ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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El Camino de Santiago, Cantabria

If you take the coastal route to Santiago, starting from up near the French border, after around ten full walking days you will get to a town called Castro Urdiales. It’s the first stop in the province of Cantabria, and an indicative welcome to the region.Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción, Castro Urdiales

Castro is a medieval port town, which thrives on sardines, anchovies and tourism. The population doubles in summer, as hot and bothered inland Spaniards make their way up to the refreshing north coast. Castro’s water is sparkling, clear and icy cold. The sand is soft and clean. The tall, sandstone streets of the old town are packed with bars, and it seems possible that everyone in them is a fisherman or fisherfolk. The alleyways are caked with salt and tiny grey barnacles – at least that’s how I remember them (although that might be my imagination embellishing things in order to compensate for my hopeless memory and unfortunate lack of photos). One thing I can’t possibly forget though, is the massive church on the edge of the sea. La Iglesia de Santa María de la Asunción was started in the 13th century and they finished building it in the 15th. It’s gothic style; austere, daunting, and refreshingly, strikingly asymmetrical. It’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen – up there with Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur. I’d have to say I prefer it to just about any other I’ve seen in Spain, which are quite a few. I’m not sure what it was that captivated me so much about this particular church. Perhaps the oldness of it, its proud resilience and rugged presence overshadowing the port. Or the fact that this unsung beauty was such a pleasant surprise. I’d never even heard of Castro Urdiales, let alone that it had an immense medieval church (and castle) that, in my humble opinion, outshines* many of the bigger, better known cathedrals in Europe. (*in a decisively non-shiny way)

Castro was an unexpected delight, as was the rest of Cantabria. Of the four Northern provinces, it was definitely the one I’d heard the least about. After passing through the Basque Country, which had such a strong identity, Cantabria seemed comparatively unassuming. As far as capitals go, Santander was nondescript, as were quite a few stretches of the Camino, which involved a lot of unexciting road – simple, tiresome getting from A to B. Walking along highways is always unpleasant, and we pilgrims complained about it no end. When it was hot, the tar cooked our feet, and when it was windy or rainy it was just plain dangerous. The scenery along roadsides tends to be monotonous, which warps time and creates a sense of futility, I often felt like I was walking on a treadmill; going and going and just not getting anywhere. I’d much rather do 20km cross country than half that along a road, but unfortunately this wasn’t always possible. Fortunately, the tedium of these moments was offset by some incredible upsides, which were all the more fantastic for being unexpected. The real jewels of Cantabria were places I’ve never heard of before and that I’ll struggle to get to again. Mostly they were small towns and hidden beaches, which stole my heart and made all the dusty searing bitumen worthwhile.

Aside from Castro Urdiales, some other Cantabrian highlights were:

ferry from Laredo to SantoñaLaredo: Never so much have I enjoyed a gelati, as when walking the 4km, pristine white beach at Laredo. And never have I felt so appreciative of mass constructed identical beachfront high rises, as when they shaded me and my gelati.

Santoña: is where Spain’s most famous anchovies come from. A point which we were reminded of all too keenly, as the pilgrims hostel was right next to the canning factories in the industrial zone. The air was pretty thick. Some excited kids we met had done a tour of one of the factories, where they had reportedly been told that Santoña produces 90 thousand million tonnes of anchovies per day!!! A rather impressive figure, I’m surprised the ocean has anything left in it. And I wonder how many little old Spanish ladies it takes to clean all those anchovies? Fish factories aside, Santoña was quite a nice place, with a great beach and buzzing plazas in the evenings.

Santillana del Mar: according to Jean Paul Satre, the ‘most beautiful village in Spain’. According to this Jean, it’s definitely a contender. It’s nowhere near the sea (as the name suggests), but deep in forest, which is equally lovely. If you like medieval buildings (with carved shields and encryptions above doorways), brightly decorated window boxes, and cobblestone streets, you’ll love Santillana. It has great buskers too.

Cobreces: wins the prize for most glorious beach day. The hostel was overcrowded so we set up camp on the beach for a bit, to rest before coming up with a plan (to sneak into the hostel at night, which was coincidentally a disused women’s jail). I distinctly remember lying on the beach (using my poncho as a towel), looking out to sea, and thinking “This.is.bliss”. One of the happiest moments of my life.

Cliffs: Cantabria’s cliffs are spectacular. If you ever take the North Way and are faced with variants to the Camino, remember: providing it’s not too windy, always take the most coastal route. Even if it’s the longer path, I promise you it will be worth it.

