Visiting Bryan/College Station: Trendy with a Texas Twang

Photo Bryan Coll Sta

I’m feeling a bit confused today. I’m still not sure how I went from wishing for a place the four of us (Mr. Wiz*, Big A*, JC*and I) could go over the July 4th holiday that was not in the $500 – $700 per night price range and landing at The Stella Hotel, a five star, Preferred Hotel with Frette sheets for a little over $100 a night. I think it was a combination of my positive thinking and JC’s suggestion that we take the lead from a recent Austin Monthly article and visit Bryan/College Station.

The home of Texas A&M University, over 66,000 students swell the city’s population during the school year. We wondered why these two neighboring cities were all of a sudden exploding with all types of development; why now? Apparently, social media had opened the doors to all of the campus sporting events and the general public accepted its invitation. Lucky for us, we were visiting off-season.

The Stella Hotel just opened in April and still smells new. The décor has that wow factor. The mixed use of materials, the textures and the interesting touches (saddle bags and iron I-beams mounted on the walls) all send out a sophisticated, yet edgy vibe. We were greeted by the sports jacket and jean clad staff who all had names like Parker and Morgan (no need to apply here if your name is Joe or Sue), who worked from their iPads, rather than standing behind the usual counter; very cool.

Outside was a man-made lake, two swimming pools, a golf course and a series of paths that led to a residential development of mega homes. The sprawling lawn was so welcoming, set up with assorted games, a fire pit, chairs and tables. Complimentary bicycles and paddle boards awaited our use at the front entrance.

JC acted as the official judge, as we filled our afternoons with pool races and seeing who could do the best hand stand in the water (some things never change). In preparation for the Scrabble championship (with a money prize to make it more interesting) and paddle board competition that I had planned, I tried to psych out Big A by boasting that I had trained on a paddle board while reading a dictionary. It didn’t work; he was the big winner of both contests.

In between, we visited the George H. W. Bush Presidential Library and the Messina Hof Winery. Though the Campfire Restaurant at the hotel was in the running, we all agreed that our favorite dinner was at Christopher’s World Grille. The renovated historic home was rated one of the top 100 romantic restaurants in the U. S. by Trip Advisor. As the fans and misters kept us cool, we listened to live music on the porch of the Hullabaloo Diner, a transplanted 1940’s New York diner, as we waited for our table and agreed that this was what Sundays were made for.

I’m not sure what Texas’ secret is; it could be the warm weather or everyone’s laid back style, but it has a way of reminding you to slow down. It gave our little family the chance to enjoy each other’s company and regroup.  We all left feeling relaxed and pampered. I felt a bit more hip and happy to have another family adventure to tuck into my memory belt.

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

 

Helping to Keep Austin Weird  

Photo Weird.jpg

I’m too excited to sleep. I blame you for this, Austin; you overstimulate me. You work hard to maintain your city’s official slogan “Keep Austin Weird” by tantalizing me with the bizarre, the off-beat, and you keep peaking my curiosity. And now that you have recently been named the best place to live in America by U.S. News and World Report, there will be no stopping you.

As I reflect on my first year of living here, it’s been a great ride, made up of interesting experiences that I am not sure could or would have happened anywhere else:

Central Market
On arrival, we need to get our bearings and Mr. Wiz* has a plan. Having visited a Central Market in Houston (shop at this gourmet marketplace on steroids, then dance to live music at night), he logically reasons that locating the Austin store will lead us to a great neighborhood, so he’ll ask at their information desk. Pointing out that the staff may be more prepared to locate a product by aisle than to relocate us, I decide to wait in the car. A few minutes later, I am surprised to see a woman in a cowboy hat and boots walk out of the store with Mr. Wiz and shake his hand. He had seen her on line at the information desk and perused her shopping cart. Noticing an excellent wine selection, he decided to ask her where we should live. He was not surprised at all that she enthusiastically lauded her neighborhood and pointed him in the direction of a new building. We signed a lease there 2 days later.

Pints and Poses
The Hyatt Hotel and I have accomplished the impossible; we got Mr. Wiz* to attend a monthly yoga class. Studies have proven that if you offer a guy a free beer, he will happily execute a downward dog pose, no questions asked. In the spirit of community (turns out that yoga and beer are great conversation starters), the hotel offers complimentary parking, a yoga class and a glass of craft beer.

