4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the category “Europe”

Beaches, Whitewash and Scooters on Syros & Naxos (by Καρμεν)

Bougainvillea on the Greek Island of Syros

View of Syros from the ferry

“Wow. This is perfect”

These were my thoughts as I ate my first meal on the Greek island of Syros. Nathan and I were sitting at a table squeezed onto a lovely, narrow lane. I had just selected some dishes from To Kastri, a restaurant run by a local women’s cooperative. The food was homey and comforting – fish baked with potatoes, broccoli, tzaziki, cabbage rolls stuffed with rice. A wonderful welcome to our first of four islands.

Lunch at To Kastri

After eating, our next thought was beach. We caught a bus to a small cove on the other side of the island and dug our toes into the sand. The water was crystal clear and the beach largely deserted because it was off season. This meant that the restaurants in town were also empty so for dinner we bought a gyro and called it an early night. From our room we could hear the chants of a small, civil protest against the German chancellor’s visit in the distance.

Nathan at a window in Ano Syros

Quaint buildings of Syros

In the morning we awoke early to visit Ano Syros, a picturesque part of town high up on the hill. We snaked our way through adorable alley ways and rustic arches, past weathered doorways and down steep stairs. It was exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of a quaint Mediterranean island village.

Temple of Apollo with Naxos in the background

Rooftop terrace of our hotel

View from our balcony

Next we hopped over to the nearby island of Naxos. At the port we we greeted with another whitewashed town, this time with the ruins of the Temple of Apollo overlooking the water. We also encountered a gaggle of hotel owners vying for our business. Thanks to Nathan’s master negotiating skills we scored a lovely hotel for under $30 a night.

Street in Naxos old town

Cubic church

After settling in we explored Naxos old town, which I found even more charming than the one on Syros. It was a true labyrinth with low arches and endless twists and turns. It was the kind of place that beckons your return with the thought that there might be one more passage left unexplored.

Beachside resort

We walked back to our hotel along the beach and stumbled upon a small resort serving a simple BBQ. We joined in to pig out on Greek-style salads, rice, stuffed grape leaves, and grilled meat skewers.

Scooters make you look tough

Naxos is one of the bigger islands in the area and there were more villages in the interior to explore. We decided that the best way to do this was to rent a scooter. Now I always knew Nathan had some experience with motorcycles before I met him. But I was surprised to see how well he picked it up again as we sped off from the Naxos harbor. What an excellent hidden talent. It’s nice to know that after nearly 10 years together you can still learn new things about each other.

Stony path

Nathan on top

Views from Mt. Zeus

Our destination was Halki, a tiny town with a hundred year old distillery producing citron. This is a drink that uses a citrus fruit unique to Naxos distilled with the local grape liqueur, raki. We then scooted on over to Mt Zeus, a 1000m tall mountain with views all around the island. Nathan braved the steep climb while I enjoyed the Mediterranean views from the trailhead.

Lunch at Meze 2

By the time we made it back to Naxos we were hungry for a late lunch. At Meze 2, we ordered a large Greek salad and a mix of dips including tzaziki, eggplant and two feta based spreads. Accompanied by grilled octopus and a jug of retsina wine, we abolished the need for dinner. After lunch we scooted to the beach, albeit more slowly because of the extra weight.

Yogurt, honey, pomegranate…breakfast of champions

Prasopita

The next morning was another beautiful day. On our balcony we enjoyed a simple breakfast of yogurt, local honey and pomegranate. It was delicious and light, which meant it left room for another delectable snack later that morning. As we passed a small cafe a round filo pastry caught our eye. Within minutes we were devouring a slice of prasopita, a cabbage filled pie of sorts. As the last bite passed my lips I was already plotting my return to the beautiful island of Naxos.

It’s All Greek To Me In Athens (by Ναθεν)

Greek flag in the breeze

Temple of dolma

Walking into Athens is a step back in time. The city began as a village, blew up into a metropolis and has cycled in glory and defeat for centuries. The historical successes of Greek accomplishments of democracy, astronomy and philosophy were predominantly within the 5th and 6th centuries BC. The other years were controlled by disjointed reigns of Greeks, Persians, ottomans, Romans and even Germans. It is the modern Greece that we visited- rich in culture, deep with history, vibrant with hospitality and delicious with Mediterranean food.

The Acropolis Propyaea

The Erechtheion

People had warned us not to spend much time in Athens as it was an unattractive city. This confused us since we had always related Athens to Rome and we expected centuries of history from the once glorious civilization. Wouldn’t the city be full of beautiful architecture? We learned that at the end of 4th century BC the population of Athens has dropped significantly to village-like numbers. The city’s population of today can be directly attributed to the Greek/Turkish people’s exchange of 1923.

The Caryatids

The Parthenon

Thus, the city is rather modern in feel with large boulevards and rather plain buildings. The spectacular sight is the mountain in the center of the city, the Acropolis, that prominently holds beautiful temples that are 2,500 years old. Everything shows evidence and elaborate detail and a passion to build fantastic structures. The Romans emphasized the use of the arch, but much earlier, the Greeks designed buildings with brute force by increasing the frequency and number of columns. One of my favorites was the Caryatids, the female carved columns supporting the porch of the Erechtheion. The grandest of all is the Parthenon, an enormous building for 2 1/2 millennia ago. And they even bulged and tapered the columns to create an optical illusion of greater height.

Tourist shot on the Acropolis

Gyro heroes

The Parthenon and Acropolis are beautiful, but all this history tends to make our heads hurt and stomachs growl. We descended the mountain and found one of the numerous souvlaki shops. We watched as they sliced off pork and chicken from the sizzling and rotating spike. It was stuffed into pita with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, tzatziki (yogurt, cucumber and parsley) and what’s this? Fries. Mmm we found Greek street food, gyros.

Temple of the Olympian Zeus

Ancient marble heads

We hit all of ancient sites. The Temple of the Olympan Zeus showed roman perseverance to complete great temples. There were countless marble statues majestically glorifying gods, heroes, distant queens and prominent merchants. Keramikos was an ancient grave yard and Mount Lycabettus provided stunning views of the city.