What more can I say about Cantabria? Well for me, it was where the Camino got real. It wasn’t as spectacular or unique as the Basque Country, and by that point the novelty and excitement of “being on the Camino” had worn off. In Cantabria I began to settle into a more solid (but relaxed) routine. Acquaintance-pilgrims became friend-pilgrims, and 90 thousand million tonnes of in-jokes started rolling. A spontaneous, rain-enforced fiesta brought our little groups into a big group – there’s nothing like a torrential downpour in a caravan park to start a pumping, tightly-packed, wind-up-radio-powered gazebo party. The (really) hard days of walking (occasionally hindered by hard nights of “drinking all the wine because we can’t carry it in the morning”) helped cement the sweaty bonds we were forming. Evenings in the albergues (pilgrims hostels) became more and more family like.

Santillana del MarIf you’re wondering how the albergues work, the answer is, it varies. In a few cases, accommodation is free, but you are expected to leave a donation according to your means and your appreciation of the hospitality offered. This is how it was back in medieval times, when pilgrims (whether kings or genuine paupers) took vows of poverty and lived on the charity that they encountered on the road. Their accommodation could range from a hay bale in a loft, to a private room with a three course dinner. These days it’s somewhere in between, but much more organised. The majority of albergues charge a nominal fee (about €5 – 10), just enough to cover the basic costs of the establishments, which are usually local buildings converted into bulk accommodation. They provided a mattress and a roof, somewhere to handwash clothes, and if you’re lucky, hot showers (often shared). We stayed in monasteries, convents, an old converted train station, schools, a priest’s house, student accommodation (it was uni holidays), campsites (with permanent tents, though many pilgrims also carried their own), sports facilities, indoor soccer courts (on gym mats on the court), and the jail (criminal). As it was peak season, there were often too many pilgrims for the albergues (which ranged between 8 – 100+ beds), and in most places you couldn’t reserve. Overflow spilled into regular youth hostels and pensiones (privately run bed and breakfasts), but these sometimes booked out too. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the quality of all types of accommodation, and it was impossible to predict which albergues would fill. This complicated planning. Sometimes you would stop at a particular town in the hope of an assured nights sleep in a 50 bed albergue, only to find there were no beds left. But surprise surprise, there’d be something available in a 10 person hostel a few kms down the road. Sometimes the manager would let us throw down extra bed rolls, sometimes not. The biggest difference was the fact that some albergues were run by amigos of the Camino who truly wanted to help and foster pilgrims, and others were run by opportunists who just wanted to make money. Five euros may not sound like a lot for a night’s accommodation, but if you multiple that by 100, taken in cash, every night of summer, you realise how these disused buildings are making a pretty penny, with very low operating costs. Needless to say, toilet paper, power plugs, and hot water were in constant short supply. Damp and dustmites were not. I’m not just criticising Cantabria, but the entire north route, which just wasn’t equipped for the increased number of pilgrims in peak season. I think Cantabria was actually the best region in terms of albergues.

My favourite 3, which I recommend to anyone doing the North route, were all “donativos” that provided cosy accommodation, home cooked food, extra helpful advice, and that warm fuzzy pilgrim vibe that makes you want to stay on the Camino forever. They were all run by volunteers and funded purely by donations.

La Cabaña del Abuelo Peuto, Güemes: is a north route institution, run by Father Ernesto and a host of almost disturbingly kind and happy volunteers. Pilgrims are greeted with congratulating handshakes, cold drinks, food, wine, and music. The albergue was built by a priest who inherited a lot of money, and also plays host to community organisations, charity fundraisers, and all kinds of altruistic endeavours. The albergue has a huge garden, and when I arrived, the lawn was dotted with pilgrims reading, stretching, practising Tai Chi, and one of the volunteers playing relaxing didgeridoo music in the background. When thinking of Güemes , the word ‘Utopia’ comes to mind.

Albergue de peregrinos, Santa Cruz de Bezana: run by Nieves and José, this homely albergue only sleeps 16, and I had the feeling of staying for a night with a kindly great aunt and uncle. The town itself is a ‘hole’ (as we say in Aussie); there’s no reason to stop there except to stay at this albergue. Fortunately they’ve got a cute, grassy, ramshackle backyard, with a tonne of chairs and sun umbrellas, and the nearby servo (service station, petrol station) sells nice cold beers. We all had dinner together at a big long kitchen table, and after washing up, Nieves sat down for over an hour with us to explain not just the following day’s walk (which had some complicated variants), but a 3 day plan with insider tips on which towns to weird little beach, somewhere between Cantabria and Asturiasstop at, albergues to stay in, and numbers to call. The final touch was, instead of everyone getting up at their own time and consequently waking everyone else, they got us to agree on a common wake up time. At the decided hour (6am), we were brought back to the walking world with some Pink Floyd and the smell of fresh coffee.

