The Portuguese Way – Tui to Santiago

To become an officially accomplished pilgrim, you must walk at least 100 kilometers to Santiago. For this reason, a lot of people choose to start their walk in Tui, a Spanish right on the border to Portugal. It’s 115 kilometers from Santiago, almost the perfect distance.

In this post I show you how I spent five walking days on this route in late October 2021.

(This is the last part in a series from my pilgrimage from Lisbon to Santiago de Compostela. The other two parts cover the walk from Lisbon to Coimbra and from Porto to Valença.)

Photo of cathedral in Tui, Spain, seen from the Camino de Santiago approaching the old town.

Day One

I spend the whole morning exploring and admiring the fortress in Valença, so it’s almost noon before I leave Portugal.

Entering Spain from Portugal is almost disappointingly uneventful. Without the big sign telling me I am entering Spain, I wouldn’t know I was in a new country. The only difference I see is that Pingo Doce supermarkets are replaced with Mercadonas.

I follow the same yellow arrows as before, and they instruct me to approach this hill.

Thanks to its commanding location, the Tui cathedral looks more impressive than it really is, almost fortress-like. The route going up the hill is like a labyrinth, but the arrows know the way.

Photo of the entrance to the cathedral in Tui, Spain.

The cathedral’s façade has impressed people for 800 years. It’s a worthy starting point for a pilgrimage.

When I try to enter the building, I’m told that I can’t bring my backpack inside. When I ask them where I can put my backpack, they tell me that’s for me to find out, and that they certainly won’t look after it. So all I get to see of the cathedral is the exterior.

A little disappointed, I sit down to rest on the Camino bench for a few minutes. A greater cathedral is waiting for me further along.

Photo of old stone cross behind the cathedral in Tui, Spain.

If I can’t go inside the cathedral, I can at least walk around it. There’s a lot to appreciate. For example, this Jesus, who has found a lovely spot to hang behind the cathedral.

Photo of chapel interior in a nunnery in Tui, Spain.

In a nunnery around the corner, I am welcome to bring my backpack inside.

I stay for quite a while. I am alone in here, except for an old nun who is practicing singing hymns. I wonder whether she is even aware of my presence, or if she just couldn’t care less. It doesn’t matter. She has a lovely voice. It’s a lovely thing to experience. I’m as silent as I can be.

Photo of safe Camino de Santiago passage on a road north of Tui, Spain.

In Spanish, the route is called the Camino Portugues, not the Caminho, but in Galicia they tend to spell like in Portugal.

While the spelling is the same here as in Portugal, I can tell that I am now in Spain, where the trail to Santiago is a serious matter. The Spanish are simply better at looking after pilgrims.

When a section of the trail merges with a road for cars, a safety barrier is there for the protection of pilgrims. The number of pilgrims here is much higher than in Portugal, so I guess it makes even more sense to put effort into ensuring trail safety here. I still want to commend the Spanish. It makes a huge difference to be able to concentrate on your own thoughts, instead of having to dedicate at least half your awareness to dodging cars.

Photo of old stone bridge across Rio Louro in Galicia, Spain.

I’m soon safely back in the forest, on an old Roman road.

This bridge across Rio Louro may be Roman, or it may be younger. It’s ancient either way, looking pretty in its cover of green moss and ivy.

Photo of open-air gallery along the Camino de Santiago, north of Tui, Spain.

As if a bench wasn’t reason enough to stop at this junction near Orbenlle, there’s some art to look at as well.

Local artist Xai Óscar uses this wall as a gallery. Painted straight onto the wall is a large mural showing a famous part of the cathedral in Santigao, the Portico de la Gloria, “The Portal to Glory”. Semi-hiding the mural are other Camino-related paintings. I take my time here.

I have been given many wonderful views today, so I gracefully accept that the trail now leads me into what must be the ugliest section of Camino Portugues since I left the outskirts of Lisbon. If you’re into car, granite and battery production, this will be your favorite part of this Camino. Myself, I’m less enthusiastic about giant parking lots and industrial dust. I walk as fast as I can to the city center of O Porriño.

Despite having walked the entire day, I’m only about 20 kilometers closer to Santiago now than I was when I woke up. A lot of my walking has been just sight-seeing detours off the trail, and now the sun is setting.

So I spend the night in O Porriño, where I devour a giant pizza and have a hot shower before I fade out into a deep sleep in a soft bed. A pilgrim’s life doesn’t always have to be challenging.

Photo of morning fog in a forest north of O Porriño, Spain.

Day Two

That pizza yesterday gave me many many calories to burn off, so I start out early.

It’s been a rainy night, and the air is still high on humidity. This doesn’t bother the sun at all. It starts working on drying up this world, and the forest on the east side the shallow valley I walk through is covered in morning mist. I want to go up there and search for gorillas, but I realize that my chances of actually finding any are slim. So instead I keep walking north.

Photo of Spanish person dressed up as if going on an Arctic expedition, on a mild October day.

As does this local. He dresses as if he was heading for the actual North Pole. It seems like this is the mandatory outfit for people in O Porriño on this October morning.

