In the beginning…

I guess it’d be only fitting to document some of our Camino adventures here. I was looking back through the archives of this blog the other day, and noticed a post from 2012, mentioning how one day we’d like to make the pilgrimage.  Less than two years later, we’ve finished our long-dreamed of adventure, and after a month off the Camino, I hope I can offer some interesting and useful insights into the experience. 

St. Jean Pied de Port

We started our pilgrimage in the traditional location, just over the border into France in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port. Situated in the historic Basque country, St. Jean espouses traditional Basque architecture highlighted by the cleanliness and care found in French villas. 

Panorama of St. Jean

We stayed our first night in a hostel here, and since it was still a somewhat novel experience, I look back on it as one of the more cozy and caring establishments in which we over-nighted. 

8 to a room, Andrew took the top bunk 🙂

Some highlights from this hostel included a get-to-know you session before dinner led by the hospitalero (those who run the hostels on the Camino) team, a vegetarian meal with curry sauces and roasted vegetables abounding, a dorm room of only 8, and a generous breakfast provided. Along the Way, commodities like these would soon become scarce, and the distant memory of a clean, well-run albergue, would surface later, reminding me I should have been more grateful for the “amenities” at the time. 

Most guidebooks, and even those who have completed the journey, warn that the first day is by far the most challenging day of walking. This is based on the fact that you climb virtually straight up for the first 20 km of the day’s hike, and complete a steep descent for the last 4km down into the Spanish hamlet of Roncesvalles.  There is only one café along the way for a warm-up rest, and the weather can be brutal, even in June.  I’d argue that the first day, while it is a test of your physical endurance, is not the ultimate difficulty described by some.  I found the first day to be full of unexpected surprises, and that the excitement and adrenaline of starting a trip you’d planned and saved for for so long to far surpass the steep inclines and aching knees on the descent. Further along on the Way, putting one foot in front of the other became not only a physical trial, but a mental one as well. Fatigue and routine are much more demanding to overcome than a single ascent. 

Some thoughts that have stuck since this day, June 4, 2014: 

Stop at the 8km mark in Orisson for a coffee

The 2 euro café con leche stop was well worth the overpriced beverage, as it was our only real rest stop between 8:00 am and 4:30 pm. 

Before the rain began

I am shocked by how cold we were on June 4th. Lulled by the warmth of the beginning of summer vacation in the states, this is still technically Spring, and we shivered and shuffled our way through blasting wind, forty degree temperatures, razor like rain on our faces, and foot-deep mud-ravines. None of us was prepared for these types of conditions. 

Near the top of the ascent. Frozen, angry red knuckles from the wind.

The omelette sandwich prepared for our lunch by the hospitaleros was the grossest baguette and egg concoction I have ever eaten. Hungry, cold, hoping to warm up in the emergency shelter located on the Spanish side of the mountain, I am sure my body temperature dropped even further when I quit moving. The lunch was supposed to give me energy to continue, but it only made me feel worse! My jaws couldn’t chomp through the chewy, tough resemblance to bread, and my throat wanted to spew up the dryness of it. 

On the way down the “easy” path

Why did the sign tell us that the upcoming descent was the “easy” way down? 

Bone grating against knee bone. Lots of mud.

Have you seen the movie the Way? Where Emilio Esteves’s character dies crossing the Pyrenees the first day of his pilgrimage? I scorned this story-line, ensuring others that there is no way you could die on the Camino by getting lost or falling. I now understand perfectly well how this could take place. Fog, rain, little to no visibility, and fatigue could all lead to wandering off the trail and never finding it again. Take my word for it, it is definitely a plausible story line. 

Why did it take us so long to finish this stage? 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, really? 

My legs don’t hurt quite as badly as I thought they would. 

Historic monastery, our albergue for the night

I don’t have to sleep in a bunk bed tonight?  What a deal!

Third floor dorm room

Where is the advil? 

Guanajuato

The second half of our second adventure to Mexico was spent in Guanajuato, Mexico.  A brilliantly colored university town set in a valley, it was a quaint spot to relax, but really didn’t charm us as much as our first stop in Querétaro.

