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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Coastal Field Trip

Most of us were still in Santiago on our own on Saturday, so Virginio offered us a trip to Finesterre, literally "the end of the world." It's on the coast about 75k west of Santiago, and some pilgrims finish their journey there, since it feels like a more symbolic end of the trip. Apparently pilgrims used to burn their dirty clothes on the beach to symbolize the old life they'd left behind.

It was a bit of a bust because it was almost completely fogged in. Nevertheless, some of us trudged the 3k uphill to the lighthouse, a nice stretch of the legs. We took a few foggy photos, and I got one last stamp in my pilgrim's passport.

After that, we went to Murxía, which was an even bigger bust. It seemed like the Spanish equivalent of Ft. Walton Beach or the Jersey Shore.

Sandra let me have her room at the fancy Parador for the night, as she'd booked it before her itinerary changed for an earlier departure. We met an Aussie colleague of hers for drinks and tapas. Jess had walked the Camino solo but with a prearranged itinerary similar to ours. Later, she and I met some Spanish guys at a very authentic tapas place that reminded me of somewhere Anthony Bourdain would go.

And...after a good night's sleep and the first morning in 10+ days without an alarm, I took a taxi to the airport for my 1:30 pm flight. I'm a bit sad to see my vacation end, but I'm getting used to the idea that fall is coming. And I'm excited to wear my new dress to a wedding this weekend!

Funny enough, I didn't do what the Catholic church says is the purpose of the pilgrimage: visiting the actual tomb of St. James under the main altar. The cathedral itself seemed like enough for me. I was worried I'd regret walking only 100k and not the full Camino, but for now this feels like the right distance for me--and my feet! At times when my feet were hurting, the journey seemed a bit masochistic, and I wondered if it wasn't a bit twisted to spend so much money making myself uncomfortable...wouldn't God be better served and glorified if I instead spent money making uncomfortable people more comfortable? Nevertheless, for me this trip was more of a vacation and a physical challenge than a true pilgrimage. But I loved this quote from a brochure at the cathedral:

"The Way to Santiago is as life itself, it is as He who gives us support, it is a marvelous experience. It has no end, because when you arrive you realize that you have to keep on walking towards St. James, towards the others, towards your inner self, towards God."

Buen Camino!

Relaxing in Santiago

Friday morning we gathered for a tour of the city with a local guide. She shared lots of interesting tidbits about the history of the city and the cathedral. The current cathedral dates back to 1075, when it was rebuilt after a fire. She also told us her version of the legend of the apostle St. James, who supposedly preached the Gospel in Spain, and how it is believed his bones came to rest in Santiago after he was beheaded by Herod. Fun fact: Santiago has 95,000 residents plus 25,000 students, hence the high bar to person ratio. It is the third oldest university in Spain.

We toured the cathedral, which was packed, with constant admonitions for silence broadcast over the loudspeaker. (The guide said it was a delight to have such an attentive group, as the Spaniards just talk over her!) The line to touch the statue of St. James was too long, so we settled into the transept for the noon mass. The cathedral is known for its massive "botafumeiro," the world's largest incense burner. Apparently they now light it only when a group pays 300€, which Virginio thought was terrible, but I thought was kind of a smart way to squeeze some support out of the busloads of tourists (4 million a year...impossible to say how many are pilgrims, though 200,000 Compostelas are awarded annually) who may or may not drop a few euros in the plate. Anyway, the botafumeiro was built to ameliorate the funky smell of pilgrims sleeping in the church, which was allowed until the 17th century.

It takes eight strong men to pull the rope that swings the botafumeiro over the transept at speeds up to 68 km/hour. (It has broken three the 16th century when the princess of Spain was visiting, it flew right out the open door! Another time it hit the altar, and in the 20th century it hit a seminarian.) As notable as the swinging, smoking botafumeiro itself were the carnival-like gasps from the crowd and the hundreds of cameras recording it in action.