Myself, I find the air just chilly enough that I have decided to wear both a t-shirt and a thin sweater to stay comfortably warm in the semi-wet air.

People eye me with much suspicion.

“I’m from Norway”, I tell them.

They nod. This explains everything.

Photo of a steep part of the Camino de Santiago, leading down to Redondela, Spain.

A long hill brings me up on a plateau, where I enjoy a view north towards the next two or three hours worth of my future. This heavily farmed valley gradually turns into the town of Redondela.

By the standards of this trail, it’s a strenuous section. Today’s walk is full of hills, up and down again and again, with nothing much to stop for.

Photo of street in Redondela, Spain.

Redondela turns out to be one of those towns that I almost without noticing enter, walk through, and then leave again.

I see a huge potato shop, an even larger junk shop full of cheap plastic items made in China, two major railway viaducts high above the town center, and a couple of roundabouts. And then I’m surrounded by farmland again.

Photo of a village just north of Redondela, Spain.

For being a rural area, the population density is quite high. Picturesque houses are beautifully lined up along the quiet roads I’m walking.

This entire fertile and green region is a huge contrast to the flat and dry lands along most of the Camino Frances, a more popular pilgrimage route across northern Spain. My eyes and lungs prefer the green version. My heart and my mind are unable to decide.

Photo of place where pilgrims leave behind different items to celebrate their journey and to commemorate lost friends and family members.

Between Redondela and the next town, Arcade, I find yet another hotspot for pilgrims that want to leave something behind.

Hundreds of scallop shells with names and messages of both grief and joy on them are hanging on this wall. Pictures and poems commemorate everything from missed friends and deceased family members, to the demise of football teams. It’s a strange mix.

There’s no single purpose of walking to Santiago. Every pilgrim must make the journey their own.

Photo of a dog tribe guarding a home along the Camino de Santiago, Spain.

The homes along the Camino are guarded by a wide variety of dogs.

This particular garden has quite the variety all by itself. They are all nice doggos. No barking, only wagging of tails.

Photo of all kinds of clothes hanging out to dry next to the Camino de Santiago.

In the background here you can see the medieval bridge at Pontesampaio.

It’s a beauty, but I’m honestly more fascinated by the laundry hanging out in the open everywhere. I often see intriguing examples of how people openly share with the world their amazing underwear. In the name of privacy, I won’t show you the most juicy examples, but trust me, they do exist.

Photo of a duck peeking out of its house.

It’s not unusual for the inhabitants of the homes I walk past to pop their head out to have a good look at me and wish me a safe journey.

Photo of a rough section of the Camino de Santiago in Galicia, Spain.

I’m back on a path that most likely is a couple of millennia old now.

It has taken both time and countless wandering feet to create such nice and soft edges on these stones.

Photo of a young horse showing curiosity towards a pilgrim with a camera.

Of all the species I meet on the trail, including humans, I probably spend most time talking to the horses.

They’re incredibly social beings, and for some reason, horses apparently seem to think that grass is tastier when people gather it and offer it to them, than when they have to eat it straight from the ground.

Photo of a small chapel offering stamps to pilgrims for their credencial.

I have to collect at least one stamp per day in my pilgrim passport. It’s a rule.

Today I get it from the tiny neighborhood Santa Maria chapel in the village of Vilaboa. It’s a fairly basic structure, but I highly appreciate it for having stood open like this since 1617, welcoming pilgrims and anyone else in search of shelter or someone to pray to.

Photo of stylish wall on a house in Galicia, Spain.

In this part of the world, people will decorate their home exactly how they want to.

Future archeologists may find this and have some interesting theories about our ability to see colors, I suspect.

Photo of distance marker for the Camino de Santiago in the middle of a pedestrian street in Pontevedra, Spain.

A long day on the trail has taken me roughly one marathon closer to Santiago.

I realize this when I enter Pontevedra and I find this number in the middle of the road. It’s literally a large number, but it means I’m getting very close to my goal. There are now only 64,500 meters to go before this walk is over.

Looking at the calendar, I can see that I’m walking slightly too fast. To fix this, and because Pontevedra looks like the perfect place to randomly walk around and explore, and also because the tomorrow’s weather forecast is terrible, I find a nice hotel and get myself a room for two nights.

Photo of golden Puente du Burgo during sunrise in Pontevedra, Spain.

Resting Day

Despite the forecast, the next morning starts out as a truly golden one. The Burgo Bridge / Puente del Burgo is a young construction that replaced an older Roman bridge as recently as in the 12th century. In the 1950s it was given an upgrade, adding a pilgrim scallop shell decoration between every arch on the bridge.

Pontevedra is a proud Camino city, so these iconic shells are found not only on this bridge, but embedded in walls and sidewalks everywhere along the route to Santiago through the city. It’s often easy to lose the trail in cities. Not in Pontevedra.

Photo of pilgrim walking across a bridge in Pontevedra, Spain.

Ten minutes later, and the magical golden light is gone. The pilgrim on the bridge just missed it.

