Sigüenza

A bit over an hour north-east of Madrid lies the town of Sigüenza. I remember going there for an excursion for lunch once with my father when I was a teenager, and again with my family in my twenties, but I had not gone back since. In early January I went with my girlfriend. What a great town it is for a quick week-end getaway!

There are two main highlights to the town but many interesting bits to fill in between those two bookends. And bookends they are as they are situated on each side of town: The castle sits at the top of the hill, and the cathedral at the bottom. They are connected by the medieval wall. Within those walls are a handful of old churches, from Romanesque like Santiago and San Vicente to 19th C Santa Maria. There is a Renaissance town square, monasteries and convents, and like any good Spanish town a bunch of bars and restaurants!

The medieval castle, where queen Blanca de Borbón was kept prisoner for a few years since her dad King Jean II le Bon did not pay the dowry, became the bishops’ palace and eventually was turned into a gorgeous Parador hotel in the 70s. Imagine staying in a medieval castle but with awesome water pressure, great food and Wi-Fi!! We got a great deal, so we stayed there!

The town is perfect for walking around. Although we went in early January and it was freezing, there are plenty of places to check out and warm up!

The highlight is the Cathedral, originally Romanesque and then modified in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and eventually Neo-Classic styles. The main attraction in the cathedral is the tomb of “El doncel”. This fellow, Martín Vázquez de Arce was a local nobleman who was killed fighting for Ferdinand and Isabelle against the Moors in Granada in 1482. What is extraordinary is his tomb: he is not lying down like every other bishop and nobleman in every other cathedral… he is reclining, reading a book in his suit of armour, waiting for his eternal rest. The detail in the carving of the alabaster is exquisite to the point of whimsical: his page carefully holding his foot, his eyes open, etc. it is a gorgeous sculpture –funerary art at its best!

The rest of the cathedral is no slouch: a Greco painting, an outstanding collection of tapestries, amazing architecture, two pulpits: a Romanesque and a Renaissance one, etc., etc.

The Clarisas convent just happens to have an ancient burying ground outside their doors which is simply covered with a glass for you to appreciate the architecture and human bones! The nuns make the best chocolate truffles you can imagine. Since these nuns do not allow you to see them you have to buy the sweets via a rotating door. As a certified chocaholic, I can attest to the quality of the truffles! I did not bother tasting anything else.

As in any good Spanish town, food is the soul of the place. Sigüenza lies pretty much along the dividing line between Old and New Castille  – so called as Castille progressed on the expulsion of the aforementioned Moors… So you get both cuisines, North and South.

The surrounding villages are obviously much smaller than Sigüenza,but are very rich in history and culture. Make sure you check out Atienza and Medinacelli.

Tonxo Tours

 

 

 

Well, I guess the first thing I must do is apologize to my followers for a very long silence. Soon you will know the reason. As you might know, about a year a ago I returned home to Spain after many – thirteen to be precise – years in the US. With a clean slate, I decided to start a business that had been on the back burner for years: I have become a personal tour guide, creating bespoke tours of Spain under the name Tonxo Tours.

Showing people Spain is my life calling. I am passionate about sharing my culture, history, language. After showing Spain to all sorts of folks for years, I have decided to start Tonxo Tours and make my joie de vivre available to all! I have been toying with this idea since the late 90s, so it is about time to get going, don’t you think?

Most tour companies boast about their team of specialists, well, I am that specialist. I have been giving tours of Madrid and of Spain since my twenties. I have worked with British rock bands, schools and universities, foundations, executives from all over the world, even the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team, I would love to show you around!

After twenty odd years in the business world and thirteen teaching in high schools and universities in the US, it is time for me to do what I do best, which is to share my passion for Spain.

Why has it taken so long you might ask? My life has been marked by a peripatetic lifestyle, moving to New York when I was ten and then to London, Boston, Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva, Lausanne, Chapel Hill, Naples Fl., and so forth to over eleven cities. Cities became my friends. I loved discovering what made each one unique ̶-how they got their personality. I spent my time in museums, cafés, theaters, concerts, operas, ballets, all of which unavoidably infused me with a love for the arts. Sharing my love and knowledge of cities and their cultures soon became a venue to express myself. As a teenager I gave tours of Madrid and London to friends and family, something I continue to do and enjoy, which has led me to create Tonxo Tours. My experience and passion radiate on the street: Explaining Spanish history, architecture, food, music, sometimes all of them at the same time!!