Chicken S**t Bingo
The unassuming Little Longhorn Saloon is a tiny place that looks more like a church with a steeple than a bar. The band is loud, the beer is cold and the place is packed, both inside and out. It’s a Sunday afternoon and my family is still shocked that this was my birthday destination of choice. I explain to them that this is a famous venue and we’re going to be experiencing a bit of the original Austin. While we visit the chickens and chat with Ginny, “the chicken whisperer”, we learn that the afternoon will include “chickens, chicken feed and what happens after chickens eat.” The $2 ticket has a number on it and will get you one chance on the giant plywood bingo table. I’m sure that these chickens have their SAG cards; they are real professionals. They strut around the table, working the room into a cheering frenzy. As luck would have it, the chicken leaves her “mark” on my number and I am the winner of $115 in cash!

Keep Austin Weird Festival
We had so much fun last year volunteering to assist with the 5K check in, that we decide to do it again. Known as the “Slowest 5K Race on the Planet”, everyone is welcome to participate and a bizarre costume will win you a prize. Young, old, babies in strollers and dogs all strut their stuff and stop along the way at different stations for beverages (alcoholic and non-alcoholic), ice cream and activities. At the festival, I cheered on aardvarks as they raced and chatted with a woman in a mermaid costume, who explained the story of her tattoos to me.

Weird Homes Tour
I am very excited for tour day to come and even more so now, since I am the winner of 2 VIP tickets that include the tour and the after party. By the end of the day, we will have driven 90 miles all over Austin, investigating homes that range from a bucolic wonderland in a nature preserve, with quotes from Emily Dickinson poems written over the doorways and pastoral views out every French door to a series of domes lovingly pieced together into an artist’s retreat, rumored to have special healing powers to a traditional home on the outside and a Feng Shui inspired home on the inside with a red velvet lounge room and a royal blue cosmic room featuring a 100” flat screen TV (most guys did not get past this point and just stood, gaping at the TV).

The owners of the next group of homes, self-confessed pack rats, delighted in the fact that they were living in a never to be completed work of art. Whether it was a police car hood with working sirens on the ceiling, doll heads under glass, a wall of salt and pepper shakers, a lamp made from a 1950’s salon hair dryer or a hollowed-out armadillo containing guest washcloths, each treasure had a story. Chatting with the enthusiastic homeowners, who were so warm and welcoming, I left the day wondering if there was any room in my perfectionist personality for a little eccentricity. Sensing Mr. Wiz’s concern over the souvenirs I collect during the day, I ease his worries and announce that I am not adopting hoarding tendencies any time soon.

We arrive at Indra’s Awarehouse for the after party. It’s a large metal roofed warehouse, filled to the brim with the owner’s art and collections of oddities. The surreal setting is right out of a Fellini film: a barefooted band plays on a carpeted stage; as if on cue, a dog drops a deflated ball at the feet of guests, prompting them to throw it on to the stage for him to chase; scantily dressed acro-yoginis glide up yards of silk fabric and perform above our heads. A cocktail seems in order, even though the professionally dressed bar staff looks out of place. We laughingly imagine that this is probably just another day for the owner; waking up to coffee in the morning and greeting some hangers-on at the bar (with bar staff still in uniform) and waving to the overhead performers that continue all day long. Hungry, we peruse the snacks. While, protein is always welcome, tonight it is in the form of bags of flavored crickets and mealy worms. We grab some regular popcorn and eagerly await some daring guests to taste them and offer a critique. We learn from the more adventurous that anything crunchy with a BBQ flavor is edible after some of Austin’s handmade Tito’s Vodka.

Austin, you give me the same feeling that I experienced whenever my grandmother would open her coat and let me snuggle in with her. You opened up your big, warm, wonderful, weird arms to me. Your people are so friendly and so welcoming. Sure, the temperature heats up, but living here makes me feel so cool. You have that big city vibe with the twang of Texas mixed in. You seem to bring out the best in me and I feel like this is where I am supposed to be. I only hope I can continue to do my civic duty and generate the accepted level of weirdness.

