Madrid, Spain: Oct. 23 – 26, 2018

Photo Madrid

The Royal Palace

Traveling with Mr. Wiz* is amazing. The last time we were in Madrid was eight years ago and yet he remembers every place we’ve been and how to get there as if it were yesterday. That said, we quickly plan our itinerary and set out, not wanting to waste a minute.

The bad news: The Royal Palace is not open to the public on its free day. The good news: there is a meeting with the German delegation and we are front and center to experience all the pomp and circumstance that is involved with a state visit: the changing of the guards, parade and musicians. Built in the 1700s, we marvel at the size of the structure (the largest building in Spain), which at one time housed the 3000 courtiers of King Felipe VXIII.

Retiro Park is just as we remembered it. One of the largest parks in Spain and a part of the Spanish monarchy until the late 19thcentury, it still seems to have a regal air about it, as its paths wind past sculptures, monuments, a serene lake and beautiful gardens.

We make sure we line up early for the free evening admission to the Prado National Museum. Being serenaded by Spanish guitar music from a local musician helps the time go by quickly. We spend the entire two hours admiring the detail within each painting and fascinated by the stories behind the people depicted.

History records show that tapas became popular in the Middle Ages in taverns that the lower classes frequented. The wine was served in jugs covered with a slice of bread to avoid spills. The word “tapas” evolved from the Spanish verb “tocar” (to cover) and tapas soon came to be known as the little morsels of food that are traditionally served with a drink.

The Mercado de San Miquel Public Market is now serving tapas, but when we arrive it is so crowded. The food at each stall looks amazing, but there is nowhere to sit and hardly anywhere to stand. We are afraid that we might accidently bite into someone’s tapas at this wall to wall giant cocktail party, so we opt to keep going.

Our exploring takes us to Terraza Cibeles, a lovely rooftop bar. The architectural elements of the neighboring buildings, the city views and the European techno music playing in the background makes us feel so hip. We pass on tapas after all and decide that we are still full from the delicious bocadillo (sandwich) we had for lunch at Bodega Vianda. With a seat on the second floor overlooking the city, we dined on jamón (cured ham produced in Spain and Portugal made from black Iberian pigs that is similar to prosciutto in look, but much tastier), sheep cheese and crusty bread; so simple, yet so delicious.

The Petit Palace Opera turned out to be a good choice. It’s a boutique hotel housed in a historic building, located near the main plazas, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor (Madrid’s grandest plaza) and is within walking distance to most sights. Our Juliet balcony looks out over the pedestrian street, which is never without the throngs of people swarming in and out of the many stores and restaurants or watching one of the musicians, dancers or magicians performing.

I wish Mr. Wiz a Feliz Cumpleaños (Happy Birthday) and regale him with a poem that I have written in his honor:

It’s great being a 65’er
With all its wonderful perks

Senior discounts galore wherever you go
And cheaper health care that actually works

So, be adventurous, be happy and enjoy this wonderful stage
And most of all remember, to never act your age!

I surprise him with a lunch reservation at La Botin. According to “The Guinness Book of World Records,” it is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world (dating back to 1725) and is renowned for its roast sucking pig and lamb cooked over vine shoots in the huge charcoal oven that’s been there since opening day. My Spanish is better than I thought; the maître d’ honors my request to sit at Ernest Hemingway’s favorite table and even brings us a complimentary dessert. We dine slowly and savor each bite.

There are many flamenco shows in Madrid, but Cardamomo is the only one that has been sanctioned by The New York Times and it’s near our hotel. Atypical of most performances, the male dancer absolutely steals the show and we find ourselves shouting “…Ole!..” along with the rest of the audience. Note to self: Why did I stop taking flamenco lessons? Maybe it’s time to go back to dressing in my flamenco outfit and practicing the steps in my closet again?

