. Instead of sitting comfortably in my living room sofa and watching the European basketball cup, I’m going to walk the walk.


View of old Porto and Cathedral Porto
View from our hostel overlooking the old city of Porto


“Camino? Porque?”


And here I am, sitting with my two best friends at a coffee shop in Porto, determined to walk all the way to Compostela in Spain, despite my physical condition. As an added bonus, if Spain wins the EuroBasket I might even join in the local festivities while I’m there.  This determination filled me with satisfaction as I climbed my hostel dorm bed, listening to the seagulls talking to each other over the rooftops of old Porto. I fell into a quiet and undisturbed sleep.


“Camino? Porque?” a local man wondered as we left our hostel following the little arrows that fill each route of the Camino. Starting our walk from the Cathedral Porto, we succeeded in getting lost, a hard thing to achieve with all the yellow arrows to guide you. After about an hour we left beautiful Porto and its suburbs and started getting into pace. Being young and inexperienced we believed we can carry a lot of weight on our backs. That’s when we realized we were wrong. For all those planning to walk the road to Santiago, I strongly advise to prepare in advance. Luckily this forum is filled with the best reviews to help planning gear wise. A good backpack and weight management is super important.


yellow arrows guide the way in the camino de santiago
Yellow arrows lead the way


When we planned this trip, my friends said they’d help out. Chris – a veteran three point shooter, and Danny – a seasoned role player, fulfilled their promise and my personal equipment was divided between them.
the scenery stared changing and after about 15km, the urban view made way to corn fields and vineyards. Even before reaching Vilar do Pinheiro (our stop for the night), Chris’s shoes started falling apart and the smell of trouble was in the air.


I have nothing good to say about the following day. I remember nothing from the road itself, nothing from Vilarinho or Ponte do Arco, the two parishes we went through. I do remember the pain though. Chris’s Shoes kept shedding pieces and Danny’s neck had started troubling him badly. By the time we finally reached our next hostel my entire body ached and sored. On the plus side, here in the hostel was the first time we actually interacted with fellow pilgrims. Among those were a lovely Polish couple walking the Camino with their 6 months old baby. Wait, what??? A baby? Here I am, a grown man that needs 3 hours to get his breath back and these guys are managing with their baby? Apparently, there is such a thing as a hiking stroller and it can make such an experience more than doable.


Next day we left the hostel early and started a 17km walk to Barcelos. The path never stopped changing; from lush green woods into diverse farmlands. I remember making a stop in one vineyard, opening the camping gas stove we brought with us to make tea, when the Polish couple with the baby passed us by. They were going at an amazing pace and politely refused a cup of tea. Apparently, the only time they could make good pace was when their baby was asleep. Good thing they a good hiking stroller for that purpose.


At Barcelos we decided to have a day off. We needed bank services as we used travelers checks at that time. Since we got to Barcelos on Sunday, we thought it could be a great opportunity to take the day off and let our bodies rest for 24 hours. We also took the liberty to indulge in one of life’s greatest pleasures – A bathtub. A tub is an aching pilgrim secret desires. We spent that entire evening soaking our feet in a bath filled with hot water. The next day we found out that Barcelos’s Fire department is hosting pilgrims for one night at their fire station. Between fire tracks and fire sirens you are welcome to a mat and a place to lay your head. One of the Camino’s greatest joys is the hospitality you receive as a pilgrim.


A view from our Room at the Fire Department
A view of Barcelos Fire Department


The following day we left early to start our 37 km hike to Ponte de Lima. The road and yellow arrows took us through rural villages, where each family has its own sort of villa. 200 km to go until Santiago and we are still alive and even starting to enjoy ourselves.  As evening drew closer we started to realize we were lost, again. After wandering for a few hours, we reached an Albergue that upon further inspection was deserted and closed. So here we were, lost and tired we sat in front of a Vila to decide our next move. After about 5 minutes a guy comes out from the Vila with an obvious look of surprise as to why three tired looking men are sitting at the front of his house. After a quick conversation we realised we are 30 km from Ponte de Lima by taking a few wrong turns!  We started talking and ended up getting a ride to the actual albergue we were supposed to arrive to. Good things happen to pilgrims on the Camino.


Join me as I continue to walk the Camino Portuguese.