Camino: Porto to Santiago, Uncategorized

Feeling like hell, ending up in heaven: Casa Fernanda

IMG_6044Day 3: Barcelinhos to Lugar do Coro (22 km, feels like 22 until the last 5 km …)

According to the Camino guidebook, the next destination is supposed to be Ponte de Lima, about 22 miles from Barcelhinos.

After two grueling days, my first thought was “No way in hell.”

There were plenty of smaller towns between Barcelos and Ponte de Lima.  “Less walking, more enjoying,” was to be our new mantra.

Walking through Barcelos in the early morning mist:

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I should note that there is a two-track Camino pathway. Many people religiously follow the guidance of John Brierley who tends to stop at the bigger towns along the  Way. Germans have a book of their own that seems to follow a similar itinerary. (One day we stopped at a private auberge that was filled with German pilgrims and most of the staff were German, too. Clearly a strong recommendation in their guidebook!)

It becomes a crowded field when you follow Brierley, even in the slow season of late-September. Other pilgrims use his book to avoid the highly recommended hostels and auberges. They follow an itinerary with stops in between the bigger towns.

We decided to try that. Maybe our aching feet and exhausted bodies decided that. Two towns looked promising on this day, Balugaes and Lugar do Corgo, the latter about 13 miles away, with some decent hills in between.

Walking into Barcelos from Barcelhinos across the mist-shrouded bridge was exhilarating. And it took us all of 15 minutes from our hostel to do so. Yes, crossing bridges into magical Medieval towns is a definite theme along this Camino.

The first thing you notice is the roosters. Not real ones. Statues. Lots of rooster statues.

The rooster is the national symbol of Portugal and legend says the icon got its start in Barcelos when a pilgrim accused of stealing was facing execution but claimed his innocence would be proved when a roasted rooster crowed three times.

Guess what happened.

Like many well-preserved towns along the Camino, Barcelos has lots of traffic-free streets and public squares filled with historic structures and museums, intriguing shops, and sidewalk cafes — none of which we could avail ourselves because, you know, walking!

What we did encounter were lots more pilgrims. For the first time, we were in the midst of dozens of other travelers. We saw Vinny and his wife and daughter, our Ethiopian friends, an octet of very happy Brazilians and an Australian family of six — all of whom would become intermittent Camino companions right into Santiago de Compostela.

We also encountered our first challenging hill, Alto da Portela. Not that it was so high — only 170 meters to the peak — but it wasted no real estate in getting there. 

The iconic Ponte das Tabuas (The Bridge of Boards) is still named after the structure that first crossed the river Neiva in the 1100s:

Of course, the challenge in a hill climb is relevant to the person climbing. I huffed and puffed in the style of an old man on his last legs. Meanwhile, the 7-8-year-old Australian lad known to me as Iggy’s little brother, ran to the top to catch up with his dad.

Suffice to say, it was a beautiful walk. The small towns and churches in valleys below were bucolic pictures, just the kind of countryside you would imagine in a tourism brochure for Portugal.

I’ll post lots of pictures below.

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I want to jump ahead to the point where we hit the wall and pretty much became walking zombies with no place to rest our heads for the night. (Let me assure you, the whole trip was not like this. It just took a few days to adjust.)

It was mid-afternoon under a boiling sun, somewhere after crossing the magical Ponte de Tabuas and lunching at a very busy Pilgrim restaurant. The crush of pilgrims had pulled well ahead of us and we were once again walking alone.

No matter how long we walked, up and down the hills, Google maps seemed to always indicate that we were still five kilometers from our destination.

How can this be?

It turns out Google was all about the N-203, a nice wide and straight highway. The Camino is all about zigging and zagging, and curving around obstacles, and bypassing the center of towns, and skirting the edge of cornfields.

In a word, it meanders.

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An oasis at the end of the day, Casa Fernanda.

When we finally got within 12 minutes (according to Google) of Lugar do Corgo, I started looking for a place to stay. The first one I called was Casa Fernanda, also the closest to us. The name also sounded vaguely familiar. I later recalled a blogger who raved about the warmth and generosity of Fernanda and her family.

Fernanda answered the phone.

“No, I’m sorry. I haven’t a thing left. But you are so close. Come to the house and I will see what I can do.”

This didn’t sound promising.

About a half-hour later we arrived. Fernanda Gomes Rodrigues met us at the entrance to her house with her phone in hand. She pointed to the back yard, filled with soft couches and chairs, and a cluster of middle-aged French women all clutching carry-on luggage that had been shipped ahead for them. They were waiting for the dorm beds to be prepared.