 

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

 

Doing the Big D with Big A  

Photo Big D

Happy Birthday, Big A*!

One month after his 28th birthday, our Bon Vivant was finally going to be at home for a weekend, so we (Mr. Wiz*, JC* and I) head to Dallas to celebrate. We take our festivities seriously; after much research and many emails and texts, we come up with our food-centric itinerary. Here are some of the weekend’s highlights:

Friday

The driving rain on our arrival does not deter us and we opt for a visit to the Dallas Museum of Art. We’re already impressed that the general admission is free, but then Jack, the elderly greeter at the entrance, quickly sizes us up, suggests we go see the Coco Chanel exhibit and we are transfixed. Five rooms from Coco Chanel’s Monaco home, Villa Pausa, have been painstakingly recreated in the museum. Once she married the Duke of Westminster, this was to be their home. When plans changed, she kept the house, but always felt a twinge of sadness for what could have been. When she finally did sell it, the home was reborn when Dallas art collectors, Emery and Wendy Reves renovated it and hosted their most famous guest, Winston Churchill, who adopted it as his second home. Investigating all the nooks and crannies and reading all the personal letters and detailed descriptions of their lives there made for a lovely afternoon.

Big A’s furniture looks great in his new apartment. I particularly like his bedroom barn door. He surprises us with hors d’ oeuvres and serves us our favorite wine. A few toasts later, we’re off to Stampede 66 for dinner. We enjoy the braised beef short ribs and honey fried chicken as we peruse the décor, a mix of Texas whimsy and sophistication. Metal horse sculptures surround the TV monitors that feature a rodeo. I’m fascinated by a wall of wooden plaques with the names of Texas towns such as Looneyville and Dicey.

Saturday

It takes a lot to get Big A up and out early on a Saturday, so we are all in when he suggests we meet at 10:15am to stand in line for lunch at the Pecan Lodge. When lines started to form at their farmer’s market stall, the young business couple turned caterers knew they had an award-winning barbeque recipe and opened a restaurant. We eat a little of almost everything on the menu and agree the collard greens are the best we’ve ever had. Fortified, we walk around Deep Ellum, the revitalized warehouse district now full of shops, bars, restaurants and music venues.

With Big A as our guide, we get a tour of Dallas. Most people still remember where they were when President Kennedy was shot and the big X on the street, marking the spot brings back a flood of memories. We play classical music on the radio as we drive through the Turtle Creek and Highland Park neighborhoods to view the mansions.

Leave it to JC to be the life of the party when she announces that in honor of Big A’s birthday, we will be having cocktails at the Petroleum Club, a private club on the 39th floor of Chase Tower. How did she make this happen? It all started the month prior, when she danced with a spry, 90 year-old retired doctor who mentioned the Austin Club, a private social club housed in a historic building in downtown Austin. Before you could say “sign-me-up”, JC had researched the club, texted me to see if Mr. Wiz and I were available for a complimentary lunch and a tour of the facility (we were!) and then proceeded to join. Now, as a member, she receives reciprocal privileges at dozens of clubs across the country.

The evening continued with dinner at St. Martin Wine Bistro, named one of the top 10 most romantic restaurants by Trip Advisor. We dined on grilled rack of lamb under a twinkling chandelier as we listened to the live piano music and toasted to a great day.

Sunday

According to D Magazine, we are brunching at one of the best spots in Dallas. Boulevardier is a French bistro, simple in décor but complex in flavors. I still dream about the 2 dishes that JC and I shared: the Prospector’s Breakfast (crispy oysters and arugula atop an open face omelette made with house-made bacon) and the Legs and Eggs (a crispy duck leg with sunny-side-up eggs served on stone ground grit cakes with huckleberry preserves). Not wanting to miss anything in this eclectic neighborhood, we head out for a walk in the historic Bishop Arts District. The store displays are so incredible, we’re not surprised when signs ask that no photos be taken.

There is work to be done, so we head back to Big A’s. Mr. Wiz helps Big A hang some pictures, while JC and I head to the pool to relax. The boys find us one hour later, sound asleep in the shade. It’s Big A’s first time at the pool and I sense a look of panic on his face when I tell him that I’d be happy to introduce him to all of his neighbors that I’ve met (Millennials, no sense of humor!).