A couple of highlights:  The view from our B&B’s balcony.

View from balcony

Dinner at Las Mercedes.  A restaurant reviving Grandma’s traditional dishes with local, fresh produce.  We especially liked the flourless corn cake with strawberry ice cream for dessert.

The white building in the middle is the university

IMG_9067

Exploring a still operating mine that opened in the 1500’s.  As Andrew pointed out, the California Gold Rush happened in the late 1800’s, so they’ve been finding gold, silver, and copper south of the border for a long time.  We’ve got the Spaniards greedy egos to thank for that.

We're in the mine

Wandering around in the huerta of a former hacienda.

Garden of hacienda

Getting soaked to the gills by a late night thunderstorm.  Water cascaded down the steps up to our hotel like a waterfall.  I walked through water so deep it covered my feet!

Cathedral

Beverage Guide to Mexico

Thinking about travelling to México meant worrying about drinking the water. It’s fun to joke about Montezuma’s revenge when the water spurting out of your tap at home is 100% safe to drink, but once you’re on the other side of the border, ingesting a piece of lettuce washed in unfiltered H2O or opening your mouth in the shower is suddenly terrifying.  Before arriving in México, I assumed that most Mexicans would drink the tap water like we do here, their stomachs and systems being accustomed to the weird bacteria that would give my plumbing a rude awakening.  Instead, almost everyone imbibes only filtered water bought in giant, thick, plastic jugs. I expected for beer to be considered water and to have to steer clear of coffee, but the culinary scene is a lot more varied than the Tex-Mex we normally chow down and so are your options of what to wash down your spicy poblano sauce with.

Street scene in Querétaro

For breakfast, and breakfast is a sit down affair, with typical Mexican portion sizes (read: generous!), you could try out a café de la olla.  Translated roughly to pot coffee, I thought I was ordering a normal drip coffee, a lá Waffle House, but I was served a cinnamon spiced-sweet caramel liquid in a rustic potted mug.  Charming, but not the strong, bitter brew I hoped for.  It’s worth finding out what café de la olla is, but probably not worth a repeat experience.

Another recommendation for breakfast time is a fresh fruit juice.  Most common is orange juice, but sometimes you might be surprised with a twist, like carrot-orange.

18th century aqueduct

At lunch, I’d recommend you find a restaurant where it seems those on a working lunch break are headed and follow them to their local fonda.  Again, my expectation was for folks to have lunch between 11 and 1:30, but really, the locals don’t sit down for their midday meal until 3 pm (though starving tourists don’t stand out too much if they can make it until 2 pm).  Along with your four course lunch, you should order the agua fresca of the day.  (Filtered) Water mixed with seasonal fresh fruit juice is served in a carafe for the table to share. Our first trip we made the rookie mistake of ordering a cerveza with lunch and then we longingly spied those in the know quenching their thirst the true Mexican way.  A couple flavors we tested were hibiscus flower (agua de jamaica), grapefruit (toronja), lemon (limonada), lime (lima), pineapple (piña) and orange (naranjada).  Grapefruit agua fresca stood out as the clear favorite, followed by the pineapple variety.  The drink can be cloyingly sweet depending on the house recipe, but we did ask once for it to be less sweet, which was no problem, as the proprietor informed us it was made to order.

facade of cathedral in San Miguel de Allende

In stark contrast to Spain, México really doesn’t have an all day bar culture. Students might go out in the evening with friends, but a social life that revolves around a glass of wine and a bite to eat at the local watering hole just doesn’t exist.  The culture still seems family oriented and centered around being with each other- great-grandma to granddaughter, walking, sitting, eating, but not drinking (publicly, anyway) much. Beer does have its place though, mostly at dinner time, and there are two distinct ways to have a cold one.

chelada is a dark beer served over a couple of tablespoons of pure lime juice in a salt-rimmed, chilled mug.

michelada isn’t for everyone.  Spicy tomato salsa and lime juice cover the bottom of your red-pepper and salt rimmed mug, over which a dark beer is then poured. Neither a chelada or a michelada taste much like beer, which is a shame as Mexico can brew a decent lager.