It still looks like it’s going to be a nice day on the path. I almost regret my decision to stay an extra day here.

Photo of the Tirantes bridge in Pontevedra, Spain.

Pontevedra is spread out across both sides of the Lérez river, so there are several bridges here. The pilgrim bridge is for pedestrians only. Cars can use this fancy-looking bridge a bit further up the river, Puente de los Tirantes.

Photo of rain drops on a window in Pontevedra, Spain.

I go back to my hotel for a quick breakfast. When I have eaten all the bacon at the hotel, the world outside has changed.

I made the right choice in staying put in Pontevedra today.

Photo of a sculpture of San Ero de Armenteira in a museum in Pontevedra, Spain.

Staying inside for a full day is impossible for a restless pilgrim. I pay a visit to the excellent Pontevedra Museum. It’s just the right size for killing off a couple of hours. The remote district of Galicia has many interesting artists that I previously had never heard about.

Here’s a sculpture of Saint Ero of Armenteira. The legend is that one day Ero, a nature-loving monk, walked into the forest and sat down to listen to the glorious happy chirp of a bird. This feels like being in Heaven, he thought to himself. Then he walked back to his monastery, where he was understandably stunned to discover that 300 years had passed. He had truly tasted a bit of the eternal bliss of Heaven.

Photo of the Virxe Peregrina church in Pontevedra, Spain, at sunrise.

Day Three

The next morning the sky still looks like it might have a surprise or two in store, but I leave Pontevedra anyway.

In the photo you see what should be a mandatory checkpoint for all pilgrims, the Church of the Pilgrim Virgin. It’s in the very center of the city. The density of pilgrim icons here is high, both on the facade and inside. I make sure to pick up a stamp here.

Photo of Ponte do Burgo in Pontevedra, Spain, at sunrise.

Today it is my turn to cross the Burgo Bridge that looked so golden when I last was here.

The sky this morning is quite different from yesterday’s, but it’s still every bit as enchanting.

Photo of old stone bridge on the Camino de Santiago in the forest north of Pontevedra, Spain.

It’s a gray morning, but any rain fails to appear.

The ground is still all wet from yesterday, so there’s a lot of jumping from stone to stone across puddles on the trail. That’s an acceptable price to pay, when in return I get to walk through such a luxuriant forest, even now, with October growing old.

This small bridge is known as Ponte de Pedras, Bridge of Stones, fitting its name perfectly.

Photo of pilgrims walking next to railway tracks on the Camino de Santiago in Galicia, Spain.

South of San Amaro, the trail feels like it’s going through a proper forest wilderness. It’s not. All the time I am walking close to either the railway or the E-1 highway. The route for the Camino has been chosen very carefully through what really is a densely populated and industrialized area.

That’s fine. I like illusions.

Photo of amusing STOP complaining sign on Camino de Santiago.

Many signs on the Camino have been greatly enhanced by creative pilgrims.

I particularly both needed and enjoyed this one.

Photo of dormant vineyard just south of Caldas de Reis, Spain.

Shortly after passing that sign, the sun comes out, and suddenly the last thing in the world I would do is to complain.

The rest of today’s walk goes mainly through this kind of surroundings, and everything is just utter bliss.

Photo of cat street art in Caldas de Reis, Spain.

I stop for the day after only 24 kilometers, in Caldas de Reis.

Stopping here leaves you with two comfortable days remaining to reach Santiago. Another reason for stopping is that this town for millennia has drawn visitors to swim and soak in the hot springs that gave the town its. It may be just the thing you didn’t know your weary body needed.

I also like this giant cat on the wall. Or this bunch of fruit and vegetables. You choose what you see.

Photo of large eucalyptus tree in a park in Caldas de Reis, Spain.

Another quality of Caldas de Reis is this park, the Carballeira.

It’s home to giant eucalyptus trees that seem to enjoy the hot springs at least as much as people do. The ground here must be full of special minerals that are good for trees. Even now during autumn it’s like a jungle here. Or maybe the gardener in charge is just lazy. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Photo of place with free access to hot springs water in Caldas de Reis, Spain.

To enjoy the hot springs to their fullest, you may want to stay at the huge spa hotel next to Rio Umia. By European standards, it’s a cheap spa. If you are on a tight budget, don’t worry. There are places where you completely for free can submerge your feet in water that is both well-above body temperature and smelling so bad that it just has to be good for you.

A slightly sulphuric smell is probably not an issue for any proper pilgrim anyway.

Photo of old Roman bridge in the town of Caldas de Reis, Spain.

Day Four

If you need further evidence for a Roman history in Caldas de Reis than the presence of hot springs, there’s also a genuine Roman bridge here, and the Camino goes straight across it.

The bridge was part of Via Romana XIX, “Roman Road number 19”. The Romans built robust roads across much of their empire, an important factor in their ability to keep it all together for centuries. These bridges may connect the land on two sides of separating water, but they also very much connect today with previous eras.

Photo of sun not quite shining through the fog in Caldas de Reis, Spain.

