Blistered feet and sunburned lips are the norm for any pilgrim walking the popular Camino de Santiago, which stretches 772 kilometers across the north of Spain. No matter which version you trek — the most-frequented French Way (Camino Francés, beginning in the French Pyrenees) or the Portuguese Way (Camino Portugués) — there’s little resembling an ocean view. But for those who want to revel a little in the salty spray of the wild Atlantic, there’s another, lesser-known option.
Lovely sylvan paths, dirt trails and hard cobblestone roads — plus lots of paved roads — number among the many surfaces hikers, pilgrims and cyclists trekking along one of the Camino de Santiago’s many routes will encounter. But there’s a different path, with occasional jaunts along wooden boardwalks and sandy shores: The far less traveled Portuguese Coastal Camino (Caminho da Costa), which kicks off in Porto, is a welcome detour beckoning trekkers to the seashore.
The destination of all these different paths — whether you start in France, Portugal or Spain — is always the Santiago de Compostela cathedral in the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela, nestled in the northwest corner of Spain. The remains of Spain’s patron saint James the Great are enshrined inside the cathedral, and are the root historical cause putting people on these pilgrimage trails.
There are refreshing ocean breezes to cool you on hot summer days (or hard winds to bowl you over, which happens too).
“The first stage of the official Coastal Camino, between Porto and Vila do Conde, is mostly walking on pavement or cobbled roads,” explains Kat Davis, author of the The Camino Portugués guidebook. She suggests walking along the Douro River to the Atlantic before following the ocean north, which is more scenic, “with the chance to walk on softer surfaces, like boardwalks or sand.” The Portuguese section of the route runs along the Atlantic through many charming (perhaps the most popular adjective used in the guidebook world) coastal towns, like Vila do Conde, Esposende, Viana do Castelo and finally Caminha on the Minho River, where pilgrims cross by ferry into Spain to reconnect with the more inland Camino Portugués.
The Coastal Camino should take around six or seven days to walk, with another nine days or so in Spain to reach Santiago de Compostela, with plenty of albergues (low-cost pilgrim hostels) along the way for weary hikers to collapse in at night. And while the coastal way provides plenty to see and do, Davis warns that some might be disappointed — there aren’t as many beach or boardwalk trails “as you would expect” from the name. When it comes to Portugal’s cobblestone roads, trekkers can either view them “as treating your feet to a free massage, or just plain painful,” she adds. Those who opt for the coastal detour will have to deal with a dearth of pilgrim amenities, but will be blessed with fewer hills and pilgrims and less traffic. Plus there are refreshing ocean breezes to cool you on hot summer days (or hard winds to bowl you over, which happens too).
Beyond Porto, walkers will pass by ancient tanks used for salting fish built by the Roman Empire on Praia de Angeiras, just north of the fishing village of Matosinhos (I’ve tucked into some tasty fish there). Trekkers can then visit the naval museum in Vila do Conde, swing by the hilltop Santuário de Santa Luzia (a Byzantine-inspired 20th century temple) in Viana do Castelo, with majestic ocean, town and forest views. And who could pooh-pooh the allure of Caminha, with its charming (there’s that word again) cafés and narrow cobblestone streets, which marks the end of the Portuguese section of the coastal trail?
Davis recommends catching the baroque gilded wood carvings inside Igreja da Misericórdia, a church in Esposende, as well as the short forest walk beside the Neiva River. We both agree that no matter where you happen to be in Portugal, starting the day with a Portuguese coffee (typically costs less than 1 euro) and a pastel de nata (a simple, tasty custard tart) makes for a sunnier disposition overall — even if it happens to be raining.
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