4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Small Cities”

Eating Like a Local In Phnom Penh (by Nathan)

Bus ride snack of fried crickets

Bus ride snack of fried crickets

Nothing demonstrates local culture more than the food people eat.  Yes, there is dance, language and tradition, but the day-to-day survival of humans depends on the consumption of local cuisine.  The food of a region shows the struggle and the progress of the people.  So when our bus stopped at a roadside stand and every Cambodian huddled around one stall I decided to get whatever the woman was selling. It turns out she was selling crickets, freshly fried and crispy crickets.  I watched as little girls shared giggles of delight with their grandmas.  My turn came and I was suddenly confronted with a choice: sesame seed or green onion and diced chilies.  I sampled each with everyone staring and I ordered the spicier one.  Imagine the best barbecue potato chip you have ever had, I’m talking caramelized onion, sweet potatoes; these were better!  Excuse me, a leg just got caught in my teeth.

Sunset Phnom Penh

Sunset Phnom Penh

Our bus bounced along and the rice fields disappeared with the growth of a denser city and crowded streets.  We arrived in Phnom Penh, we checked into our hotel and started walking.  There is a nice and peaceful riverside sidewalk that is wonderful for sunset walks.  We passed by the elaborate palace with its spectacular silhouette.  We ended the night with a rooftop cocktail, a great start to a new city.

Central market soup

Central market soup

Sticky rice snacks

Sticky rice snacks

I think my favorite part of every city is the market.  Every village or metropolis has some way for farmers, butchers and cooks to sell their life’s work.  Our first destination was Phsar Thmei, the central market.  After some confused meandering through stall after stall of clothing, watches, beauty products and mobile phones we finally found the hawker center.  We sat down at two stools and two heaping steamy bowls were placed in front of us.  We then mimed our way into getting extra limes and some iced tea.  It was a breakfast for travel champions.  Our savory soup lady shared her stall with a sweet soup lady.  We ordered some rice, mung beans and red beans doused with coconut and condensed milks.  Another woman was wrapping sweet fillings with sticky rice and banana leaves.  Too full, we ordered some to snack on later.

Cambodian National Museum garden

Cambodian National Museum garden

The National Museum of Cambodia has beautiful traditional architecture surrounding  a well-kept garden.  The artifacts are mostly from Angkor temples and show a subtle progression of Buddha statues over time.  The brief video that recreated ancient Angkor was excellent, but the explanations of the rest of the museum was rather poor.  We really wanted to visit the palace, but the gates were locked shut as the country mourns the death (from old age) of their leader.

S-21 Concentration Camp

S-21 Concentration Camp

Cambodia has had a tumultuous and horrendous history.  When they finally gained independence from France in the 1950’s the country was still led my a monarchy.  This lasted until 1970 when a coup overthrew the king, but set off a civil war across the country.  A handful of Paris educated men were excited for communism and they created the Khmer Rouge.  They took control with promises of equality and better living for all.  The Khmer rouge insisted that the country cease all outside influence and return to agrarian means of living.  Thousands were forced to leave the cities and the educated were decimated.

One of the more sad experiences of this entire trip was that we visited Toul Sleng, a former school tuned into the S-21 concentration camp and the gateway for over 15,000 murders.  The barbed wire, tiny cells, torturing devices and meticulous photo documentation are all in tact and graphically showing one of the low points in human existence.  It was the North Vietnamese that eventually stopped this monstrosity.  These were the same Vietnamese that the U.S. was fighting.  And since the enemies of our enemies are…um…friends, the Khmer Rouge went into hiding with their warfare being supplied and funded by the U.S.  Millions of American mines were placed into Cambodian soil.  Two million mines still exist in Cambodia, they are armed and sensitive to the unlucky farmer, kid or animal that stumbles upon one.  There is some amazing and brave work being done out there to identify and disarm these minefields.  I encourage any visitor to Cambodia to visit the mining museum in Siem Reap and S-21 in Phnom Penh to gain perspective on modern warfare.