Thick coastal fog covers the land when I start walking today.

The wet air and a chilling wind makes for a cold start. The sun really struggles to get through to me.

Photo of two pilgrims, let's call them Merry and Pippin, walking north on the Camino de Santiago in Galicia, Spain.

The whole forest north of Caldas de Reis is bathed in the same amount of light. There are no shadows to speak of.

The colors of autumn benefits greatly from this. It’s a most delightful walk in the woods, and it only gets even better when Merry and Pippin walk past me, singing an old Hobbit walking song, for some reason in Spanish.

Photo of old Roman road turned into modern day Camino de Santiago in Galicia, Spain.

It’s such a luxury to have a forest like this basically all to yourself.

In retrospect, I think that the walk through between Caldas de Reis and Padron may scenery-wise be the one that I enjoy the most of all the days on the Caminho Portugues. These old trees almost entirely clad in moss, with an ancient Roman road running between them … It’s a privilege to experience.

Photo of spider web with dew drops in the morning sun.

The sun comes out just as I pass a resting vineyard. A thousand spider webs covered in dew starts to shine.

It doesn’t last long. Water drops evaporate quickly as the temperature rises. I take my time to appreciate them while they’re here.

Photo of highway meeting the Camino de Santiago in Galicia, Spain.

Once again my slow way meets up with the highway.

The people in those cars can be at the cathedral in Santiago in half an hour or so. Lucky me. I still have a day and a half of walking before I’ll be there.

The last few days of a long walk are usually the best. A sense of accomplishment wipes off any sadness caused by the fact that something good is about to come to an end.

Photo of almost magical sunlight streaming into a foggy forest in Galicia, Spain.

A last batch of stubborn fog manages to hang around a section of forest just long enough to allow me to capture it.

By now the sun is high in the sky, making the colors and sunbeams particularly intense.

Photo of old stone crosses outside a church in Valga, Spain.

I have a quick rest at the Church of San Miguel in Valga.

The only facilities here open to pilgrims are these old stone crosses.

Photo of factory and church in Pontecesures, Spain.

Soon thereafter I enter San Xulian. It’s another charming village, although the giant lumber processing plant across the river gives it a bit of a surreal atmosphere.

The factory produces heat by burning wood waste, so despite the many pipelines and chimneys, it’s not a major source of pollution. Still, I take some comfort in the thought that the church here most likely will outlast its modern and ugly neighbor.

Photo of minor waterfall in Rio Ulla near Padron, Spain.

I’m bursting with energy, so I decide to prolong my walk a little.

A detour eastwards to Herbón on a quiet road with no name rewards me with many beautiful views of the river Ulla. It’s exactly what I need to heal my eyes after the factories of San Xulian.

Photo of clock tower in the Herbon monastery in Galicia, Spain.

The best reason for going to Herbón isn’t the river view, but the old Franciscan convent of San Antonio.

Six hundred years after coming here, the Franciscans are still in place, growing peppers and celebrating their god. Unlike many convents that have been engulfed by urban settlements, this convent has managed to stay rural, surrounded by forest.

Photo of interior of the church at the Herbon monastery in Galicia, Spain.

I was hoping to be able to spend the night in the monastery in Herbon, but they are closed to visitors because of coronavirus restrictions.

The main church is open, though. I see no monks, but I can hear them, whispering and walking behind the church walls, like invisible elves.

Photo of dog watching a house from a balcony in Padron, Spain.

As I enter Padrón, I am treated to this perfect scene.

Town dogs may bark less than rural dogs, but they still keep track of everyone walking past their kingdom.

Photo of the Paseo do Espolon park in Padron, Spain.

Padrón is the last stop before Santiago for most pilgrims coming in from the south.

It’s a cozy town, playing a major part in the history of Saint James and Santiago. None of this may be true, but legend has it that after Jesus left this world, Saint James went to Spain to preach his gospel. On a trip back to Jerusalem he got beheaded by King Herod, basically for being an associate of Jesus.

Now, the next part of the story is a bit fuzzy, but apparently some angels loaded both his head and his body onto a rudderless boat near Jerusalem. From there the boat either sailed itself or was sailed by disciples to what is present day Padrón. Here the boat was moored to a Roman altar stone down by the river, and the remains of Saint James were transported from here to Santiago by land.

An altar stone of the kind in the story is known as a Pedrón, and that’s how the town got its name.

Whether you believe all that or not, Padrón is a lovely town to visit. I especially like the small park, Paseo Do Espolón, on the river bank. Locals come here around sunset to play, talk and generally just round off every day in a friendly way. Pilgrims are welcome, too.

Photo of the Pedron stone on display under the altar in the parish church of Padron, Spain.

The altar stone from the legend is on display inside the parish church in Padrón. The engraved text is generously interpreted to say “To Neptune, from the people of Iria Flava”. A Christian cross has been added later.

Is the the pilgrim diploma/compostela that you can pick up in Santiago not enough for you? Then I have good news. You can get an additional piece of paper with writing in Latin to hang on your wall in Padrón; the Pedronía.

