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By Heidi Creed, Town & Country Travel
Gathered in the hotel lobby, our meeting point in Porto, Portugal, my fellow “pilgrims” greeted eachother excitedly making introductions. “Did you train for this?”… “Have you been on a Backroads trip before?”…”Did you see the weather forecast?” We all wondered how our guides would lead us on The Way along the Camino- so rich in history and tradition, yet with anticipation that our experience would be far from typical. The curiosity about the impending adventure was palpable.
We were a group of 14, about to experience a 5-night hiking program called “A Taste of the Camino de Santiago” traveling from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain with Backroads, a luxury active travel outfitter. We were a patchwork of personalities, abilities and interests. I was particularly eager to see how Backroads makes it work so everyone can enjoy at their own pace.
A little about the Camino de Santiago
It has been said that Europe was built on the pilgrim road to the compostela, or the Way of St James. For it is here where the remains of apostle St James were said to be discovered and buried, and where the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela now beckons pilgrims from all over the world to make their way along marked trails through Portugal and Spain; some for religious reasons, others for the physical challenge of walking hundreds of miles, or for a myriad of other personal reasons. Those who wish to receive a compostela certificate at the end, officially register and have their book stamped by hosts along the way. For most the full experience is meant to be humble; carrying few possessions and needing little money to make their way because a network of support from local residents and churches assist with comforts of a warm meal and a modest place to sleep. The official registrant log tallies more than 300,000 registered pilgrims each year but the amount of people who complete the Camino are likely much greater than what is officially registered. To receive the “compostela” walkers need to cover a minimum of 60 miles by foot on the Camino de Santiago, with many traveling along the full distance extending beyond 500 miles.
The Backroads Way
If the thought of the Camino is enticing, but traveling with few possessions and staying in something like a dorm makes you sweat without even hiking, this is where we meet the genius of Backroads.
With an insatiable appetite for adventure, or anything really, I jumped at the opportunity to experience the Camino de Santiago. This would be my first Backroads trip and I earnestly wondered if “a taste” would be enough. Would I feel like a fraud, staying in boutique hotels and dining on 3+ hearty meals (often paired with wine) a day, then arriving to the cathedral fresh and bright eyed with no hint of a foot blister, and maybe even a few “vacation weight” pounds heavier? Perhaps, but it all sounds delightfully better than the alternative.
The Structure of the Experience
Since we were not Compostela-seeking pilgrims, the itinerary was designed to experience the essence and highlights of the Camino and its varied landscapes in complete comfort, and without a firm commitment to achieving a minimum distance. We walked on paved roads through tiny towns, cobblestone streets in quaint neighborhoods, on soft path through tree-lined forests, and along a wooden coastal boardwalk…. essentially a curated selection of the region’s most scenic areas to go by foot.
At the beginning of the week we were given an overview of what to expect in terms of daily distances, pacing and accommodations. The cumulative miles hiked would average around 10-12 miles per day if you opted for all of the segments. It’s key to appreciate the Backroads leaders professional logistics here because this is how it works with so many different physical abilities participating in a group of this nature: you always have a short, medium or long hiking option. No need to get into the details of how they do it. Let’s just call it “magic.”
We enjoyed sunshine, clouds, and rain. Lots of rain, which the region is notorious for – so pack your own sunshine because Mother Nature might not give you any! In fact, at one point, after trekking through something like a very small flood through a towering forest as the rain doused our ponchos, one of my city-slickin’ companions from Manhattan said with a huge grin, “I feel so hearty right now.” And we all laughed, but the point being: it was a blast. Plus we also knew once we completed this part of the stretch our warm van full of snacks and beverages would be there to greet us.
The Region and Highlights
We met in Porto and worked our way north towards the Galician region of Spain. Our launching point was Vitorino dos Piaes, a popular portion of the Caminho Portuguese that is shrowded in vineyards, vine tunnels, farms and charming villages. Not a bad first impression. We made our way to Ponte de Lima, the oldest town in Portugal, and settled into our cozy (if not sublimely eccentric) accommodations for two nights at a Small Luxury Hotels of the World property.
We said adeus to Portugal and hola to Spain’s Galicia region, an area known for its Celtic heritage, and where we deviated from the Camino to explore an ancient settlement on one day, and a national park island with a beautiful beach and staggering vistas the other day. Home for the night was in the town of Baiona at a historic fortress (now Parador hotel) perched over the sea. The castle’s claim to fame is being the first observation site of Columbus’ La Pinta ship as it approached Spain with news of the New World. Naturally a great retreat for name droppers!
The final two nights were spent at a lovely creekside Relais & Chateux property in the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, where we journeyed along the Camino and witnessed many pilgrims in the final stage of their long journey towards the cathedral.
The Grand Finale
This is where we actually cued up the “Eye of the Tiger” song as we prepared for our final trek along the Camino de Santiago to the Cathedral. Our excitement was palpable, so we could only imagine how the others, the “real” pilgrims, felt.
Although met with rain, spirits were not dampened. Other tourists, and perhaps fellow “pampered pilgrims” like us, shared in the pure jubilation of those arriving to the Cathedral square. We all high-fived, then quickly dispersed for a little retail therapy and the chance to duck into one of the super-cute bars that peppered the tight old-town alleyways for a toast…. to a Bom Caminho!
The reality is that there is not “the way” to experience the Camino. There are many ways. While our way may have not been the pilgrim’s way in a traditional sense, it was the Backroads way, true to the company’s name. And it was juuuuust right.
As for the “Taste of the Camino de Santiago” with Backroads: it was more than just a taste. I ate the whole thing… and am thinking I’ll go back for seconds.
On Group Travel
A Backroads hiking, biking or multi-sport program is excellent for travelers of all abilities who find inspiration and rejuvenation from being outdoors and seek authentic connections in the places they visit. Backroads trips are particularly fun for singles, couples, friends and families, and with a group of just 10 travelers, you may inquire about the opportunity to have a private departure and make the experience your own….
Hopefully this has encouraged you that it’s time to find your next adventure!
If you’d like more information on this – or any other adventure – shoot me a message: firstname.lastname@example.org, or give us a call at +1 (805) 495-9888. It is not only our job but our passion at Town & Country to help make your vacation dreams come true.