Russian market butcher

Russian market butcher

It is not surprising that after all this turmoil, that Cambodian cuisine remains quite simple compared to their neighbors.  The extremism of the Khmer Rouge appears to have had had an affect of diluting and censoring the food as well.  The flavors of Cambodian cuisine are rustic with a focus on fresh, and sometimes raw vegetables with a nuance of influence from Vietnam, Thailand and China.  We went to the Russian Market for another, but different noodle breakfast.  This market was less organized under rickety wood construction with mounds of vegetables next to cleavers slamming down through bone and flesh of fresh meat.  The market was hot and hazy with humidity; we hovered over our noodles and we were already sweating at 9am.

Skewered delights, note the "Angry Bird" kebab

Skewered delights, note the “Angry Bird” kebab

Night market dessert

Night market dessert

We attempted to stay cool with some 50cent draft beers, but the heat was persistent.  We ventured back onto the streets in search of the night market.  We found twenty stalls selling the same barbecued and fried skewers.  Why don’t they diversify? We sat cross-legged on a central mat with some bitter melon, chicken, short-ribs and sugar cane juice.  Although tempted, we did not try the “angry bird” meat skewers.  For dessert Carmen had banana and coconut pudding and I had shaved ice over various jellies and egg yolk dumplings with condensed milk over the top.

Breakfast pork, egg and rice

Breakfast pork, egg and rice

Our final morning in Phnom Penh was rushed as we embarked on a bus to Vietnam.  With five minutes to spare, we squeezed between the tuk tuk drivers and sat on the tiny stool that rested a mere eight inches above the ground.  We ordered the only thing she was serving- a plate of rice with some dried and re-grilled pork and a fried egg.  A couple spoonfuls of diced chillies and they all smiled at us in astonishment.  We are getting used to this whole eating like a local thing.

The Stunning Taj Mahal (by Carmen)

The famous Taj Mahal view

How could we come to India and not see the Taj Mahal?  I mean, it’s THE symbol of India. One of the most beautiful structures ever. A wonder of the world. A must see…isn’t it?” These were the thoughts running through my head as we struggled to get train tickets to Agra, the city that holds the famous sight.  Long lines, crowded ticket counters, sold out trains all conspired against our visit and my determination to see the Taj began to waiver.  It took some effort but we finally made it.  And then…wow.

Taj from the mosque

The crowds were already queuing up at dawn and we joined their ranks.  I think Shiva and Vishnu (or possibly both) decided to reward our perseverance in getting to Agra by coinciding our visit with World Heritage Day.  This meant that our entrance to the Taj Mahal was absolutely free!  We entered the grounds and walked through the main gate to behold the famous and stunning view of the Taj.

It was wonderful. Nathan and I perched ourselves on a bench to the side of the main aisle to peacefully observe the scene.  And we were promptly asked to move so that a French tour group could take photos at the bench.  That’s the downside of these beautiful sights – they attract huge volumes of people and the jostling to get that perfect picture can get ugly.  

Up close and personal

Grand archway

We took our time getting up close to the main building, the mausoleum emperor Shah Jahan built for his deceased wife.  The building itself actually has a rather small footprint.  The pedestal it stands on and the setting makes it seem much more grand.  But as you get closer what you lose in grandeur you gain in great attention to details.  The carved marble was inlaid with flower patterns and script or carved into fine, intricate lattices.

A practice in symmetry

Us and the Taj

For me, the Taj really did live up to the hype.  It has a timelessness that belies its 400 years of age.  I believe this is a result its perfect proportions.  The dome and the carved niches all have soft curves that provide an elegant beauty.  In the end, it was well worth the trip.

Touristy camel ride

Agra holds not one but two world heritage sights.  A mere 2km away from the Taj is the Agra Fort, a defense complex turned palace.  We admired the extremely tall camels pulling tourists to and from the Taj but decided to walk along the river to the fort.

Textures of the Agra Fort

Beautiful arches of the Hall of Public Audiences

The Agra Fort has its own, crumbling elegance to it.  My favorite area was the scalloped archways of the Hall of Public Audiences where the emperor would conduct business. Emperor Shah Jahan actually was imprisoned here for the last eight years of his life where he could see his creation, the Taj, in the distance.