We head out on foot to explore Big A’s neighborhood, Knox-Henderson. The area is bustling; every restaurant, bar and shop is busy! Not sure if JC will want to climb all the stairs to a rooftop bar, I discreetly ask the waiter is there is an elevator (there isn’t). It’s then that I notice JC, who has already sprinted up the staircase, yelling down to ask me if I am all right. Big A is determined to have me taste a drink he thinks that I will love and by the end of the day, Deep Eddy Red Grapefruit Vodka (made in Austin), club soda and lime is my new fav.

Our dinner reservation is at a neighborhood restaurant, right down the block. Gemma has received rave reviews for the husband and wife team’s concept of sophisticated dining in a relaxed atmosphere. The blue and white décor combined with the professional wait staff’s control over the dining room create a tranquil setting. We liked the braised rabbit pappardelle and the chicken porchetta the best and were glad we shared 3 entrees (our secret for not overeating).

We say goodbye to Big A and head out of Dallas the next morning, determined to eat only lettuce leaves and ramp up our workouts for the next couple of days. We know we’ll be hungry for another visit soon. There are still lots of restaurants and sights we missed this time around and we want to check them off our list before Big A moves again.

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

The Camino: Oct. 17 – 21, 2016

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Oct. 17- Palas de Rey: 16 miles, 6 hours

The path is nothing but mud and it’s drizzling. I’m sweating in my rain jacket and trudging along. A fellow Pilgrim, a lovely woman traveling alone in her 70’s with a sparkle in her eyes, catches up to me and says “What a beautiful morning! I love the mist. It changes the entire perspective of the landscape”. As I’m listening to her, I unzip my jacket, pull down my hood and the light drizzle instantly cools me off. By the time she goes on her way, I’m feeling great and the rain has already stopped.

We’re up and down again today, walking right through farms and past lovely old stone farm houses, catching a glimpse of daily life: an old woman humming to herself as she hangs laundry; a farmer out in the pasture tending his sheep; a woman picking raspberries who stops to offer us some; the cows lazily grazing in the fields; the dogs sleeping in the sun. I find I have acquired a new skill and though it may not be resumé material, it’s interesting to note: I am now able to differentiate an animal’s  manure by its smell.

I laugh to myself as I coin a new phrase: “In Spain, what goes up, must come UP”! Walking in the forest always seems a bit mystical, especially the way the light plays on and around the trees, lined up in exact rows. The scent of the eucalyptus trees is even stronger when we crush some leaves in our hands.

The outside tables are still wet in the little taverna when we stop for a cold drink. A fellow Pilgrim is wiping off his table with a rag from the owner and when he sees us, he wipes off ours too. I pass on the kindness by wiping the table for some other Pilgrims that sit at the next table. It’s a small gesture, but speaks to the feeling of community.

The Pensión Palas is simple, modern and clean, but the town seems old and rundown. The big excitement of the evening is that I am served rice with my dinner, rather than the ever-present french fries.

Oct. 18- Castañeda: 13 1/2 miles, 6 1/2 hours

The temperature is in the high 60’s and cloudy; perfect walking weather. We’re up and down, through forests, farmlands and towns. It seems it will be a fairly uneventful day until we come to a river. The bridge is made up of boulders covered in mud. I take a minute to access the route and see I have no choice. I feel more confident with my poles, until I realize that the last two boulders narrow and the poles won’t fit. I panic for a second, but tell myself I have to keep moving forward; other Pilgrims are behind me and there’s no where else to go. It takes all I’ve got in me to slowly make my way to the end. I’m amazed at my newfound grit and it gives me a spring in my step.

Casa Garea, our Casa Rural for the evening, is located at the beginning of town on the main road. The shoulder is narrow on the road and the cars are zooming by at breakneck speeds. Our only option is to walk through a big field. Our boots are sinking into the fresh dirt, making the walking more difficult. On arrival, the owner greets us and asks if we enjoyed the walk through the forest. We realize that we were too quick to get off the Pilgrim path; a few kilometers ahead was a sign that would have led us right to our destination. Lesson learned: always refer to our map.me app. (which requires no internet connection), especially when tired.

