Camino Portugués take 4: Miguél’s Haven for Peregrinos in Porto

Between us, Nadia and I could have saved quite an impressive number of euros before even embarking on the Camino Portugués, if we had sooner had the brainwave to find an albergue in Porto for the two nights before we started walking. Instead, we rented a quaint airbnb apartment from Sofia, at the top of four flights of creaking stairs in an old building that is part of a Unesco World Heritage Site: a lot more pricey. However, in all fairness, it was an excellent location from where we could explore authentic Porto on foot.

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But sitting on our beds in the tiny studio with its view across the rooftops and squawking seagulls all around, we had to make a plan for safely leaving some of our bags in the city until we would return roughly two weeks later. Of course! There must be designated camino albergues in Porto – because pilgrims either stop over on their way from Lisbon, or they start out from here. We duly googled (what better way to start the search?!) and found the Albergue de Peregrinos do Porto.

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One Miguél was the contact person. We would inquire by email and whatsapp about leaving the bags, and about possibly staying there for a few nights after completing the Camino and before the date of our return flights. He soon replied positively by whatsapp and our first leg of the adventure the following morning, was to make our way to his albergue on Rua Barão de Forrester, 954, by train.

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It was not even too far from where we were. We lugged all the bags down to the Sao Bento station with its stunning blue and white tile art on the walls of the main hall, from where we took two trains and covered the last few hundred metres to the albergue on foot from the Carolina Michaelis station. The door of the albergue is on the street front – as are the entrances of most other albergues; and on the yellow arrow route: the Camino Santiago.

Miguél assured us in English, with his charming slow Portuguese accent, that our bags would be safe until we returned. And that our beds for two or three nights before flying out of Portugal were booked. There was an air of peace around the place and involuntarily I looked forward to spending some time here on our return from Santiago de Compostela…

After completing a Camino at a crossroads point in his life, and upon realising how much he had benefited from it spiritually, Miguél had decided to find suitable premises in Porto with a view to opening the doors of a new albergue: as he describes it, in an effort to add value in this way to his country’s hospitality network for camino pilgrims. It had not been easy, and it still remains a challenge to make ends meet.

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Miguel Andrade at the entrance to the Albergue o Peregrino Porto

With our few excess belongings safely stored, we could strap on the backpacks (still quite a bit heavier than the ideal recommended ratio!) and catch the train to Matosinhos from where the coastal stretch of our Camino would start.

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It was just more than a fortnight later when we reached the bus station in Porto after a scenic and enjoyable drive from Santiago de Compostela, brimming with thoughts and impressions, and quite impressed to see from another angle the beauty and charm of the mountains, valleys and rivers that we had traversed on foot in the past two weeks. The circle was almost completed when we again caught the train to Carolina Michaelis on that hot Saturday afternoon and made our way on well-travelled feet to the Albergue de Peregrinos do Porto on Rua Barão de Forrester.

Miguél had gone out for a moment and we were warmly welcomed at the door by Mathilde, a French pilgrim with a deep tan, an equally charming accent and soulful brown eyes. (I would learn, whilst chatting to her in the garden during the days to follow, that she had embarked on the Camino at a time when she had felt beaten and depleted, and had realised that she needed to find a way to replenish her strength and regain her zest for life… By then she had spent a good number of weeks on walking – from France to Santiago and she was heading south to Fatima.)

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Miguél and Mathilde relaxing in the enclosed garden

After parking our backpacks in the allocated lockers and our shoes on the shelves by the window (all for the sake of hygiene), we were shown by Miguél to our bunk bed upstairs – in a dormitory with four men: one from Canada, one from England, one from Germany and another from Bolivia! It felt familiar… And on the second and third nights we enjoyed sharing our space with Husein and Gina from California! Miguél takes the time and trouble to show each new pilgrim-guest around, explaining the spaces and amenities that are at their disposal during their stay, and even generously inviting them to harvest from the attractive outdoor food garden.

The albergue is a true haven. A home away from home. An ideal place to rest a tired body, organise an overloaded mind and just enjoy mingling with a handful of fellow pilgrims as they come and go.