Aves de Paso, Pendueles: this was recommended to us by Nieves, so of course it was lovely! It was newly refurbished and well run, and the owner Javier was another chatty wealth of information. If you go there, get there with time to spare in the afternoon. This part of the coast is dotted with gorgeous little coves.

I’ve just realised that last albergue was actually in Asturias, which I guess means I’ve come to the end of my chapter on Cantabria. Until next time, of course.

 

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El Camino de Santiago, País Vasco

The Basque Country is where my journey began, and couldn’t have begun better. Although the north route of the Camino officially departs from Irún, the truth is that you can start anywhere you want to. Some people come down from the west coast of France, others from further abroad. I met one guy who’d walked all the way from his front door somewhere in The Netherlands.

friendly stamping stationI started in Hondaribbia, a small port town right next to Irún, and as luck would have it, where a friend of a colleague from Segovia happens to live. This was a blessing.

Despite being a girl, and having a terrible sense of direction, I was always adamant about walking the Camino alone, and wasn’t the least bit afraid to do so. I knew a few people who’d done it, or who knew people who knew people who’d done it, and they all said to me “tranquila, you’ll be fine”. Apparently alone is the best way to go. However, for some reason I was slightly apprehensive about starting by myself, and particularly about spending that first night alone in Irún. From the website, the albergue (pilgrims’ hostel) looked cold and unfriendly. I had visions of lying awake there on the eve of the Camino, locked in under curfew, staring at the underside of the bunk above me, tormented by more visions – of getting lost in the morning and all the terrible things that could happen to me on the road. “What on earth am I doing?”, I would ask myself, and then answer myself with disparaging criticism, self doubt, and the realisation that the whole idea (of carrying me and my baggage over 800km) was damn crazy.

Fortunately, those thoughts didn’t enter my head until much later on the Camino, when it was far too late to turn back. The beginning of my trip ended up being perfect.

Upon finding out that I was doing the Camino and intending to start from Irún, a colleague/friend of mine had been quick to offer me a Basque friend of hers’ hospitality. The two of them had met on the Camino, walked various routes and parts of routes (together and separately), volunteered in albergues, and could easily be classified as ‘Camino enthusiasts’. They turned out to be the best possible company for a slightly underprepared and suddenly-very-alone-feeling Australian girl. I was picked up from the bus station by the bubbly, smiling pair, driven to their house, and “checked in” to my very own room with soft carpet and a double bed with fresh sheets (it would be a while before I slept in one of them again). They even provided me with my own guidebook, some blank pilgrim’s passports, and a scallop shell painted with the red cross of St.John (none of which I’d thought to organise before leaving). We had lunch in their back yard, looking out to France across the port. My “Camino Eve” consisted of a walk around the historic parts of Hondarribia, swimming with the locals, a seafood dinner with the family, ice-cream, and not a bad nights’ sleep after all.

lighthouse at PasajesOn the first day of the Camino, I only did a half etapa (stage), from Hondarribia to Pasajes de San Juan, in order to ease into the walking. My friend accompanied me the whole way, which was, for her, just a light little 16km stroll. She set a good pace and gave me invaluable tips on the Camino, such as where to look for arrows (everywhere), what the crosses mean (“not this way”), how to strike up conversation with other pilgrims, how to graciously move on or back or away (when you’d prefer to walk alone or with someone else), which towns to stop at, where to try what food, and so on. We arrived in Pasajes (a picturesque mini toy port town) by lunchtime and were met by her friend, who was actually born and raised there (he moved to “Hondarribia City” as an adult). We had another swim and another delicious seafood meal, and then said our farewells. They left me at the albergue door to fend for myself, but not before somehow getting word out in the village that I was to be taken care of. When the hospitalero (albergue manager) arrived at 4pm to a queue of pilgrims longer than the number of beds he could provide, his first move was to ask if there was an Australian girl amongst us, and usher me in. Talk about special treatment!

So that’s how it started – almost all too easily. I kept waiting for things to unravel and all go wrong, but thankfully, they never quite did. The first few stages I was just flying, high on life, warm fuzzies, and the whole “I can’t believe I’m doing this” feeling.