Inside the Casa Fernanda compound, sketch by Monika Miller:

“We really are amateurs,” I thought.

“Come and sit,” urged Fernanda. “I have been calling around but no one is getting back to me yet.”

We sat in the coolness of the back patio and as Fernanda had urged, we kicked off our boots. We watched other pilgrims hanging their fresh wash on the line and, dear god, drinking wine.

Fernanda eventually returned bearing the saddest look I’d ever seen.

“I’m having no luck. Everything in town is full. I am still waiting on the Brazilians. They made their reservation six months ago.”

“They’re on their way,” I assured her.

Just about then, the cheerful band of Brazilians with whom we had been shouting “Bom Caminho!” back and forth for most of the day strolled into the yard.

“Chegamos!” 

Our hearts hit bottom.

Dinner for 25 at Casa Fernanda:

Fernanda greeted her guests and went about the business of getting them settled in.

“Come with me,” she whispered later.

Around the back of her dormitory was a porch and on it was a mattress. Hanging from the ceiling was a mosquito net. 

“You are welcome to sleep here,” she said apologetically. “Of course, you can use the bathrooms in the dorm.”

“Fernanda, this looks like the honeymoon suite. Thank you!”

She smiled. “I suggest you get into the showers before the French,” she added.

An Australian couple we’d been talking with, Ken and Trece, offered the use of their shower. They had a private room off the side of the dorm.

I think only the birth of my children, my marriage to Rose, and finding out I had enough income to retire topped the feeling of landing at Fernanda’s.

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German artist Monika Miller sketched the entire dinner party at Casa Fernanda, during dinner.

And it turned out, she had been farming out pilgrims to the spare bedrooms of friends and other hostels all afternoon.

Freshly showered and changed, we sat with Ken and Terce as Fernanda and her daughter, Mariana, and a helper brought out pitchers of wine and snacks.

When it came time for dinner, Fernanda had a table set for 25, some coming from neighboring households where she’d caged them beds for the night.

There was pork, fish, salads, roasted vegetables, and lots more wine — all served family-style. Rose sat across from me. To my immediate right were Germans, to my left Australians, and next to them were two American women from Oregon. The French and Brazilians anchored the other end of the table and in between were people whose nationality was … who knows?

During supper, Fernanda’s husband, Jacinto, arrived home and jumped in. He carried plates to the table and offered a guitar to anyone who knew how to play. Not far behind him, a German bicyclist strolled in and Fernanda found him a place at the table. He’d pedaled all the way from Porto that day.

Talk and laughter rolled up and down the long table like a giddy roller-coaster ride. 

Monika Miller, a university art teacher from Germany serenly sketched a portrait of the dinner table, all 28 guests plus Fernanda. It was a remarkable feat. Monika filled two books with sketches during her Camino.

When supper was over Jacinto and Fernanda lead everyone in songs. Some groups sang songs popular in their own countries. When those were exhausted, everyone sang John Denver’s “Country Road.”

Everyone.

IMG_5904 (1)About then, Jacinto broke out some half-filled bottles of a white liquor and shot glasses and spread them around the table. Whatever it was, even the durable Germans backed off after one sip.

What else is there to follow that up with but “YMCA”? Lead by the Brazilians and Fernanda, half the surviving guests lined up to mime the letters, hip-bump,  and boogie.

Rose disappeared. Exhausted, I assumed. But Fernanda was missing, too.

Rose came back later.

“I’m really tired. I’m going to bed. Fernanda gave ours to the cyclist. Walk past the porch and look for a door.” She walked back out.

Some very saucy Brazilian songs and a fairly rough couple of choruses of “Hallelujah” later, and I was ready to hit the sack.

But where? Rose had said something about our bed going to the cyclist but … you know … wine.

I found it. A hidden room around back. With a 100-year-old four-poster bed and a private bathroom. Fernanda said it was her private room for family and friends.

In the morning, Fernanda would be busily setting out breakfast. Jacinto would already be off to work and their daughter off to school. 

I am in awe that she would be doing the very same thing again, that afternoon and the next and the next. As she has been for many years.

The Brierley guide book suggests Casa Fernanda “will refresh body and soul.”

It is so right.

Bom Caminho!

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3 thoughts on “Feeling like hell, ending up in heaven: Casa Fernanda

  1. Pingback: Feeling like hell, ending up in heaven: Casa Fernanda « Bound for Belize

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