A very special visit to Toledo

One of my dearest childhood friends is a top art and antiquities restorer (I have mentioned him before here). This year he invited me to spend the day with him in Toledo where he had to supervise the restoration of a bridge his company is working on. Little did I know that the bridge was just the opening act of the day:

Our first stop was the bridge Tracer is restoring. The Puente de Alcántara started life as a Roman bridge before going through different modifications and updates. The medieval Order of Alcántara fortified it and protected it, giving it its current name -which is ironic since alcántara is bridge in ancient Arabic, so the bridge of bridge! Jaime’s company is working on the medieval tower, their work is impressive, but what really struck me was the formidable views from the top of the towers.

From there Jaime showed me a couple of churches -side by side- he worked on years ago: Santa Fé and Santa Cruz. In them we saw intricate Moorish arches, a beautiful, coffered ceiling, gorgeous renaissance entryways and staircases, a vaulted medieval ceiling, on and on, oh and some silly modern art that really showcases ancient workmanship!

But Jaime’s ace up his sleeve, his piece the resistance was taking me to the Cathedral where his old friend Jesús, the head of maintenance, gave us a very private and incredibly special tour.

Now, I have been to the Cathedral of Toledo a bunch of times, I have shown it to student groups, visiting friends, I even took some photos there for my dear professor Dominguez a few years ago. But this was beyond my wildest expectations, we barely stopped at the “regular” stuff other than for Jesús to point out some unique feature of whatever it was we were looking at.

We started by taking the elevator (the first one installed in Toledo) to the second floor of the Cathedral’s cloister, there we saw queen Isabella’s apartments, some excellent views, and we learned about the two falcons they have just adopted to deal with the pigeon issue.

Then we walked around the cathedral with Jesús pointing out this and that, until we went into a “secret” room hidden behind an iron gate and a velvet curtain, then another iron gate to the Cathedral’s reliquary! I must confess this moment was really moving for me, mainly because I was not expecting such a room, with such a treasure inside, it was beautiful and amazing, my hands were trembling!

We ambled a bit more, checking out the image of “Lust” which I had photographed years ago for Prof. Dominguez, and the 18th C. “Transparente”.

After our visit, we walked around town a bit and we had lunch where Jaime used to eat when he was working there, but after the Cathedral, it was all a blur for me.

What I ❤ about Mallorca

Yes, I have written about Mallorca before, but I just love it, and I am blessed that I get to spend a few days there every Summer.

My family has been going on and off to Mallorca since the late seventies. We always go to the same small beach, and lately to the same hotel.

For me there are three key things that I love about Mallorca:

There is nothing particularly special about the beach, it is a small beach. But it does have a peculiarity: there is an island in the middle of the bay, the cala, which is reachable by a small wooden bridge. The island is mostly taken up by an excellent restaurant. There are a few rocks which you can jump off from. You can also swim to the island, climb the rocks, and jump off. This is my favorite moment of the year; the moment my feet leave the rock and the seconds it takes to reach the water. Bliss.

Mallorca is endowed with plenty of Mediterranean pines. I love going for a run in the forest breathing the wonderful scent. There is an observation tower (many were built during the 15th and 16th centuries to spot and warn of the many pirates that roamed those waters) on a hill next to the beach, and that is my objective, run to the tower and back. The views, the smell, the air, the deafening sound of the cicadas all make for a memorable run.

The third item is a food which you can only really taste in Mallorca (you can buy them elsewhere, but the taste is not the same). The Enseimada.

What are the things that make your special place special? Leave a comment below!

Summer Adventures, Camino de Santiago (#2)

My last Camino de Santiago had to be cut just short of finishing because of time constraints. After a fallow Covid year, I was rearing to get back on the Camino, the Camino del Norte, following the North Shore of Spain until it turns Southwest towards Santiago de Compostela. That turn inland is just where I finished in 2019.

I picked up just where I left off, on the ria (fjord) that separates Asturias from Galicia on the latter side, Ribadeo. A cute town with a nice marina and old buildings ranging from Medieval to Modernist – these were financed by “indianos” folks that made it big after emigrating to America, mostly Cuba, and returning full of cash. Since I could not find the right transportation to get there, I ended up driving myself. I shared the ride on BlablaCar to help me with the cost of my gas guzzler old Land Rover Discovery.

The first day was, like the next four, rainy, but I was so happy to be walking again. It meant wearing a poncho that keeps the rain out but somehow also gets you all wet inside. I have not figured out if the moisture is sweat from wearing a plastic sheet over you, or water that gets in. But I refuse to spend over 200 € for a real rain jacket. I try to keep my Camino as close to the Medieval pilgrims who would have done it, at least as close as I can get in the XXI C.

