The Caminho da Geira e dos Arrieiros is an up-and-coming 239km camino linking the Portuguese city of Braga to Santiago de Compostela. ‘The Geira’ is an isolated camino that takes adventurous pilgrims on Roman roads past beautiful natural scenery, three border crossings and some of Galicia’s oldest vineyards.
Here are the highlights of the the Caminho da Geira e dos Arrieiros.
The Early Medieval Chapel of São Frutuoso
As the third largest city in Portugal and the starting point of the Caminho da Geira e dos Arrieiros, Braga has plenty of attractions, including the cathedral, the late medieval Archbishop’s Court and the famous staircase of the Bom Jesus Sanctuary.
The city’s most extraordinary site for pilgrims, however, is São Frutuoso, a funerary chapel built by the eponymous bishop of Braga in AD 660 that predates the discovery of the remains of Santiago by over one-and-a-half centuries. The small chapel is built on a Greek cross floor-plan with eight of its 22 columns extant, including six that are still topped by their medieval capitals.
The chapel was modified several centuries later, and experts debate whether the dominant architectural features date from the original Visigothic building or the Mozarabic renovation. In any case, the remaining original aspects make it the most important pre-Romanesque Christian building in Portugal and the most striking historic site on the Caminho da Geira e dos Arrieiros.
São Frutuoso is directly on the camino, about 25 minutes’ walk following the arrows from Braga cathedral. The chapel is only open in the afternoons (2pm-4:30pm Tuesday to Sunday), however, so it’s best visited the day before setting out. You may even have it all to yourself, which only adds to the incredible atmosphere of feeling the Middle Ages swirling around you.
Geira is the common name given to the Via Nova, an ancient Roman road that linked the cities of Braga (Bracara Augusta) and Astorga (Asturica Augusta). The surviving sections of this road form part of the camino itself beginning in Santa Cruz, 23km from Braga.
The real attraction of the Geira is not the Roman road itself, however – given that it’s not uncommon to walk on stretches of Roman roads on other caminos – but the milestones alongside it. Including the first one in Santa Cruz, milestones are present for most of the next 25 Roman miles, sometimes covered in moss deep in the forest. At some points, there are several milestones marking the same spot, as emperors would ascend to the throne and often order new milestones built containing inscriptions honouring them.
Towards the end of the Geira section of the camino, shortly before the thermal springs village of Os Baños on the Spanish side of the border, there’s a Roman bath complex alongside the trail that pilgrims can visit. It’s thought that the baths were intended to be used by travellers passing through; modern pilgrims can bathe in the hot spring rock pools in the river that runs through Os Baños instead.
The Peneda-Gerês National Park
In a general sense, the Camino de Santiago is more than simply a hike; while the landscapes can be attractive, it’s a village-to-village walk, and it’s the historical, cultural and religious or spiritual nature of the camino, rather than pure scenery, that make the pilgrimage such a special experience. But every now and then, the camino produces a day of breathtaking natural beauty, and the third stage of the Geira is one of those days.
From Campo do Gerês, the camino first takes pilgrims alongside the forested and mountain-ringed dam of the Homem River, with stunning views right from the trail. This would be the biggest natural highlight of most days on camino, but the rest of the stage is even more spectacular. Transitioning from open landscape around the dam to a more intimate trail, pilgrims walk alongside gorgeous rivers with little cascades, moss-covered rocks, natural pools and the most crystal clear water imaginable – all set against a forest and mountain backdrop. If it’s sunny, taking a dip in one of the pools is brilliant fun and a well-earned reward for the miles you’ve logged so far.
To top it off, this stage also contains the always-emotional crossing into Galicia – but it won’t be the only one, as one of the quirks of the Geira is that it crosses back and forth between Portugal and Spain on three consecutive days.
The Geira is generally more focused on natural beauty and the countryside rather than historical towns or sights, which makes an overnight stop in the Galician town of Ribadavia especially worthwhile. From its beginnings as a castro in pre-Roman times, Ribadavia has been an important regional town ever since, with its camino credentials exemplified by the fact that it housed several pilgrim complexes in the 13th century.
Today, the historic core of Ribadavia is well worth exploring even on tired legs. The 14th-15th century castle at the southwestern edge of the old town is a great place to start; beyond it, narrow alleyways house the old Jewish quarter, where the scent of kosher sweets still wafts out of shop windows. Among the town’s churches, several stand out: the Church of Santiago with scallop shells carved on its green door, the church of San Xoán with its typical Romanesque portal, and the Gothic church of Santo Domingo, some of whose column capitals contain images of vineyards.
Finally, relaxing over dinner and wine at one of the outdoor tables in the Plaza Mayor while gazing at the Galician grey stone buildings and white galerías is a perfect way to end the day.
Beyond the Geira itself, the Romans also had a role in the second thematic aspect of this camino: the route that wine-carriers, known as arrieiros, and other medieval merchants took from rural Galicia to Santiago in the Middle Ages. It was under Roman rule that wine-making was introduced into the area, and today the Ribeiro vineyards are among the most celebrated in Spain.
The stages between Cortegada and Feás, in the fertile valleys of the Avia and Miño rivers, offer the most vineyard walking. The camino regularly takes pilgrims through the vine terraces and to picturesque places such as the Igrexa de Santa María in the village of Beade, completely surrounded by vineyards as this Google Earth satellite image shows.
Of course, pilgrims can also enjoy the fruits of the wine-makers’ labour at the end of the day’s walk – or during it, if you prefer. Ribeiro was the first wine region in Galicia to attain the DO (Demoninación de Origen) quality seal, and through its dominant Treixadura grape, the area produces mostly white, fruity wines. ¡Salud!
The Spirit of the Camino
The development of the Geira e dos Arrieiros in the last several years has been a bottom-up initiative led by a handful of passionate individuals. What the Geira might be lacking in government funding for better signage and more facilities, it more than makes up for in the welcome and assistance pilgrims receive from invested locals along the way.
The hub of this camino spirit on the Geira e dos Arrieiros is Codeseda, two stages from Santiago. As the 300th and 301st pilgrims to pass through Codeseda on the Geira this year, the red carpet was rolled out for us as part of the most fulfilling local experience we’ve had on our five caminos so far. The celebration included camino t-shirts as gifts, a visit from Geira guidebook co-author Carlos da Barreira, and an article in the Voz de Galicia newspaper. This welcome party aside, the genuine hospitality of Casa Rural owner Francisco Manuel Liste and bar manager Mari Carmen Gaspar Ayude, who runs the Bar Caminho da Geira, was first-class.
While Codeseda is the focal point of the pilgrim welcome on the Geira, this spirit runs through the entire camino. In Braga, Geira guidebook co-author Henrique Malheiro took time out of his weekend to meet us and then provided daily tips throughout the camino as well as creating and updating a Google Maps ‘super track’ that goes beyond the official GPS tracks to include services and other points of interest. José Manuel Almeida gave us fruit and a warm welcome at the albergue in Caldelas, Abdón Fernández was waiting for us at a bar in Berán with a stamp and way-finding advice, and Jorge Mella at Taberna Mella in Rarís capped off the friendly hospitality of the Geira on our final night before entering Santiago.
And it’s this incredible camino spirit – more than the Roman road or the vineyards or the beautiful rivers, forests and mountains – that is etched into our memory as the most meaningful of all the highlights of the Caminho da Geira e dos Arrieiros.