Beautiful landscaping in Lisbon, Portugal. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Lisbon, Portugal

On the train to Lisbon, Portugal, I thought about why I was coming here. My decision to go to Portugal, after walking the el Camino in fall 2014, stemmed from a few years ago, after meeting and making friends with Fernando, a former Minister of Finance of Portugal. Fernando and I met on a National Geographic Expedition to the permanent ice cap of the North Pole. For several weeks, our group went by ship and then by zodiacs to the islands. There we watched several of the scientists study the fur seal colonies, others studied the arctic birds, and all of us had an interest in the tundra and searching for polar bears.

It was a great adventure, and ever since, Fernando and I have been corresponding. Fernando would always ask, “When are you coming to visit me and my family?” Now I am finally coming, but Fernando has had serious health issues resulting from a car accident. He had gone to Paris for treatments. I had not planned to be here for two more weeks. I did not know exactly how long it would take me to walk the el Camino, so my arrival was sooner than expected. Now what would I do without him as my special tour guide?

At Porto, Portugal, after I boarded that train, I was happy that I had a nice place to stay in Lisbon, and I was ready to relax for a few more hours on the train before my final destination. A young woman sat down next to me, and after a few minutes, she got up and moved to a different seat. In a few more minutes, she got up and moved to a third seat. She never engaged in conversation with anyone, and kept her head down, engaged with her smart phone. A few minutes later, the train conductor came along the isle, checking tickets. When he stopped at this woman, he stayed by her, making a phone call. Then he asked her to come with him. At the next station, she was escorted off by two police officers!

After the woman left the seat beside me, another young woman came and sat next to me. She did have a ticket. She was from this area of Portugal, and she made a great tour guide for me. Outspoken, witty, friendly, and knowledgeable, she taught me a bit of the sociology, economics, and geography of Portugal. As we headed south, the climate and scenery changed from cool to warm, and from farming and vineyards to palm trees and beaches. It was quite a change, as the heat hit me in Lisbon, and I set my watch an hour forward.

From the train station, I took a taxi to the hotel, as the subway was not operating. For the final leg of my journey, I had planned to stay in luxury, as a reward after roughing it on the el Camino. The hotel was expensive and grand. It is located on Praca Marques de Pombal, a grand square in the center of Lisbon.

I began to work on getting a plane ticket for home. My return flight ticket was dated for two weeks later. When I was preparing for the el Camino, the expected walking time was 36 days or longer, and I made it in 29. I thought, I will plan extra, because I am older and slower—but now I am ready to return home two weeks early, so I need a new ticket—and besides, the Paris airport is on strike!

My first shock was that this swanky and costly hotel had no connoisseur. They are usually very helpful. The laundry service was of no benefit to me either. I had to hand wash my clothes. I needed a SIM card for Portugal, but in the meantime I used the phone in my room. I made a quick call to my husband and one to AAA back home, asking to find me a plane ticket. Those two very short phone calls cost me 79 EU, or more than $100.00! I had to wait to see what they could find for a flight home.

Now it was time for me to see Lisbon. The Praca Marques de Pombal dead ends onto Ida Da Liberdade, a boulevard with elegant shops along the Rio Tejo, harbor, and Atlantic Ocean. I spent the rest of the day leasurely walking this whole area: window shopping, watching the stylish pedestrians walk by, and stopping at the antique venders selling antiques in the large strip between the streets of the grand boulevard. I stopped at The American Disaster, a retro ’50s diner, for a late lunch.

I was impressed with Lisbon: clean, historic, lively, cosmopolitan, and safe. I looked up at the elegant facades on the buildings; around me, the grounds were well landscaped (as you can see in my photo at the top of this post), and under my feet, the wavy patterns of black and white cobblestones were on many sidewalks and streets. The window displays impressed me more than on the Champs Elysées in Paris, and the clerks here were friendlier. There were GOCAR Tours, where you could rent a car, which was parked on the boulevard, and self-tour the city. Segway rentals were also available, as well as the more widely known rent-a-bikes. I stopped at the Fado Museum, which opened in 1998, and is devoted to fado (music) and guitar, which are symbols of Lisbon and this region.

