Camino Francés vs Camino del Norte, which is better? My opinion

As soon as people find out I have done the full Camino Francés AND the Camino del Norte they always ask the obvious question: which is better? Well, here are my thoughts.

Like everything else in life, it is all about your personal tastes, the purpose of your Camino, etc.

The French way has more varied terrain, switching every few days. You get the Pyrenees on day one, then the rolling hills of Navarra, blending into the vineyards of La Rioja, eventually you get to the agricultural hills of Burgos, before hitting the plains of the plateau of Palencia and Leon before arriving at the hills of El Bierzo and the ancient Celtic hills of Galicia. The North or Coastal route on the other hand is amazing beach after amazing beach, and amazing forest after amazing forest, oh, and the only flat bits are the beaches, the rest of the time you are going up or down, which makes this route much tougher physically, but extremely rewarding as you are never more than a day or two away from the sea.

Also since this was the predominant trail in the late Middle Ages, the French way has a lot of history and a powerful spiritual charge, every chapel, every church, and cathedral just has this literally awesome, moving presence. By contrast, the Northern trail was abandoned in favor of the Francés as the Moors were driven out of the peninsula so, in fact, you are walking a much newer trail without so much of the spiritual aspect.

Food is probably better on the North route, as you partake from the bounty of the lush, green countryside and the ocean. This does not mean that the French way is bad, it just does not pass-through San Sebastian, arguably the best food per square foot in the world!!

North Coast of Spain is very green. Why? Because it rains a lot! So, if you commit to the North way, make sure you are prepared mentally and physically to deal with rain, sometimes for days… The French way on the other hand tends to be much drier.

Finally, depending on when you are doing it, the French way can become a bit crowded, while the North route has consistently less traffic.

If you are more into exploring cities and towns, both ways offer great stops, San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander on the North, Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos or León on the French way.

So, in the end it boils down to what you want from your Camino. If you are looking for tradition and spirituality, go with the French way, if you prefer breathtaking views and more of a physical challenge, go North.

Have you done both Caminos? Leave your thoughts in the comments!!

Tacos

Strangely enough, I rarely write about food, which happens to be one of my favorite things! Well, we’ll try to fix it…

As an old family member used to say: “I will eat anything that does not eat me first”, so I´ll eat pretty much anything – except maybe that Corsican cheese with the maggots (it does explain Napoleon being Corsican, though). At any rate, one of life’s simple pleasures is street food.

And what better example of street food than tacos? Of course, there is street food everywhere there are streets, so I remember fish and chips growing up in London, crêpes in France during my summer internships, hot dogs and pretzels in New York, churros in Madrid, Dholl Puri (curried yellow split-pea flatbreads) in Mauritius, etc. etc.

My first visit to Mexico was for work in 1993, and I can testify that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Many tacos later, in Naples I was blessed (a word I hate to use because we are all blessed, we just don’t see it or do not want to see it) to have Taquería San Julian. While not a stand, but a “real” -if humble- sit down joint, it made exceptional tacos. In fact I took my students there to order their lunch in Spanish as the oral component of their final exams!

Florida, unfortunately, does not have a rich heritage of street food. In fact, it does not have much heritage at all. The native Seminole population is limited to a handful of casinos, and until the late 18th C. nothing much happened here. What about fried alligator? A handful of “native” Floridians will shout. Well, when was the last time you saw a fried alligator stand on a street corner? Fortunately, enterprising Mexican immigrants have filled that vacuum with delicious tacos!

In a providential twist, there is a great taco trailer that parks -literally- around the corner from my house. So, guess where I end up when I am in a rush, or feeling lazy, or just craving tacos?

Although I have had tacos at Michelin starred restaurants (Punto MX in Madrid) and they were delicious (and expensive), tacos are meant to be eaten on the street (Florida does not really have sidewalks so one must eat in the car).

In conclusion: Thank God for tacos!

