4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Towns”

Swimming In A Volcano In Santorini (by Ναθεν)

… and then we found ourselves on one of the most beautiful places on the PLANET.

Firostefani and ocean

Golden Fira

Santorini deserves all the hype, all the magazine cover shots, and all the glory because it truly is a spectacular place. We arrived on a commuter ferry that chugged along the Mediterranean from Naxos. The arrival to this island was different than the others, everyone on the boat was anxious and giddy in anticipation. When the boat wrapped around the crescent tip of the island, people rushed to take photos. If there is such thing as hunger for sights, then there was definite drooling and jaw dropping as the curved white buildings that frosted chocolate colored cliffs came into focus.

Oia cave and cliffside homes

Carmen and I also became bleary eyed at the sights. Unfortunately for us we were already in island mode. We slowly exited the boat, drifted over to the tourist office and chatted a bit for a map. We went back outside to board the public bus that climbs the steep switchbacks and we realize we missed it. And it was the last bus of the day. A moment of panic when understanding hits us that the closest city of Fira is too far to walk and taxis are expensive because we are the last tourists on the port. We work out a deal with a hostel owner for a one night’s stay and a free shuttle to Perissa. Not exactly our plan, in fact, it is on the opposite side of the island from where we wanted, but we load into the van and set off for a spontaneous adventure.

Sunset Santorini

As expected, Perissa wasn’t our style. The resort-like cafes and lawn chairs in the black sand were beautiful, but we came to Santorini to see the magic of a civilization that lives and dies along the volcano.

Fresco of 3500 year old building

Three story building from 1500BC

The Minoans inhabited Thira (another name for Santorini) for thousands of years. Their civilization was immensely successful with tens of thousands of inhabitants throughout the Greek islands. Unfortunately all these great islands existed because of a dark past. This section of the Mediterranean is a boundary zone of the European and Asian tectonic plates. A volcano erupted around 1,600BC that wiped out their civilization. This was not just any eruption, it is the largest eruption ever recorded and documented by humans. The sound was so enormous that Chinese records describe the sound of it twice as the wave reached them from different directions around the world. Enormous amounts of material blew into the sky, the whole island grew a thousand feet taller and tsunamis expanded the havoc around the world.

Akrotiri excavations

Evidence of ash and volcanic eruptions

Akrotiri was an ancient city on Thira. When the volcano exploded, the city was covered in thirty feet of pumice and ash. This rare circumstance allowed the what was left of the buildings, that survived the earthquakes before the eruption, to be remarkably preserved for 3,500 years. The city was discovered in the 1960’s and slowly they uncovered buildings and intertwining streets rich with painted frescoes, advanced multi-story buildings and sewer systems. This was an advanced civilization, and there are no records to their existence beyond this enormous volcanic event.

Satellite view of Santorini Volcano (Photo credit: WikiCommons)

Walking on the center of the volcano

The volcano around Santorini has shaped and reshaped the islands for millions of years. Each explosion destroyed whole mountains and continued to build up the layers of Islands that remained. We took a boat to the center of the volcano; we walked on the cooling magma center. Standing on the foreign landscape is surreal, perfectly silent and covered in jagged dark brown rocks. There are small craters on this island showing minor eruptions, but it is the whole group of islands, the caldera that is many miles wide that shows the enormity and unrelenting unimaginable power of the earth. The cliffs communicate this history with portions of black crumbly stone, or jagged red boulders or loose pock-marked ash and pumice. And like all beautiful, but dangerous places, the people eventually forgot the catastrophic event and they reinhabited the island.

Rustic door

Chapels of Santorini

Fira is the main city on the island. It is built on the cliffs in the middle of the crescent-shape and the city is packed with thousands of cute whitewashed buildings that curve and flow with the contours of the mountain. There is a beauty in the haphazard construction of all these buildings right on top of one another. Stairways twist and weave in between the buildings, paths start and stop almost randomly, and buildings occupy every little bit of space. I may even make the jump to say that the buildings on the steep slope remind me of a favela. Trash free, plastered and painted with sewers; Rio could make its densest neighborhoods into high-end real estate.

Locally brewed beer

Moussaka from Nikolas Taverna in Fira

Lamb kleftiko

Reward for hiking from sea to cliffside village

We drank locally brewed beer on a picturesque patio. There was moussaka, and kleftiko dinners paired with wine and of course ice cream rewards for those climbs up the steep path from water to city.

