Day 1: Porto to Vila do Conde (35 km)
Twice on this journey, we have left Porto and twice a voice in my head is saying “Your work is not done here.”
I think it may be the voice of the good people who bottle 10-year-old Tawny Port.
More likely, it is just the soul of this venerable old city’s siren song, calling me back to discover more of its hidden pleasures.
I can’t compare Porto to other European cities. I have not been to others. So chalk it up to a mad crush and first love. An unjaded infatuation with this mad mashup of antiquity and modern — with a thousand sidewalk cafes and leafy parks and broad pedestrian boulevards and foods previously unimagined.
And hills. If you want to get anywhere in Porto, you’ve got to go up. Not coincidentally, Porto has an endless variety of ways to get around the city.
A few random scenes from Porto on the day before we left and the early-morning departure:
It helps when your guides to Porto are Mike and Laura Taylor, long-time pals from our days in Belize. They are in love with their adopted city and spent generous hours showing us their favorite dining spots, taverns, scenic overlooks, parks, shopping areas — we walked this city to death, both before and after the Camino. Their love of the Porto shines through in their every step.
And still, it calls me back for more.
So you can imagine what fun it was to rise at 5 a.m. just so we could walk out of the city and hoof it north to Spain.
Rue das Flores was dark, damp and empty when we stepped out the door. Street lights and neon shimmered on the misty sheen that settled during the night like a blanket over all. In the daytime, this is a slightly frayed pedestrian boulevard with cafes, coffeehouses, street artists, musicians, hawkers, tourist shops, and boutiques.
Each morning Flores begins as an empty stage. One by one, the actors appear to take their places. The tables and chairs are set out. The cast of beggars, waiters, shopowners, and street entertainers assembles. Music begins to play and the audience drifts in from side streets, alleys and main thoroughfares.
When we first checked in to our third-floor walkup a string trio was performing just to the right of our balcony on the street below. As I opened up the French doors, strains of “Hallelujah” floated in with the crisp light and cool breeze.
I took it as a good sign.
Scenes along Rua do Flores in Porto:
Indeed, we heard Leonard Cohen’s song on the Camino — once after an especially tough day that ended euphorically well and once shortly after we arrived in Santiago de Compostella. If Camino pilgrims need a theme song, I’d nominate Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
There are a couple of ways to leave Porto. The most common is to head straight north from Sè Cathedral through the urban and industrial jungle. In a day or so of walking you are out of the suburbs and on the Central Camino. Of course, you could take a bus or light rail out of the city and start fresh on the fringe, which many do.
We chose to walk down to Rio Douro and follow the river to the Atlantic Ocean, take a hard right and head north along the coast. It is clearly the prettier walk. Porto’s oceanfront is one long linear park with beaches and sculptures.
And it adds about five miles on to your first day’s walk. Something we didn’t fully take into consideration until much much later in the day.
But for a first day, you couldn’t ask for a more blissful start. As the sun began to rise, we watched the waterfront come to life. A passing peloton of cyclists took turns shouting “Bom Caminho!” as they zipped by. Hipsters stumbled out of a ferryboat converted to an all-night disco, and stared vacantly at us, like zombies.
As you distance yourself from the city, the coast turns to unspoiled sand dunes, protected by boardwalks that go on for miles. You share the boardwalk with beachgoers, casual strollers, hand-holding lovers, families, joggers, dog walkers.
On the Atlantic coast, between Porto and Vila do Conde:
They all seemed to be moving faster than we were.
Only rarely did we see another backpack-laden pilgrim.
As you walk along, the mind begins to work in strange ways. I remember walking along a clover and grass median and wondering how I would off-set the carbon loss should I find a four-leaf clover and pluck it. I also began counting squeaky and loose boards and vowed to come back with a power drill and fix all 187 of them.
Midway to Vila do Condo we stop at a white-linen seaside restaurant for some grilled whole fish, beer and salad. The restaurant is filled with families fresh from church for a Sunday mid-day meal. We, of course, smell like sweaty horses.
