Cycling the Camino Portugues (Camino de Santiago)

Cycling the Camino Portugues with my little bro

A short tale of two brothers cycling the Camino de Santiago via the Portuguese Way. October 2016. 

Introduction to the Camino Portugues

The Camino Portugues (“The Portuguese Way”) is often regarded as the most significant and connected to the life of St. James (Sant Iago). There are several variations of this route with the most popular being the Caminho Central (“Central Way”).

Behind the Camino Frances, the Camino Portugues is the second-most popular route to Santiago de Compostela, with around 35,000 pilgrims completing the route annually. The full route starts in the Portuguese capital city of Lisbon and runs 611 km north to Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

The vast majority of those who complete this route tend to start at the halfway point, from Porto, or from Valença or Tui, to avoid the busy stretches of road from Lisbon.

Our Camino started in Portugal’s capital city, Lisbon, and followed most of the Central Way with a small section of the Caminho da Costa (“Coastal Way”).

A Few Issues Before We Start

Just 30 minutes before we were about to board the flight from Manchester to Lisbon the hostel we had pre-booked emailed to let us know they had over-booked and no longer had a room for us. Luckily, there were plenty of other hostels with availability and I found another via the Booking.com app. Phew!

We arrived in Lisbon early in the evening to a waning blue sky. As soon as our bikes came down the conveyor belt we set about assembling them.

Assembling bikes in Lisbon airport

Kevin making himself useful

A relatively straightforward procedure turned out to be quite stressful. Assembling the bikes was a piece of cake, but there was an issue with my rear tyre. The recently re-sealed tubeless tyre wouldn’t hold the air due to an issue with the valve and the sealant was leaking through gaps in the tyre.

Our plan of cycling from the airport to the hostel was therefore not possible, and we were forced to take the 25-minute trip on the underground to the centre of Lisbon.Flat tubeless tyre in Lisbon

It was Sunday night and the city was in joyful spirit and full of life. Street performers with crowds littered small plazas, hoards of tables were packed outside cafes, the smells from restaurant kitchens enveloped the streets. On every street corner a shady soul would approach us: “Hashish, cocaine?” sotto voce. Ha, not tonight, thanks…

TIP: Large goods (i.e. bikes) do not arrive with other checked-in luggage, and instead, come out of carousel 13.

DAY 1: Lisbon to Golega

  • Total Distance today: 120.7 km (75 mi)
  • Total elevation gained today: 1,939 feet

The only way to get my tyre inflated was to find a bike shop with a high pressure pump. Luckily, the guys at Biclas took the tyre from us at 10am. We explored some of the city in daylight, got our stamp from Catedral Sé (for the Credencial aka Pilgrim Record) and the tyre was ready by 11am. The shop owner shook his head when I offered him money for helping us out. He shook our hands and wished us ‘Bom Camino’.

RECOMMENDED BIKE SHOP: Biclas, Rua de S. Julião 21, 1200 Lisboa

We were on the road by midday and as if by magic, the clouds dispersed and the sun emerged to keep us company. Lucky us!

Leaving Lisbon on the Camino is relatively straightforward: just keep the Rio Tajo to your right until you find yellow or blue arrows for the Camino.

Much of the route between Lisbon and Porto is on tarmac and the scenery isn’t always easy on the eye. The horizons are almost entirely flat and there is a lot of industry.

Heading north beside the train track

Kevin cruising beside the train track

Just one flat tyre to note (on Kevin’s bike); the day was very easy going and we achieved 120 km before arriving in the decaying labrynth town of Golegã just after sunset.

Today was also Kevin’s longest ever ride to date (his previous record being 46 miles).

RECOMMENDED PLACE TO EAT: Café Central, Largo da Imac. Conceição, 2150 Golegã

RECOMMENDED ALBUERGE: Albergue das Ademas, R. Frederico Bonachodos Anjos 35, 2150-190 Golegã, 2150-190 Golegã,

Camino Portugues. Day 1: Lisbon to Golega

Day 1 Map

Camino Portugues. Day 1: Lisbon to Golega Elevation Profile

Day 1 Elevation Profile

DAY 2: Golegã to Mealhada

  • Total Distance today: 150.47 km (93.5 mi)
  • Total elevation gained today: 4,636 feet
  • Total Camino Distance elapsed: 271.17 km

The plan to hit the road at sunrise (around 0730) was quashed as I opened the blinds to reveal a thick blanket of mist. Making best use of time, I enjoyed a generous breakfast and we set off shortly after 0830.Foggy Golega

Bikepacking in Tomar, Portugal

Tomar, town square

The fog was dense and cold. Fingers throbbed. We were soaked from the humidity and cold dew dripped from nose and chin as we glanced disapprovingly at the grey skies.

