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Monica and I walked three continents together, but were finally sitting before blazing bonfires on a beach in her hometown — Vigo, Spain.

I met Moni at a birthday party in Nashville in 2010. We discovered our homes and the high schools where she taught Spanish and I taught English were 10 minutes apart. We became friends walking alongside the Stones River and around Radnor Lake. We discussed family, romance, travel and Paulo Coelho. The Pilgrimage and The Alchemist, based on the Brazilian author’s experience of walking El Camino de Santiago (often called “The Way”), had inspired us both. Since the ninth century, pilgrims have traveled across Moni’s province of Galicia, Spain, to reach the Cathedral of Santiago, thought to be the burial ground of Saint James. In 2016, 278,000 hikers citing spiritual or cultural reasons received certificates, still written in Latin, for completing the journey. When I told Moni that God and Santiago, hero in The Alchemist, were calling me to move abroad as she had done, she laughed and said the novel (written in Portuguese and translated into 70 languages) convinced her to follow her heart, see foreign lands and grow, too, which is what led her to the United States.

St. John's Eve in Vigo

St. John’s Eve, celebrated here in Vigo, celebrates the birth of John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus.

Like Santiago, she also found love when she and my friend from El Salvador, Alessandro, realized they were soul mates and married before a Justice of the Peace in Nashville. Monica and Ale eventually moved to Galicia, Spain, where they taught English and became guides for a Camino tour company.

In 2014 I left my homeland on a quest, too, and taught English in Marrakesh. Moni visited during fall break, and we traveled 900 miles, wandering Chefchouen’s blue streets, exploring Fes’ medieval medina, scaling Aït Benhaddou, the set of Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and Game of Thrones. In spring 2015, I met Moni and Ale in Andalusia, the place where Santiago crossed to Africa to see the pyramids of Egypt, and in summer 2015, I set out from Africa to see the treasures of northern Spain.

Flames danced as locals jumped fires and swam in the ocean at midnight for renewal and energy. It was St. John’s Eve, commemorating the birth of John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus. I loved that the holiday coincided with Summer Solstice season so I could savor this moment on one of the year’s longest days. Throughout Europe and Latin America, children threw school notebooks into fires, and adults wrote on slips of paper whatever they needed purged — mistakes, memories weighing them down on life’s path. Embers glowed and sparks spewed as the napkin I’d written on turned into black, curling crepe paper, then disappeared on the wind. Scattered in the sand around us were scalloped shells, symbols of The Camino collected by travelers before they received their certificates as proof of reaching Santiago.

Over the next week as Moni and Ale showed me gorgeous glimpses of Galicia, I made another vow: I’d return and do the Camino with them.

Walking “The Way”: A Stunning Week-Long Journey

Northern Portugal and Spain are bucket list-worthy for the mountains, waters, Celtic ruins, seafood, wine and wonderful people. We started in Porto, Portugal, which has one of the biggest St. John’s Day celebrations in the world. Live music rose from the twinkling hills spread before our balcony perched above the Douro River. Likewise our Airbnb host, Paul, gave us a warm welcome and must-sees over a bowl of local cherries and a bottle of wine.

By boat we enjoyed the Ribeira, colorful buildings on the north side, and the port caves of Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank, then toured and tasted at Ferreira Cellars, port producer since 1751. Among beautiful Romanesque, Baroque, Gothic and Rococo cathedrals is the 18th century Igreja dos Clérigos and viewing tower. Double delights are Carmelitas, a 17th century convent, and Carmo, an 18th century monastery, separated by a house only one meter wide built to separate the nuns and monks. Carmo, like the Porto’s train station, is covered in Azulejos tiles with images depicting Porto’s history.

Porto boat tour on the Douro River

Porto boat tour on the Douro River

Viewing Porto Ribeira by boat is colorful and captivating.

Viewing Porto Ribeira by boat is colorful and captivating.

Porto Ribeira

Porto Ribeira

Ferreira Cellars has been a port producer since 1751.

Ferreira Cellars

Ferreira Cellars

Carmelitas, a 17th century convent (on the left), and Carmo, an 18th century monastery (on the right), are separated by a house only one meter wide built to separate the nuns and monks.

Carmelitas, a 17th century convent (on the left), and Carmo, an 18th century monastery (on the right), are separated by a house only one meter wide built to separate the nuns and monks.

