“Do you have Pepsi or Coke?” “Coke.” “Cerveza por favor.”

Yes, that was me while traveling through much of Spain along the Camino de Santiago. Many of the little cafe bars – especially in Basque Country – would frequently have Pepsi signs on the outside, but no Pepsi on the inside. Here’s me enjoying one of my few treasured bottles of Pepsi I did find along the way. pepsi_spain

So frequently…okay maybe more than frequently…I would choose beer instead. (I saw the word “biere” far more often than “cerveza” which many Americans are more used to.) It’s quite easy to get used to drinking beer for lunch AND dinner. But I most certainly did enjoy my morning tea with its companion croissant. I just wish I could remember where it was I ate the most delightfully freshest croissant I’ve ever had in my life.

I have to admit I developed a love/hate relationship with the food along the trail. I think experienced peregrinos will know what I mean: the Pilgrim’s Menu. Designed to be fuel for the trail, there were a lot of carbs and a lot of protein. And the choices can get rather repetitive.

One of the items I never want to see again is a bocadillo.  What is a bocadillo, you ask? bocadilloA huge hunk of bread with some form of pork between them. See how that sandwich is almost as big as I am? There were, of course, some really good bocadillos on really fresh bread. And then there were some stale ones, like the one in the picture on the right.

Did I mention that you get french fries with almost every meal? And fried eggs too? (It must be the horror writer in me that caused this Freudian slip: when I looked at my trip notes just now, it said “fried eyes”) Ha! Hey – I could use that in a story. Hmm…do you think Hannibal Lecter would ever want to eat a zombie’s eyes or eat a zombie’s brain? But I digress.

The fried eyes…uh, I mean eggs, have followed me home. They’re now finding themselves topping foods I’d never before considered combining them with: a nice filet mignon, a glob of chili over a bed of rice, a basket of french fries. Oh – there’s those french fries again.


But back to the beer. I much preferred the San Miguel brand to Cruz Campo which was served on Renfe (the trains) and in Barcelona.
 As you can see, #PenguinAboutTown also preferred San Miguel. And both of us were delighted to find that Spain is such a civilized country they offer beer in vending machines! But…sigh…no Pepsi.



Paella, Paella, Paella!

paellaStella, Stella, Stella!  Oh, oops, wait, that’s from a movie. Never mind. Back to the paella. Spain is a great country for paella. If you like paella, that is. I have to confess I’m not a huge fan, especially since the ones I encountered were mostly seafood versions. And, no, I don’t like seafood…unless it’s in a Japanese restaurant in the form of sushi.

So I had high hopes for this dish, a homemade vegetarian paella, served up by our hosts at La Casa Magica in Villatuerta. While I wasn’t overwhelmed by it, the dish was certainly flavorful, the veggies fresh, and it was quite filling. I selectively dug out the rice and veggies I like most and made a meal out of that, along with the ubiquitous bread that was everywhere with every meal (or so it seemed).

The most enjoyable part of the dinner, as with most evenings, was the company that we enjoyed surrounded by citizens of a variety of nations from as close as France and as far away as Asia. There was Henry and Alba, originally from Venezuela but now residing in Canada, Amy from South Korea, Essa from Finland (Essa seemed to be rather fond of Amy, but it didn’t seem she was reciprocating), and the trio from Killarney in Ireland, among others.

We had already met “Ireland” (as we called them) along the trail thanks to the decorative ribbons on my backpack. Being that I travel most frequently with Lindblad Expeditions, I have a multitude of their blue and yellow ribbons (which they provide to better identify your luggage during group airport transfers) and are – I’m told – based on the flag of Sweden where Lars Eric Lindblad (Sven Olaf’s father) was born. It turns out they’re also the colors of Killarney, Ireland, and “Ireland” wondered if perhaps I hailed from their hometown. Alas, I do not, although I am of Irish descent. (My mother’s family immigrated to the U.S. during the great potato famine in the mid-1800s). While one of her relatives has done a genealogy, I don’t remember most of the details so I can’t say whether we might actually be from Killarney. Too bad I’m not, for the young-ish male third of “Ireland” was quite handsome.