After a miserable couple of hours of sharing narrow roads with work traffic we stopped for a coffee in Tomar. A strange town: Rough and mechanical on approach, with a picturesque, well-kept, historical centre. Worth a visit!

We enjoyed some periods of sun as the roads gradually became more rural with occasional climbs and quaint hamlets.

We took advantage of almost 100km of quiet roads by having a ‘no-handy contest’ (see who can ride without hands the longest).

It was an undulating slog in to Coimbra. I ran out of water some 10km before and the roads leading to the city were far from inspiring.

We stopped for coffee and cake, refilled our bottles, and mounted the bikes without too much delay. The skies were changing and a thunderstorm loomed.

Coimbra, Portugal

Coimbra, last glimpse of blue skies

The last 30km of the day were arguably the best, meandering through woodland trails, the scent of the eucalyptus trees wafting by as we passed.

Mealhada is far from being a picturesque town. The name of the town is derived from the word Meada, which means ‘meeting of the ways’ and Mealhada is today a bypass for two major traffic-laden roads.

Weaving through slow moving traffic, we got caught in the sudden (albeit expected) downpour as we sought out a place to stay the night.

After dinner Kevin took to bed early. I befriended two pilgrims headed back out in to the rain to spend the rest of the beer-fuelled evening sharing stories and experiences. Lisa (28, from Germany) had spent 5-months walking from Germany, through France, to Santiago and on to Finisterre and Muxia; back to Santiago and was now heading south on the Camino Fatima. Extremely bold and inspiring. Pepe (33, from Sicily) had started in Lisbon the week before.

Camino Portugues. Day 2: Golega to Mealhada Map

Day 2 Map

Camino Portugues. Day 2: Golega to Mealhada Elevation Profile

Day 2 Elevation Profile

DAY 3: Mealhada to Matosinhos (Porto)

  • Total Distance today: 113.62 km (70.6 mi)
  • Total elevation gained today: 5,026 feet
  • Total Camino Distance elapsed: 384.79 km

We held on for a break in the rain, but as soon as we set off (0930), heavens opened and we were caught in a heavy downpour. Little did we know at this point, this would be a regular occurrence during the rest of our trip.

The day revolved around the weather and we tried only to cycle when the rain wasn’t too heavy, taking refuge whenever/wherever we could during times of heavy rain.

Kevin cycling in to the storm

Kevin cycling in to the storm

Kevin pushing his bike on the Portuguese Way

We stuttered along and the sun came out for an hour in the afternoon.

Lee Firman cycling to Santiago de Compostela via the Camino Portugues

"Finding myself" during the Camino de Santiago (Firmo)

“Finding myself” during the Camino de Santiago

 

Porto greeted us with torrential rain and we hid in a McDonald’s for an hour.Porto. rush hour and raining

Lured by a glimpse of better weather, we took to the roads, hoping to make up some miles. Our efforts proved futile and we were again caught in awful weather as we cycled through Porto during rush hour in poor visibility, eventually stopping, sodden from head to toe, in Matosinhos.

Camino Portugues. Day 3: Mealhada to Matosinhos Map

Day 3 Map

Camino Portugues. Day 3: Mealhada to Matosinhos Elevation Profile

Day 3 Elevation Profile

DAY 4: Matosinhos to Tui

  • Total Distance today: 126.82 km (78.8 mi)
  • Total elevation gained today: 5,495 feet
  • Total Camino Distance elapsed: 511.61 km

From Porto the Camino Portugues really begins. For the vast majority of pilgrims that walk the Camino Portugues, Porto is the starting point, and from here, there are many ways to choose from.

Leaving Matosinhos on the Caminho da Costa

“Yeah. The coastal route will be lovely. The weather might be nicer too.”

 

After cycling inland for the last three days, the novelty of a coastal stint was too much to resist and we decided to head north along the Caminho da Costa.Bad weather on the Caminho da Costa

We departed in (what had become) typical conditions: cold, dreary, overcast. It was rush hour as we made our way out of Matosinhos and amidst traffic we struggled to find the markings for the camino and took a wrong turn on to the A28 motorway, forcing us to hop a barrier back to safety.

