Thursday, November 30, 2017

Under the Douro Fog

I'm taking a little segue from my series on the El Camino. Yesterday I experienced one of those days that made me want to pinch myself and just had to share it right away!

I am lingering in the Douro River Valley here in Portugal. Sometimes, when I walk through the countryside, I feel like I am in a scene from Under the Tuscan Sun. Although it is November, the sun is shining brightly on most days and the mornings are clear and crisp. Great for an accidental tourist wanderer like me, but the farmers are quite worried. It is supposed to be raining—a LOT!

Yesterday, I took a break from my work to take a downhill walk from the nearby village of Castedo to Pinhão on the banks of the Douro—about 8 miles. It turned out to be one of the highlights of my traveling year.

I took a bus from Alijo to Castedo. This shortened the hike so that I did not have to rush down to Pinhão to be sure I made it in time to take the last bus back up to Alijo. The day was clear in Alijo, but as we descended into the valley, I noticed that the river was cloaked in fog. “Oh well,” I told myself, “it will burn off soon.” But by the time the bus dumped me in Castedo, I was surrounded by “pea soup.”

Oh great…this was not going to be the scenic hike I had planned. I was disappointed. But not for long. One thing I have learned on my travels so far, is that things always seem to turn out. It is important to embrace your surroundings.

So, I set off, looking around. And it was not long before I discovered that the world around me was enchanted. The church became mystical; rows of colorful grape leaves disappeared into the distance; the dew hung heavy on forgotten grapes; and like wizened ancient wizards, the pruned vines seemed to hobble away into the mist. 

Over the next couple hours, the sun won its battle with the clouds and slowly the distant terraces emerged.

It was still cold and the sweet tea in my thermos was calling me.  I found a bench in Vilanrinho do Cotas to eat a snack and enjoy the hot tea in the sunshine. The village straddles a saddle between valleys and to my right I noticed the fog trying its best to creep over the ridge to make an assault on the clear side. But it dissipated weakly under this Douro sun. 

Two more kilometers brought me to Casal de Loivos, where I had been told there was a stunning miradouro (an overlook) that I should not miss. 

BUT, before that, I came across what would be the unexpected highlight of my day: The Olive Oil Press Museum! Surprised it was open, I walked in to see a small tour group immersed in a tasting. I walked through to a terrace overlooking the Douro river and Pinhao far below. Susanna, the museum host, walked out and offered me a tasting, “Outside or inside?” she asked. I chose the terrace and she proceeded to treat me to the local offering. 

This museum is run by the D’Origem estate, where they grow grapes, olives, and almonds. They also have honey from bees who feast on the local nectar of rosemary, rockrose, and lime!

Before long, I was sitting before a tapestry of local foods: three table wines (white, a rose, and red), olive oil, almonds, honey, and grape juice! 

A very special grape juice.
The estate bottles some of their grapes into juice so visitors who do not drink alcohol or do not wish to will  have an opportunity to appreciate the fresh-squeezed fruit of the vine. 

Once the tour group left, Susanna joined me and enlightened me about the origins of this fare. The extra virgin olive oil was smooth and flavorful—I think the best I have ever had! Susanna explained that it is because it only has 0.3% acidity, which is very low for olive oil. My favorite wine was the white, which I later could not resist purchasing (for the amazingly affordable 8 €). The rosé was unexpectedly sweet even though most rosés are dry. Susanna said that while most rosés are a blend of grape varieties, the D’Origem family produces a single-variety rosé, resulting in a sweet wine.

Here’s what ended up in
my daypack.
When another small tour arrived, Susanna excused herself and invited me to join the group while she explained the museum’s equipment and how olive oil is produced. I also purchased some olive oil. I eat salads almost daily and I have decided to donate my current bottle of oil from the store to the hostel’s kitchen. I now have a special stash! 

Downhill a few more kilometers brought me to my destination. I explored the town a bit and crossed the Douro River for some photos. 

I enjoyed a nice sampler of local ham and cheese with salad and wine before boarding the bus back to Alijo. It was dark now and on the return I savored a different view of the valley—twinkling lights from the passing villages and hillside estates. 

