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? 

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Madrid, España

I can’t believe we’ve been home from Spain for a month tomorrow, or that we’ve already almost finished our first week back to school!  Summer is gone. (Although both Andrew and I would like to point out our school calendars have completely missed actual summer, which doesn’t end, according to the seasons, until September 21st.) 

Catedral de Santiago Andrew and I with our “Compostellas”

This was one of those summers that makes you feel like you’ve lived up to your goal of living life to the fullest.  We spent a month and a half in Spain, mostly walking the Camino de Santiago, but we also, gloriously, spent a week in Madrid. 

Andrew with Don Quixote y Sancho Panza
La Plaza de España

I’ve encountered Madrid before, but never in ideal circumstances.  I know, how could it be that, while in the capital of Spain, across the ocean, in my most favorite country, that I’d failed to see Madrid for all it has to offer, from top-notch art museums, to beautiful green spaces, and efficient public transportation? Well, during my maiden journey to Madrid, I landed alone, for the first time in a Spanish speaking country, and met the rest of the group from the USA that would be studying abroad together in Granada, Spain.  It was a confusing meet and greet type-time, clouded by jet-lag, and punctuated by a visit to Madrid’s rowdiest discoteca with a group of over-ambitious sorority girls. I did not enjoy myself.

Puerta del Sol

The second time I tromped around Madrid it was after eight weeks spent in Germany with a love-sick boyfriend. I was ready for a real, hot shower, meals at home on a kitchen table, some good foundation, and no pressure. To be clear, Andrew led this Madrid expedition, and he exhausted every resource he had in the city, introducing me to a myriad of sweet, kind folks. Unfortunately, Madrid in August is a furnace, and sleep is out of the question, especially when air conditioning isn’t a typical amenity in homes. After allowing a bactrum acne pill to disintegrate my esophagus, and after dealing with red, itchy eyes caused by wearing the same contacts for so long, I couldn’t take this trip anymore. (Admittedly my issues were entirely self-inflicted, but stress will do these kinds of things to a person.) So, despite an effort worthy of the boyfriend of the year award, I left Madrid without much desire to return anytime soon. 

El palacio de cristal, Buen Retiro

While we lived in Spain, amazingly, we only spent a couple of hours in Madrid, mainly at the FedEx outpost in the airport complex to mail our outrageously heavy suitcases back to the US. Priorities.

Maybe it was the lack of expectation, or the fact that I’d spent each day for a month before that walking insanely long distances, but after my most recent adventure, Madrid now tops the list of cities where I’d one day love to reside. Andrew and I spent hours wandering the streets of the old town, walking the Paseo del Prado, and enjoying El Parque del Buen Retiro.  We had a successful night of tapas in La Latina, and even tried out one of the city’s only craft beer haunts. 

I was also impressed with our planning, as we found places to visit that Andrew had never seen before.  He is basically a Madrid expert, so it a challenge for us to find new sights that we could experience together. 

We shopped on Gran Vía, a first time experience for Andrew, and an anytime please experience for me. 

The Sorolla Museum, the former home of the successful Spanish impressionist Joaquín Sorolla, is not only a beautiful home, and a picture of what a working artist’s studio looks like, but it is also impressive architecturally and decoratively. 

Paddle boats on the pond at El Buen Retiro come highly recommended. 

And the Plaza Mayor induces a stand and stare moment for just about anyone. 

El templo de Debod offers a free, fun spot to explore, and enjoy the views of Casa del Campo, as well as el Palacio Real. 

I couldn’t ever pass up a free visit to The Reina Sofia or El Prado, Madrid’s premier art museums, and the Reina Sofia is worth the time it takes to gain entrance just to ride up and down the outward facing glass elevators to see Atocha, Madrid’s main train station, from above.

Finally, while Madrid isn’t a city bursting with beautiful, awe-inspiring Cathedrals, it is fun, if you speak Spanish, to visit San Francisco El Grande and chat with the two guides who lead the tours.

I’m plotting my return to Madrid already, armed with a list of places to go and restaurants to try, inspired by our most recent trip.  I’d have to say that Madrid isn’t one of those places that tries to romance you immediately.  Hidden under the tarnish of a confusing daily time-table, and lack of any real monuments, like an Acropolis, or an Eiffel Tower, is a warm glow, a city that offers up world-class art, a humble park where all are welcome, and the glitz and glamour of a Royal Palace and 18th century avenues. Patience, and the willingness to operate in line with a Spanish lifestyle is all it takes to discover the allure of Madrid. Andrew’s kayak alert is accordingly set for fares from TYS to MAD-Barajas, and with any luck, we’ll be headed back soon. 

