The Variante Espiritual is an increasingly popular variant towards the end of the Portuguese route of the Camino de Santiago, starting just after the Galician city of Pontevedra. Regardless of whether you choose the coastal or central route of the Camino Portugués, you can experience this highly recommended ‘spiritual variant’.
Our highlights of the Variante Espiritual are below. You can also listen to our discussion of this route in episode 1.5 of the Spirit of the Camino podcast.
The Camino Mosaic at the Poio Monastery
The Monastery of St. John at Poio is the first noteworthy site on the Variante Espiritual, and if you time your departure from Pontevedra right, you should arrive just as it’s about to open. The elegant church and main cloister, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, are worth visiting, but the real highlight for pilgrims is an extraordinary mosaic depicting famous locations on the Camino Francés.
The mosaic, designed by Czech artist Antoine Machourek and created from 1989-92, is 80 metres in length and contains 1 million tesserae. It wraps around three sides of the secondary cloister and showcases the highlights of the most popular camino route, from Roncesvalles to the Meseta to Santiago.
A final highlight of the monastery is an enormous hórreo (a traditional Galician grain storage unit) on the grounds outside the small but interesting museum.
Poio is only 8km from Pontevedra, but if you prefer to take your time on the Variante Espiritual, you can stay the night at the monastery for what is sure to be a memorable experience.
The Seaside Hórreos of Combarro
By the time pilgrims reach this stage of the Portuguese camino, hórreos, the picturesque Galician raised grain storage units, will have become a common sight. But hórreos are usually next to farm houses in rural areas, not occupying prime real estate on the edge of the ocean.
On our 29th day out of Lisbon – and having followed the central route from Porto – Combarro was our first up-close view of the ocean for the entire camino. The tide was out, so we walked on the sand and looked up at the famous hórreos proudly showcasing Galician culture from atop the sea wall, while restaurants and tourist shops were forced to give way and make do with lesser vantage spots.
Aside from the horréos, Combarro has a small but quirky old town for exploring and several interesting cruceiros (stone crucifixes commonly seen in Galicia). It’s the perfect stop for lunch on the first day of the Variante Espiritual before the climb to Monte Redondo.
The Singing Nuns of the Armenteira Monastery
The standard first stage of the Variante Espiritual ends at Armenteira, whose atmospheric monastery dates from the 12th century and consists of several architectural styles. The Romanesque church that forms the oldest part of the monastery is noteworthy for the magnificent rose window on its façade, while the cloister is also worth visiting.
Pilgrims can stay overnight at the monastery or at the less expensive albergue a few hundred metres further on. On our first time on the Variante Espiritual, we chose the albergue, and had it all to ourselves because of the pandemic, but missing out on sleeping at the monastery became the biggest regret of the camino.
On our second pilgrimage on the Variante Espiritual, with the pandemic waning, the monastery was booked out so we stayed at the albergue again and this time we were able to attend the evening pilgrims’ mass at the monastery. Aside from singing, the nuns also blessed pilgrims in their own languages, a special experience that we were glad to have taken part in.
The ‘Precious’ Stone and Water Route
The most beautiful stretch of the camino on the Variante Espiritual – and, indeed, on the entire Portuguese Way from Lisbon – is the 7km ‘Stone and Water Route’ that begins in Armenteira.
This trail through the forest, alongside a cascading stream and past the stone ruins of dozens of old water mills, is so stunning that it is often walked as a day hike by people who might not even be aware that it forms part of a variant of the Camino de Santiago. Locals also take advantage of it for their regular exercise; one such woman described it to me as precioso (precious) and a maravilla (wonder). It took us three hours to walk the route because we stopped so often to appreciate its beauty – and to take a lot of photos.
If you have time and energy after arriving in Armenteira in the afternoon, and especially if the weather is good, it’s worth making the effort to walk a few minutes of the route and take a few photos in case it rains the following day – especially if you’re staying at the albergue, which is just a couple of minutes from the start of the route. Shafts of sunlight piercing the foliage and lighting up the stream create a magical atmosphere that might not be recreated the following day. Even if the weather is fine in the morning, the forest cover means that it’s still quite dark on the trail well after sunrise.
The Translatio Boat Trip in Santiago’s Wake
The final stage of the Variante Espiritual consists of a one-hour boat trip from Vilanova de Arousa to Pontecesures and a 2km walk to Padrón. While taking motorised transport is not typically part of the pilgrim experience on the Camino de Santiago, the translatio boat trip is an exception and forms an integral part of the Variante Espiritual.
The boat trip begins in the Arousa Bay and continues up the river Ulla, recreating the journey undertaken by St. James’ disciples with the remains of the apostle himself (translatio being Latin for transportation or transfer). Along the way, pilgrims travel along the world’s only maritime Via Crucis, viewing cruceiros on islands in the river or on the riverbank, and also see mussel farming in the Arousa estuary and stone towers in ruins.
The river trip gives pilgrims a valuable opportunity to reflect on St. James’ journey, and on their own as it nears its conclusion – in our case 31 days after starting from our front door in Lisbon. That contemplative feeling continues after the Variante Espiritual rejoins the main route of the Portuguese Way, because at the end of the boat trip it’s only one day’s walk, past the Roman settlement of Iria Flavia, to St. James’ final resting place: the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
For more information on the Variante Espiritual, listen to episode 1.5 of the Spirit of the Camino podcast below or subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.