Tightly fit roman stonework

Temple of Hephaestus

Ancient ruins are tucked all over the city. The stonework of the Romans showed that many angles and superior tightness could be done 1,500 years before Machu Picchu. The temple of Hephaestus is almost entirely intact, and it was built in 400BC.

Baked whitebait at Cafe Absynna

Baked spicy feta and fava at Cafe Absynna

It has taken no time for us to adjust to the Mediterranean food here. A plate full of gavros (whitebait), baked feta cheese and puréed fava beans made an amazing meal at Cafe Absynna. We lingered at our table overlooking a small plaza, but we wanted a place with more action.

Tailor Made coffee and cocktails

A calm Syntagma Square

Artsy Athens graffiti

Tailor Made demonstrated the cafe culture we wanted. They served delicious coffee and cocktails with a chic rustic atmosphere. The cafe was in a tranquil neighborhood but there were still acres of graffiti on the surrounding buildings. We wondered if the graffiti had increased due to the protests surrounding the economic crisis. Much of the craziness in the last few months was in Syntagma Square which was calm when we saw it. Protesters were absent during our stay, but we left town just before the German chancellor arrived and they started up again. In the meantime we enjoyed meandering through the market streets with an occasional pleasant piece of urban art.

The Black Sheep all Greek menu

Various mezedes at Black Sheep

One factor making our Athens experience so great was the smooth transition into the city, culture and food. Our friend Theodoros took us to a rock ‘n’ roll/swing dance party, hosted us in a beautiful apartment and deciphered Greek menus for us. Greece is the first country in the last ten months where we have not been able to use Spanish or English. It was special to know a local in the area to provide insight on Athens and the Greek Islands. Athens is a wonderful city with great people and history, but the beach was calling us. We boarded our early morning ferry and within a few hours we would be in the sun, toes in the sand and crystal waters across the skyline.

Fun with Theodoros

Mad About Madrid (by Carmen)

Street in Madrid

There is something special about Spanish cities and I think I know what it is. It has to do with the fact that Spaniards love just hanging out with others – long lunches, hours spent sipping coffee, inumerable sidewalk benches to chat with neighbors. This love of socializing is relflected in the physical form of their cities. The urban landscape is decidely dense but not overwhelmingly so. And what is amazing (at least from an American’s perspective) is that this density reaches right out to the city’s edge. Instead of a sprawling mass of suburbia, there is a clear division of city and countryside. I observed this in Pamplona, Burgos, Leon and Madrid; for the most part, these cities all follow this pattern.

Old school tapas bar

Nathan enjoying hierbas

Nathan and I were still recovering from the camino so we tooking it easy in Madrid. We slept in. We caught up on the internet. We napped. Although this left us time to only scratch the surface of the city, the neighborhoods we did see enchanted us. First was the ‘hood we stayed in, Malasaña. It was a youthful area where old meets new. For example, we started a night of tapas hopping at an old school bar down the street. Judging by the pictures on the walls, the same bartenders have been working for at least 20 years. We ordered sweet vermouth, which they kept on tap, and a simple snack of bacalao (salt cod) with tomato sauce. We perched ourselves on some bar stoools and watched the crowd ebb and flow. As we prepared to leave the bartender poured us two complimentary shots of homemade hierbas (herb liqueur). He poured one for himself and we all raised our glasses and gave a chant of “salud!”

Fried green tomatoes at La Musa

Me and la bomba

Next we hopped to La Musa, a new school tapas joint conveniently located across the street from our hostel. They stepped it up here with offerings such as fried green tomatoes with cheese and fig jam. It was excellent. We even visited a second time to taste their other specialty, a meat stuffed potato they called la bomba (the bomb).

Beers on Calle de la Cava Baja

We got more new wave tapas on Calle de la Cava Baja, a bar street that is a little too commercialized but still fun because of all the people and choices. Along with fellow peregrinos Donavon and Suzanne we sampled beers and wine until late into the night. Conveniently, the bars serve cañas or about a third pint of beer. This makes it much easier to bar hop without getting too tipsy.

Stealth shot of a painting in the Prado, where photos are a no no

Another wonderful feature of Madrid is free museums. Ok, they are not free during the day but in the evenings two of the city’s most famous art museums are completely free. I was particularly taken by the surreal paintings from El Greco, especially considering his work is 400 years old! The Prado Museum has a collection that competes with the Louvre.

El Retiro Park

We found that the park provided a wonderful place to nap.

Mercado San Miguel

Of course, we also visited the historic center of Madrid in all its winding street glory. Nearby the Plaza Mayor we found the Mercado San Miguel, a high end market with stalls selling snacks like anchovies or olives. Nearby we settled in for a gigantic paella for two, which was really for four. With one of our favorite Spanish dishes we said goodbye to Spain. It was time to move on to new cuisines and cultures. Also new languages! Nathan and I had traveled for months speaking either English or Spanish. Now, we refreshed our memories of the greek alphabet as our next stop was Athens.

Paella time

The Sun Rises And Sets In Santiago – Part 7 (by Nathan)

Sunrise near Frómista

There is a profound simplicity to walking the camino.  The rhythm of walking and breathing consumes most of the day and the nights are filled with exhausted sleep.  Everyday we wake, walk, talk, eat, walk, talk, walk, shower, launder, talk, eat and sleep.  This rhythm at first seems never ending, but the body easily welcomes such a flow of exercise, thought and relaxation.  Our day’s tasks echo the simple cycle of the sun that rises and sets in a pure unaltered rhythm.

Sunrise near Carrión

Experiencing these cycles of the sun has been one of the most enjoyable portions of the camino.  Our path is surrounded with all colors and fragments of light. We walk in the deep dark of morning, there is sometimes disorienting fog, there are bright pinks and oranges of sunrise, intense brilliant midday heat, afternoon glow and the reds and purples of sunset welcome star-filled nights.  Like our breathing in and out and our hearts beating the sun rises and sets each day on our camino.

Sunrise after leaving León

Walking from the darkness of pre-dawn into the light provides an optimism to the the steady and difficult walking to be completed that day and every day for four weeks.  Our lives are filled with the uneventful beauty of peace.  Very little happens each day, but slowly we have progressed to our destination- the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Sunset in Astorga

So what is it like to finally arrive at a place after walking 500 miles (800km)? It felt like just another day, another church, another plaza and another new town.  I did not feel any intense emotion at finally being at the place. I was excited, anxious and a bit confused.  But I think what was more overwhelming was the ending of it all.  The steady tranquil walking was over.