Two of the dormitories, of which all three are on the first floor, delightfully open onto an outdoor landing from where you have direct access to the narrow but expansive garden with its trees, various informal seating and relaxation options (even two hammocks!), edibles to harvest like tomatoes, peppers, courgettes and a variety of herbs. Impossible to miss or ignore is the bright and colourful graffiti-like mural boldly spelling out what it is all essentially about: ‘Caminho Portugués’!

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You are literally spoilt for choice of where to eat your meals, update your memoirs, read through your notes, chat with fellow guests or just be alone – both indoors and in the garden: a lounge with comfortable seating, flat-screen TV (lost on me!) and a table for chess or chatting, a dining room area with enough table and chair seating for all guests if needed, and then of course the various outdoor spaces which are the most popular on balmy days and evenings like the ones we enjoyed. Not forgetting the kitchen, which by evening was mostly buzzing with activity as everyone got busy preparing for themselves an evening meal. Well equipped – with even a kettle, which we had missed in most other albergues! – it is another homely space to be enjoyed and revelled in.

Miguél’s heart is in the right place; and it beats warmly for peregrinos, the Camino and its significance. His presence adds a gentle and welcoming touch to its atmosphere. If ever you should find yourself to be a pilgrim in Porto – that charming and amazing city on the banks of the River Douro with more to offer than you could imagine – be sure not to miss out on staying over at the Albergue de Peregrinos do Porto. It will embrace you.

You will find these words on the home page of the website: “Since the Camino Portugese is getting more and more popular we have welcomed a lot of pilgrims from over 60 countries and we can’t wait to meet you here! We opened our doors on the 29th of may 2016 and we are working really hard to create a magic and welcoming environment for pilgrims.” (Visit the website at http://www.albergueperegrinosporto.pt)

Contact details are the following:

Office: +351 220 140 515
Mobile: +351 912 591 321

 

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The Camino Portugués 2017… Take 1: ‘Passports & Certificates’

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This image is in fact of a ‘last page’ – with a final stamp.

It tells of the closing chapter and the final stages of my Camino Portugués, which was concluded at the Cathedral Santiago de Compostela at midday on the 28th of September this year. The coveted ‘last stamp’ I however only collected on the following day (as the date indicates), after queuing for more than an hour on tired legs and aching feet with scores of other pilgrims from all across the world. You definitely do not turn away from your experience and head home without that piece of paper with your Latinised name handwritten on it – certifying that you completed your pilgrimage…

Certificate issued by the official pilgrimage office of the Camino Santiago, stating that you (by Latin equivalent of your name) have completed the pilgrimage

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Actually the little pilgrim’s passport book that you carry with you all the way, keeping it handy at all times, tells the story in the end and threads together all the places where you put your backpack down to take a rest, enjoy a beer, savour a coffee, find a toilet, overnight and – ultimately – to collect a stamp! Of course it also verifies your status as a pilgrim… It makes you eligible for a bed for the night in one of the pilgrims’ albergue’s which, however rustic and basic they may be, are like oases and havens after a day’s travel on foot with a pack on your back.

Issued in my and Nadia’s cases to us by the #Confraternity of Saint James of South Africa (#CSJofSA) before our departure from South Africa, the so-called passport states on the cover page that it is a ‘Pilgrim Record’ (Credencial del Peregrino), and goes on to say the following inside:

“This Pilgrim Record is issued by the Confraternity of St James of South Africa on the understanding that it is to be used only by pilgrims making their way to Santiago de compostela on foot, by bicycle or on horseback, and that it is their desire to make the pilgrimage in the spirit of spiritual discovery and renewal. The purpose of the Pilgrim Record is to identify the pilgrim. It gives no rights, but serves two objectives:

“(1) Access to the refuges that offer Christian hospitality of The Way. These refuges are not free. It is proper to leave a contribution, even to those who ask for nothing.

“(2) Submission for the Compostela issued by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which is the authentication of the completion of the pilgrimage. It is only obtainable from the Pilgrim Office of the Cathedral authorities in Santiago de Compostela. Minimum Requirements: Pilgrims on foot or horseback must have complete at least the last 100km and cyclists the last 200km, in one stretch, to qualify. Two stamps per day are required.

Pilgrims who start their journey outside Galicia require one stamp per day.”