To be eligible to pick it up from the tourist office or the municipal pilgrim hostel, all you have to do is to visit the church with this stone in Padrón, the nearby fountain “Fonte do Carme”, and the hilltop Santiaguiño do Monte across the river. It can be done in an hour or two.

Photo of Spanish pot heads.

Day Five

Whenever I’m on a long walk, and I realize that the trip is about to finish, I get this strange feeling.

It’s a common phenomenon among pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago.

Many find themselves unable to stop. Some continue to Finisterre, adding 90 kilometers to get to see the Atlantic Ocean and a shrine dedicated to Saint James. They just can’t accept that the journey is over in Santiago. Some even decide that this experience has been the best time of their life, and they just turn around and walk back the way they came, hopefully reaching home eventually.

Today I’m mostly happy that I’m almost done. And this group of potheads greeting me on my way out of Padrón actually put me in a perfectly good mood on this last day of my Camino.

Photo of three men supporting each other to complete the Camino de Santiago.

Some pilgrims are more dedicated than others. There are those who even dress up in a medieval traditional pilgrim attire, all the way down to basic shoes that would never pass quality-control in even the worst of modern Asian sweatshops.

Then you have all the people walking despite being physically challenged in various ways.

In 2021, 37 individuals in wheelchairs became official pilgrims. You can see an equally impressive example in the photo above. A man that is barely able to walk is supported by two others, one nearly blind, and the other nearly deaf.

Combining their strengths, they slowly complete their Camino, and it’s a beautiful and inspiring thing to see.

Photo of horreo / grain storage in Galicia, Spain.

On this journey, I have passed so many of these. It’s called a hórreo. While the cross makes it look like some kind of shrine or small temple, it’s actually a typical Iberian peninsula style granary.

There are many local variations, but generally it’s a small stone or wood house separated from the ground by pillars to keep rodents away. Inside the hórreo you can safely store feed for animals or farm produce that must be ripened before you eat it, like maize/corn.

Photo of old church along the Camino de Santiago south of Santiago de Compostela.

As you would expect near any major city, the path goes near traffic throughout much of this last day. It’s not unsafe. There are a proper sidewalk most of the time. And there are still interesting sights along the path, before the grand finale.

This is the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Slavery. It has nothing to do with sugar plantations or the manufacturing of iPhones. The name of the church comes from a man that miraculously was freed from disease by the Virgin Mary back in the days.

It’s a huge church with many beautiful details, although much of it is now well hidden behind moss, grass, and even the beginnings of small trees that grow on the building.

Photo of Canino de Santiago. Funny.

I’m so, so happy when I find this.

Ever since the first time I got barked at in Lisbon, I have almost daily thought about doing some kind of word play on the similarity between “camino” and “canine”, which means basically “anything that has to do with dogs”.

And now, on my last day on the trail, this suddenly appears out of nowhere. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the dog kennel called Centro Canino de Santiago!

Perfect!

Photo of last proper forest before entering the urban area of Santiago de Compostela from the south.

With less than ten kilometers to go, pockets of forest magic can still be found. On an unusually warm day for October, I cherish the shade offered by the trees.

Photo of shoes left behind at a distance marker on the Camino de Santiago, Spain.

Many pilgrims develop a strained relationship with their most intimate partner on their journey; their walking shoes.

It doesn’t matter how many hours you spend on-line reading reviews and recommendations. It doesn’t matter how nice the shoes feel like in the shop. It doesn’t matter that you’ve worn your shoes at home while doing just everything you normally do.

You have to walked whole days across various terrain while wearing the shoes you consider bringing to the Camino. If you don’t, you won’t know how they, and you, will perform when your pilgrimage actually begins.

I don’t know what happened in this particular case. Based on how clean and new the shoes appear to be, I suspect that someone bought themselves a new pair of solid-looking hiking boots just before starting the Camino. Then they learned what real blisters are. And with the goal of the journey pretty much in sight, they decided that there was no way they were going to give these pain factories the pleasure of coming along to the cathedral. So they just left the shoes here.

The Camino is littered with dead and dying hiking shoes. Try not to add to the collection.

Photo of victorious pilgrims only a few kilometers away from their arrival at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

These pilgrims have just walked under a highway for the last time on the Camino, near the A Rocha Vella neighborhood.

The knowledge of this means that the morale among the pilgrims is high. Some are even smiling slightly. Nothing can stop us now.

Photo of first proper glimpse of the cathedral from the Camino Portugues that enters the city from the south.

At the top of a hill on Rua Beado, I can see the finishing line, or at least the actual spires of the cathedral in Santiago.

Soon this will be all over.

Photo of Bjørn happy to arrive in Santiago de Compostela.

An hour later I’m there. The weather is perfect for me and the roughly 650 other pilgrims who today arrive in Santiago.

I’ve been here before, so I know what to expect. The cathedral looks no less stunning for that, so I sit down in the shade and watch the steady stream of arriving pilgrims.

