[Sunday, Sep. 17th] To say that this day starts in the village of Rubiaes (pronunciation approximates “rubbish”) is an overstatement as there’s really no village to speak of, at least none that I’ve seen. There is, however, the most important thing a bleary-eyed pilgrim requires at the start of a cool, foggy day: a business that serves hot coffee and a pastry (thanks to the white “panaderia” vans that distribute their baked goods early each morning to even the most remote homes or shops). The business, in this case, is a combination bar/cafe/general store. If I had needed detergent as much as I needed coffee, this place had it. But a “cafe con leche” it was, plus a “naranja bolo,” an orange muffin. No, it’s not nutritious but it’s what’s available.
The walk after breakfast isn’t much to write about, but it follows the usual undulation of the land in this northernmost section of Portugal as it winds through farms and forests with only sparse human settlements, like Rubiaes had been. The character of the pilgrims parade, at this point, has changed, and I can’t recall exactly when or where I started to notice it, except, of course, everything changed at Porto. There are various points where those who chose to start their walk on the coastal paths from the Porto suburb of Matosinhos could shift inland, and I suspect these newer pilgrims are among those who’ve done that. The effect is obvious, there’s more traffic and more noise – chattering in numerous languages – along the way. Having started, by necessity, alone on The Way, I’ve now chosen to keep it that way. I’m not anti-social, but I make no assertive efforts to change my status at this point. Despite the growing numbers, it’s still possible to find my bubble and stay in it, a space to myself where I don’t necessarily see or hear too many others. It’s now my comfort zone.
Eventually, by around noon, I’m walking through an extended flat area that leads to the northernmost Portuguese border city of Valenca. It appears to be a tidy, modern city with orderly traffic and pleasant shops, but since it’s early afternoon by now, nothing is open. Portugal is only a few weeks away from an important general election to choose local and national leaders. All along we’ve been exposed to billboards promoting various candidates. The word “Caminho” appears frequently as it refers to “the way,” forward or into the future or a better way. In Valenca, I’m struck by a prominent billboard that reads “No Bom Caminho,” a seeming denial of our standard greeting of “Bom Caminho,” but in this case the word “No” means “our” and so Jorge Mendes is promoted as “Our Good Way”… into a better future I assume.
Continuing on through the city, a slight turn of the street suddenly reveals an entirely different face of Valenca, its ancient and massive Fortaleza. This is the impressive walled fortress old-town that has sat prominently above the Rio Minho since the 13th century, although much of what we see today was built over several centuries thereafter. I’m committed by my pre-booking of a room to cross into Spain that day, and I know that my place is on the outskirts of the next city, so I decide, somewhat reluctantly, not to walk into the Fortaleza for what would likely be a 2-3 hour tour through its ancient streets. Instead, though, I relish taking in its awe inspiring walls and lookouts, plus views from there across the river towards Tui, the city on the Spanish side of the river. Standing below that wall, staring straight up, one can only imagination how intimidating, and frightening, it would appear to any enemy who might’ve been ordered to attack it. And then you think about the unfathomable efforts and sacrifices it took to build such a fortress. Whatever the current day politicians seeking office in Portugal might be offering in leadership, I’m guessing they can’t hold a candle to either the leaders or actual workers who invested their lives in this 700 or so years ago.
It takes a long time to walk past the Fortaleza at the slow tourist speed that I’ve adopted now, but eventually the path leads down toward the banks of the Minho that separates Portugal from Spain. I’ve been in Portugal – I mean intimately been connected to this country’s farms, vineyards, forests, villages and cities – for 24 days, but now, as I begin to cross that long span of steel lattice, I’m saying “good bye” and to say that I don’t choke up a bit would be a lie. But the end-stretch of this long walk lies ahead as I enter, Tui, Spain, and begin my ascent up the city’s suburban hills to find the place where I booked a room. By late afternoon I find it, and as I said before – since I booked all these lodging weeks in advance – it’s my daily surprise. I’m in an older Spanish tourist hotel that doesn’t see many foreign tourists and probably no pilgrims as I’m now miles from the actual Camino (I’m changing the spelling – dropping the “h” – to the Spanish version) pathway. But it’s clean, quiet and pleasant, it has a restaurant, so I’m good for the night.