Whilst the walking was hard (much harder than expected), the remarkable scenery kept me distracted, and bushy tailed enthusiasm kept me going.  I hadn’t done any specific pre-Camino preparation (in fact I was carrying a slight knee injury which made going downhill a bit of an ordeal), but thanks to all the running and walking I did in Segovia, I had no real problem adapting to my new Camino lifestyle of hiking all day, every day. My knee magically healed itself, I bonded with my backpack, got into the walking groove, and (when not wading through mud) just enjoyed the scenery. Which was the whole idea.

Pobeña, País Vasco The Basque country is, true to its reputation, a land of lush countryside, pristine beaches, and incredible food. But that could be said for the whole north coast – it’s all green, hilly, rainy, beachy and yummy. Yet each of the four regions I passed through (The Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia) had a distinct feel to it, a particular identity. And none more so than the Basque Country. Although technically part of Spain, it has a very strong feel of, I don’t know, separateness… something intangibly different which I’m probably not the best person to identify or describe.

Language is a huge part of Basque identity, probably the biggest. Although almost everyone speaks Spanish, there was very little of it in the air, and nothing else even remotely Latin sounding. Euskera (Basque) is, as far as I can make out, totally different from every other language – it doesn’t sound like anything I can put my finger on. It’s not unpleasant on the ear however, and despite its weirdness, it’s not too hard to imitate. Most pilgrims picked up a little and exchanged occasional pleasantries with locals, such as ‘kaixo’ (hello), ‘aupa’ (hello, encouragement, yes you can make it to the top of the hill), and ‘eskerrik asko’ (thank you, which was easy to remember as it was written on all the restaurant napkins). My favourite was ‘muxu bat’, pronounced, ‘mushu bat’, meaning ‘one kiss’. Or something like that. It’s important to be friendly.

Basque FlagAside from language, something visually distinctive about region was the number of flags and banners everywhere, especially in the smaller villages. The most common was the green, red and white Basque flag. There were also plain bright pink or red flags, to support local rowing teams (especially in Pasajes, which is famous for rowing). However the most striking banners were black and white, with Basque separatist, anti-Spain slogans. Many featured an outline of the Basque state, surrounded by inward pointing arrows; it called for imprisoned ETA terrorists to be brought home. Similar slogans and designs were often found on posters, cafe napkins, shop fronts and stencil graffiti, again mostly in the smaller towns. Since moving to Spain I’ve seen a fair bit on the news about Basque terrorists, anniversaries of attacks, memorials for victims, and the associated political minefield. It’s all pretty over my head, and as there hasn’t been an ETA attack in the time that I’ve lived there, hard to really fathom as a reality. A quick search on Wikipedia gives an approximated death toll of over 800 people since the late sixties. Most were small bombings, in car parks or on trains, blatantly targeting civilians. No wonder the hurt, anger and fear is still fresh amongst many Spaniards. For me it was a strange sensation, walking around tranquil, civilised, proud Basque communities, knowing that somewhere in the midst, there were ETA sympathisers. There would surely be friends, family, and acquaintances of the condemned terrorists, who may or may not support or feel ashamed of them, who may or may not believe in or desire independence, and who may or may not condone the use of violence (I’m assuming that the vast majority don’t), or harbour anti Spanish sentiment. Being an “anglo spanglophile”, I did feel just a little on edge a couple of times. Not from any clear threat or ill will (everyone was lovely), more as a knee-jerk reaction to the palpable political intensity. But mostly it was just sad to think about how messed up the world is, even in a place as picturesque and fertile as the Basque Country.

arriving in San Sebastián In the cities it was different. Going by what I saw, everything was more cosmopolitan, everyone spoke Spanish (or English), and was out to either make money or have a good time.

It’s hard to really enjoy a big city when you’re on the Camino, because you lose half a day in arriving, and generally need to leave at the crack of dawn the following day. Galleries, museums, shopping, and big nights out are off the cards. Of course you can stop for a few days, recharge in a hotel or whatever, but then you run the risk of losing your rhythm (plus time and money), and it gets harder to get going again.

Fortunately, I’d already been to Bilbao. I spent a weekend there a couple of years ago, just to see the Guggenheim. Which meant that for my one night there on the Camino, I was content to just amble, have a couple of drinks, buy some groceries, admire the funky bohemians playing music in the winding streets of the old town, and wonder how I’d go living there.

pinxtos in San SebastianIn San Sebastian, an afternoon on the beach and a low key bar crawl was more than enough to sate my appetite and curiosity about the place. San Seb (Donostia in Basque) is said to be the most expensive Spanish city to live in, and it’s also an internationally renowned gastronomic tourism hot spot, home to a number of Michelin starred restaurants. So I was pleasantly surprised that the pinxtos (elaborate bar snacks, often in the form of little towers) were only around €2-5. This is expensive compared to the rest of Spain (where they are often free), but still doable on a pilgrims budget, and definitely good value. They’re a lot fancier than the usual meatballs lumped on a plate, more akin to a fine dining entree, minus the cost of the silver service. A very nice alternative to backpack food. And not that I have anything against meatballs.