Yes, we really did refer to people by their country (or town). it was easier to remember. And, being a horror writer, it reminded me of the movie “Zombieland” where the characters referred to each other by their hometowns (like Columbus and Tallahassee) lest they become too familiar with and attached to one another. Not that I was expecting the zombie apocalypse to occur while we were on the Camino, but I certainly had ample opportunity to let my mind wander while walking, concocting all sorts of scenarios for future horror stories. Like, what if that paella dish – easily two feet across – had been a zombie’s dream: brain paella. Hmm Hmm Good.

The best chocolate mini-croissants you’ll never have…unless you go to Pamplona…

They are called “garroticos” but if you ask for them in English that’s okay. You’ll still receive the best little chocolate croissants you’ve ever had…delighting your taste buds the second you pop them into your mouth.

choc_croissantDon’t bite down into the croissant over a clean pair of white or beige pants. That still-warm, gooey, chocolate oozes out everywhere. Better yet, don’t let it escape! Hold your other hand beneath the croissant-holding hand to catch it. (I sniffled as I watched a gorgeous clump of chocolate plop itself on the sidewalk…ever lost to the city pigeons. I may never recover from that tragedy.)

Where do you find these little pieces of heaven? At Beatriz, a tiny bakery near the historic bull ring in Hemingway’s old stomping grounds. My friend and traveling companion, Xina Uhl, had read about Beatriz somewhere so it was one of our first stops in the city. Of course, it was siesta time so it was closed. But no worries, there were plenty of bars and cafes nearby that remained open where we could enjoy a meal. And, as soon as Beatriz opened its doors again, there we were – first in line for our dessert! (Oh, did I mention the lines? We hear Beatriz is famous for having lines out the door – so get there as quick as you can.)

For a little more on Pamplona’s food scene.

I hate bunk beds

bunkbeds_blogMost of the albergues you’ll stay at along the Camino de Santiago have bunk beds – an obvious way to maximize the use of space and accommodate as many peregrinos as possible. But I quickly grew to dislike bunk beds after whacking my head several times while sitting on the lower bunk. (Only a couple of the bunks had sufficient clearance to avoid this mishap.) Yes – even as short as I am, I suffered through numerous bumps and bangs – a rather amazing feat considering that I’m only 4’10”. (My father will tell you that I’m exaggerating and am only 4’9 3/4″, but he’s not the one writing this blog.)

My dislike for the bunk beds was only exceeded by my even more quickly developed dislike for the large municipal albergues. All those people crammed into those space (even if divided into separate rooms) generated a noise level which sets my nerves on edge. And I’m not even talking about the snoring, which wasn’t as bad as I’ve heard. I mean the general noise level of all the conversations reverberating through the spaces until “lights out” (especially bad at the Jesus y Maria albergue in Pamplona). So we developed a strategy to avoid the larger hostels, even if it meant rearranging our intended distances/destinations to stop short (or go ahead) of the major cities: a strategy I highly recommend.

I very much enjoyed the smaller, privately run albergues which facilitated more intimate interactions with our fellow peregrinos, to include more enjoyable communal meals and smaller common rooms to sit around and chat.

In Viskarret, we stayed at Corazon Puro, run by a lovely Hungarian couple. Me, Xina, and Emelia (from Denmark) were the only guests. We had a lovely meal, prepared by Barbara who joined us for dessert and conversation.

In Larrasoana, we stayed at the San Nicolas albergue, which had only been open for ten (10) days! Brand spanking new! We enjoyed another delicious meal and conversation with peregrinos from a number of countries. Some of these same peregrinos we would run into again and again at different stages, including Emelia. By the way, put together two tables of travelers (from places ranging from Canada, Brazil, Germany, England, Denmark, Sweden, Hungary, France, Italy, Japan, Korea, etc.) and what language is everyone speaking? English.

In Obanos, despite being in an albergue (Usda) with more than 20 beds, Xina and I were the only guests – quite nice to have a place all to ourselves. (Most people continue on to Puente la Reina, but we were tired and stopped short.) In Villatuerta, we stayed at Case de Magica, known for its vegetarian meals. This is where the first included photo is from. See: no bunk beds!!

