Stories of the Camino 2011

We decided to put together a blog where we go through all the days, stories, challenges and some advices for pilgrims. So here’s the blog for our Portuguese walk challenge:

May 2011

Day One – Lisbon to Povoa de Santa Irish 17.3km – One Day our Prince will Come too

Finally it had arrived, the start of KIDS Camino Portuguese 4 Year Challenge. Our group of 12 pilgrims assembled in Dublin Airport Terminal 2 for our flight to Lisbon.  The topic of conversation was the Royal Wedding which had taken place the day before.  We all agreed that Kate Middleton was a beautiful bride and she and Prince William looked so happy and in love.  Our focus turned very quickly to checking in our bags and getting people checked in so we could go and have breakfast.

Our flight took off and little later than planned, but this did not dampen the spirits and enthusiasm of our 12 pilgrims.  After a really nice flight with Aer Lingus we finally arrived in Lisbon to start our walk.  We preceded to the starting point at Parque das Nacoes to start the 17.3km to Povoa de Santa Iria.  The walk started in light drizzle through Lisbon along the water’s edge, under the bridge.   After a couple of kilometres we moved onto a farm track with marsh land on both sides.  The rain started to get heavier and very soon every mosquitoes within a 50 mile radius came out to hunt new victims and attacked at will.  What started out as a nice level and hard farm track turned into our mud nightmare!  It was a case of mud, mud, and more mud.  This combined with the rain made conditions very difficult for the pilgrims.  It was not possible to use the grass edges of the track as they were a sheer drop into the marsh.  We soldiered on through the mud which in parts was right up over our knees.  A number of our pilgrims fell and received very little sympathy from the rest of the group who only wanted to take photographs of their mishap.

Despite these challenging conditions the group maintained their enthusiasm and energy by singing songs, laughing and telling stories.  A whole new version of Julie Andrews song “The Hills are alive with the sound of music” was created to “The lane is alive with the bites of mosquitoes”.  At one stage one pilgrim told Cora that if she fell again she would have to go and get a bicycle for her.  About 10 minutes later she turned around and there was a mountain biker behind her but he was worse off as the mud was so bad he could not get his wheels out of the mud.   We would have settled for a prince to come and rescue us at that stage but we had to soldier on. Moral of the story: be careful what you wish for as it may come true!

Finally, we left the track and got back to a new track which brought us into a small village where we got some refreshments to give us a much needed energy boost.  As we sat on the narrow bridge enjoying our refreshments we drew very strange looks from locals driving over such bridge.  After 10 minutes we resumed our journey towards Alpriarte.  As we walked along the road we drew strange looks from passers-by to the state of our clothes, boots and faces which had been badly bitten by mosquitoes.

Finally, the support transport arrived to take us to our hotel.  When Peter stepped out of the van and saw us caked in so much mud he had difficulty in holding in his laughter and even at the end of the 7 days he was still talking about that day.  When we arrived at the hotel the staff, were shocked and concerned by our muddy appearance, they immediately organised emergency laundry service for our clothes.  That night at dinner the topic of conversation was mud, mud and mosquitoes.  We had a very enjoyable dinner and many headed for a much needed early night.

Pilgrim Notes

Terrain: Terrain is foothpath’s, farm tracks and secondary roads.   It is recommended that pilgrims wear walking boots to cope with the marsh and muddy tracks.  Pilgrims should ensure that they take precautions against mosquitoes.

Yellow Arrows: Very few yellow arrow markings and pilgrims need to be vigilant in looking out for each arrow

Facilities on the Route: Stock up on water and snacks as there are no suitable facilities on the  route.

Places of Interest: The route for the first day passed along the sea front of Lisbon and then onto farm tracks and then back onto the secondary road.   Its not very scenic and pilgrims pass through small villages with very few facilities.

Passport Stamps: No places to get your passport stamped en route,  we secured our first stamp at the VIP hotel where we stayed the first night.

Where we Stayed: We stayed at the VIP Hotel which is 3km off the Camino Route and we highly recommend it as a stopover point for pilgrims.  Email address: hotelsantairia@viphotels.com

Day Two – Povoa de Santa Iria to Vila Franca de Xira 14.9km – Commander in Chief

Morning breaks with the sun with its hat on, a feast of a breakfast and 12 happy pilgrims looking forward to the adventure of Santa Iria to Vila France de Xira route.  All aboard the pilgrim bus with clear instructions on how to get to our starting point.  Not long on the road serenity evaporated and voices of “help” clambered to compete and give Peter the best instructions.  Following one of these pilgrims instructions Peter drives onto a one way system.  Frantically Portuguese drivers were waving for the pilgrims to halt.  Peter pulls in and reverses and without warning the bus becomes lodged in a concrete gully.  “All Out Now” the leader demonstrating his command of the situation.  Dutifully 12 obeying pilgrims vamoose. With great skill Peter drives the bus safely out having instructed pilgrims to push on command.