Going out with a bang

The last stop on our final weekend hurrah in Spain was a city that Andrew had been dreaming of all year long. I think his year in Spain would have been incomplete had we not gotten to spend a day visiting Cuenca. Andrew seems to only gain energy on weekend trips, returning home ready to face a week of work, while I start off eager to escape, only to be worn out with the thought of getting home and doing the laundry we’ve accumulated by the end.

Cuenca itself is interesting enough and definitely merits a visit, especially if you are looking for a day or two trip from Madrid. We traipsed around the old town, which is fairly small, gawked at the Casas Colgadas, houses built into the side of a cliff, literally “hanging houses,” admired the brightly painted houses in the center square and toured the Cathedral. Also worth checking out is the Parador de Cuenca, an ancient convent turned government-owned luxury hotel. An iron bridge connects the old town and Casas Colgadas to the Parador across a deep gorge in the middle of the city. Walking across the bridge was definitely not my favorite part of our visit to Cuenca.

What I remember most about our time in Castilla-La Mancha, though, is the extraordinary hospitality that we received from the family run hotel and restaurant we stayed at for the night. The hotel itself was located a few miles outside of the city, per Andrew’s bargain hunting requirements, so when we pulled in the gravel parking lot to the establishment, we were surprised to find a full parking lot and people spilling out of the entrance way. Already, I felt intimidated by the amount of boisterous Spaniards blocking our path to the check-in counter and began to second guess Andrew’s choice of accommodations. The check-in counter was conveniently located right inside of the restaurant area, where a large group of people was indulging in an aperitif and socializing before the lunch hour. I generally hate to tromp into a group of Spaniards when I’m not expecting to, mostly because they always are dressed fabulously and have their makeup perfectly in place and on a normal travel day I’m dressed in flats or tennis shoes (heels or boots are really the only acceptable footwear for stylish Spanish ladies) and wearing minimal makeup. This phenomenon is only exaggerated on Sundays, when everyone puts on their best face and outfit and prances out onto the streets, into the bars and restaurants, to see and be seen. Of course, we showed up at prime time cocktail and tapas hour on a Sunday, the last day of our trip. I look ragged and tired, the ladies at the bar were polished and styled. Needless to say, I felt as though we were on display as we waited patiently and rather nervously at the counter: the under-dressed and awkward Americans. Thankfully, this situation played out in under 5 minutes and once we met the sweet lady who checked us in, we both felt right at home.

The sign of a great family run hotel establishment has to be that when the required information for the transaction has taken place, credit card number given, passports checked, room key handed over, breakfast time confirmed, the person working at the desk has the courtesy to ask if this is a first time visit to the area. The check in girl at El Rento, the place we were lucky enough to stay, promptly pulled out a map of Cuenca, slapped it down, proceeded to explain directions to the center, the best place to park and pointed out the highlights of the city. I am always appreciative whenever this happens, since it means we won’t have to search for the tourism office and won’t have to drive around guessing where we can park. This is also the perfect time to ask for restaurant recommendations so you don’t have to spend precious time scrutinizing menus and looking for a place that isn’t too expensive in a city you’ve never visited before.

The whole time we spoke, the lady we later learned was the proprietor’s daughter, patiently answered our questions and treated us graciously, genuinely glad we’d decided on El Rento for our stay in Cuenca. A little hospitality really turned our one night stay in Cuenca into wishing we had time for another night. We ate all our meals at their restaurant and we especially enjoyed our Sunday night dinner. Around nine o’clock in the evening we returned from the city, hungry from walking. We ventured back into the dining room that had earlier been packed with a huge family celebrating a first communion. Now it was filled with old folks from the community, taking part in their Sunday night ritual of eating at El Rento and watching TV together. A hushed silence dominated the tone of the room, unusual enough for chatty Spanish folks, as the guests eating at the restaurant watched an old black and white movie on the flat screen TV. We both felt priveliged, at least I did, to be in the middle of a weekly tradition that must literally be dying out as all the people surrounding the tables eating salad and deep fried croquetas were in the seventy plus category. The most endearing moment, though, had to be when a tiny, hunched over, elderly man burst through the front door, so triumphiant he’d made it another week that he raised his fists above his head, shook them and shouted a greeting to all his friends.

Staying at El Rento left an incredible impression of true familial hospitality in my mind. For a generation where everything should be done as efficiently as possible and which places personal boundaries even higher and closer, afraid of letting others in or revealing how his or her life is lived out each day, El Rento allowed us a glimpse into what it would be like to be a part of a Spanish family, if only for a few happy hours.

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.

 

Addicted

Andrew and I are addicted. Before I tell you to what, let me tell you the how and the why.

A couple weeks ago we spent a blissfully relaxing school week chaperoning English camp for a sweet group of 12 and 13 year old students. What? Being responsible for 43 moody teenagers and having a good time aren’t mutually exclusive? It’s true. Week Camp was run completely by a third party company. The camp counselors were entirely in charge of the little terrors throughout the week and us “chaperons” were left to our own devices from Monday at noon until Friday afternoon at 4pm (or better known as arrival and departure times for the bus ride).

