Every camino has its highlights, and the Portuguese Way is no exception. But beyond the cities, churches and landscapes, the Camino de Santiago offers more to the pilgrims who traverse it: singular experiences that live on in our memories long after recollections of museums and Romanesque portals begin to fade.
These are our favourite experiences on the Portuguese Way.
Sleeping in a Converted Horse Stable
It’s often said that the first few days out of Lisbon on the Portuguese Way don’t contain many highlights, and while it’s true that this stretch may not be the most exciting part of the route, the unmatched feeling of being back on camino carried us from Lisbon to Santarém. That, and the wonderful experience of staying at Quinta da Burra, one of the best albergues on the entire route from Lisbon to Santiago.
A traditional stage itinerary on the Portuguese Way typically includes a long, dusty day of over 33km (20.5 miles) between Azambuja and Santarém. Quinta da Burra is almost exactly halfway between those destinations, making it the perfect place to break up that stage if you’re still finding your feet on the early days of the camino. The Azorean owner Paula is a retired architect who bought the farmhouse and renovated it without even knowing it was directly on the camino until a drenched pilgrim knocked on her door one day to ask for shelter from the rain.
Apart from Paula’s home cooking and insightful conversation, the best part about staying at Quinta da Burra is sleeping in a converted horse stable. This beautifully restored room, which we had to ourselves as the only pilgrims at the albergue that night due to the pandemic, was one of the most atmospheric places we have stayed in on any camino and one of the best experiences of the entire Portuguese Way.
Update: Sadly, Paula passed away early in 2022 and Quinta da Burra is no longer an accommodation option. Paula was a lovely soul who opened her home to pilgrims. May she rest in peace.
For more on the Portuguese Way highlights on the less-travelled stretch between Lisbon and Porto, check out episode 1.3 of our podcast.
Eating Medieval Food in Tomar
Tomar is one of the highlight destinations of the Caminho Português, owing mostly to its extraordinary Knights Templar fortress-monastery, the Convento do Cristo (Convent of Christ). And if you’re walking a medieval pilgrimage route and visiting the Portuguese seat of perhaps the most famous medieval military order dedicated to the protection of pilgrims, what better way to finish your day than by sitting down to a meal resembling what the Templars themselves may have eaten?
In the main square of Tomar, with a beautiful view of the late Gothic church of St. John the Baptist, the Taverna Antiqua is a wonderful restaurant with food and ambience that catapult you back to the 12th century. The restaurant is lit by candlelight and filled with period furnishings, and the meals contain only traditional ingredients that were available in medieval Europe – excluding tomatoes and corn, for example, which were brought to the continent from the New World in subsequent centuries. You can wash down your skewered gizzards, hunter’s wild rabbit or pillow of vegetables with a goblet of mead or nectar to complete an authentic and unforgettable experience.
Showering under a Waterfall
The stretch of the Portuguese Way between Coimbra and Porto was my least favourite of the entire camino, but among the road walking and nondescript towns of this section, there is a can’t-miss experience: Albergue Moinho Garcia. The albergue is nestled in the forest 1.5 kilometres off the camino, past Albergaria-a-Nova, and the short detour is well worth it, even more so if you organise your stages to have a short walking day so you can spend longer there.
The albergue has a river running through it and accommodation takes the form of a private room or a dormitory, both of which are inside restored water mills. Glass sections of floor in the cozy rooms allow you to see the river flowing underneath and imagine the mills in operation 200 years ago. At night, you fall asleep to the gentle, rhythmic sound of flowing water. Additionally, the German owner Niklaus makes excellent pizzas in a wood-fired oven, and the fruit from his fig tree is delicious.
The best part about the albergue, however, is being able to take an open-air shower under a small waterfall surrounded by beautiful nature. It would be especially refreshing on a hot day but even in overcast conditions like those when I was there, taking the plunge was still a brilliant, if a little chilly, experience. If you prefer, there are regular showers too, but where’s the fun in that?
All in all, Albergue Moinho Garcia is a wonderful place to recharge for the remainder of the camino. As Wendy said while we were relaxing during our afternoon there, ‘It’s like a vacation from our camino!’
Sleeping in a Monastery
Sleeping in monasteries is always one of the most memorable experiences of any camino, and the Portuguese Way offers several opportunities. Two of my biggest disappointments of the entire camino were that the Herbón Monastery, a day’s walk from Santiago itself, was closed while we were walking because of the pandemic, and that we chose the albergue and not the monastery at Armenteira on the Variante Espiritual. Other pilgrims we spoke to said staying at the Armenteira Monastery was a special experience, and it’s something I regret not doing.
Luckily, we had the chance to stay at another monastery at Vairão on the first day out of Porto. While Vilarinho, 1.5km further on, is the typical end-of-stage destination, Vairão is an excellent alternative. While it’s no longer an active monastery, the grounds, church and cemetery are well worth exploring and there are beautiful views of the complex and the surrounding countryside from the private rooms on the top floor.
There’s a basic shop nearby and a communal kitchen that was open even during the pandemic, allowing for a memorable evening of sharing food and swapping stories with fellow pilgrims.
Self-Catering With a Difference
Enjoying picnic lunches at picturesque spots on the trail or communal home-cooked dinners with other pilgrims has always been one of the joys of the camino for me. But walking the Portuguese Way during harvest season in September brought a new meaning to the concept of self-catering on the camino.
While the tomatoes that fall off trucks near the industrial harvesting fields early in the camino might be a bit bruised, there are plenty of other options, such as the wild blackberries that can be found throughout the camino. If you’re lucky, local wine-growing families around Rabaçal might offer you grapes fresh off the vines.
The real treat, though, are the figs. On the stretch between Tomar and Coimbra in particular, wild fig trees abound directly beside the path. The hundreds of smashed figs lying underneath each one attest to the fact that the trees don’t belong to anyone and the fruit is available to be picked. The figs were ripe and delicious, and we ate handfuls of them several times a day for about a week. When the fig trees disappeared after Coimbra, that signalled the end of one of the most memorable stretches of the camino.
If your new-found scavenging skills have you on the lookout for even more delicacies, beware of the pokeweed berries that you’ll come across on the Portuguese Way. They look pretty but they’re poisonous, so that’s one camino experience you may want to avoid. Fortunately, there are many others to savour.