When I started thinking about setting up a tour company I was aware of the tremendous competition in the market. Just in Madrid you can jump on a sightseeing bus and casually check out the city while chomping on some churros, you can take a Segway tour, there are a bunch of tapas tours, there are free tours, you can get a tour on a tuk tuk, a golf cart, an antique car, even in a pink Rolls Royce! In contrast to that, my philosophy is simple: a no gimmick, quality driven, discreet – yet fun – bespoke tour that will cater to what you want to experience, see, taste and hear, not the other way around.

I can arrange exquisite lodgings, extraordinary experiences, delicious food and drink,

with only one purpose: creating unforgettable memories.

But why would anyone choose Tonxo Tours? you might ask. Here’s a few more reasons:

  1. I am a native, a local, born and bred here, but with the advantage that I have lived abroad many years. I have dual citizenship USA / Spain, offering me a perspective unattainable to most.
  2. Passion: I love sharing my culture, my history, my food, my architecture, art, music, dance, etc. This drives me.
  3. Experience: I have been doing this for years with friends, colleagues, schools, universities, foundations, etc. From 1994 to 2004 I had my own company (but that is a different story) which took me to every city and town in Spain at least a couple of times a year, more for the big cities. So I really know Spain like the back of my hand.
  4. DNA: My grandad worked for the British and American embassies, often times driving dignitaries around – he even got a medal from from Queen Elisabeth (but that’s a different story). My dad was restless. We would go on excursions every time he got bored – which was often – He was also a Spanish history buff which rubbed off on me, so I have been reading Spanish history and literature since I was a youth, which eventually led me to get a PhD in Spanish literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (again, different story).

I received my undergraduate degree in business. I specialized in management, the human part; what motivates people? What makes them tick? I used these skills in my first jobs in finance, photography and management before using them to run my own business for ten years, importing and selling industrial machinery in Spain and consulting for European companies wanting to expand into Latin America. I moved back to the US, where I started teaching in 2005, and although I was making a fraction of the money I used to make, I felt much happier and more fulfilled. In the meantime I got a Master’s and then a PhD in Spanish Literature from UNC. Returning home to Spain allows me to indulge in my true vocation. I am able to apply my many skills developed and honed over the years. So don’t over think it, contact me and I’ll be happy to show you around!

Let me know when you are going to be in Spain and what you want to do and see. I will personally take care of you, if you just want to spend a few hours walking around old Madrid or if you want to spend two weeks exploring Spain, I will be happy to set it all up.

If you want to know more about me, you can read check out this blog about my random thoughts, travels, and whathaveyous.  You can check out my website tonxotours.com and/or my Instagram: tonxotours

Camino de Santiago #3 Camino del Norte

People start the Camino de Santiago for all sorts of reasons: adventure, self-improvement, fitness, spending time with their partners or friends, personal growth, finding oneself, etc. Upon finishing my third Camino, I have found that my main reason is a spiritual one – which by the way was the original purpose of the pilgrimage.

This year I did the Camino del Norte which  “officially” starts on the Spanish border with France at Irún. I crossed the Bidasoa river that separates the two countries, had a coffee in France, got my first stamp on my Credencial (the pilgrim’s “passport” that gets stamped along the way) and so got my official start in France, how is that for one-upmanship? or just for snobbery! This Camino then goes all along the North shore of Spain until turning in at Ribadeo to finish at Santiago.

Technically this is the second oldest Camino. When European Christians first started going to visit the tomb of the Apostol James in Santiago they either took a boat to one of the nearby ports in Galicia or to Oviedo and then cut inland to Santiago – that is the Camino Primitivo. Then came the coastal route, and when the Moors had been pushed South enough, pilgrims started going along the interior of the country on much easier terrain than the constant hills of the coast, this would become the Camino Francés, the most popular and most long-lasting Camino.

Now, before I continue let me point out that specially the Camino del Norte is a bit of a scam. You see, the Camino really was abandoned in the XX Century. In 1978 there were only three recorded pilgrims arriving in Santiago. Then in the ’90s it came back into fashion with younger people going on this route of self discovery. With increased popularity regional governments needed to re-mark and really re-establish the Camino. For the northern route this was difficult since the medieval paths that would unite villages along the valleys were now taken over by roads, so especially the Basque and Cantabria governments reinvented the Camino as a hiking route over hills and mountains where medieval pilgrims would never have set foot as they would have been eaten by wolves, bears and/or assaulted by bandits!

My Camino was glorious. The first day it crests a long mountain with amazing views of the sea and of the valley inland, finishing in San Sebastian, one of Spain’s prettiest towns and with the best food in the world. The second day it rained, and on a difficult descent, with wet socks I hurt both of my big toenails. This would be a bit of an issue for the rest of the Camino, but you do need some suffering in order to fully enjoy the Camino!