Sometimes at the end of such a day, I get this overwhelming sense of “This cannot be my life,” and all the gratitude of which my heart is capable is not enough. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Camino de Santiago Primitivo: Day 20

La Vega de Sariego—Oviedo     16.8 miles

11 October 2017 

This would turn out to be mostly a long, uninspiring day. Except for the first few miles while I walked and visited with Caitlin, the way had little variety and the last half was on suburban and industrial pavement with little variety. The only upside was that there were few ups and downs.

There was a short stretch in a lovely wooded area where I captured these mushrooms.

We started the day at about 3º C—pretty cold—but by the time I reached Cerdeño on the outskirts of Oviedo in the late afternoon, I was hot, sticky, and completely wilted. I stopped in a grocery and bought cold water and cold orange juice and downed them all at once in a nearby park before continuing on into Oviedo. 

Just before entering Cerdeño, I crossed this medieval bridge. 
And then it happened…the hostel in Oviedo I had picked out to stay for a few days was CLOSED and it was almost 7:00 pm. Why do these things happen at the end of a LONG day? My guidebook indicated that the peregrino albergue would be closed by this time of year, but I decided to try it anyway. When I got there, the hospitera assured me that it is open year-round. I had a bed for one night at least and was grateful for that!

Oviedo is the official start of the Camino Primitivo and many people who are doing just this Camino fly here to begin. At the albergue, I visited with two Australians and one Danish woman who were just starting their Camino. It felt funny to be the Camino “expert” of the group.

12 October 2017

The next morning, I had to leave the peregrino albergue and find another albergue privado where I could stay a couple more nights. I had quite a bit of work to catch up on for a client, so I needed good wi-fi. La Peregrina was recommended. It turned out to be pretty run down with no kitchen, but I had a room to myself and the wi-fi was good enough for me to upload files and use Skype. Also, it was very cheap: 7 €!

October 12 is Columbus Day in Portugal. It is not much celebrated in the US, but you can imagine how important it is to the Portuguese. Shops are closed and there are many festivities. I came across these bagpipers in a plaza. Did you know that bagpipes originated here in Asturias, Spain? Evidence of them has been found beginning in the 14th Century.

Even though I worked quite a bit, I had time to go out and explore (and eat!) in this compelling city. I visited the main park, Campo de San Francisco, and sat on a bench catching up on my journal for a couple hours. Then I walked around admiring the public art, especially these captivating statues.

I was intrigued to find this famous sculpture of Woody Allen. He made a movie partially set in Oviedo, Vickie Christina Barcelona, and he fell in love with the city. The plaque nearby quotes him (and can't you just hear the voiceover?), “A delicious, exotic, beautiful, clean, pleasant, tranquil and pedestrianised city….As if this world did not exist…Oviedo is like a fairy tale.”

Then I explored the neighborhood, and discovered a knitting shop (YAY!) that was closed for the holiday (BOO!). But it would be open the next day (YAY!). 

Then I came upon the Brótchen Café and enjoyed a huge piece of chocolate cake baked with dark beer and with a cream cheese frosting. I almost stopped the server from adding whipped cream on the side and then came to my senses, “OK!” I laughed. It was so rich, I only could eat half of it and packed the other half in my bag for later. All these extra calories don't seem to matter...I am still losing weight!

13 October 2017

More city exploring today. On the list was the large indoor food market. BUT FIRST: as I was walking there looking out for an ATM on the way, I heard, “Cathy!” At first. I ignored it—who could know me here? When I heard it again, I turned and who was walking toward me but Caitlin, who I met two days earlier!! I could not believe it—the likelihood was so remote that I would meet her and Gerry again, even though I was hoping we would. I had so enjoyed their company. It turned out that I was passing the hotel where she and Gerry were staying. They were sitting by the café window and just happened to look out as I passed. We enjoyed one last café together before they flew back to Ireland and I continued on to the market. I think I will see them yet again!

I don’t really believe in 
coincidences much anymore.

I love markets and this one was so very colorful and lively. One woman only sold ingredients for fabada!  

And the fish! Makes me wish I had a kitchen. 