Another drink on your list to try should be pulque, made from the fermented sap of the agave plant.  It has a milky, pulpy consistency, low alcohol content (5%~) and is normally mixed with a fruit juice to make it palatable.  I tried it once and that’s enough.

ancient monastery, now regional Museum of Querétaro

Regional Museum

And of course, tequila, made from the agave plants grown only in the region of Jalisco, and mezcal, the same liquor, but made with agave plants grown outside the region of Jalisco.  Many times these are served as an aperitif or digestive with sal de maguey (salt from the maguey worm-sounds gross, tastes good), red pepper and oranges.   Hope you have as much fun figuring out what to try next as we did!

El cerro de las Campanas- Maximilian was shot here.

Hello From Querétaro

To top them all

On Saturday morning, after Andrew whips up golden squares of tangy french toast and the kitchen is set back to clean, we’ll drink a third cup of coffee and laze peacefully as the sun streams into our east facing windows.  Sometimes we sit at the table and chat about our day, what we’ll do, whether we have obligations or if we’re free to nap and catch up on our Netflix queue.  Other times, Andrew lugs his laptop over to the couch while I stay and read at the table.  I’ve noticed how acutely his behavior changes when he props up on the blue hand-me-down sofa. His feet quit moving and his fingers aren’t tapping rapidly over the keyboard.  He holds his coffee up to his face, feels the steam rise up over his forehead and stares intently at the screen.  His eyes glint or he’ll chuckle in disbelief, and I know there is only one thing he could be doing. Reading wiki travel forums, he’s thinking about the lowest price he’s seen on a flight to Montevideo recently, or about what certain phrases in Spanish are inappropriate to say in Mexico.  He’s left Knoxville, vacated our square patch of space on the 7th floor, and flown to south to Sao Paolo or east across the Atlantic to Pamplona.

The Rhein

As much as Andrew loves the rush of boarding a plane to step out into the chaos of another country, figuring out exactly where to stay and researching the history of our latest destination is just as exhilarating for him. He joyously scours forums for the cheapest flight he can find to a location he considers worth our time and pushes the buy button faster than I can decide whether I’ll wear that $35 pair of shoes at TJMAXX enough to justify the purchase. Once our destination is set, the real challenge begins:  choosing the perfect accommodation.  With regular folks’ uncensored opinions about their experiences on major booking sites, not only do you have a good idea of what to expect when you get there, choosing a hotel is also entertaining.  Other travelers readily share whether the receptionist is a pig or the most helpful lass on Main Street, whether the double bed that was advertised is the size of a twin bed and lumpier than cottage cheese, and most importantly, if the breakfast consisted of day old pastries from a package and reheated coffee or if the hard cooked eggs came to the table warm and with hand-whipped butter for your toast.

Rhein picturesque town

Three requirements sit at the top of Andrew’s list when choosing a hotel: it must have a buen relación calidad precio, (a useful Spanish phrase that tells of the price to quality ratio) be spotless (ok, my requirement-which is probably the first to suffer as we’ve definitely found that stray hair tucked between the sheets or stuck to the side of the bathtub) and have a hearty breakfast included.  Scouting out the place that meets all three criteria requires patience, vigilance and intuition that only a real deal hunting traveler has.  When all the factors align to allow us to check into the perfect accommodation on our budget travelling wallet, Andrew is pleasantly pleased with his effort and I’m happy to travel alongside another day.

Rhein area/Germany

Nowhere is it easier to find a bed and breakfast or small, family run hotel that meets all our criteria than in Germany.  After all, German culture prizes cleanliness and efficiency, but also knows how to elaborate simple quality ingredients into a gourmet brunch.  It would be a shame for you to not follow Andrew’s booking criteria when travelling in Germany.  A small, sparse room, with comfortable bedding (practically every hotel in Germany makes the bed with a duvet cover for each guest and no sheets-it’s almost exotic) and a shining, well-equipped bathroom shouldn’t cost more than 70 euros, and then less if you decide to be a rural tourist.  Your stay must include breakfast, as this is an ideal time to, hopefully, speak a little with the owners of the establishment and to observe other German tourists shamelessly feast for longer than you thought possible at the breakfast table.

