ciento volando

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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I lied about not having a castle

After a recent trip to Vienna, I wrote about how my Austrian friend grew up in a small village with a castle on a hill. What was originally intended to be a piece of  ‘travel writing’, somehow turned into a jealous rant… because I decided that I wanted a castle too.

The funny thing is, I’ve got one.

The Alcazar of Segovia was originally an Arab fortress built upon Roman ruins, and has since been converted into a royal palace, a prison, a royal artillery college and a military academy. It was the refuge of Queen Isabel of Spain during the 15th century, and it’s more recent claim to fame is that it was the inspiration behind Disney’s Cinderella Castle.

I’ve been living in Segovia for nearly nine months now, and the Alcazar hasn’t ceased to impress me. It’s not just that it’s a beautiful building, it’s the way it’s situated… tall and proud on the edge of a rocky outcrop, like a giant stone fairytale pirate ship, or something.

Due to a recent improvement in the weather (and my orientation skills), I’ve been doing a bit more running of late, and some of the different routes allow me to see the Alcazar from different angles. As a result, the castle now seems more familiar. I recognise the turrets and stonework, just as I recognise the twists and bends of Segovia’s sidestreets. I’m no longer a gawking tourist, I’m a part of the city… I know my way round, I have a role in society, a routine, a  local bar, a favourite spot in the libray, and a preferred cafe. And now, the Alcazar is familiar enough that I really do consider it ‘my castle’.

Here’s a happy snap I took this afternoon. Just after I took the photo, there was an impressive bolt of lightning in the background. If only I had been a fraction slower!

The Alcazar of Segovia


Paises Bajos

IMG_5023It wasn’t until I heard the Spanish for The Netherlands that I ever considered what the name might signify… Paises Bajos, The Low Countries. At first I thought this meant ‘lower on the map than other countries’, but that’s a bit silly. These things are relative, and we all know Australia and NZ are the most undermost of them all.

So it turns out that the Netherlands are physically/geographically really low. As in, below sea level. Perhaps this is common knowledge that I somehow missed out on (it wouldn’t be the first giant, gaping hole), but the revelation was news to me. Upon arrival in the Netherlands it all made perfect sense. It’s a wet and swampy country, full of canals and dams and waterways. The only obstructions to the horizon (other than other than not-very-tall buildings) were droopy trees and fog. I suspect the people might even have webbed feet and gills, but can’t be sure, I’ve never seen a naked Netherlander.

Despite the way-too-early nightfall and the weather being the opposite of my ideal (I ‘strongly dislike’ the rain), my first impression of Amsterdam was that it was a really, really beautiful city. Nice streets, little bridges, and warm, glowing cafes. Ridiculously good looking hipsters were gliding around on bicycles, seemingly protected from the rain by impermeable bubbles of coolness, whilst I fumbled around on foot, getting drenched whilst trying to make sense of my waterlogged paper map (I gave up on the sat nav thingy after Luxembourg).

IMG_5158In the short time I spent there, my first impression of Amsterdam didn’t change. Despite the grunginess that is inevitably attracted by such famously liberal drug laws, the city isn’t really grungy at all. It’s certainly not for the prudish, but for the most part, Amsterdam is clean, relaxed, safe, and super-refreshingly open.

I ‘only’ had two days and nights to play with (it’s a hard life), but I managed to squish a fair bit into a short time, whilst maintaining a fairly relaxed pace. The persistent rain wiped ‘strolling in the parks to check out the crazy people’ off my list, and instead I took refuge in some fantastic galleries and cafes.

I visited the original home of the Dutch artist Rembrandt, and quite enjoyed the free audio tour which explained the how and why of the 17th century curiosities on display there. The painter went bankrupt in his old age and was forced to sell his every possession, and this meant historians had access to detailed inventories which enabled them to reconstruct the house piece by piece. Looking at all the old paraphernalia made me wish I was born a couple of hundred years ago… (despite the fact I’d probably be dead of a toothache or married with 12 children or stoned as a witch by now)

Next stop was the Van Gogh museum, where I saw (in addition to Van Gogh) some works by Vermeer, another Dutch artist who died destitute, despite his talent. I was first introduced to these Flemish artists by my Dad, who’s also a painter (that seems to have an unhealthy idolatry for meticulously slow artists who die penniless). Dad explained to me that one of the beauties of seeing a Vermeer is that only 34 paintings survive in the world today… which means that being in front of one is quite a special and privileged experience. And they’re absolutely beautiful.

Concurrent to the Van Gogh Museum permanent collection was a temporary Impressionists exhibition. This was like stepping into some much needed sunlight. I would’ve liked to be able to climb inside some of the paintings and wander the warm dry countryside of Southern France in the summer.

Instead, I braved the wind and rain to check out Hortus Botanicus, one of the world’s oldest botanic gardens. It was founded in 1638 as a medicinal herb garden, where doctors explored the properties of exotic plants and spices brought across from Asia by the Dutch East India Company.

The garden is located in the middle of Amsterdam city, but feels another world away. This isn’t surprising; it’s actually many other worlds. The garden has a number of greenhouses, each of which plays host to a particular microclimate and plants from specific botanical regions. It was a strange feeling to be wandering amongst seemingly prehistoric Tasmanian ferns, just minutes after navigating a busy intersection to get to an ATM. For those of you that know me from a long time back, you will also be impressed to hear that I entered the butterfly house. Alone. And survived. Fortunately it wasn’t butterfly hatching season and there weren’t too many of them (either that or they were very well camouflaged, uh). I think this means that I don’t have a phobia after all… just an extreme (and arguably reasonable) discomfort in the presence of chaotically moving bits of fleshy live tissue paper.

So what else in Amsterdam? The Rijksmuseum, a walking tour, and a browse in some antique shops and smaller commercial galleries. All were enjoyable and recommendable. It’s obvious why it’s such a popular tourist destination, and for me, it felt like one of those cities I could just keep going back to.

After Amsterdam I headed south to visit some friends in Maastricht, a small city/big town near the Belgian border. As well as a lot of talking and eating, we visited an underground Christmas market with prettily decorated caves, and my friends proudly showed me the biggest hill in the Netherlands. Which I thought quite impressive. It had been a few days since I’d seen an incline of any kind.

I took very few photos, as due to the constant rain I wasn’t feeling inclined to take my hands out of my pockets or spent time hanging around in the street. The majority here are from inside The Hortus, and yes, I’ve played with the colours just a little… Click on the pics for a better/bigger view :-)