The Roads to Santiago have crossed Portugal for centuries. Set out on a discovery of the north of the country, its natural or urban scenery and important religious temples, and of yourself. If you like long walks, you can and should go on foot along the Roads to Santiago, but remember that if you choose to follow the footsteps of the pilgrims by car, three days will be enough to travel the Portuguese Road to Santiago.
The destination of these Roads is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in Spain, where the tomb of St. James is kept, who, before his death, evangelized in the Iberian Peninsula, a province of Rome at the time.
Worshipped since the 9th century, the cult of this saint became popular throughout the Middle Ages, originating great pilgrimages from all across Europe.
Right in the middle of the 21st century, meet other citizens of the world on their way to the Apostle’s tomb and, on the way, visit some delightful places.
The Road to Santiago is a complex network of Jacobean itineraries from every corner in Europe. Among the routes of the north region that can take you to Santiago de Compostela, there are three main trails where inns were once available to provide treatment and rest to the pilgrims, established with the donations made by Portuguese kings, who were themselves devotees.
The oldest one is the northern route, passing through the towns which St. James visited: Rates, Guimarães and Braga, which rivalled with Compostela the title of centre of Christianity in the Peninsula.
This Road had some alternatives – a road along the coast, the primitive road in a direct line across the centre of the region, an itinerary that crossed Barcelos and Ponte de Lima and, to the East, the old Roman road across Gerês up to Portela do Homem.
The common element between the medieval itineraries from Porto to Santiago de Compostela, the royal road Porto-Barcelos-Valença with the old Roman military route was one or two stretches of the urban road and the bridges still in use to link the margins of more agitated water courses.
Start in Porto
Choose the first route, with a starting point in Porto and its Cathedral. Dedicate a whole day to the capital of the north and start by visiting the beautiful 12th century church-fortress. This is a must see!
From Largo da Sé, go down towards the Douro River and explore the historical centre of the city, listed as World Heritage by UNESCO. Walk along Rua Escura and Rua da Banharia, the busy Rua Mouzinho da Silveira, and Rua das Flores and Rua dos Caldeireiros. This street will take you to the area of the old Cadeia da Relação and Torre dos Clérigos, two important monuments in the city.
In this area, you can have a light meal at one of the several restaurants and cafés downtown or shop in the so-called Quarteirão das Artes or in Rua de Cedofeita.
In Porto, find accommodation in the wonderful area of Ribeira. We suggest the Pestana Porto Hotel, built on the medieval wall of the city, occupying part of a block of buildings included in the UNESCO classification and that date back to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Its privileged location offers all the charm of Ribeira in a quaint set of buildings still in their original architecture.
On the second day, continue to follow the Road by the coast and stop in Rates, a parish of the district of Póvoa do Varzim worthy of a visit, where, legend has it, St. Peter was ordained bishop by St. James and gave his name to the Romanesque Church.
Walk along Esposende heading to Viana do Castelo. In this true welcoming place in Minho, enjoy the view from the top of Monte de Santa Luzia and enjoy the landscape defined by the ocean and the River Lima, a river the pilgrims used to cross over the Roman bridge of Lanheses.
For some, this is where their journey on foot began, coming from the centre or south of the country or from Mediterranean Europe, by sea, disembarking on this port.
By night time, make the Axis Viana Business & Spa your safe haven. Located in a central area of the city, this hotel combines comfort and the refined atmosphere of its 87 rooms with a bold architecture. It has a pleasant outdoor esplanade with a swimming pool where you can rest from the pilgrimage.
Dedicate your third and last journey day to the beautiful villages of Caminha, Vila Nova de Cerveira and Valença, the latter on the border with Spain. Surrounded by walls, Valença was and is Portugal’s main exit point.
Across Guimarães and Braga
An alternative to the coastline is, also from Porto, the route going to Valença across Guimarães, Braga, Barcelos and Ponte de Lima.
St. James went by Guimarães and, according to legend, in the birthplace city (today its historical centre is World Heritage), he left an image of the Virgin Mary placed in a temple in the existing Praça de Santiago.
The next stop is Braga; São Pedro Rates is evoked here in the names of a square, a fountain, the tower and the seminary.
Pilgrims would also leave from the Cathedral of Braga, and the Church of Hospital de São Marcos was one of the most important inns on the Portuguese Road.
Outside the city, visit the Monastery of Tibães, which assisted the pilgrims, and he Chapel of São Frutuoso de Montélios, whose relics were taken to Santiago de Compostela in the 12th century.
The road continues to Barcelos, where a Cross recalls the Miracle of the Rooster which gave rise to the clay figure of the rooster, a Portuguese iconic piece of craft. Legend has it that a pilgrim, being accused of a crime, asked St. James for help. Standing before the judge, he claimed his innocence but the judge said he would only believe him if the roasted rooster of his dinner would sing three times; thus it sang, and the pilgrim was released.
The following stops are Ponte de Lima, whose bridge has always been the safe crossing of the river for pilgrims, and Valença.
Finally, the Roman Road is one of the most beautiful ways to get to Santiago. It is perfect for nature lovers and it starts at Albufeira da Caniçada. It goes across the National Park of Peneda-Gerês, where the Sanctuary of São Bento da Porta Aberta is located, also welcoming major pilgrimages, and into Spain through Portela do Homem.
This is a particularly interesting option for those who like archaeology, because it follows the old Roman route. Within the area of the Park, and along about 30 km, see how the walls, bridges and dozens of milestones with engravings from between the 1st and 4th centuries are almost intact.
The trail is easy to follow, without any steep climbs or descents, inviting contemplation.
Inside the region
If you can spend a couple more days in the north of Portugal, it will be worth the while to take the Interior Road. Connecting Viseu to Chaves, this itinerary has gained a new life with the new signage and hostels for pilgrims.
This Road goes across Lamego and Vila Real and leads to Via da Prata, the old Roman commercial route which crossed the west of Spain from north to south and was used by the pilgrims from Seville to Santiago.
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The best way to go from the International Airport Francisco Sá Carneiro to the city centre is to take the underground. The trip takes about 30 minutes.