An evening walk seems in order and what better way to end a perfect day than to scout out where our next and final dinner will be tomorrow evening. Having found La Sanabresa, a family run restaurant and a favorite of the locals, we sleep like babies, with visions of all of our favorite Spanish foods on the menu dancing in our heads.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

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Salamanca, Spain: Oct. 20 – 22, 2018

Photo Salamanca

Salamanca University

We’re headed to “The Golden City.” We still have a few more days before we meet Big A* in Madrid, so Salamanca seems like a good place to stop on the way; it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s also a university town.

We’ve read about the fact that the sandstone used to construct the buildings is exclusive to this region and gives off a caramel/yellow tint, but to actually see the buildings glow when the sun shines on them is amazing. That coupled with its cleanliness makes this city something special.

Known as the Spanish version of Oxford, Salamanca University dates back to 1218 making it the oldest in Spain and the fourth oldest in the world. It gives the city a lively, fun and energetic spirit. We marvel at its Renaissance architecture as we search for “La Rana de la Suerte” (the good luck frog); legend has it that if a student can find the single carved frog within the many carvings on the façade, they will pass all their exams.

Of the two Cathedrals, the old Cathedral was initially built in the 12thcentury and has the distinction of being one of the oldest constructed buildings in the world. To be standing among the ornate carvings and the frescoes dating back so many thousands of years is sometimes hard to fathom.

Considered one of Spain’s most beautiful plazas, Plaza Mayor is a welcome respite from our exploring. All day long, people gather to eat, drink, people watch and listen to the musicians. The public square most probably hasn’t changed much since the 18thcentury; it is tranquil each morning and crescendos to a party atmosphere by nightfall.

The Room Mate Hotel Vega is in a great location near the Plaza Mayor and turns out to be a good choice. Not too expensive, it offers a boutique feel with its red, white and black contemporary décor.

For some reason, we are too hungry to wait until 8 p.m. for dinner and settle on enjoying “dunch” each day, my term for the meal between lunch and dinner. My favorite is the paella which combines all of my favorites: rice flavored with chicken broth and saffron, chicken, pork, shrimp, clams and scallops.

With just enough time to figure out how to get to the walkway and picturesque gardens that are majestically perched above the city, we agree that Salamanca was well worth the stop and has cut our travel time to Madrid to only two and ½ hours by bus.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cas of Characters” on the “About” page.

Post-Camino: The Next Steps

Photo Post Camino

Wanderlust is a wonderful thing. The adventure of exploring new cultures never gets old. It takes you out of yourself, broadens your horizons and leaves you with the gift of memories that are your souvenirs to conjure up at any time.

There is something very cool about traveling with a backpack (something I thought I would never do). I felt like a nomad; out in the world, with my arms free and feeling as free as a bird.

After five weeks, I’m not tired of living out of a backpack and assorted sizes of Ziplock bags. With only a few changes of clothing, the feeling of wearing a uniform each day was liberating. The simple pleasures of a hotel room with a bathtub or locating my one pair of earrings (after a few glasses of wine and forgetting in which bag I had placed them for safe keeping the night before) would make my day.

With my daily focus on my destination, what I would eat and where I would stay, it left me time to pay attention to the details of nature around me that I might ordinarily miss. It gave me an opportunity to associate with my fellow pilgrims and really listen to what they had to say.

It is said that you should focus on “my Camino”; no two are meant to be the same. My knee injury, though not what I had planned, gave me more time alone. Whether sitting in the room or outside with my foot up, I had more occasion for introspection. I finally gave in to the frustration of the healing process and found the peace that was awaiting me each day.

Always drawn to the mystical side, I longed for a sign, a message that might sum up my journey. Leave it to me to find it written on a bathroom stall in Finisterre, Spain: “…Fill your life with experiences, not things; have stories to tell, not stuff to show…”

And with that, I wish you a buen Camino!

 

Oct. 16 – 19: Muxia and Finesterre

Photo Muxia

Oct. 16: Muxia

We’ve come all this way, so it seems only right to continue to the very end. It’s a beautiful day and we leave on the early bus for Muxia. With a population of 5000, this sleepy seaside town, along with our hotel Habitat CM Muxia, are really nothing special, serving only as the backdrop for the stunning natural beauty of its beaches.