Ornate east entrance to Santiago Cathedral

I stared up at the enormous ornate church facade letting the whole experience soak in.  Each detail and carving reminded me of a laugh or pain, a blessing or hardship, or the humility or arrogance of my journey across Spain.  My mind raced with all the wonderful memories from our trip.  There were our favorite little towns, food and sights.  I also felt the warmth of so many wonderful people that we met.  Didier and Basile gave wonderful friendship and conversation on the early part of our journey, Donovan, Nancy and Robbie Inspired us to drink more, laugh more and eat more chocolate.  There were so many new friends of all ages and from all over the world: Irish Richard and Joe, Missouri’s Jim and Ryan, German Gina and Christian, British Sara and Garett, Deanna and Kerry from Australia, Danish Lisette and Bibi and the spirited Suzanne from Colorado.

Lunch for two: meats, cheese, wine and una tarta de Santiago

I cannot forget the most special peregrina of my journey, Carmen.  It is amazing after ten years of a relationship that there is more to learn, and that there is room to grow closer and more intwined into each others lives.  The trail provides a time to talk, to listen and to empathize from the depths of my core.  Walking the Camino to Santiago with someone is difficult;  all their pains, challenges and frustrations become disruptions in your experience.  But the joys of smiling, relaxing, and acomplishing are heightened beyond belief when shared with someone you love.  It takes a dedication to one another, a willingness to compromise, and a persistence to make it to the end (wherever that is) no matter what….and holding hands.  The camino has been a personal and shared journey and the Compostela is a mere milestone in the exciting life ahead of us.

Santiago Cathedral as seen from the east

Midieval angel

The city of Santiago de Compostela is a flurry of excited tourists and pilgrims.  Thousands of people descend onto the city filling the cathedral and outdoor cafes.  The sight to see is the “swinging smelly thing,” the botafumeiro that masks the smell of the pilgrims attending mass.  There is also a time to reflect on the journey, people watch and relax.

Ornate glass façades in A Coruña

A Coruña beach

Many pilgrims continue their journey for another three days after Santiago.  They walk to the most western portion of continental Europe, Finisterre.  Someday we will make that journey, but we went to the beach instead.  A high-speed train took us to A Coruña on the north coast of Spain.  The buildings were decorated with ornate picturesque balconies, and the beach stretched for miles.  The one thing we forgot was how difficult it is to find restaurants open in Spain on Sundays.  We did find a chocolatería that served delicious churros, we rested on the beach in the sun and we strolled on the beach boardwalk before returning to Santiago for another night out.


Crazy three sets of spiral stairs at Galician Ethnography museum

Walking for so many hours has allowed the engineer in me to think about the many numbers and values that go into a journey of this type.  Here are some of the most relevant numbers of the camino:
– 29 days to walk from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago
– 1,000,000 footsteps each to walk 500 miles (1,100-1,300 steps/km)
– 180 hours of walking (approx 4.5km/hr)
– 150 villages, towns and small cities
– 27 liters of wine consumed together
– 20 liters of beer consumed together
– 180 liters of water consumed together
– 25 three course pilgrim dinners

Finding the right information about this journey can be difficult.  For anyone planning a trip on the Camino Francés we have a few recommendations from our experiences and those shared by friends.  The landscape of Spain is extraordinarily diverse with mountains, deserts and seascapes; we enjoyed them all, but here are some of the best portions.

Favorite stretches of the Camino:
– St. Jean to Roncesvalles and Larrasoaña
– Astorga to Molinaseca
– Villafranca to O’Cebreiro (scenic route via Dragonte and San Fiz de Seo)

The city and food of a place can make the journey even better.  Sometimes we would land in places that were complete dives, other times the people welcomed us with delicious food and friendship.  If you are hiking the Camino make sure that you stop and sleep in these places, it will be worth it:

Our Favorite Albergue experiences:
– Azofra municipal albergue – private rooms.
– La Piedra in Villafranca – clean, friendly and built into the mountainside.
– Porta de Santiago in Arca o Pino – clean and welcoming.

Some friend’s favorite Aubergue experiences:
– Grañón parish hostel – nightly communal parade in the street.
– Boadilla del Camino – “En El Camino” – pool, huge lawn, great food and family that
is very welcoming.
– Santibañez Parish Albergue, Excellent communal dinner.
– Send a comment if you have any others.

One of the most amazing experiences of the camino is the consisent transition from the natural environment to the villages and cities.  Even the smallest town has density of buildings and people that exceeds San Francisco.  The history and community of the people is layered like the mortar and stones that make up their buildings.  Here is a list of our favorite towns, sleep here or plan on spending a couple hours to enjoy the character and charm that each has to offer:

Favorite towns:
– Zubiri- cute riverside village.
– Puente de la Reina- charming town with wonderfully detailed buildings.
– Los Arcos- Quaint plaza with cafes and sangria.
– Santo Domingo- chickens in the cathedral!
– Hontanas- tiny village, but friendly and relaxing.
– Carrión- wonderful market and many streets to stroll and people watch.
– Hospital del Orbigo- long bridge leads to charming main street.
– Molinaseca- picturesque stone village.
– Villafranca del Bierzo – the start of the mountains and transition of cultures.

The Camino Francés passes through some of Spain’s best cities.  The culture and devotion to the camino has taken place for a thousand years and nowhere on the journey is it more prevalent than in these wonderful places:

Best Small Cities:
– Pamplona- a mix of Basque and Spanish with color and food to match the vibrancy
of the people.
– Burgos- taller and more dense with copious amounts of plazas and cafes.
– León- a maze of winding streets with tapas bars enclosed by old city walls.
– Astorga- a hilltop city of chocolate factories, parks, churches and Gaudí.

Sunset in Astorga

The Camino de Santiago was life-changing.  It was subtle, but the effects of a journey of this type are positive.  The mind and body is put to work through all the complexities and weight that burdens the daily life.  I feel that my core has been cleansed.  I am ready to explore more of the world, and I welcome the time return to my career.  I feel this inner peace, a contented soul that is difficult to describe other that there is lack of cloudiness.  There is clarity of who I am and where I am going.  To those I meet along the way, “Buen Camino!”