The surprise of the mass was that a cardinal was visiting! This was a big treat for our one Catholic teammate. I decided to bend the rules a bit and take communion, which was an express service without wine. The service was very meaningful to me and made me realize one reason I haven't felt close to God lately is that I haven't really been seeking God. I've gotten out of the habit of attending church, but this trip made me realize I want to renew my Sunday worship routine in the fall.

After worship, Qassab and I strolled around the beautiful city park. He treated me and Sandra to schwarma wraps from a Middle Easterm restaurant, and we had a little picnic with those, some yogurt, and nectarines. It was nice to have something a little lighter and skip the restaurant routine.

After a little shopping (I got two scarves for fall and a black lace dress), I enjoyed the hotel pool and hot tub before meeting everyone for sunset cocktails on the terrace of the Parador. Sandra treated us to a pitcher of Sangria, and we had more tapas for dinner: empanada and octopus again, plus a few new dishes: mystery meat and potato, white asparagus with mayo, fried sardines (head on), fried calamari, garlic shrimp, tortilla with mushroom, and padron peppers. Just your basic Spanish bar fare, but tasty.

Day Five: Amenal to Santiago!

Wow...what an amazing trip. I am sitting in the Santiago airport feeling overwhelmed with gratitude that I got to celebrate my birthday with such a special journey.

Thursday morning, we arose as usual for our 8:30 breakfast. I always ate more than I should have at breakfast, but all of those carbs, meats and cheese are just so hard to resist! We even had some chocolate croissants for our last day. Javier had to leave us in order to have a few days off before his next group, so we hugged him goodbye and hit the trail for the last time.

Our last hotel was the only disappointment...the view from my room on Wednesday night was a red HOTEL sign and a busy highway. Quite a contrast from Tuesday night's countryside tranquility at the palace! Nevertheless, it was a convenient location at the last 15k of the trail.

I walked by myself for a good chunk of the morning, stopping once to adjust my moleskin/toe wrappings. Compared to some people, my feet were in great shape, but my pinky toes were getting blisters on the bottom, and there is some kind of deep blister under the skin on my left big toe. It's okay now, but it was pretty tender by the end of the walk.

After dropping off our suitcases in Santiago, Virginio and Javier met us with the van at Lavacolla (Neckwash...pilgrims would tidy up before arriving in Santiago), and Virginio walked the last leg with us. I am still kind of surprised no one ever pooped out and rode in the van! We all walked the whole thing (obviously we rode in the van when we shuttled to hotels that weren't right on the trail).

Most of our group stopped for a rest around 11:30, and it was fun to feel like we could take it slowly and just enjoy the final leg together. We stopped at Monte de Gozo, a hill that overlooks the city. It's the first place you can see the towers of the cathedral. Legend has it that the first pilgrim to spot the cathedral can take the name "King." Sandra was delighted to call herself Queen Sandra for the remainder of the trip!

The outskirts of the city were about what you'd expect, not particularly scenic, but the old city of Santiago is beautiful. Narrow cobblestone streets with old buildings and lots of charming shops and restaurants. The cathedral itself is gorgeous and massive; it sits in a large cobblestone square, and on one side is the famous Parador hotel, originally built by the king and queen in ~1492 as a hospital for pilgrims.

We had our obligatory photo opp and then checked into our hotel. It was fabulous, a restored monastery with lots of old world charm and new world amenities (charming courtyard cafe, wi-fi, pool and hot tub, killer showers, etc). We all showered, and I changed into my nicest outfit, a wrap dress that was perfect for the hot afternoon. Lunch was tapas outside...more pulpo, empanadas, garlic shrimp and salad. It's going to be hard to break the habit of beer with lunch!

Around 4:30, we queued up at the office to present our passports and obtain our official Compostela, the Latin certificate to prove we walked the Camino for spiritual reasons. Sandra got the woman who did hers to write Queen Sandra in lovely penmanship. My clerk was a disinterested 20-something dude with bad handwriting who misspelled my name. Oh, well.