This is the official end of the Camino, so we head out to find the Camino marker noting 00.00 kilometers and are struck by the view before us; the waves crashing against the rocks, its sound both thunderous and serene. There is an ominous feel to this beauty; this area is part of the treacherous Costa de Morte (Coast of Death), known for its many shipwrecks.

We peek into a window of Our Lady of the Boat Church. Struck by lightning on Christmas Day 2013, only the outside has been fully restored and it lacks an interior roof. According to legend, it was on this site that the Virgin Mary met St. James and encouraged him to preach throughout Galicia. It is believed that by a miracle of God, the body of St. James was carried by boat to Muxia, then taken to Santiago.

I am drawn to the area’s spiritual and mystical side and am anxious to find the rocking stone (Pedra de Abalar). Balanced just right, it sits straight up and rocks with the wind. It is said that it has magical powers; touching it can provide spiritual and physical healing.

We find a rock to sit on and soon I am deep in thought, mesmerized by the sound of the ocean. Time seems to stand still. I think about the many pilgrims before me that have sat in this same spot and reflected on their physical, mental and mystical journey with only the screeching of the seagulls to distract them back to reality.

Oct. 17: Muxia

There’s not much to do in a beach town on a rainy day, so it’s a good time to do some writing, reading and plan our upcoming itinerary. We’ll have some time left before we are to meet Big A* in Madrid, so we grab a window seat at our hotel’s café, order some tea and get to work.

By evening, our work is completed and we toast with a glass of wine in the same window seat and decide to venture over to the harbor for dinner. Known for its fishing industry, it is said that the boats you view while you are dining have just unloaded the fish you are dining on for dinner. Once again, we choose a window seat and after much discussion with the waiter (whose dream is travel to the U.S. and drive Route 66) select just the right seafood dishes and white wine to complement them.

Photo Finisterre

Oct. 18: Finesterre

Finesterre is Latin for “end of the earth.” Back when the world was still thought of as flat, this was considered its end. Like Muxia, this town also has a population of 5000 and is also a fishing port, but there is something so much more charming and robust about this city. It has a thriving city center and streets that meander up and down, along the ocean. The Hotel Langosteira has a great vibe. Its whimsical décor features colors of the sea; mosaic tiles in the shape of fish design the walls and even the key chains are wooden fish. Our porch has a view of the ocean and we already plan to make sure we’re up early to see the sun rise.

We get our bearings by walking from one side of the town to the other, scoping out places for dinner by the water.

Oct. 19

We head to the lighthouse, the area’s beacon since 1853, and pause at the bronze boot statue. Perched on a rock, it’s a symbol to all pilgrims of the end of the journey. Signs request that pilgrims no longer practice the ancient ritual of burning an article of clothing here as a symbol of new beginnings, but up ahead we notice a tight group of people standing in circle holding hands and smoke billowing out from the center.

I wish we would have known about the O Semaforo Hotel balanced on the cliffs, but we settle for a beer on their patio overlooking the ocean. While we are initially surprised at the number of tour buses and pilgrims here, as we climb up to the boulders that surround the ocean, there is unexpected silence. Unlike the rough seas of Muxia, here the ocean is tranquil, lapping at the sun dappled rocks, lulling you into awe and leaving you speechless.

I situate myself on a flat rock and sit cross legged with my eyes closed and my hands in prayer at my heart. Out of nowhere, I hear the sound of a flute; a young man has chosen this spot to play for tips. His melody is harmonizing with the sound of the waves and I experience such peace. For a moment, I feel as if I am outside my body and wonder if this is what practicing meditation correctly feels like. The word “peace” keeps coming to mind and I tell myself that I don’t want to forget this feeling when I go back to my busy life. Eyes now open, I feel energized, yet so serene.

