Posts Tagged ‘Camino de Santiago’

 

Not to be too much of a hedonist here, but in the world we live in, sometimes it is better to enjoy a nice wine than to try to change people who do not want to change. So let us talk about wine.

My dad enjoyed a good glass of wine. He knew many growers and vintners, so growing up I was spoiled by trying wonderful wines. Having said that, they were mostly solid, serious, dry, old school Riojas and the occasional Ribera del Duero, ok and a glass of bone dry sherry before lunch, oh, and nice Champagne at celebrations!

So I come by my hobby honestly. I started enjoying a glass, ok, or a bottle, seriously in college. I learnt a lot from my french classmates and other budding enthusiasts, but, like most, could not enjoy a solid bottle for pecuniary reasons. That is until I got my first job after university and then things got serious. My palate was used to those heavy, dry Riojas, so when one of my summers in university I went on an internship to Bordeaux I was baffled by the awesome flavor of those much lighter wines – that is why Bordeaux used to be called Claret (for clear). Through time I slowly discovered more and more wine regions and could, never mind identify, but more importantly, enjoy different wines.

As I got older I fell in love with different regions, producers, even specific bottles. Here are some of my faves:

Any “old school” Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva: Marques de Caceres, Ygay, Muga, CUNE, Marques de Riscal… It is a long list, but if I had to pick a couple, they might be Remirez de Ganuza and LAN.

With the Ribera del Duero I am a bit more picky. Real Riberas have very high tannins and only the older, aged, wines have “tamed” those tannins. So my favorites there are Alejandro Fernandez’s Pesquera Reserva – this was a long love of mine. (It’s little brother Condado de Haza is pretty good as well).

I have been lucky to meet and visit a few growers myself, and that makes all the difference, as you get a much better understanding of the wine making process, the land – terroir, the whole shebang!

One such visit was to the Marques de Griñon in Toledo. He is a lovely fellow and clearly loves each and every single grape he grows! While there I tasted his Syrah (Shiraz, you say potato…) and it was love, sorry, taste at first sight! While I have enjoyed many great Syrahs over the years, that one was a spectacular moment.

Another love story might be with Pinot Noir, but not just any Pinot. You see I was never really impressed with this grape, until one good day not too long ago I had a California Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and it changed my life: light, but packing a whole lot of deliciousness. These are normally tricky (and expensive) to find, as the region is quite small, so good luck!

This summer while doing the Camino de Santiago I crossed the Bierzo region, which until recently was only known in Spain. Well, some of those wines really blew my mind!!

But my fave non-Spanish wine region is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, yes I know I am not very original, but I love the full bodied goodness of these guys!!

Given a choice I drink red, but if I have to pick a white, it usually is an Albariño, followed by a Verdejo, after that I’m not all that interested.

There you have it, a short but sweet list of my favorite wines, without getting all pedantic with technical bits, but still making myself a wine snob/nerd.

Last year I wrote some notes and advice for pilgrims. Here are some more picked up from round II:

Take care of your whole body, not just your feet. Last year I was hyper focused on my feet, to the point where I disregarded the rest of my body. This year I paid much more attention:

  1. Yoga: I tried to do yoga most evenings. I looked for a patch of grass and then free styled or used the Down Dog app on my phone. In Herrerias I even found a yoga class taught by Esther, a wonderful Dutch girl. It was in a clearing in some trees with a stream running by. It was by far the best yoga lesson I have ever had!! The stretching is wonderful and resets the body.
  2. Ice baths or equivalent: I was lucky to find ice-cold rivers and streams to dip in after my walks. This is critical to bring down whole body inflammation after all day hiking. I found this deeply restorative as well as refreshing. In worse case, a cold shower will also help bring down any possible inflammation.
  3. Liquids, liquids, liquids (preferably not alcoholic). I did not do a bad job on this last year, but this year I made sure to crank it up! Make sure that you keep a solid supply of water, especially if doing the Camino in the summer. I had a stretch one afternoon where I could not find an albergue, it was very hot and I was tempted to not fill my bottle. I’m glad I did, as it took a while to get to the next water source.

