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travel, stories, and other flights of fancy


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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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the king looked in the mirror and saw a trout

What did Smeagol (aka Gollum) and King Carlos III of Spain have in common?

???????????????????????????????They both loved fishing!

But their techniques must have differed greatly. Before he was cast into the fiery pits of Mordor, Smeagol splashed and squirmed around muddy pools, diving in and out to catch the wriggly things with his own slippery fingers. King Carlos III, however, was probably far less inclined to get even his feet wet. Why else would he have ordered his minions to build “the Royal Fisheries”?

Las Pesquerías Reales can be found just outside La Granja de San Ildefonso, the Palace and gardens which were constructed by the Bourbon Kings during their stint in Spain (they must have been very homesick, the gardens are a replica of Versailles). But what exactly are “Royal Fisheries”?   I was asking myself this question as I set off to visit them yesterday morning.

The answer is, not what I expected. The fisheries turned out to be a picturesque walking track along the Eresma River. It’s paved with giant flat stones, with occasional platforms that jut out over the rapids, and there’s a weird contraption at the top of the river that is supposed to assist trout migration (in some feat of fish biology/water engineering genius). The people track begins at the Pontón Reservoir (also known as ‘the mirror’, see photos) and runs upstream for about 5km to another big dam next to Valsaín, a town which is famous for nice bread, cute little farm animals roaming free, and wood fire ovens (for roasting aforementioned farm animals). It then continues further (towards the “Ass’s mouth”), but I did not.

Apparently the river is home to trout, carp, and Iberian mullet. I didn’t see any, not one. The rapids were pretty fast and the water looked bloody cold. Perhaps fish go south for winter too.

Anyway, whether you’re into fishing or not, the real selling point of the route is the scenery. From several vantage points you can get a good view of some of the highest mountains in the Guadarrama Range, including “the King’s Seat” (which is officially called “the Bun of Aunt Andrea”). Yesterday, being mid winter, it was still bitterly cold, but both to my relief and disappointment, recent rains had washed away much of the snow. It was actually a perfect day for walking, with little wind and not a cloud in the sky. The winter sun did its best effort at thawing and succeeded – the river was high, and everyone out walking seemed to be in good spirits too.

 


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the return to OZ

Was a fully saturated, action packed, emotional rollercoaster whirlwind of a visit – powered by vegemite, sunscreen and sushi.

Being at home again, after over two years away, was always going to be a bit of a surreal experience. The strangest part however, was that so much felt completely normal. My parents seemed unchanged, my little brothers still towered over me, even my brother’s fiancée (whom I’d never met before) was exactly as I expected, a natural addition to the scene awaiting me at the airport.

After a 36 hour journey with virtually no sleep (there was too much food and entertainment to indulge in during the flight), meeting and greeting the family, and ‘checking in’ to my parent’s place (again, unchanged), I had a shower and a quick siesta, and then went straight to a friend’s 30th birthday in Princess Park.

Prinny was my old stomping (and running) ground, just around the corner from Melbourne Uni. I arrived late to the picnic/BBQ to find my ‘north side’ friends clustered around a bunch of eskies and a fold out table laden with dips and mostly eaten birthday cake. They were sipping cider and bubbles and wearing summery clothes, as though that’s what they’d been doing ever since I left. Obviously that’s not the case – many of them have been busy being lawyers and having babies and doing PhDs in disciplines I can’t pronounce the names of. But this Sunday afternoon was super casual, yet picture perfect, and it instantly made me feel as though I hadn’t missed a beat.

Anyway, ‘off the plane and to a party’ pretty much set the pace of my entire stay. Except for when I was at a music festival, hiking, or on the road to visit rellies interstate, I was busy in Melbourne catching up with groups and individuals over breakfast, brunch, lunch, coffee, walks and dinner. Unfortunately for me, in early December almost everybody was still at work in the real world, so there was a fair bit of visiting people on their lunch breaks. It was actually quite nice to see where they worked – mostly in impressive looking glass high-rises. One morning I even begrudgingly met up with my brother at 7.30am, ‘the only time his schedule would allow’, which was a shock to my system and a telling reminder of the differences in our lives. Fortunately, despite the career disparity, we still got along as well as we always have, and fortunately this was the case with just about everyone. I’ve invested a lot a of time and effort into keeping in touch with people while away, and it was a relief to realise it’s paid off. Not once did I feel like a stranger.

