There are many pilgrim paths to Santiago de Compostela, but none is more meaningful than the Caminho Português as it is closely connected to the life and ministry of Saint James.
Today, the Caminho Português is the second most popular route but is still relatively uncrowded, partly because from Porto the route splits into three alternative branches (central or medieval, coastal and seashore). While the routes along the coast are gaining in popularity, the main historic route is through the centre of the country and is the preferred option for more than 60% walkers. I walked this route as we came out of lockdown last year.
Those who choose to walk the Caminho do so for many different reasons, some religious, some spiritual and those who just want a good walk.
To qualify for the ‘Compostela’ when arriving in Santiago, you must provide proof that you have walked the last 100km. This is done using the ‘Pilgrim’s Passport’, which can be obtained in the cathedral in Porto and then, along the way, you collect stamps from the various accommodations, cafés, and restaurants; today, most of these enterprises have their own special stamps and are very proud and happy to stamp the passport.
From Porto cathedral, it is a total of 252.4km to the cathedral in Santiago along the historic route and some choose to walk the whole distance in one go.
For those who do not have the time or the stamina, then the route is easily broken down into two sections: Porto to Tui (on the Spanish border) 132km and Tui to Santiago 120.4km. In Portugal, the route is very well waymarked with bold yellow arrows, good pilgrim hostels, excellent hotels, and a good variety of cafés.
Walking out of Porto city centre itself is hard work and not very pleasant. Unless a ‘purist’, it is better to take a taxi to Vilarinho and then begin. Walking along quiet country lanes and woodland paths, it is 29.6km to the famous town of Barcelos.
Every Thursday, the town hosts one of the best known and liveliest markets in Portugal. There is also a very interesting historical centre, and the town does retain a medieval atmosphere.
The story of the Barcelos cockerel is well known and today the brightly coloured cockerel has become a national symbol of Portugal.
From Barcelos to the town of Ponte de Lima is almost 35km and many walkers break this into two sections. It is a beautiful walk and includes two hill passes separating the river valleys of the Neiva and Lima with paths through vineyards and woodlands.
From the second hill pass at Portela, the route is totally downhill (phew) into the beautiful Lima valley before arriving in the town. This is another market town, but much smaller than Barcelos and it prides itself on being Portugal’s ‘oldest’ town. The cobbled streets with its historic buildings are just perfect for strolling around and this is the ideal place for a rest day.
To leave Ponte de Lima, the Caminho takes you over a handsome medieval bridge, built in 1368 on earlier Roman foundations. It is 300 metres in length and forms a pedestrian link between the busy southern town and the much sedate northern quarter.
Following quiet country roads and lanes, you arrive at the village of Labruja where you begin a 405m ascent to Alto da Portela Grande. There is no denying that the climb is steep, but it is through woodland which offers welcome shade.
Once at the top and refreshed, the route descends gently to the villages of São Roque and Rubiães where most walkers overnight.
This is the heart of the Minho region of Portugal, and you will pass by vineyards growing the Alvarinho grape, carefully tended small holdings and granite corn stores (espigueiros), all so typical of the area.
The walking here is relaxed and easy before you arrive at the border town of Valença, perched high above the Minho River.
Valença has been an important military defensive from earliest times and the old town is located within the walls of a huge fortress (Fortaleza) designed by the military architect Vauban.
The Caminho takes you right through the heart of the fortress where the narrow streets are full of shops before dropping down steeply and out through an old doorway to the international bridge.
The bridge was built by Eiffel and has walkways either side with a narrow road in the middle. It crosses the magnificent Minho River and affords wonderful views ahead to Tui and back to Valença.
Once across, you must adjust your watch as you are now in Spain and congratulate yourselves on reaching the halfway point of your journey.
Next month: Caminho Português – Tui to Santiago
Julie Statham has been walking throughout Portugal for more than 20 years and now acts as a walking advisor and guide for various companies in both Portugal and Europe. She has a background in earthsciences and a Ph.D. in geochemistry from Bristol University, UK.