An interior view of Carmelitas

An interior view of Carmelitas

Lunch was fresh fish (5 euros) and a jug of Vinho verde (green wine) at Mercado do Bolhão. A must-see for international teachers, Harry Potter fans and busy moms is Lello Bookstore, where J.K. Rowling, while teaching English in Portugal, had a child and wrote the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The staircase that inspired Hogwarts is quite the photo opp. Only 10 kilometers from Porto, a tram ride away, is Miramar Beach for surfing, jumping waves and sipping drinks at a beach bar at sunset.

Lello Bookstore

The staircase in the Lello Bookstore inspired Hogwarts and offers a fabulous photo opp, as Moni shows!

The Lello Bookstore is a popular spot!

The Lello Bookstore is a popular spot!

Mirimar Beach in Portugal

Miramar Beach in Portugal

Two hours by train or bus north is Vigo, the largest town in Galicia and biggest fishing port in Europe. The marine life is so rich in the Vigo estuary that Jules Verne hid treasure there in his novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I fell in love with de las Ostras Street for its raw oysters, sardines, octopus and other fresh catch.

An epicurean's delight awaits in Vigo.

An epicurean’s delight awaits in Vigo.

The catch is always fresh in Vigo.

The catch is always fresh in Vigo.

One of three exciting excursions within an hour from Vigo is the Parador of Baiona, a Galician manor house built within the walls of a medieval fortress that protected the port from pirates and other enemies. Here the first ships arrived in Europe to report the discovery of America, an event celebrated every March where a replica of The Pinta is docked beside yachts headed to the Mediterranean or Caribbean.

On A Guarda harbor fishing boats bob on colorful kaleidoscopic waters reflecting restaurants packed during Lobster Fest. Monte de Santa Trega rises 1,118 feet behind them, where we hiked to Santa Tecla, a second century BC Celtic fort village. From the highest point, San Francisco Peak and the Road of Crosses, are views of Spanish and Portuguese coasts where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Rio Miño.

A Guarda Harbor

A Guarda Harbor is filled with fishing boats, and Monte de Santa Trega rises 1,118 feet in the background.

Santa Tecla is a second century BC Celtic fort village.

Santa Tecla is a second century BC Celtic fort village.

Author Cindy McCain

Author Cindy McCain shown here at Santa Tecla Celtic fort village

The view from Monte de Santa Trega

The view from Monte de Santa Trega

The Road of Crosses

The Road of Crosses

Notice how the Road of Crosses is as high as the clouds.

Notice how the Road of Crosses is as high as the clouds.

My stay culminated with Cies Isles, called by Romans “The Islands of the Gods.” With tent in tow Moni, Ale, Vesa (their London Airbnb guest) and I took a ferry from Vigo’s port to a dock near Playa de Rodas, named by The Guardian as the Best Beach in the World for its white sand, crystal clear blue waters and rainbow fish. We later ate fresh, fried sardines and fish, pitched the tent under pines with a view of the sea, then hiked so high into the clouds we passed seagulls herding their downy chicks. On one side were sailboats on an estuary so calm locals call it the Caribbean. On the other were cliffs like those of the Scottish highlands, where below Atlantic waves crash wildly against the rugged shore. At the lighthouse we stood before a golden sunset. Another journey ended … until the next one …

Travel by boat to the Cies Islands

Travel by boat to the Cies Islands

Cindy, shown here on the beaches of the Cies Islands.

Cindy, shown here on the beaches of the Cies Islands.

Playa de Rodas & the Cies Islands

Playa de Rodas & the Cies Islands

This is the view from the Caribbean side of the Cies Islands

This is the view from the Caribbean side of the Cies Islands

Sunset in the Cies Islands

Sunset in the Cies Islands: (L to R) Vesa, Moni, Ale and author Cindy McCain

For more travel inspiration, check out Cindy McCain’s blog, Southern Girl Gone Global, where she shares tales from four continents and the Caribbean. She is moving home to Nashville this summer after teaching in The Dominican Republic, where she learned every summer that many of her students return to the place their families call home: Galicia, Spain. 

To experience this magical journey for yourself, email author Cindy McCain for help setting up a custom Camino tour with Moni and Ale.

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