Killing the romance on the Camino Portugues


Killing the romance on the Camino Portugues


New Zealand Doctor

Labruja village, Portugal - Jim Vause blog
Labruja village

Who is in charge of the influx of tourists crowding out the Camino Portugues? It reminds touring GP Jim Vause of home

Why do yellow arrows always point uphill?

The yellow arrow pointed up yet another first-gear slog, fortunately, this time a gravel path, not the boulder-littered chutes we had encountered on Labruja mountain.

Lifting pannier-ladened bikes up a mountain track has destroyed the romance of the Camino Portugues, a romance built by the hype, the marketing, the friendliness of the Portuguese and the sheer variety of the route from Porto to Ponte de Lima.

Small rural tracks, Roman roads, narrow stonewalled village lanes that wandered this way and that were exactly as promised. Labruja mountain was not.

Naivety is not a defence but we did spend many hours researching the camino bike trip – choosing the right sort of bike, finding usable GPS maps and organising our airbnbs.

Bridge at Pont de Lima
Avoiding penance

While the pilgrim auberges (hostels) sounded both social and cheap, they bore a certain penance in the form of dormitory-induced insomnia, confirmed by the many pilgrims we met snoozing en route to Santiago del Compostelo.

So airbnbs it was and some very nice ones too. Most memorable was our stay with Isobel in Barcelos. Her skill in English matched our Portuguese but French she could manage, so out came my failed School Cert subject and Annette's more authentic lingual expertise. We had some very nice gateaux and white port for supper. Made the French flow better too.

You have to earn salvation

This was a religious pilgrimage and therefore should we not expect some hardship? Look how many had struggled across this land since 960AD to sight the remains of St James the Apostle that have lain in Santiago since his beheading in 44AD.

You have to earn salvation, don't you, even if the remains are just good religious propaganda?

It is the juxtaposition of an ancient pilgrim's trail with modern tourism marketing that will make the future interesting and, I suspect, given the power of the latter, overload the factors that make a camino so unique when compared with a bike trail elsewhere.

It is already being stressed by the wave of salvation-seeking walkers emerging from the pilgrim auberges every morning searching for another stamp for their pilgrim's passport.

Tui in Spain from Portugal
Wandering through backyards

History and religion is why one can wander happily through locals' back yards, traverse one-way streets the wrong way, crowd out the cafes en route and invade people's rural world. Fortunately, pilgrims largely respect this history, the two-way reciprocity with the inhabitants being essential to the existence of this camino. But a reciprocity that will be challenged by the tourism marketing.

With the camino of such critical importance to Santiago, with a quarter of a million pilgrims in the city per year, who is in charge? The government, the councils, the church, God? What's the strategic plan?

If this sounds too familiar, so too are the bushes littered with toilet paper. WCs are few and far between on this camino, especially ones that were open.

Bypassing the two impossible climbs, biking this camino will soon be sorted out, as we did with topo maps, but that will only add to the human load on the trail.

Maybe that's the problem. The Camino Portugues has not been designed to take crowds, bikes and certainly not the eBikes that passed us en route. It's like the New Zealand wilderness which was not designed to handle busloads of tourists and hordes of freedom campers.

PS, the author acknowledges the support he received on the Camino Portuguese from his poorly padded derriere and tender metatarsals.

The old pilgrim
And this was going down hill
Restaurant for good retirees