The room is cozy with wooden beams on the ceiling and white, starched linen curtains on the windows. After we freshen up, the owner brings in some wood for the fireplace and we sit in the downstairs sitting room with a glass of wine and relax. It’s not that cold out, but the warmth of the fire feels good. We  make sure not to fall asleep and miss dinner.

Oct. 19- Pedrouzo: 16 miles, 6 1/2 hours

I spend my  morning saying a prayer for each of the Pilgrims that we pass that are not well but keep plodding along: five limping; three with food poisoning; and one with an intestinal virus. I am humbled by their strength and determination and feel a bit guilty that I have made it to this point unscathed; me, with the weak stomach, who always thought of myself as clumsy. I want to hug them and tell them how much I admire them, but each of them seems to be in a type of meditative state, some even wincing with every step. “Buen Camino”, the usual greeting, does not seem appropriate. All I can think of is to give them a thumbs up as I pass them by.

Pensión LO is brand new, all white and very modern, but has one design flaw: there are no shelves or closets. We balance what we’ll need for the evening on our backpacks and hope for the best. There’s lots of traffic in this town, but it looks a bit old and bleak, so we head back to the Camino path to find a restaurant for dinner. After some hugs and catching up, a friend we run into suggests the place she’d just dined at. It’s very contemporary, with a wooden communal table in the middle and shelves lined with gourmet foods; it looks out of place. The food is good and the service is slow, but the wine is served right away and we are entertained by a mother and her 15 year old precocious son from Finland traveling the Camino together.

Oct. 20- Santiago: 13 miles, 5 hours

It feels like Christmas morning! We’re up early and excited to get going, but the sun has yet to rise. It’s still dark when we head out, but we only need the flashlight for a few minutes. The path takes us through some suburban towns, past the airport and alongside some roads, with just enough inclines and descents to make us realize that just because it’s our last day of walking does not mean it will be an easy one.

All that’s separating us from entering Santiago is a bridge. As we draw closer, we notice that it’s an old, depilated, wooden bridge with missing, uneven slats. The guard rails are unusually low, so as the traffic speeds by both beside us and below us, it gives us the sensation of Vertigo. We try to focus on walking exactly down the middle, keep our heads down and watch every step we take as quickly as we can.

We’re standing in front of the Santiago city sign, but after what it took to get here, it seems like a bit of a lackluster greeting. Besides the sign to welcome us, there is a gas station and a row of restaurants. It takes another hour to get to the old section of the city. Just when we feel our energy waning, some local residents assure us we are almost there and give us a thumbs up.

As we approach, we hear the faint sound of bagpipes. There’s a musician dressed in a cloak and a feathered hat playing in the tunnel. As we exit the tunnel, the Cathedral comes into full view, sparkling in the sunlight. Now that’s the dramatic welcome we were hoping for!

We hug longer than usual and both get a bit teary eyed. Amongst the tourists who quite don’t know what to make of this, the Plaza de Obradoiro (known as the “golden” square) is full of Pilgrims hugging, chatting, taking group photos, sitting cross legged in groups or just laying down on the ground in the sun around the Cathedral.

It’s time for lunch and we agree that today, some wine might be necessary to celebrate and to help us to sort out our emotions. We’re so grateful for a safe journey and not sure how we feel. Are we elated to have arrived or melancholy that it’s over?

We’re splurging and staying at the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, the famous five star parador (see photo at top of page). Paradores are a hotel network of government owned, restored historical buildings throughout Spain. This massive structure was originally a hospital built in 1499 by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand (hence, the hotel’s name) and is said to be the oldest hotel in Europe. We explore every corner of the four courtyards, the church and the sitting areas. We read every historical sign that tells the story of each area and makes it come to life.  Our room is a lovely retreat with a feeling of old world Spain that looks out onto one of the courtyards.

Santiago is a vibrant city with a bit of a carnival atmosphere, due in part to the large number of Pilgrims descending on it each day. Streets filled with shops, restaurants and outdoor cafes twist and turn into narrow passageways that open to small plazas.

