Camino: Porto to Santiago, Uncategorized

Alpine trails, mountain streams, fresh coffee, and Portela Grande — could there be a better day?

IMG_6205Ponte de Lima to Rubiaes, (18.6 km — feels like 18.6, except on Alto de Portela Grande)

There is a different mood in the air this morning as the clank, and flap, and zip of early risers assembling their backpacks awakened everybody else in the dormitory.

It started at 4 a.m. with the two guys sleeping in the beds next to me. I understand starting early to beat the afternoon heat, but walking three hours on mountain trails in the dark of night with, probably, only a headlamp to guide you?

By 6 a.m. the predawn dorm was an undulating shadow-sea of pilgrims rising up, gathering their scattered clothing, running off to the loo, bundling up their backpacks, and strapping on their boots. Occasionally the door would open and the motion-activated light in the hall would stream in, trapping shadows in the glare, momentarily freezing all like it was some big jailbreak.


Reluctantly leaving Ponte de Lima. So much left there to explore. A place I’d love to return to someday.

There was an overlay of anticipation in the air. 

This was the day.

Midway to Rubiaes was the challenging Alto da Portela Grande, a steep mountain trail. The tallest peak on the Portuguese Way. Even before reaching the Portela Grande, walkers faced 10 kilometers of steady uphill climbing.

An exertion all the way, but a joyful one. 

On the plus side, better than half the day’s journey would be on pine forest paths, alongside lush flowing mountain streams. The fresh air, mixed with pine, eucalyptus, dirt, and decay is exhilarating.

“Ain’t no mountain high enough ….”

But first, we had to get out of Ponte de Lima. In what seems to be a growing pattern, it took me all of 10 minutes to lose our way in the dark.

As we stood at a split in the road — Remember what I said about the “Truman Show”? — a woman appeared out of the darkness, a shawl over her head, long peasant dress to her shoes, an apron around her waist, a shopping bag hanging from her wrist. Straight from Central Casting.

She said not a word. She only pointed. And there, on the curb, we saw the comforting yellow arrow.

Again, “Obrigado! Obrigada! Bom Caminho!”

She nodded, smiled, and walked, stage right, off into the darkness.

We still weren’t into the wilderness, so to speak. 

Yellow arrows, so explicit in the daylight, can be elusive, chimera delusions, in the dark. 

We stood before a narrow, overly vegetated path that seemed to lead into the abyss and questioned our own judgment. I fumbled in the dark for Brierley’s bible. Maybe it had special insight on this juncture.

A man walked up the perfectly well-built and lit road that we’d just followed and pointed down the path.

Really? There?

He nodded.  Exit stage left.

Still, we hesitated. From the darkness came a sharp whistle. It came from another man, walking down the street.

With a jaunty swing of his arm and another sharp whistle, he pointed down the dark pathway.

So, we went.

And it got darker. Our little headlamps seemed to shrink in all the darkness. A wall began to rise to our left. Trees and undergrowth pushed in on our right. And suddenly the tenuous path morphed into a stand of tall grass.

A few feet ahead was a tunnel, barely four feet high. The entrance was cobwebbed.

As we backtracked, several other folks walked up the path. With our combined brainpower and the added lumens of a couple more headlamps, we deduced that the rising wall to our left was actually the pathway.

IMG_6225We emerged from this thick stand of trees to an open road and the first rays of sunlight. Our new friends veered off for coffee and we pressed on for another hour. 

In the fresh light, we could see the Rio Labruja, a busy mountain stream that had raised some racket in the darkness as it crashed over rocks, cascaded into waterfalls, and slurped and splattered through whirlpools. It held our attention and affection for several miles, as it loomed in and out of our view, like a playful puppy.

IMG_6203I was so taken with its many permutations that I went off-path to try and capture an especially forceful waterfall that I could only hear in the distance. An ancient trail with narrow granite slabs over rivulets and fissures lead me to a dam that once harnessed the power of the river and channeled it through a watermill, of which only foundation stones remain.

By the time I returned to the road, Rose was already sitting down at the Pescaria,  a little mountain cafe beside a picturesque fish hatchery. She was sipping coffee and listening to  Pavarotti when I arrived. 

Coffee, fish, a forest of pines still dripping from the mountain dew, and Pavarotti on the cafe’s sound system. This is how everyone should wake up in the morning. Fortified with caffeine and “La Boheme” we continued the slow ascent on mountain trails toward Portela Grande.


A large flat rock beside the trail was collecting small stones, a pilgrim tradition, many with names and dates on them. Rose paused to add a smooth round stone she’d carried from home. On one side, she’d written “Peace.” On the other, “Joy.” On the rim, she’d written our names. 

This was something she’d put some thought into. As you climb higher and higher, I think people feel that their expressed intentions are closer to their god, and have a better chance of being realized.

I can’t argue with that. This was the kind of walk that becomes a compelling argument for a Creative Force of some kind. Slow walking through endless miles of natural beauty creates a natural high that some equate with a god, with love, with rapture.

And it all works just fine.

At some point,  our companion from the night before, Robyn, materialized alongside us. She was walking with Olga, a tall blond Russian who lives in London. The thirtysomething Olga pressed on but Robyn walked with us the rest of the day.

I was able to lend her one of my walking sticks when we reached the base of Portela Grande.


Before that though, we had to pass the Sly Portugues Shepherd. He was a short handsome grandfatherly fellow in a blue sweater and white pinstripe shirt. He stood at a sharp bend in the road and watched his small herd grazing in a field nearby.

To the women, he was adorable.

Everyone wanted to kiss him on the cheeks and give him a hug.

Of course, that is exactly why he stood there.

