When you hear the word ‘Camino’, what springs to mind? For some, it’s the idea of taking a personal journey (both physical and spiritual) to a final destination. For others, it’s about getting outdoors with a group of people and experiencing the culture and place as much as possible.
Also known as the Way of St James, the Camino de Santiago is a network of routes that the pilgrims used to take to Santiago de Compostela in Spain: the place where the Apostle James is believed to be buried. There are many established routes now, primarily in Spain and Portugal, that lead to Santiago. Over the years, the Camino has become a popular choice for an active holiday, and for good reason! Whether you consider yourself very fit or more of a couch potato with occasional outdoor pursuits, spiritual or non-religious, doing the Camino (at least once) has become a top choice for many.
What makes the Camino so special is that it’s different for everyone. Whether you prefer to do a cycling tour or a walking tour, do it solo or in a group, a longer route versus a shorter one, everyone has their own experience. It has become a trip for just about anyone willing to get off the couch.
My experience of my first Camino in Portugal was simply sublime. Opting for the Coastal Way, this route showcased the idyllic coastline of Portugal with its many sandy beaches, cobalt blue water, and bustling beach towns. With so much to take in and experience, one thing is certain, the Camino has much to offer. One just has to be open to receive what the Camino gives you. This in turn will give you your own unique and memorable experience.
Here are my top reasons why the Camino should be a strong contender for your next holiday.
Let’s face it, for some, the notion of exercise and holiday in the same phrase is preposterous. However, getting active on holiday is not only good for you, it also allows you to see and experience more than the hotel pool and its list of cocktails. I don’t consider myself particularly fit, but found I pushed myself beyond what I thought was possible each day. Getting from one point to another, whether by walking or biking, will take some effort, but it’s worth it. I felt a real sense of accomplishment at the end of each day when I was actually unwinding by the pool and sipping a cocktail.
Cycling the Camino is a great way to see more and travel further. There are several fantastic guided and self-guided bike tours that one can do that will get you into a saddle. On the other hand, walking the Camino allows you to explore the route on foot, take notice of smaller things, and immerse yourself in a place. Each day you’ll find that you’re focusing less on the distance but rather on the experience - while getting fit.
The Camino has a rich history, and along the many routes that lead to Santiago, you’ll find beautiful reminders of Portugal’s past in the many cathedrals, monuments, statues, and buildings you come across. Following in the footsteps of the pilgrims who walked this route during the Middle Ages connects one to this historical pilgrimage. You will also become a part of its history.
I was taken by the striking architecture and colorful murals painted on walls; a meld of the old with the new. From the grand cathedrals of Porto, with their towering spires, to the cobblestone streets that pass through white casas (homes) topped with terracotta tiles, Portugal is a very pretty country. Many influences through the ages have resulted in a mix of Romanesque, Gothic, Portuguese Renaissance, and contemporary architecture that is visible today.
Colorful Azulejos (tiles) - primarily in blue and white, but also in many different colors and styles - can be seen everywhere. I loved looking at the intricate detail of each building. Some tell a story of Portuguese life and history, like the ones found in São Bento train station and Igreja do Carmo in Porto. Others - more geometrical in style - are used to decorate buildings and houses as works of art.
One of the best parts of the Camino for me was seeing and experiencing new places. Porto was my starting point. One of the oldest cities in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage site, it oozes charm. I’m so glad I tagged on an extra day to spend quality time discovering its heartbeat. Located at the mouth of the Douro River, Porto rises into a terraced city from Plaça de Ribeira next to the river into a labyrinth of alleyways that draw you in. Best explored on foot, Porto spills boutique shops - selling everything from custom clothes to cork products (one of Portugal’s biggest industries); local eateries and fine-dining restaurants; friendly local faces busy at work, and historical landmarks that draw your eye.
There were so many noteworthy places on my way to Caminha - my final port of call. With each new place I discovered, I banked a trove of fond memories: relaxing in the shady park in Vila do Condo overlooking the Ave River; eating gelado (ice cream) on the pristine beach of Vila Praia de Âncora; dancing to a local band in Praça Da República in the picturesque town of Viana de Castelo, and watching the sunset over the Rio Minho in Caminha. My handy app (that I downloaded on arrival), and that I used for navigation, was also filled with recommended restaurants and not-to-miss sites.
Being outdoors is rejuvenating and gets you to appreciate nature, the local surroundings, and all that it has to offer. The Coastal Way, with its sweeping ocean scapes, bird-inhabited dunes, forest groves, and tree-lined streets, is a visual feast for the eyes. Each day took me through different and varied landscapes. On one of my longer days, I passed along an estuary teeming with gulls, terns, herons, and kingfishers, along the well-kept boardwalks snaking through sand dunes and cool forests of ferns and pines. This was accentuated by the background sound of the waves breaking on the shore, the squawking of gulls above, and the characteristic gongs of cathedral bells. There were long stretches where I found myself enjoying the solitude and quiet and others where there was a bustle of people and activity that made me want to join in, whether it was taking a swim in the Atlantic or sipping on sweet sangria at a beach bar.
I will admit I love food. So, combining an active holiday with eating seems a logical solution to burning calories while indulging in the local fare. It’s hard to get a bad meal in Portugal, so I found out. I’ve heard the same about Spain. With fresh seafood like fried Robalo (Sea bass), Caldeirada de Peixe (fish stew), grilled prawns, sardinhas (sardines), hand-made pastries like pastéis de natas (egg custard), complimented by delicious local wines from the Douro Valley and the Alentejo region, you’re quite literally in food heaven.
The Coastal Way is dotted with many restaurants and local eateries of varying price points. So, on some days, I splurged on a decadent meal, and on others a simple local dish from a sidewalk café more than quelled the appetite. Portugal is also well known for its Port wine (vinho de Porto) - a fortified wine produced in the Douro Valley of Portugal. It’s a sweet wine and pairs very well with desserts. It’s well worth staying a few extra nights in Porto, where the food scene is an eclectic mix of old and new. You don’t have to walk far before you get enticed into a charming bistro or patisserie with rows of confectioneries.
Throughout my Camino, I met friendly locals and fellow pilgrims alike. Even if you choose to do the Camino alone or in a group, you’ll find yourself chatting with other pilgrims about their experience. I met people from all walks of life and various countries. There’s a real sense of inclusion and camaraderie that one experiences on the Camino. I found myself joining a small group for a distance and sharing tapas at a local cafe with people I met en route.
If you start to feel tired or stray from the path, you can be sure that, not before long, you’ll get some encouragement and direction from a fellow pilgrim or local. A common phrase I would hear from other cyclists or walkers on the route was ‘Buen Camino’ or ‘Good Way’: a well wish from one pilgrim to another to have a good journey.
And a good journey I had!
Browse more of our Camino tours below:
Camino de Santiago: A Pilgrim’s Route From Astorga to Santiago
Camino de Santiago: From Leon to Santiago (Guided)
Camino de Santiago: From Porto to Santiago de Compostela