Gorgeous Fachwerk

The breakfast itself is what is truly impressive though.  Platters of cold cuts chilling over trays of ice and thin slices of mild cheese to start, along with wedges of tomato and rounds of cucumbers, fresh baked brötchen from the local Bäckerei, made with nutrient rich whole wheat flour and flecked with seeds, smeared with rich, creamy butter.  Ramekins of homemade jams made with fruit picked from the backyard are a staple of the buffet and a hard-boiled egg, flawless white with the yolk bold yellow, still warm inside mean a genuine Deutsches frühstuck. For the second round helping, a dish of whole milk plain yogurt, crunchy granola and berries the color of sparkling rubies.  Equally as good as the food is the coffee, from a french press or a drip-pot, but brewed with beans that were ground that very morning and served in your own carafe to keep at your table. Andrew’s french toast is mighty tasty and a German breakfast tops them all.

At the Lorelai, Rhein River

After indulging in sticky sweet jams and warm buttered rolls, it’s out into the new adventure awaiting us outside the hotel.  And, while our hotel booking requirements may seem stringent, they do help keep us well-rested and well-caffeinated, two essentials of a vacation that bring happy, HD color memories.

Making Friends in Trier

After we had lunch near a stream in the incredible gorge that divides Luxembourg City, we stumbled upon a behemoth medieval castle in a neighboring town. Of course it was locked up tight, surely holding a sleeping beauty inside, but even from the exterior it seemed like it was straight out of a scene in Robin Hood. We admired the castle and then set off to cross the border into Germany, land of sausages, beer, Riesling and Angela Merkel (Is she still the Bundeskanzlerin?). Beside getting to brush up on my German, (Noch einmal, bitte?) I love the food, the beer, the sport, and even the organization that comes with lodging on German territory.

Castle in Vianden

Andrew, feeling good about finding the castle in Vianden

We spent the first night in Trier, a seat of ancient Roman civilization. While I dwelt momentarily on the feat of domination the Romans had accomplished back in, oh, 16 BC or so, I think I was more excited about the luxury B&B we chose to stay in. I’m positive it is the most we have ever personally paid for a night in a hotel and I remember the exact price, too – 92 euros a night. We only stayed one night. Besides a gourmet breakfast and brand-new modern installations, there was a fairy lit garden behind the building where I may have tried a Hefeweizen (or two).  Mostly I remember our interactions with the proprietors, though, as they probably thought we were a little bit nutty.

When we first arrived, the receptionist personally showed us our room and after she was sure we were happy with the room, left us alone with the key. And then she promptly vacated the hotel premises. Which would have been as well, but we needed to get the rest of our travel gear out of the car and back up to our room on the 4th floor. Everything was going fine until we climbed back up the stairs, tried to unlock our door and figured out we couldn’t get it open. About the same time we realized we were locked out of our plush room and shining Badezimmer, Andrew decided all the sudden he had to go to the bathroom. Emergency status. Red-faced and nervous. Can’t get in the room, no communal bathroom near the reception. I dialed the number for the owner and prayed for the cheerful “Guten Abend!” I’d been greeted with earlier in the day. Thankfully, she picked up and was ready to help. Her particular helpfulness reminded me how efficient and succinct German ways are. As I told her how we were unable to open the door to our room, she calmly began going through a detailed list of the different things that might have been wrong. “Do you have the key?” “Um, duh.” “Does it have a heart with the number 7 on it and is it brown?” “Yes. The exact one the lady gave me 15 minutes ago.” “Are you standing in front of the door with the number 7 on it?” “Hello? I made sure to check that before I called you. I will not be scorned for pure idiocy in Germany.” “Were you able to unlock the door?” “Yes.” (All the time she is patiently, methodically ticking off her list, I am thinking, this better get the door open soon, because Andrew can’t hold on much longer. He has also run down four flights of stairs to double check he didn’t miss the public bathroom and is back upstairs, pleading me to figure this mess out with fear entering his eyes.) And finally, she gets to the root of our issue, “Well, you know, its funny, I’m not sure how you say this in English, (Oh, spit it out!) but it, uh, is a fire safety feature. Have you tried pulling the door toward you just a little when you turn the knob?” “If I’d have thought of that, I’d already have done it, lady!” In the nick of time the door pops open, keeping our momentary “fire” at bay and I marvel at the logical thought process of the German woman and muse that in Spain, a crusty woman with a deep smoker’s voice would have barked at me, as though I must have a tic-tac for a brain, “Pull the dumb door toward you, hija!”