Thali time

Maybe it’s India’s ancient religious history. Or perhaps it’s all the trash in the streets. But there’s something about India that makes you want to cleanse.  (There’s also something about India that makes many tourists want to wear enormous parachute pants that I don’t see on any locals, but I digress.)  Our cleansing centers around food and drink. While in India we have been vegetarian and sober, a sort of detoxing for our indulgences in Europe.  We stuck to these ideals in Agra, where the food is mostly geared towards the touring hoards.  While we enjoyed a decent thali at a restaurant our favorite meals were on the streets.

Local Agra living

Fried potato chaat

Our first and last meal of Agra took place in a little corner where three chow mein stands setup shop each night.  For a snack, we enjoyed samosas or a fried potato chaat with chickpeas, tamarind, onions and mint chutney.  For the most part, we found these in or around the market streets in Agra.  These extended south of the Taj within a winding labyrinth of lanes with few other tourists.

Taj Mahal from the south riverbank

Just before our train to Delhi, we walked past the the east gate to the Taj, straight to the riverbank.  A Hindu temple occupies this site, but they don’t mind you sticking around the admire the rear Taj views.  Surprisingly we were the only tourists there to watch the sunset light up the magnificent building. It was a peaceful way to say goodbye to an understandably crowded treasure of the world.

The First Tourists of Hubli (by Carmen)

Women skillfully carrying their goods

Hubli is not a tourist destination by any standard.  But we found ourselves there because of our dear friend Anu, who lives and works in this million person city.  In truth, we are (probably) not the first tourists Hubli has ever seen.  Many travelers actually pass through since it is a major hub on India’s all important railway system.  However, it definitely has an authentic, untouched vibe to it.  Just as in American small cities, Hubli was slower, cleaner and more easygoing than its big city brethren.

Elephant blessings on offer 

But this is still India, so nothing is ever truly easygoing.  On our first day Anu took us to a delicious all you can eat restaurant in downtown. This involved haggling with a rickshaw, taking a fast paced ride, ducking through a hole in the fence separating the sidewalk from the street, admiring the elephant that will bless you (i.e. touch the top of your head with its trunk) if you pay it, going up some stairs past a few street kids, and being gawked at as we eat our meal with our hands, even the rice.  Not exactly a walk in the park but these are the types of things I’m sure you get used to after a month or two in India.

Main market in Hubli

We walked off our large lunch in the local market.  Betel leaves, garlic, and watermelon snacks are piled high next to bangles, scarves and books.  When the heat got to us we stopped at a cold drink stand for some lime soda.  This ubiquitous drink is a simple mix of lime juice, soda water and either sugar or salt.  I’m liking the salty flavor which I find wonderfully refreshing.

Farmers market

Breakfast mix

We stayed in a suburb of Hubli and happened to be there for the farmers market.  Again more luscious produce – green beans, cucumber, eggplant and more. It inspired us to cook but that is a difficult choice when all the restaurants are also so enticing. For example, we had to stop by a small hole in the wall for some breakfast rice and onion pakora (fried batter mixed with onion).

Nathan’s stylist 

In a place where there is not much to do it is a good idea to catch up on errands. Like haircuts, which are always exciting in foreign countries.  Nathan braved Ganesh Hair Styles to get a much needed crop and shave. Fortunately, a lot of hand gestures were successful in getting Nathan the right cut.

Typical Hubli street

Overall this little corner of Hubli was a typical Indian neighborhood –  some paved roads, some dirt roads, modern buildings as well as lean to shacks, electricity out every night at 7:30, uncertainty on when and for how long the water supply will last.  These infrastructure deficiencies highlight what many westerners take for granted.  It is the last point, water, that most interests our friend Anu. Her company, NextDrop, works with water supply companies to determine when the water will arrive in a certain area.  Then the affected residents are texted about the water’s arrival.  It is a simple idea that takes the guesswork out of water supply schedules.  Not that we are biased or anything but Anu is an awesome CEO and is greatly improving the lives of thousands of residents of Hubli!

