Budapest: Nov. 1 – 3, 2018

photo budapest

Parliament sparkles at night

It was my idea to take the train from Vienna to Budapest. The ride was under three hours and I thought we might enjoy the scenery. As it turned out, I fell asleep (as I usually do in any moving vehicle) and had to rely on *Mr. Wiz and *Big A for the descriptions of the small towns and countryside that we passed. The train station is jam-packed, so it was comforting to see that little sign, with our last name on it, held by the driver that was to take us to our hotel.

In all the times I’ve stayed at Hilton hotels, I have never experienced one like this. It seems as if the staff stands at attention and clicks their heels to welcome us, with military precision. They operate together as a well-oiled machine, providing impeccable service throughout the Budapest Hilton. The subdued colors and stylish furnishings give it an elegant, yet contemporary feel.

Budapest is one of the largest cities in Europe and Hungary’s capital. Because of the considerable damage left behind after World War, the city is much more modern than Prague. It’s also more sprawling, less touristy and is known for its vibe. Budapest is actually made up of two cities, Buda and Pest, which are separated by the Chain Bridge that spans the Danube River.

With not a moment to spare, we set off to explore. Because the sights are not all within walking distance, we rely on the good old on/off tourist bus, so as not to miss anything. We pass on the funicular and decide to walk up the steep path to Castle Hill to admire the views. The third largest building in the world with over 600 rooms, the commanding presence of the Parliament building is even more impressive when it’s lit up and sparkles at night. We stroll the luxurious grounds of Buda Castle, a palace complex built in 1265. The Matthias Church, dating back to 1015, misleads us with its neo-Gothic exterior and its mystical, exotic interior. Heroes’ Square is impressive, with its stately statues honoring important Hungarian leaders. The Great Market Hall is bustling and we make sure to buy some of the city’s famous paprika to take home.

As we stroll along the Danube, we notice that people are quiet as they approach the Bronze Shoe Memorial. Between 1944 – 1945, many people (most of them Jewish) were murdered along these banks. Before being shot and having their bodies fall into the Danube to be swept away, they were forced to remove their valuable shoes, so as not to waste them. The assorted sizes and styles of shoes that have been bronzed are placed as if the person has just stepped out of them. Whether one shoe was in front of the other or one is on its side, you get the feeling of motion and of realism. It is such an emotional and moving tribute.

It’s worth the wait to eat at Mazel Tov.  The contemporary Israeli restaurant is housed in an old warehouse that looks abandoned on the outside and is one of the city’s classier ruin bars. Derelict buildings circa World War II have become a tourist attraction when transformed into bars and restaurants all over Budapest. When we take a minute to look up from our tahini, hummus, chicken shawarma and homemade, hot pita bread served in a paper bag, we notice the vines hanging from two stories up and the glass ceiling; very cool.

The Hilton recommends a restaurant down the street and we lunch on shrimp, duck pate and goulash soup along with Hungarian wine at the Baltazár Wine Bar. When we learn that two sister restaurants are nearby, our dinner decisions are made. Pierrot Restaurant is housed in a 13thcentury bakery. The black and white photos that line the walls and the pianist playing softly in the corner convey an old-world elegance. We share tastes of the duck in puff pastry, beef tenderloin, venison loin and are starting to appreciate Hungarian wines. By the time we arrive at the 21 Restaurant, Mr. Wiz is well versed on local wines and has an interesting conversation with the manager. Together, they choose a bottle to compliment the rack of lamb, crispy duck and chicken paprikash, which is accompanied by homemade spätzle.

We cannot leave Budapest without visiting Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar and now known as one of the world’s most famous bars. Created in an abandoned warehouse in the Jewish Quarter, It’s hard to describe; think of a giant, dark junk shop that serves liquor (in a good way). The DJ is housed in a glass room, music is blaring and people from all walks of life (babies in strollers to a senior citizen tour group and everyone in between) are either sitting down (on bar stools, in an old bathtub fitted with benches or inside the body of a car) or strolling around to view what looks like a Fellini movie on steroids.

Is it the entire room filled with old televisions featuring psychedelic patterns on the screens, the wide-eyed doll heads glaring at me from the wall-to-wall shelves or the knight in armor standing next to the six-foot ceramic rabbit amid a collection of old typewriters dangling upside down from the ceiling that will give me nightmares this evening (in a good way)?

Instead, I fall asleep with visions of tomorrow’s last sumptuous buffet breakfast in the lovely hotel dining room, complete with castle views out every window followed by a morning of last minute sightseeing before saying goodbye to Buda and Pest and heading home.

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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Vienna, Austria: Oct. 29 – Nov. 1, 2018

Photo Vienna

Schönbrunn Palace

It’s a short flight from Prague to Vienna and by the time we get settled in our seats, we are already there. It’s a good feeling when you arrive in a foreign airport and see that little sign with your last name on it, so, once again, we hire a driver sent from our hotel.

The Der Wilhelmshof Hotel is a unique, family run boutique hotel. Designed in collaboration with Viennese artists, their art is not just placed on the walls or on display, but actually becomes part of the décor. Our room has a contemporary mural painted on the wall behind the bed that playfully continues onto the wall sconces.

We enjoy a drink in the hotel bar, as the cheery cocktail waitress (she introduces herself as “Pauline from Poland”) and the concierge assist us in a restaurant selection for the evening. The decision is unanimous; Schweizerhaus is a landmark from the 1920s serving traditional cuisine in a beautiful beer garden. It’s a short walk through a lovely park and a carnival that’s in full swing. We’re seated at a long communal table next to a large Viennese family. We smile, say hello and when they hear that we are from Texas, they are fascinated and have many questions. They guide us through the menu and do not steer us wrong. The gigantic, crispy pork knuckle arrives on a large wooden platter along with a helping of wiener schnitzel (thin pan-fried, breaded pork cutlets) and a warm potato salad made with oil rather than mayonnaise. The ice cold beer tops off a perfect meal. We thank our new friends, who all line up to shake our hands when they leave.