Meredith, my favourite festival in the bush

So what were the highlights? Well there were too many to mention, and it wouldn’t be fair to single out one over others. Besides, this was a purely social holiday, and I doubt my personal life has anything new to offer the blogosphere.

Instead, to summarise my trip without having to write properly, I’m going to be very Gen Y and put my observations into lists; of things that surprised me, things that I’d missed, and things that I learnt from my visit to home.

Things about Melbourne that surprised me (or that I’d forgotten about)

  • Increased prevalence of beards – notably the full-blown Ned Kelly ginger bush variety, which I’m not particularly sold on, but is now ubiquitous in the northern suburbs and at hipster music festivals. (I don’t mind a bit of respectably trimmed scruffle though, and it was nice to see a lot of that around too).
  • Prices – despite having free accommodation, being cooked for, shouted, taken out, and chauffeured around, this was still one of the most expensive holidays I’ve ever had. I’d forgotten just how pricey Melbourne was. Ten dollars for a pint of cider? That’s a three course meal in Spain!
  • Internet and phone app dating – seems to now be the norm. I suppose that makes sense in such a modern, proactive society, where people know what they want, are ruthless in looking for it, and time is at a premium. However seeing this change (and meeting all the new +1s) made me realise not only how old fashioned I am, but just how incredibly passive my attitude is toward the whole question of finding a partner is.
  • The Australian sun – how it burns! I’d forgotten about the ‘no ozone’ thing, oops.
  • Trendy hipster trendiness (bluntly described by a friend as a ‘big w*** fest’, which is definitely one way of looking at it) – everything seemed so fancy, so designer, so elaborate. Especially what comes on your plate. I used to work in hospitality and I thought I knew all the food words. But things have changed. It’s been taken to another level, damn master chef and everyone wanting to be a ‘foodie’.
  • Urban sprawl – Melbourne apparently now spans over 100km. You can drive and drive and the city never ends.
  • My mum has become a cricket fan – Now this was a shock. She was always a kindred ‘non-cricket’ person, but now she leaves the TV on all day when the cricket’s on, and speaks cricket language (all fractions and innings and names of people I don’t know). I feel betrayed.
  • Public transport – a tardy, lumbering embarrassment. It’s hard for me to believe I used to spend up to 3 hours a day on trams (to get from one ‘inner city’ suburb to another), and never thought much of it. Compared to the metro of, for example Madrid (also 4 million people), Melbourne is light years behind. I’m not sure what the criteria are for ‘world’s most liveable city’, but given that Melbourne has won it, public transport clearly isn’t one of them.
  • Meat – at almost every meal. Seemed like a lot, in comparison to my usual passive-semi-vegetarian diet. I eat meat in Spain if it’s served to me as a tapa, or occasionally in a menú del día, but these are tiny portions compared to the quanity of meat served in an Australian main (at home or dining out).
  • Bigger people. Just sayin’
  • Strange new words like ‘totes’ (totally) and ‘fomo’ (fear of missing out).