en route to the port, BilbaoOne thing that I noticed about cities on the Camino, is that whilst there’s not enough time to ‘experience’ them to their fullest, you do see them in a way that most other tourists don’t. That is, you need to traverse the entire city on foot. Instead of being “magicked” by train or plane into a central station, you pass through outer suburbs, industrial zones, poor and rich neighbourhoods, the CBD, all of it. So often we just see the old town, inside the walls, so to speak. But walking from end to end gives you a better idea of just how big a city is, how it wakes up in the morning, and lives and breathes. This made me think about my own city. Melbourne is rumoured to be pushing 100km in diameter, so if it was on the Camino, it would take a 3-4 day walk just to pass through.

On that tangential note, here are some more photos of the Basque region. Go there!

 

 


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Segovia, in pictures

It’s hard to believe it’s over. After almost two years of living inside a fairytale, I’ve packed up my little attic apartment, said goodbye to Señor Cigüeña (the stork outside my window), and did one last scenic walk of the Segovia and its ancient walls. I tried my best to farewell each of my friends and colleagues, and have a last glass of wine and pincho at all of my favourite bars. On Saturday I handed back my keys, and I’m now no longer a resident of what I consider to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

Segovia has treated me incredibly well. It’s cheap, easily navigable on foot, surrounded by lush green countryside and snow capped mountains, and, most importantly, almost every bar offers free tapas. One of my reasons for leaving was actually that life there was too easy, and I was worried about getting so comfortable that I’d never be able to hack living somewhere “in the real world”. For me, one of the biggest challenges of the Madrid Metrolpolis will be that “not everything is picturesque all the time”, as is the case in most corners of the globe, save where I happen to be coming from.Señor Cigüeña

So am I sad about leaving Segovia? The truth is, not really. Whilst I loved it there (really loved it) and it will always have a special place in my heart, I simply knew that it was time to move on. I acknowledge my incredible good fortune in having had the opportunity to live somewhere so remarkable (and for so long), but I didn’t want to push my luck, and I didn’t want to let the experience stagnate. Segovia will always be there to go back to, and go back I will. I’m already planning visits for the next Segovian half-marathon and Titirimundi puppet festival, as well as scouting apartments to buy there when I win first division in El Gordo, the fat Christmas lottery.

In the meantime, as a little tribute to Segovia, I’ve uploaded some photos of my wanderings about the city. There are a lot missing, a lot of views that I was meaning to capture, yet somehow just never got around to. I would also love to have done a series of drawings based on the esgrafiados (traditional Segovian facades), and maybe I still will, but excuses excuses, there were just too many other things to be seen and done. Another thing to note is that the city is much greener and in better condition than as depicted in these photos. There are plenty of parks and nice, clean, renovated buildings – it’s just that I’m drawn to photographing old derelict walls.

If you’re interested, click on the links to two different photo pages. Then, at the foot of this post, you’ll find my recommendations for some bars, restaurants, and things to see and do in Segovia.

 DOORS, WALLS & WINDOWS

casa de los picos, calle real, Segovia

FAIRYTALE CITY

Segovia, anochecer

 

Top bars with free tapas:
José María (most famous and well regarded in Segovia city, also has big dining room)
La Judería (generous tapas of Indian/Asian/Middle eastern food, something different for when you get sick of traditional Spanish cuisine)
Fogón Sefardí (consecutive winner of tapas competitions, see menu for mini mains at pincho prices)
La Cueva de San Esteban (Cave-like venue, traditional food and decor)
El Fogón de Javier (lovely terrace, fantastic olives)
Ludos (also has board games and great breakfast combos)

Fine dining restaurants (the best ones are always outside the capital):
La Portada de Mediodía, Torrecaballeros
El Rancho, Torrecaballeros
José María
La Postal, Zamarramala (great weekday set menu)

Great bakery: Limon y Menta (just off the main square)

Fresh food markets :
Thursday morning in the main square
Saturday morning between José Zorilla and Avenida de la Constitución

Best touristy things to do:
The Alcazar
Visit to La Granja Palace and gardens (mini Versailles, but free and minus the crowds)
Museo Esteban Vicente (more for the building than the art)
Pedraza (medieval fortress town about 40mins by car from Segovia)
Puerta de Santiago (an exhibition space inside one of the gates of the old wall)
walk walk walk (around the town, around the surrounding countryside, especially around the wall)