Firostefani in the morning light

Carmen and shadow

An essential activity for any visitor to Santorini is to walk the ridge line of the island. The end points of the walk are Oia and Fira and it is about 12km (8mi). We walked it one morning starting at Fira at sunrise with a destination of Oia for lunch. The path works its way through Fira, into the picturesque Firastefani. Outside of town the dirt and cobblestone path follows the ridge and cliff’s edge allowing for endless views around the island. Occasionally a small lonely chapel appears on the path, a remnant of a gracious sailor who braved a storm and lived to fish another day. The sun beats hot on our backs and slowly the buildings of Oia come into view.

Oia, the most beautiful city on the most beautiful island

Blue domed churches and contours of Oia

Walking into Oia, is strange and exhilarating, it is hard to believe that a town can be so gorgeous. Every building has a dome or a curved arch or rounded balcony; straight lines are the minority which creates a natural and harmonious addition to the glowing Mediterranean sea below. Churches with their bright blue domes scatter the cityscape and every surface that is not a walkway is a patio for sunbathing.

Our seafood cantina lunch spot

Tomatokeftedes and sliced feta lunch

Swimming hole below Oia

We decided to walk down the several hundred stairs to swim and grab lunch in the tiny marina. Katina served us delicious tomato fritters, a hunk of feta cheese and a grilled whole fish. We walked left from the harbor to a tiny beach overlooking a small island. The water was cool, but not cold, turquoise and crystal clear. There is a thrilling concrete platform on the side of the island that made it possible to cliff jump into this beautiful water. Swimming in a volcano has never been so much fun.

My gracious jump into the Mediterranean

Sunset Santorini x4

The challenge of any Santorini tourist is where to watch the sunset. I love sunrises and sunsets (as you have seen), but the tourists on Santorini push and shove to get the perfect view of the sun hitting the water. A sunset in Fira showers the city in golden light, in Oia it is possible to stand on the ridge of a peninsula with all periphery consumed by sun, ocean and other camera-wielding tourists. My favorite was Firastefani, a tranquil setting with a more local feel. And the sunsets on Santorini are amazing and worth it. Perched high on a cliff we could see a world vast with beautiful ocean and a scattering of islands. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful place.

Oia silhouette

Sunset from Firastefani

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.

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

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.

Walking 500 Miles Across Spain (by Carmen)

Map of Routes to Santiago de Compostela, we’re walking the red route

I first heard about the Camino de Santiago through an offhand remark in National Geographic Traveler.  The Camino is an old pilgramage route that is over 1000 years old.  People have been coming for centuries in order to visit the relics of St. James (Santiago in Spanish).  It has many points of origin spread throughout Europe.  Today, most people, including us, start in the town of St. Jean Pied-de-Port at the French-Spanish border and follow the red route on the map.  From there it’s up and over the Pyranees on our way westward towards the town of Santiago de Compostela.  We will be hiking between small villages and a few cities alternating between staying the night in cheap dorms tended by ancient monestaries and sleeping under the stars in our tent.  From the moment I heard about it I’ve wanted to walk the trail.

But reality sets in a bit as the actual hike comes closer and closer.  How am I preparing for the strenuous parts of the hike? I wish I could say it was by working out each day, getting in tip top shape.  The real answer is I try not to think about it.  Some may construe this as laziness. However, I would argue that my actions go hand in hand with my personal goal for the trek – living in the moment.  I’m a planner.  I’m always thinking in the future, preparing, making lists (see packing post), considering how to improve things, coming up with plans and then back up plans.  It sometimes takes a lot for me to turn my brain “off” and just be still.  While trekking 500 miles inherently involves constant movement, it is also an opportunity for me to meditate and reach a state of mental stillness. Ok, I admit I have made a plan for the Camino de Santiago – just take it one day at a time. And keep that Proclaimers song on replay: “I would walk 500 miles and I would walk 500 more…”

Reflection is a key part of the trek for me but so are the people I will meet.  I’m expecting a fair bit of commoraderie to be generated by the tired feet and large dorms.  And maybe we’ll even share a few good Spanish meals on our way.

