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Slow Travel the Variante Espirtual


We make our way through a forest on the Galician coast at dawn. “Dad’s here,” I say to my partner Liz, as we stumble over a cobblestone path through a pine grove, the town of Poio and the monastery where we spent the night fading into a memory far below. In the two years since he passed away, it’s become common for my father to make his presence felt at particularly poignant moments near the end of a long journey.

Dad is with us again on the Variante Espiritual. 

For nearly 1,300 years, Christian pilgrims have made voyages along the Camino de Santiago, following various routes winding through Europe, leading to the medieval Spanish citadel of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James the apostle are said to be interred. And while the route beginning in France garners some 80% of pilgrim traffic these days, the trail Liz and I found ourselves on—the Camino Portugués—boasts about 20%. 

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That’s still enough traffic to fill the plentiful number of hostels and albergues dotting the nearly 300km path from Porto to Santiago during peak season. But on the Variante Espiritual, that crowd is trimmed to almost none. It’s the kind of place to find yourself alone with your thoughts, your partner or whatever ghosts haunt your steps around the planet.

View of the Monastery de Poio © Joe Sills/Lonely Planet

Near the end of the average two-week voyage from Porto, pilgrims face a choice—add several days to the journey by detouring 28km over the mountain passes of the Variante Espiritual or make single day sprint to Padron, a town just one day’s walk from the finish line. 

Most opt for the beeline. I suggest adding not two, but three days for the otherworldly sights on the Variante Espiritual. 

Beginning just outside of Pontevedra, the well-marked stone blazes of the Camino Portugués are replaced by diminutive wooden signposts and the occasional boulder painted with a yellow arrow. The steady stream of world travelers famously plodding the Central Route of the Camino Portugués becomes a smattering of vagabonds perusing the villages, woodlands and vineyards lining this detour. Out here, one might go a full day without hearing the ubiquitous pilgrims’ salute of “Bom Caminho!”

Stop at Mosteiro de San Xoan de Poio

The alabaster walls of the Mosteiro de San Xoan de Poio loom over the town of Poio only a half day’s walk from…

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