Nice stuff that I’d missed, and some new pleasant surprises

  • Home-style Aussie food – all those yummy things that sound weird when you try to explain them to foreigners, like curried eggs, curried sausages, cucumber dip, yo-yos, Pavlova, and chicken Parma. Even Vita Wheats got me excited.
  • Lemon lime and bitters
  • Real milk – none of that UHT nonsense
  • Asian food – is so much better in Australia than in Spain. Or maybe it’s just about what you’re used to. I must be specifically hooked on ‘Australian style Asian food’, cos I’m sure it’s different in Asia. Anyway, I did my best to eat my fill of sushi, Bombay By Night’s ‘Chicken Makhanwalla’, and every kind of stir-fry, dumpling, mooncake noodle goreng I could get my hands on. New Year’s Day involved an epic Yum Cha feast…I think I’ve now had enough chicken’s feet and Shanghai pork buns to last me until 2015.
  • Variety, variety, variety – Segovia is a hot spot for ‘traditional Spanish food’, so that is what 99% of bars and restaurants serve. But Melbourne offers food from every continent (well maybe not Antarctica). It was refreshing to be able to choose what type of cuisine I felt like eating. Bless multiculturalism!!!
  • Jobs – In Melbourne it seems like every one has one, and most students even work part time – something unheard of in Spain, where about 50% of my age group is unemployed.  I know that my Australian peers work incredibly hard, and not all of them have ended up in their chosen fields, but I really hope they understand how lucky they are.
  • Gardens – I’ve missed back yards!
  • The music – Aside from friends and family, good music in bars is probably the single biggest thing I’ve missed about Australia, and the terrible music in bars (as in ‘discotecas’, the places you go after 3am cos you want to dance) has been the single biggest disappointment of Spain*.
    *at least the Spain I’ve lived in. I know there’re plenty of famous Spanish clubs that are renowned for their top notch DJs, but in your everyday venues where the normal people go, it’s latin Top 40 plus Rhiannon, at deafening volume, with nobody dancing… so it was really nice to sit around and listen to ambient electronica, at a volume that still permitted conversation, and realise it was so beautiful I never wanted to leave
  • Cider – As much as I loved my Asturian experience, I’ve got to say, I prefer cider the Australian way: on tap, with the bubbles already in it.
  • Coffee – I know I’ve already complained about Melbourne’s overly expensive and overly trendy bar and cafe scene, and coffee is one of the biggest culprits in regards to this. But the endless cupfulls of creamy swirly works of art were really quite delightful, and possibly even worth the price.
  • Nice looking bars – awesome decor and design. With mood lighting, great music and hypnotic coffee swirls, you can disappear into another world. Cool.
  • Beaches – I went for a morning run along a beautiful beach near my Great Aunt and Uncle’s place on the east coast, and I was the only person there, bliss! Even though I’ve never been a surfer/swimmer/beach babe type, I’ve missed living by the sea. Two years inland is making me feel a bit, dunno, claustrophobic.

Things I learnt (or think I learnt)

  • That I can still finish a whole chicken Parma, even when topped with kangaroo fillet. (Thanks Pub Club and the Napier Hotel)
  • That as much as I like bushwalking and I like camping… bushwalking and camping at the same time is not for me. Even when the boys are carrying the tents.
  • That eating “scroggin” (fruit and nut trail mix with MMs) whilst hiking is a sure fire way to not lose weight whilst hiking.
  • That inflatable mattresses need to be inflated, if you want them to adequately serve their purpose as a mattress.
  • That it’s impossible to spot koalas when you’re looking at your feet.
  • That Melbourne has it’s own special variety of cold, that gets into your bones and makes it feel at least 15° colder than it actually is. Why else would I be shivering myself to sleep on a 20° Melbourne summer evening, and, upon my return, finding a 10° Segovian winter night “balmy”.
  • That Emirates are overrated.
  • That I’m a lot more materialistic than I thought I was. Many of my peers in Melbourne have nice stuff (cars, houses, iPhones), and I began to notice envy creeping in, something I hadn’t felt in a while. And when my suitcase was delayed for 3 days on the way home, I started to overthink and worry about what would happen if I lost all my things. Perhaps I’m not such a free spirit after all.
  • That at home I feel much more susceptible and reactive to…everything. It’s not just jealousy. The terrible public transport stresses me out. Elevated prices disgust me. The new government’s policies revolt me, make me angry and ashamed for my country. On the flip side, the positive aspects (such as good music, art and produce, beautiful gardens, and friends and family doing inspiring things), make me swell with pride and joy and optimism. When I’m overseas, it’s much easier to detatch. I don’t feel subject to pressures (not that anyone pressures me at home) or responsible for shit governments (not that I’m responsible at home). I just take things for how they are and then choose if or how much I want to engage or react emotionally. Perhaps an attitude I should work on maintaining next time I’m in Australia.
  • That seeing people one-on-one, and catching up with large groups of people in which you want to talk to everyone at the same time, are both very exhausting, but in different ways.
  • That being ‘on holidays’ at home, with all your family and friends, is awesome. Ex-pat or not, I recommend it to anyone! (stage your own disappearance for a few months, come back, and everyone will buy you beers!)
  • Most of all, I learnt that I had been denying to myself the extent to which I missed everyone. I tried to convert it in my head to “missing situations or moments”, such as watching QI on Tuesday nights at my parents’ house, playing scrabble with friends in winter, or getting Thalia Thai or fish ‘n chips on hangover days. Wrong. I missed people – my parents, my brothers, and my friends. With or without QI and Thaila Thai. But I guess that’s a good thing, and I’m lucky to have people to miss. Very lucky.

a pretty nice view to brush your teeth to, at Wilson's Promontory National Park