Friday, July 8, 2016

The long-awaited update: The Camino, Santiago, Portugal

Finally, after days and days of building anticipation, it arrives - the story of Team León's epic trans-national excursion. 

The day (Friday July 1) began at an almost inhumane hour; we met at our typical meeting spot at 6:00am. Despite the early start, everyone arrived enthusiastic and anxious for the adventures to begin. The bus ride was a fairly long one, punctuated by a stop at a cafe/hotel for coffee and breakfast. We finally arrived at our pre-destination: a small stop 16 km outside of Santiago from which point we began our pilgrimage on foot. As the photos below will demonstrate, we were very fortunate to share this path with other pilgrims - we walked through small picturesque towns, pristine forests, and rural landscapes, passing creeks, mountains, farmsteads, and friendly Spaniards along the way.

The day was gorgeous and the path was truly inspiring. Our group was split into several smaller groups to give students a chance to interact with other students with whom they don't normally talk as often, and we saw a number of new friendships emerge as a result. We took a number of breaks along the way for photos, snacks, and reflection - many of the students in the group arrived at impressive ideas about what the Camino de Santiago symbolized for them: a moment of transition, a journey of self-discovery, a lifetime of learning.
The very first steps on our Camino de Santiago

Just beginning the Camino (these smiles will look a bit more tired in 5 hours)


Elena, Elena, Laila, and Anna looking pretty excited to be on the Camino de Santiago

Taking a well-deserved break, eating sandwiches, making friends with local cats

Taking a break down by a bubbling brook 

Nevertheless, the way was a long one, and upon arriving in Santiago nearly 5 hours later, the group was worn out. The photo below is of our group victorious having arrived in the Praza do Obradoiro just outside the Cathedral of Santiago

Team León outside Santiago's world-famous Cathedral
Santiago was (and always is) a stunning city and a testament to a centuries-old pilgrimage that continues to hold meaning for hundreds of thousands of people every year. Students had the unique opportunity to attend a mass service in Santiago's Cathedral to witness a rare ritual called the Botafumeiro (I encourage you to look it up on youtube if you're curious), while other students chose to explore the ancient downtown area of the city, purchase souvenirs, and bask in the glory of a city that appeared to have grown out of a living mountain of stone. Santiago is a city not only known for its religious and symbolic significance as the final destination for the Camino de Santiago, but also for the heavy cultural influence that celtic imagery and music has had in forming the region's artistic and social traditions. To listen to traditional Galician music, one might be convinced they were sitting in a typical Irish pub hearing the bagpipes, flutes, drums, and strings that make up Celtic traditional music - in fact, a number of students had the opportunity to visit a traditional Galician music shop, where some purchased folk instruments and others witnessed a demonstration of Galician bagpipes.

That evening, we stayed in a beautiful residence downtown, which had once been a convent set aside for religious reflection. We were served a home-cooked meal by the owners, which was absolutely delicious (squash soup, Spanish tortilla, salad, and homemade apple pie), and after the lengthy hike and excitement of the day, everyone slept pretty soundly that evening.

The following morning, our pilgrimage began anew as we boarded the bus en route to Tui, the very last Spanish city on the border with Portugal. The destination was intentional, as our first activity that morning was to cross the national border on foot from Spain into Portugal. From Tui, we could see across the river Miño to Portugal on the other side.
This photo of Portugal was taken from Spanish shores

Crossing the bridge to Portugal!!

Crossing the bridge to Portugal!!

Crossing the bridge to Portugal!!

And then all of a sudden, we were in Portugal! The students could barely contain their excitement, and I can't blame them - the feeling of walking across a national border on foot into a brand new country is indescribable, and very powerful.


A glamour shot with Portugal's welcome sign at the border

We arrived first and foremost in a small town called Valença do Minho, an ancient Portuguese settlement built inside a fortress which still stands to this day - in fact, the entire town of Valença is inside this fortress (which provided for some excellent photos). As it happens, Valença is also famous for its craftsmanship in towels, tablecloths, and other such textiles (who knew?!), so we gave the group a good hour to explore their very first Portuguese town, take some photos, purchase some souvenirs, have some Portuguese coffee, and breath the Portuguese air, somehow even more exotic and enthralling than the Spanish air we'd left behind in Tui.

After taking in the sights and the souvenirs in Valença, we re-boarded the bus and drove toward our final Portuguese destination - Braga, a city known for its religious significance in Portugal and for its symbolic importance on the Camino de Santiago. Braga turned out to be a fascinating experience for the students in our group, because many of the Portuguese folks who lived and worked in Braga did not speak much Spanish. Very abruptly, the students realized how much their Spanish communicative fluency had improved, and how limiting it was to be in a place where they had a hard time communicating basic ideas (although they all managed with the intro Portuguese conversation courses we gave during the week leading up to the excursion). Braga was a stunning and truly new city. We had lunch in a Portuguese-style restaurant in the central plaza (lots of cod was consumed), and then had free time to explore this vast and fascinating city. Students reported successfully negotiating purchases with Portuguese shopkeepers, ordering coffee using Portuguese phrases, and even occasionally being mistaken for Spanish tourists visiting Braga for the day.

Team León making the IUHPFL more international than it has ever been before
It was an unforgettable excursion, and I'm afraid even this long post has only scratched the surface. I hope I've sparked curiosity among family and friends to probe the students for photos and stories upon their return which, unbelievably, is less than two weeks away. Indeed, the summer is flying right by, and we have a lot to do before leaving León behind. 

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Look forward to a post in the next couple of days with photos and stories from the 4th of July and a day in Gijón - an amazing coastal city in Asturias. 

I thank you for your patience as I compiled stories and photos from this lengthy excursion! 

Hasta la próxima,


  1. Awesome update!! Thanks again!!

  2. Fantastic update! So looking forward to seeing pictures and hearing stories when they get back!