The Final Stretch of an Ever Changing Camino – Part 6 (by Carmen)

Pedro the sidra pourer

The camino had changed. First of all, we had entered a new region, Galicia, which has its own language more closely related to Portuguese than Spanish. Secondly, the terrain was most definitely mountainous. O Cebreiro is located at the top of a mountain and Nathan and I were certainly glad to see it after our long up hill hike. We celebrated with a bottle of sidra (cider) which came with a surprise. It seems to be a tradition to pour sidra by holding the glass low and the bottle high. With no skilled sidra pourers that night, the bartender instead handed us a mechanical contraption to help us out. We christened him Pedro and he indeed poured a mean glass of sidra.

Lush forest path

Other than language and terrain, Galicia has another distinguishing factor: weather. Up to this point, we had experienced the hot, dry and sunny Spain one expects. On our descent from O Cebreiro we got out first taste of the rain Galicia is known for. After digging out our ponchos from the bottom our packs we trudged on through thick droplets and wind that at times sounded like a train coming at us. With all the rain, stone buildings and slate roofs, I felt like I had found a secret portal to Ireland right at the edge of Spain.

By the time we reached Triacastela we were soaked and ready to dry off. We holed up in a cozy albergue and didn’t leave until dinner time. The next day we pushed on to Sarría where we encountered another of Galicia’s legacies – bus loads of pilgrims. Sarría is about 100km to Santiago, the minimum required to receive the compostela. This means you receive official recognition from the church for your pilgrimage. The result is hundreds more people on the trail, most notably teenage youth groups that are very skilled at destroying the peace with their screaming and flirting and playing.

Cloister in monestary of Sarría

Shell shaped flan at pilgrim dinner

We were just passing through Sarría but decided to stop for lunch at an italian restaurant called Matias. Sadly, I did not get a picture but I will always have the memory of how fulfilling the homemade tortellini was. And then there was the delicious tiramisu. I started to regret not including Italy on this round the world trip! There was no time to dwell on this thought as it was time to move on.

The wide river at Portomarín

The next day brought more, harder rain. I had had a dreadful nights sleep due to snorers and was greatly looking forward to a café con leche and a pasty in Portomarín. We ducked into the first cafe and we were served blah coffee. They don’t have pastries. Then a jackhammer starts up outside. After we leave I get stuck behind a gigantic youth group on the trail. It’s one of those days. I began to feel frustrated that I couldn’t get my desires met – sleep, good drink and food, peace. But part of the camino is learning to accept the bad with the good – even the teenagers. One day I will once again have more control over these things but in the meantime it is a trade off I make for the incredible experiences I am having this year.

Small stone chapel

When we finally arrived in Palais do Rei the camino gods took pity on us. After being told by albergue after albergue that they were full, we picked up a cancellation at the last one we checked.

Pulpo and white wine

The following dawn was a new day and I had a special treat to look forward to. Around lunch time we entered into the town of Melide and we made a beeline for Pulpería Ezequiel, a restaurant specializing in octopus. We ordered a grill plate for two which arrived dripping with olive oil and paprika, accompanied by crusty bread. Our white wine was served in small rustic bowls instead of glasses. With the long communal tables and convivial atmosphere it was the Spanish equivalent of a German beer garden. I loved it.

Grassy meadow

More rain in Galicia

That night in Arzúa we again garnered one of the last beds in town, this time in a rather dank basement. In the middle of the night we were awoken by strange screams. It sounded like a scene from the exorcist. But when someone with a flashlight went to investigate the screaming stopped and it was a mystery as to who was making the noise. You never know what can happen on the camino. The eeriness continued in the morning as we left before sunrise in a extremely thick fog. But as the clouds cleared we had a choice – to make a big 40km push to Santiago or take it slow with two 20km days. We decided on the latter. After so many kilometers why not draw it out a bit? We settled into a nice hostel in the tiny town of Arca o Pino.

Nathan on his way to the cathedral

And then it was the final day. We took it slow and stopped for coffee and cake. Somehow, we managed to avoid all the large groups and were able to have the trail largely to ourselves. We took time to reflect on our journey and all its highlights. Nathan and I felt that if we could finish the camino together, we could make it through anything. And we did!

We made it!

Walking up to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela did not provide any great epiphanies for me. I did not even sigh with relief. I simply felt grateful (again) that I had such a wonderful walk and that I had the physical ability to do it. To have met the people I did. To have the courage to fulfill my dream of taking this year off to explore the world. To be alive. I know how lucky I am.

Preparing the botafumeiro

After dropping off our bags we headed to the pilgrim mass. It was a Friday so it was crowded but there was a great energy in the room. And we even got to see the botafumeiro in action. This incense burning contraption swings through the church in a symbolic purification of the congregation. It is huge and weighs about 180 pounds! Seven people operate a pully from the 1600s to swing the botafumeiro at high speeds up to 50 feet in the air. Watching the crowd observing the whole show is also entertaining as their eyes and heads move with the pendulum motion. It was awesome. We even went to mass the next day just to see it again : )

Pimientos de padrón

Our celebratory lunch was outside on a plaza where Nathan spied one of his favorite tapas, pimientos de padrón. In the afternoon we simply walked around the town saying hello to people we recognized. We told everyone to meet in front of the cathedral for our last pilgrim dinner. A group of 14 of us gathered with plenty of hugs going around. It was a fitting end to a wonderful journey.

Plaza de las Platerías

Life Is Not A Race, Dondering On The Camino – Part 5 (by Nathan)

After three weeks of walking all the positive effects of the Camino are beginning to take affect. We are stronger and more capable in our walks of 12 to 25 miles (20-40km) wach day. Our bodies and feet ache less in the evenings and mornings. We are also much calmer, focused and easy going with each day, each hill and each footstep. It has been imprinted into our minds, our souls that every problem and every solution is reached one step at a time.