During the four weeks of our trek, we’ve scheduled some new posts for your enjoyment.  We’ll be back in early October as we make our way (by train) from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid.  Wish us luck!  Hasta luego.

Nebraska Corn, Family and More Corn (by Nathan)

The rolling hills of corn

One of the best opportunities of taking a year off to travel is that we have the chance to visit so many places, and sometimes off the beaten track places that are part of few vacation plans. We wanted to go to the rural Midwest; we wanted to see some of the big agriculture that feeds the world, and most of all we wanted to see family.

The three of us enjoying a laugh

I last visited my Great Aunt Bea when I was sixteen years old; it had been too many years since I had seen her. My Aunt Bea is the most wonderful and inspirational woman. At ninety-two years old she is witty, funny and entertaining. She delighted us with conversation and guided us through the Nebraska countryside. She is an unstoppable woman, and very easily kept up with the two of us in the humid heat and all the activities we could fit into four short days.

Grand Island Women’s Club

So, we found ourselves in Grand Island Nebraska, the third largest city in the state with a population of 50,000 people. As expected with a town this size people tend to know one another; and everyone knows Aunt Bea. Bea taught elementary school for forty years. She devoted herself to the children, their families and the communities around Grand Island.

Everywhere we went, the people wanted to talk to Bea. My favorite was a woman walking with a cane through the local farmers market. She pauses, recognizes Bea, and then lights up with joy. They recount the story of the fourth grade class that they shared together with Bea as the teacher and then the woman informs us that she just had her eightieth birthday. Bea was teaching fourth grade in 1941!

Huge stalks of corn

Bea, Carmen and I explored the local farmlands with our informal historian as our guide. The little Fiat we rented stood out, but we had fun zipping around and between corn farms. Corn is king in Nebraska. The fields of corn extend for miles and to the horizon in all directions. The corn can get very tall too; at seven feet tall the irrigated farms already had what, to me, looked like an amazing crop. The farmers that were not irrigating, well, their three foot stalks were dwarfed by comparison. We meandered through the Grand Island county fair petting the sheep and calves. Bea took us for a walk in Cairo, a kolache in Dannebrog and a drive through St. Libory and Wood River. In each place we learned about the history of the town, the people she knew and the memories she had growing up and teaching in these areas.

Pizza at the Danish Baker in Dannebrog

My favorite of the small towns was Dannebrog. At three hundred people they have been named the Danish capital of Nebraska. The town is small and picturesque with hundred year old ranch homes, a mill and silos that tower on the town’s edge and people that are friendly and welcoming. We liked it so much that we came back for a second trip. One restaurant is named the Danish Baker. On Thursdays they put together a one-of-a-kind pizza. The pizza here is more of a pie, but not like a Chicago pizza, but a pie stuffed with inches of meat and veggies and encased in thick cheese as an attempt to hold it all together. On slower nights the owner will come out to the main dining room to play his guitar and sing folk and rock songs.

My great great grandparents and my great grandfather Lou on the left

One of the most exciting reasons for returning to Dannebrog was the chance to see another one of my Grandma’s sisters. Merna and Paul welcomed us into their home, enticed us with heaps of cookies and engaged us with family history that I never knew. It turns out my great great grandparents arrived from Scotland to start their family and farming in the fertile lands of Nebraska. My family tree is complicated, too complicated for me to even understand. A succession of divorces and re-marriages separated my grandmother from her roots in Nebraska. Decades went by without contact, but over the years we have reconnected and rejoined the relatives that have lived in Nebraska for five generations.

My ancestors

Our time with Bea passed by quickly. From early into the morning to late into the night we were locked into conversation. There was so much to learn from her and she continued to surround us with perfect life lessons:

  • Give back and help others, because no one got where they are at without receiving a helping hand.
  • I can handle it, I’m tough. I’m a country girl.
  • Oh, I could have stayed out later, but I saw that you were getting tired so I thought we better head back.
  • Find your passion and do what you love.

Camping at Hall County Park

At night we camped at a regional park on the edge of Grand Island. We were surrounded by swaying green trees and soft grass to place our tent. In the morning we were woken up by flocks of wild turkeys that weaved in out of the brush gobbling and pecking at one another for territory.