Kashmiri naan

Hotel restaurant with awesome paneer tikka

Anu is passionate about water issues but she is also passionate about her friends.  Therefore, she made time to ensure that Nathan and I were well fed.  For example we sampled spectacular paneer tikka, a type of spiced roasted cheese, at the hotel restaurant near her office.  We also gushed over sweet and savory Kashmiri naan at the north Indian restaurant, Al Medina.  This consisted of bread stuffed with raisins and coconut but also herbs and sesame seeds. The simple student eatery with a bunch of plastic chairs squeezed into a big room for all you can eat for $0.60 was also cool. In short, Hubli was Hubli-cious.

Mishra Pedha

Before we left, Nathan and I also had to try pedha, a local sweet that is reminiscent of cookie dough but with Indian flavors such as cardamom. We picked some up at Mishra Pedha which is literally on every corner in central Hubli!

Train ride to Hampi

More train ride to Hampi 

Hubli was a perfectly enjoyable city to spend time in.  It was made even better by 7 Beans, the hip cafe with free wifi.  But Nathan and I couldn’t resist the temptation of a side trip to a very historic and magical place.  We got out of Anu’s hair for a few days and hopped the eastbound train for Hampi.

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

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

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.

Berkeley Bites (by Carmen)

Last time I wrote a about Berkeley it was to say goodbye to a city that had treated me well.  Seven months later we have returned, not as residents but as visitors.  After we attended the Sonoma wedding we ventured back to Berkeley to stay with friends and revisit old haunts.  It was wonderful to be back in a place I’m so familiar with, where it feels like I know every nook and cranny.  But as I walked around the sunny, tree lined streets, I didn’t feel regret about leaving.  I appreciated the good food and easy walkability of Berkeley but was confident I had made the right choice to move on.

Berkeley Farmer’s Market

River Dog stand at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market

There was only one moment of weakness.  On Thursday evening we attended the organic farmers market and were reminded of the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables available in California. After the market we made our traditional stop at Vintage Berkeley to be tempted by their excellent selection of wines, all of which are priced under $25. We also made our way to the best cheese shop in the world, The Cheese Board Collective. The woman behind the counter was totally excited for our idea of stuffing squash blossoms with ricotta and immediately brought us some amazingly delicious samples to try. Following this routine with a home cooked meal constitutes what I consider to be a perfect Thursday evening, one we enjoyed many times while living here. Aside from all the friends we sorely miss, this foodie path pulled on my heartstrings the most.

Produce at Berkeley Bowl

Heirloom tomatoes!

And then there is Berkeley Bowl.  My love of food and cooking was awakened in Berkeley and I feel that this wondrous grocery store played a role.  To be sure, it is not for everyone.  The enormous variety of good quality products at low prices, not to mention their glorious produce and bulk sections, makes it popular.  With so many people there is a certain amount of jostling to be expected, especially near the bottleneck by the berry section.  But Nathan and I had a strategy: 1) divide list based on sections of the store, 2) enter, we each pick up a basket (carts will just slow you down) and try cheese sample, 3) Nathan goes to deli counter, I head over to dairy, 4) meet up around yogurts (or, more often, retrieve Nathan from nearby wine section), 5) Nathan selects meats and seafood, I find packaged and canned goods, 6) Nathan gets nuts, flour, etc. from bulk, I start in on the produce leaving my basket in a nearby aisle in order to increase maneuverability, 7) Nathan joins me in produce to select fruit, 8) get in the check-out line and breathe!  Oh how I miss it.

In fact most of the things I miss about Berkeley revolve around food.  So with that in mind I present my personal Best of Berkeley list.

Zachary’s Roma Pizza

Zachary’s Chicago Style Pizza

Best Place for Deep Dish Pizza: Zachary’s.  This place is right up there with any Chicago deep dish restaurant.  Actually, its rich tomato sauce beats out any competition.  The Bay Area deep dish debate generally revolves around Little Star (cornmeal crust) vs. Zachary’s (flaky crust), with the occasional Paxti’s lover thrown in.  I can appreciate both styles but for ambiance, employee benefits (Zachary’s is a co-op) and satisfaction guaranteed, I will always head to Zachary’s.