In the evening, I walked uphill to the Parque Eduardo VII for a view of the city and the Tigus River. Strolling in the park until dark was a beautiful and fitting end to the day.

(posted July 28, 2015)

Friends from the Camino de Santiago trail. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Santiago, Spain to Portugal

After I finished walking the el Camino in fall 2014, there were ties to keep the experience fresh in my mind. Paddy was an Irish hiker I met the last day on the trail; he and I spent the day walking around the historic, world heritage site of Santiago de Compostela. The architecture of the old Spanish buildings is grand and elegant. There has been a great effort to maintain and restore historical sites here and all along the el Camino trail. I really never tire of history.

After a long and exciting day of finishing the el Camino, visiting the historic sites, and receiving my official documents, I finished my day with dinner in an outdoor café in a plaza near my place for the night. My room overlooked a central plaza behind the great cathedral, and from the window that opens onto a balcony, I was entertained all night with the music, laughter, and the sounds of the city.

I had an early departure on the train, but during the night I hardly slept. At 4 am I looked at my watch, and again at 4:30, and by 5:00 I couldn’t lay in bed any longer, so I got up, showered, dressed, and packed the remaining few things. I was ready to depart when Paddy knocked on my door: he had planned to walk me to the train station. He was concerned for my safety, walking alone on the city streets at that hour in the dark. The only people out at that hour were the young people leaving the bars at 5:15 in the morning.

We entered the large, central lobby of the train station, which was practically empty— perhaps 8 or 10 people—and directly across the large empty floor was a couple sitting on a bench. As soon as I entered they both jumped up, started waving, and walked towards us. They were Marta and Alberto, the Brazilian couple who spent so much time together on the el Camino. They didn’t know I had finished, and we were so happy for each other that we had safely completed the el Camino. You can see them in my photo at the top of this blog post.

I gave Paddy a hug, said my goodbyes, and thanked him for all the kindness and support he had given me: on that last day on the trail, in Santiago, and finally this morning, when he got up early to walk me to the train station. He is a true example of the great people who make up the el Camino family.

Marta and Alberto were taking the same two trains to Porto. We sat together on the bench, recapping our experiences in some of the albergues, on the hot dry Meseta, and over the mountain ranges. I noticed Alberto had a different walking stick, which was broken and held together with duct tape. The first time I met them, he had a beautifully carved stick, that was a special gift, and I had complimented him on it. He opened his pack: his stick was broken, but he still treasured it. Two broken walking sticks is a reminder that the el Camino is not for the fainthearted, that is for sure.

When the train arrived, we each went to our assigned car, and later, after boarding a second train, we had time to sit at the station and have a quick espresso together. As I was sitting there, I thought that the trains are a great way to travel in Europe. I always felt safe and clean. I looked out the window as we headed south, along the shoreline of Spain, into Portugal.

The train made a few stops, and after a few hours we arrived in Porto, a large city. At the station, Alberto and Marta were waiting to say good bye for the final time. After a quick hug, I headed to one of the ticket stations to buy a ticket to Lisbon, in hopes that I could get to Lisbon today.

There is no guarantee that they are not sold out. I waited in a long line and purchased a ticket. It was a big station and I had to hurry to catch the train. I was happy to find the right train car and my assigned seat. Now I could relax, and I had reservations for the night at a luxurious hotel on Praca Marques de Pombal, the most prominent place in Lisbon, Portugal. For me, this was a drastic change from the albergues I had slept in for a month. This was my ultimate treat before heading home.

(posted July 21, 2015)

One of many such statues along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: Santiago de Compostela

Santiago is a grand old Spanish city filled with ancient history. I was excited to walk there from St. Jean de Pied de Port, over 500 miles, during my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage—aka the Way of St. James—in fall 2014. Along the way, I had seen many statues of St. James, such as the one in my photo above; scallop shells are a sign of the Camino trail and St. James. Now that I was finally here in Santiago, my journey was completed, but I still had a few important things to do. I needed to go to the Oficina del Peregrino to receive my el Camino Compostela.