The Porta Nigra

The view from the Porta Nigra onto the Street

Cathedral in Trier

Palace of Trier

We toured the city of Trier, saw the Porta Nigra, the ancient Roman gate, and lounged in our incredible room. Also, Karl Marx’s home is in Trier, and we saw it, but I won’t be able to prove that to you with a picture. As we went to check out the next day, I was feeling quite bolstered by my interactions in German as of yet, and was ready to try out a compliment on the receptionist, a sure fire way to get someone to tell you how wonderfully you speak their language. So I opened my mouth to say how wonderful our experience at the hotel had been (Alles war sehr toll) and instead I said “Everything was really expensive.” (Alles war sehr teuer). The quizzical look that crossed her face made my own cheeks burn and we hightailed on to our next destination.

La Rioja

I’ve finally looked through the pictures Andrew took our last month in Spain. I enjoyed seeing our memories, laughing about how Andrew had a mini-afro most of the year that I love or how I felt anxious, annoyed or exhilarated at the time a frame was snapped. Looking through the scenes of our reality only a few short months ago makes me sad, too, though. I miss our relatively stress free life and all the time Andrew and I had to travel and spend together. I think my feelings of nostalgia have been accentuated by our transition to Knoxville, which has been bumpier (for me, at least) than I’d originally anticipated.

Our last hurrah in Spain was in true Andrew form. Always ready to seize any excuse needed to rent a car and hit the open road, the necessity of Fedex-ing home our belongings from the Madrid Airport Fedex office turned into a four night trip to a few spots he had been dreaming about fitting into our Auxiliar year.

We started off in La Rioja, a beautiful region that shares history and culture with both the Basque Country and Castilla and is known for producing some of the great robust red wines of Spain. While many vino-aficionados have surely tried a fruity vino de la rioja, most tourists overlook visiting this northern region. My introduction to La Rioja, incidentally, took place in the deep south of Spain, in Granada. Quite timidly and still unsure of culinary terminology in Spanish, I ordered a “vino rojo” in a tapas bar near the plaza de toros. (I later learned if you want to order a glass of red wine in Spain, ask loudly and boldly for “un vino tinto!”) The server glared at me and repeated, “un rioja?” Terrified of incurring her wrath on our entire table, I blurted “¡Si, por favor!,” as though that was exactly what I’d said, how dare she question me?! She proceeded to serve me a delicious, easy-to-drink glass of wine and I mentally noted that one day I’d have to visit the place where “un rioja” is made.

Before venturing to the hotel the first evening, we made a quick pit stop in the picturesque wine town of Briones to stretch our legs. After a quick spin, we continued on to the hotel and discovered we were ravenous. Thankfully, we found one open bar that seemed to be serving tapas and devoured sardine filets served atop a toasty piece of baguette and drizzled with olive oil. Making the meal even more tasty was the fact that the barman showed a true interest in us and shared a little bit about himself as well. It is our tried and true travel experience that the fewer tourists a town or region sees, the more friendly and welcoming the locals will be toward visitors (this is why we often visit places you’ve likely never heard of: Andrew hates crowds and tourist traps).

The following day we briefly toured Logroño, the capitol of La Rioja. Another majestic Spanish city, largely forgotten and well worth more time than we allowed. Make sure to indulge in a tapa or two in Logroño. Most bars serve a killer “champi” concoction, made of grilled button mushrooms, piled on a crusty heel of country bread and smothered with some sort of “champi” white sauce. Watch out for the sauce; I managed to destroy my travel pants for the trip with the milky, oily substance. Well worth it for such a delicacy though! If you are interested in visiting wineries and participating in tours and tastings, I’d recommend scheduling those ahead of time. We found most places that offered tours to be booked or not open on the day we happened to be available to taste.