In Los Arcos, we stayed at Casa de Austria, welcomed warmly by Julian, a hyperactive 20-something from Germany – and very nice! They didn’t have a kitchen, but there were numerous cafes within easy walking distance even for me (this was the leg during which I suffered my initial foot injury). One of the amusing happenings on this leg was again running into Guy, from Montreal, at the municipal albergue when we went to pick up our bags which we’d had shipped ahead. He was sharing a snack with a young man out on the porch, and when we confirmed just how nice San Nicolas was, the young man made a choking motion toward Guy. Why? He thought Guy was exaggerating about its amenities and, after suffering through the municipal albergue in Larraosoana – reportedly even more horrible than we had been warned – he was very annoyed to find out that Guy was not exaggerating. Lesson learned: don’t stay at that place!

In Ventosa, we stayed at San Saturnino run by an older woman who seemed rather stern – at least at first – but she warmed up to everyone in the morning and was more talkative. San Saturnino had a wonderful central courtyard and was beautifully decorated. Saturnino_blogWe did stay at the municipal albergue in Azofra – which doesn’t stick out in my memory for some reason.

In Santo Domingo, we stayed at Casa Santo which seemed nice at first because the numerous beds were divided up into multiple rooms, but proved to be rather noisy because of the central atrium. Didn’t like it, especially after the 20-something “Brit Twit” (no, I don’t mean all the other very nice and considerate Brits I encountered) who sprayed his stinky, scented deodorant all over his clothes (rather than washing them) in a room full of people with utterly no consideration for anyone who might have allergies, asthma, or other respiratory issues (like me). He seemed to think it was not a problem, but I assure you it was. I had to leave the room and even go out to a pharmacy to buy cough syrup. Did he think his stinky, scented crap stayed in the immediate vicinity of where he sprayed it? Talk about a complete lack of common sense understanding of the dispersal of air molecules. What an asshole. (Yet another reason to not like large albergues.)

And, of course, I can’t say enough about Divina Pastora in Burgos. It’s very small (only 16 beds), but it’s quiet, intimate, and Alicia (the hospitalero) is sweet, kind, and caring. It’s located above a small church near the cathedral and one does wonder if he/she might have made a mistake choosing these accommodations upon feeling the church bell clanging the hour (yes, it actually vibrates through the structure), but the bell does not ring during the night so you can sleep peacefully. I look forward to returning to the Camino, starting in Burgos, and hopefully getting a bed at Divina Pastora. DivinaPastora_blog

Reflections upon an Unfinished Camino

Foot_ForBlogIt’s been a little over a week since I had to return home early from Spain, cutting short my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. It would be terrific to still be walking with my friend, Xina Uhl, who is now within 100 kilometers of Santiago de Compostela but there is no way I could have kept up with her 20+ kilometer a day pace nor withstood the increasing pain in my left foot. And my foot still likes to remind me of that with random stabs of pain and bizarre tingling sensations. X-rays were inconclusive because, according to the podiatrist, stress fractures can take more than two weeks to show themselves. At the very least the foot is severely sprained and the doctor said I could not have continued to walk on it without exacerbating the damage. (That was my fear: had I kept going – would I have found myself somewhere along the Camino, unable to walk and not near a major city, encountering even more difficulty trying to get out?) That is why I chose to turn around in Burgos, which was still close enough to return to Barcelona on a single six hour train ride. As it was, between the non-existent customer service of Norwegian Air and the unreachable customer service of CheapoAir (the ticket reseller I had purchased the Norwegian Air ticket), resulted in my having to buy an entirely new plane ticket to get back to the U.S. (My complaints to the two companies are still outstanding.)

But I refuse to let my injury and outbound frustrations darken my experience upon the Camino. The Spanish countryside is beautiful and the people are extremely friendly and helpful, a bonus Xina and I discovered early on: from the hostel receptionist who kept the doors open past closing time because our Barcelona-Pamplona train was delayed to the several people in the small towns and villages who ran out of their houses to let us know we were going the wrong way when they saw us miss the route markers. Then there was Barbara, the Hungarian woman who co-owns Corazon Puro in Viskarret who steered us to our next destination (the San Nicolas albergue in Larrasoana) – for which we’re ever grateful, because we not only met so many other wonderful peregrinos there but because we later heard how horrible the municipal albergue in Larrasoana is. (I’ll save further comments on the various albergues for later.)