I was too tired to explore the city, so Qassab and I drank coffee at a cafe then swapped photos on wi-fi. At the hotel, we ran into the Japanese guy we'd seen on our first afternoon walking. We had a lovely final dinner in an outdoor garden (atmosphere slightly dampened when Susan found a slug on her!). Our first course choices were chickpea salad or bread with scrambled eggs, roasted peppers and shrimp. The mains were a fish lasagna and a pasta with meat sauce. I will be looking for a recipe for fish lasagna when I get home! The highlight of the meal was a mocha flan for dessert. As usual, we washed it all down with several bottles of good Galician white wine. I took a second shower before bed and slept like a baby!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Days Three and Four: Casanova to Amenal

Whew!! The last two days were tough. Hot afternoons, sore feet and tired legs. I'm too exhausted to write in paragraphs, and each day follows the same rhythm so here are a few moments:

-- great breakfasts every morning. Cake, fresh bread, meats and cheeses and fruit. Perfect start to the day!
-- sometimes people write messages to their friends along the way. Two favorites today: 1. (in Spanish on the side of a trash can) The end of the road is the beginning of your destiny. 2. (in English on the wall of an abandoned building) Jill, before we finish I'd just like to say every step has been better with you.

--giggle today when my walking companion saw the coast was clear behind us, so she crouched for a tinkle on the side of the road...and then the group of five Germans ahead chose that very moment to stop and take a look around behind them

-- hoofed it hyper speed with Javier this morning...I seem to be paying for it this afternoon...but not desperate enough to pay 3€ for 5 minutes in the foot/leg massage machine

-- left my magic mark among hundreds of others in a bar at noon today. Favorite from the bathroom wall (en Español) "whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right" (Henry Ford)

-- moment of evening bliss jumping into the cold pool at our hotel yesterday, a converted palace

-- singalong yesterday afternoon with Paulette, Sandra and Sue...highlights included "going to the chapel," "on the road again" and "purple people eater." thanks to miss crystle's may day programs at RFM, I can hold my own with the baby boomer soundtrack.

-- getting stamps from hostels, bars, restaurants and hotels in our pilgrim's passports. It's as if we are elementary school students collecting stickers again!

-- the pastor at the small church yesterday who was so earnest in his blessing for us...we all soaked it up as sweet relief from the afternoon heat...

-- octopus show and tell at the pulperia in Melide

-- complimentary tapa with sandra today during our soda/bathroom break at 3 pm, a small dish of pasta with olive oil, chicken and sausage...just what we needed since we weren't hungry at lunch

Only about 15 kilometers to go tomorrow. A bit confused about the accuracy of road markers vs. guidebooks, but we think it's the difference in city limits vs. cathedral.

Excited to finish and hoping for a good night's rest to enjoy the last day. We are all amazed at the body's capacity to recuperate overnight!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Day Two: Gonzar to Casanova

My 36th birthday!! Javier and Virginio kissed me happy birthday as soon as I came out of my room this morning. I helped myself to a big ol' piece of breakfast cake with sugar sprinkled on top! We also had bread with butter and apricot jam, fruit, cafe con leche, and two kinds of local cheese, plus a Tang-like orange drink. It was great fuel for the road.

Late in the morning, we passed kilometer marker 76. As a bicentennial baby, that felt like a serendipitous moment, so I got Qassab to take my photo.

My feet were still feeling a little sore this morning, but I was okay once we got going. I wrapped one toe in moleskin along the way as a to head off a blister before it starts. I am glad I did not skimp on socks! I am mostly wearing Smart Wool, which are $15 a pair, but they have been great so far.

Today we walked a total of 23K. I spent the morning having a deep chat with Paulette from Canada. Her first marriage was similar to my parents', and we had a meaningful conversation. Then I shifted gears and walked a while with Qassab (His name, by the way, is pronounced "Ga-sob," but he told us we could call him Q or "Butcher," which is what his name means in Arabic. Paulette suggested we shorten it to Butch.) We listened to one Indian song on his iPhone, and then I treated him to the sounds of O.A.R., Bare Naked Ladies, David Allen Coe and Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Late morning, we passed what would be our hotel for the night. It's gorgeous, something that belongs in an architecture magazine. They renovated a farmhouse and managed to get a perfect blend of old and new. Stone walls, lots of glass, open views to the east, several sitting areas and a patio with comfy outdoor sofas and a hammock. Virginio made sure I got one of the nicest rooms with a sofa and a jacuzzi tub. My friend Page said one of her friends called this way of walking the Camino the "partial princess package." It is indeed, and I love it!