It is so easy to become caught up in the hurrying aspect of it all. Each day hundreds of caminantes (walkers) leave the albergues, hostels and hotels. The people pulse through the forests, farm lands and deserted sidewalks. Headlamps, clanking walking poles, whispered voices and the shuffled footsteps of obscure figures fill the moonless mornings. We walk at our standard pace of 4 to 5 km/hr (2.5-3mph), but still it is strange and uncomfortable when we are passed by person after person. We lengthen our stride, leverage our walking sticks to propel us forward and I huff at Carmen to quicken the pace. Eventually I realize the turmoil and anxiety within me; I stop, I close my eyes, I breath.

Carmen and her awesome hat

And I am passed by a small group of Spanish men. I am reminded how 29 days of walking can parallel 29,000 days of living (80 yrs). Carmen has been wonderful and encouraging that we walk at OUR pace. I tell myself “the Camino is not a race,”. We grab each other’s hand and we walk on. Similarly, life is not a race so we take time to observe and to appreciate everything around us. I have been learning to donder, to lolly gag, which, is actually a difficult challenge for me as I typically walk fast with purpose and conviction. Slowly, I am making progress.

Sunrise on the foothills west of Astorga

The walk west from Astorga slowly climbed into the mountains. For the last week the terrain changed little, but now we left the meseta behind and worked our way higher and higher, we approached Galicia.

Stunning landscape outside of Astorga

Aren’t we all just sheep in a field?

These mountains and foothills were amazingly spectacular. Shrubs, trees and wildflowers filled the rolling landscape. I remember stopping, breathing it all in and telling Carmen “This is soooo beautiful.” The terrain was red and rocky. And the smell, I distinctly remember the smell of thyme and dust. I spent many days thinking about time – what to do with it, why it is important. This strong fragrance further cultured these thoughts.

I am realizing that I value the power of patience more and more. This year off, this walk and maybe just growing older has shown me to slow down and let things go. Lack of control used to make me uncomfortable, but life happens. Deep down I am excited for a more patient me, less stressed and more skilled at adapting to any challenge. I am willing to stop and say “I am happy.” I can enjoy what I own, what I know and the people I love. What is the importance of the biggest house, highest salary or fastest car? Patience restructures life’s big hurry and we can be content. When life is good, rest, relax and enjoy it.

Carmen’s dead tired siesta

There are days that the walk thoroughly exhausts all energy from our body and mind. Those days require some warm sunlit grass and a siesta. I woke from my own nap one afternoon to find Carmen konked out overlooking the mountains.

Top of the mountain

Manharín Templar shack

I was mesmerized and entertained by the landscape. Each turn and each ridge opened up another view of the countryside. We stopped at a small shack that was the single residence of the Manharín village. We were invited for a communal lunch, and stayed for a dimly lit kitchen dinner and we slept in the “cabin.” Looking back on it, lodging that night more closely resembled a stable, but the food was rustic, home-cooked and delicious. It was worth a little sacrifice. In the morning we bid farewell to our mountain hosts and we clamored down the mountain.

Green sunlit Galician mountains

Knights Templar castle in Ponferrada

The green of the mountains was endless. The towns showed that they now had the resources of stone to build bigger and more magnificent buildings such as the castle in Ponferrada that was built by the knights templar.

Pieros main street

Vineyards outside Villa Franca del Bierzo

We entered into the Bierzo region. Rich wines made from Marcia grapes and picturesque cobbled streets.

Welcoming pilgrim statue

Botillo del Bierzo

Villa Franca creek

One of the most impressive of these towns was Villa Franca del Bierzo. A mountain town that could just as easily fit into the alps as in Galicia. We were met by an elegant pilgrim statue at the bridge. We stayed at an albergue (la piedra) that was built into the rock outcropping of a cliff. For dinner we had botillo, a local specialty of pig parts and chorizo like seasoning. It was heavy and hearty, but just what we needed. The next day would be our hardest day of climbing yet.

Narrow camino autentico

Golfer snake slithering the camino

We decided to walk separately this day. Carmen would walk the scenic route with 1,200m (4,000ft) of climbing and 32km (20mi) of walking. I went to for “the way of the dragon,” the extreme scenic route that climbed and descended four mountains with 2,000m (6,600ft) of upward change and nearly 40km (25mi) of hiking. My path would be small and sometimes non-existent. I was excited for a bit of solitude and way-finding exploration of the Galician mountains. By 7:30 I was 450m (1,500ft) into the clouds on a ridge looking down into Villa Franca and green mountains surrounded me.

Church bells of Vilar de Corales

Our trusty guide map from John Brierley

Shortly after the first town of Dragonte I had a short conversation with a couple on a morning walk along the quarry. They complimented me on walking the “verdad camino” and encouraged me to get a coffee in Moral de Valcarce. I walked into the tiny village of twenty inhabitants. I found nothing anywhere close to resembling a cafe and I quickly realized I must have understood incorrectly. An older women with dyed red hair leans far out of her kitchen window and yells “camino autentico.” I agree and I ask her where I could get a coffee. She shakes her head, then with a sudden realization her face brightens and I am rushed into her kitchen

In a matter of seconds I have a plate filled with mini chocolate croissants, and cookies. She pours me a coffee from the percolator and asks me if I want aguardiente. I look at her confused, aguardiente was the 80% digestive jet fuel that I finished meals with in Portugal. She scurries off to the adjacent room and returns with an ornate crystal bottle with the clear elixir. I pour a dabble and she insist on a little more.

Sofia, la Reina de España

We sit and talk. I have my first conversation where I felt confident enough to understand and communicate. It is so nice to talk to someone that slows down, enunciates and actually cares to hear and understand. I gesture to the two buckets of grapes on the counter. I learn about the complexities and wonder of the Marcia grape and her plan to juice and make a few bottles of wine. My plate is again filled. This time with an enormous bunch of grapes. She refills the mug with the thick black coffee. This time she takes the cup and insists on fixing it right this time.

A couple teaspoons of sugar and some aguardiente…1…2…3…4…seconds, oh what the hell, I watch as one quarter of my mug is filled. Another mound of grapes lands on my plate. Recognizing that my eyes were starting to bulge from my head, we decide to delicately wrap them for me to take on my journey. Our goodbye is met with the eyes of all the neighbors that just watched this young man leave her house. She jokes that she is starting a cafe. I learn her name “Sofia, la reina de España,” how could I ever forget the sweet welcoming queen of Spain?