Typical Segovian set-menu:
Judiones de La Granja (jumbo white broad beans in hearty meaty broth)
Cochinillo o Cordero Asado (oven roasted suckling pig or baby lamb)
Ponche Segoviano (sponge cake with egg yolk custard and thin real-almond-not-horrible-fake marzipan icing)

Also try:
Cocido (hearty many-part stew, with noodle broth, vegies and chick peas, and separate mixed meat and sausage component)
Alcachofas con jamon (artichokes with garlic and Spanish ham)
Tejas de almendra (sticky almond ‘roof tiles’)
torreznos (pork crackling bar snacks – not my thing, but is typical of the region)
Empanada de pisto (pastry filled with cooked tomato and onion)
Pulga de tortilla (little bread roll filled with Spanish potato omelette, typical mid-morning snack)
all the grilled/roasted vegetables, especially pimentón (sweet red pepper)


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Chapter ???

School’s out for this academic year, and I find myself once again in limbo. Whilst the kids have finished exams and are clearly on their long summer break, I’m in a slightly confusing no man’s land between three cities, some random work/life/bureaucratic ‘to-dos’, and a deceptive amount of free time (which sometimes feels like too little, sometimes too much, but mostly just never fully presents itself).

Having 3.5 months school ‘holidays’ is definitely a blessing and a curse. At the moment I’m holding on desperately to a dwindling number of private classes, to see how far I can stretch them in to the summer. Unfortunately not many people have ‘ganas’ to study once the term wraps up and the heat kicks in. But fortunately I do have just enough students to get me through the next few weeks, and whilst these classes get in the way of most other plans, they also break up the day and give me a good reason to keep myself showered and sober :-P

So other than sitting in the sun and staring longingly at frosty beer taps, how else am I planning on filling this idle, gaping, gap in commitments? And what’s on the other side of it?

On the other side of it is Madrid, where I’m due to start work in a primary school next October. I know little about the school, other than that it’s conveniently located just inside the Zone A metro perimeter, the website is pretty, the students look to be suspiciously non-diverse (did they pick out all the blond ones for the photo shoot?), and they’re terrible at responding to emails (which is not surprising). Despite my initial preference being to work in a secondary school, now that I’ve received my placement I’m starting to get pretty excited about teaching kids again, and I’m hoping that infantíl (pre-primary) will be included in the bilingual program. I wouldn’t mind another year of finger painting red apples and yellow bananas with three year olds – I’ve missed the little ones!

But October is a long way away. At the moment I’m hanging tight in Segovia for as long as my private classes continue, whilst sorting out the move to Madrid (find a flat, renew visa, start carting stuff eastward). Other projects include trying to get the sticky blu-tack residue off my walls, finding creative ways to use up all my dry goods and condiments, and filling any other down-time with creative writing (not self-indulgent blog posts). Kayaking with a big group of 14 year olds is also on the cards.

In early July an Australian friend is coming to visit in Segovia and help me polish off all the alcohol, because glass is just too heavy to move house with. (Books are also heavy, if only she could help me quickly read them all!)

Then in mid July, providing I don’t get cold feet/chicken out/acojonarse, I’m setting off on the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage/series of walking routes which start all over Spain and Europe and finish in Santiago de Compostela, in the North West corner of Spain. I’ll be doing the Northern route, starting from Irún and walking some 800km along the coast, via places like San Sebastian and Guernica… hopefully all the way to Santiago, and hopefully at a fast enough pace to make it home in time for my flight to Australia in late August.

Most of September will be spent in Melbourne, where my little brother is getting married, and lots of people are turning 30, and I will be undoing six weeks of wholesome hiking with just over 3 weeks of solid socialising (if my last trip home was anything to go by).

And then it’s back to Madrid for the next chapter (or has that started already?)…and continuing the continuous cycle of constant movement but no real progress in any direction. Perhaps I will take another Spanish exam in November, providing that the trauma of the last one was worth it (still no news).

So, friends, family and random readers, that is the short term plan for the moment. It’s pretty much my long term plan as well, and of course, subject to change. I might experience an epiphany on the Camino and decide to become a nun of the cloister, or swim to Canada, or study economics. Stranger things have happened. But for now, if you are in Melbourne, keep warm, and I look forward to seeing you in August/September.

Everyone else, Madrid is a great meeting place from October onwards!