Thin crust from The Cheese Board

Cherry corn scone and english muffin from The Cheese Board

Best Place for Thin Crust Pizza: The Cheese Board Collective.  Another co-op run pizzeria (hey, this is Berkeley!) makes my Best of Berkeley list.  Quite simply, it serves the best veggie pizzas with lots of garlic and herbs piled on a chewy crust.  Plus they give you the bonus half slice with each order. Go to the shop and bakery next door to sample any cheese you can think of a grab a cherry corn scone.

Chilaquiles Verdes from Picante

Best Place to Get Over a Hangover: Picante.  When does good Mexican food not make one feel instantly better?  And for the perfect pick me up, I have two words: chilequiles verdes.  A tangy tomatillo sauce is scooped onto two fried eggs accompanied by rich black beans.  Sop it all up with fresh tortillas.  Wash it down with a cinnamon sweet cafe de olla.  Heaven. Evidence of its excellence: Nathan and I ALWAYS order different dishes at restaurants in order to share and have more variety.  When it comes to Picante’s chilaquiles verdes, we do not share. We each order our own.

ACME Bread

Best Place to Buy Bread: ACME.  In a tiny little bakeshop on the corner of Cedar and San Pablo, the glory of good bread is celebrated.  Everything is good here.  Puts all other supermarket breads to shame.

Brazil Cafe

Tri-tip sandwich at Brazil Cafe

Best Place to Eat Al Fresco: Brazil Cafe.  Walking past this cheery food stand with the Brazilian music blasting round the clock, it’s hard not to stop.  They rope you in with lots of grilled goodies, either stuffed in sandwiches or on top of rice. And then they drizzle on a tangy green garlic sauce that takes it to a whole other level.

Yes, more pizza. This time at Gather

Best Place to be a Localvore: Gather.  The inventive cuisine at Gather is already well known as it was one of the first to really push eating locally.  And they do it in style, with plenty of great vegetarian and vegan options that are packed with flavor.  Their pizzas are excellent and have these special crusts in which the dough is somehow pinched to create pearls of bread around the pie. Yum.

Bakesale Betty sandwich with a strawberry shortcake

Best Place to That Sells Only One Thing: Bakesale Betty.  Ok fine, it sells maybe 5 things and is technically in Oakland.  But you really only go there for one thing – the fried chicken sandwich.  It’s perfectly crunchy and crispy and topped with well-dressed jalapeno coleslaw that rocks.  Followed with a strawberry shortcake or cookie, it’s a decadent treat perfect for a sunny afternoon.

Salsas and tacos at Comal

Best Place to Feel Like You Are In SF: Comal.  This restaurant opened in the 7 months that we were gone and we are already sad that it wasn’t here sooner. Berkeley has some great food but for that buzzing, urban cool ambiance we usually head across the Bay to SF.  But this place was hopping on a Monday night, maybe because their sophisticated cocktails are hard to resist.  As for the high-end Mexican food, we were pretty much licking the plate.

View of the Golden Gate from the Berkeley Hills

And of course there’s more. Phil’s Sliders for its perfectly proportioned gourmet mini-burgers. La Note for its scrumptious French style breakfasts. Ippuku for its awesomely authentic Japanese izakaya cuisine. La Mediterranee, for its completely addictive, savory sweet chicken filo rolls.  Cafe Coulucci for its Ethiopian stews to be sopped up with the spongy, sour injera bread.  I could never name all the places.  All I can say is thank you, Berkeley, for supporting my eating habit with such good options!

Delicious Eats in Arequipa (by Carmen)

We finally made it to the last country on our South America itinerary – Peru!  We have been looking forward to this moment for a long time.  The reason, simply, is the food.   I have always loved Peruvian food.  A childhood friend’s Peruvian mother exposed me to the cuisine early on.  And I couldn’t get enough of the roasted chicken at a Peruvian restaurant my family would frequent when I was young.  But now I was at the source, ready to to make new culinary discoveries as well as seek out some of my favorite dishes.