The Camino del Norte is known for it’s beauty. You walk between gorgeous beaches to verdant valleys day in and day out, through postcard perfect villages and some of the prettiest cities in Spain: San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santander, Gijón… The down side, if it can be called that, is that there is little variety as compared to the Camino Francés which changes topography constantly from the wooded hills of Navarra to the dry tableau of Palencia. The Camino del Norte also lacks the spiritual “weight” of the Francés with it’s open churches, pilgrim’s masses, etc.

I can’t wait to finish the few days left of this Camino and get started on the Primitivo…

Prepping for El Camino

Despite the fact that this is going to be my third Camino, it is still as exciting as the first, I guess it must be the expectation of adventure. So here are some thoughts and advice on preparing for the Camino:

Knowing that the pilgrimage to Santiago has been around for centuries (there was a pagan trek to Finisterre (the end of the world in Latin) before Christianity modified it to their needs) means that it can be done – and should be done with minimum amount of technology, help, etc. For me the Camino is a return to basics, so I do not book hotels, I do not use a phone app, nor use high tech clothes (other than shoes). This allows for a freer mind.

Because of this minimalist approach I do not have to worry about packing: just 3 pairs each of socks, underwear, shorts, T-shirts, a poncho, a sweatshirt, flip flops, Marseille soap for body and laundry, dopp kit, swiss army knife, water bottle, hat, walking stick, sunglasses, little else actually.

A more pressing issue for me is what to read on the Camino. There are at least a couple of schools of thought: one is to read something that has nothing to do with your journey. The second is to read something germane with your trip. I am in the second camp. My first outing I read a book on the parable of Abraham and Isaac and the Book of Job. On my second outing I re-read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, that fellow pilgrim James gave me on the first outing! This year I had a few options: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary which I finally have in French, Kathleen Dowling Singh The Grace in Dying, and finally the chosen option The Way of Ignatius, A Prayer Journey Through Lent, by Gemma Simmonds who was my sister’s teacher in school! Granted, Lent is over, but one should always be ready for a “prayer journey”.

As important as the kit is the actual physical preparation. This year I also had to break in new shoes, so I killed two proverbial birds with one proverbial stone: breaking in new shoes and training. The trick is to slowly add miles and weight to your pack in training with the goal of breaking in the shoes and your back!! This year I did a few solo outings and one with a couple of friends – and their dog – in nearby El Pardo natural park.

This week I bought my train ticket to Irún and a pair of socks (to replace a lost pair), but these are no ordinary socks, 60% Merino wool, no seams, and cushion. The original ones were Darn Tough socks from Vermont, this pair is Icebreaker from New Zealand.

The final details involve getting stuff done before leaving for a month, and getting the last items purchased and prepared. Follow my Instagram (Tonxob) or Facebook (tonxo balson) for daily photo uploads of the trip, starting June 3…

Santiago de Compostela

One of the advantages of being a freelancer is that I can take a couple of days off when I can fit them in. So recently we escaped to Santiago de Compostela. I know this Northern jewel well, but last time I was there when I finished my Camino in June of 2018 I didn’t stick around and took the first train back to Madrid. This time we went for three days.

Santiago was built since Roman times mostly out of granite so if it rains and it gets dark the streets and the buildings take on a mystical glow, a very special shine. We were lucky it rained when we went!

Of course the main event is the Cathedral which has been there in one shape or form welcoming pilgrims since the Middle Ages, although the Romans already had a temple there. Other must sees include the square Plaza do Obradoiro (check out the live webcam!) that houses the Cathedral, town hall, parador and university, the awesome modernist market, the park, the contemporary art museum, the folk museum, and, of course, a bucket full of churches/monasteries. But really the best thing to do is to walk around the old town enjoying the atmosphere, the little shops, the bars and restaurants…

We were lucky to stay at the Parador, the original pilgrim’s hospital which is on the Cathedral square and is the oldest hotel in the world!

The other main attraction is food! Needless to say the seafood cannot get any fresher as Santiago is a few miles from the sea. The octopus, the barnacles, any fish is just perfect! There are two local wines to have: the crisp, seabreeze infused Albariño and the lesser known cousin Ribeiro made inland along the local rivers (thus the name).

The Cathedral was under extensive restoration efforts so we could not enjoy mass with the massive incense burner – the Botafumeiro, oh well, maybe next time.

Camino de Santiago #3 The North Route

Repeat pilgrims of the Camino number their Caminos by sorties, not by completed Caminos. That means that I have done two Caminos although I have only completed one, since I did it in two parts. So for veteran pilgrims, I am no preparing to embark on my third Camino!

