Last year I wrote a blog about the beginning of the Camino Santiago that starts in Reading, England, and finishes in Southampton before pilgrims cross the Channel to continue down through France towards Santiago de Compostela in Spain. As the season for this year’s trecks begin, this story is about the end of that journey by a less-travelled route, starting from Lisbon. With 2024 expected to be the busiest year yet for the Camino de Santiago, travelers might seek out the relatively untrodden 620km Camino from Lisbon.

       From the hilltop church of Lamas do Vouga, you cross the arched bridge over the wide, rushing waters of the Vouga River. Looking like strange upright tortoises with their hefty neon backpacks, treckers can be seen among the tiny handful of other pilgrims.

       Since medieval times, pilgrims have journeyed on foot to the magnificent Romanesque cathedral in Santiago de Compostela where the relics of St James are housed. The network of trails from various starting points in Europe are known as Caminos or “Ways”.

       The French Way, which begins at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port near the Pyrenees, is so popular that the number of walkers today is almost equal to those in medieval times. Back then, half a million people walked the route each year. Last year, 446,000 pilgrims registered their arrival in Santiago (the total number of walkers is likely far higher) – and 2024 is expected to be the busiest year yet. On the last 100km of the French Way, you can spot pilgrims at almost every turn, especially in the summer months when hostels and eateries are full to bursting and the queue for the cathedral can be up to three hours long.

       By contrast, the Portuguese Camino, which runs 620km north from the bustling heart of Lisbon, feels relatively untrodden. Were it not for the ubiquitous scallop shell (the sign of St James) and yellow arrow Way markers, you might wonder if you were on the wrong path as you leave Lisbon winding your way along the banks of the Tagus Estuary into bull and horse breeding country.

       “The Portuguese Camino offers a very different experience,” says veteran walker Colleen Sims. She walked her first Camino, the French Way, in 2013, and has walked another every year since, exploring a variety of routes and sometimes leading groups and writing for her blog.

       “I was first drawn to the Portuguese Way by the promise of better winter weather but found it offered so much more,” she said. “It feels less iconic than the French Way, but you get to enjoy two countries, two cultures, countryside and coast, plus rural villages, major towns and cities. It has it all, and is also relatively easy to walk as there are no major climbs or mountain passes.”

       Like its French counterpart, this route has attracted pilgrims for centuries. The parents of Portugal’s first King, Alfonso, made their way to Santiago in 1097. Queen Isabel (later Saint Isabel) made the journey twice, in 1325 and 1335. Since then, it has been walked by countless others: the faithful and the intrepid; culture seekers and the simply curious.

       It’s both a spiritual route and a trail through history. Much of the way follows Roman roads, peppered with ancient milestones, and passes impressive sights like the walled Roman settlement of Conimbriga with its beautifully preserved mosaics.  

       It also takes in four Unesco World Heritage sites: the spectacular Knights Templar castle in Tomar; the University of Coimbra, one of Europe’s oldest; and the old towns of Porto and Santiago. The lesser-trumpeted towns and villages along the way also shed light on Portuguese history and traditions, among them Moorish Santarem, horse capital Golega and arty Águeda with its annual umbrella festival.

       Hilltop convents, walled monasteries and statues of the Virgin Mary or crosses at the centre of almost every roundabout, are a reminder that in secular Europe, Portugal is still very much a Catholic country.

       From Porto, famous for its eponymous fortified wine (and latterly the Livraria Lello bookstore with a staircase that inspired the moving one in Harry Potter), the route diverges. You can continue inland towards the town of Tui on the border with Spain or take the Coastal Camino along sandy boardwalks, through picturesque fishing villages and historic shipbuilding areas that flourished in Portugal’s golden Age of Discovery (1450-1750). This part of the route becomes a lot busier as pilgrims begin to mingle with regular tourists, and Santiago looms closer.

       The last leg of the Portuguese Way crosses the Minho River and enters Spain, taking you through lush green Galicia, famous for its Albariño white wine, through the old Gothic quarter of imposing Pontevedra and to the oyster-fishing port of Arcade. The last stop before Santiago is Padrón, home of the eponymous peppers, and Galician poet Rosalía de Castro.

       The popular Spanish name for the Milky Way is El Camino de Santiago. According to medieval legend, the hazy mass of stars, too numerous to be individually distinguished, was formed from the dust raised by travelling pilgrims. The less-travelled Portuguese way is more like a constellation, its sites and shrines brighter and clearer for not being eclipsed by the hordes.

       It seems a long way from the English start in Reading, and it certainly is, but definitely worth it, if you have the time and energy!

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