Post Camino: Planes, Trains, Automobiles, and Gliding.
Our goal was to finish the Camino Frances in Santiago in 28 days. Having completed it in 26, we had the luxury of a few extra days of flexibility prior to our flight home of Oct. 12th from Lisbon. So here’s what we did…
One of the things that many pilgrims talk about along the Camino is when and where you will finish. While the center of Santiago and the tomb of Saint James is the pilgrimage’s official end, many pilgrims choose to continue walking toward the ocean to Finisterre “Land’s End” and finish their walk there. I think this is wise. Apart from experiencing more of Galicia’s scenery near the coast, I think walking to the literal end of earth, overlooking an endless ocean, would be a more symbolic and impressionable finish than the anti-climactic feeling we had upon finishing in a crowded plaza amid urban sprawl. With our remaining time, Kim and I did not want to use it up with the 3 days required to walk on to Finisterre, but we did decide to join in a package all-day bus tour to Finisterre, Muxia, and other sites along Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte. It was the first time we had taken any form of transportation, other than our feet, in 27 days. It was a nice tour; just sitting on the bus for the ride felt rather mindless and therapeutic. Off the bus, we had time to explore various sites. Though Finisterre is the more celebrated end, and we had one of our finest seafood lunches in the actual town, we liked Muxia better for scenery. Martin Sheen must have agreed, as the movie “The Way” decided to use Muxia for their final scene at the sea, instead of Finisterre.
Upon returning to Santiago, we grabbed some dinner snacks and boarded a fast train to Ourense, where we were kindly picked up and driven into Portugal by Filinto, the father of Duarte, my Clemson friend, housemate and PRTM colleague (Parks, Recreation, & Tourism Management). Duarte is from Portugal, but has remained in the states, now a professor at NC State. He offered his village home in Sao Lourenco for us to stay in, and arranged for his family to welcome us. We stayed for 3 nights, the first time in 28 days that we had slept in the same place more than one night. Kim and I both looked forward to chillax there as a post-Camino break.
It actually turned out to be not as much down time as we thought, thanks to the hospitality of Duarte’s family. Our very late arrival meant we essentially had 2 full days there. After sleeping in heartily and cooking ourselves a great breakfast the first day, Filinto picked us up and gave us a driving tour of the countryside and then to their amazing family run bed & breakfast “Quinta de Mata”, an old estate house which they now run as a permaculture farm. We had lunch there, then we went into the city of Chaves, where we had coffee, drank some natural thermal waters, and walked around the historic center with its intact castle tower walls and Roman era bridge.
The next day was supposed to be our do nothing day, but Duarte’s brother Luis invited us to join him as he was helping lead a group paragliding off a chapel-topped mountain overlooking Mondim de Basto. Luis is an avid paraglider and instructor, so I felt like it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, but Kim decided to stick with the plan to stay in the village and relax. It turned out to be a high-low day. I was only supposed to be gone half the day, but due to unfavorable winds, the launches were delayed till late afternoon, and I had no way to contact Kim, and we didn’t get back till late at night while she waited around. I did a lot of waiting around myself with Luis monitoring the winds, and when they finally could launch, I just hung out watching. It’s an impressive sport, where you catch rising hot air currents from the valley and you step off the mountainside and ride them up, down, and around. At the end of the day, I got to do it myself, riding tandem with Luis, as the sun set. Rushing down in a spiral, to beat the coming darkness, we actually descended a little beyond our target landing zone, but Luis steered us over the tree tops and expertly “crash” landed us on the edge of the nearby road. It was fun and if there were facilities / conditions to do it around Asheville, I’d probably get into it too. I thought it was more of an adrenaline sport, but upon witnessing it, floating with the thermal winds is one of the most serene things you can do.