Lunch was outside in the town of Palas de Rei. We shared tortilla, more pulpo gallego, and tuna empanada. I washed it down with a birthday beer and had fun reading my Facebook birthday posts, courtesy of the restaurant's wi-fi (pronounced "wee fee" in Spanish).

The afternoon leg was less than 6k, which went by quickly and was nicely shaded for the most part. I can't imagine better weather for mornings, sunny days and clear skies. I will say, unless it's muddy, I'm not sure you really need hiking boots for this...the owner of Spanish Steps insists a well broken-in pair of boots is the most important thing to pack, but I think a good pair of trail runners would be fine and probably more comfortable. There are a few rocky bits where I'm glad to have the boots, but I'm not sure it's worth the comfort sacrifice. Maybe it's just the brand I have? Anyway, for the most part, my feet are holding up fine, though my calves and shins are sore.

We all enjoyed several hours of free time before dinner. Virginio has a PhD in the history of travel (the Camino was the subject of one of the world's first guidebooks), and he gave us a short lecture on the history of the pilgrimage.

Dinner was outstanding! The first course was a "cazuela" (clay pot) of mushrooms baked with tomato sauce and cheese. It would have been a great meal on its own with a salad...but it was followed by a main course of roasted chicken with roasted apples and herbed rice. They dimmed the lights for dessert, brought out a torta de Santiago with candles and sang happy birthday to me. So sweet!! My family sent my birthday cards early, so I packed them in my backpack and enjoyed reading them this evening. It was special day...I can't imagine a better way to spend my birthday!

Day One: Sarria to Gonzar

And, we're off! After a month of "practice walking," I am here, on the Camino de Santiago. Sunday morning at 10, I met my fellow travelers at the bus station in Lugo, and we got into two vans to drive about 40 minutes. We started walking the Camino outside the town of Sarria.

Our group has 9 travelers and two guides, Virginio and Javier. We have one couple from Washington state, two female buddies from Canada, one couple from California, and three singles: me, Qassab from UAE and Sandra from Melbourne. It's a really nice mix. Qassab is 27, so I am not even the youngest.

It was a beautiful morning: blue skies, just cool enough for a fleece when we started, but we shed our jackets quickly. All morning we walked up and down rolling hills through the countryside, passing cows (and dodging lots of cow pies!), strolling through little villages, encountering lots of fellow walkers and cyclists.

Pilgrims greet each other by saying, "Buen Camino." Some of the locals will say that to us too, but I get the feeling some of them are a little over the waves of walkers in their backyards. However, others have turned their homes into inns, hostels and rest stops (we are staying at some lovely converted farm houses), so you can't argue that the Camino isn't good for the local economy...especially if we make sure to buy a Coke or a water when we stop for a potty break.

I can see the appeal of biking, as you could cover the trail in about a week, but it can be a little annoying to stop and let the groups of cyclists pass. This is the most crowded part of the trail, since 100K is the minimum you can walk to get the Compostela, or certificate of completion at the cathedral. I don't think most people really care about the piece of paper, but it gives the shorter journey some legitimacy, and in four or five days, it's a more doable length than the full 800K.

We walked a total of 23K on the first day, about 14.4 miles (someone else did the conversion math). I felt great through lunch...there was some confusion about how far we were walking, as the guides didn't give us maps that first morning. So, when we got to the town of Portomarín for lunch, I thought we were done for the day. "Wow!" I thought. "That went by a lot faster than I expected!" Uh, no, we still had another 8K to go!

