The Portuguese Camino Coastal Route – Porto to Esposende, Portugal
I was grateful for sunglasses that windy June morning we started heading north along the coast. Sunglasses make me think of celebrities and two that I associate with walking the Camino are Andrew McCarthy and Shirley MacLaine. Andrew McCarthy was a member of the 80’s ‘Brat-pack’ and starred in ‘Pretty In Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, and many others. His ‘Brat-pack’ friend, Emilio Estevez, went on to write, direct and star in the movie ‘The Way’. But McCarthy was the one that actually hiked the Camino Frances in 1992. He did it on a whim and spent a long time at the Irun Cafe in Pamplona thinking he would end his Camino right there, but didn’t, and by the time he walked into Santiago he discovered that traveling brought out the best in him.
“I’m a better me when I travel,” McCarthy claims.
More long solo adventures followed, he started writing about them, won a few writing awards and is currently Editor-at-large for National Geographic Traveler. McCarthy is still an actor and has probably directed something you’ve seen on TV, i.e. Orange is the new Black, The Family, Black List…
Shirley MacLaine hiked the Camino Frances when she was sixty years old. She wrote a book about her experience, continues to perform (Downton Abbey) and will always be associated with the New Age movement (It’s not that new anymore). I was never a New Age, crystals and pyramids type of guy. But kids running down the beach, waves churning up the shore, and cyclists blitzing by in laser bright jerseys had an effect on me. That circus of energy spilled into my flaccid flesh and creaky bones like a double espresso and drove me over the dunes with a swiftness I could not explain.
Sue and I walked for two days along the coast and many of those miles were along wooden boardwalks. I have never seen so many miles of continuous boardwalk. If you want to start your Camino gently or just want to take an extended stroll along an ocean, the Portuguese Camino Coastal Route is a good choice.
Our hike from Porto to Esposende was not all board walks, there were some dirt trails, country roads and one nasty highway crossing. Still, we were happy with our choice. As Brierley mentions in his guidebook, when it’s blowing hard the coastal route can be a bad option. The first day the headwinds were intense. I secured my hat under my chin like a little buckaroo and used my left hand to keep the brim from blowing down over my face and blocking my vision. After a few hours of hiking my legs and face burned from the sandblasting. We ended our first day by following the Ave River inland to the town of Vila do Conde.
Just before entering Vila do Conde we heard gun fire. The shots were solitary with long pauses in between, like sniper fire. As we approached the bridge that opened onto the town square we heard another, it was closer. On the far side of the river people were screaming and shaking their hands above their heads. On the river in front of them were two men gasping for breath and pulling hard on their paddles, each fighting to cross the finish line first. The gunfire announced the start of the race and the race was part of a month long festival. In Portugal towns often adopt a saint and each June they spend the month celebrating that saint with festivals, carnivals, parades… and all kinds of other events like boat races.
Another tradition around the Porto region is the Francesinha or Frenchie. It’s a cheese burger sandwich that was adopted from the French around 1960. For an American to see a hamburger sitting in a tomato/beer sauce or to eat a burger with a knife and fork is very odd. In print the Frenchie sounds awful but in person it’s pretty tasty. On our first day out of Porto I had one for lunch and another for dinner.
On our second day hiking along the coast I met an old woman raking sea weed on the beach. She wore a dull housedress and wrapped her hair and wrinkled cheeks in a brown scarf . Closer to the water her husband raked seaweed into tidy squares that resembled mounds of autumn leaves. They were part of the Portuguese sea weed industry. In the 1980’s Portugal was one of the top five sea weed producers in the world; it’s a ten billion dollar industry worldwide. Today Portugal’s contribution is much smaller due to regulations, method of collection and other factors. The big producers like China and Norway use ships and mechanical draggers which are efficient but can cause damage to the seafloor habitat. The Portuguese rake up what the waves wash ashore or use divers, small boats and hand tools to harvest seaweed at low tide. The species of seaweed dictates its usage which can range from a food product to fertilizer. Most of the seaweed collected along the Portuguese Camino Coastal Route is used for fertilizer and animal feed.
By Esposende we had seen enough of the coast and were ready to go inland and start hiking the Camino Central. The Central route has more hills, trees, farms, people and pilgrims. The bus dropped us off in Barcelos and we started hiking south or backwards towards Barcelinhos where we had a reservation at a hostel. The next morning we would retrace our steps through Barcelos and continue north toward Spain.