The great American restaurant: The diner

Thanks to almost 30 years of the Food Network and food magazines, the US is finally waking up to eating good food. This is not to say there was no interest in food before. Look no further that the Amish communities with their all organic and local only fare -long before that was even a thing. For too long Americans in general only considered food as fuel for the body. Generally, Thanksgiving is the only exception when families cook and sit together to eat. Of course, there have always been restaurants around the country that venerated food. I think of Locke Ober’s in Boston, which my dad loved, and of course many others. Speaking of the Food Network, think of all the restaurants Guy Fieri features in his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show, revealing some of the generations old, mom and pop restaurants that are temples of food.

It is my opinion that diners are the finest representation of American food and therefore, culture. It boils down (sorry for the pun) to the Puritan/Protestant DNA, of our work ethic ingrained in our culture; work is the way to earn your salvation. It means one must have a big breakfast to work all day towards one’s goal. Thus the big breakfast at the diner, who has time to make eggs and toast and hash browns, etc, etc, at 5 in the morning? Lunch is a non-event: I have seen people wolfing a slice of pizza while they walk, a sandwich at one’s desk is more than acceptable, it is respected as a sign of your hard work, taking your time for lunch means you are a slacker.

My love for diners started way back in 1983, my freshman year in college in a small town outside of Boston. Exploring the town, I discovered Wilson’s diner. Its shiny blue and chrome was beckoning, inviting. What a discovery! It looked like a railroad car that was permanently placed there. And what a breakfast they had, buttery everything. Big dollops of butter to make the pancakes, the eggs, the omelets, the hash browns, everything! The first times I went with my best friend Theo who quickly got to chatting with the staff in Greek. I was amazed at the coincidence until I learnt that many, if not most of the New England diners are family owned and run by hardworking Greek immigrants. There is obvious irony in the fact that a Greek family was cooking perfectly buttery, greasy American breakfasts. I immediately fell in love with Wilson’s and walked the couple of miles  -sometimes in foot deep snow- into town on Saturdays for my breakfast: eggs, hash browns, bacon, sausage, pancakes, I tried everything and everything was delicious. During those four years of college I explored other diners: The Blue Diner in Boston, and the Deluxe Town Diner in Watertown, quickly cementing my love for diners and what they represent.

Since then I have had the chance to discover many diners and I always make it a point, whenever and wherever possible to breakfast in a diner: The Empire Diner in Chelsea (The New York one, sorry) around the corner from my apartment after college, The Agawam Diner near Newburyport where I lived for a winter, tiny Casey’s Diner in Natick where I would sometimes take my advisory group, it is so small it does not even have a regular door, but a sliding door which takes up less space, the famous Red Arrow Diner in Manchester New Hampshire where presidential candidates go get their photo taken during the primary election campaign. There are not many diners outside of the Northeast, but that does not mean that there are not great breakfast places that do the job of the diner: Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe in Chapel Hill is one of them. I even held the oral component of my final exams there; the students had to order their breakfast in Spanish from the wonderful Latino staff (although the ownership was Greek!) to pass the class! Visiting the University of Virginia, I discovered the White Spot on which I wrote one of my earliest posts (you are going to have to scroll way down…). The Clover Grill in New Orleans, I even bought their T-shirt: “We love to fry, and it shows”, Plato’s Diner in Maryland, and so on.

The other day I discovered The Boynton Diner in Boynton Beach in Florida, and I am happy to report it is a perfect specimen of the species: great waitresses, perfect breakfast, and, of course, an endless cup of piping hot coffee.

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

Manuel Balsón, “El Jefe” (1934 – 2015)

Many personal obituaries start by mentioning a favorite memory, or a first memory they have of the departed. This, besides being personal, offers the opportunity for a funny or intimate story or anecdote. On the other hand, professional (read press) obituaries focus on the achievements of the departed.

For my father I am throwing out both styles and let’s see what we get. Part of the reason for this is that I do not have a specific memory, or a funny memory, or a first memory. Well, I have many and not one of them particularly sticks out. Nor do I have a list of achievements for him. He did not discover penicillin, nor the theory of relativity, nor did he invent the light bulb. But from humble beginnings he worked hard to bring up a family.

