Fog City Boy on the Camino Português
Condeixa-a-Nova, Portugal – April 17, 2014
Dear readers, it has been nine days since I last posted, but not for lack of interest and resolve on my part. The Way has taken me to various locales that either lacked a facility that sported on-line capability, or in one case, had the capacity but had no connectivity. Quite frustrating.
I will not tell all the tales of my adventures since Santarem, but will save some for a future post.
Vilafranca de Xira and Santarem have served as two staging points for me during the early phase of the Camino Portugues. Finding a suitable location and hunkering down there for a day or two or more has been a practical solution for me in a locale that does not yet sport the infrastructure to support a Camino in the style of the Camino Frances. That Camino generally has albuerques every few kilometers where a weary perigrino can just give it up for the day, get a bunk and a shower (assuming there is space), or go on a few more kilometers to the next alberque if availability is lacking or if energy permits. Such is not yet the case south of Porto on the Camino Portugues. So using one town where lodging can be found as a base of operations – traveling by train or bus to start a day’s hike (beginning where one left off the day before and returning to base to begin again on the next day) has proved a workable solution to the infrastructure challenge.
Arriving in Santarem was instructional for me. I had walked a long way the day before and taken the train from Vilafranca to establish a new base of operations in Santarem. I noted a pension near the railroad station, inquired about availability, and was shown a room. I gave it a cursory look, agreed to stay for three nights at €10 per night (I should have awakened at that point), put down my pack and went back to the station to head back south and start my day’s hike. I got rained on most of the day, was tired, and ferociously in need of a shower. I had the key to the room in the pension, walked in, looked around, noted that there was no heat, checked the facility down the hall (toilet was clean but no toilet seat available) observed the pillows stored in the wardrobe to be about as solid as a dustmop . . . and was appalled that I had booked myself into this dump.
Fast forward, I found a cafe, had a glass of wine, and asked the keeper where there was a hotel in the neighborhood. He obliged and . . . fast forward again . . . I recovered my pack, abandoned the pension and had a nice stay in the clean, heated, well-located hotel (toilet seat included at no extra charge). And an added benefit – there was a very good Chinese restaurant near by! Why eat Chinese when Portuguese is available? Frankly, it is because the Chinese know about vegetables and don’t include fried potatoes with every lunch and dinner. Sadly, Portuguese cuisine does not (at least so far).
A key takeaway from this experience was that I must take pains not to fall vicitim to an impatience to "get on with it – move ahead – don’t delay."
The good news is that I haven’t booked myself into a dump since.
On the morning of my departure from Santarem, I made my way down a steep two-lane and heavily traveled winding road past a mideval fort that guarded one of the approaches to Santarem, the regional headquarters of the Roman administration centuries ago. Look closely in the dense foliage.
Eventually I arrived at the train station and back tracked just a bit to a little hamlet (Ribeira de Santarem) hovering over the Portuguese National Railway mainline to the north where I picked up the familiar yellow arrows and crossed into lovely agricultural territory making use of a midieval stone bridge that has been maintained, updated, and is in regular daily use.
In passing I feel compelled to note that the little hamlet sports a grade crossing on the heavily traveled mainline. Yes, there are warning bells and safety barriers on each side of the crossing, but it is a miracle that the local cemetary is not filled with unfortunates who didn’t make it across. And let me speak specifically to the high speed trains that use the line. I don’t mean the regional and long haul trains that fly by at 100-120 km/hour. I mean bullet trains that can achieve speeds of 220 km/hr. I’ve had several fly by when I was standing on a station platform adjacent to the track they used, and it’s a bit scarry as those trains travel past in a blur.
The land in the plains surrounding Santarem is fertile and the farmers seem prosperous – both large and small. Planting was underway as I passed through. Some established crops were starting to respond to the springtime weather. Commercial size vineyards were common along the way, and small ones in backyards were too. As were the occasional orange and lemon trees in both town and country sideyards. Olive orchards are ubiquitous.
Until I embarked upon this phase of the Way, I was really traversing Lisbon and its far flung suburbs and exurbs. The feeling now is quite different. Sure, there are some towns of noticable size, but the villages and hamlets between them, and even the architechture in those larger towns, is different – less urban, more traditional: Older construction with whitewashed walls and red terracota tile roofs.
And barking dogs both in the country and in the towns. Some leashed, some not! Fountains are common though likely not used as much as historically was the case.
The bell in the church tower announces each passing hour. (The image below is actually in Golega, one of the not-so-small – pop. 6000 – towns where I overnighted. The church is a 14th century parish church noted for its Manueline door.)
And monuments, large and small, to Portugal’s heroic past keep the present in a perspective with the past, both with respect to religion, and the expulsion of the Moors and the establishment of Portugal as a nation in its own right.
I made my way north to Golegã which is a pleasant town famous for its horses and horsetraining activities. The town has determined to popularize doing the Camino Portuguese on horseback! Which is all well and good, but the way marks they have established are for cavaleiros, not for peregrinos on foot! I got thoroughly lost entering town, but luckily found my way to a pleasant pension/alberque with quite elaborate facilities in what had been the town home of a family of considerable means.
I was directed to the location by the Bombieros Voluntarios – the volunteer firemen – volunteers because they volunteer for the servise, not because they are uncompensated. They have firetrucks and ambulances and would be quite at home in a large or small town in the US. They were kind and sent me to my destination swiftly. They recommended a restaurant across the street from the pension, which I explored and where I had dinner. The entrepreneur showed me around the facility which was quite stubstantial, and sadly, quite devoid of other guests. A large oven facility for roasting pigs, storage for the wood chips he uses for heat and for flavoring, and lockers to store his inventory. His English was ok and my Portuguese, of course, non-existant. But we made ourselves understood. After my dinner and when his wife came home and took charge of their young daughter, he insisted that I go with him in his car to see the town. I agreed, and away we went. His tour was quite throrough and included the horse-training academy as well as substantial municipal structures. He complained about the economy and the belt-tightening measures that have been imposed by the government at the behest of other members of the Eurozone. And clearly, his business has suffered as have those of many other small business people in all the towns through which I have passed.
On the next day, I made it to my destination timely, but I had had concerns that I would not find lodging there. The proprietress of the pension where I stayed in Golega had offered to drive to my destination, collect me, and take me somewhere that would provide lodging, if I could not stay where I intended. That turned out not to be a problem. But what struck me about her kindess, and that of the restauranteur who gave me a tour of the town, not to mention motorists stopping to offer me a lift from time to time, is the genuine friendly offers extended by the Portuguese people directed at this perigrino, and I am sure, all others. Quite heartening.
I celebrated finding lodging in Vila Nova Barquina (between Golega and Tomar) by hiring a taxi and inspecting a Knights Templar castle not far away.
With that, I’m off.