It was September 24th, my husband’s birthday, and I had started my day before dawn; leaving a country town, I had walked more than 20 kilometers and arrived in the big city of Santiago at 10:35 am. I had found a room for my bags, been to the special Pilgrim Mass at the cathedral, and had a double order of tapas. Now Paddy, an Irish pilgrim, and I walked the narrow cobblestone streets to the el Camino office. There we waited for two hours in a long line, with other anxious pilgrims, until it was our turn to enter the building.

One at a time, people were allowed to enter the office, and finally it was my turn. One of the busy but pleasant staff attended me, first checking my el Camino passport, and then asking information to decide if I was deserving of the compostela. Satisfied, the official signed and dated it, then carefully wrote my name with calligraphy script. He also documented the reason I had walked the el Camino, as I told him I walked in memory of my son Michael. I thanked the official, walked to the table across the counter, bought a document tube, and exited quickly, knowing many more people were waiting outside. It was a happy moment as I stood there with the precious document—further proof of another accomplishment—and finished my goal of completing the el Camino.

During the two hours of waiting, our hotel landlord Maria came by, so Paddy held my place in line, while I went to her building and paid for the room where our bags were stored. She was helpful in telling me where the nearest travel office was located.

After our official business, Paddy and I dropped off our documents in the room, and off I headed to the travel office to change my flight home and find a way to get to Portugal: by car, plane, or train. I told Paddy I would meet him in the room in an hour, but it took ages to get anything done. The agent was pleasant, but nothing was accomplished. She told me to come back in a few hours and she would have things ready.

Since the best way to get to Portugal was by train, I headed for the train booking office, which is next to the Oficina del Peregrino. In Spain, most businesses close from 2 to 5 pm. It had just opened, and a young Japanese girl was the first customer. It was a small place, with room only for one customer at a time, and the short line of 7 or 8 people waited outside on the narrow cobblestone street.

It took forever for this one customer! Finally, the ticket agent set her aside, to deal with her later, and he began processing others, one entering the office at a time. Ahead of me were three men, and who said they were traveling together, and insisted on going in together. Each time someone came in, the Japanese girl interrupted, and the agent would kindly tell her just a minute.

I was happy to get two tickets that would get me across the border to O Port, Portugal, even with no guarantee of getting a train the rest of the way to Lisbon. It was a different train system in Portugal, so the agent had no answers. I asked if the train station was within walking distance, and he said yes. I wanted to leave quickly, as the agent was distressed, the Japanese girl was ready for a tantrum, and I wanted no part of that scene.

I hurried to the room I had paid for, where Paddy was taking a nap. Next on our agenda was to go to the Franciscian Monestary. Paddy was more excited about going here than receiving the official el Camino certificate. We hurried to this large old complex and were greeted by three women sitting at tables, with a short waiting line of pilgrims. Earlier in the morning, while we were walking, Paddy had explained the significance of this certificate.

Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis of Assisi had walked the same trail in honor of St. James. This was an anniversary year. People would have to wait another 100 years before this anniversary comes around again. No wonder Paddy wanted to get here! When it was my turn, the woman seated across the table carefully signed, dated, and then wrote my name. She took time to ask how long it took me to walk the trail. Impressed, she stopped the other staff, and they all congratulated me.

Now that our official business was over, we could slow down and begin to enjoy the sights of this historic, world heritage city. As we were walking back through one of the main plazas, we were stopped by someone shouting Paddy’s name. It was the young hiker from Texas, who had walked with us early this morning. We were glad he had made it here safely. He introduced us to his sister, and he said he still felt ill, but planned to rest up before heading home.

There was a lot to be thankful for on this climactic day. I called home and wished my husband a happy birthday. He congratulated me on another successful adventure. As I was nearing the end of this long journey, I was thinking about home.

(posted July 14, 2015)