Porto to Santiago: A Surprise Outcome

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By Fulton Armstrong • December 20, 2019

No matter how many bike trips I take, there’s always a moment when the thrill of it all hits home. My brother and I are pretty experienced riders, but I still felt a tingle on a bright August morning when Sérgio, who set us up on our bikes, sent us on our way with a hearty, “See you next Wednesday!”

“Next Wednesday,” I thought to myself, was six days and 290 kilometers (181 miles) from the beautiful Duoro River in Porto, Portugal, where Sérgio gave us our cheery farewell. We were launching our unguided and unsupported ride to Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain – on a cycling variation of the famous pilgrimage on the Camino (Way) to Santiago.

“Unguided” and “unsupported” increased the excitement – and drew lots of praise from friends – but honesty requires that I admit the characterization was not entirely accurate (in a good sense). Sérgio gave us excellent printed guides on the route, with maps and recommendations. He equipped us with GPS units that showed us the way, with only a few tests of our independent navigation skills.

The scallop shell is one of the symbols of the Camino. Follow the arrows, and you shall arrive.

He also gave us support in the form of arranging first-class hotels along the way and organizing a fantastically reliable delivery service to take our luggage to each day’s destination. We put our bags at the front desk in the morning of each ride, and they magically awaited us – sometimes in our room – upon arrival at that night’s hotel.

Sérgio also called us one evening to make sure everything was all right. Are the bikes good? Are the hotels good? Are the breakfasts good? Yes, yes, yes. Very nice for a supposedly unsupported ride.

On a route like the Camino, moreover, you’re never alone. You’re never without support. The traditional greeting among everyone on the route is “Buen Camino!” – literally “Good Way” but also a reaffirmation that we are, so to speak, on the right track.

On the Camino, we saw dozens of cyclists, hundreds of walkers, and one paraglider!

The “Camino Code,” as I call it, is that people help people in any way needed – even more than on regular rides. When a big community fair blocked our Camino, two other riders helped us find our way around the teaming crowds. Those guys turned out to be Camino buddies for us. They were from Israel and, unlike us softies, didn’t have a luggage service. (Do I need to admit that they were 10 years older than us?) They were great cyclists, and we wound up riding with them for several days – talking, laughing, resting, sharing observations.

If you have a mechanical problem on a ride like this, you’re not alone. My brother, Kevin, helped one of our buddies with a flat tire – and they later helped me with a flat. We consoled each other when walking up hills made more sense than burning energy trying to climb them by bike.

We’ve always found cyclists eager to lend a hand, but the Camino code brought out the best in all of us. We were never without support.

That sort of friendship is a major attraction of these trips for us. We loved riding on good equipment, including the e-bike Kevin had. We loved the great – and affordable – lunches and dinners everywhere we went. (I don’t mean to make you envious, but €3 for a delicious sandwich of Spanish cured ham and cheese!)

The four of us had a celebratory final dinner together in a 16th-century monastery, converted into a hotel long ago, behind the glorious cathedral in Santiago. Kevin and I promised to do a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the future.

All along the way, in fact, we met quite a few cool people. At the many little lunch stops along the way, we chatted with dozens of people from all around the world – Europe, South America, Asia. At two overnight stops, we dined with four fascinating “pilgrims” from Australia. We swapped stories of what we each saw – they as walkers and we as cyclists.

Pilgrims from around the world walk the Camino and become instant friends. These South Koreans had seen the movie The Way (2010).

We love the riding and the sightseeing and the sense of accomplishment. But the people – local and fellow travelers – and the sense of community we feel is what we love the most. They motivate us to ride year after year. The world has a lot of problems indeed, but not on the bike trails and not with our Camino buddies. (Crazy thought: We should ask political leaders, regardless of political stripe, to do a bike ride each year!)

Final destination: The Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela – on a gloriously bright day.

At the end of the ride, in a welcome center a block away from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, we presented our Camino “passports,” bearing stamps from places we stopped along the way, to get certificates documenting our accomplishment. On the application form, we were to check a box indicating the primary motive of our pilgrimage – religious, spiritual, or for sport.

Vendors along the Camino stamped our “passports,” which we presented at the end as proof that we’d traveled the route we claimed to travel.

If you’d asked us the week before, we probably would have said “sport.” But on that day in early September – proud of the ride and the people we’d met – we checked the spiritual box.

Our unguided and unsupported trip had taken us closer to our basic, spiritual values.

More photos (Click to enlarge)

  • The welcoming committee outside a community center in a rural town in Spain? Almost. Actually, a protest against a nearby development project.
  • Beaches on the Portuguese coast are beautiful, accommodating mostly families from throughout Portugal and a smattering of north Europeans seeking sun and relaxation.
  • The air in Bayona, where we spent our first night after crossing into Spain, was fresh and cool as we launched on day four of our trip.
  • At the beach, we all play kids’ games. The bronze coin the man is tossing didn’t win him the big prize. If it had entered the frog’s mouth, he would have celebrated.
  • Just over the dunes is the north Atlantic Ocean. Some of these boardwalks were off-limits to cyclists, but this one was good.
  • The ferry wasn’t running during low tide, so we four riders and our four bikes crammed into this little motor boat to cross from Portugal into Spain.
  • Our hotel and breakfast were fantastic, so we launched the day’s ride in high spirits.
  • A sculpture – and sundial! – in the Portuguese coastal town of Vila do Conde.
  • The maps said this was our bridge across the river – and it was! (We walked our bikes instead of riding them.)
  • Pilgrims leave rocks with written messages for others to pick up as mementos.
  • Not all pavements were as sweet as the floor of this pine forest, but our bikes handled well wherever we took them.
  • We’ve never had a bad hotel on our bike trips, but it’s fair to say that lodging on this one was stupendous. The only sounds here were the rushing stream below and the trees blowing in the breeze.
  • Churros!! A Spanish breakfast treat akin to donuts, served with a little sugar or dipped in chocolate.
  • A triumphant smile as the sun set on the Santiago cathedral on the last day of our ride.

View all of our amazing bicycle tours in Portugal or check out our many bike tours in Europe.

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