Breakfast at the albergue was a rare treat: tortilla, good coffee and fresh squeezed OJ. My guide recommended pushing 34km to Mondoñedo for the quality of the Albergue and the town. Although it was a bit of a challenge for my first day, it was worth it. I only met four other pilgrims along the way. Before Mondoñedo is Lourenzá which is a nice village which has an amazing monastery! The albergue in Mondoñedo, as the guide promised, was awesome and I even had space to do some post hike yoga! When I sat down at the cathedral for mass, seeing as I was a pilgrim, I was asked by the sacristan if I wanted to read the first reading and the Psalm. What an honor! Of course I accepted although I was wearing my long sleeve T-shirt, shorts, and after hike flipflops! (I always wear long sleeve T-shirts to protect me from the sun and to keep me warm, as the case might be)

One of the reasons I walk the Camino is to honor and remember my dad, who always talked of doing it. So I always make sure that I am walking on June 20, his birthday. On that day, he walks especially close to me.

Day two is still raining and starts with a brutal two-hour climb -fortunately on good ground. Eventually it stops raining and I walk through ancient, magical forests for hours, without seeing a single pilgrim all day (except a German couple at the only café on the Camino). Vilalba, my destination, is quiet as it is Sunday evening when I arrive. I go to the evening mass and dine at the only place open in town.

Day three is, as I said before, rainy. But a pilgrim churns on regardless. I finally meet a genuinely nice pilgrim from Gerona, and we chat for a while.

One of the rewards of the Camino is seeing interesting architecture, mostly churches, but also occasionally homes or other buildings. During this stage, I walk to a gorgeous early Gothic church in the middle of a forest, by a river, San Esteve (see photos). Albergue Witericus at the end of the day is an old, restored farmhouse in the middle of a forest. I spend the rest of the rainy evening there, chatting with the wonderful innkeepers, reading, and writing my diary, dining the vegetable soup from their garden and an omelet from their chicken’s eggs!

Day four starts dry but soon changes to pouring rain. The Camino crosses the cute village of Miraz with its manorial tower, and 18th C. church and then climbs into the hills. This day also hits the highest point of the Camino del Norte in Galicia, a mere 700 mts (2.300ft). I finally meet the fellow that keeps overtaking me as he is doing the Camino running!! He is a lovely chap and stops to walk with me for a while. I end my day at Sobrado with its amazing Cistercian monastery which still operates with fourteen monks -one of them a brit! I obviously stay for very mystical Vespers with them, before dinner at a local restaurant.

Day five is finally sunny. Cold but sunny, so there is an extra spring in my step. At Arzúa I connect with the Camino Francés, which carries a stream of people. Fortunately, after clearing the village there is no one for the rest of the day. My final albergue is a lovely, restored old house and there is only me and a fellow from Honduras. The only attraction in the village is a bar decorated fully with empty beer bottles! I am the only customer there and spend over an hour chatting with the owner about politics, and the meaning of life, extremely rewarding.

My last day is sad as this Camino has been noticeably short for me, but I get to celebrate it with an amazing breakfast on the trail. I enjoy walking alone, meditating, breathing the fresh air. As we approach Santiago, the concentration of pilgrims increases, but that is part of the Camino. My last coffee stop is the same as when I finished the Camino Francés in 2018, the cortado is just as delicious as I remembered.

Tired of albergues and ready to fulfil one of my Camino dreams, I book my overnight in Santiago at the Parador. This luxury hotel is housed in the original, medieval “Hospital de peregrinos” which yes, was a hospital, but also served as a hostel for those who could not afford where to stay in Santiago. In fact it is technically the oldest hotel in the world. I celebrate my arrival in Santiago with a long, long bath. And only after did I venture for a meal, a walk and eventually mass in the recently restored cathedral that houses the remains of St. James.

In conclusion, I wish my walk would have been longer, but again, family obligations kept me from extending my walk to Finisterre. Otherwise, I love the spiritual journey of self-discovery that is the Camino, walking in nature for days on end, meeting interesting people with their stories, seeing amazing architecture that spans almost a thousand years, and eating great food. But do not get me wrong, the Camino is not a walk in the park, it requires you to walk for miles on end every day. My average this outing was 31.6 km per day (that’s close to 20 miles a day). You start the day with boundless energy, but the last couple of hours of an eight-hour day, day after day are a difficult slog that tests your mental and physical endurance.