The secret of his success is due to the vision of his father (my grandfather) Antonio, who sent him to the British School in Madrid, meaning that my father was a rara avis: an English speaking Spaniard in the post civil war, Franco ruled Spain of the 50s.

A couple of times I have heard the cute remark about how the important thing on gravestones is the little dash that separates the birthdate from the date of death. Duh.

Something else to keep in mind is how we label and put people in their little boxes. Yes my dad devoted most of his life to international banking, in fact he was an important cog in the Spanish international banking scene of the seventies and eighties. But that is not all of who he was. Yes was a keen motorist and loved cars and motorsports. Yes he was a keen fan of Apple computers, especially given his age. Yes he managed to track his family back to the mid eighteenth Century, but that is not who he was either. He loved jazz – although later in life he got to appreciating classical music more, so every Christmas I would record for him, originally a cassette tape and eventually CDs and finally USB sticks. He loved to read the newspaper which he did every day without fail. That is another trait I learned from him. He loved food and wine and would equally enjoy a cheese sandwich on a park bench as a Michelin starred meal.

He was a brave and decisive man who at a young age went to London to learn about foreign exchange. He lived with my mother across the street from Ashburton Grove, home of Arsenal Football club, but that did not make him an Arsenal fan, if anything he was a Real Madrid fan. After learning about foreign exchange in London, he started an upwards trajectory that would not stop until his retirement in the late 80s.

In the 70s he was offered to start the New York office of the bank. Being the elegant visionary that he was, he opened shop in the iconic Seagram Building on Park Avenue. We all packed up and left Madrid, I was twelve. It was a bit traumatic but I would eventually get the hang of moving back and forth, and it would become a way of life. After three years in New York came five in London and then back to Madrid, by then I had started my own nomadic way of life, going to college in Boston and working in France and Switzerland during the summers.

But back to Manuel. He had that kind of knack to be in the right place at the right time and looking good while doing it. Of course it did not hurt that his brother-in-law – my uncle and godfather – was a renowned tailor that made him all his suits!  BTW that is where I get my suit wearing custom, in case you were wondering. The other side of that coin was that unfortunately my dad travelled constantly, so we did miss him at home.

As a teenager up I remember blasting all around Europe in the big old Bismark at 130 miles per hour with any excuse. Eventually I would even be allowed to drive – that was fun.

My father retired in the late 80s and started all kinds of hobbies: playing with computers, taking a genealogy course to track his family tree, but most importantly spending time with friends, travelling with them and basically hanging out with all sorts of people. Manuel made friends easily, from all walks of life: artists, Bohemians, noblemen and gypsies, doormen and executives, everybody. About this time he became a part of the Boina club. The boina is the Spanish version of the French beret. This “club” basically consists of a bunch of guys meeting at a great basque restaurant for dinner and appointing 2 new members: a male and a female boinero who had to make an induction speech. This group had a fantastic network of contacts so the list of members is basically a who´s who of Madrid: writers, artists journalists, politicians, professors, you name it, of course my dad with his love of cars was the unofficial chauffeur of the group, picking up and dropping off the new members, this way he always got to hang out with them one on one!

For years every morning he would walk around the Retiro Park in Madrid, and he would often meet people there. Some of them became close friends. He walked every day until he no longer had the strength to walk out the door. The twelve years that I lived in Madrid, I always loved living overlooking the park so I had the light and could run and walk. Many weekend mornings I would bump into my dad walking and I would walk with him. Those walks were very special.

Possibly his biggest project after retirement was installing and improving the sprinkler system at the country house in La Navata. In fact, more of a hobby, it might have been his summertime obsession. I joked with him that he was like Enea Silvio Carrega, the hydraulics obsessed uncle in Italo Calvino’s story Il barone rampante. Fixing the sprinklers, changing water pumps, pumping water from one well to the other, tweaking the irrigation software. For this project he would enlist Mohammed, our local gardener to dig a ditch here, uncover a pipe here, make a hole here and so on. You would wake up on a hot summer morning and see chubby Mohammed trudging around the garden following my father who would be wearing his immaculate Panama hat overseeing the watering situation.