The bus halts – a commanding voice is heard over the rabble of eleven good ideas “Shut Up”.  There are too many chiefs.  Silence descends, Peter calmly but with conviction states “I have made a decision there is only room for one leader and that is me”.  Back to the rail track and stop all this messing.  A cheer arises; a new leader has been found “hail the pilgrim chief”.

As the walkers commenced stage two the support vehicle headed to Villa Franca de Xira to check into the next accommodation point.  When the support vehicle arrived into Villa Franca de Xira they stopped and asked a policeman for directions.  He began to explain how to get there and then said can you wait five minutes and I will bring you there.  He returned and took us directly to Residencial Flora.  After checking in and putting the bags into the bedrooms we started to check the route for the next day.  At approximately 3.50pm the pilgrims arrived tired, hot and thirsty.   As the pilgrims were on their way, they had adopted another pilgrim from Canada called Gigi.  Gigi had arrived in Portugal to walk the Camino to help her move through the grief after the loss  of losing her husband Bernard.  The group adopted Gigi and invited her to stay at the hotel with us and to walk with us for as long as she liked.  We warned her that we were a lively group who liked to talk, laugh, cry and sing songs to get us over those hard challenging parts of our walk.  She signed up on the dotted line over a couple of well earned beers.

We all headed to the hotel and freshened up.  After dinner the group headed back to the hotel for a much needed nights rest.

Pilgrim Notes

Terrain: Terrain is on concrete footpath’s running parallel to the railway and also traverses the main roads to Vila Franca.

Yellow Arrows: Very few yellow arrows and pilgrims need to be vigilant in looking out for them.  Walk finishes at the train station and is the start for the next stage of the walk.   The yellow arrow for the start of the next walk stage is located on a concrete container in the garden located beside the train station.

Facilities: No facilities en route and pilgrims need to bring water and snack supplies as there are no shops to purchase supplies.

Passport Stamps: There are no places en route to have walk passport stamped and our pilgrims had their passports stamped at the hotel in Vila Franca

Places of Interests: Walk passes through small villages and through country side.

Where we stayed: The group stayed at the Residencial Flora and we can recommend it to other pilgrims.  The website address is flora.com.sapo.pt

Day Three Vila Franca de Xira to Azambuja 19km – Do You Think Portugal is a Supermarket

The group enjoyed a lovely breakfast before setting off at 8.00a.m.  This stage of the walk started in the gardens opposite the train station and left Villa Franca via the main road.  Pilgrims need to be careful as you have to cross over a number of junctions and rely on the support of the truck drivers who stopped to let us cross.  After a short time, we crossed onto a minor road which brought us through the lush farmland and past an Ostrich Farm.  It was a lovely dry morning and the temperature was just right for walking.

As the group arrived in Azambuja it was clear that after three days the blisters and sore feet were starting to take its toll on the pilgrims.  Executive decision by Pauline to buy the biggest basin she could get resulted in “Pauline’s Foot Spa” opening for business on the veranda of accommodation.  One by one the Pilgrims blistered feet sought comfort in the soothing lotion that Pauline had prepared.

Two of our Pilgrims decided to find a doctor and register with their EHI Card in order the purchase their medication.  After four hours of waiting and negotiation they finally got to see the doctor.  When one of the Pilgrims asked the doctor for a one year prescription, she replied “do you think Portugal is a Supermarket”.  The Pilgrims replied could we have six months to which the doctor agreed.  For Pilgrims taking expensive medication, it is worth bringing your prescription and registering with a doctor to avail of the cost savings which was over 60% for one of our Pilgrims.

Pilgrim Notes

Terrain: Terrain is foothpath’s, farm tracks and secondary roads – walking boots or walking runners are suitable.

Yellow Arrows: Very few yellow arrow markings and pilgrims need to be vigilant in looking out for each arrow.

Facilities: Stock up on water and snacks as there are no suitable facilities until you reach Vila Nova de Rainha where pilgrims can refill water bottles at a public area on the outskirts of the village. There is an Aldi in Azambuja where pilgrims can stock up on energy bars and supplies for the next days walk.

Passport Stamps: No places to get your passport stamped en route – pilgrims secured their stamps at the Flor da Primavera in Azambuja where they stayed.

Places of Interests: This stage of the walk is through farmland lush with growing produce.  We passed through small villages with small winding streets but very little sign of life.

The group stayed at Flor da Primavera in Azambuja who also provided dinner and breakfeast as well.