The cold numbed our fingers as we headed north along the coast. The looming [plus other adjective] dark clouds made it difficult to appreciate the coastline. The smooth tarmac ended and began the first of many sections of ancient cobbled streets. This was the first time on our trip where my mountain bike rolled faster than Kevin’s cyclocross.

After 20km on the coast we headed inland and picked the central camino up in the historical town of Rates.Rates, Portugal

Kevin’s lack of off-road training slowed us down as the camino mostly followed woodland trails. We would pass more pilgrims every 30 minutes here than we had seen during our first three days from Lisbon to Porto.Panoramic image from the Portuguese Way, northern Portugal

Busy Barcelos was a real highlight of the trip; one of the first places en route that felt alive, affluent and well preserved.

For the remainder of the day, the camino was lovely: picturesque, mildly challenging, and varied. Ponte Lima spoiled us with its location, architecture and tree-lined boulevards.

Tree lined boulevard in Ponte Lima

Ponte Lima, Portugal

The views of the Lima Valley were well-earned after we pushed and carried our bikes up more than 1,000ft. It was tough-going but these hard slogs are what really make the adventure worth doing.Steep tracks on the Camino Portugues. Ponte Lima

The sun FINALLY came out as we arrived at the end-point of Portugal: Valença. At the top of the Roman fortress we stopped for a beer in the sun, enjoying the generous views of the green, hilly Portuguese landscape that we were about to leave behind.Valença, Portugal. Views from the fortress

We crossed the Minho River into Tui, Spain and checked in to an albuerge.

Entering Tui from Valença,

Entering Tui from Valença

 

Portugal was nice, but Spain is different. I love this country.

Camino Portugues. Day 4: Matosinhos to Tui Map

Day 4 Map

Camino Portugues. Day 4: Matosinhos to Tui Elevation Profile

Day 4 Elevation Profile

 

TIP: Find an alternative albuerge to ‘Tui Hostel’. We found this place cramped and ‘foisty’. This place will be over-crowded during summer months!

DAY 5: Tui to Padron

  • Total Distance today: 95.76 km (59.5 mi)
  • Total elevation gained today: 4,449 feet
  • Total Camino Distance elapsed: 607.36 km

There was no rush to get up early today. We could have easily completed our trip and finished in Santiago de Compostela today (less than 80 miles away) but we decided to be leisurely and enjoy the day at a leisurely pace.

I woke up early to explore Tui by foot but the dense fog made it difficult to see a thing!

We were back on the bikes for 0930 and meandered through woodland and vineyards surrounded by thick fog. Kevin was really struggling with knee and Achilles issues. A disregard for adequate training coupled with the recent cold and rain really affected him all day. I found myself sauntering on alone, waiting or back-tracking for Kevin to catch up.

There were some delicious views, slow climbs and fast descents during the way as we rolled in and out of picturesque towns and villages. We passed many pilgrim walkers struggling along, limping through their penultimate day, almost at their final destination.

Crossing the bridge from Arcade to A Ponte

Crossing the bridge from Arcade to A Ponte

 

We narrowly escaped a torrential downpour and arrived in Padron just before heavens opened.

Tree-lined boulevard , Padron

Tree-lined boulevard , Padron

Tip: Stay in CAFE-BAR Albuerge (beside the church on the right BEFORE the bridge). This was our favourite albuerge of the trip (13 Euros)

Safe in the knowledge that tomorrow would be our last day and we’d arrive in Santiago without any major hiccup, we let ourselves go and drank way too much Galician wine and beer on the evening. Neither of us remember getting back that night.

Camino Portugues. Day 5: Tui to Padron Map

Day 5 Map

Camino Portugues. Day 5: Tui to Padron Elevation Profile

Day 5 Elevation Profile

DAY 6: Padron to Santiago de Compostela

  • Total Distance today: 33.31 km (20.7 mi)
  • Total elevation gained today: 1,683 feet
  • Total Camino Distance elapsed: 640.69 km

My head felt like an anvil as I woke up, but I forced myself out for a walk to explore Padron while Kevin had a couple more hours of sleep.

The rain hammered down (as usual) so I took shelter while I had some breakfast and spoke to Kevin by text and agreed we would head out as soon as there was a break in the rain.

No sooner had we set off and the rain came down heavier than ever. The trails of the camino were very muddy from the past week’s rain so we decided to stick to tarmac to reduce time.

