One of the things I love about Europe, including England and Scotland, is their public transit system. Unlike America, in Europe you can travel to most towns by train or bus or both. Most towns in America have neither train nor bus service, if you need to travel from one town to the next you typically need a car. In contrast when Sue and I decided not to hike along a busy highway on the Camino we simply walked to the next town, bought a ticket at the train station and hopped onboard. With its train service, bakers hanging fresh bread on the doors of homes each morning and cooks using milk and sugar instead of the latest corn syrup hocus-pocus, Portugal made me feel like I was back in the 1960’s. Seeing some of the things we sacrificed for speed and profits made me think how faster and cheaper doesn’t always equal better.
That train squealed to a stop in Azambuja and moments later we stepped out of the station and back onto the Camino. For the next two days and twenty-some miles we walked farm lanes, dirt trails, and stone levies. The levies kept the Tejo River from flooding the already distressed little towns. Between those towns were miles of grapes, corn and tomatoes and above them hung a quilt of clouds with blue patches and dry, hot air that smelled like turned earth. In the fields I was surprised to see people pulling weeds with hand tools. In middle America where I grew up tractors are the tool of choice and these farms seemed just as large. In the tomato fields another labor intense operation was underway, the installation of drip irrigation. Men in faded jeans and long sleeve shirts and woman wearing dark skirts over black sweet pants, rolled and spliced miles of drip tubing in ninety degree heat. I’m told the tubing needs replacement each year and the men and women replacing it, as well as those pulling the weeds were Portuguese, not immigrants.
In the midday heat I limped into the cafe of a small village. Two kilometers earlier I had suddenly bonked, ran out of energy, shaky-hungry and rubber-legged I staggered off the trail and leaned against a tree. I shoved the last melted mess of chocolate covered raisins into my mouth and they restarted my engine. Now all Sue and I wanted was to get out of the sun, give our legs a rest and drink lots of cold fluids. But every chair and table was taken, our only option was two empty chairs outside in the sun. I received our order quickly and with my arms full of cold drinks and pastries, I waddled outside. As I was about to dump the drinks and pastries into Sue’s lap a farmworker walked out of the cafe carrying a table and slid it in front of us. We said thanks and he nodded, his kindness more than made up for the lack of shade. When you travel by foot or bicycle sometimes you hurt. But the reward is you see the world at a gentle pace and at eye level and that view is filled with humanity and acts of kindness. It’s a view seldom seen on the evening news but based on my experience and those of other travelers it’s a more balanced and accurate view of our world.
That night we stayed in a dusty town surrounded by fields but slept in a spic-n-span clean townhouse rented from the local barkeep for just thirty-two dollars. The next morning once again barking dogs brought me to life as chards of orange and gold broke over the horizon. In that first light I collected my hiking gear from folding chairs on the roof top patio, a green long sleeve shirt, black running shorts and a pair of lime green socks with rust colored strips. Hand washing your clothes each night in a sink, shower or ancient wash tube is an informative process. Within days you know the texture and feel of each seam and button and as time passes your clothes take on a journalistic quality. Food stains document restaurants like pins on a google map and worn threads, missing buttons and sun bleached colors testify to the miles traveled.
On our second day walking through the tomato fields Santarem came into view. The city appeared to float in the sky on the far side of the valley high above the river, perched on a cliff. It was the highest point of land for miles, served as the regional capitol for Julius Caesars’ troops in 61a.c., the Moors in the 8th century and finally the Portuguese in the 14th and from the cities’ stone walls this June day you could watch our slow charge up the hill. On a treeless road in the blinding sun with perseverance and voracious appetites we breached the fortress city and plundered the nearest pastry shop. Once inside we became as pesky as flies, buzzing the counter again and again for another bottle of water, iced coffee or that same pastry but with the peach filling this time.
It was hot when we entered the city but the next day would be hotter, nearly a hundred, which was the perfect temperature for a rest day. But during a rest day on the Camino you often walk just as far visiting museums, cathedrals and doing errands as you would on a hiking day, but mentally it’s restorative. Your skin gets a bit of a break too and your hiking clothes get a chance to completely dry before you wiggle back into them. And you have a chance wear your fancy clothes, that t-shirt and pants you had buried in the bottom of your pack for the last seven days. For me a rest day meant a shave and wearing long pants. I didn’t really want to wear long pants but that was all I had; a wet pair of shorts on the clothes line and a pair of long pants in the bottom of my backpack. The funny thing is in Portugal and Spain men wear long pants no matter what the temperature is, so on rest days I blended with the locals, not really.
In Santarem I finally met another pilgrim walking to Spain. There were actually two and despite Americans making up only five percent of the pilgrims that earn a Compostela, this retired couple were yanks. More amazing was that the couple lived in a small town only fifteen minutes from where Sue and I live. They were a stalwart bunch and hiked the highway section that Sue and I took the train around. The woman remembered that section well and recalled at one point a truck was speeding straight toward her husband, “I was sure he was going to be hit”. But at the last minute he jumped out of the way. With wide eyes and a firm expression she said, “I would never hike that section again. This is not like the Camino Frances.”
A rest day also gives you time to think about what you’ve done and what you want to accomplish. Before we started in Lisbon we knew the northern section of the Portuguese Camino, the 144 miles between Porto, Portugal and the Cathedral in Santiago, was the most popular section. It has better signage and trails, more frequent sleeping options, less highway walking and more pilgrims to share your hike with. We were ready to jump ahead and start hiking that section and the time we saved by jumping forward we would us to hike further. Instead of stopping at Santiago we would continue walking along the Galcian Coast to Finisterre and then onto Muxia. But there were still two places between Santarem and Porto I needed to visit. One was Tomar, the twelfth century home of the Templar Knights, the helpful knights in ‘The Davinci Code’, and the other was Coimbra, a town with one of the oldest Universities in Europe.
The morning after our rest day we hiked out of Santarem through the Gate of Saint James, down a knee-crunching steep hill to the valley floor and north seven miles to a small town that had no train station or ticket agent, just a platform. The locals promised a train would come along soon and all we had to do was step on board. A half hour or more passed before I heard a distant whistle then a train appeared, doors opened, we shuffled in, the train pulled out and a few minutes later a helpful conductor sold us two tickets to Tomar. I love the European train system.