Fighting wild turkeys

The drive back to Omaha was sad. We found this beautiful church on the side of the road, but the architecture was less exciting because we missed Bea. We missed all of her stories and the cheeky, prudent and generous personality that we love so much. Who knows when we will be back in Nebraska. It is an emotional feeling to see family that we so deeply love. The memories here were different from other trips, but most of of I learned a little bit more about myself through the stories and experiences of my relatives.

Holy Family Shrine

Old Friends in Cusco (by Carmen)

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Cathedral at night

Nathan and I arrived in Cusco at about 6 in the morning. The streets were empty as we walked the uphill journey from the bus station to our hostel. We dropped off our stuff and headed out to walk again and explore the city. The streets had started to fill up but it wasn’t with locals. Everyone seemed to be from somewhere else.After traveling for so long in places with relatively few foreigners, it was jarring to be in a city practically overrun with tourists. This was both good and bad.

View of the Plaza Mayor from above

The good thing was that they were ready for the tourist hoards with a variety of restaurants, cozy cafes, gift shops, bars, info centers, etc. The bad thing was that they used the opportunity to charge inflated prices for some of the city sights. The cathedral, for example, would have cost $10. The ticket to see local ruins costs $70! These are very high prices compared to the cost of
living in Peru. Someone is making a lot of money but it doesn’t seem to be reinvested in the sights nor in the town outside of the central tourist zone. Seeing how things are in South America, it probably ends up in a few government officials’ pockets, unfortunately.

Stone wall made without mortar or metal tools

But some sights were worth shelling out some money. In the 15th century, Cusco was the capital of the Incan empire. It was here that they built their finest temples and palaces using their best stone masons. Of course, the Spanish destroyed everything and rebuilt all the temple sites as churches. But there are still traces of the original grandeur. For example, a beautiful wall is just off the main plaza. It shows how magnificently the giant stones were placed together with no mortar or metal tools.

Another example of this fine stone work was at Qorikancha, the golden temple that celebrated the sun. The work was so precise and detailed. It would have been amazing to see it before the Spanish looted the gold that covered the entire walls.

Jumping for joy in the Sacred Valley

The true highlight of our time in Cusco, however, was seeing our Bay Area friends. Back in January we decided to do an epic 6 day hike to Machu Picchu. To acclimatized to the high altitudes we all spent a few days in Cusco. It was awesome to do this exploration with them. First we met up with Dan and Randy and got caught up over pancakes and paninis at Jack’s Cafe. Together we took a tour of the Sacred Valley, the farming region outside of Cusco that holds a few sacred ruins.

Terraces in Pisac

Nathan in an Incan trapizoidal doorway

The first set of ruins were the terraces and homes of Pisac. Built high into the hillsides these settlements were both closer to the apus, or mountain gods, as well as protected from invasion.

Temple at Ollantaytambo

Next we hit the town of Ollantaytambo which was strategically placed at the intersection of three valleys. It had intact terraces and fountains that still operate today.

Women demonstrating the dying of fabrics

As part of the tour we stopped at a textile factory where women spend a few months dying and weaving textiles, make some money, then head back home. The demonstration of how the alpaca wool is spun using a dradel looking thing, dyed with natural plants and weaved on a loom was a sort of a sales pitch but interesting nonetheless.

Lomo Saltado

That night we met up with two more dear friends, Brenda and Drew! We all went out for some roasted chicken but Nathan was a rebel and ordered lomo saltado, or beef stir fried with potatoes, onions, and tomatoes in a tangy sauce. This is one of my favorite Peruvian dishes. The combination of flavors and cooking styles reflects the Chinese influence on Peruvian cuisine.

Group at Sacsayhuaman

Tunnel

The next day we all took a bus 8km outside of Cusco. Together we walked the road back, exploring the various ruins along the way and ending at the famous and spectacular Sacsayhuaman. We hired a guide for this last site and within minutes we found ourselves in a pitch black tunnel dug out of the rocky hillside. As we emerged into the sun once more we found a circular area partially line with stones. The guide explained that a pool of water may have been there once to reflect the stars. I sat on the throne overlooking this pool area, trying to recreate it in my mind. It became very apparent how thoroughly the Spanish destructed these sacred sites and structures.

