On my way to Santiago

Stone pillars with St. James' scallop shell

By Mariana Martinho, a cultural entrepreneur from Portugal

Starting point: Valença do Minho, Portugal
Destination: Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Distance: 117 km
Level of difficulty…hmm
Physically? Easy
Emotionally? Challenging but with a great reward
Ready? Bon Camino!

Warming up

The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage that has Santiago de Compostela as the final destination. The starting point is everywhere and it is an open route for everyone that wants to explore a religious, spiritual, personal, or even physical side of their life. 

The history behind is the discovery of the tomb of St. James (Santiago in Galician), one of the disciples of Jesus Christ in this region, in the 9th century. The toponymy of Compostela as burial ground even follows this legend. Since then, the paths that lead to this place became a pilgrimage route, recognized by UNESCO in 1993.

But a couple of weeks before starting this journey in 2019, me and my mum went to the public library. We were looking for some books about the history of Santiago. Yeah, old fashion research style but very up to date! We found out the existence of a Santiago’s Church in Lisbon. But why did we never hear of it, when we know the city so well? Ready to unveil the mystery, we called the number of the Portuguese Association Friends of James the Apostle (APAAS) and they invited us to take a tour. Unfortunately, the female version of Saint Peter – an old lady with the keys of the church- was sick so we weren’t able to visit it. But we met a group of very enthusiastic people that hang out every month in a local café to discuss their adventures during the pilgrimage. What a spiritual atmosphere!

But now comes the physical preparation. We did some walks around the neighbourhood to stretch legs during the previous days. Backpacking was the next task and is more demanding than walking the way itself… Will it rain? Do I need two pairs of shoes? How much water will I drink? All these questions about what to take are already a challenge. But deciding which items will stay is still harder…. Knowing what is our essential kit is the first reflection exercise. But your backpack will get lighter as soon as you start leaving behind physical and emotional heavy stuff. Let’s go!

117 km, go right

Beautiful villages along the way
Beautiful villages along the way / Photo: Mariana Martinho

It is raining a lot!!! Is it like when people say that rain on your wedding day means good luck? I hope so because there even was hail! Not the best weather to cross the tall bridge that stands at the border between Portugal and Spain. I am not a fan of heights. But if you choose the right people to walk with you, then these obstacles become quite easy. 

The weather became our friend and gave us the chance to appreciate our surroundings. There are so many beautiful things to look at! Small villages, churches, decorated crosses… There is even art along the way! And there are also some contemporary variations of the arrows. 

Art along the way
Art along the way / Photo: Mariana Martinho

To identify the way, there are several stone pillars with St. James’ scallop shell in yellow. The lines show you the direction to follow. And they also inform about the number of kilometres till Santiago. Seeing that number decreasing is quite a boost to keep the tiredness away. But on top of each pillar, you can find a pile of small stones. It is a kind of a habit to pick one and between pillars to reflect and mentally associate the stone with anything that you want to leave behind you. As soon as you are ready to let that go, you leave the stone on the pillar. It is a really good life metaphor, isn’t it?

80 km, go left

Tui, Porrino, and Redondela are now behind us and many people keep walking with us. Despise each person having their rhythm, you start finding people that you met yesterday or the day before. And there is always a word of encouragement! I even switched an apple for a banana with a lady that was walking next to me. We always packed sandwiches for lunch. There are so many relaxing places to stop and have a picnic. For dinner, we used to go to a local restaurant. There are some restaurants along the way with special Pilgrim Menus. And even vending machines! It is a little strange to face commercialised infrastructures during such a spiritual path. But at the same time, having band-aids on a vending machine is quite a creative and thoughtful idea!

And earplugs for the nights! That was a real challenge sometimes. Sharing room with other pilgrims means being enchanted by the glamorous International Symphony of Snoring. I didn’t sleep so well so I was afraid that I would not wake up early. Oh, I was wrong. From 6 o’clock on, the second part of the concert starts with the technological melody of all types of alarms. I even started to laugh, especially when I looked to the person next to me and she had an eye mask with the face of a tiger! That gave me a great mood to start the day! The essential is to keep an open and kind spirit and all the good energies will come to you. 

Vending Machine for pilgrims
Vending Machine for pilgrims / Photo: Mariana Martinho

… km, continue walking. 

We passed Caldas del Rey and Padrón. Let’s continue.

St. James' scallop shell on the way
St. James’ scallop shell on the way / Photo: Mariana Martinho

0,00 km, Santiago de Compostela

Cathedral Santiago Compostela
Cathedral Santiago Compostela / Photo: Mariana Martinho

…And we arrived!! 

Zero blisters but a lot of emotions!

The entrance in the city comes with a strange feeling as the rhythm of the inhabitants, bus and cars suddenly cross the way between the pilgrims and the final point. 

But the moment the cathedral was right there in front of me… Oh wow!

For the lovers of architecture, this masterpiece mixes elements of Romanesque and medieval sculpture. The old town adds Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings that reflect a complex but historical structure. 

However, the way was still not over for us.

Second 0,00 km, Finisterra

Stone pillar 0km
Stone pillar 0km / Photo: Mariana Martinho

There are several theories as to which exactly is the ending point of Santiago’s Way. Some say that is the cathedral. Some others say that it is where the land ends, literally. The Romans thought that the Cape of Finisterra was the most western point of the Earth. Where land ended = finis terrae. Some parts of the way are even ancient paths of the Via Romana. We even followed a medieval cultural route between Portugal and Spain.

As this was my second time doing the Santiago Way, I felt the need to reach this extra destination. Even though we did this last part by car, it for sure felt the right place to end this journey. I don’t remember when exactly I picked my small stone. But I left it in here and I won energy in return. Pure sun energy! And lots of love.


Message on the Wall "no pain, no glory"
Message on the Wall “no pain, no glory” / Photo: Mariana Martinho

This was the description of my way. But there is plenty of information on the internet for you to prepare your adventure!

The truth is that the arrows will always show you which direction to follow. But emotionally, the feeling of being right or wrong is only up to you. You will probably even discover that you find more about yourself than before. Bon Camino!