Day Four Azambuja to Santarem 32km – It is mind over matter

After breakfast the group set off at 8.00a.m. for the longest leg of the walk at 32km. The route started along a secondary road before turning onto a farm track.  Overhead we could hear the constant buzzing of aeroplanes landing and taking off from the nearby Aerodrome.  We found out that the role of these flights was to dust all of the crops in the nearby fields.  As a group we were impressed with how the Portuguese grow so much of their own food, this reminded us of how Ireland used to be.  After passing the Aerodrome we continued along the farm lane when all of a sudden it became muddy and wet.  Almost in unison Pauline and Adrienne shouted “Cora if this is like the first day then call the cavalry now”.  No says Cora it will be okay I promise so we continued.

We liked to sing as we walked to keep our spirits up.  Peter set Cora and Elaine a challenge, could they remember the words of a song that he had sung for the group.  So Elaine and Cora spent the entire day singing and practising the song so that they would be able to sing it to Peter.

The lead group of walkers Anne, Flo, Lorraine and Jonathan were practising their own song to celebrate finishing the 32km, “We are the Champions of the Way” they sang.

At Porto Muge, the group reapplied sun cream, re-plastered blisters, aired their sock and toes before starting the final stage of the 32km walk.  30km later the group were all intrigued and somewhat intimidated about the dreaded hill!  They kept on walking contemplating how they were going to get up the hill.  All of a sudden the group heard we made it, the hill was just a little bit of a steep street.  After 32km Cora announced okay now we have one more kilometer to the hotel.  Everyone felt they had accomplished their big challenge.

Pilgrim Notes

Terrain: Terrain is mostly secondary roads and farm lanes.   As your near Santarem it is mostly foothpaths through populated areas.

Yellow Arrows: Like all the stages of this walk so far, yellow arrows are very scarce and pilgrims need to be vigilant in locating them and using a detailed guide book is a must.

Facilities on the Route: No facilities are available until the Village of Valada where there is a small Cafe and pilgrims can stock up on water.   It is recommended that pilgrims bring their own snacks as this Cafe only sells pastries.

Passport Stamps: No Passport stamps on this part of the route and this group had their passport stamped at the hotel in Santarem.

Places of Interest: The Group stayed at the Residencial Beirante in Santarem which is located in the centre.  It is very comfortable and clean and both the dinner and breakfast were very good.

Day Five Santarem to Azinhaga 22.5km – Lost

The group left the hotel at 8.30a.m. to head towards Azinhaga.  Pilgrims were reading from different hymn sheets.  The group started following the Fatima road instead of the Santiago road.  Three hours later the group decided to call for technical support.  It turned out the Pilgrims had walked 8km in the wrong direction.  The support vehicle picked up the walkers and dropped them off where they were supposed to be in Vale da Figueira to continue the walk.  This stage of the walk took the Pilgrims through endless cornfields and plantations.  At one point, Anne, in the middle of not knowing weather we were in the right directions, looked up the sky asking Bernie for help to guide us as we were taking care of his lady, our new pilgrim Gigi… and so, no more than two minutes later, a van appeared in the middle of the fields out of the blue, and a lovely older couple got off the van and guided us towards the road that led us to the town…Finally after a few of hours the Pilgrims arrived at Casa de Azinhaga.

As we arrived into Azinhaga, we sat for a very well deserved lunch as this was the time that we had decided to walk “light” and not bring much water or food as we wanted to be comfortable… Little did we know we would be in the middle of farms and fields all walk long…

As we arrived to the Casa de Azinaga, we were amazed by how beautiful it was and how lovely the ladies who greeted us were. They pointed out our rooms and where the pool was. Just like that, we jumped to a very well deserved swim and refreshing water!

Pilgrim Notes

Terrain: Windy roads through lush farmland – if the weather is warm and dry walking runners would be okay.

Yellow Arrows: Lots of blue arrows for Fatima – very few yellow arrows which is why our pilgrims got lost.

Need to be vigilant and look out for the village / townland names on the route as an indicator that you are not lost.   Follow the railway line toward Vale da Figueira from Santarem and this will keep you on track to Azinhaga.

Once you reach the corn fields, the last arrow will be on the only tree standing. Follow that path even if the arrows are no where to be seen. You are on the right track. Then, when you start loosing all hope, there is where you’ll see some industries, that leads you directly into Azinhaga.

Facilities: Pilgrims need to ensure that they have enough water and food as there are no opportunities to stock up on this stage of the walk.

Passport Stamps: Passport stamps at Casa da Azinhaga.

Places of Interest: Like most of this walk so far, its all farmlands, small villages and townlands.

The group stayed at Casa de Azinhaga and this was our favourite accommodation of the walk. The food was amazing, all grown on their own farm.  The staff were fantastic and went out of their way to make our stay memorable.   We can highly recommend Casa de Azinhaga where we stayed for two nights.