We had befriended a Pilgrim couple early on in the walk and talked of sharing a celebratory dinner in Santiago in the hotel dining room. With the reservation now made, we all realized that our Pilgrim clothes might not be suitable and some shopping might be in order. We laugh and wonder if we will recognize each other, all cleaned up. As we head back to the hotel, we join a group of fellow Pilgrims for a celebratory drink. It’s a lovely evening enhanced by the gourmet dinner and the wonderful company. We end the evening with a toast to the continuance of our newfound friendship.

Oct. 21: Santiago

All Camino routes end at Santiago’s Cathedral where Saint James, the patron Saint of Spain, is buried. We head to the Cathedral early in order to get a seat for the 12 noon Pilgrims’ Mass, a Pilgrim tradition. We are disappointed that we are no longer able to place our hand on the column in the inner portico as a mark of gratitude for a safe arrival. After millions of Pilgrims over time wore finger holes in the solid marble, the area is now covered by a protective barrier. The highlight of the Mass is the swinging of the Botafumeiro, a giant incense burner. It was originally used to fumigate the dirty and disease ridden Pilgrims. The eight attendants start pulling up and down until it swings as high as the ceiling. We lift our heads to follow it and realize it is right over our heads; a strange feeling. (featured in the movie “The Way”).

Next, we head to the Pilgrims Office to obtain our Compostelo Certificate of completion. All along the route, we have obtained stamps from hotels, restaurants, churches, etc. on our Pilgrim Passports, denoting what towns we visited. From Sarria on, we were required to obtain two stamps a day. The forty five minutes fly by as we compare notes with fellow Pilgrims. We run into some Pilgrims and agree that a last glass of wine together is in order. It’s hard to say goodbye…

Since I’ve arrived in Santiago I have not slept well. All the sights and sounds of the last thirty-five days are swirling around in my head and I am trying to sort them out. It is said that the Camino is divided into three parts. The first third is physical, as your body gets used to the sometimes grueling daily regimen. The second third is mental, as you walk the flat, somewhat boring paths of the meseta. The last third is spiritual, as you near Santiago and the end of your long journey.

The Camino books and Youtube videos tell stories of Pilgrims experiencing some sort of spiritual epiphany and I am hoping that I am one of them, but as I analyze each day and experience nothing comes to mind. I open our Camino book and start to flip through it, not sure why. We have owned this book for over a year and have referred to it many times throughout each day, but for some reason I have never turned to the last page until today. The words of a poem by Marianne Williamson (made famous by Nelson Mandela in his freedom speech) make the hair on my arms stand up on end and bring tears to my eyes. This was my spiritual gift!:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is our Light, not our darkness, that most frightens us.

We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking.
So that other people won’t feel insecure around you.

We were born to make manifest the Glory of God that is within us.
It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone.
And as we let our Light shine,
We unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear.
Our presence automatically liberates others.

 

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The Camino: Sept. 23 – 26, 2016

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Sept. 23- Nájera: 18 miles, 7 hours

The Harvest Festival revelers kept us up with their shouting and singing, but we still are up and ready to go.

Today’s path started out flat through towns and then vineyards. We welcomed the cooler temperature in the 60’s, no sun and no steep inclines or descents.

Throughout the day the paths change from dirt to rocks to concrete. Trails flow through forests, fields, vineyards, towns and along busy and quiet roadways. The terrain dictates how long the days walk will be.

Nájera was capital of the Navarre kingdom in the 11th century and its old stone buildings still stand proudly. We arrive at the Hostal Ciudad de Nájera and are greeted so warmly by the father and son owners as if we were family. They carry our backpacks up the stairs to our rooms and present us with a cold bottle of red wine, which we gratefully accept. All this and a bathtub too!

Sept. 24- Santo Domingo de la Calzada: 14 miles, 5 hours

It’s such a peaceful start to the day when you walk Zjust before sunrise.

The flat path soon gives way to long inclines, then long descents, with lots of loose gravel, but the welcoming smiles and wishes of “Buen Camino!” from the townspeople in each little town we pass through gives us the energy we need to continue.

We thought we had another hour to go and are so surprised and happy to see the town sign that we celebrate with a Coke with lemon. The Hospederia Cisterciense is run by the nuns of the same name and we are impressed with its old world charm and the simple, clean, crisp feeling of the rooms.

