Sunday, November 13, 2016



     The well-preserved medieval city of Guimarães (pop. 52,000) is located about 50 km. northwest of Porto. It was designated in 2001 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition for being an exceptionally well-preserved and authentic example of the evolution of a medieval settlement into a modern town in Europe. It is also considered the birthplace of Portugal because it is believed that Portugal's first King, Afonso Henriques, was born here. Alfonso went on to lead the Battle of São Mamede (1128AD) which is considered a critical event for the foundation of the Kingdom of Portugal.

    It was highly recommended as a side trip by the tourist office and the inexpensive train fare of 6.60 or 3.30 for seniors made it even more appealing. We decided to take the train and make a day of it. Note that anyone 65 and older receives a 50% discount on all Portuguese trains.

     When we arrived at the train station on this September day, it was raining. Fortunately we had umbrellas, but it was still not a pleasant walk to the center especially since we weren't exactly sure of the route and didn't have a map.


    Our luck changed when the rain stopped, and we found a great restaurant for lunch called Buxa near the ancient Oliveira Square at Largode Oliveira 23. Our table overlooked the square, and I enjoyed the seafood luncheon special (12.50) that included sole, mixed salad, rice dish, breads, olives, eclair for dessert, and a glass of house white wine.

After the scrumptious meal, we were off to explore this fascinating city with its medieval streets, alleys, and squares. Directly across the square was one of the more historically important monuments of the city, the Church of our Lady of Oliveira. It was popularized during the Middle Ages by the Santiago de Compostela's pilgrims who made it their religious center. In those days there was a saying, “Whoever goes to Santiago and does not visit Senhora da Oliveira, will not have done the true pilgrimage.”

The presence of the Portuguese Way route is evidenced by shell symbols that are engraved in the sidewalks throughout the old city. We had a good time walking around looking for the shells and imagining what it was like for those pilgrims that walked the same route over 1000 years ago. I also got a local red stamp for my credential at the tourist office.
     The tenth century Castle of Guimarães is perched on a hill overlooking the town. I enjoyed a pleasant walk up to the castle while Ron stopped at a cafe to do some work. It followed a tree-lined boulevard with medieval buildings along the way. After making a circular walk around the walled castle with its eight majestic towers and park-like grounds, I entered the medieval structure for a leisurely visit. I climbed the stairs, walked along the walls, peered out at the nearby countryside, and then perused a small museum in the tower that had some interesting displays.
Since the early Middle Ages, the “Way of St James” has been the most popular pilgrimage for western European Catholics. In medieval times the pilgrims were on a journey to a holy place as a spiritual quest for help or a penance for sins. It has since grown from mainly a religious practice to something more universal as described by a more recent English pilgrim in 1998:

    “However skeptical one may be about the basis of the pilgrimage and the legends surrounding it, one cannot help being affected by it. Maybe it's the simplicity of the life and the closeness to nature that makes one conscious of deeper realities and I hope, as a result, I have learned to be a better person, or at least I will try to be.”
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Thursday, November 3, 2016

ROAD TO SANTIAGO---the vintage way


     I'm not exactly sure when my fascination with the Camino de Santiago began; however, I continue to be enchanted by a path that dates back to medieval times and is now hiked by thousands of pilgrims annually (approx. 250,000 in 2015). The final destination is the tomb of James, son of Zebedee, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. According to Christian tradition, his remains are located inside the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain.

On our most recent trip to Portugal we stayed in Porto (Oporto). I was pleased to find out that the Portuguese Way runs through the city and is within blocks of where we were staying for two weeks. I decided that this was my chance to actually walk along various segments of the camino to view the churches, small villages, granite walls, and lush green woodlands that the pilgrims of long ago passed through.
     The Portuguese Way is one of eight official routes to Santiago and is the second most popular with 15% choosing it. Most pilgrims (60%) follow the French Way along the Pyrenees Mountain Range in northern Spain. The Porto Cathedral is a popular starting point and from here northward the route is well marked with the traditional yellow camino arrows.

     For centuries, Pilgrims traveling through Porto have stopped at the old Porto Cathedral that was built in the 12th century and located in the town's historic center. It is one of the places to pick up the Pilgrim's Credential (two euros), which is available to anyone as a souvenir. I was excited to get one. The purpose is for modern day pilgrims to record the places they pass through as proof they have completed the pilgrimage according to the rules. Only one stamp per day is required, however, many enjoy the challenge of collecting more. My credential came with a Porto Cathedral stamp—my first. I dutifully put the credentials booklet in my hidden money belt, next to my passport, just in case I could get some more stamps along the way—which I did.
     A young man with a back pack and hiking shoes (a real pilgrim) stood next to me in line. I was impressed and perhaps a little envious. He seemed in a hurry. I expect he was going to get some miles in before the day was over and then continue to hike the 240 km (150 mi) to Santiago Spain over the next week. There he could show his stamped credentials for the official "Certificate of Completion of the Pilgrimage" at the Santiago Cathedral. (The minimum requirement for this certificate is that pilgrims have traveled the final 100 km by foot or 200 km by bicycle.)

    That same day, I inquired at the tourist information office about nearby villages to visit that are directly on the camino. One of their suggestions was the seacoast city of Matosinhos. It sounded interesting and was an easy 30-minute metro ride away. We purchased a metro pass and headed out in search of the camino.   

     This city is on a route that follows the ocean and provides a beautiful promenade along the jagged and rocky Atlantic coast. We found the ocean trail, although it required about a mile trek through the town (also part of the camino) before we could see the water. Once we arrived at the seacoast we noticed a tourist office where we stopped for directions and, of course, a stamp for my credentials (now I had two). We walked about three miles along the trail until we reached a lighthouse before returning via the same route.

    The coast route continues another 25 km to the old fishingtown of Povoa de Varzim. We decided to return to Porto and ride the metro to Povoa another day. The scenic hour long metro ride offered a spectacular view of the Aqueduct of Vila do Conde that was built in the early 1700s with 999 arches. This second largest aqueduct in Portugal connects a spring in Povoa de Varzim with a fountain in the Monastery of Santa Clara.               
   When we arrived, we walked through the picturesque old downtown before reaching the Atlantic for our trek along the camino. The town dates back to 900 BC and has been a popular beach resort for over three centuries. It is also one of the few legal gambling areas in Portugal and home to the Casino da Povoa. Numerous cafes, bars and condominiums line the beaches.
    After walking a couple of miles on the camino, we headed back to the metro through the old fisherman's quarter. We noticed a few pilgrims along the way, but not many. Coincidentally, we did see a woman a second time that we visited with a few days before in Matosinhos. She was doing research and writing for a publishing company and had hiked the camino many times before. We found that it was not unusual for pilgrims to hike it more than once.

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  My visits to places along the camino will continue with the next post.