My quick-fix Camino: Taking the world's greatest walk in Portugal
Walking a stretch of the Portuguese Camino proves a soulful break for Isabel Conway - with the chance to collect a Compostela certificate to boot
Cathal shows me a photo on his phone. It looks like a loin of bacon. But wait a minute… there are toes attached!
The Co Roscommon teacher has just finished six days walking the Portuguese Camino, as it turns out - much of it bravely, but in agony. On closer inspection, that dark pink loin of bacon turns out to be the badly blistered ball of his foot.
Cathal and I are comparing notes over a reviving beer in one of Santiago de Compostela's many cosy tapas bars. I've followed the same route - the second phase of the Portuguese Camino, or Camino Portugués. Our small group finished the 118km stretch blister-free, hiking the Way of St James in just five days - walking, on average, 20km each day. Travelling separately, Cathal and his partner Siobhán, from Tuam, Co Galway, are on their honeymoon and like us started from Valenca in Portugal.
The full stretch begins in Oporto and takes two weeks. Some hardcore pilgrims depart from Lisbon, which takes a month. Siobhán jokes that her new husband has only himself to blame for the blisters. He committed the ultimate sin "of wearing wrong, unbroken-in footwear and not preparing properly even though he considers himself pretty fit", she says. It's a valuable lesson for the would-be Camino pilgrim.
Our own Camino-without-tears for small groups is geared for inexperienced long-distance walkers, multi-generational families and nervous, middle-aged newbies like us. Tour leader Henry, who manages Irish-based walking tour operator, Customised Walking Trips, has undertaken Caminos for many years and "understands the needs of walkers," as he puts it.
The magic words "support vehicle" catch my eye. That, along with common-sense guidelines for preparing in advance, comfortable hotel or B&B accommodation on (or close to) each day's route, and daily luggage transfers are our deciders. "The support vehicle will always be near the route so you can be taken off it, your blisters or other ailments can be treated so you're back walking in comfort next day," Henry promised.
True to his word, at a crossroads or cafe usually no more than six or seven kilometres apart, he would show up in his blue T-shirt and shorts, a welcome sight monitoring progress and the state of our, so far, blister-free feet.
While the famous French Way, or Camino Frances, is the most-walked of the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, this Portuguese route is fast catching up and praised by walkers we meet as "much quieter with far fewer public roads and highways to have to trudge on". Over 90pc of our route, marked by the familiar scallop shell tiles, milestones and yellow arrows pointing towards Santiago, follows a Roman highway.
As we walk, we cross ancient stone bridges and pass churches, shrines and elaborately carved water fountains in forgotten hamlets. We overnight in lovely, quaint towns like Pontevedra and catch glimpses of Galicia's scenic coastal inlets.
Relief from the hot July sun is found in the shade of forests, which often dip down into dappled glades that have streams to cool sweaty feet. The route is also well-served by cafes for regular rests. There's limited walking along busy roads, except for a terrifying short stretch before the approach to the town of Arcade in Spain, where we have to scurry like rabbits out of the path of ever-advancing traffic.
Another benefit is that you become a bona fide pilgrim entitled to the ultimate Camino souvenir, the Compostela (certificate) by starting in Valenca on the second phase of the Portuguese Camino, whereas the original Camino Frances takes a month to complete and is usually done in phases, over a few years.
Irishman John Brierley, author of several outstanding Camino guidebooks, says that no Camino is more significant and soulful than this. It was along this route, as Brierley points out in his invaluable A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino Portugués, that St James, who was later martyred, first preached to the pagan populace.
And it was on this self-same 'Way' that his body made its last journey - "one that came to be known and loved all over the world as Santiago de Compostela".
Setting off from the outskirts of Valenca and walking a tough 24km on day one, passing the border dividing Portugal from Spain, the rhythm of the route soon catches hold of our small group. In the medieval town of Tui, there's an imposing cathedral where the universal greeting of 'Buen Camino' unites walkers of all nationalities taking on a memorable challenge.
It's a personal odyssey some of us will yearn to repeat - hopefully without those bacon-like blisters.
The Camino Portugués is the fastest-growing of the nine Camino routes to Santiago from all over Europe. John Brierley's definitive guide includes route descriptions, sights, accommodation etc. See caminoguides.com
Isabel travelled with small group specialist customisedwalkingtrips.com.
In 2019, prices start from €425 for one week or €625 for two on the Portuguese Camino (ex. flights). B&B accommodation, daily luggage transfers, guidance and support vehicle are included. See also caminoways.com for camino packages and itineraries.
Read more:10 tips for the Camino de Santiago