Besides your body, listen to your soul. The early morning hours are usually quiet and mostly without people. This is a perfect time to meditate. I use an old rosary to help me match my breath with my pace and a mantra. One morning I managed a solid 45 minutes, a record of conscious meditation for me. It was one of the most cleansing and spiritual experiences I have ever had.

But the best lesson to share is to start walking.

Since I ended my Camino last year I was itching to get back to my pilgrimage. It did not disappoint. Exactly a year to the day, I boarded a bus to Astorga, the city where I finished last year. Four hours later, I arrived. I did not want to spend the night in a place that only had sad memories and heartbreak for me. So I walked to Murias, the first village out. It was a gorgeous evening walk on one of the longest days of the year. I passed by the obligatory tiny chapel and yellow arrows. The small Albergue was a repurposed, old, one classroom schoolhouse. Just about everyone inside was already dozing. But I walked to the local restaurant for a quiet dinner with a glass of wine. Then crawled into bed after a quick shower.

My Camino proper started, like last year, on my Dad’s birthday. It is a tiny, silly way for me to honor him and to celebrate with him, walking with his old walking stick. Right out of Murias there is a small detour to one of the prettiest villages in Spain: Castrillo de los Polvazares. An ancient, untouched stone village. Stone homes, stone streets, stone church, stone everything. I made the detour because I remember driving there with my father in his massive Mercedes and being so awestruck by the beauty of the village. My morning walk is always my favorite. The dew on my legs, the silence, loneliness, the cool.

The path was a slow but steady climb to the second highest peak of the route, past Rabanal del Camino, where I stopped to chat with a Benedictine Monk in his monastery, and Foncebadon, to Cruz de Fierro, the site of an ancient Roman temple. It is a tiny iron cross on a massive wooden post. Pilgrims are supposed to drop off a stone picked up at the base, but with the accumulation of stones, they are now suggesting leaving flowers. I had a pebble I had been carrying since Navarra.

After cresting for five odd km. the descent is very technical, putting a lot of pressure on feet, shins, and knees. I was out of the Maragateria area and into El Bierzo, a previously forgotten region of Spain that is now on the map since their wines became noticed some years ago. I eventually stopped at Acebo a lovely village of stone homes with slate roofs.

There are three basic types of albergues a pilgrim can stay in. The municipal or public ones, the parochial or church affiliated ones and private ones. I normally chose my albergues in this order. In Acebo the options were parochial or private, I stayed at the parochial, run by a wonderful American couple that had left the US because of President Trump (they can hardly be blamed).

My walk the next morning led me by a wonderful 18th C. altar in one of the tiny chapels along the way. I always stop and chat with the attendant, while I get my official stamp to prove my visit, which I will need in Santiago. Breakfast was at the gorgeous village of Molinaseca. And the walk continues past fields and vineyards to Cacabelos. The Albergue at Cacabelos is paradise for me. It is set up along the inside wall of an 18th C. neoclassical church, right up my alley! The next day I end up at Herrerias, the base of the third highest climb of the route. There is only a couple of private albergues and the one I choose is super cute. The bedroom only has 8 beds so it is very quiet. There is a neo-Hippy project next door called Project Brigid where they do music workshops, and they lend you their kitchen. I signed up for their yoga class in a small clearing, surrounded by high trees, next to a lovely stream. It was by far the best yoga session of my life.

The climb to Cebreiro is the third highest in the Camino, but in the early morning, it is a breeze. A stop at the great bar El Arbol in La Faba provides great fuel to keep climbing. The view of the hills of Galicia from the top is awesome and the town of Cebreiro is really cute, with a fantastic, intimate church where I spend some time. I keep walking downhill to Triacastelas. The albergue is in rooms of four. I room with a Mexican girl, a South African fellow and Go from Japan, who will become my new friend.