Mototaxi!

Mototaxi!

We were on our way to Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city.  But to get there we first had to spend a night in Puno, a small city near the Bolivian border.  Not a whole lot going on there but we did get to ride the cute little mototaxi between the hostel and the bus station.  I loved it!  I’m sure we’ll be seeing tons more once we get to Asia.

Sunset in the Plaza Mayor

Sunset in the Plaza Mayor

Me and the Cathedral

Me and the Cathedral

Once in Arequipa, we found a lovely city with pretty architecture, a bustling center, and dramatic mountains surrounding it.  The city was living up to its reputation of being a great place to stroll around but we wanted to check out its other claim to fame: gastronomic excellence. We wasted no time in getting to Zig Zag, a cozy upscale restaurant in the old part of town.

Trio of meats with creamed quinoa at Zig Zag

Trio of meats with creamed quinoa at Zig Zag

Zig Zag was fun, if a bit over the top (we were served a cocktail for two out of an ostrich egg cup).  We indulged in their specialty, which involves your choice of meats that come out of the kitchen still sizzling on a lava rock.  We opted for pork, alpaca and lamb, which came with little triangle flags announcing each one.  The perfectly cooked meats were paired with creamed quinoa and a few dipping salsas.  For our next meal, we decided we were ready for Peru’s famous seafood dishes.

Leche de Tigre

Leche de Tigre

Ceviche at El Cebillano

Ceviche at El Cebillano

So we asked our hostel owner where the best ceviche in town could be found.  She directed us to El Cebillano which turned out to be excellent advice.  We started off with some delicious leche de tigre (tiger’s milk), which is a small glass of the acidic juice they soak the seafood in.  Nathan asked for his to be picante, and I think it was the spiciest thing I ever tasted.  It was like pure chile juice!  Next up we got ceviche de pulpo (octopus ceviche) served three different ways.  In the states, we are more familiar with the ceviche that is soaked in lemon juice.  In South America, we’ve also encountered creamy ceviches.  These are tasty but I still prefer the sourness of the lemon.

Chupa de Camarón

Chupa de Camarón

Rocoto Relleno with potatoes

Rocoto Relleno with potatoes

Another recommendation from the hostel took us to El Nuevo Palomino.  Here we opted for an Arequipean specialty, chupa de camarón.  It is basically a seafood stew with a wonderful, creamy broth.  Hints of saffron and paprika made the flavors reminiscent of spanish paella. And the dish was enormous.  This picture is of just one of our bowls after we asked them if we could split it.  We really didn’t need the side dish of rocoto relleno (a pepper stuffed with veggies, cheese and ground meat) but we couldn’t resist.  Rocoto relleno turned out to be one of our favorite Peruvian finds.

Central market in Arequipa

Central market in Arequipa

We had satisfied our fine dining fix while in Arequipa and it was time to hit our favorite part of any town, the market.  This one didn’t disappoint, with lots of people and a balcony to watch all the action below.

Chicharron stand

Chicharron stand

It was in the market that we found one of my favorite snacks in Peru, the chicharron (fried pork) sandwhich.  They sliced up a big slab of chicharron, slapped it on a bun, slathered it with salsa and onions and handed over all for about $1. Just perfect.  As you can tell by now, Peruvian cuisine isn’t very vegetarian friendly.  We were still missing our veggies but at least the flavor range and been seriously improved in Peru.

Bakery stand at the market

Bakery stand at the market

Our beloved guagua

Our beloved guagua

There was one more find at the market, our guagua de pan (bread baby).  We happened to be there on Mother’s Day and the tradition is to buy these little bread loaves in the shape of bundled infants.  They have these tiny ceramic faces baked into them – I found them irresistibly cute. And the sweet bread was surprisingly tasty!

Our stopover in Arequipa was a great (re)introduction to Peruvian food and I was looking forward to more in Cuzco and Lima.

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