Next was an obligatory (!) return to the yarn shop, Lana Y Punto (“Yarn and Stitch”). The shop was not busy and I spent almost an hour visiting with Marisa. 
I purchased a striking ball of multicolored merino/poly blend. Not sure what I am going to do with it, but is sure is pretty and does not take up much room in my pack, where I also have stashed a couple needles and small spindle in case of a fiber emergency. (There’s always room for fiber stuff!!)

For dinner, I entered a restaurant that advertised a menu of fabada and a bottle of cider with  arroz con leche for dessert. The fabada was okay, but they obviously added the sausages right before serving because they were cold. I had to pour my own cider and could not even approximate the artistic pour I had witnessed in Vilaviciosa, but it was all good enough. 

Tomorrow I would hit the Camino trail once again.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Camino de Santiago del Norte: Day 19

 Note: This is a camino of gratitude for me. Each day, I choose something I am grateful for in my life and think and journal about it throughout the day. I will share an excerpt from my journal entries at the end of each days post. 

Villaviciosa to La Vega de Sariego  10.8 miles
10 October 2017 

I would have loved to stay in Villaviciosa another day, but I was pretty much caught up with work so I had no excuses—off I went. The walk out of town was lovely—an urban trail along the river. I met many people out for their morning walks and runs, with and without dogs.

“Today the mist from my breath is hanging on a little longer in the morning. Fall is truly here. It will get cooler as I walk up into the mountains.”

In a small village, I came across this pilgrim’s fountain where I dumped the city water from my bottle and refilled it. How special are these people who are looking out for us! 

Soon, I came to the place where the Camino Primitivo splits from the Camino del Norte. It is a weighty decision for me to choose to do the Primitivo. Most pilgrims who start on the coastal path, stay on the del Norte all the way; some choose the Primitivo. The official start of the Primitivo is actually in Oviedo (two more days walking), but this is the place where pilgrims coming from the del Norte must decide.

I had chosen the Primitivo before I started because it would take me through the mountains and would probably have fewer pilgrims. This meant I would have more time to walk alone, which is important for me. For this Camino, I want plenty of time to think and meditate as I walk.

And here at the crossroads was a sweet little ermita (a small isolated chapel)—The Ermita of San Blas—and on its door, was this lovely poem recently composed. When I first read it, I could only translate it roughly, but even so, unbidden tears erupted. What I am doing is profound for me!

As you passed through the Village,
has estuaries and rivers
forests and also meadows
and here in Casquita
is a special destination.

You arrive here pilgrim,
In the morning and relaxed,
With a great emotional expectancy
From your accumulated steps.

Steps long and short
but always firm and thoughtful
and almost always accompanied
by the dust of the road.

And it is here in Casquita
where the farewells
arise and the emotions emerge,
As it is a symbolic place
of decision making.

Some decide the coast,
others the interior,
and behind these stone bricks,
silent and observant,
This our beloved San Blas
As…Elder Pilgrim.

I added the translation that I came up with later. But, of course, it sounds more beautiful in the original Spanish. I love the metaphor of the decisions we must make in life and how hard and emotional they can be, but also beautiful and fulfilling.

I began to flag and needed to rest and refuel. While hiking in the UK and here on the Camino, I wish I had kept track of the number of times that this happened: I begin to look for a comfortable place to sit—preferably a bench or table and in a few minutes, one would magically appear! Today it was a picnic table at the junction of two ways to travel on the Camino: The steep, hard, and 1.3-kilometers, shorter way with supposedly “impressive views” (according to the guide); or the longer, easier way that also takes you by the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Valdedios where I could sleep in their albergue. I chose the longer, easier way, mainly because I wanted to stop at the monastery. 

As I sat down to eat, the local church bell tolled 12 times—twice!

Unfortunately, I arrived at the Monastery too early to stop for the night and decided it made more sense to push on to La Vega (and it was fortunate that I did as you will see). Once I left Valdedios, I began CLIMBING! (So much for the guidebook’s “easier way.” Glad I did not go the “hard”  route.) But the effort required me to stop regularly and look back toward the monastery.