We are proud to have completed the Camino from Porto to Santiago on foot, which covers a distance of around 240 kilometres, within 14 days.

At times it was arduous. At times it was exhilarating. Always and throughout it was amazing. Enlightening. Enriching. Life-changing. Rewarding. Unforgettable.

The lilting bird songs that accompanied me on my way – be it in forests or alongside streams, crossing ancient Roman-built bridges or passing one of the many farms with their vines and orchards – not only sustained me when fatigue and foot-ache called for rest; but they also reminded me that St James himself and pilgrims through the centuries heard those very same sounds and were more than likely also uplifted and cheered on by them…

Kruger: compromising on standards?

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FOR close on 50 years it has been a personal joy that keeps reappearing on my bucket list, to visit the Kruger National Park: undoubtedly one of South Africa’s flagship tourist destinations. Arguably one of the top two!

Most recently, in January 2017 – at the peak of the summer season, it was the same for me again.

Or… was it? Well, mostly; but not all of it brought undiluted joy all of the time.

It had rained abundantly and all things natural were exceptionally picturesque, jubilant, revived, refreshed and vibrant. My companions and I reveled in the sheer enjoyment thereof. So did all of nature – and our privilege was to be not only silent and awe-inspired observers, but also partakers thereof.

Spotting animals in the wild, having the patience to pursue this activity and making the most of it have over many years and three generations been and become skills that my kinsfolk and I have honed in various manners and places. South Africa’s bouquet of nature reserves and game parks is impressive and they have always had a powerful pull. I’ve wondered: is it more about the bubble of isolation from the ‘real world’ you temporarily find yourself in, or about the close encounter with sights and sounds that are hopefully being preserved for posterity? Can it also be the experience of surrendering to a carefree yet mutually focused sub-culture whilst you find yourself within the boundaries of a particular sanctuary?

Whatever the case may be: once you have become an experienced ‘game reserver’ / ‘parks visitor’ you can safely assume that you have, over time, also acquired the ‘qualification’ and authority to comfortably, as well as probably accurately and fairly, assess and evaluate what is on offer. And frankly – not only what is on offer, but also whether the ethos, intrinsic nature and characteristics of an institution are at a level that they can reasonably be expected to be.

THROUGH THE WORLD’S EYES

I have for a while placed a hesitant and reluctant question mark over the Kruger National Park – and maybe even its mother organization, SANPARKS – in this regard. I do this within the context of, in this particular case the Kruger Park, enjoying the prime prominence and priority that it does as a destination within the ranks of the international tourist population. It is my contention that international tourism standards must comply with ‘universal’ norms in every sense of the word. And there should be no exceptions to the rule. A ‘five star experience’ must be exactly that in universally accepted terms. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind, that a Kruger National Park experience is globally perceived as at least a five star destination (or whatever the ultimate number of stars is for a superior grading).

So, concerning a few of the aspects relating to my tentative ‘question mark’:

1. VISITOR / TOURIST FACILITIES:

Accommodation, ablution and other amenities: do they live up to expectations?

I am first in line when it comes to the thrill of returning to basics… like camping and the simple life of not fretting too much about menus, meals, wardrobes, routines, etc. I truly appreciate minimalism and… yes, simplicity. But there is always context.

In a world-renowned and undoubtedly lucrative game park like the Kruger, you are surely entitled to the very best in each quotable category: whether it be staff conduct, a reception area, a rustic camp site, an access or exit gate, a basic bungalow, a luxury chalet, an exclusive guest cottage, bed linen, kitchen utensils and facilities, picnic sites, restaurants, shops, swimming pools and last, but not least, toilet and ablution facilities.

Especially in the latter instance it is disturbing to encounter facilities that are lacking. Even at remote picnic sites there has to be a ‘zero tolerance’ approach regarding spotless cleanliness, adequate hand towel and soap availability, flush mechanisms and taps that work. When public or even private facilities of this nature in rest camps leave anything at all to be desired, it should give rise to serious concern and decisive action.