We walk back through town and head to the beach. We’ve read of a famous restaurant right on the beach and decide to splurge on a late lunch at Tira do Cordel, enjoying the razor clams and grilled fish. Afterward, we walk the length of the beach, searching for shells and dipping our feet in the water.

It’s been a long day. As we head back to our hotel, I notice two older pilgrims walking toward us. The one that looks like Santa Claus (except that he’s wearing sandals and shorts) stops in front of me and hands me something. I hesitate and shake my head no, but he insists and says “…Yes, for you…” He walks on and I look down to see what he has given me. It is a card with a hand drawn picture of a dove in royal blue paint. Across the bottom are the words “…Peace, Paz…”

 

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Oct. 13 – 15: O Pedrouzo to Santiago de Compostela

Photo Santiago

We made it to Santiago!

Oct. 13: O Pedrouzo to Santiago- 13 miles, 5 1/2 hours

As we make our way to Santiago, the wonderful scent of the eucalyptus forest and the old, gnarled trees, that resemble the talking trees in the “Wizard of Oz,” distract us from the fact that the inclines and descents today are quite steep.

A city sign announces that we’ve made it to Santiago and we’re getting excited, even though we still have a 45 minute walk on asphalt to the historic city center. One minute we are walking through a dark tunnel serenaded by a bagpiper and the next minute, we exit into the light of day with the Cathedral welcoming us in all its glory. We hug hard and long in the Praza do Obradoiro (the golden square), amongst the other pilgrims who are laughing, crying and/or laying on the ground and looking up at the cathedral. It’s a very emotional moment; we are glad to have arrived, but sorry to see it end.

Santiago is the capital of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And if welcoming pilgrims and tourists isn’t enough excitement for one city, there is also a festival being celebrated. Tents selling grilled meats, artisan bread and foods share space with clothing and jewelry. The streets are filled with jubilant crowds and bagpipe music fills the air. Baby grand pianos have been placed all over town with an invitation to sit down and play.

The Hostal Aires Nunes is just two blocks from the Cathedral on a quiet back street. Our room is decorated in the Spanish version of country French: stone archways, wooden beams on the ceiling, iron chandeliers and a lovely glassed-in sun porch outfitted with two chairs and a table.

What a nice surprise to run into the pilgrim couple from Tacoma, Washington that we met last night when eating pizza. We enjoy another dinner together and plan to meet again tomorrow too.

Oct. 14

We arrive at the Cathedral early to get a seat for the noon pilgrim mass. According to legend, St. James, one of Christ’s Twelve Apostles, was buried in a nearby forest by his disciples. In 1075, a sanctuary began to be erected around his relics resulting in today’s monumental Cathedral. The highlight of the mass is the swinging of the Botafumiero, the largest incense burner in the world. Originally, its purpose was to fumigate the sweaty and disease-ridden pilgrims. Six attendants continue the ritual of the swinging which reaches a speed of over 40 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, we are not able to touch the central column of the Door of Glory; too many hands before us have eroded the marble, so it is now covered with plexiglass. We do, however, maneuver through the crowds to the crypt under the altar to view the relics of St. James and offer up a prayer.

Next, we head to the Pilgrim Office to obtain our Compostela (certificate of completion). The line snakes around and we’re told it’s an hour wait, but running into our pilgrim friend from Lake George, New York makes the time fly by.

She tells us of the older man that she had first met on her flight to Spain. His wife had recently died and he felt so lost and alone. She then confided that she had also lost her spouse, so understood his pain. What a surprise it was to see him exit the same hotel elevator that she was entering in Santiago, now over a month later. They dined together that night and he seemed like a different person, recounting how he had learned so much from the pilgrims he had encountered along the way. The emotionally charged conversation also taught her a thing or two and she felt as if she had come full circle along with him.

We hugged and a minute later, she was lost in the crowd. I stood there with tears in my eyes, wanting to hold on to this newfound relationship, then realizing that I had none of her contact information. This is the essence of the Camino; the deep connections that you make with pilgrims from all walks of life and from all over the world that are even more precious because they are in the moment.