Orreo in Galicia during the Camino Portugues

Orreos in Galicia

Following the AP-9 main road seemed like a bad idea in heavy traffic and poor visibility so we took an alternative route that my Garmin bike computer suggested. Although it stated the route was just 17km, it turned out to be 33km. We endured the worst rain yet. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it came down twice as heavy, and despite taking this route to avoid the busy AP-9 road, we ended up on the twice-as-busy AC-548 motorway. It was miserable!

Does Santiago de Compostela ever experience sunlight? Both times I have arrived in this city the weather has been the same. We arrived at the cathedral wet and freezing. I tried to capture the moment with a photo but my phone was too wet for use.

It was 1300 when we arrived at the bike shop that was supposed to be packing our bikes down for airport transit. Bad news: “I’m sorry but the shop must close at 2pm. There is no time for me to pack the bikes” was the response from the guy in the shop, apologetically. We checked in at the nearest albuerge and I returned to pick up two bike boxes and packing tape and I packed the bikes down myself ready for the flight home in the morning.

Camino Portugues. Day 6: Padron to Santiago de Compostela Map

Last Day Map

Camino Portugues. Day 6: Padron to Santiago de Compostela Elevation Profile

Last Day Elevation Profile

 

It had been a magnificent trip. I’m glad I shared it with my brother before he embarks on his biggest adventure yet: A baby on the way in 2017!

On Reflection

The Camino Portugues is a fantastic route – but only from Porto. The first half from Lisbon to Porto is mostly forgettable; too much tarmac, busy roads, industry. Some of the villages we passed were in such a state of decay.

From Porto onward, there is much more to see. The hills grow high, the terrain is constantly changing, there are more pilgrims and there is much more of a ‘buzz’ as you move from place to place. Northern Portugal certainly feels more ‘loved’ and the towns are much more handsome and colourful.

Portugal surprised me with its diverse agriculture. It was not unusual to see pomegranate trees and citrus groves opposite fields of root veg, pear trees and vineyards. Dining is very cheap too. I can’t remember the last time I paid just 50 cents for a coffee, but in Portugal, it’s still possible!

From Tui (the first point of Spain) you’re spoiled by the Galician landscapes, tapas (free food with your drinks. We didn’t get that in Portugal!), and general better preservation of historical architecture.

I was a little ambitious and had hoped to rattle off more miles than we did to attempt Finisterre and Muxia (west coast of Spain) in the same trip, but it wasn’t to be. It’s something I hope to do one day, and I’d recommend anyone who has time to make the effort to add that extra bit on to your camino.

What bike to use on the Portuguese Way?

Almost any bike would be able to handle the terrain of the Camino Portugues. If I were to ride this again, I’d opt for a cyclo-cross bike (for speed), although hybrid (with aggressive tyre tread) and mountain bikes are also more than adequate for this route.

There are some steep climbs en route but most are short and sharp.

The Camino Portugues in comparison

Comparing this to my only other camino route, I’d say the Via de la Plata (1,000km from Seville to Santiago) is by far my favourite. It’s much more difficult, offers more solitude, better weather, more architecture and history, and passes through a more diverse range of places. The Via de la Plata is regarded as the hardest to walk mainly due to two factors: heat and the large distances between places to stay, so for first-timers or those looking for an easier/simpler ride, the Camino Portugues is definitely the best option.

The Strangeness of Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela is a magnificent city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; Wherever you stand you’re surrounded by history and a range of Gothic, Baroque and Romanesque architecture.

Entering the city after a week of cycling is very special; I can only imagine what it feels like for pilgrims that have endured five weeks of carrying a heavy rucksack on their back, hiking through storms, in soaring heat-waves, up and down mountains… It must be something very special.

But for me, the city has a strange feel. Many pilgrims are clearly elated at reaching the Cathedral, but for many others, it seems as though they’re at a loose end, as though they have reached ‘The End’, and they ask “Now what?”:

Back to reality after a sabbatical? Am I really ready to go back to my shit life back home? Did I find the answers I was looking for during this journey? Is Santiago an anti-climax? Or am I just tired and my feet are killing me? 

…I’m surmising of course. Perhaps one year I ought to walk The Way to understand the spiritual side of it.

'Credenciale del Peregrino' - Lee Firman - Camino Portugues - October 2016

‘Credenciale del Peregrino’ – Moi – October 2016

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