Day 13 – A fantastic gentle walk with a parade of pilgrims – Coimbra to Mealhada+ (16 September, 24.5km +/-, 6 3/4 hours)

For all the difficult, frustrating and long days we have had so far, today was incredibly lovely by comparison. The scenery has been better before as well as the experiences with the Portuguese but this walk had decent weather and lacked any real frustration at all until well inside Mealhada.

Following arrows in big cities is always difficult. Following arrows in the dark is always a little tricky. Following arrows on this Caminho is definitely challenging in places.  With all that in mind, we didn’t plan to even look for arrows until after we found our own way to the canal behind Coimbra’s central rail station.  Amazingly, we stumbled upon some arrows just at the right time near a major highway interchange and they were mostly easy to follow all the way to the albergue “in” Mealhada. We had some rain in the early morning as well as when we passed through the final section and some of the streets in Coimbra didn’t look too safe as we walked past at 6:30am but we can’t complain.  We had a beautiful sunrise, mostly overcast skies and cool breezes most of the time too.

For those following us, note that there is an entirely new route after Santa Luzia. Instead of crossing the N1 to the east side, the trail follows a fork to the left down a road in Santa Luzia which later turns into gravel then a dirt track through the forest. The trail in the forest is barely marked for 2km but we stuck to the main trail, heading as straight north as we could. Several places, you just need to keep walking and have faith that you will see an arrow or a tile maybe after 400m. There was one fork in the trail that was a little hard to choose the correct trail despite there being a tile and arrow that seemed to point both ways. We chose the left trail and were correct (or lucky).  We knew at least six pilgrims were behind us today so we marked additional arrows in the dirt or sand. We also did a pine cone arrow like the one we found two days earlier. Hopefully that brightened the day for others as it had for us.  After exiting the forest, you come to a road where you are directed to turn right. The next arrow is about 500m down the road and the one after that is about 700m further on in the next small village. Another small note, at Cioga, you follow the road up the hill to your left to pass under the highway, not over it.

The only frustrating part for us was a misunderstanding, probably on my part.  We were aiming for the Albergue Perigrinos Hilário which we thought was in Mealhada. It is actually about 1.5km beyond the town. As we walked into town, we noted all the great looking restaurants and markets that we schemed to check out after the daily duties in the albergue. But the walk on the street through town just kept going and going. Before long, we were obviously already headed out of town and the rain got heavy again.  The arrows don’t follow the road or the Brierley guide anymore. They went through a civic gardens but they are easy to follow.  Eventually, the road we were on dead-ended at the back of the Albergue but be careful, it is entirely missable. There is only a small sign which doesn’t even say “Hilário” so keep an eye out for it. BTW, it is an absolutely fantastic albergue with beds at 10€ and private en-suite double rooms at 30€. The restaurant attached is excellent. You may miss some of the choices of being in the center of town but this is a very well run and organized place. It is as good as or better than most of the places on the French route.

On today’s walk, we were leaving a café as the two couples from the Hotel Lorbelo in Coimbra came in. We chatted for a moment but were surprised as a Portguese perigrino couple walked by. Eight pilgrims, within meters of each other, not at an albergue, on the route between Lisbon and Porto??? It must have been a record. While chatting with the Lorbelo Four, I also figured out that they were not Americans or even close.  One couple is Australian and the other is French.  Dang, I am bad at this.  I also apologized if I had woken them in the morning. When we left the hotel at about 6:20am, the night manager was asleep in the office with her door closed but the exit to the hotel was locked!  We tried the door several times in disbelief (don’t they have fire regulations in Portugal? That is the only way out of the hotel!), we looked for a key and we knocked a couple of times on the manager’s door. Nothing seemed to work. Oh wait… here  is a door bell next to the manager’s door. I’ll give that a ring. Damn was it loud!  It is apparently used to call staff from throughout the hotel during the daytime. Within seconds of the booming chime, the front desk phone started ringing constantly. Oops. At least it did wake up the night manager who didn’t seem too pleased although she didn’t yell at us either.

Random thought for the day: Mealhada is a Portguese word that means “I’ve already eaten”.  At least that’s what I think. Get it?  Also, if you don’t like olive oil or salt, stay away from Portugal. Everything they cook has 20 times more of olive oil or salt or both, compared to how you likely would use them at home. Beware.

Final thoughts before I post this, the Belgians have arrived!  It’s 5:30pm and they had a tough day despite starting at the same place as we did. I think they just got caught in too much of the rain and they may have gotten a little lost too. There is also a French couple here and a young guy I just saw walk past. That’s at least 16 here so I’m calling that a massive crowd. Through the end of August, 1,067 pilgrims arrived in Santiago from Lisbon. We are a select few but a growing number too.

I hope family and friends back in Baltimore had a great celebration of the 200th anniversary of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner (and of kicking out the British once and for all).  I know y’all celebrated the Ravens and Orioles wins.

A really bad photo but it does prove that we were up before sunrise!

The second time today that I picked up  my iPhone to take a photo from the trail.