Oct. 15

The weekend crowds are gone, so we head back into the Cathedral to do a little more exploring. Today, we are able to view the church in all its glory and the Baroque altar glittering with gold stands in full view. All through Spain, whether the smallest of villages or the larger towns, the amount of money that the Catholic church has spent on its churches through the years is astounding. It’s hard for me to fathom that I am one of the many pilgrims that have arrived here since the Middle Ages, taking time to reflect at the end of the journey just as they did all those years ago.

After a walk through the public market and a lunch of grilled pulpo (octopus), we spend the afternoon exploring the narrow, winding, cobblestone streets. Then, it’s time to meet the pilgrim couple from Tacoma and toast both husbands, who will soon be celebrating a special birthday, just one day apart.

No one seems to want to go home after the Camino. Our friends are off to Porto, Portugal and we are headed to the “end of the earth.”

 

 

 

October 10 -12: Palas de Rei to O Pedrouz

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You never know what you’ll find around the next corner.

October 10: Palas de Rei- 16 miles, 7 hours

It always surprises me when a pilgrim walks by me smoking, but in Europe cigarettes are part of the culture. It’s very common to see generations of the same family all smoking together at the local cafe.

As we travel through woods and farmlands today, I sense that the inclines and descents are steeper than yesterday. We’re traveling through dairy country and corn cribs are everywhere. They look like little houses on stilts and are used to dry and store the corn used to feed the animals. To make the time go by, we play a game, calling out the oldest (one said 1856 on it), newest, most decorated and most likely to fall apart if blown on. I tell Mr. Wiz* that I’d like one for my birthday. I hope he knows I’m kidding.

Pensíon Palas is a bit outside of the city and we’re glad to finally arrive. It’s nothing special; plain, but clean. We head into town and see our Canadian friend, who asks us to join her for a glass of wine. We enjoy hearing about her  adventurous life, starting with boarding school in Belgium, then living abroad in different cities. She excuses herself in order to enjoy her bathtub (most rooms only come with a shower) and we head to dinner.

October 11: Arzúa- 16 miles, 7 1/2 hours

The forecast says rain and we trudge up and down through farmland all day long. Just as we’re heading for the steepest part of our treck, we meet a pilgrim from Lake George, New York. We pass the time with my stories of the many happy childhood vacations there. The Caldo Gallego we find for lunch is good and hot and it hits the spot. It’s my favorite soup, made with onions, white beans, potatoes, kale and/or cabbage.

Just as we see the sign for the turn-off to Casa Garea, the rain turns to drizzle. As we head into the eucalyptus forest, the wonderful scent and the singing birds help us to forget for the moment that we feel like two wet rags.

The buildings are old, but the beamed ceilings, stone and starched white linen curtains give it a homey feel. After settling in, we enjoy a glass of wine in the common area. Our Lake George friend greets us with a big smile and announces that this is the first time on the Camino that she will have a private room. We tease her that she will not be able to return to the alburgue bunk beds. When we notice a single place setting at one of the dining room tables, we invite her to join us for dinner and a good time is had by all.

October 12: O Pedrouzo- 15 miles, 7 hours

It’s drizzling, but we head back through the eucalyptus forest to return to the Camino route with a spring in our step, thinking of the bacon and egg breakfast we plan to treat ourselves to.

The rain is playing a game with us all day today; every time we decide we’re too hot and take off our raincoats, it starts to drizzle again. In the end, we decide that the cool mist feels better.

We’re walking right through farms all afternoon, so much so that at one point a farmer asks us all to stop, so his cows can cross the road to his other pasture. The drizzle turns to a pouring rain and the cows are the only ones that seem content.

Pension LO is only a couple of years old. It’s all white decor and contemporary feel are a welcome change tonight. I like the quote that decorates the wall above our bed in script: “The best things in life are the people we love, the places we’ve been and the memories we’ve made along… the Way.”