I have concluded that rest-camps in the Kruger National Park, as well as reception areas, picnic sites and other facilities, do not necessarily uniformly conform and comply with set (hopefully international!) standards. An inevitable deduction is that the general appearance and performance of a rest camp or picnic site depend on the degree of commitment and ethos lived out by its management and staff. Whilst it is evident that some facilities are tended by staff that go the extra mile, others show traces of neglect in varying degrees. It would be unfair of me to neglect motivating my allegations:

  • At least twice (once most recently, in January 2017 at the Tamboti tented camp) we arrived at our reserved overnight accommodation in the later afternoon to find that the previous occupants had not yet vacated. How does this happen in a system that should be faultless and top-notch – considering that discerning travellers from across the globe are hosted daily? Needless to say, this kind of experience causes much discomfort and concern…
  • A flagship rest camp like Lower Sabie cannot have ANY excuse for lacking or sub-standard visitors’ facilities. However the safari tent we stayed in overnight and paid an adequate amount for, was literally in tatters. We could conveniently watch the full moon rising through a huge torn cavity in the front ‘gable wall’ of the structure. And the canvas was flapping profusely in a stiff and dusty wind. In the same tent – as well as the neighboring one – the mesh windows were either tattered and worn or untidily sewn together in an effort to convince the occupants that they were actually there and serving a purpose! Furthermore I had to guess what I was going to look like to the outside world, because where the bathroom mirror should have been, there was only a frame. (What happened to all the extensive renovations that the rest camp was undergoing for a prolonged period??)
  • In Mopani, which is undoubtedly one of the model camps in the park when it comes to location and layout, and is seen to cater for individuals and families from mostly higher income groups, we found our comfortable 3 bedroom cottage to be in need of repairs or attention in more ways than one. The vanity shelf in the main bedroom was sagging; the interior of the fridge smelt unbearable; lighting shades were missing from more than one wall-mounted light; the kitchen was somewhat sparsely equipped with utensils and some of the exterior walkway lights were out of order…
  • At Letaba – traditionally also a flagship rest camp – we had two basic huts on the perimeter and had looked forward to our unobstructed views of the river. On arrival, however, we found an unsightly pile of sand practically on our doorstep and between our two neighboring huts. It had obviously been indiscriminately dumped there by workers for reasons unknown to us. Our request at the reception office that it be removed, was followed by a site visit from a staff member who apologized and sent a team to comply. Unfortunately it was a halfhearted attempt that left much to be desired. Finding a kitchen facility (as these particular huts are not equipped in this regard) was also quite a challenge. In fact there was none within a convenient distance from our accommodation, because the designated one had been converted into a pop-up restaurant to counteract threatening staff strikes at the rest-camp’s franchise restaurant.
  • Punda Maria is one of our most favourite rest camps – perhaps mostly due to its remoteness, and also for its magnificent trees, the waterhole and hide, the rustic atmosphere and the touch of tradition and old-fashioned charm. Our upmarket safari tent was perfectly comfortable and well equipped, with the added luxury of its own ablution facilities. I however cannot but mention that in some aspects maintenance appeared to be lacking: a section of the canvas roofing was sagging dangerously from a huge load of rainwater that had accumulated and it was in danger of collapsing or tearing. A rather bad leak in the roofing of the bathroom section appeared to be unattended and proved to be a real problem when we actually experienced a glorious rainstorm. Furthermore I frowned at the fact that of the four appliances in the rest camp’s little laundry facility, only two were in working order. The other two appeared to be quite dusty and had obviously not been attended to in a long time. The latter assumption was confirmed by a staff member. Besides the discomfort it caused the seasonal campers who had to queue for their turn at washing and drying, it is also an unacceptable slip in what should be world-class standards.
  • In Satara, arguably one of the most popular of all the rest camps, we recently as campers encountered altogether unsatisfactory kitchen facilities: twin-plate stoves as well as boilers were missing – and when reported, the issue was met with shrugs of acknowledgement that they had been stolen. No further action was taken! A serious sewerage system problem at one of the ablution blocks (impossible to ignore!) was not effectively addressed and solved. Besides the stench, there was also the niggling concern about possible hygiene-related issues…)

2. SERVICE STANDARDS & STAFF CONDUCT

Are checks and balances in place? Is there a satisfactory uniformity throughout the park?