The last part ended up being the toughest of the day, as we had several long shade-free stretches along a highway (the Camino varies a lot...sometimes you are walking on a dirt path through the woods, other times you're following a paved road). So far, everyone has made it without pooping out in the van, though Sandra said she would have bailed on the end of day one if she could have found Virginio! Fortunately, I had a stash of peanut M&Ms to perk me up. We celebrated the end of our first walk with local beer (Estrella Galicia) and soft drinks, and Virginio let us have some of his melon with jamón, the Spanish version of Italy's melon with prosciutto. Another sweet and salty combo, delicioso.

We spent our first night together in a beautifully restored farmhouse. I believe my room used to be part of the stables! It had stone walls and lots of charming antique furniture...and a comfortable bathroom with a nice hot shower.

We had a group meeting outside at sunset and toasted the end of our first day with glasses of cold Galician white wine. Dinner was in a dining room that felt like something out of the middle ages...if not for the western wall of full glass to watch the sunset. We had lentil soup, lightly fried hake fillets with lemon, fries, salad with perfectly ripe tomatoes, with fruit and ice cream for dessert. I was a little worried about being able to stay up for the late Spanish dinner, but since we're not starting so early each morning, it's fine. Plus, since we're so far west, it's still light out until around 9.

Some of us sampled the three liqueurs they brought out after dinner: one was coffee-flavored, one herb-infused, and one pure lighter fluid. Wooh! I woke up for several hours in the middle of the night, and I'm not sure if it was the wine, the tiny bit of liqueur I sampled, or just the fact that I am so excited to be here.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Lunch in Lovely Lugo

Entertaining myself trying to stay up until it's dark outside! Almost 9 and still light out there. I'm sure I'll enjoy it later in the week, but boo for now!

I flew from Madrid to Santiago and was then supposed to take a bus to Lugo. However, I didn't check the bus schedule before I booked my flights, and my 1 p.m. arrival was a near miss for the 12:55 p.m. bus. The next bus wasn't until 4. I've been nursing a cold all week, and the idea of sitting at the airport for three hours...and then riding a bus for two and getting to Lugo at 6 p.m. made me want to cry. I was so exhausted, and even though I knew I wouldn't let myself nap, I knew I'd feel much better knowing I was settled into the hotel. So, I coughed up entirely too much cash to take a cab! The guy drove like a race car driver, and I think it was barely over an hour. Score.

Once in Lugo, I headed out to explore. According to Wikipedia (is there any other source?), Lugo is the only city in the world to be surrounded by intact Roman walls. I walked the entire perimeter (about 2k) and enjoyed the variety of views. Some of the hillside spots looking into the countryside were gorgeous -- I can't wait to see more on my walks.

I'm dying to know more about the story behind's an ancient city that's obviously had lots of ups and downs. There is a striking contrast between impeccably restored historic building and dilapidated, graffiti-covered ones. (Not unlike Rio...or, quite frankly, Quincy!) I'm really curious what people do for work here and how they've experienced Spain's recession.

Anyway, I treated myself to a late lunch knowing it would likely be my only meal of the day. I HAD to try the famous pulpo gallego, tender octopus with smoky paprika (or at least that's what this rendition was...not sure if "gallego" refers to the preparation or the way they tenderize it...or maybe their octopii are just more tender?). I also got mejillones, a vocabulary word that escaped me, but the waitress promised they were popular. Mussels with tomato sauce. So good!! And, I had two delicious pieces of country bread rubbed with ripe tomato and garlic, and topped with anchovies. Yum!

Lugo seems to be quite a hotspot for weddings...I saw three!

Tomorrow morning I meet my fellow walkers at 10 a.m. This hotel has wi-fi, which may not be the case everywhere we stop. I'm trying to avoid roaming charges on my phone, so I'm sticking to free access. So, hopefully there will be lots of pics along the way, but here are a few from the first day!

¡Buenos Dias, España!

Landed in Madrid at about 10 a.m. local time. So crazy to think I haven't been here since 1997, when I spent a semester in Madrid. I'm thinking this photo was when we were flying over Extremadura?

Did not sleep much at all on the plane, and Barajas baggage claim threw me for a bag was checked through to Santiago. Don't you always have to claim it when you enter the country? Guess not!