Only breakfast is served in their dining room and we are not looking forward to having to head to town for dinner in the driving rain. The woman at reception asks us if we’d like to order pizza from a local takeout place, the two couples eating in the dining room give us a thumbs up on the food they are enjoying and we are so happy that we don’t need to venture out. We enjoy a cozy evening, dining and chatting with the couples from California and Washington state.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

October 7 – 9: Sarria to Portomarín

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October 7: Sarria

Our next stop should be O’Cebreiro, but there are no rooms available anywhere (we even try three towns before and after), so we opt to bus to Sarria. As the Camino gains in popularity, it’s becomes harder to be spontaneous. Then again, we could have followed the three pilgrims who left at 5am, walked in the dark for three and a half hours, then waited in front of the municipal albergue for two hours until they opened (they don’t accept reservations) and did make it to O’Cebreiro.

We are on the bus to Lugo, but the bus arrives late and we miss our connection. Rather than wait four hours, we find that there is a train leaving sooner and decide to walk over to the train station. Two women pilgrims from South Africa ask if they can tag along. Chatting with them in the bus station makes the time go by and we are soon on our way.

Hotel Alfonso IX can’t seem to decide if it’s a modern or an old world hotel, so it’s somewhere in the middle. It’s a perfect day to sit on their outside patio right on the river and enjoy a glass of wine. We soon strike up a conversation with a pilgrim from Canada. This woman has grit; not only is she a single mom, she’s traveling alone and got bed bugs her very first night on the Camino!

A word here about bed bugs; we’ve heard a lot of  horror stories along the way, but have never personally experienced any. When we travel, we are in the habit of checking every hotel bed, regardless of the hotel’s level. As soon as we enter the room, we strip the bed and check it from top to bottom, looking for any black dots. If none, we are good to go.

October 8: Sarria

First priority on our rest day is to get our laundry done. The laundromats are a pleasure to visit; clean, with bowls of hard candies, tissues and copies of the latest tabloid magazines for their guests. The magazines help us practice our Spanish, even though we don’t know any of the people that are featured.

One of the other pilgrims doing laundry introduces himself. He is a professor at the University of Alabama with a Ph.D in divinity studies and is taking a survey about spirituality while on the Camino. Would we mind completing a survey? We are happy to do it and it helps the time to pass quickly. He jots down his email and says he’d be willing to share his findings once the data has been analyzed.

October 9: Portomarín – 14 miles, 6 1/2 hours

Nothing like starting the day with a steep vertical incline, but we know we are headed to a breakfast of eggs, bacon and thick hunks of bread, so we power up and keep moving.

The path will be more crowded now, all the way to Santiago. Pilgrims that walk these last 100 km will also be entitled to a Compostela, the document of completion. We chat with pilgrims from Canada, Seattle and California and all agree that we can tell the newbies by their clean boots. Somehow, between the barking dogs, mooing cows and throngs of new pilgrims, we seem to lose the crowd, find ourselves all alone and appreciate the silence. The faint sound of bagpipes coming from the woods sounds magical. We come around a turn and in the middle of nowhere stands a young man dressed in traditional garb, playing proudly, for tips.

We are not enjoying crossing over this long bridge. The guard rails are very low on each side and we try to stay right in the middle, not looking down at the river below on the one side or the oncoming traffic on the other.

We are so happy that our hotel is the first one in town. Vistalegre is a brand new contemporary hotel, only four months old. Though it’s all white, the mix of textures (stone and tile) give it a sophisticated look and the sound of the water sculpture from the glass enclosed garden is a lovely touch. The rooms are not very big, but we vote the shower the best on the Camino.

Later, we run into an older pilgrim from Michigan that we first met at the beginning of the walk. He was initially so shy and withdrawn that we always made it a point to say hello and walk with him a bit. Now, here he was, greeting us heartily, laughing and chatting away. He introduces us to his new friend, another pilgrim who was about his age. It is wonderful to see them interact, despite the fact that neither one spoke the other’s language. It is said that the Camino provides and once again, it’s beautiful to see it unfold.