ciento volando

travel, stories, and other flights of fancy

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El Camino de Santiago, Asturias

Anyone who’s been following my posts on the Camino will have noticed that I’m trying to record this epic experience by dividing it into manageable chunks, each chunk theoretically being one of the different provinces I walked through. This method appeals to my sense of logic and aesthetics, and is helping me to identify and concrete distinct phases of what would otherwise just be a blurry memory of trudging, resting, washing, eating and drinking, as for 35 days I did little other than that. The trudging was characterised by either sun or rain, and views which made me run out of synonyms for ‘spectacular’. The futility of my map reading and the dream like repetition of daily activities meant that much of the time I had no idea where I was, in relation to the bigger picture (though I could tell Santiago was getting closer by the increased number or pilgrims, and the km markings on some of the carved stone signposts). It’s a good thing I was on the Camino and not doing any kind of serious trekking that required actual navigation skills.

IMG_1148For this reason I can’t really remember where Cantabria ended and Asturias began. I could look it up on a map in order to tell you, but really, the border in this case seemed more of a theoretical delineation rather than a literal physical frontier. Over a period of three or four days walking, one province slowly merged into the other – there was no marked or immediate difference between them. I’m sure I’m treading dangerous territory here, and that anyone from either region (who spoke any of the Cantabrian or Asturian dialects), would be able to make an immediate case for how and why the two provinces are special, unique, and vastly superior to each other (or every other).

However, to my untrained eyes and ear, the main obvious characteristic of Asturias was that it rained a lot, though perhaps this was more due to timing than to any climatic difference between it and the rest of northern Spain. The fact that I spent much of my time in a poncho, walking with my head down watching my feet, and with limited or no peripheral vision, may have slightly hindered my recollection of this particular phase.

Fortunately, about a year ago I spent a weekend in Oviedo, so I can’t claim to be totally ignorant of the beautiful history and architecture of the region. But the truth is, to me Asturias means three things; cider, chorizo cooked in cider, and fabada (a meat, black pudding and broad bean stew, obviously accompanied by cider).

In a town called Villaviciosa (the town of vice?) we actually did a Camino within a Camino, the Camino de la Sidra. Instead of yellow arrows, the route was marked with painted red apples, easily visible despite the rain and alcohol (two potent blurers of vision).

There’s no doubt I did my best in both the cider and the fabada department. The fabada, despite being delicious and apparently “the best fabada in the world” (according to the restaurant signage) was probably the heaviest dish I’ve ever eaten, and a bit of a shock to my system (which had been predominantly subsisting on cheese and bread until that moment). It’s a good thing I did try the best fabada in the world, as it will probably be my last, unless I decide to one day take up gruelling medieval farm work in icy mountains (the only labour that could conceivably justify a regular intake of such a dense and fatty food). As for Asturian sidra, I gave it many chances. I like the bitterness, and the novelty of pouring it (which has its own special verb, escanciar), and sharing the big bottles amongst friends. But to be honest, I prefer the Australian variety, which is a tiny bit sweeter, and comes adequately aerated and can therefore simply be enjoyed as drink, rather than a spectacle.

Another pretty feature of Asturias is the Orios. Pronounced like the biscuit (sorry, cookie – if there ever was an excuse to use the word “cookie” in Australian English, it’d be in reference to the Oreo). Anyway, Spanish Orios are something altogether different. They’re old fashioned (as in, built a long time ago) structures built on stilts, used to store grain in rainy agricultural areas. They’re most commonly found in Asturias and Galicia, I’m not sure why we didn’t see any in the Basque Country or Cantabria (perhaps it has something to do with the type of agriculture, but to the best of my knowledge it was corn and wheat most of the way). Asturian Orios look like little wooden houses on stone legs, with exposed beams, and corn and onions hanging from the rooves to dry. Originally the Orios were used as individual silos for each farm, but these days they’ve been converted into car ports, cubby houses, and shelters for firewood. Some had even been completely renovated and were rented out as holiday accommodation. My favourite ones, of course, were those that were completely decaying… moss covered, tumbling down, and home to the odd stray goat or chicken. If it weren’t for fear of spiders or the structure collapsing, I would have quite happily slept in an Orio over some of the pilgrims’ hostels we stayed at.

Another thing to mention about Asturias is that after Villaviciosa there is a very big fork in the road – you have the option to change Caminos. The Camino del Norte continues westward, through Asturias’ biggest city, Gijón, and along the coast until Galicia. Or there is the possibility of dipping inland to the capital, Oviedo, where the Camino Primitivo starts. The Primitivo is an even more mountainous route, and reportedly one of the most beautiful of all the caminos. Having already been to Oviedo, and feeling ‘loyal to the North Route’, I decided to keep to my original plan. I wanted to see Gijón, and was optimistic about the weather getting better and squeezing in a bit more beach time.