My father was diagnosed with an advanced pancreatic cancer in 2012. Thanks to the phenomenal staff at the Hospital Clínico San Carlos and specifically to Dr. Sastre, who managed to sneak him into the last spot at a clinical trial for a new pancreatic cancer drug manufactured by Celgene. This was a massive and miraculous success that increased my father’s life from an average of 5 to 9 months to three and a half years. These have been a tough three and a half years for Manuel as he struggled with his illness. The last few days, my mom, terribly stressed from being basically the sole caregiver all this time, took advantage of the fact that I was home from North Carolina to take some days off in Mallorca with her grandchildren. So I spent my father´s last week alone with him. Despite the fact that it was a tough situation for us, we had a very nice last bonding experience. We did not talk much, as by then he was spending most of his time sleeping. I slept on a bed next to him, to help him at night.

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Manuel died peacefully in his sleep on the morning of July 3 on his bed, surrounded by his family, like Don Quijote or Rodrigo Manrique.

Summer field research

Maria's First Communion!

Maria’s First Communion!

It's all their fault!!

It’s all their fault!!

Biblioteca Nacional Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional Madrid

18th C. Padre Isla manuscript

18th C. Padre Isla manuscript

"Uptown" Madrid

“Uptown” Madrid

Alfredo's Barbacoa

Alfredo’s Barbacoa

Niece and Nephew

Niece and Nephew

Home of 10 Champions leagues!!

Home of 10 Champions leagues!!

It has been a couple of weeks since I arrived in Madrid. It has been intense, full of family: my sister was here from Tenerife in the Canary Islands and my niece had her first communion. Being home also means that my way of life is totally different and I also have a physical and temporal distance from the end of the academic year at Carolina.

My way of life is different in that I go from living a fairly monastic life alone, dedicated to reading, to a life full of family and friends. The food is fortunately different and better, the coffee and the wine are far better, and I live in downtown Madrid as opposed to downtown Chapel Hill, which, as much as I love it, is a glorified village. Last Sunday was my niece (and goddaughter’s) first communion, and we had a very nice celebratory lunch with all the family. As I was at the buffet serving myself, a very nice lady in her horseback riding gear (the lunch was at a riding club) introduced herself. She was my ex-wife’s old massage therapist from when we used to live in Madrid ten years ago! It was a scene out of a Woody Allen movie, so I just chuckled to myself and carried on. I have also visited with family, taken my nieces and nephew out to lunch to Alfredo’s Barbacoa, my favorite burger joint. I have had lunch with dear friends and enjoyed some brief escapes around town, including my favorite bar Del Diego, and some favorite book stores.

Although my exams are over, I now have to prepare the prospectus for my thesis, which means… more reading, this time in my specialization area as I formulate the core of my thesis. When I arrived, I already had books waiting for me that I had ordered to be delivered here for the summer, I also had a chance to renew my library card. My library is a bit special as it is the National Library which is only a twenty-minute walk from here. It is the equivalent of the Library of Congress, only older. I have the privilege of walking over every morning and reading original 18th C manuscripts! Speaking of bumping into people, the other day at the library I shared a reading desk with Margaret Greer, a Professor of Golden Age Spanish Lit. at Duke. Unfortunately I was not wearing my Carolina blue, although we did have a nice chat – yes, we whispered. I am excited and looking forward to making some progress on the prospectus front so I can have a rough draft by the end of the summer…

Reviewing my teaching of this past year, (see previous blog post) my dear friend John Jenner: philosopher, connoisseur, MMA fighter, bon vivant, gourmet and gourmand explained it best when he valued my being pushed out of my comfort zone in order to do precisely this, to revisit my teaching. You gotta love friends that tell it like it is!