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French Toast, Spanish style… and a bit about Semana Santa

This is the first time I’ve been at ‘home’, alone, in Spain over the Easter break. I decided to forgo such an excellent opportunity to travel, in order to be able to:
– Do a big, scary, expensive and unnecessary Spanish exam (tick! fingers crossed!).
– Get on top of work and clean my flat before I go to Poland the week after the holidays, and my parents come to visit the week after that (!!!).
– Organise life/update CV/de-frag dying laptop.
– Save money.
– Catch up on a backlog of Skype catch ups. It seems like everyone in Australia is getting married and eating hot cross buns without me.
– Make some headway on book 2 of Juego de Tronos (Game of Thrones), which, as much as I’m loving it and it’s great for my medieval Spanish vocabulary, is looking to take the longest of any book I’ve ever read (possibly longer than 1Q84 and Les Miserables combined).

I must say, being able to get stuck into these projects has been a luxury. There’s something to be said for a bit of time at home, when most of your friends are away (or live on the other side of the world), and you have no choice but to do all those niggly domestic tasks that have been building up for what seems like years. Hem pants, clean the little wheels under the microwave tray, and reply to near forgotten emails – all excellent reasons to not go to Ireland (which was the potential trip I had in mind for the Easter holidays before I realised it just wasn’t going to work).

capuchines de la parroquia de Jesús Cristo de Los GasconesExperiencing Semana Santa, Spanish holy week, was not a motivation for staying here. For some reason, watching bleeding Jesus and weeping Mary statues being paraded through the streets by grieving processions of people dressed in mourning, off-key brass bands, Klu Klux Klan figures, and overpowering incense…is something that just doesn’t attract me. I’ve been hearing the bands rehearsing for weeks, and seen the footage on the news, and for me that’s more than enough. I’ve no desire to go out of my way to attend a procession, and have graciously declined a few invitations to do so. I’m well aware that each statue is different and special, that some are hundreds of years old, some weigh a tonne and are carried cross country, or across rivers, or sometimes along cobblestone streets by bearers on their knees. It is all very specialised and painful stuff. The hermandades and cofradías (parish brotherhoods and guilds) spend months in preparation for the big week. They open temporary bars with names like Misericordia (not misery, mercy) to raise money for the church, and drink to their favourite Saint, Jesus or Virgin. They decorate the walls with posters of previous years’ processions, usually with close ups of Jesus’ bloody wounds and Mary’s tear stained face. Some years, it rains, and this means the pasos (statues) can’t leave the churches, which tends to produce even more waterworks. Apparently the main drawcard of Semana Santa is the sombreness of the atmosphere, as the people re-live Christ’s suffering.

But for some reason, this depressing, self-flagellating, Spanish brand of Catholicism is completely beyond me.

I’m not sure why I feel so estranged by it, but I do. Even more so than by more foreign religions. Perhaps this is the problem. Here, the religion just isn’t exotic enough. It fails to attract me on an aesthetic level (Spanish church interiors are particularly gaudy), and because it’s similar to what I’ve grown up with (it’s just an extreme version), there’s no mystery to lure me in. I know that this is wrong, that it should really be about faith (not aesthetics), but unfortunately I’m a little weak in that department.  So in Spain, all I see is a bizarre mix of unquestioning devotion, robotic obedience, complete indifference, and really tacky statues. Every now and then it occurs to me that I might be missing out on something, that to have a strong faith is probably a beautiful and comforting thing. But the truth is, I prefer not to hang my hopes on the benevolence of any specific deity, and I think “do unto others” is a reasonable, good, and straighforward code to endeavour to live by.

For me, the best thing about organised religion is that it brings family and friends together, and provides an excuse for a feast or a party. As simple as that. In my twisted, morally depraved perspective, religion is synonymous with tradition, tradition with culture, and culture with food. Nice, traditional, home cooked food. So holy wars, discrimination, and antiquated thinking aside, if religion is just an excuse for good food and a party, it can only be a good thing. Or is it?

A couple of years ago I went to a Romería, a celebration in the countryside in honour of La Virgin de la Antigua, one of the patron saints of the small Cordovan village where I was living at the time. Sure, it was a fun weekend (camping and dancing with about 6,000 people) but I couldn’t help but think, I wonder what the Virgin would have thought of the party in her name. Of the tacky carnival rides, the fairy floss stalls, the live football telecast on the big screen, the scantily dressed cover band, the excessive quantities of alcohol and the deafeningly loud music. Or of the perfect opportunity her party provided for all the teeny boppers to sneak away from their family’s tents, get drunk, and do naughty things in bushes. I’ve nothing against alcohol, or teenagers having fun in bushes, but it seemed very sacrilegious for it all to be happening in honour of a virgin.

