[Saturday, Sep. 16th] Arriving in Ponte de Lima in the midst of that town’s harvest market festival was a stark contrast to a pilgrim’s arrival in every other Portuguese town. If you arrive mid-afternoon, it’s likely that everything is shut down and the streets are empty of people. Stores and businesses, except cafes, close for an extended lunch break and don’t reopen until 4pm. If you arrive after things have gotten going again, you might witness typically busy people shopping, standing in clusters on sidewalks or the middle of streets talking, always animatedly and in high volumes. Talking over each other seems to be an art form here. They’re busy with their lives, pilgrims with backpacks passing through are a daily occurrence along the Caminho, and no one pays any attention to you. But Ponte de Lima was unique.
Approaching the town with the river on your left, you walk through a small park like area and notice a man-made diversion in the river, a checkerboard of granite blocks through which the water cascades downward. Perhaps there’s s logical function, but I don’t know it. Then you enter a natural archway, perhaps 100 meters long, created by old, stately plane trees. Exiting this, I pass through a series of stalls where itinerant merchants are selling stuff that I can only label as junk: cheap handbags, tacky pottery, and God knows what else. The locals must have the same opinion of this stuff that I do as the stalls have no customers, and the merchants – mostly black, and I’m guessing from Portugal’s former colonies in Africa – are either sleeping or talking among themselves. A few make a weak effort to attract my attention, but I have only two interests… getting this pack off my back and taking the weight off my feet. But what does get my attention are the food stalls that come next. Before I know it I’ve bought a few sticks of churro, fried sticks of dough doused in powdered sugar. I munch on these as I proceed now through a carnival with the same assortment of rides and games as any fair anywhere in the world, I suppose. Apparently there’s a slight breeze because as I look down I notice I’m totally covered in white powdered sugar, as though I’ve just walked through a snow storm. I like my sweets but not all over myself. Yuck!
In this state, though, I start looking for my pre-booked lodging place. I turn on my map app and it appears challenged this time. The destination spot appears over an area that looks solid, not a street as I would expect. I’m close, but not sure how to proceed. There’s an outdoor cafe, busy with locals and some pilgrims that arrived earlier (you can tell even when their packs are off; they definitely stand out from the locals). Next to the cafe I see what appears to be a narrow walkway, wide enough for one person to pass but not two. I decide to look there, and to my surprise the walkway turns left and widens just barely. There, in this alley, if it’s even that, is the place where I’ll stay. Behind an ancient stone facade on an incredibly narrow passage is a clean, IKEA-furnished room and bath that’ll be my home for the night. It has a tiny balcony, and when I step onto it I would be able hold hands with my neighbor across “the street.”
After the post-arrival routine – you know it by now – I go out to explore the town, and by now it’s gotten dark. It’s lit up like crazy… everything and everywhere I look. Photos are in the prior essay, but I’ll include a few more. Only the town’s stately old church isn’t lit up for the party, but everything around it is. I choose to have a prosciutto pizza, and it hits the spot, and the place I’ve chosen seems to be THE meeting place for everyone who’s planning to party later. It’s a beehive of the PdL’s younger set. Happy, I head back to my room, and as was the case the night before, in Barcelos, I ended up being just a few feet away from a very late-night – and very loud – celebration.
If the next day had a feature to anticipate, it was the single longest and highest climb on the Caminho, so definitely no Sunday stroll in the park. With little sustained sleep, I got up, found a bar to have an early Cafe con Leche and croissant, and then proceeded across the old Roman bridge that gives the town it’s name. Soon I’m turning out into to country lanes and that day’s walk is underway. The big ascent – over 1300 feet in less than two miles – comes around mid-morning and lives up to its billing as I require about three hours to make my way up. Although there are lots of others walking nearby now, including some local day hikers, there’s not a crowd and each of us has the discretion to slowly, methodical work our way over stretches of lose scree that requires concentration, care, and, in my case, lots of reliance on my poles to assist me. Not everyone uses poles, but I find them essential tools for these walks, especially today for both climbing and the inevitable descent on the other side.
A distraction from the climb begins to appear at the higher elevations. In the pine forest through which the path leads, we see what appear to be gallon-sized plastic bags affixed to most of the trees (technically Maritime Pines) about mid-trunk with a section of bark above the bag slashed or cut away to allow a very slow oozing of pine sap into each bag. Presumably at some intervals, I’m guessing weeks or possibly a month or two, workers come through here to collect the bags full of sticky whitish sap, and this is eventually processed into turpentine and rosin, the liquid and solid components of the sap. Like cork, this harvest of sap, is a sustainable forest product that can be taken from these trees over long periods of time. This distraction is a good thing to take one’s mind over the misery of a tough climb.
By the time I reach the summit, it’s obvious I’m not the only one happy to see it. There’s a party atmosphere of pilgrims who’ve dropped their packs to take in the view and recharge after something we all found difficult. I don’t stay long, and after photographing – with their phones or cameras – a few folks celebrating their success for the inevitable “I did it” posts or e-mails, I begin my descent. This one is fairly easy both in pitch and in distance. Perhaps less than five miles later I approach the private albergue on the near side of Rubiaes, the smallest village on this stretch of the Caminho. It’s still early enough in the afternoon to sit outside and do a little writing. The family that owns the place also owns a restaurant in the village, about two miles away, and at 6:00 they shuttle their albergue guests, perhaps 12 of us in multiple runs to this place to eat. Candidly, this was my first – and ultimately only – communal dinner with other pilgrims. None of us knew each other, but we represented Canada, Finland, Denmark, Belgium and of course myself as the only American. It was an enjoyable enough dinner but clearly no strong friendships developed, especially since I was the only one not already part of an established group aligned by nationality. We shuttled back to the albergue relatively early, probably vacating the restaurant for the local crowd to roll in at 8:30 or later, and I was in bed by 9:00. The next day I’ll be crossing into Spain for the final stretch of this Caminho.