Also I must apologize for my recent silence, I have been immersed in a project you will soon learn about. But now back to the Camino…

Being a freelancer nowadays means that I can take the whole month of June for my walkabout. After much consideration: De la plata (from Seville), Portugués (yeap, from Lisbon), Aragonés (from the Pyrenees), I settled on the Norte: all along the breathtaking North Shore of Spain, starting in Hendaye in France.

Over the last three years people have asked me why I do the Camino. The answer is multi faceted, but the main one is being far from the madding crowd (thanks Mr. Hardy), alone, in silence, in a state of almost constant meditation, meeting people from all over the world and sharing the walk and meals (and yes, the bathrooms and bunk beds) with them, getting to know this wonderful country more and more intimately, taking part in something much bigger and far older! than oneself. Finally it is the physical bit, the sport, the personal challenge of walking every day for days. As I have said before in this blog, the Camino is what the world should be like. So much so, I think I might be addicted to the Camino!! I will keep you posted on my adventures.

Source: Club Renfe magazine

Source: Club Renfe magazine

A (much needed) silence and meditation retreat.

The last few months have been a bit challenging, so when the opportunity came to spend a few days in the Monasterio de El Paular in a retreat of silence and meditation, I jumped.

I have written before about El Paular, it’s magic and the wonderful monks since I have visited every summer for a few years,  But I had never spent more than a couple of hours there. Since I returned to Spain in the Fall, I called the monk in charge of retreats, the Guest Master, but could never find the right timing. Finally I chose a weekend with no other people staying over, and headed for the mountains…

Although the monastery is less than two hours away from Madrid, it feels a world away, as one has to go up the Guadarrama mountains (that would be where Hemingway based his For Whom the Bell Tolls) and down the other side. When I went, the mountains were all snowed, fortunately the road was clear, so I did enjoy a good drive up and down.

Once you enter the Monastery you notice your blood pressure drops and your serenity reaches levels you did not know were possible. You get a simple cell with a bed, a desk, a proper bathroom and amazing views of the mountains. I was free until vísperas (vespers) at 8pm so I went for a walk. My first steps of that walk where a rush, a tsunami of peace. In fact, it took a while to accept the silence as a companion.

As I mentioned in my posts about the Camino de Santiago, Medieval folk had a real spiritual affinity for choosing where to put churches, chapels or monasteries. This one is flanked by a gorgeous river and many streams which were running full during my visit. It is also at the base of the mountain, making it a very secure location. According to Feng Shui, if you were to draw a dragon using the available landscape, the best – and safest – place to build would be where the dragon’s genitals would be, that is where El Paular sits.

As advised by the Guest Master, I arrived early for Vísperas prayer. All 5 (6 when there is mass) daily prayers take place in a very cozy square chapel off of the cloister. The prayer breaks down into singing and speaking and into Latin and Spanish, but that really does not matter, as what matters is the repetition of the prayers that make the event magical.

Dinner comes right after vespers and happens in silence. A monk serves you and you eat while another monk reads a religious text. After special meals, the Abbot rings a little bell and you are allowed to speak, but not to get up from the table!

The final prayer, Completas (Compline) is a at ten, and you must keep silence until after Maitines (Maitins) at 6:30am the next day. You pray Laudes at 8am and have breakfast right after. Then the monks might have communal work. When I was there we had to clean up the monk’s tombs in the cloister and plant pansies that would withstand the cold. It was nippy out in the cloister, but the sun was shining and soon warmed us up. The work was rewarding as Abbot Miguel regaled us with stories of the dead monks and other folks buried there: an American fellow who was very fond of the monastery, or a child who drowned nearby, all very touching. After our work we snuck into to kitchen for a hot cup of coffee and madeleines made by the monks. I still had time for a walk in the forest before Sexta (Sext) and lunch.

And so the hours and the days pass: meditating, walking, eating in silence and praying. The weekend I was there the monks were celebrating Saint Scholastica, the sister of the founder of the Benedictine order. I had never heard of her, but her motto is very moving, something like whoever loves more has more power (más puede quien más ama) which became one of the cornerstones of my meditation while at the monastery. Once it got dark I would walk around and around the magnificent cloister which is surrounded by massive Vicente Carducho paintings (I think I will devote a blog post just for that bit…).

It is difficult to explain the monastic experience. The concept of time is totally different from that in the outside world, actually, outside might be the key word there as in the monastery it is all about inside you, your inner beauty, your inner holiness, your inner time, your inner everything!

On my last day I had a nice chat in the library with one of the senior monks. His advice to me? Empty yourself, a process the ancient Greeks called kenosis and something I have been working on since it was also recommended by Richard Rohr in his daily meditations.

Leaving the monks and the monastery was very sad, entering back into the crazy world we have created was tough, but I know I will be back to spend some of that special time with the monks at El Paular.