As it was, I spent most of my time in Gijón on a bus to Decathlon – a giant warehouse adventure store in the outskirts of the city. Because of this I missed Gijón’s free outdoor international music festival. My friend’s kept rubbing it in how much fun it was, though I think the visit to Decathlon was worth it – I really needed some cheap quick-dry t-shirts and a lightweight bedroll, before we got closer to Santiago and accommodation got even more crowded. The little I did see of Gijón was pretty cool, it has a beach, a fun, student vibe, nice old buildings, and some newer, trendier parts. I can see why it’s a popular city. But I’m actually sorry I didn’t visit Oviedo again. One guy in our group stayed with us on the Camino del Norte, but made a pretty heavy detour down to Oviedo and up again (he re-joined us in Avilés, with quite a few more kms under his belt), just to see the Cathedral and the relics in the pilgrim’s museum. They have a graveyard for people who’ve died on the Camino (many), and the tour is said to be fascinating.

Something I’ve just realised about Asturias is that, for me, it was the hardest part of the Camino. It wasn’t any more or less difficult than any other province, but by Asturias, I was beginning to flag a bit (from accumulated tiredness), and yet there was still quite a long way to go. There were some moments where I simply didn’t have a good time of it, but had no choice but to keep on going, pushing through… the famous old ‘just put one leg in front of the other’. This was due to two main factors; the weather (which was inevitable), and some very costly mistakes in navigation (which was nobody’s fault but my own). Not only did I not listen to critical advice at information sessions (“don’t take the mountain path, it’s dangerous and badly signposted”, oops!), but I repeatedly failed to follow simple directions that I myself had asked for. It really hit home just how bad I was at listening. It makes no sense that I have no qualms about stopping a stranger in the street and asking for help, and yet when they are generous and patient enough to give me clear indications, I don’t do them the justice of listening properly because I don’t want to waste their time. Usually I thank them before they’ve even finished and rush off in the direction they’re pointing, only to have to stop and ask somebody else for further instructions at the next intersection (thereby wasting even more people’s time). I don’t think I’m alone in this – impatience, bad short term memory, and a poor sense of direction, are all pretty typical of my generation. Anyway, I suppose it was good to recognise this as a problem, and have the opportunity to try and improve on it.

Ah, the Camino, so character building! I wonder how long any of it will last… the fitness certainly hasn’t!

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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 “”. 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!




El Camino de Santiago, Camino del Norte

The Way of St. James, Northern Route

My last post was nearly 7 weeks ago, which is possibly a record gap for me. I’ve been busy with all kinds of things; moving house, hosting visitors, adopting forlorn Czech pilgrims who’ve had their wallets stolen, and doing the two-day cross-hemispherical hopscotch to Australia. But for the bulk of that time, for most of my “summer”, I literally did nothing but walk.

Caminos across EuropeThe Camino de Santiago has more than one path. It is, in fact, a whole network of ancient pilgrimage routes, which make their way from starting points all over Europe to Santiago de Compostela, a beautiful city in the Northwest corner of Spain. There, it is believed that the remains of St.James are held in the Cathedral, after mysteriously arriving by a boat sent from the Holy Land in the first century. Traditionally the peregrinos (pilgrims) walked the arduous journey in poverty, humbling subsisting on the charity of the folk they met along the way. Their reasons for walking were primarily religious; they walked for penance, to beg forgiveness, to ask favours, to give thanks, to seek answers to questions untold.

These days, the roads to Santiago are busier than ever, although the profile, means, and motivations of the modern day peregrino have changed considerably. The Camino is no longer strictly a Christian tradition. Buddhist monks have been known to do it. Atheists, agnostics, people from the entire width and breath of the religious/spiritual spectrum make the journey. People walk the Camino because they are enthusiasts of nature, culture, food or history. The do it to quit smoking, lose weight, get fit, meditate, escape their crowded city lives and take in the fresh air and inspirational scenery of the open road. There are people running from things (unhappy marriages, stressful jobs), people looking for things (epiphanies, soul-mates, big ideas, exotic bird species), and people hoping put time and distance and reflection between one major life phase and the next. And then there are people who simply just like walking.