So does the happy stone pilgrim high up on the facade. He and I see people collapse on the square, having pushed themselves well past their comfort zone to get here. Some cry of joy. Others look sad because their adventure is over. Soon they must part with their new pilgrim friends, as we all travel back to our own part of the planet.

Photo of credencial and the queue to get the compostela at the pilgrim's office in Santiago de Compostela.

650 pilgrims on a single day may sound like a lot. It really isn’t. In the high season for the Camino, thousands of pilgrims arrive daily, coming in via many different paths.

You must register on-line to get an appointment to go to the Pilgrim’s Reception Office. There you will present your credencial with stamps from your journey, and if everything looks okay, they will give you your compostela.

On busy days, you may not be able to get an appointment until the following day. When I register now, though, I am told to go straight to the office.

My “pilgrim officer” is efficient. She only takes a quick glance at my stamps. It seems to her that I have spent a reasonable amount of days to get here from Lisbon. I am now a registered two-times pilgrim to Santiago.

Photo of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, seen from the Alameda park.

Praza do Obradoiro, the main square outside the cathedral, is not that large. To see the cathedral properly, it’s better to go a bit further away.

My favorite spot to observe the cathedral from is Alameda park, about 300 meters south-west of the cathedral. The park itself is an attraction on its own.

Photo of cathedral in Santiago de Compostela at night.

After a celebratory meal at KFC, I return to the square. It’s a different place now. I prefer this version. The atmosphere is now more relaxed, with fewer and less ecstatic people around.

The cathedral looks different to me from when I last was here, 11 years ago. It’s probably more because I have changed, and not so much the cathedral.

Photo of the beacon light at the top of the clock tower in Santiago de Compostela. The light is only lit during Holy Years.

In Holy Years, there’s a light at the top of the cathedral’s clock tower, Torre do Reloxio.

The light is symbolical. It’s drawing pilgrims towards it, like moths to a lamp. I like this custom, although it has no practical value whatsoever.

Photo of the silver box containing the bones of Saint James, the Apostle, in the crypt in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

Days in Santiago

I’m no believer, but attending the Pilgrim’s Mass in the cathedral seems like the right thing to do for anyone who has walked all this way to get here. There’s a mass at noon and 19:30 every day.

When I went in 2010, the cathedral was packed. Now, mainly thanks to coronavirus, there are plenty of seats. So instead of securing a place an hour in advance, I have a look around the cathedral.

Downstairs, in the crypt below the main altar, the relics of Saint James are kept in a silver chest, a “reliquary”. There’s no doubt that these are the real bones of Saint James, because Pope Leo XIII had a look at them in 1884 and said that they definitely are.

The black iron bars prevent you from getting close, but even I can feel what some people probably would call sanctity here.

Photo of the Botafumeiro, a container for incense that sometimes is sent flying through the cathedral to cleanse the air for the pilgrims.

Even today, it’s amazing how smelly a pilgrim can become after a few weeks on the road with limited access to hot showers and washing machines. This is obviously no new phenomenon. And even centuries ago, people suspected that a lack of body hygiene just might be related to various diseases.

To counteract any possible contagion brought to Santiago by pilgrims, the cathedral began the practice of swinging a huge censer, the silver-plated “botafumeiro” in the photo, during Pilgrim’s Mass. The censer was, and to this day still is, filled with burning incense. “More incense, less nonsense!”, as the saying goes.

Whether it works or not, people love watching that thing fly through the cathedral with a trail of smoke behind it. It doesn’t feel particularly safe to sit under it as it flies back and forth, but during the last 500 years or so, there have only been a handful of serious accidents.

The botafumeiro is only guaranteed to fly on a few especially holy days throughout the year. If you want to pay for it, though, you can pay the church a few hundred euros well in advance, and they’ll make sure to fire up the incense bomb for the mass of your choice.

Photo of the main altar in the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

The altar in the cathedral is designed to dazzle. There is so much going on here, it’s impossible to describe it well in a few sentences. Gold and silver shines in abundance all over the place, that’s the main thing.

Near the top of the altar you see Saint James the Moor-Slayer, Santiago Matamoros, mounted on his white, blue-eyed, blonde horse. In the middle section you see Santiago Peregrino, Saint James the pilgrim, wearing the full pilgrim outfit. And in the lower section, on a silver throne, you see Santiago Apóstol, Saint James the Apostle.

What must amount to hundreds of angels and cherubs are also up there. And a couple of slain Muslims, for show.

Photo of the Plaza Obradoiro outside the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

The sky has no blue to offer today, but at least it’s not raining.

The pilgrims arriving are every bit as happy to be here now as I was yesterday. Still, I think it’s a good idea to check the weather forecast when you’re walking to Santiago. Especially for your final day. Do your best to avoid a rainy arrival.

Photo of wet pilgrims arriving in Santiago on a rainy day.

Arriving in heavy rain can transform your joyous triumph into wet misery.

This is what the square looks like on the day I am leaving Santiago. I feel sorry for those who arrive like this.