In Obanos we asked an older gentleman to point us in right direction. He didn’t just point; he walked us to the edge of town, chatting as best we could in our mangled Spanglish. In Villatuerta, at La Casa Magica, the receptionist extinguished the incense burning in the lobby when my friend explained that I am allergic to it (and can get serious migraines) and then walked me up to the rooms via the back way to allow time for the incense smell to dissipate. In Los Arcos, the owner (we think he was the owner) of Casa de Austria made wire art of our names while we sat, chatting and enjoying a drink in the common room. name_art

My two favorite hosts: Alicia, who runs the small Divina Pastora albergue, and Tony, the receptionist at Hotel Alda Entrearcos, both in Burgos. Alicia I can best describe as a woman who is confident and secure in her faith and her duties to care for the peregrinos who pass through her doors. She played her guitar and sang for us in the morning (“Buenos Dias Maria”) as a gentle wakeup call. And, upon our leaving that last morning and seeing how upset I was about having to quit and return home, she gave me a big hug and told me she’d see me next year or the year after when I return. Tony was equally gracious, although I didn’t find that out until later. I had stayed at his hotel my second of the three nights in Burgos as a break from the constant socializing within the albergues and was then surprised to see him walk past me in the Burgos train station. He recognized me instantly and said hello, seeming quite surprised that I wasn’t back on the pilgrim trail. When I explained the situation to him, he insisted on buying me a cup of tea. We sat and chatted for awhile, and I learned that he and his wife had emigrated from Romania, looking for better job opportunities, and are happy to be raising a five-year-old daughter named Christina in Spain. The two work in a couple different hotels and commute back and forth. As we parted ways, he walked me up to the train platform and made sure I got on the right train to Barcelona.

It is kindnesses like these that make me look forward to returning some day to finish the Camino. While Xina is getting close to the finish line without me, I know that I have a couple friends and relatives who would like to do the Camino in the future. It will be a pleasure to share the experience with them.

And here ends my Camino… for now

  My stupid foot has gotten the better of me. Even after three days of rest, I can only walk for about an hour without pain. And then it’s limp, limp, grumble, grumble. Not sure if the toe is actually broken but it sure feels like it. The nail is steadily turning black.

Certainly the Camino gives your feet a beating, but I think the source of this problem may have pre-existed. Back in January, I had the nail of the right big toe removed because it was infected and ingrown (extremely painful). Despite being only partly protected by still-growing replacement nail it has given me no problem. At the time I did not ask the podiatrist to examine the left big toe. While it had shown some of the same problems as the right it looked and felt normal in January. That may have been a mistake and now I’m paying the price. It has affected the whole toe, and so the whole foot which has become prone to swelling, throbbing pain, and occasional sharp jabs of pain (even while I’m sleeping). Granted – there may be more to the story than just a bad toenail. Who knows. Maybe the day I nearly turned the ankle (only our second day on the trail) is also playing a part. The rock that was tripping me up moved just enough in the right direction that my foot and ankle popped upright just in time. I thought.

Attempts to see a doctor in Burgos ran afoul of the requirement to sign a promissory note to guarantee I would cover all expenses…without being told what those were. (Spain has socialized medical care. No one knows how much anything actually costs.)  And my emails back and forth to my insurance company couldn’t get a concrete answer as to whether I would be reimbursed. A toe isn’t exactly a life-threatening emergency. 

So here I am back in Barcelona. Wish me luck trying to reschedule a flight home to the U.S.  

Here’s a tip for your Camino: if you think something might be wrong with your feet get them checked out before you go. And if you have a history of ingrown or infected toenails, have them removed at least three or four months in advance. 

Euphemisms in Camino guidebooks 

  Scattered throughout Camino guidebooks you will see the authors extol the virtue of natural paths versus the hard cold cement and asphalt interspersed along the Camino wherever it crosses cities. 

You should know that all these various phrases: gently downhill, tranquil walk, wonderful, scenic, delightful, dirt, wide country tracks, and earthen (all usually combined with some form of nature) are all really euphemisms for the same thing:

Uneven dirt tracks filled with varying layers of rocks, gravel, and pebbles — all of which prevent you from placing your feet evenly on the ground, thus increasing the strain on your knees, ankles, and toes. 

But don’t get me started on the toes. More on that later.