The most famous and most traditional route to Santiago is the Camino Francés. The French Route starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees, crosses south through the mountains, then west, all the way to Galicia, through the inner northern provinces of Spain. The French route is mostly flat, dry, windy, and notorious for weather extremes.  It is dotted with tiny towns and ancient churches, monasteries and fortresses. At one point it was the frontier between Christian and Arab Spain. More recently, it was popularised (but not particularly well-represented) in the Hollywood movie “The Way”, starring Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. Just a couple of weeks ago, The Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy took the German Chancellor Angela Merkel on a diplomatic stroll along the final stages of the Camino, followed by a private viewing of the Cathedral (which was bad luck for any real pilgrims who were planning on arriving in Santiago on that date). It seems like everyone’s doing the Camino these days – and most of them are on the French route.

early morning on the road

This was one of the reasons I opted for a quieter path, choosing instead to walk the Camino del Norte, the North Way. I started in Hondaribbia (a small port town next to Irún, on the Basque/French border), and walked the 850-something kms from there until Santiago. It took me exactly a month. From Santiago I then did the 3 day, 90km “extension” to Finisterre, The End of the World, to watch the sunset over the Atlantic.

The Northern Route runs mostly along the coast, and is characterised by beautiful beaches, dramatic cliffs, lush green farmland, pine and eucalyptus forests, and mountainous ups and downs. Compared with the French route, it is said to be physically more demanding, as well as significantly less populated, less frequented, and therefore less accommodating to pilgrims. There were often long distances between towns, and amenities were generally scarce. Although the inadequacies of services and accommodation was frustrating, I think this was more than compensated for by the fact that the Camino del Norte, despite being peak season, didn’t feel crowded. There were mornings where I didn’t see another pilgrim for hours, and I loved that real, sought after sense of being alone, with my thoughts, on the road.

I’m a hot weather person and was pretty upset by the rain and overcast skies of Northern Spain (often complaining about being cold, wet, and “robbed of my summer”), but have to admit, we had pretty ideal weather for walking. At least there was no risk of heatstroke, as there is on the shadeless French Route. And we were lucky enough to have a few glorious, sunny beach afternoons, which were all the more enjoyable for being so hard earned. Dipping our tired feet in the ocean after a long day’s walking was bliss.

So, who were “we”?

I, for one, started the Camino alone, with the clear intention of walking alone. In fact I think we pretty much all did. But the best thing about being alone is that you’re completely free to meet people and modify plans. I’m not quite sure at which point “I” became “we”, but by the end of the Camino “we” were a tight, but relatively fluid (we lost some and gained some) group of about ten peregrinos, originating from all over Spain, Galicia, Catalonia, The Basque Country, Germany, Italy, The Czech Republic, Holland, Australia, Brazil, South Korea and America.

It happened rather organically, as most good things do. At first, in the early weeks, we passed each other on the road, and maybe walked together for an hour or two here or there, before one or the other moved ahead or fell behind, in accordance with the mantra “cada uno a su ritmo”, everyone at their own pace. We might have crossed paths later in the day; over laundry basins, in bars or in supermarkets (baskets laden with bread, cheese, chocolate, and one of every fruit). We started sharing detergent, directions, wine, pegs and Betadine. We began to re-group for coffee breaks, choose the same destinations, make bigger and bigger hostel reservations. In time, we recognised each others’ snores, gave each other massages, and were dressing and disinfecting each others’ swollen blistered feet. We knew who needed space, who needed encouragement, and when to give it. We helped each other “lighten the load” by sharing our cheap wine, chocolate and culinary disasters. We were sometimes a well oiled, walking-machine team, and other times, a stunning (but hilarious) example of disorganisation and incompetence.

For me, the unexpected social nature of the Camino was sometimes overwhelming. Aside from walking early in the morning (I was one of the earliest risers), there was very little personal space. In the evenings, the hostels were overcrowded. Many were in remote locations with no more than one bar, and if it was raining, there was simply nowhere else to go. No anonymity and nowhere to write in my notebook or draw or read. I’m an independent person, and being part of a bigger group, waiting for people and making compromises, is not something I’m used to or like doing. But I was under no obligation to join in; at any point I could have (literally) walked off and done my own thing. Yet every afternoon, I kept wanting to meet up with this merry bunch of eclectic wanderers, join in their silly conversation, and discuss backpacks and backaches and blisters with them. In the end, the company, the fun and the moral support was invaluable. Without them I probably wouldn’t have made it to Santiago in such good timing, definitely wouldn’t have made it to Finisterre and I most likely would have come apart at the seams, figuratively speaking.