La Virgin de La AntiguaThe week after the Romería, I was correcting homework for an after school class I had with some of the more ‘troubled’ (read: very very naughty) teenagers in the village. Unsurprisingly, most of them had written about the party. But I was more than a little shocked to read “I love La Virgin de la Antigua because she is beautiful and holy and kind”, over and over, the same sentence, echoed in almost every assignment. For once, I really hoped the students were copying each other.

So, my attitude to religion, and parties, and religious parties in Spain, is more than a little conflicted. The big parties get too debauched. I can’t stand the hypocrisy. The apparent brainwashing frightens me. And most of all, Semana Santa is just so depressing. However, at least it’s good to see Easter being celebrated for what Easter is about (I thankfully haven’t seen a chocolate bunny since I got here). Religion is such a big part of culture and identity. It would be really sad if it began to die out and the people stopped practising their traditions.

Sometimes I wonder, considering that I’m an outsider in the community, and I’m not religious, what’s the point of even thinking about all this?

I don’t know. It’s interesting. And it’s impossible not to have opinions and feelings. I’m curious about the various levels of devotion and participation that are exhibited in the processions. It makes me reflect on my own background and attitude to religion. I was raised a Catholic, consider myself agnostic, avidly dislike commercialism, and absolutely love Christmas. I think it’s a beautiful custom, so long as I don’t think to hard about what it means, or is supposed to mean, or whether or not I have the right to enjoy it if I don’t agree a lot of stuff the Church says/does/has done in the past.

So anyway. It’s happened again. This post was supposed to be a quick one, just a few photos, some interesting cultural tidbits, and ya.

You see, I’m a little tired, possibly even delirious. This morning I went for a run, a really long one, even longer than the half marathon I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. And as I was on the final stretch, I saw a big group of red and black capuchines (hooded Semana Santa figures) congregated in the street outside my flat. They cut pretty striking figures, and it occurred to me that whether I’m into it or not, this was no everyday sight, and it would be stupid to miss a procession that was literally on my doorstep. The show was starting, so I bolted upstairs (very melodramatically, with what little strength I had left), grabbed my camera (and a swig of water) and ran back into the street. I managed to get a couple of photos, but the group had moved on. And I wasn’t about to join in the procession in my shaky, unwashed, salt-caked state.

After stretching and showering, I was just sitting down to eat, when I heard the procession returning. Again, I rushed downstairs, and managed to see the return leg. It was pretty cool. The musicians sounded much better than when they were rehearsing, and the capuchines had a pretty ominous aurora about them. This particular Jesús was carried in a glass coffin, heavily adorned with flowers. The parishioners followed sombrely, all dressed in the darkest shades of their Sunday best, and many of the women wore black veils.

After a couple of minutes of straining to find a good place to stand (my street is very narrow and the procession took up most of it), I heard some voices above me. My neighbours were watching from their balcony, and invited me up. From their vantage point, they could see Jesús inside the coffin (‘isn’t he beautiful’, they all crooned), and a spectacular view of the capuchines disappearing down the street, with the Aqueduct and ancient city walls in the background. I spent a good while longer in their flat, and they told me about the monk who founded the parish (he came from France on a donkey), gave me their photos of the procession on a USB, and we gossiped about the private lives of the owners of the neighbouring restaurants. The two little girls showed me their Semana Santa drawings, and I would loved to have stayed longer, except that by this point I was close to fainting, and could only think about the (now cold) eggs and toast that were waiting for me in my attic upstairs.

So what of Spanish Easter food? Firstly, as to be expected, there is no meat on Good Friday. Except for in Segovia, where cochinillo and cordero (roast suckling pig and lamb) are the traditional dishes. If the only chance you have to visit Segovia is during Easter, well, apparently it’s acceptable to try just a bit of whole dead baby animal. As far as I can tell, the only other specific-to-Easter dish is Torrijas, which is basically sticky honey and cinnamon French toast. I’ve tried to explain that in Australia, French toast is just a regular breakfast food (well, maybe not every day, but it’s on most breakfast menus and isn’t confined to one time of year). This has been met with a bit of uproar. Apparently Spanish torrijas are special, but as far as I can make out, the ingredients (milk, eggs, bread), cooking method, and taste, are all the same. Which is a good thing. Because whatever side of the equator (or Pyrenees), and whatever the name, or motivation for eating it, milky eggy sticky spicy fried bread is delicious.

And that’s all I have to say about Semana Santa

torrijas