31: Barcelos – Ponte de Lima

‘When you travel, you experience in a very practical way, the act of rebirth.
You confront new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak.
So you are like a child just out of the womb.
You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends upon them.
You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations.
And you accept any small favour from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life.’
The Pilgrimage, Paulo Coehlo

The road ahead of us today we knew was long – 33.6km – and we had psyched ourselves up for the challenge, leaving in darkness again, leaving to the flat ringing of scaffolding tubes as people set up their market stalls for Barcelos’ weekly feira.

But in spite of the anticipation of a long day, as the walk unfolded it was clear it was going to be a beautiful day. Today it felt like the pilgrimage really began, following dirt tracks and footpaths under vineyard bowers and over streams and rivers. As we headed inland the scenery gradually changed around us, and the morning mists settled in the valleys made me feel like I was trekking in South America rather than in Europe.

All along the route are reminders that this is a path that has been trodden millions of times before over hundreds of years in pilgrimage – a detour past a church, the sign of St James’ scallop shell in a wall or etched into a pavement, a shrine on a corner in the middle of four fields, a fountain in St James’ name, a tile in a wall, a pilgrim’s staffa nd gourd leaning on a gatepost.

We stopped for a bg lunch and a long break at the 19km mark, in a cafe occupied by three old men and a surly shopgirl who clearly thought this was a dead end job. To the outside onlooker it certainly seemed that way. A few minutes after we arrived, a moustachioed postman strode in, booming banter in Portuguese which seemed to be related to the exotic nature of the destinations of the parcels he carried. He made loud jokes with everyone in turn  and then strode back out calling ‘Ciao, Auf Wiedersehn!’ as if to prove that his job was truly exciting.

But everything changed as soon as the clock turned 12. Appearing as if from nowhere people began to walk through the bar to the dining room at the back – mothers with children, elderly couples, farmers, electricians, allsorts. So we joined them and ate a huge dinner of pork and fish and rice and potatoes and bread.

When we put our rucksacks back on for the final six miles, the straps seemed strangely tighter. We hadn’t gone very far when we spotted the backs of four of the Irish not far ahead. We caught them up, and found women only. It turns out the men had strode on ahead, complete with guidebooks, water and food supplies and all the information the Irish women might have needed to know. When we found them, they hadn’t stopped for four hours, hadn’t eaten anything more than fruit, had no idea how far they’d walked or how far they had left to go, where the next cafe was or where they were staying. They were clearly walking on nothing but anger and the increasingly hot air of the afternoon sun. So we joined them, let them rant a bit, shared our chocolate and water and gave them an idea of how far they had left to go.

When we eventally passed the Irish men, they were sitting in a shady spot, boots off, feet up on their rucksacks, eating bread without a hint of a drop of sweat on them. Rather than stop and join them, the women picked up the pace and overtook, such is the energy of rage.

We left them at the next cage and Sarah renamed them ‘The Squabblers’. They’d distracted us from the part of the journey that was the hardest and hottest, and reminded us that even if we don’t particularly like it, we can’t do without one another.

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