Abandoned cantina in San Fiz de Seo

Winding oak-lined path

I descend the mountain walking on a cloud. A combination of meeting such a delightful woman, the beautiful scenery and I’m sure the pot of coffee and aguardiente had something to add. The trees thicken, I get lost, then bushwhack my way up the hillside to the village of Vilar de Corales. A sweet dog escorts me to the water fountain and I meander my way through forests and tiny mountain villages.

Green hills from descent to Herrerias

Cows in Herrerias

I cross rock quarries and farmland. Hours of walking and I only encountered six people from the various villages. In Herrerias I finally merge with the main camino. I am greeted by some cows and rejuvenated with some grapes from my pack. The last climb is more of a slog, I am exhausted, but I meet the smiling face of Carmen when I finally stagger in O’Cebriero. There is no doubt that Spain has changed before our eyes we are now deep into Galicia.

Green farmland seen from Faba

How Jesus Brought My Skirt Back From the Dead, a Camino Miracle – Part 4 (by Carmen)

Tree farm providing much needed shade

Map of the camino near León

We were in the final stages of the meseta, the flat and largely shadeless plateau stretching 231 km (144 mi) between Burgos and Astorga. The sun was hot but the lack of change in elevation meant we could achieve greater distances. With this in mind we endured long walks from Carrión to Sahagún and then to Mansilla. We stole shade when we could from the small tree farm groves that would spring up occasionally. The towns themselves were rather unremarkable places. The true highlight was mingling with other pilgrims, either over a dinner in the main square or a beer in the albergue courtyard.

Nathan in cloister

Cloister keystones

By this point, León was in our sights. This one of the larger cities on the camino and as soon as we passed the medieval city walls into the old town, Nathan and I were impressed. A maze of cozy winding streets led out onto pleasant plazas. There were a two main historic sites to see. The first was the painted ceiling of the Iglesia de San Isodoro. Frescos almost 1000 years old look down on the tombs of kings from that period. I was so amazed at how the biblical stories depicted are still relevant so many years later. The second sight towers above the entire city.

Leon cathedral from the plaza

Tons of stained glass inside the cathedral

The nearby cathedral was the true gem, though. They had used advancements in the gothic architecture of the time to build soaring ceilings and walls of stained glass.

Gaudí building in León

We were also treated to a building by a favorite architect, Gaudí. We learned that the building was significant as the first major building in the town to be built by a middle class citizen as opposed to the church or aristocracy.

Pulpo on the plaza

For dinner we settled into a small plaza ready to people watch. While deciding what to order we saw a plate of pulpo (octopus) pass by and we had to have it. With a. bottle of rosé we watched the street theater come to life. By the time we finished eating at the very early hour of 9:30pm, things were just getting going. But it was bedtime for us.

The next day I was dealing with the side effects of an unfortunate reality of the camino – bed bugs. I learned that my proclivity for attracting mosquitos meant I was extremely attractive to their blood-sucking, bed ridden cousins. It is truly disheartening to feel so vulnerable and helpless against the attack of such a tiny creature. And, like mosquitos, I am allergic. On the morning we left León, my body decided to react to a collection of bites on my big toe by forming a giant blister. Not good when you have 35km ahead of you.

So we made it a short day and ended up at Casa de Jesús (named after the owner) in Manarife. It was a strange day since we felt that we had more energy to walk off but my toe prevented further movement. We used our time to write, do laundry, catch up on the internet and recoup in general. But since Manarife was extremely tiny, we were anxious to move on to Astorga the next day.

Nathan on bridge into town

Spain’s got hops

The walk to Astorga passed through cute towns, more trees and even a crop of hops.  As we neared our destination I suddenly realized that I had left my skirt on the clothes line in Manzarife. It was just a skirt but I had only brought one other pair of pants. I also cherished this skirt as the perfect travel wear since it also turns into a halter top. Seriously, how cool is that? For the rest of the walk I had to force myself not to think about the loss.

Nathan the peregrino

Tree lined path

In Astorga I was resolved to act. I called the albergue and arranged for my skirt to be taken with a transport company that usually transfers people’s backpacks to a town I would pass through the next day. I also called the place it was to be delivered so they could expect it. Accomplishing all this in Spanish was a feat and I was proud.

Afterwards we walked around Astorga, which surprised me by how pretty it was. We meandered along the shops selling jamón, chocolate and a local shortbread called mantecadas. We joined some fellow pilgrims for wine and tapas in a broad plaza.

Astorga cathedral exterior

Me inside the cathedral

Then we headed over to the cathedral – yes another one! It’s lucky that neither Nathan nor I get tired of going to these magnificent structures. Each one has its own story, architecture and feel. This one was rather bare inside but had a beautiful baroque façade. Next door we explored another excellent Guadí building, originally constructed as a monastery. His creative decor of ceilings and walls always amazes me. I also liked that the entryway included his signature art nouveau arch.

Gaudí in Astorga

The next day, I arrived at the meeting point I had arranged for my skirt hopeful only to find that the backpacks had arrived but not my package. After a few calls I was told he was coming. I tried not to get my hopes up as I waited. But came he did and I was reunited with my favorite skirt. When I asked how much I owed he waved me away and said nothing. It was so kind and I left the albergue buoyed on a wave of gratitude.

I felt so so grateful – to Jesus the albergue owner in Manarife, to Jose Luis for driving it, to the staff at Albergue del Pilar for trying to help me figure things out. It was the kindness of strangers that made me feel cared for, even loved. It got me thinking about the power of love in all its forms. How easy it really is to give and receive. How it is a common link of everyone in the world. How there should be more of it. I got to thinking about the people I love in life and how I wish I could spend more time with them. In the end I was moved to tears over a silly skirt. The tears were not of sadness but I felt as though all the love of the world had entered me and filled me up. These moments of awareness or enlightenment or whatever you want to call it are so fulfilling yet fleeting. It’s funny how you can feel clarity on how the essence of life one moment and then it becomes somewhat elusive the next. Even as I write this it is hard to understand the intensity of emotion I felt at that moment. That is what the camino can do though. It wears you down mind, body and soul until you start afresh and appreciate everyday life’s small miracles.