I walk to the Benedictine Monastery at Samos in one gorgeous chestnut tree forest crisscrossing  gurgling streams. At Sarria I enjoy a wonderful empanada, the local pie, stuffed with tuna. The Camino now is a bit more crowded with busses full of “pilgrims” who only walk the last 100 km. in order to earn the coveted Compostela, the traditional forgiveness of sins for doing the Camino. These mostly Spanish folks can afford to do the walk with only a day pack – or just some water – as their bus will carry their kit from village to village. I must confess it does distract from the purity of the Camino, but they must be equally accepted as they are also pilgrims, even if all they are wearing is a bikini and a water bottle, as I saw one girl doing.

Galicia is a magical region of Spain, it’s ancient hills covered with chestnut and eucalyptus forests, streams and tiny agricultural plots. The food is delicious and the people are wonderful. My last two days’ walk is in the company of awesome Aussie Bec and our Japanese friend Go. After a good night’s sleep at a gorgeous little hotel, the walk into Santiago is an easy 9 km, just in time for the Pilgrim’s mass with the fabled Botafumeiro incense burner that somehow uncorks all my emotions as it swings across the naves of the cathedral. I only have time to get my Compostela before jumping on a train home, I’ve got a busy summer ahead!

Three months have passed since I finished my Camino for the year. I have had time to think and process my pilgrimage. In the meantime, a student from UNC interviewed me about my experience on The Camino, which helped me to vocalize my feelings about the experience.

My conclusion is that The Camino is what the world should be like. Pilgrims are generous,  considerate, and kind, we are all fairly equal, united in the task of walking to Santiago. Add to this the human and humane pace of walking, allowing you to talk to others, to enjoy the beautiful scenery, there are no unwanted interruptions, there is no need for technology. There are no hidden interests, we are all just walking and that is pretty much all there is to it. You can walk faster or slower, you can stop wherever you want. It really is a parallel world that is as much of a real world utopia as you can find.

I recently read this passage from Thomas Merton, a real modern-day mystic, and I immediately connected it to my Camino experience:

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being [hu]man, a member of a race in which God . . . became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now [that] I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.

Unfortunately The Camino ends, and one returns to the world we have created. We return to noise and pollution, but even worse: to rude and aggressive people, to rushing, to everything we have constructed that separates us from peace, and beauty, and truth.

 

Many of my fans preparing for the Camino have asked me about my gear (ok, maybe just a couple of people). There are many Internet spots that explain what and how to pack, but here are my two cents, as Americans would say:

Walking 500 miles (give or take) in a month (give or take) carrying your backpack is an exercise in minimalism, physically, mentally and spiritually reducing clutter. By reducing stuff in your backpack, you also reduce it in your mental/spiritual backpack. I hope to soon be able to write about the emotional and mental process of the Camino. For now I will leave you with this quote from Richard Rohr, and write about the material gear that goes in your backpack.

The German Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart (c. 1260—c. 1328) preached, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.” [2] But in the capitalistic West, we think very differently. We all keep trying to climb higher up the ladder of success in any form. We’ve turned the Gospel into a matter of addition instead of subtraction. All we can really do is get out-of-the-way. The spiritual life is often more about unlearning than learning, letting go of illusions more than studying the Bible or the catechism.

There are a few things to keep in mind when packing for the Camino: a. you are never more than a few hours away from civilization, with supermarkets, pharmacies, convenience stores, and anything else you might need. b. there are laundry facilities at all albergues, so you do not need to pack many clothes, and c. basically all you do on the Camino is walk, eat and sleep. Having said all that, this was my packing list:

Shoes are probably the first thing to think of. If you are walking in the summer you do not need hiking boots. I saw plenty of people struggling with heavy hiking boots in the hot 30+ C° weather, plenty of abandoned boots, and plenty of feet like steak tartare. Good, broken in hiking shoes are perfect. Some people wear running sneakers, they are probably fine, although maybe a bit too lightweight for you and your pack, in my opinion. I packed a pair of cheap Flip-Flops for showering and a pair of water sandals for the apres-walking evenings.