They will typically enter the square, look around, give a “What can you do?” shrug, take a blurry selfie, and then go off to find a warm shower. It’s not what they’ve been dreaming about for the last however many hundred kilometers they have walked.

Photo of paintings of Saint James the indian-slayer and Moor-slayer. Santiago Matamoros.

What a rainy day is good for, however, is to check out the many museums in Santiago.

For a pilgrim there are two obvious stops to make. One is the Museum of Pilgrimage. It’s a place full of both history and modern day insight related to pilgrimages. I found this gem of an observation: “Pilgrimages are increasingly becoming tourist attractions that generate substantial economic benefit. New technology has contributed to their expansion, and on occasion has turned them into genuine mass-media phenomena.”

That is spot on, and I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with it.

More than two million photos on Instagram have been tagged with #caminodesantiago. Whatever gets people up from their couch and out walking is a good thing. Still, it will be a sad day when a majority of the pilgrims on the Camino walk it while wondering why the trail seems to go by so many churches and monasteries. But that day will come, and there will be foam parties at the hostels when it does.

I found these two paintings from the Museum of Pilgrimage interesting.

The left one shows Saint James, the indian-slayer. It’s highly unlikely that Santiago went to South America to kill Aztecs, but one painting can lie more than a thousand words. The painting was probably commissioned from a Peruvian painter, to show South American natives how Christianity triumphs over native religion.

The painting on the right side is more traditional. This is Saint James slaying Moors, the muslims that ruled over much of the Iberian peninsula for centuries. Of course, by the time the Moors were driven out by the Spanish, Saint James had been dead for several centuries. But legend has it that he came back and assisted in the important Battle of Clavijo.

Now, as it turns out, that entire battle is just an imaginary concept. It was made up 300 or so years after it supposedly took place. The Spanish still take great pride in having won it, so don’t tell them. They made Saint James the patron saint of Spain for his effort.

Photo of a reptile attacking a man's penis, and soldiers cutting babies in half.

The other museum I check out is the one at the cathedral. They offer various packages, everything from a free tour that somehow costs 3 euro, to guided tours and access to parts of the cathedral that otherwise are closed to the public.

I choose to see just that which is covered by the general admission, at 6 euro.

They’re not holding back on anything. The curators at the museum have really made an effort to pick not just the bling of Catholicism, but also some of the more controversial parts.

On the left you see a keystone with with “The Punishment of Lust”. A male figure has his sexual organ assaulted by some weird reptile. There’s a female companion to that figure, receiving a similarly harsh treatment. Strange stuff.

No less strange are the knights to the right. They’re reliefs of the Massacre of the Innocents. It’s a story from the Gospel of Matthew. The evil Roman ruler Herod hears rumors that the “King of Jews”, Jesus, has been born. He orders his men to go out and kill all male children two years old and younger. Just in case.

This probably never happened, either. It’s just an echo of a similar story from the Old Testament, about the Egyptian Pharaoh ordering the killing of Israelite children. But the story lives on, as seen on numerous disturbing paintings, and in a few cases, in granite like here.

Photo of the streets in the old town of Santiago de Compostela at night.

On my last day in Santiago, I get up at four in the morning and go for a walk around the old town.

I love doing things like that. It’s like having the whole world just to myself.

If you can ignore the many signs on the walls, walking around this truly medieval city at night is like traveling through time. The quiet streets and alleys would possibly be even better experienced on horseback, but I’m fully satisfied going around on foot, hearing only the echoes of my own footsteps.

Photo of night-time view from Alameda Park in Santiago de Compostela.

Back in Alameda Park, I look across towards the cathedral towers again.

As I mentioned, the clock tower is in lighthouse mode because 2021 is a Holy Year.

It doesn’t take much to become a Holy Year. If the Feast of Saint James, which is 25 July, falls on a Sunday, then the whole year is holy. That is all. And yet, in a Holy Year the number of pilgrims can be double that of any other year. Human beings are peculiar creatures.

Photo of the Holy Door open early in the morning at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

The advantage of walking to Santiago during a Holy Year, is basically that you will get a promise that you can not be sent to Hell for all the bad things you have done so far in your life.

That’s nice.

And it is only in Holy Years that the “Holy Door”, seen in the lower right part of this photo, is open. When you pass through here, your sins disappear, and you’re temporarily freed from all that is evil.

Photo of interior of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela just after opening early in the morning.

I’ll end with what I consider to be a top tip for anyone even remotely interested in visiting the cathedral.

It opens at 7 in the morning! Be there! You’ll likely be the only person around for the first half hour or so. The solitude makes the place significantly more magical than it will be later in the day, when there are people all over the place.

Mind you, they probably won’t turn on all the lights until later in the morning. I don’t care. The semi-darkness just makes walking around here even more magical. This is the closest you will ever get to what it must have been like to visit the cathedral before electrical lighting was invented.

So, I guess that’s it. I have told you about my pilgrimage.

Now it’s time for you to start thinking about going.

Accommodation Info

As a pilgrim, you have many special options for accommodation, organized by churches, monasteries, and various local heroes who will never let a pilgrim down.

