Woodland trail on the Compostela Trail, Tui to Santiago | Janet Oldham
Like most people who decide to embark on a Camino, Janet Oldham was completely surprised to find that there are actually a lot more trails than just the popular Camino Frances (the classic 800km pilgrimage from St Jean du Pont in France across northern Spain to Santiago).
After some research, Janet decided to walk a section of the Portuguese Camino that starts in the riverside town of Tui and ends in Santiago, the final resting place of St James. What makes her decision all the more unusual is her timing – she reached the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral on Christmas Eve.
Discover her thoughts on the Portuguese Camino and how much she adored being a pilgrim during the seasonal buzz of winter.
Why did you choose to do the Portuguese Way?
A combination of factors really ... I had annual leave in December and was also travelling to Madeira (off the coast of Portugal). I also wanted to do a different section of the Camino; something other than the more well known French & connecting Spanish sections. By default, that narrowed my options somewhat, and it made sense to keep travel time down by sticking to one area of Europe.
Why in winter?
This was dictated purely by the time at which I could take annual leave.
How do you think your experiences differed from walking it in summer?
It was definitely less busy than walking in summer - I saw no-one else walking the Camino at this time! The only people I encountered were locals out for a stroll or walking their dogs. I suspect the Portuguese route does not draw the same number of travellers as the other trails, even in summer... so if anyone wants to avoid the crowds, the Portuguese Way is very appealing!
The local hotel staff were friendly and seemed quite amazed that I was walking at this time of year, and by myself as a solo female. Most of the hoteliers were not walking types so they thought I was mad anyway!
How did you prepare for the trip?
I am generally an active person and part of my weekly routine includes running, kayaking or playing tennis 5 days a week. I regularly hiked on weekends too, but about two months prior to departure I made day hikes in nearby national parks mandatory on my weekends. I wanted to be sure I was accustomed to carrying a day pack and walking for up to 6 hrs at a time over hilly terrain with uneven surfaces underfoot.
How would you describe the walking?
The Camino was not difficult with flat to undulating terrain. Sometimes walking was on a paved footpath, sometimes cobblestones, sometimes a soft earth track (with a bit of mud) and sometimes a gravel road or path. Most days were 5 to 6 hrs of walking, plus photo and lunch stops, and with short daylight hours during winter it was necessary to plan ahead so that I arrived at my destination before dark (around 5:30pm - 6:00pm).
What were the landscapes you walked through like?
Landscapes were varied. I recall beautiful woodland at one point. It was beautiful because the trees were not deciduous and had a thick leaf cover, unlike many others which had a distinct winteriness about them. The majority of trees and shrubs displayed bare branches, occasionally adorned with a few last russet-coloured leaves steadfastly clinging on, denying the end of autumn.
Small villages consisting of just a few dwellings and the obligatory church or place of worship were surrounded by farmland - cattle, sheep, vineyards, orchards. Stone buildings and walls from medieval times often lined the pathway.
By contrast, larger towns have now expanded over the top of the original Camino pathway in some places and the low stone walls have been replaced by curbing and guttering; the farmland by warehouses and factories. Other towns have preserved the pathways, keeping them clear and fresh with neat rows of potted plants alongside. Medieval water fountains still exist at crucial stopping points, ready to supply weary travellers with that precious commodity.
The one constant and reassuring feature all along the route was the symbolic waymark (a scallop shell and/or yellow arrow painted on a stone slab, post or wall) indicating the direction to Santiago. I grew to take solace in these; a sort of guiding hand, confidently leading me to the ultimate destination of any Camino pilgrimage. Frequent statues of religious figureheads were also located at intervals along the way, often in random locations as well as in houses of worship. Many were the recipients of fresh offerings of flowers or food parcels. Since I saw no other Camino walkers, I can only surmise that traditions that started many hundreds of years ago remain strong in this area, and the faith that encouraged many to make a pilgrimage of thousands of miles to honour their God is alive and well.
What was your favourite food or drink?
Being winter, something hearty and warming was bound to be a favourite. Caldo Gallega is a soupy stew packed full of hearty ingredients (potatoes, beans, greens, meat of some sort - usually chorizo or pork). It is simple yet tasty and filling - good walking food! I enjoyed many variations of this dish.
For dessert, a favourite had to be Tarta de Santiago (or Tarta de Almendra). It's a specialty of north western Spain, in the Galician territory. It's an almond cake (dense and moist if it's made properly). It has a dusting of icing sugar on top.
What aspect of the trip did you find the most challenging?
Being the only guest in a hotel or at a restaurant while having very little command of the Spanish language! Being alone in a town is far more disconcerting than being along in the wilderness - for the latter, one expects to be alone!
Do you have any advice for other travellers thinking about joining this trip?
Try to learn some Spanish in advance and take a friend to share the adventure if you plan to walk in winter.
What was your overall trip highlight?
It's difficult to choose one highlight... I would say the festive spirit in the historic city of Tui, centred around the cathedral on the hill, gave a sense of excitement and anticipation of the journey ahead.
Similarly, completing the journey in Santiago de Compostela was quite overwhelming. Standing in the middle of the city square in front of a truly grand cathedral, knowing thousands of people from all walks of life and many different origins have stood in the same place over many hundreds of years, was almost spiritual (and I'm not a religious person). Many thousands more will do the same in years to come, whatever their pilgrimage. A famous saying comes to mind: "not all who wander are lost" (by J.R.R. Tolkein). Those who wander on the Camino are very much focused on their ultimate destination.