Taking A Camino Break in Burgos – Part 3 (by Nathan)

Sunrise hill climb

We descended from the small mountains and the sun lit up the valley. The weight in our backpacks was wearing us down. We had been hiking for ten days, six of those nights were camping. I developed elongated blisters along my hips, a reality of too much weight and a pack not fully designed for it. Our bodies were telling us to slow down and lighten up. Our feet ached, but a beautiful city lay in the distance, it would be a place to rest, relax and recover. We walked on to Burgos.

Nathan and the tired pilgrim

Jamón Serrano and a couple of beers

Both Carmen and I entered into Burgos with an excited energy. The town was busy with over 200,000 people, new almost Dutch-looking buildings and tapas galore. Somehow we found the energy to squeeze our way into the standing-only tables and figure out the complex paper ordering system. We teeter-tottered on sore feet to ease the pain, the beer definitely helped, but the jamón was magical. It was almost gooey with flavor and olive oil was drizzled all over it just because.

Catedral de Burgos

East nave dome

We were able to do a little exploring and the first place to go in Burgos is the Cathedral. The Catedral de Santa Maria was built in the 1200’s and was one of the first to utilize gothic ribs in pointed arches. It is the second largest church in Spain making it very magnificent viewed from the inside and throughout the city.

Central dome of the cathedral

Churros con chocolate

There were more tapas of course, more walking (even though it was our rest day!). We needed a treat, and when in Spain there is one delicacy that we search out: chocolate con churros. We licked our fingertips, but despite the small amounts of chocolate lingering on the corners of our mouths, our faces were grim with plans to begin walking the next day. At least we had made the excellent decision to send home the camping gear and lighten our loads.

Nathan with fattie statues

Waymarked path

The next day we awoke refreshed and eager to progress westward. It was obscurely dark when we left in the morning, but our path was lit when we finally made it through the Burgos suburbs. Again we were walking, and again we were watching one foot fall in front of the other.

Nathan and Carmen hilltoppers

Tree-lined Camino de Santiago

We climbed small mountains in the early morning and walked in the dappled sunlight of tree-lined paths.

Refreshing canal, great for a swim

Iglesia San Martín in Frómista

There were days that we needed to hike in the afternoon. Every time we cursed ourselves for not leaving earlier. The sun in Spain can be unbearably hot and feels like it burns the skin immediately on contact. A canal appeared along the path, I pushed along the bank and focused ahead trying to get to Frómista. The sweat beads dropped from my forehead and the canal continued to tease with its cool waters. And then, I could not take it any longer. The backpack was thrown off, the clothes placed in a pile over my boots and I cannon-balled into the water yelling “camino!” I backstroked and bobbed around for twenty minutes and continued on my way, refreshed. We set up our beds, showered and explored the town in the early evening; this has become a daily routine for us in the last few weeks. We often see churches from all sorts of time periods and styles, one of our favorites was the Romanesque San Martín with a huge round dome and intricately decorated columns.

Nathan the hiker

Jamón wrapped chicken and asparagus

The next morning we were walking again in the dark. The path weaves in and out of farmland and mostly along a beautiful creek. Our destination, Carrión, a welcoming small town with weekday market, small plazas a and winding streets. We loaded up on supplies from a produce stall and grocery store and that night feasted on chicken wrapped in thinly sliced jamón iberico made by Carmen and me. As we ate in the convent kitchen, the nuns led a sing-along in the adjacent room. We participated in the ceremony to encourage and recognize the pilgrims. We slept peacefully; we were fortified spiritually by the gracious nuns and nutritiously with our meal. Tomorrow we would walk 25miles (40km) to Sahagún.

Carmen walking at sunrise

Blisters And Deep Thoughts On The Camino – Part 2 (by Nathan)

Pilgrims ascending to Torres del Rio

The first week of walking was filled with excitement, but quickly like the sharp pains of our blisters, the reality of our undertaking throbbed at our hearts and minds. We slowly made our way through Narvarre into the Rioja region of Spain. The sun would slowly awaken from the horizon and steadily beat down on us from overhead. One step at a time, we moved further westward. The novelty of walking across Spain was worn out and we had time, lots of time to fully interpret, analyze and entertain the great thoughts and reasons for undergoing a pilgrimage.

Orchard of sunflowers

“Pilgrimage” is a metaphor for life- there will be hardships, joy and glory with the finished effort. And this walk will be used as an opportunity for me to assess my life, my goals and my expectations for the upcoming months, years and decades of my future. I created a set of questions that I read to inspire thought, conversation and debate in my head throughout the day:
1) What are you carrying (material belongings, anger, stress, negativity) that is not necessary?
2) Where are you going in life/career/family/etc?
3) Are you being greatful for health, partnership and the hospitality of your hosts?

Rustic street in Los Arcos

Painted church ruins of Viana

A walk like this can be done for millions of reasons. Most traditionally a pilgrim hoped to be absolved of his sins upon arriving to Santiago. Although, I won’t be denying this privilege, I hope to gain a better understanding of who I am, who I want to be and how to get there. I find myself relating to the most common age group on the Camino (50-60 yr olds). Like me, they have changed or ended jobs and the Camino serves as a canvas to draft the plans for what comes next.

Nájera climb out of town

Rioja vineyard

The fountain of wine that Carmen described, was a highlight to my first week on the trail. For the next week we walked our way through one of the agricultural strongholds of Spain. Hill after hill and field after field were bright green from the vineyards or tan from the stalks of recently cut wheat. It appears that spaniards survive off of two things: wine and bread. Carmen and I enjoyed both of course.

Tent camping in the forest

Forest dinner of cured meat, local cheese, olives and bread

One night we enjoyed a wonderful evening camping between the vines outside Logroño, another night in the pine forests near San Juan. Our dinner of local delicatessen treats was eaten peacefully a few hundred feet from the trail. Every night in our tent was filled with the uneasy sounds of a strange place, but the stars welcomed us each morning and we walked on.