While walking the city streets, we discover that there is a refined and artistic elegance to Vienna. The largest city in Austria, it’s the birthplace of Mozart and Beethoven and known for its many imperial palaces. We feel as if we are taking a step back in time when we visit Schönbrunn Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former summer home of the Habsburg family.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral is considered the most important religious building in Vienna with its mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and magnificent spires dating back to the 1300s. Considered the “mother church” to Roman Catholics, it was built on an ancient cemetery dating back to Roman times.

There is no time to visit them all, so we let Mr. Wiz* choose which museum we will explore. He makes a good choice; the Albertina Museum. The magnificently furnished state rooms from the Habsburg Palace come alive when they are accompanied by narratives of its occupants. The dramatic black and white photographs chronicling everyday life in poor New York City neighborhoods in the 1930s by Helen Levitt startle us. The comprehensive exhibit of Claude Monet details his life, revealing little known accounts that give us new insight and on display were paintings we’ve never seen at any other museums.

Once again, all the restaurant research Big A* and I have done has paid off. The music is loud, the place is packed and the tables are communal at Miznon, an Israeli restaurant. We stand on line to order lunch, gawking hungrily at the open kitchen. Both the lamb and beef burgers served in pita bread have won raves, but it is the charred, spiced cauliflower that is the star of the show. Grilled and served whole, we pull it apart and dunk it into tahini, one of the sauces offered. At Ulrich, a hip, casual restaurant, we lunch on chorizo flatbread and smoked salmon and trout. We are lucky to secure a dinner reservation at an upstairs table with a city view at Lugeck. Sharing entrees seems like the right thing to do, so we can all taste the fried chicken, shrimp and goulash with homemade spaetzle.

We go to great lengths to plan just the right cocktail hours. Alfred Loos is known as one of the pioneers of modern architecture, so we had to experience Loos American Bar. Designed in 1908, the groundbreaking concept combines dark mirrors, low lighting, wood and onyx into the 290 square foot space and fools you into thinking it is surprisingly larger. With Ella Fitzgerald serenading us softly in the background we’re reminded that this is one of those few times that the word “swanky” is apropos.

Das Loft Bar is perched on the 18th floor of the Sofitel Vienna. It’s dark and moody. The ceiling is covered with what looks like flowing silk awash in a combination of colors. Blended with the 360-degree views of the city sparkling back at us, we can’t help but  snuggle into our seats, order another round of cocktails and make another toast to beautiful Vienna.

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

 

 

Prague, the Czech Republic – Oct. 27 – 29, 2018

Photo Prague

Leave it to those millennials; Big A* reminds us that we should take advantage of one of the perks of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card he suggested we switch to and meet at the VIP lounge in Madrid’s airport. After warm welcomes all-around, we compare the research we’ve all done and start creating daily itineraries for our visit.

The capital and the largest city in the Czech Republic, Prague, is known as “The City of a Hundred Spires.” There is a fairy-tale like quality to the city; the buildings all look as if they have just been painted their pastel colors and the Baroque architecture makes you feel as if you are strolling through a European Disneyland.

Rather than navigate the language and worry about changing our euros into Czech Korunas at the airport (not the best exchange rate), we decide to take advantage of the hotel pickup service. We are reassured by the driver that English is taught in schools and is Prague’s second language. He points out some sights along the way and tells us proudly that tomorrow is the country’s 100th anniversary of its independence and we can look forward to parades, fireworks and many special events.

The Hotel Leonardo has a wonderful, Old World feel about it. The genteel staff seems as if they have been waiting just for us to arrive and surprises us with an upgrade to a junior suite. After a quick review of the city map and all its walkable sights, we thank them in Czech (“Dê Koji” pronounced “Dye-koo-yi”) and head out to explore.

The show must go on! The pouring rain does not stop us or the many events planned. We snuggle into our raincoats and conclude that it might be better to keep moving than to stand in a downpour to watch the parade and fireworks.

We can’t decide if we prefer the day or night view from the Charles Bridge, which connects Prague’s Old Town and Castle Districts. Rather than take the tram, we decide to take the steps all the way up to Prague Castle and St. Vitus’ Cathedral, stopping along the way to admire the views. The castle is a city within itself, named the largest castle complex in the world by the “Guinness Book of World Records.” We tour its main floors and make sure not to miss the spiral staircases that lead up to small collections of everything from a torture chamber to a lady’s boudoir. St. George’s Basilica is the oldest surviving church within the castle. Built in 920, it initially served as a burial ground for princes before being converted to workshops for art and music. The Jewish Quarter isn’t too far a walk and we’re anxious to see the medieval synagogue and the historical exhibitions in its cemetery.

Balancing out our sightseeing with equal amounts of culinary adventures is always a high priority. Prague is known as a beer mecca, so a stop for one at the Restaurant Pekla in the cellar of the Strahov monastery is a must. The underground cave with thick, stone walls dates back to the 12th century and is a welcome respite from the weather. Hard to pass up with our beers are the large, warm pretzels at Kolkovna and the homemade sausage at Lokal, two Czech breweries we also visit. Though we can’t decide if our Prague favorite is the onion soup, mussels, roast duck, goulash or steak frites, we agree that Café de Paris is our choice for the loveliest restaurant. A beautifully restored bell-èpoque café, it exudes elegance and sophistication; just the thing for three, soggy, hungry souls.

 

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

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.

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.