There is no describing the satisfaction I felt arriving in Santiago de Compostela, and achieving my long-time goal of walking the Camino. Just as there is no way of saying this without it sounding like boasting or narcissism (cos that’s exactly what it is), but I am incredibly proud of my efforts. The Camino, in many parts, wasn’t fun. Sometimes it was hard, sometimes it was boring, sometimes it was incredibly frustrating. The way smelt like dirty livestock or car exhaust. I was allergic to most of the farmland. The entrances and exits to the major cities often passed through outer suburbs and grimy industrial zones. Sometimes there was nowhere to go to the toilet (not even bushes), or to buy food, or to sleep. I ran out of money and didn’t eat well. It rained for days and nothing dried. People got on each others’ nerves. I got sick of myself. We were all constantly tired. And it never helped that every map was different and the next town seemed to always be at least 3km further away than where we thought it was. But as corny as it sounds, these moments of frustration only served to heighten the exhilaration of every positive aspect of the Camino, and to sweeten the glory at the end.

we made it!

The best parts of the Camino are the hardest ones to put in words, especially without sounding clichéd. I loved not just seeing the scenery, but being in it. I loved feeling and smelling the ocean, especially after living so many years inland. I loved the giddy comradely singing about underpants. I loved starting to walk at daybreak, and then suddenly realising it was completely light and I already had 10km under my belt. I loved seeing a landmark in the impossibly far distance, and then suddenly standing under it, knowing I’d walked all that way. I couldn’t get enough of the pristine beaches and freshness of the Cantabrian Sea (compared with the blandness of the Mediterranean), or the dramatic, craggy cliffs, the ragged old stone houses, and the villagers that looked as though their lives hadn’t changed since 200 years ago. I loved the simplicity of walking, of waking up each morning and not having to make any decisions except “how far?”. I loved that the non-Camino world felt so far away, that there weren’t enough power plugs, and therefore it really wasn’t my fault if I didn’t check in to social networks or reply to messages for weeks. I loved the feeling of becoming gradually stronger, my backpack getting lighter, and being more carefree. At the beginning I followed maps and tried to organise where I would sleep each night, but the closer we got to Santiago, the more we left things to chance. Some days we set out walking knowing that there would be no room at the hostels when we arrived (taken up by turigrinos, tourist-pilgrims who catch buses and taxis and cheat their way to a bed in pilgrims’ accommodation). Yet in a group, this was easier to face, we knew that somehow everything would be OK. And it always was.

nothing like seeing your name in latin to make you feel super specialAll peregrinos who cover a distance greater than 100km are eligible to receive a “compostelana”, a fancy looking Latin certificate in recognition of their achievement, (referred to by one of my friends as a “get into heaven free card”. Not quite sure how that works, but I guess it can’t hurt having it!). When applying for the compostelana at the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago, you must fill in a form with personal information, and tick a box to state your reason for doing the Camino. The options are religious, spiritual, or sporting/touristic. For me, after an entire month of walking, it was the first time I had been questioned about my motivations. Unfortunately “all of the above” was not an option.

Strangely enough, the question “why are you doing the Camino?” is never asked on the road. It is taboo in pilgrim etiquette. If someone wants to talk about their reasons for walking, it will eventually come up. You do not ask, and in many cases, you never find out.

I don’t believe the Camino to be a cure-all or the bringer of epiphanies. I find it hard to shake my inner skeptic and I don’t like talk of miracles. You cannot run from yourself, and if you search too desperately for something, you probably won’t find it. However, there is a lot to be said for walking the Camino. It certainly affords one plenty of contemplation time. It is a temporary escape, a respite from daily life, and in some cases, a break from destructive patterns. It presents you with physical and emotional challenges, all kinds of scenery, and all kinds of people. It offers you new perspectives and priorities. The Camino shakes you up. And whilst surely not every pilgrim finds the answer to their questions or achieves their goals, there is no doubt that every pilgrim learns something, learns a lot, along the way. And most of them have fun doing it.

I’m back in Australia now, and what’s left of the Camino is fading fast. This makes me a little bit sad. Like all big things, it completely consumed me at the time (and it was my life in Australia that was a distant haze). People are asking me “how was it?”, or sometimes “what was it?”, and I never quite know what to say. To be honest, I’d rather hear about what they’ve been doing. I worry I can’t sustain their attention long enough (or justify eating up so much conversation time) to give the Camino the rap it deserves. Nor do I want to short change them if they’ve asked an honest question and are genuinely interested in the answer. But getting at least some of it down in writing sure makes me feel a hell of a lot better. There’re some messy scraps in my journal too, but this blog feels clearer, realer, and can be read by others. Some pictures would be a good idea, just as soon as I can upload them the right way up. As would some description on the walking itself and the regions I visited. So it’s not quite all done yet, there’s a little more on the Camino to come…

just follow the yellow arrows




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.


casa de los picos, calle real, Segovia


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)