Oporto and after

The sky has come down to the sloping cobbled streets of Porto. There is rain. Due to the pressure of numbers our washing gets moved early from the drier to a line strung beneath the roof of an outhouse. The damp air and our damp clothes reach a stalemate. We are in an albergue with thirty beds, a steady twenty minute climb away from the cathedral and the river. On our first night we were treated very generously to a fantastic meal by Cathy and Julian, Mikey’s mum and her partner. A pig’s ear salad, fell a little short of expectations, being in the end a pig’s ear of a salad, but great mains and wine, the company of other people, a lovely evening.

A day of rest, washing and then wandering the busy streets of Porto followed. A city, in its centre, of wheeled suitcases, daypacks, and people like me trying to take it all in, what to look at, where to eat, drink or sit, which way to turn. I was reminded of being at a festival, and how exhausted I would quickly feel, always just missing the great bands on the small stage, finding the place to eat shortly after having filled my belly with something provisional. I returned to the albergue and mooched about listening to chatter and stories, wandered into the garden and tended to my drying. It’s previous iteration had been as a kindergarten, tiny toilets now repurposed as flower pots, child friendly art merging with pilgrim art, welcome in ten languages written in bright cursive letters on the risers of the stairs. After dinner the albergue cat, indifferent to any solicitations not involving food, correctly identified my semi permanence on a sofa and tucked itself into the folds of my shirt.

The weather was brighter as we left Porto, a fresh breeze from the sea playing havoc with clothing, layers removed, stowed, retreived, in an endless cycle. Thirty kilometres of boardwalk lay ahead of us, some comically submerged by the shifting dunes, ‘a small hill created by the action of the wind’, some with not much or no life left in them. I passed three men carrying out repairs, one with a length of decking in his hands. A shared glance and we both laughed at the immensity of the task.

Two weeks earlier we had met Gerdi and Will, a retired Dutch couple. They had walked from Porto to Santiago a few years before. Will said in his gentle English that two days of boardwalks was enough, maybe too much. I, knowing nothing, breeezily replied, but good for the mind. Imagination can be a wonderful thing.

Many pilgrims start their journey to Santiago in Porto. We were now considered hardcore, ahh Lisboa, though perhaps not our rate of passage. As the narrow walkways stretched out ahead a constant stream of pilgrims could be seen. The clonk clonk clonk, the timings of an overtaking manoeuvre, the bom caminos, bom dias, the negotiations of space, the sea one side, apartments for retirees or fancy cubist poured concrete residences the other, the way ahead taken up with calves and feet, hunchbacked backpacks, the trudgers, the alpine walkers, tok tok tok tok, a clock in a deserted mansion, the lopsided, the serious, cheery, oblivious spectrum of us all. The turbulence of the throng was impossible to avoid.

Porto airport lay five kilometres inland when Sean announced his goodbye, his only concern was whether it was possible to enter such a transport hub on foot. Our concern was how we would survive our tired legs and nagging weariness without the diversion of an improbable but true tale from his vault of stories. Only later, when he shared his beautiful photos, did I realise that he had mastered both being present in the here and now, at the same time as the there and then of his narrative.

The boardwalk made a series of sharp turns away from the sea. A golf course intervened between the sea and me, but the raised path, above a dirt track on the right, gave views of extensive polytunnels and fields. I watched a golfer ping his ball and head off after it. From another perspective he is also a pilgrim, his stops measured in holes not kilometres. I think his bag was heavier than mine, but it had wheels.

Finally the decking ended and we climbed up inland following the old and older ways through a maze of lanes and alleyways that seemed to belong to an ancient city rather than the little villages that hang on the slopes of the hills running down to the sea. The path between these villages often lies along tracks through forests, rutted and worn with tree roots exposed, great slabs of smooth granite, broken shingle mingling in between. I wondered if these were river beds before roads changed the landscape and waters escape to the see. The roots and stones looked like the frozem ripples and eddies of a stream. Later I work out that the bigger the stones the older the track, from the granular paste of tarmac to the mechanized manufacture of cobbles and then the large granite slabs from centuries before. Perhaps these huge granite blocks with their smoothed skins and cartwheel grooves were prised from river beds long ago.

A few steep twists on the way lead us up to a chapel with a grand view of the Atlantic and the world beyond the world. My legs seemed delighted with the exertion after the days on the flat. But after up is down and my knees seemed less keen as I took fiddly steps over crooked rocks and muddy slicks with my bag and the view pushing and pulling me down. I was reminded of why elephants can’t charge downhill, they’d topple over. Like me.

Across a stone bridge beneath a weir I half expected to see Little John waiting with his staff. Then into the knotty lanes of the next village with their ten and twelve foot high walls all proclaiming in their grey mossy surfaces, I am old, whilst spring’s small ferns and wild flowers growing in the chinks in the stones proclaimed, and I am young.

As we returned back to the coast and looked north, distant and shadowed, the Galician coast appeared. The momentum of my steps met the inertia of my treasure chest of Portuguese experiences, and for the next few days glorious walking tied ribbons around this journey from Lisbon.

Half way across the river Minho the ten seater ferry that puttered away from Portugal, crossed the nautical border. The captain opened the throttle and we raced towards Spain.