Sept. 25- Belorado: 14 miles, 5 hours

The nuns are fussing over us at breakfast, making sure we have enough to eat and wishing us “Buen Camino!”.

Most of today’s walk travels right next to the busy N-120 Highway. Cars and trucks are roaring by and the sound is anything but relaxing.

I am feeling less intimidated of the terrain and allow myself to let my mind wander just a bit, without ever losing respect for the Camino. One loose pebble underfoot is a reminder to keep focused.

Belorado is another lovely old town, centered on a plaza and a church. We are so happy when we finally find Pensione Toni. It’s a big room with 4 beds just for us, so we spread out and make ourselves comfortable.

Our feet are throbbing, as if they have a heartbeat and we are concerned. When we join a New Zealander and a New Yorker for cocktails later, we are relieved to know that they also had the same problem; blame it on the hard pavement.

Sept. 26- San Juan de Ortega: 15 miles, 5 1/2 hours

Today marks our 11th day; we have already completed 1/3 of the Camino!

The sunrise makes the fields glow and I have all I can do to stop myself from running through them singing the theme from “The Sound of Music”. Luckily, I resist, since it would have defied the #1 Camino rule: don’t take any extra steps that you don’t have to!

The route is flat, until we come upon some very steep inclines and descents, which luckily were very short. We pass Atapuerca, which displays the earliest human remains ever discovered in Europe. Then, we see a sign which says “Oasis Ahead” and think we hear salsa music in the distance.

We come across a young woman selling food and cold drinks for a donation and giving out slices of cold melon; so refreshing! Two pilgrims who do not know each other start dancing and everyone is laughing and clapping.

With a population of 18, the small town is centered around a lovely stone church. Our Hotel Rural La Hanera is very comfortable. We enjoy some wine sitting outside with a view of the church, conversing with a couple from Iceland and a young man from New York. When the owner notices all the pilgrims patiently awaiting the restaurant to open at 7pm, he decides to open 15 minutes earlier for us and we are all grateful.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Camino: Sept.19 -22, 2016

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Sept. 19- To Puenta de la Reina: 15 miles, 7 hours

On our way out of Pamplona, we walked through the beautiful park and gardens and then to the University, where they stamped our pilgrim passport.

Today was very difficult walking; steep inclines and descents with lots of loose, rocky terrain. Made the German contingent we were walking with laugh when I said I would decline a drink “on the rocks” at cocktail time.

So happy to have a private room at the Albergue  Puenta de la Reina. We sat outside and enjoyed a cold beer on their private terrace, ran into our Australian friend and planned to have dinner together tonight.

Sept. 20- To Estella: 14 miles, 6 hours

Always nice when the terrain starts out flat. As we walked, we watched a farmer plowing his fields, then stopped to breathe in the wonderful smell of the rich, red earth; such a wonderful, clean smell!

We always take a rest in each small town we pass, sometimes to have a snack or just to use the facilities. In this particular place, the woman behind the counter was complaining, in Spanish, that everyone on the bathroom line should  be paying something. I suggested to her, in Spanish, that she put up a sign in different languages and charge a fee (marketing 101).

We were lucky to find a private room in the Capuchino Monestery tonight. No laundry service is available, so we start our laundry and the sit in the garden, enjoying a cold beer. We laugh with a German couple and agree that this isn’t a bad way to do laundry.

Sept. 21- To Los Arcos: 13 miles. 6 hours

I love walking through the towns early in the morning. They all look like a movie set. With the old stone buildings and the town center with the church and plaza, it’s always a surprise when someone passes you in contemporary clothing or a car drives by.

First thing in the morning, we come upon the famous Fuente del Vino: a free wine spigot for Pilgrims from one of the local wineries. We decline, but the Europeans make up for us!

We are in the Rioja wine country and pass through miles of vineyards. As we’re walking, we think we hear music. Around the bend, in the middle of nowhere, there is a husband and wife playing the violin and accordion for donations.

Tonight we are staying at Pensione Los Arcos. Jose, the manager, not only welcomed us, but gave us his cell number in case we needed anything. Enjoyed discussing the day’s adventures with people from Sweden, Australia and Utah.

