Imagine flying, taking a train or driving your car to an unfamiliar city for a long weekend, then on that last morning after your final bite of toast and sip of coffee you grab your pack, head through the lobby and out the door. But instead of heading to the airport or your car you just keep walking down the street, across the historic plaza and past that famous bakery Rick Steves talks about in his guidebook. Initially your path is filled with must-see-attractions and you’re bumping shoulders and dodging selfie-sticks owned by mutineers from cruise ships. It’s just a continuation of your long weekend in Lisbon.
But after a few miles of walking you notice things have changed. The buildings are still old but they are not tourist attractions. There’s peeling paint on the doorways and signs in the windows you can’t read. They were written for the locals and you’re not Portuguese. The doorways open into repair shops, corner grocers and used clothing and appliance stores. The sidewalks are far less crowded now and no one has a selfie-stick or even a camera, except you. A handful of young boys in long pants and t-shirts chase a soccer ball through a small patch of yellowing grass and leathery dirt. Across the way a group of young girls in faded pastel colored dresses chat with enthusiasm on the steps of an apartment. The dresses give the girls a touch of maturity and purpose as if they were bound for church but they’re not. They’re just playing on a Saturday afternoon and like the boys they’re a little dusty.
As you head further north you weave through an industrial area where high fences encase dirty brick buildings and people are few. With nothing interesting to look at your stomach starts a conversation. It grumbles about a meal of toast, coffee and ham slices being called breakfast and it complains it’s getting lonelier with each mile. The conversation continues as you break free from the industrial zone and enter a park-like setting with the river on one side and a strip mall on the other. To your stomach’s pleasure you see an Indian restaurant. On the other side of the glass three men in European cut suits and slick hair appear to be finishing their lunch and you make a guess as to what they had. That patch of green looks like Palak Paneer and that lump of potatoes Aloo Matar? The waiter is straightening up tables on the patio and you greet him with “Ola” as you skip up the stairs. He responses with, “Nós somos fechados”. “We’re closed”. You forgot about the afternoon siesta.
You weave in and out of the strip malls that follow but all the restaurants are closed. Finally you see an open door, it’s open only for cooling not to serve lunch, but they agree to sell you some leftover pizza slices. The pizza is fair at best but you and your stomach are grateful for their kindness.
By late afternoon your legs are tired and your shirt is soaked with sweat but you don’t care you just keep walking north along the Tejo River. You’re in a manic state of mind now with your eyes focusing intensely on every curb, utility box and lamp post looking for another yellow arrow. That yellow arrow tells you that your guess at that last intersection was correct and you’re not lost, you are on the Camino Portuguese. If you continue to follow those arrows they will lead you north across Portugal to the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela in Spain, three hundred and eight-one miles away.
But there’s no rush, one thing you’ve learned from experience is to keep your mileage on the early days of a long hike low. Six or more hours of walking day after day, week after week takes an insidious toll on your body. Your skin is the first organ system to break down. Wind and sun will burn and crack your skin which can effect your quality of sleep. Of course in time your quality of sleep will inevitably become suboptimal because you are sleeping with groups of strangers in hot bunk rooms on sticky plastic mattresses and a few of your bunkmates are Olympic class snorers. You’ve also learned that boots which are ‘good enough’ for weekend hikes can become torturous blister-makers on longer walks. So a gentle start can tip you off to foot problems and allow you to make adjustments before those problems become trip altering. As for muscle strength and cardiovascular endurance you know that as long as you don’t over do it at the start those systems will become markedly more efficient and stronger in time. So as you approach the Park of Nations, only nine miles into your hike, you start looking for a bunk.
Once settled and showered you head out for a walk around the grounds that served as the site of the 1998 World Exposition (Expo 98) and celebrated Vasco da Gama’s 500th anniversary of finding a sea route to India. It’s filled with fountains, walkways, bike paths, a convention center and an aquarium. At this point the Tejo River is broad and looking north you see Europe’s longest bridge arching 7.6 miles across it. Despite not caring much for malls you turn left and enter the Vasco da Gama Mall, an elegant waterfront structure of glass and steel. It’s big and flashy like an American mall but the food court is a cut above with numerous restaurants offering slow cooked food made with fresh ingredients and locally baked breads. The dinning choices are more like what you would find in an ethnic neighborhood; Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Moroccan… You sit in front of your plate of fettuccine a little tired and sunburnt but happy with your first day on the Camino. From your table you can see the Expo Center and beyond that you see the Tejo River flowing south toward the Atlantic, the cruise ship docks in Lisbon and that point where you started your walk. It wasn’t much of a walk, but it was a good beginning, so you raise your glass to the river and in a voice no one else can hear you say, “Cheers!” and “Bom Caminho,” good walk.