Me on the throne

The three tiers of Sacsayhuaman

What is left a Sacsayhuaman is whatever the Spanish couldn’t destroy. That includes three large terraces that formed the foundation of three important Incan temples. The temples are long gone but the enormous stones that formed the terraces would have required great effort to move. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but each wall is about 15 feet tall! The field in front of the terraces is the last battleground of the Inca against the Spanish, with the latter barely gaining their victory.

Chicharron

We finished off our ruins tour with a lunch at a chicharron restaurant. A few slabs of fried pork, onions, mint and some pink speckled potatoes hit the spot.

Cuy times

But there was one more dish to try before we all left for our hike to Machu Picchu: cuy (guinea pig). For anyone hesitant about trying this unique delicacy, I think the picture confirms your worst nightmares. Fortunately, none of the members of our group were intimdated. We dug in and found that cuy offered a dark, gamey taste. It was fun to try but not anything I’ll be craving soon.

I enjoyed how history came alive in Cusco. But it was time to pack our bags and start the hike of a lifetime.

Dancing and Hiking in Copacabana and Isla Del Sol Bolivia (by Nathan)

Copacabana Bolivia

A trip through Bolivia would never be complete without seeing Copacabana and Lake Titicaca.  Carmen insisted that we stop here and we discovered a small cultural center tucked into a beautiful lake bay.

Two plates of trout

Sunset on Copacabana harbor

The most delicious thing about a town positioned on a lake is that there is access to fresh fish.  For weeks we had been chanting “trucha!” as a way to bring up spirits and remember the funny feijoada experience in Rio.  Now, in Copacabana, there were restaurants everywhere serving trout twenty different ways. And they are all really good.  We found a lakeside kiosk and ordered up one fish “de la diabla” (spicy red sauce) and another “a la plancha con aji” (grilled with garlic).  The fish was tender and juicy and by far the best trout I have ever had!

Our bus on a barge

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  We arrived to Copacabana from La Paz on a bus.  The bus saves some time from driving around the large peninsula and we all had to ride a short ferry ride across the bay.  Even the bus was loaded onto a barge and carried across.  Then the bus weaved its way in and out of the fingers of the lake and eventually dropped into the cute little town.  We expected a calm, tranquil town, but instead found thousands of people and a raging party.

Parade dancing

Lantern costumes

Lantern costumes

Our arrival in Copacabana coincided with one of the biggest holidays in Bolivia, La Fiesta de la Cruz.  It begins around May 3 and lasts for four non-stop days.  Everybody participates and everyone was part of a color coordinated group.  The women wore brightly ornate dresses with bulbous flowing skirts and of course a bowler hat.  The men performed in marching bands or wore lantern-like costumes.  Each group of 100 to 200 people would parade up and down the streets and eventually arrive at the Iglesia de la Sagrada Cruz.

Couple on there way to dance in the plaza

Dancing on the plaza

The party did not stop there.  These groups would converge onto two main plazas.  The marching bands would stand on concrete bleachers swaying to the music, blowing their horns and slamming their drums.  Everyone was dancing in a sway and twirl back and forth.  The dance actually mimics a fighting style as this festival used to be a way for men of different tribes to compete for land.  Supposedly these fights still happen, but we did not see any.

Crazy firework apparatus

Throughout the day the song of the bands was only broken by the sharp crack and pop of fireworks.  At night the pyros had a feast of lights, sparks, flames and kabooms to entertain the crowd.  Carmen and I sat watching as what seemed one in ten rockets failing to explode in the sky came crashing into the plazas below.  At one point they brought out this crazy PVC pipe apparatus thirty feet tall.  Upon lighting it the pyro’s shoulder catches fire from the twirling sparks.  He pats it out and runs for cover as the sparks and flames fly out in all directions.  The colors and light illuminate the people that continue to dance next to this thing.  I looked over at Carmen and there is a mixed expression of fear and intrigued excitement .  The structure ends with sparks spewing out of a cross with high-pitched whistles then the whole thing catches fire.

View from our hotel room

Lofted bed and hammocks

Outside of the partying, Carmen and I found the nicest hotel we have ever stayed.  It was called Las Olas.  Our dining table overlooked the beautiful Copacabana bay.  Our room included indoor and outdoor hammocks, comfortable beds and a kitchenette all for $42 a night which was a splurge for Bolivia.

Sunset on Copacabana

The festivities were a ten minute walk from our scenic overlook.  At sunset our hammocks seemingly rocked to the rhythms of the trumpets.  Throughout the night the horns entered our dreams and at sunrise hundreds of people were still drinking and dancing.