In La Vega, the municipal hostel was adequate…I had to go to the grocery store to register and the hospitera there was as nice as could be. Because there were beds in different rooms, I had a room to myself. Turned out that only two other pilgrims showed up and they got a private room as well. And here is the fortunate part of my choice to push on at Valdedios: it turned out that they became quick friends. Caitlin and Gerry from Roscommon, Ireland were wonderful conversationalists. 

As Gerry left for provisions at the store, I called down to him from my window, “Choose a bottle of wine—I’ll pay for it if you will share it with me!” I am such a baracha barrata (“cheap drunk”) that I am always on the look out for people to share a bottle with me. 

We talked over dinner in the tiny kitchen until we could not keep awake any longer. (As you can imagine pilgrims tend to eat hearty and find their beds early.) 

In the morning we started out early together in the coldit was close to 0º C! Gerry walked  ahead and Caitlin and I enjoying a last visit  (or so I thought…) before she pushed ahead of me.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Camino de Santiago del Norte: Day 18

 Note: This is a camino of gratitude for me. Each day, I choose something I am grateful for in my life and think and journal about it throughout the day. I will share an excerpt from my journal entries at the end of each days post. 

La Isla to Villaviciosa  12.8 miles
8 October 2017 

The days are feeling more fall-like with cooler days and nights, but fair weather is holding and it is quite comfortable for hiking. At least once a day I come across bursts of orange in fields and gardens, reminding me of home.

In the mid-afternoon, I got what would be my last look at the ocean before turning south. I would not see salt water and pounding waves again until I finished my Camino a month from now.

I walked through the little town of Sabrayo and a man was sorting through apples in the back of a truck. He handed me one and I sat down on a bench to eat it—tart and crunchy—just right. 

As I approached Villaviciosa, a reasonable size city and my stop for the night, I came upon advertising posters for private albergues. These are different from the municipal albergues in several ways. Municipal albergues tend to have more basic amenities, only dormitories (no private rooms), and they rarely have internet access. They are generally much cheaper, some even asking for just a donation. Only peregrinos are allowed to stay in municipal albergues and they can only stay one night. They usually run on a first-come/first served principle and rarely allow reservations. The privately-owned albergues can run the gamut from very basic and/or not so clean to quite, comfortable, even hotel-like and most offer private rooms as well as dormitory beds. They are generally more expensive, starting at about 10 euros. These prividos, as they are called, allow anyone to stay and you can stay as long as you wish. Reservations are usually accepted.
The advertisement for 
the albergue I would 
choose in Villaviciosa.

As the peregrino approaches some of the larger towns and cities, s/he comes across competing advertising for the prividos. If I have not already made my mind up about where to stay, I often use my tablet to take photos of the posters for the more interesting-looking accommodations. That makes it easier to find them once I am in town and to decide which one to choose. The main things I look for are: prices, kitchen, wi-fi, and nice photos (although sometimes those are misleading, believe me!) 

Villaviciosa is in the heart of cider country here in Asturias
cider and apples are everywhere. On the outskirts of town I noticed this huge orchard. In the background beyond it cideries line the highway.

I was tired and ready to lay down my pack, but as I started to cross the town plaza, I uttered an uncontrollable “Ohhhh!” and stopped dead in my tracks when I came upon this serenely-meaningful sculpture celebrating the versatile fruit.

I found the entrance to Albergue El Congreso right off the town square and walked up some stairs to the first-floor reception (Remember, in almost all countries outside the US, the first floor is what we call the second floor. So, if you are given a room on the second floor, you have two flights of stairs to climb at the end of a long day with a pack on your back.)

The receptionist was very welcoming and the old paneled living room and hallways felt warm and comfortable. She did have beds in a 4-bed dormitory for 12 euros a night. But when I told her I would be staying at least two nights, she offered me a private room en suite for 18 euros/night and I took it. Even though it was on the second floor, it was wonderful to have space to myself, no one snoring through the night, no one waking me in the mornings, and a BATHTUB!

Later, in the restaurant next door, I ordered cider to drink and fabada. You may remember that I had fabada, an Asturian specialty, for the first time back in Serdio. It is a kind of bean stew made from fava beans, smoked salt pork, chorizo, and blood sausage. I loved it so much that order it just about every chance I get now.

