Walking with St James

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Sometimes runners take on other challenges, be it multisport, obstacle racing or adventure racing, or even hiking, so when we heard about the story of ‘Two Porras and a Greek’ – Dina Do Couto, Grace Pereira and Maria Paschalides of Bedfordview Country Club Running Club in Johannesburg – heading to Portugal in June to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrim’s route, we asked them to send us the story.

Also known as the Way of St. James, the Camino de Santiago is the name of a number of pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the Apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, where the remains of the saint are said to be buried. With all three of us having run many marathons, we thought that walking an average of 30km per day following the scallop shell signs would be “a walk in the park.” Well, there were many uphills and downhills, stairs, cobblestone and pebble footpaths, and forest walkways, and they were far from “an easy walk.” Although we had trained for two months with our backpacks filled with six to seven kilograms of books, the continuous walking each day proved to be rather challenging, and yet the most rewarding and fulfilling outdoor experience of our lifetime.

Setting Forth
We started our journey on Sunday 4 June and at the first church we stopped at, we prayed for all our Comrades back in SA running the big race that same day. Our first day, 18km from Porto to Vila do Conde, having chosen the coastal route, made the first leg picturesque and calming. We felt fresh and alive, and the scenery was food for our souls as we ensured that we had our Pilgrims Passport stamped at the churches and inns to validate that we had walked that distance.

On the second day we had 32km to cover to Esposende, but what we didn’t know was that once we got into the town, we still had to walk to our Albergue (inn) where Pilgrims (or Peregrinos, backpackers like us) get a bed and a shower, which was another 6km. Thereafter, it was another couple of kilometres to a supermarket or a restaurant to get food. So day two was close to 40km. It had also been very windy, so we felt exhausted, plus the infamous blisters made their appearance on Grace’s right foot. To top it all, it began to rain so we wore every item of clothing in our backpacks to try stay warm!

The third day from the city of Esposende to Viana do Castelo (Castle at the top of the Hill) was about 27km. This route was mainly in the forests and it was here that we came upon two priests chanting in Polish at the Pilgrims Stone Pillar. We recorded them and often listened to this chant, especially when we felt we needed some higher power to get us through a stage. The greatest satisfaction was realising that we were getting stronger each day, and not feeling the weight on our backs as much, plus our core and leg strength had visibly improved.

Making New Friends
Sleeping at the inns was challenging. We had to learn to sleep in a room filled with snoring strangers, but it was a humbling reminder that we do not need much in a materialistic sense, and heart-warming to find that a great conversation can unfold even if speaking in a common language is difficult. This is also where we met several new friends from different countries and backgrounds, and our nights were time to relax with the other Pilgrims over a glass or two of Portuguese wine.

Day four was 25km from Viana do Castelo to Caminha, through the farmlands, up and down cobbled stone terrains through the villages and eventually into the town of Caminha. By now we had four Pilgrims (two Germans, one Austrian and a young girl from Canada) walking with us. The company was great and together we sang songs and shared stories of how to treat blisters and muscle fatigue. Thankfully, Herbert the Austrian had a fully kitted medical kit that had blister plasters, needles, thread and lots of magnesium tablets. We realised that we were not as prepared as we should have been…

The fifth day was nearly 37km from Caminha to Valenca, the last stop in Portugal. The seven of us started briskly, Manfred from Germany was celebrating his birthday and we had decided we would all picnic together, having packed fresh rolls, fruit and of course wine. Meanwhile, another of our new friends, Erdal, stopped at every church and landscape to draw sketches in his journal, and we began looking forward to seeing his next drawing.

We passed through the town of Vila Nova de Cerveira, known for its huge statue of a stag, and in the afternoon we walked the tarred section along the Minho River, which separates Spain from Portugal, and which was quite therapeutic, as it was the first time that we could walk at a fast pace. As we neared the day’s finish, a proud farmer took us on a tour of her greenhouse and gave us a huge 30cm-long courgette (baby marrow), which we shared in a salad that evening. Other farmers had given us green peppers, potatoes, fresh rolls, water and even bandages and plasters along the way, and we were humbled by the generosity of the locals.

Spanish Adventure
Day six was 42km, going from Valenca over the bridge to Porrino and then to Redondela. We said farewell to Portugal early in the morning and crossed into Spain, so we now changed our morning greeting from “Bom Dia” to “Buenos Dias.” In the first town, Tui, we came across the Camino Pilgrims’ Shop and spent a lot of time and Euros there, delaying our walk by more than an hour. We then rushed the morning walk and had a tough time dealing with blisters and pain, and had not covered anywhere near the planned distance for the day, so at 28km we made the decision to get a taxi to Redondela. It was a paradox of emotions: Guilt that we were not walking, and relief that we could let our feet take a break – but we quickly got over it.

On day seven we were off to Pontevedra, covering 27km. This was a busy route through the mountains and woodlands, with many backpackers en route to Santiago, as well as school groups, cyclists and a busload of Saturday hikers who complete each stage only on weekends. Needless to say, we felt a bit like we were on a highway during peak hour traffic, but the huge difference here is that even in this congestion, there was peace and serenity as each person was in awe of the picturesque surroundings. Pontevedra was abuzz with activity as a triathlon was underway and at 7pm we were still watching the action. That night we stayed at a monastery 7km out of town, where we had our own room and bath, and felt rather spoilt!

We then decided that we would take a chance the next day and follow an alternative route – the blue arrows of the Spiritual Route – which would still get us to our planned day eight destination at Vila De Arousa. The route was along the coast, and being a Sunday we passed many beaches filled with locals. We never saw any other Pilgrims, but being so enthralled by the surroundings, we never thought anything of it. Eventually by lunchtime, when we asked for some help with directions, we realised that although the Spiritual route is a genuine route to Santiago, it is much longer, and we would need three days to get to our destination. It was the first time that we felt a bit of concern and anxiety, so we once again made use of public transport to take us closer to where we were meant to be. We finally arrived at our Albergue at 8pm, 43km later, but the views that day were unforgettable, so we decided to name that day our best mistake!

Job Nearly Done
Monday was day nine, the final 53km stretch, and we were off by 7am, as we had to catch a ferry to Padron. We began our walk in silence, but with a sense of both excitement and apprehension, knowing that we had to finish that day, since we had booked our airplane tickets back. Our emotions were paralleled by sadness, as we also realised that our adventure would soon be coming to an end. The route was long and most pilgrims we met that day were going to stop halfway to rest, but we had no choice but to keep moving, so we tried to sing every song and play every memory game to keep our spirits up.

Herbert had decided to finish with us, so the four of us continued throughout the hottest day of our trip. We passed many churches and villages, and by about 5pm, still with 32-degree heat, we had reached Santiago. We then realised that we still had 7,5km to go before we reached the Church of St James, which was in the middle of the town. We all agreed that this was the hardest stretch, and each step seemed to take forever. It was like running a marathon and spectators start saying “you’re nearly there,” but you know that you still have to work very hard to get there. But we had no crowds cheering us on, the motivation had to come from within, and the desire to get there had gripped our emotions and squeezed out any negativity.

The excitement that overcame us as we entered into the square and began to ascend the stairs to the church was indescribable. Tourists and other Pilgrims were chatting and taking photos, oblivious of us as we held each other, tears pouring down our faces, our hugs so tight to prevent us from falling over with emotion, and complete exhaustion. There is no feeling that can equate to that realisation when you finish what you set out to achieve, and to do it with best friends in the most spiritual surroundings is by far one of the best experiences of our lives!

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