You basically only need the clothes you are wearing and the ones that are washing/drying. Of course this depends on the season, but in the summer that means T-shirt, underwear, shorts and socks. As I mentioned before, as I am a snob, I carried three changes.

Since your feet are doing basically all the work on the Camino, and account for 25% of the bones in your body, you really should pamper them with the best socks you can get. Ideally hiking specific socks in a wool blend without seams. The higher up the leg they are, the less dust and grit is going to get into your feet.

Although everybody recommends hi-tech, moisture wicking, breathing fibers, for your T-shirts, I chose old school 100% cotton long sleeve shirts. The cotton because I am a snob and don’t like the feel of synthetic fibers, and the long sleeves because I also hate sunscreen and long sleeves meant I could avoid creams (and packing them).

For a second I considered athletic underwear, but ended up going with my Brooks Brothers boxer shorts. Some things just like hanging the way they always do!

I carried two cargo shorts. The side pocket was extremely handy for my guidebook/map as I used it constantly.

It was never too cold for me until the approach to Burgos. That day I wore two long sleeve shirts all day long. That evening I surrendered to the cold and bought a hooded sweatshirt at the souvenir shop, the only shop open in Burgos that day, as they were celebrating their festivities!

For my bald head I alternated bandanas (which I would tie around my neck in the morning) in different configurations depending on the sun: a la Marco Pantani, Il Pirata, or a la Tupac Shakur, and a  “crunchy” boonie, or giggle hat that I could soak at fountains to keep me cool.

Unless you are going to camp or bivouac (which I saw plenty by the side of the Camino) you are going to sleep indoors, so a summer weight sleeping bag is fine. I chose to have one of my favorite cotton sheets folded in half (lengthwise, duh) and sown to create a sleeping bag. It might have been a bit heavier than the synthetic bags, but it was oh so comfy. Most albergues have blankets, so on cool nights I pulled a blanket over my sheet/bag. I did carry a pillowcase since the albergues all have pillows, in retrospect I could have used one of my three T-shirts.

Your minimal dopp kit with your bathroom supplies. I used Marseille soap – Jabón Lagarto – in Spain as I could use it for my laundry and my body, and my bald head, hahaha!

A lot of thought was given to what to read on the Camino, something meaningful but light. The library at the albergue in Roncesvalles, the first stop, is full of donated/abandoned Bibles… I ended up choosing The Book of Job and I do not regret it. I did finish it early and donated it to the Convent of Saint Claire where I was staying at Carrión de los Condes. I also packed a notebook and writing material to keep a diary and a daily Scripture reading for inspiration.  I carried two guidebooks: The Michelin Guide for quick reference on the go, and the Anaya “El Camino de Santiago en tu mochila” for more detailed reference.

Small flashlight – critical for reading and moving around the albergue after lights out. Mine has a wrist band which means I could hang it from the boards of the bunk above me, great for reading.

For towel I used a lightweight microfiber from Decathlon, it is not the most luxurious item, but it works. I must confess I was very jealous when James pulled out this exotic, gorgeous, printed Indian sheet. It is very refreshing to see flashes of glamour on the drab, technical, weight obsessed Camino equipment.

Water bottle, and make sure you have a comfortable, handy spot to carry it, I struggled carrying mine around in different locations until I settled on a hip strap. Although you are never too far from a fountain, there are a few long (over 10 km.) stretches without water. Also, you should always be drinking anyway, so even if you do not fill it up, always carry water. It is also handy to wash fruit, hands, etc. Some people carry water “bladders” but these seem tricky to fill up mid hike and are apparently expensive.

Basic first aid kit with whatever you think you might need – hopefully you will not use anything.

Bathing suit!

Trail mix, it is nice to have s snack without having to wait for the next bar.

Phone and charger.

Bug spray – I did not use it.

Sharpie, critical for marking stuff and writing on stones at mileposts.

Safety pins in case your clothes have not dried overnight and you need to “hang” them outside your pack.

Poncho that covers your backpack. Keep it handy in case of sudden storms.

Most albergues have laundry facilities for manual laundry. The bigger ones have washer/driers. Some of them will even treat you to detergent, so I packed a few of the liquid plastic pods in a zip-lock bag.