The highlight of our adventure to La Rioja was a tour of the Yuso monastery, which is tucked in a valley behind rolling green hills and fields of wheat. Famous for being the birthplace of the Spanish language, we decided that we would take part in a guided tour for a change. Led entirely in Spanish by a witty guide, I would recommend the tour to any Spanish speaker nerdy enough to be interested. Most impressive were the huge, animal skin bound books filled with ancient Gregorian chants.

To finish off our day, we ate fried calamari rings and took a quick nap next to a creek in the small town of Nájera. Located on the Camino de Santiago, we spent our time eating on the terrace watching the pilgrims trickle in from a long, weary day of walking and imagined when we, too, will set off from Saint Jean Pied de Port in France on the famous 500 mile trek through Northern Spain.

What I’m going to miss about Spain

Our time here is quickly coming to a close (published post-return to the US). I know that everyone says this about unique opportunities and experiences, but it went by so fast. Didn’t I just move here a couple of months ago? Why is it that when you finally feel comfortable somewhere, it’s time to pick up, move and feel all uncomfortable again? But, I know feeling outside of your comfort zone is critical to growth in all aspects of life, so it can only be a good thing (I’m hoping and praying!). We’re looking forward to change, but I have been thinking quite a bit about what I love here in Spain and what I’ll miss about living on the Iberian Peninsula.

1. A truly laid back culture. I think anyone here will tell you that their work doesn’t dominate their life. People make time for taking long walks along the beach with their family and their cute dogs, they learn new hobbies, practice languages and spend time and care preparing meals to share with the people they love. Instead of a ‘live to work attitude,’ people here work to live. I realize this isn’t always what leads to genius, innovation and productive national economies, but the stress level of the average citizen seems to be pretty low. People look healthier and one the whole, just happier. This could all change overnight with the global economy teetering the way it is and with Spain’s national unemployment over 25%, but I somehow get the feeling they’ll weather whatever comes their way.

2. Local artisan products. Spain has been producing some of the highest quality food products for centuries. A few items that come to mind are: wine, cheese, olive oil, dried hams, chorizo and bread. Each product is respected in its purest form and a simple, but filling meal for many in the evening is a crusty piece of bread, a hunk of artisan cheese and a glass of wine. Also noteworthy is the affordability of these products that are considered “gourmet” in the US. We’ve bought a bottle of good wine for less than three euros, more than 2 lbs of cheese for 10 euros and a liter of store brand (and good quality) olive oil for a little over a euro.

3. The eating out experience. At first, Andrew and I were both shocked at the sticker price of a single meal in a restaurant. 12 euros for lunch? In my mind, I’d do the math conversion to dollars and come up with almost 18 dollars. What? But, after our fair share of enjoying the daily menu, I’ve got to say I think dining out in Spain, and maybe even Europe in general, has got to be the best deal of all. When eating lunch at a restaurant, which is the main meal of the day, the advertised price generally includes the tax, service charge and tip. The meal consists of a starter, main course, and dessert, plus the meal normally comes with wine or water and bread. When you think about it, eating dinner at a nice restaurant in the US means that if you decide to have even one glass of wine, it could run you upwards of $6 a glass. That is not including your meal, the tax or the tip. If we both decide on a glass of wine with our lunch here in Spain, they occasionally serve us the entire bottle! Another factor that I appreciate is the care with which food is prepared and served. Servers aren’t the lowest of the low on the totem pole here and neither are the folks working away in the kitchen. They treat their work with pride for the most part and the quality of the food reflects that. I’m really going to miss our occasional treat of Friday afternoon eating out here in Laredo.

4. Since I’m home now I can tell you I really miss the beach! I didn’t think I would, but it is a great place to take a walk, to dip your toes in the water and to relax. Not to mention the heat here is stifling while the high’s last week in Laredo were in the 70’s.

5. Walking to work. Enough said.

6. Finally, I’ll miss getting to go on so many new and exciting travel adventures with Andrew. Looking back over our pictures, I am reminded again to be thankful we had the chance to spend our first year of marriage abroad, travelling, teaching and learning. I know we have new challenges coming our way and I also have a good feeling we’ll still be travelling, teaching and learning.