I am eager to testify that politeness and friendliness from staff are mostly the order of the day. They are predominantly tidy, punctual, helpful, discreet and seemingly well organized. Occasionally, personal conversations among themselves in the course of executing their tasks are somewhat more audible than is probably convenient or acceptable to the discerning visitor; this is a personal opinion. And their timing for cleaning accommodation facilities is not consistently discreet.

  • Entry gates: this is where first and last impressions are formed. Your Kruger Park experience starts and ends here. Are you welcomed and received, as well as bade farewell and sent off, professionally, eloquently, politely and enthusiastically? Regrettably I recently noticed that, on exiting the park at Crocodile Bridge after a ten day visit, the appearance of the gate and its attendants, as well as the latter’s conduct, reminded me a little bit of some countries’ border posts… grim, drab, indifferent.
  • Reception areas:can staff at a reception desk ever be too helpful, too efficient or too accommodating? Let me hasten to say that I do not mean they need to indulge the whims and opportunistic demands of ill-mannered patrons, but rather to take charge and control of the needs of guests in a manner that reassures, emanates warmth and extends a hearty welcome. Kruger generally has a good performance record in this regard. But again – NO compromise on quality and finesse should need to be tolerated by the discerning visitor!
  • Gratifying past experiences of rest camp management staff must be mentioned in all fairness. At Shingwedzi, on a camping trip, we once had a personal report-back from the camp manager after she herself had been involved in chasing a troop of meddling monkeys out of our tent. This particular individual was during our sojourn regularly seen moving about the area and obviously familiarizing herself with the condition of amenities, the satisfaction levels of guests, etc. She had a face – and a phone number that worked! At a world-class destination like Kruger, this is what you’d expect. It is however regrettably not what you invariably get.

3. IS CONSERVATION STILL THE ALPHA AND OMEGA?

Are Conservation and its intrinsic Management Values still an ultimate and urgent bottom line objective to the KNP?

This may appear to be a rhetorical question. However it has serious undertones and has, in my opinion, the very real possibility of being valid… for example:

  • Is it purely my imagination, or have Kruger’s herds of herbivores shrunk somewhat over time, throughout the years? Granted, there are factors that play annual and seasonal roles, like the distribution and abundance or shortage of natural water sources – depending on rainfall figures or drought occurrences. Therefore, when you drive for long stretches without seeing animals, it need not necessarily concern you: searching for them is after all the name of the game! But could and should the effect of the mentioned factors be as drastic and consistently increasing as it appears to be? Is there a possibility that antelope and other herbivores, for example, are being hunted somewhat indiscriminately by more than their natural predators?
  • Why, for example, is it according to news reports that reach public eyes and ears, predominantly only possible to apprehend (rhino) poachers after a perpetration? Through the media it is evident that the counter-initiatives, their quality and extent are extremely focused and sophisticated. This is acknowledged and appreciated by nature lovers far and wide. So this is the issue: whilst the rhino population figures are plummeting at a heartrending rate – why do these magnificent animals appear to be as unsafe in the most reputable reserves as they are anywhere else? Are there more threatening and underhand factors involved than insatiable greed?
  • How effective is the screening and selection of staff who are appointed in key conservation-related positions in view of the fact that they are in all reasonability being entrusted with the crucial and delicate task of playing a passionate role in the preservation of our wildlife heritage for posterity?

The Kruger National Park has a rich and intriguing history. With it came and went traditions like communal camp fires, ethnic drum sounds that announced the evening meal, the daily sharing of game sightings among like-minded enthusiasts, scrumptious bush brunches under gigantic trees at picnic sites like Tshokwane, Babalala, Muzandzeni, Mooiplaas, Timbavati and the likes. Although it would be unfair, impractical and unrealistic to expect all customs and traditions to live on, I believe the indescribable and undeniable charm of the KNP lies in, among other things, not departing altogether from the dual purpose of protecting whilst delighting.

Protecting without withholding; not only the defenseless and threatened, but also that which has rung dear to stakeholders and visitors alike through the decades.

Delighting without sacrificing on the full richness of an experience in nature by detracting from it; and without compromising on world-class and internationally acceptable standards in order to keep pleasing even the most refined and discerning of new and loyal patrons.

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