Pilgrims swear by the hiking sticks (that look like ski poles), I carried one of my dad’s old walking sticks that an old friend had given him. It was useful on technical climbs and descents and to poke at things.

Last, but not least a pocket knife is critical. You might only use it to make bocadillos, but it is always handy to have. I found an old Swiss Army knife that I had given my little sister years ago and that for some reason was in my dad’s desk drawer.

Buen Camino!

The Camino is a totally individual experience whatever your purpose might be (sport, religious, spiritual, cultural, culinary, etc. or any combination of those), but it is also a shared experience. More importantly, the Camino is a physical space and a shared physical space. This means that it helps if certain social considerations are kept. Here are some of my observations and recommendations:

Dos

Be polite to all pilgrims and acknowledge them with a “Buen camino”. If they are sitting by the Camino, you might want to ask if they are ok or if they need a snack or some water.

Even on the “Donativo” albergues, please be generous with your donation, ie: never leave less than €5.

If you use the albergue’s kitchen, please leave it as you found it, or cleaner.

Banana peels and apple cores are totally biodegradable, so they are ok in nature, just not in the most visible part of nature. Put them out of sight.

Be polite about asking for a credencial stamp. It is quite rude to ask for a stamp at a bar / coffee shop if you do not purchase anything, regardless of how cool the place is, so go ahead, get a café con leche, or a bottle of water – you are going to need it! And don’t be pushy, the business gets nothing from stamping your credencial, so be patient.

Tipping in Spain. Hospitality workers in Spain have, by law, full contracts, which means (unlike in the US) that they make a full salary, they do not live from tips. Having said that, it is customary and always nice to leave some change on the table/counter. Those coins are weighing you down on the Camino anyway!

Hospitaliarios – the people who run the albergues are volunteers (except at the private ones, which are normally family run). So treat them nicely, they are there for you, not for a paycheck.

Pay attention to your shoes when you walk into the albergue. You might have to leave them outside – never wear them into the dorm area.

 

Don’ts

Do not ask pilgrims why they are doing the Camino. It sounds like a good ice-breaker, but while we all have our reasons, some might be more personal than others, and you really might not want to know. It is one thing for American college kids that are “finding themselves”, but not everybody is necessarily so open. If they want to, they will tell you.

Do not walk around the albergue in your underwear. No matter how sexy you or your underwear might be, nor how hippie the albergue is. Think about it, it is a downhill experience if we all went that way. (If in doubt read Immanuel Kant’s Universal Law).

Beds at the albergue are for people not backpacks. Your sweaty, dusty, muddy, wet, backpack belongs on the floor, a chair at best, but never on the bed.

If you cannot wait for the next village or the next bar to go to the bathroom, please find the most secluded spot and try to be as discreet as possible with your poop and the paper you use. A bush next to the Camino is not a good idea. And the paper flying around isn’t either. Don’t contribute to the eyesore.

Try not to make noise if you are going to bed later than most people or getting up before most people. Try to have whatever you need handy so you can access it quietly. I was deeply embarrassed one night when I had to rummage in my backpack for my earplugs.

Feel free to add or comment below!

