Last year I walked the Camino Frances by myself.
I found it to be a profound and transformative experience. The resonances remain with me, even now.
This year I walked the Camino Portuguese with a group. In fact I led a group.
I found it to be no less a profound experience. But It’s interesting to now look back and compare the two pilgrimages.
Firstly, the Camino Frances was a longer distance – some 800kms – and it took longer. For me, including rest days, 31 days. The Camino Portuguese is shorter – 240kms – and it took us 13 days, including 1 rest day.
You’d think that the Camino Frances, because it’s longer and tougher, would provide you with all the ingredients to induce change – a greater change than a shorter pilgrimage.
But I didn’t find that to be the case.
The Camino Portuguese packs a lot into its 240kms. (That’s from Porto to Santiago.)
There are some long tough stages, and some climbs that really push you hard. After climbing to Roncesvalles, and to O Cebreiro, I didn’t think the Portuguese Camino could throw anything at me that would be as difficult as those stages.
But I found the climb to Rubiaes tough-going. As well, there were many stages which were predominantly on hard surfaces – bitumen, cement, and often cobblestones. The cobblestones were a killer on the feet. They induced blisters on many of those on the tour.
The stage from Vila do Conde to Barcelos was particularly difficult – a long walk, and largely on tar or cobblestones. We were knackered at the end of it. And that was day 2.
Also, there were sometimes fewer options on the Camino Portuguese to shorten your stages. The Camino Frances, because it’s so popular, has albergues most of the way along. You can choose to walk a shorter distance if you want.
The infrastructure on the Portuguese Camino – accommodation and cafes etc – isn’t so well developed, particularly for our tour group which required hotels, not albergues. (Yes I know, we’re not true pilgrims. To you I say bah! 🙂 )
So we had a few long stages, particularly early on.
But this I think intensified the experience, and began the transformation process in a few of those in the group after only a couple of days. I noticed this, I read the signals, but I was always a distant observer. I never wanted to pry. I just saw changes starting to happen…
You can have a transcendent experience in a flash. In a moment. You don’t need to walk 1000kms from Seville to have a life altering experience. That’s what I learned from the Camino Portuguese – and I have to say it surprised me.
I didn’t realise it would be as intense, both physically and spiritually, as it turned out to be.
The Camino Portuguese is not a “mini-me” Camino Frances. It has its own history, its own culture and food, it has very potent links to Santiago – St. James and his relics – that are unique to that part of the world.
It is a very special pilgrimage, and it can be as transformative, as spiritually awakening, as the longer Caminos.