Yes, these pictures were taken the middle of April. Cold spell!

Besides showing up for mealtimes in the dining hall, where we indulged in some of the best Spanish cuisine has to offer (think: french fries, country ham, potato soup, lentil soup, fish soup, ham and cheese pop-tarts, essentially anything the color light brown), our time was all our own. Our main teacher activities consisted of the lifestyle I imagine a Spanish pensioner having. Between feeding times, we took long, rambling walks, drank coffee at our favorite neighborhood bar, sat around and chatted in the sun, observed the locals, read and napped. Tough life, huh?

This brings me to the discovery we made on one of our treks to the tiny village (Coladilla is the name of the pueblo, if you’re interested) that was 2km down the country road from the tiny village (Vegacervera, León) we stayed in. Another practice that Spaniards avidly partake in, and that I personally respect and admire, is making, buying and appreciating local and artisan products. In Coladilla we were told that the local quesería (cheese factory) made some darn good cheese. Andrew and I are a little skeptical when it comes to cheese we haven’t tasted before though, seeing as some folks recommend cheese that is much too strong and stinky for our delicate palates. But, we decided to take the risk and bought two entire wheels of cheese (I never thought I’d ever buy that much milk fat at one time), lugged them the two kilometers back to our lodging for the week and let them ripen and breathe on the counter.  It is important to know (and I just learned) that cheese breathes. Many times if the rind is still on the entire wheel, it is perfectly fine to leave at room temperature, just don’t leave it in plastic. Because, if it breathes, well, it also sweats. If you do decide to refrigerate it for the stench factor (it can get pretty stinky, however mild the cheese is that you buy) don’t put it in a plastic bag either. Once you’ve sliced it, wrap it in parchment paper.  This is all according to a reliable source. Oh, the things I’ve learned in Spain.

Once back to Laredo, we waited a couple of days to “cut the cheese.” Haha, I just chuckled out loud typing that sentence. But, really, our diet of light brown called for a purge of sorts once back in our own kitchen.

I guess you’ve figured out that we’re addicted to the artisan cheese made with local cow’s milk from Coladilla. It is quite scrumptious if you ask us. It isn’t too funky, not too mild and plenty creamy for our persnickety cheese tastes. It makes my cheeks pucker just a little every now and then from its sharpness. It’s good. It is part of our before-meal snacking time. A torn piece of crusty bread and a glass of red wine make it even more delicious. Eat it with a sliced apple. I’m sold.

The second wheel we gave to some friends, but now I’m wondering if that was such a smart idea (except it probably was, for my waistline).

Semana Santa: Road trip to Portugal in the Smart Car

Hi! We wanted to say have a great weekend before we take a two and a half week hiatus from blogging. We’re off to enjoy our Semana Santa exploring Portugal. Andrew will be the red head driving the black smart car and I’ll be the moral support and all time navigator. This car is actually automatic, so I might take the wheel once or twice as well! Look out! This will be my first time to visit this part of the Iberian peninsula and I’m pretty excited to eat cod, drink Port wine and check out the old world towns of Porto and Lisbon.

Also, we wanted to tell the Cockrums from Knoxville thanks so much for coming to visit us! We had a great time eating seafood and exploring the Basque Country with you guys! While they were here visiting, we got to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage located on the Bizcayian coast. Really impressive.

We’ve been taking full advantage of having the car to see as much as we can. Last week we drove along the Cantabrian coast and enjoyed rocky, un-commercialized, pristine beaches. On Saturday, we took a day trip to the northern part of the province of Burgos, to a rural region called Las Merindades. We did a 10km walk around a man made lake, the water from which supplies the city of Bilbao. While not the most spectacular scenery, it was a beautiful day and a nice change of pace.

And, last, Happy (early) Easter. We’re thankful to have been given this opportunity to live and travel abroad for a year, but we know that it is a gift that has been given to us by the Lord. I pray that you have a restful weekend and can rejoice in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is risen indeed.

Chocolate con churros

My parents are here for a visit and we’ve had a great time getting to tour around Cantabria and the Basque Country, meanwhile trying out all the local food. We’ve had traditional Cantabrian winter fare: white bean stew with sausage, roasted stuffed red peppers, and crema montañesa. We’ve eaten a French style lunch and indulged in Gâteau basque, but I think our treat tonight topped them all. Typically Spanish and great to warm up in winter, I promise you won’t go wrong if you order chocolate con churros in a local bar. There is nothing better to eat for dinner than fried dough straws, sprinkled with sugar and dunked in thick hot chocolate pudding.

Violà! (FYI, we decimated the whole plate of churros!)