“I hugged him twice,” said Robyn with a laugh. “When he started moving in for a third one, I said, ‘OK, that’s enough!” Rose gave him a peck on each cheek, so very continental. That night other women started describing similar encounters.

The man is my hero. And I’m willing to bet he doesn’t even own those sheep.

Portela Grande was indeed steep. And rocky. And beautiful.

But it wasn’t the Himalayas. Just a nice challenging hill.

***     ***      ***     ***     ***

And now, for a brief, educational, interlude as I tackle this hill …


Bags collecting pine resin in roughly the same way the work has been done for centuries.

A challenging hill, with lots of people harvesting bags of pine resin from the nearby trees.

Apparently, the Portuguese maritime pine forests are among the few in the world that can adequately supply the resin needed for turpentine for the perfume industry and as an ingredient in the manufacture of tires. Despite rising labor costs and international competition from China and Brazil.

I did not know this as we climbed through the forest, observing what looked like over-full diapers on the trees. Forests accounted for 39 percent of Portugal up until a decade ago. Then the usual buggers — foreign competition, disease, fire, and development — stepped in to cause a slight decline. The collection process is largely the same as when it was developed in the 1800s — and labor-intensive.

Curiously, eucalyptus trees took off. Their presence has increased 650 percent since the 1960s. 

All through Spain and Portugal, eucalyptus and pine grew side by side. It was rare to see a forest of all-pine or all-eucalyptus. On the other hand, all Australians took credit for the eucalyptus tree, a native to their land.

As recent as 1985 Portugal’s resin yield was around 100,000 tons. It plummeted to 50,000 tons by 1990 and as of 2005, it had stabilized at around 5,000 tons. China controls 70 percent of the world’s production of resin and is also the major consumer. Today, Portugal’s production barely meets its own industrial needs, with some resin shipped to other EU countries.

What we observed was the waning shadow of a once-significant industry.

By Amélia Palma, Miguel Pestana, and Anamaria Azevedo

***     ***     ***     ***     ***


Ok. While the fascinating history of the pine resin industry in Portugal diverted your attention, I have been climbing Portela Grande — grunting like a wild boar, heaving like a man on his deathbed, and sweating like, well, like me. I’m a great sweater, you know. (It is primarily why I don’t dance, unless Mescal. Lots and lots of Mescal.)

It wasn’t pretty and I’m glad you didn’t have to experience it with me.

You are welcome.

Near the top is a most humbling sight, a tall carved stone crucerio, one of many wayside shrines, crosses, devotional boxes, and religious statues that sprout beside the Way.

This one is known alternately as Cruz dos Franceses or Cruz dos Mortes. The latter refers to an ambush of Napoleon’s troops that took place here during the peninsular war of 1808-1814. So, yes, it is pretty old.


People leave all manner of personal memorabilia and small stones at the base of this cross, especially pictures of friends and family who have died. It felt like a good place to leave a few items of my own.

To one of the cross arms, I tied a woven sash of red, white and green — the colors of my adopted home country, Mexico. I did it in memory of all the brave immigrants who have faced death, humiliation, and abuse at the border with the United States as they sought a better life for themselves and their families.

I prayed for their well-being and asked forgiveness for those who have brought shame on the U.S. by their cruel treatment of refugees.

I also brought a rock from this city where we now live, San Miguel de Allende. It is a smooth stone that I picked up the first time we did a practice hike in San Miguel. I have carried it with me since. For the comfort that it brought me, I asked for the same for my departed parents and the growing number of friends and colleagues who are no longer among us.

And, finally, I left a pin with the image of a good friend and colleague who died way too soon. John Kuhlken was a graphic artist at the newspaper in San Diego, He was also a much-in-demand drummer in the local rock scene. He also co-founded Sara Petite and the Sugar Daddies with Sara, his long-time partner.

John also battled non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and won. We used to have lunch together and I’d listen to his calm and clinical descriptions of the battle raging inside his body. His death in May 2011, stunned so many of us. The pins were handed out at his memorial service, attended by scores of friends and fellow musicians.

It just felt right to say one last goodbye up there. The memories, I know now, will never fade.


What goes up, comes down. The backside of Portelo Grande was mostly a 5-kilometer romp into Rubiaes. About three kilometers from our destination, Rose, Robyn and I picked up the most playful stray dog.


This little dog attached itself to us and literally lead the way to the place we were planning to spend the night. It was like it knew where we were headed. The dog stayed there the whole night and left in the morning when we did.

Or, more correctly, it chose us.

The dog literally lead us to the entrance to the municipal Auberge Escola, a one-time school converted into a pilgrims dorm.  At the entrance gate, the pup confidently strode into the courtyard and stayed there until the next morning, caging food and affection from willing pilgrims.


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Good thing we followed the dog. We were among the last pilgrims to get a bed for the night.

Half the yard was taken up with fresh laundry on lines and ours soon joined a crowded field under the warm afternoon sun.

Rose and Trece, our Australian friend from Fernanda’s, set about creating a community meal. A few of us organized the outdoors furniture into a long dining table.

IMG_6418The menu was a risotto mixed with whatever anyone had to share. You can see a picture of it at right. (Photo by Rose Alcantara)

An Italian man offered to make a second course of Spaghetti Carbonara. Absolutely no objections. I went next door for some wine and picked up a couple of packages of cookies for dessert.

It felt like Fernanda’s all over again. Bottles of wine filled the table, conversation and laughter flowed as well. And after a good challenging hike, the dinner was the tastiest thing in Portugal that night.

Bom Caminho!



3 thoughts on “Alpine trails, mountain streams, fresh coffee, and Portela Grande — could there be a better day?

  1. Pingback: Alpine trails, mountain streams, fresh coffee, and Portela Grande — could there be a better day? « Bound for Belize

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