  1. Rolf, an inquisitive young Swiss carpenter.
  2. Katrina, a German girl who booked it past Roncesvalles on her first day!
  3. Two Spanish retirees. One climbing the Pyrenees, one that led us into Burgos.
  4. James, a lovely, funny, tall young Englishman with whom I chatted about beech forests and Hemingway.
  5. Diego, a young restless Italian architect with a huge heart.
  6. Alain, an eloquent French meteorologist turned priest.
  7. Manolo, a physical therapist from Zaragoza. I met him on the descent to Roncesvalles. A veteran pilgrim who became my teacher of the Camino.
  8. Frank, a retired Warner Bros music executive from New Mexico.
  9. Tillman, a young nurse from Hamburg who broke his ankle on the first day of the Coastal Route and switched to the French Route. He was very generous with his advice on my tendonitis.
  10. Jessi, an Australian lawyer walking out of a street and into my needy arms in Villatuerta. She gave me vital girl advice and treated me (probably unknowingly) to breakfast in Estella.
  11. Lindsey, a gutsy Yale grad whose graduation present to herself was walking the Camino.
  12. Emily, a University of Virginia MBA student.
  13. A University of North Carolina Urban Planning MA student with her boyfriend. Go Heels!!
  14. Bo, a young Korean accountant with whom I co-founded the Camino Chapter of the Eddy Kim Fan Club.
  15. Bo, a Korean girl who celebrated her 22 birthday in Carrión de los Condes, I was invited to the festivities in the albergue kitchen! Follow her on Instagram at bom.in_703
  16. Two Mexican girls. I lent my soap to one of them and she forgot it on the laundry sink… good thing I saw it when I was returning from dinner.
  17. Two Mexican boys, one of whom played club tennis at University of Virginia.
  18. Marie Helene, a feisty French lady who started her Camino in the Alsace-Lorraine (where the quiche comes from). I met her my first night at St. Jean de Pied-de-Port and bumped into her my whole Camino, she became a nice friend.
  19. José Antonio, a funny lad from Gran Canaria
  20. Amy and Jess, two young teachers from Austin Texas.
  21. A stylish pilgrim from St. Louis Missouri. She wore her scarf and sun hat like a Hollywood star adding much-needed glamour to the Camino.
  22. A happy Irish boy with two friends: an Australian and a Brazilian, we had fun on the bumper cars in Nájera.
  23. A French and an Australian girl, I had dinner with them in Roncesvalles and bumped into them the first few days of the Camino.
  24. Bart from Barcelona, who was either racing down the Camino, drinking beer, or sleeping, (or getting a ride in a car from a friend to a remote village in Burgos).
  25. Christof from Berlin, some sort of wunderkind with a tech startup and feet destroyed by blisters.
  26. Katia from the Czech Republic who walked around the albergue in her leopard print knickers.
  27. Bob a hilarious Cuban-Venezuelan-German fellow.
  28. Delia from Salvador de Bahia, a bigger heart would be difficult to find.
  29. A big hunk American fellow who hiked at night and looked like Hulk Hogan.
  30. Adolfo, a retired 63-year-old bank employee from Zaragoza who ran marathons.
  31. Kika, an Italian living in Germany who falls off beds, this is a problem when you have the top bunk in the albergue
  32. Iñigo, a nice Basque environmental science teacher.
  33. Gert, a pilgrim from Hannover who only speaks German (very brief conversation).
  34. Claire, a lovely English girl with Birkenstocks, and her boyfriend.
  35. Stephanie, a super tall Dutch girl who got tendonitis just like me.
  36. Ramona, a lovely Bavarian girl with all sorts of tattoos and sexy scars.
  37. Jessica, a lady from LA on her first trip abroad. Talk about culture shock.
  38. A girl from Valencia walking with her English boyfriend? Husband? At any rate, a bit pushy.
  39. A friendly American cyclist from California living in France.
  40. Raúl, a snoring cyclist from Teruel. He did the Camino walking once, but now his holiday time does not allow him to walk.
  41. Krisztina, a generous, beautiful old soul from Budapest.
  42. Two librarians from Pamplona, one of whom used to work with my friend Maria Alecha from the University of Navarra.
  43. An American girl in Boadilla del Camino who pointed out to me that my moisturizer was in fact shaving cream.
  44. A skinny Belgian fellow that slept like a champ.
  45. An Austrian guy from Vienna who got bed bugs.
  46. Two American women, one of whom had a daughter at the Columbine shooting and now has a foundation. The other one is a Lower School Principal in Minnesota.
  47. Paul, a Brit living in San Francisco. My guess is that he is some sort of Silicon Valley tech guru.
  48. Two Polish girls camping the Camino!
  49. Tino, a retired industrial engineer who booked 40 km a day.
  50. Kevin, the Flying Dutchman. A crazy, funny fellow.