Sept. 22- To Logroño: 17 miles, 7 1/2 hours

The flat city pavement and the flat dirt road gave us a false sense of security. While we knew to expect inclines and descents, we were surprised to find that there were so many and that they were so steep.

I try to enjoy the beautiful vistas and keep my mind off the inevitable. The large blocks of farmland in beiges, browns and greens look like suede in the sunlight. A farmer and his dogs guide a flock of sheep on a steep parcel of land. A trail through the forest was a welcome respite from the sun.

We happened to land here on one of the biggest festival days of the year- the Harvest Festival. The plaza is teaming with people and filled with musicians and dancers. It’s so exciting to be a part of it!

Tonight, we’re at the Alburgue La Bilbaina. While it’s a great location and very clean, we could have done without the many old, uneven, ceramic tile steps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Camino: Sept. 16 – 18, 2016

 

Photo Camino Start 2

Sept. 16- To Roncesvalles: 16 miles (adjusted to 20 miles for inclines), 9 hours

Dale! (let’s do it!). Day one will be the longest and the hardest, but the most spectacular. We join others leaving at the same time, wish them “Buen Camino” (have a good walk !) and chat on our way up the incline. As we begin the walk through the Pyrenees, the group becomes quiet, spellbound by the spectacular views and the silence. Only the sound of an occasional cowbell reminds us that we are not alone.

The day is sunny and the steep downhills and inclines seem doable. But, it soon starts to rain and the uneven terrain becomes treacherous. The rocks and mud on the trail make the trail so slippery that it takes our full concentration to decide the right spot for each step.

More experienced pilgrims share their knowledge with us. They show us how to hold our hiking poles when going up or down and how to slolom down a very steep descent (zig zag from side to side). By the end of the day we will have walked straight up 4000 feet!

Our hands are so cold, that it takes a minute before we can hold the pen to sign in at the Albergue de Peregrinos. We are so tired and so grateful they have a restaurant and buy 2 dinner tickets for a 3 course meal and wine, a bargain at 10 euros. This massive building used to be a monstery. It’s very basic, clean and the bunk beds are set up dormitory style. The dryer is not working well, so we string a clothes line across my lower bunk. Everything dries overnight and I have privacy in my little club house.

Day one ends on a good note. The dinner was delicious and it was great fun to meet people from Brazil, Spain and Italy.

Sept. 17- To Zubrini: 14 miles, 6 hours

It’s raining again! Again, the downhills are steep and we realize we are in for another day like yesterday, only at a slightly lesser altitude.

We won’t be able to see much of Zubiri because of the weather, so we hunker down in the lounge of the El Patio de Avellano Alburgue and chat with others. This one is much nicer than the previous one; smaller and more modern with laundry service. A lovely Australian women shares her secret of asking Reception to book her next evening’s accommodations. She’s already done the research, so we decide to follow her to her next few stops.

We enjoy another great Alburgue dinner. Tonight our dinner partners are from Korea, France and New Zealand. I am fascinated by the women traveling alone and ask them so many questions. They all agree that the Camino is unlike any other trip. Yes, they are solo, but they seldom feel alone.

Sept. 18- To Pamplona: 13 miles, 6 hours

The rain has stopped, but has left behind so much mud. It’s slippery going, whether we’re walking up or down. We take a break to view an old church that’s being renovated. They will also stamp our pilgrim passport for a small donation. We meet a gentleman from South Africa who is in charge of the project and is so excited to share his many stories with us.

I really felt like eating an apple and had mentioned it a few times. Then, just around the bend, in the middle of nowhere, is a man selling fruit on the side of the road. It was one of the best apples I ever had. The Camino provides!

I find that rather than letting my mind wander, I am in deep  concentration all day, watching my footing. A New Yorker, who walks with me a bit, agrees. She says it’s a gift to have all the cobwebs cleared out of our minds and it will make us sharper thinkers in the end.

We arrive in Pamplona early enough to sightsee. Famous for the running of the bulls each July, the high wall around the old town and the massive stone buildings give the city a certain charm. We enjoy a great Menu del Dia (menu of the day: 3 courses plus wine) and call it a day.