Day Six Azinhaga to Vila Nova da Barquinha 16.4km – Ghost Town

We set off from Azinhaga along the main road towards Golega before turning off down a farm track.  This part of Portugal is well known for its Equestrian sports and many of the fields were well stocked with beautiful horses.  As we neared the end of the track towards an impressive estate, a vision on horseback resplendent in riding attire rode towards us and into a training field.  One of the Pilgrims shouted “it is like a character from a Mills and Boons novel”.  We left the farm track and returned to the main road.  This part of the walk to Golega was along a very busy main road and care is required to ensure that walkers stay safe.

We had our lunch break in Golega and took the chance to stock up on water for the next part of the walk.  As we left Golega we started off on a farm track before rejoining the main road.  This stage of the walk Golega to Sao Caetano is along a minor road that is very busy so Pilgrims need to take care.  Another point to note there is no drinking water available once you leave Golega.  As you leave Sao Caetano you pass through the Plantation Ghost Town.  This includes an old monastery of the Knights Templar which is now abandoned.  We took time to explore the beautiful houses, church and buildings which are now lying empty because the Plantation was shut down.  It was very eerie walking through this Ghost Town and the Pilgrims felt it was such a waste to see the buildings lying derelict.

We also met the lady who was paining the yellow arrows for the Camino and needless to say we provided some input into her project.  The Pilgrims continued towards Vila Nova da Barquinha having completed the 16.4km.

Pilgrim Notes

Terrain: Farm tracks followed by a busy road into Golega, then busy road to Sao Caetano and then this stage finished on a old farm track into Nova da Barquinta.

Yellow Arrows: Lots of yellow arrows on this stage of the walk so it is easy to follow the route so you should not get lost.

Facilities: Pilgrims need to stock up on water before they leave Golega as there are no villages until Sao Caetano to refill bottles etc.

Passport Stamps: Lots of Cafes in Golega to get your passport stamped – there is a very nice Cafe opposite the village church which stamped all our passports.

Places of Interest: Church in Golega is worth a visit.  As with a lot of the churches on this route they are created in old stone and over 100 years old. Expansive inside, beautiful altars and all steeped in history.

The plantation ghost town offers keen photographers wonderful opportunities to capture the history and story of this eerie and deserted place.   Architecture of the old monastery of The Knights Templar is an impressive edifice to the history and what happened here.

We stayed at Casa de Azinhaga for this night as well.

Day Seven Vila Nova de Barquinha to Tomar 22km – Let it go

Our final day of walking had arrived and we bid a sad farewell to Casa de Azinhaga and the staff who had looked after us so well.

We set off towards Tomar through the village of Vila Nova de Barquinha taking the time to admire the beautiful gardens and homes along the road.  As we left we ascended a steep hill before heading into woodland.  As we proceeded through the woodland it was difficult to locate the yellow arrow markers.  The terrain was stony and loose underfoot and there is a very steep incline on this part of the walk.  After leaving the woodland we joined the A3 Motorway and headed towards Asseiceira where we had some refreshments.  It is recommended to Pilgrims to stock up on water in Asseiceira.

Heading from Asseiceira to Santa Cita we had to cross over two roundabouts at a major junction before turning off to join a dirt track along the railway line.   As we proceed along this track we were overwhelmed by the smell from the nearby sewers.   Cora came up with the suggestion to take leaves from the nearby Eucalyptus trees, rub together in your hands and breathe in the vapours to block out the smell.  It worked!

We left this track after 40 minutes and joined a road heading towards Tomar.  We negotiated two very steep hills before descending into St. Lorenzo where we took a break before heading into Tomar.

Our support vehicle was waiting at the bus station to welcome and cheer the Pilgrims who had completed the first part of the Four Year Challenge.

Pilgrim Notes

Terrain: Walk stars out on roads then into a forest where there is a steep incline.  When you leave the forest you join the A-3 motorway and you need to be careful when trying to cross over the roads.  We had break at a Cafe in Asseiceira where we also stocked up on water.

As you near Tomar there are two steep hills that bring you down to St. Lorenzo where you join a main road into Tomar.

Yellow Arrows: Yellow arrows are a hit and miss on this stage of the walk.   Pilgrims decided that in 2012, part two of our four year KIDS Camino Challenge, we will bring our own can of yellow dye and paint arrows to guide pilgrims that will be following in our footsteps.

Facilities: Pilgrims needs to bring water and snacks until they get to Asseiceira where you can refill supplies.  This will be the last place to stock up until you get to Tomar.

Passport Stamps: We had our passport stamped at the Municipal Office as you leaveVila Nova de Barquinha, a  Cafe in Asseiceira and finaly in a St. Lorenzo just outisde Tomar.

Places of Interest

Lots of nice villages with lovely churches that are worth a visit.

The Pilgrims headed back to Lisbon and to our hotel the Travel Park which we can recommend.

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