Arch of abandoned building

Copacabana cathedral

The city itself is very picturesque.  The nearby hills provide wonderful overlooks and the bright cathedral is magnificent.  Carmen and I wandered the streets maneuvering around the parade and tasting everything the street vendors had to offer.

Bowl of trout ceviche

One dish I could not walk away from was a woman serving heaping bowls of ceviche from her plaza tent. People crowded around so the turnover looked good.  The end result was sour, spicy and crunchy with crisp roasted corn kernels.

Isla del Sol

Copacabana was just one reason for this destination.  The other was to experience and see more of Lake Titicaca.  This lake is enormous.  The size of the lake is roughly four times that of San Francisco Bay and 0ne hundred times deeper.  The lake is one of the highest in the world at 13,000 feet.

Terraced hillsides of Isla del Sol

We hopped on a ferry and travelled for two hours to Isla del Sol (the Island of the Sun).  The island was sacred to the Inca who believed it was the birthplace of humans.  Our plan was to spend the night and hike the ruins and across the whole island.

Sunrise from Isla del Sol

That evening we met some new friends Chris and Megan from Brisbane.  Sitting in the sand and watching the sun set we swapped travel stories of their camping in Africa and ours of eating through Asia.  We shared some bottles of Bolivian red wine and ate several aromatic plates of trucha.  It was an unexpectedly fun night in a village of less than fifty people.

Pigs napping on the path

The alarm went off when it was still dark.  We wanted to see sunrise on Isla del Sol.  In the faint light of dawn, pigs blocked our path, and then we met a puppy that wanted to hike with us.  These were our first Inca ruins and we were excited.  The ruins included a village of stone buildings and a sacrificial table that were five hundred years old.  And we were disappointed! Bolivia does not protect or care about its cultural treasures.  Our sunrise hike discovered a group of vagrant backpackers that had cooked dinner on the sacrificial table leaving their trash to scatter the site while they slept on the ruins.  A wrong turn in the stone structures and we found where they used the restroom.  How disrespectful can these people be?

Inca ruins on Isla del Sol

Inca ridge path

The buildings themselves were small and not the high quality masonry we would see in Peru.  The best part about Isla del Sol was not the ruins, but the walk itself.  The sacred Inca trail followed the ridgeline of the island and allowed for endless views of Lake Titicaca.  The water was deep blue that met the terraced hillsides that were cultivated five hundred years ago.  We climbed and dipped along the islands spine arriving to the south side for the island.  Another ferry and we bobbed our way to Copacabana.  We immediately grabbed a bus and we were on our way to Peru.  Copacabana and Isla del Sol already a memory of culture, a lake and trout.

Carmen on Inca path

Cowboy Up in Tupiza (by Nathan)

Entering Bolivia in many ways feels like a step back in time. Determining what decade we landed in can be a challenge. Many women dress in a traditional pleated skirt, sweater, colorful shawl and a bowler hat.  The cars spew out thick black smoke, coughing their way to each destination. The great canyons, saddled horses, and lawless feeling of it all appears like we entered some modern wild west.

Carmen & horse in Tupiza canyon

The first challenge for any American is getting across the Bolivian border. It is such a pain to travel as an American in South America because almost every country has charged us $140 each as a reciprocity fee.  I guess Bolivia was a deal because they only wanted$135 each in pristine bills.

Now here is the catch, no one has dollars.  Carmen and I searched Argentina and in Salta they wanted dollars but would not give them.  So we arrived to the border at La Quiaca with only $60 and some Argentine pesos to exchange.  The casas de cambio are a huge rip off with a 20% exchange loss.  And out of the 15 we asked only one had dollars.  To our great luck in Villazon we found a cash machine at the far end of the main plaza that gave dollars.  We pulled $200, exchanged for $10 more and we had our $270.

We returned to the Visa window and we have it all: application, new passport photos, yellow fever proof and the money.  As we discussed our application, the armed guard keeps grabbing at our money saying he needs to examine the bills.  We suspected this to be some scam where the guard slips a few twenties away telling us we miscounted or switches them out with fakes.  We do our best to ignore him and the subtly unbuttoned gun on his hip.  We tell him to go away and not to touch our money because we are dealing with the other officer behind the glass.