Carmen at sunrise

The mornings have become the best time to walk. We have began the routine of the peregrino, awake by 5:45am and we begin walking by 6:30. This means that the sky is still very dark, and the path only subtly lit by moonlight. The light very gradually increases its intensity and by 8 we embraced by the golden light. By 9 we are pulling off long sleeves, lathering on suntan lotion and shielding our faces with our funny floppy hats.

Plump ripe grapes

The abundance of grape vines have been wonderful for snacking. I did not want any bad karma with Dionysus (god of wine), so I only ate the bunches that “naturally” fell off on their own (yes, this does happen).

The wonderful Azofra albergue

Some nights we turn in the tent for a hot shower and mattress to sleep on. There are municipal and private albergues in almost every town so it has been easy to find a place to take off our boots and put our feet up. One place in Azofra was wonderful; the rooms were private and simple and the sun was brilliant as it beamed onto the hallway outside our room.

Santo Domingo

Grañón street

We pass through dozens of tiny towns and medium cities. Every couple hours there is winding road leading through some ancient village. The stone buildings huddle together with impressive density. The people walk the streets repeating “buen camino” to every pilgrim that passes. Sometimes we stop for a café cortado, other times we walk on through. Each village has its own charm and hundreds of years of history of being on the Camino de Santiago.

Colorful building in Viloria de la Rioja

The camino has been a pleasurable and powerful experience thus far. There has been time to look deeply inward as well as a time to admire the history of a beautiful country. The details of the towns are enriched by the footsteps needed to view them – slowly a town enters into view over the horizon, and slowly the buildings come into focus. Each step forward reveals another ancient building, a roman foundation or a vast farmland. Then the towns, the people and the land are just faint memories; they disappear slowly and shrink in the distance. There are still 350 more miles of Camino ahead.

Beginning the Camino de Santiago – Part 1 (by Carmen)

Nathan and the pilgrims

Jet lag is not a traveler’s friend.  Even after our wonderful few days in London, Nathan and I were suffering from it.  On a few hours sleep, we made our way from London to the small French town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port via plane, bus and train. At  each part of the journey more and more eager backpackers surrounded us.  As we pulled into the rail station, we all spilled out of the train and rushed to the pilgrim office to register.

At the office we picked up two important items. The first was our credentials booklet with space for stamps we collect from the hostels, cafes and churches we visit along our journey.  The second is our scallop shell which we quickly affixed to our backpacks.  The shell has been the symbol of the camino since medieval times and represents one’s westward progression towards the Atlantic Ocean.  We were starting to feel like true peregrinos (pilgrims).

On the eve of our journey, Nathan and I celebrated at a basque restaurant. We toasted with locally made cider as we ate vegetable soup, pork ribs and piperade (a sauteed onion, tomato and pepper mixture).  That night we decided to camp in the local campground.  We snuggled into our sleeping bags and readied ourselves for an early morning.

Just before the poncho came out

It rained heavily almost the entire night.  The droplets loudly hitting the tent plus the lingering jet lag made for a fitful night of sleep.  When we did wake up, we realized we had overslept by an hour and water had leaked into our tent.  We hurriedly rolled up the muddy drenched fabric and we set out in the cloud covered morning.  The walk from St. Jean is one of the hardest with a 1,400 m (4,600 ft) climb over the Pyrenees. I had envisioned the first day of our 800 km (500 mi) trek to be full of energy and enthusiasm.  Given the persistent rain, lack of sleep and rushed morning, I felt short on both.

View as we hiked the Pyranees

Last look at France before crossing into Spain

Donning our ponchos for much of the morning, we trudged our way further and further up the mountains.  Towards midday, Nathan and I met for lunch. A Frenchman had set up a heavenly hot drink stand operating out of his van.  We each ordered a hot chocolate to warm our numb fingers.

Beech forest

Blackberries

More vibrant beech forest

The rain obscured many of our views but it also made for a mystical, misty walk through the beautiful beech groves we passed.  As we descended into Spain, the fog began to lift and the sun poked out of the clouds.  Nathan noticed the first of many blackberry bushes which he happily plundered.

In the late afternoon we walked into Roncesvalles and checked into our albergue (pilgrim hostel). That night we enjoyed our first pilgrim dinner.  At a table with South Africans, Kiwis and Germans we lamented the weather over pasta, fish, and plenty of wine.  So began the first day of our month long trek.

Leaving Roncesvalles in the early morning

Bocadillo de jamón, lunch of camino champions

Every small town had a church and plaza

Nathan taking a rest outside the tent

Over the next few days it was a learning process to adjust to the rhythm of the camino.  We learned to pace ourselves, to measure in kilometers and to appreciate the power of coffee breaks.  We enjoyed the first of many bocadillos de jamón (ham sandwiches).  We alternated camping and albergues.  We walked in small medieval villages.  Our feet grew tired and we learned our limits.  Walking 20 miles a day is not easy nor glamorous.  Blisters, aches, muscle cramps and more all come into play at some point.

The old city walls of Pamplona

Medieval streets in Pamplona city center

Montaditos at a tapas bar

On the third day we passed through Pamplona, a beautiful city best known for the running of the bulls.  Since we arrived around lunchtime we picked the busiest tapas bar to eat some montaditos (open faced sandwiches). A few doors down we bought rich jamón ibérico from a butcher playing classical music.  They take their pork seriously around here.

Church at Eunarte

Puente de la Reina

The history is ever present.  Nathan took a detour to a medieval church and I waited for him in the main plaza of Puente de la Reina, surrounded by buildings that are centuries old. Towns like these have been hosting pilgrims for the past 1200 years!  This has become a cultural adventure as much as a meditative one.

Wine fountain!

On the fifth day Nathan and I arrive at a much anticipated stop on the camino – the fuente de vino (wine fountain)!  The first part of our journey walked through the basque regions of Navarre.  To honor the entrance into the vineyard covered hills of Eastern Spain, the local wineries offered free wine at a fountain on the camino.  Our new Swiss friend Didier and his son Basile were also excited.  As we walked up to the fountain we were crushed to learn that it was empty.  Nathan, not one to take no for an answer, took up the issue with the nearby winery office. They agreed to fill the tank but in the meantime we shared a 3 euro bottle Nathan bought at the office.    Where there is a will, there is a way!

Beautiful rolling hills and valleys

Our adventures in La Rioja will be continued in the next post.

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