In the time of coronavirus, a lot of those options were unavailable. Also, I’m an introvert, so I’m happy to avoid people whenever I can. To others, meeting new people and fellow pilgrims is the main reason they go.

Therefore, whenever I could, I chose to stay at places where I could have a room to myself, and where the risk of bed bugs and coronavirus presence was at a minimum.

In case you’re interested, here are the places I stayed. They are not necessarily recommended by me, but I’ll briefly let you know what I thought about each place.

O Porriño

Hotel Parque Porriño

It’s a basic hotel in the center of town, right on the Camino, so I just went with it. Nothing special, just convenient location.

Pontevedra

Hotel Virgen del Camino

Another good hotel right on the Camino as it goes through Pontevedra. You may also search for it under its Galician name, Hotel Virxe do Camiño. Extremely friendly people in the reception, and they even spoke some English.

Caldas de Reis

Hotel O Cruceiro

Nice, clean and inexpensive. They also have an albergue section with dorm beds, which looked just as nice. There’s a grocery store across the street. When you look at the map of Caldas de Reis, this hotel may look slightly remote, but it’s a tiny town, so it’s just a five minute walk off the Camino.

If you want to splurge a bit, to experience the hot springs properly, consider Balneario Acuña, right on the Camino.

Padrón

Hotel Chef Rivera

This is a very nice hotel, which I just randomly checked into because it was the first one I could find. Nothing to complain about here.

Santiago de Compostela

Hotel Alda Algalia

This hotel, part of the Alda chain, has the right balance between location (five minutes walk from the cathedral) and price (very reasonable, especially when booked straight from their web site). There’s no 24 hour reception, so arrive before 20:00 to check in. You can come and go as you like throughout the night and early morning, so that’s no problem.

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5 Comments. Leave new

  • Susan Florreich
    2022-03-21 21:21

    Hi Bjorn!
    And such a great blog. I am curious that you did the Tui to Santiago route ~120 kilometers in 5 days? For a first timer (me) and wanting a ‘taste’ of the camino, would you recommend such a route? My husband and I along with 2 friends will be travelling to Portugal in Sept (barring war, covid, etc). I believe.
    Thanks,
    Susan

    Reply
    • Hi Susan, happy to hear you like the blog. You are right in that I walked the 115 kilometers from Tui to Santiago in 5 walking days, but I did add an extra day in Pontevedra to see it properly. If you start walking in Tui, taking a day of rest in Pontevedra may be too early, but it’s something you should decide not now. Instead, wait until you’re on the Camino and do what you feel like. If you get in shape before leaving home, I think it’s quite possible for you to walk 20-25 kilometers per day. A normal walking pace is 4 kilometers per hour (many walk faster). If you start walking at 8 in the morning (and you should, maybe even earlier) and you walk for 6 hours and have a 1 hour lunch break, you will have done 24 kilometers that day, and the time will still only be three in the afternoon. If it’s a hot day, you may want to do a 2 hour lunch break in the hottest part of the day, which means you will be done around 4 in the afternoon. That is normally still early enough to be able to find a place to stay.

      Remember, the worst case is that you walk until late in the afternoon and then the place you want to stay is full. (It happens, but not so often on Camino Portugues as on Camino Frances). If this happens, just take a taxi a few kilometers to a town or village off the Camino, stay the night there, and get a taxi or bus back to the trail the next day. It always works out somehow.

      An alternative (or addition) to a resting day in Pontevedra, is to take an extra day in Caldas de Reis. It’s a much smaller city, but still charming, and instead of sightseeing you can have day at the spa at the hot springs there. Again, don’t plan it now, do whatever feels right when you’re there.

      September means more people on the Camino than October, so you may have to stop walking earlier than I did, to find a place to stay. On the other hand, 2021 was a Holy Year, and 2022 is not, so maybe there will not be too many people. Impossible to predict, unfortunately.

      One thing I am absolutely certain about, is that if you want to walk for a week, it’s MUCH better to walk from Tui on Camino Portugues than from Sarria on Camino Frances. The distance between Sarria and Santiago is a circus, not a pilgrimage. You will get a much better “taste” from Tui than from Sarria.

      Reply
  • Robyn Maillard
    2022-03-20 20:22

    I really enjoyed your commentary on your pilgrimage. Not being religious myself I smiled a lot at your irreverence.
    My three daughters and I will walk from Porto to Santiago in September 2022; wars, Coronavirus and entry to Portugal from Australia permitting. 😃

    Reply
    • Hi Robyn, happy to hear you enjoyed the read. Irreverence is okay, I think, but I hope nothing comes across as disrespect. That is certainly not the intention, at least.

      I think there’s a really good chance you’ll be able to walk the Camino in September this year. The war is (probably) far away or possibly over. The coronavirus may require some afterthought and planning, but it will not be a showstopper. And if you Australians just show the world that you can behave, I’m sure you’ll eventually be allowed entrance. (If not, just fly to Spain and sneak across the border by land. No one will know!)

      Happy trails to you and your daughters!

      Reply

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