Somehow this works!  The officer inside counts the bills then two more military outfitted men enter and they too count the dollars.  The third man scrutinizes every bill.  He scratched at them, examined the watermarks and analyzed every edge and detail of every bill.  He rejected $60 showing us the tiny ink dot and 1mm rip are not acceptable. There is major arguing back and forth and we are able to convince them to take the rest in bolivianos with an extra 10 boliviano fee.  So much in Bolivia can be handled with an extra 10 bolivianos.

Welcome to Bolivia

Our mistake was that they then took our money and passports into a closed room we could not see.  I expected them to return and ask us to pay again. We waited for 15 minutes which felt like an eternity.  Then the three returned with our passports and a colorful new sticker. Whew…finally we can legally enter Bolivia. Still a bit cautious and shaken up we slowly walk across the border from La Quiaca to Villazon.

The next task was to find the bus terminal for tickets to Tupiza.  The bus station more or less found us.  As we approached, dozens of agents shouted at us “Tupiza! La Paz! Uyuni!” hoping to cram us into their collectivo van.  The bus vendors were no different – aggressive and pushy for a sale. We found a bus company that was leaving in ten minutes so we bought a ticket that cost $2 USD for the three hour journey.

Pollo con picante street food

We worked up quite the appetite and our throbbing stomach acted us a compass guiding us to the stalls behind the bus station. We found a nice round lady with two shiny teeth and a big smile.  She had stewed up some chicken and potatoes over noodles and there was some purple mushy stuff which we think was some other type of potato salad. We ordered two and watched her scoop mounds of slop with her bare hands into plastic containers.  We were worried by this, but also very hungry. Our consumption of this food is more of a performance. Five or six dogs gathered around us with patient interest.  With speed and grace we shoveled the food into our mouths. A shot of whiskey each is the best anti-sick medicine we have.  Two swigs and thankfully we didn’t get sick.

An hour of waiting and another gringa informs us that we should have adjusted our watches.  The bus is right on time.  We load into the bus, we shove our packs between our legs, and we leave. The three hours bounce by as we sped through paved and unpaved highways.  Carmen and I enjoyed the colorfully decorated windshield with swaying llamas, people ornaments and wooden flutes.

Bus decorations

Midway through our journey there is a commotion of conversation moving through the center of the bus.  The traditionally dressed women next to us are shaking their heads and repeating “shame”, “thief” and “I didn’t know”. We don’t find out the whole story until we get to Tupiza. When we are boarding the bus in Villazon an official looking man boarded and asked the other gringos to put their hand luggage in the overhead.  The man put the items above them then moved down the isle. With each placement of a new bag he pulled their stuff to the back.  Mid-bus ride they found their bags not above them but behind and open, with cameras gone.  Carmen and I escaped with luck.

Tupiza city

Tupiza is a cute city with its own set of majestic canyons.  We staged Tupiza as a transition to southern Bolivia and a point of embarkation to the four day national park and Salar de Uyuni 4×4 trek.  We took some time to enjoy the red cliffs and since we were in the wild west we needed horses.

Carmen and I as cowboys

Bolivia is enjoyably inexpensive. Our horse ride for three hours cost about $15 each, lunch or dinner is about $2 to $5 and transit is a quarter of the cost of Argentina. We were outfitted with leather chaps, a cowboy hat and some mellow horses named Negra and Linda.  In single file we trotted deep into the canyon.

Red canyon

Red canyon

The colors and textures were new and exciting.  The reds were deeper and more pronounced than Cafayate and the formations more grand mountains than individual rocks.  The quebrada de inca starts as two wide cliffs that quickly narrow into a tight slot canyon that used to be an actual transportation path.  Our horses slowly walked along the trails they had memorized.  My horse was not particularly fond of me because I would insist we stop to take a photo then we galloped to join the group.

Tupiza food market

Arriving back at the ranch we strolled a little bow legged back into town.  On our way we found a market.  Supposedly there are thousands of varieties of potatoes across Bolivia and Peru.  Here we found at least fifty along with many other tasty looking veggies.

Tupiza allowed us to forget the hassles at the border and enjoy the mellow sense of time amid the carved landscape.  We traded in our horses, climbed aboard a jeep and began the off-road trip of a lifetime.

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