Saying good-bye to Duarte’s family, they dropped us off at the Chaves bus station and we took a bus to Porto, about 2 hours away. Kim’s parents wanted to treat us to a fancy hotel while we were on the Camino, but we never really found anything that was “fancy” beyond the pleasures of clean, tidy, and private small hotels. So we targeted Porto for a little bit of indulgement, having heard everything was cheaper there. But arriving on the tail end of the weekend, all the places we checked that looked nice in the lively / scenic part of the city were full. We eventually found a room available, close to things, but nothing special, actually below par with the private rooms we’d enjoyed on the Camino. Still, it was adequate, and we only planned to sleep there, while we spent the day exploring. Porto is quite scenic with steep urban hillside on both sides of the river, spanned by an Eifel-esque steel bridge. We walked around, surprised at the bustling crowds of tourists and others enjoying the outdoor cafes along the streets and the river. On the other side of the river, we got a nice lunch of presunto and other small plates that made for a big meal. We toured a local port winery, watched the sunset over the river / city, and got dinner at an African restaurant in one of the narrow alleys. More time there would have been nice, but we were eager to get to Lisbon, so the next morning we took the express train south.
We arrived Lisbon mid-morning and promptly walked to our Airbnb lodging and dropped off our bags. We stayed in Alfama, a wonderful neighborhood of small homes, cafes and narrow, multi-angled streets on hillsides coming up from the port toward the Castle of St. George. We loved the location as a base to walk around and even get lost in the maze. After walking near our neighborhood, and down into the more modern center and eating a take-away lunch in the plaza, we joined a free (tip only) walking tour. The “chill out” tour was from a local, cultural perspective more than sites, history, and dates. We enjoyed it a lot. It actually ended just a stone’s throw from our lodging, so we went back there for a little break, before heading out for a view of the sunset and dinner in the adjacent neighborhood hill of Graca.
After sleeping in and enjoying a light breakfast on a nearby terrace overlooking the city and Tagas River, we returned to Graca, and went to a big flea market that happens on Tuesdays. It was part touristy and part thrift store. I enjoyed more of the thrift store side of things, getting some cheap used garments (my favorite kind of souvenir). I had already “retired” several garments through the trip, so this was my way of replenishing them on the last day. We got lunch in a small courtyard restaurant back in Alfama, and after dropping our purchases off back at the room, we headed to the Belem part of Lisbon via trolley car and train. It was a bit of a disappointment with its museums and monuments either closing or covered with scaffolding, and not much in the way of nightlife after dark, so we returned to Lisbon and got dinner in Barrio Alto. As we finished eating, it started to rain, a rare thing in Lisbon, and we got wet as we navigated the streets heading back to our place. It was a bit of damper on our final night, amplified by the fact that we couldn’t find any open supermarkets to blow our final euros. We did eventually find a small overpriced shop, and I bought some bottle of port wine to take home. I was also a bit disappointed that we did not make the time to take a day trip to nearby Sintra, but as we returned to our room, all wet, I thought about how this bit of rain was a reminder to be grateful. We really had astounding weather for the duration of our trip. Despite some imperfect days, towns, situations, and our imperfect selves, we really had an amazing trip; better than we could have hoped for or strategically planned for.
I think I was still feeling grateful for our overall experience as we journeyed home the next day. Getting home was not perfect, with misinformation getting to the airport, with our “plain” plane, and then a mechanical delay in PHL caused us to miss our AVL connection in CLT, and spend an additional night in an unoriginal American chain hotel. While we weren’t happy about it, we felt the ire and moans of the other American travelers around who expect things to be efficient and flawless. And I felt mostly gratitude welling inside me and said “Oh well” to myself; we’re coming home from an amazing trip; what a privilege and an honor it is to do what we’ve done. We (humanity) would be a sad lot of pilgrims if everything on our life journey went our way, all the time.
We arrived Asheville in the morning, Oct. 13th, on a cool crisp day, the beginning of fall colors visible in the mountains from the view from the plane. We ubered to my house, where we receive a grand celebration from El Guapo. Kim and I gave a long grateful hug to each other, and she drove on to her house. It was a work day, and I knew there was a lot of things to get back on top of, but I did not want to jump back into that just yet. It could wait a little longer. I drove up the BR Parkway a bit and took El Guapo for a hike on one of my favorite stretches on the Shut-In Trail. I am grateful that in my life, I have had such opportunities to explore and travel, but I am also very grateful that the place I come home to is a wonderful place to be. It felt good to be away. It feels good to be home. How can I not be grateful?