It is a beautiful walk but little of it feels like a pilgrimage. Especially when your fellow travelers are in beachwear and sandals.
Lunch along the Camino (left) and a Camino dinner in Vila do Conde:
At some point, probably right out the front door, I began to feel sorry for myself. My feet hurt, my backpack was overloaded, I was thirsty, it was getting hot, and my back was aching. And I could barely keep up with Rose.
That’s when we came upon Vinny and Joann from Atlanta. Vinny was carrying their soon-to-be two-year-old daughter, Olivia, in an Osprey carrier pack. Yes, he was doing the Camino with a two-year-old on his back.
Man, did my attitude change.
We walked almost the rest of the way into Vila do Conde with them. So inspirational. This was their third Camino and they are working on a blog for families that want to travel with their children. ( @vicente_us_travel on Instagram) Several times we met up along the Camino before they cruised on ahead of us. I called them my new Superheroes.
Walking into Vila do Conde set up a theme for the Comino. So many of the great little cities we entered were preceded by a beautiful old bridge over a river — at the mouth of the Ave River, in this case.
The huge Mosteiro de Santa rises on the other side of the bridge, a beacon to the finish line for the day. I tell myself, let this gorgeous building be the public auberge, with hundreds of beds including one each for me and Rose.
But it isn’t.
The nondescript auberge is a few blocks up the hill past the monastery.
And it is full. It is late afternoon and we are well behind any Camino hikers, apparently.
The manager kindly calls around — they do this a lot, we learned — and found us a room at the Venceslau Restaurant/Hostel, 300 meters up the street. We find the restaurant, but it is closed and knocking on several doors makes nothing happen.
“It is around back,” offers a nice Irishman who is headed for the same place with his walking companion.
The four of us head around back.
“I only have three beds,” says the man behind the glass booth.
“That’s OK,” I assure him. “I’ll sleep on the floor.” And I would have.
“Not possible,” he says, unmoved by my gesture.
Our first Camino crisis.
We four stand there awkwardly, wonder what the next move is.
“There are several places back down by the river,” the hostel manager suggests.
One of the Irishmen speaks up, “OK, we’ll try them. You guys take the bunks here.”
We thank them profusely. I think my crying in a fetal ball on the floor turned things in our favor.
Inside the dark, humid, and a touch smelly room, we find four bunkbeds. One is occupied by an enormous sleeping German wearing a black speedo. Only a black speedo. His long flowing hair and enormous beard match his huge size.
We’ve found Hagrid.
And he’s wearing a respiratory ventilator. He looks like the Star Wars version of Hagrid. But in a black speedo.
He is sleeping. Or dead. Either way, Rose quickly claims the top bunk. Safety in altitude. A defendable space. And all that. We quietly unpack, clean up and head out for our first Camino pilgrim meal.
You can get a pilgrim meal just about anywhere along the Camino. It is a generous serving of soup and bread, and fish or meat or pasta, even an omelet, and salad, and a hefty carafe of wine for about 9 euros.
Back in the room, Hagrid awakens. He is fiddling with a little clamshell phone and asks me if I can fix it for him. Apparently is buzzes and beeps when he turns it on. I tell him they are supposed to do that. He’s unconvinced but shrugs.
He points to his CPAP machine and says “that is for you.” He smiles. I can imagine the snoring that must go on without it.
We try to carry on a little polite conversation but my German is even worse than his English. It is his third Camino. Last year he took his 80-year-old mother for a short segment leading into Santiago.
I mention Mexico, where we live. He says something about wearing a sombrero. I think he is asking about the president of Mexico and try to offer some positive thoughts. He tries again and I thought he said “Trump.” So I told him how much I despise the man.
He can’t figure out why a man would hate sombreros so vehemently.
We sort it out and say goodnight. Hagrid stands up and opens a window for fresh air. Rose shields her eyes. Too late, I think.
We all quickly drift off to sleep.
What a day. Bom Caminho.