Fabada and cider. Notice the small amount of cider
in the glass! 
I was astounded when my waiter very solemnly poured a small amount of cider from several feet above the glass, so that the liquid hit the rim. Most went in, but a significant amount fell on the floor, which apparently is mopped at the end of the night. 
Solemnity is an important part
of the cider-pouring ritual in
Asturias. I 
suspect that part of
the reason for 
this is that it must
take quite a bit 
of concentration
to have the cider 
hit the edge
of the glass just so. 
I was flabbergasted and had no idea what I was to do with ¾-inch of cider in such a big glass. Was it like wine, and should I taste it and give the waiter the nod that it was okay and then he would fill my glass? Was I supposed to drink it down like whiskey shots? I sipped it little by little, savoring each mouthful. I realized later that the waiter was keeping an eye on me. As soon as the glass was empty, he immediately refilled—but only about ¾-inch each time! So now I decided that I was supposed to savor it. Only later, when I had the chance to look up Spanish cider etiquette on the internet, would I learn that I was supposed to drink the cider all in one go for each pouring—like a whiskey shot—not sip it.
Oh well…
The next day, I took a rest day and an opportunity to catch up on some work. I am working on a book layout for a client as I travel and every once in a while, I need to find accommodations that provide wi-fi (which the Spanish people pronounce “wee-fee”) and the option to stay more than one night. This also gives my body, especially my poor hips, the chance to recuperate. 

I took a break mid-morning for cake and cafe con leche at the nearby pasteleria, some journal-writing, and to walk around town a bit. 

Interesting logo on an abandoned cidery. 
I am close to half done with my pilgrimage. Tomorrow I start on the Primitivo portion of the Camino de Santiago. The Primitivo splits from the del Norte trail just south of Villaviciosa. I will be doing a lot of climbing for the next week or two and expect some great scenery in the mountains.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Camino de Santiago del Norte: Day 17

 Note: This is a camino of gratitude for me. Each day, I choose something I am grateful for in my life and think and journal about it throughout the day. I will  share an excerpt from my journal entries at the end of each days post. 

Day 17: Ribadesella to La Isla  10.5 miles
7 October 2017 

In the morning, the Camino took me along Ribadesilla’s promenade and then through apartment-lined streets into the countryside. The beach was beautiful, but very developed—Asturian-style mansions were built along the waterfront more than a century ago and they have been well maintained.

By noon I was approaching the sweet village of La Vega.  

The village was special enough just in itself…narrow cobbled streets, stone houses…exactly what you would think of for a traditional village in Spain. But imagine my surprise when I came upon these trompe l'oeil paintings! A local artist created these life-like works on the walls of his house.

I have not been able to learn the artist’s name, but here is a self-portrait of him, looking out of a window, as if to say, “What are you taking photos of?”

I could have stayed here for a couple hours studying all the details, but that would not get me to the next albergue.

And as I left the village, I encountered a new kind of structure, a horreo (pronounced “oreo” like the cookie, but remember to roll th“r’s”). Horreos are used like root cellarsto keep vegetables and grains through the winter. They are almost always built from chestnut, which slowly turns black making them look like they have been burnt. (For this reason, at first, I wondered if they were used for smoking meat.) They are built up off the ground with a large flat stone between the pedestals and the floor to keep rodents from climbing in. These little buildings would become more and more plentiful as I continued deeper into Asturias. Nowadays, some have been converted into bedrooms and are rented out via AirBnB for a hefty price.

I ended my day looking for the albergue in the almost-dead village of La Isla. No matter where I turned, I could not find the usual waymarks. Finally, some locals on the street escorted me to Angelita’s house. She is the hospitera. You must go to her house first to register and then on to the albergue, which is about six blocks away. It turns out that she is well-known on the Camino del Norte: A small woman who makes sure each line of the registration page is filled out correctly. When you first meet her, you might feel like she is impatient and a little grouchy, but it is not long before you realize she is just expecting you to understand Spanish. (And, after all, shouldn’t we be trying a little harder?) In reality, I believe she has the softest heart for the albergue and the peregrinos that come through, tired and ready for a warm bed.

Four more peregrinos arrived right behind me, so Angelita sat us at a table and we passed the registration book around, helping each other decipher the form.

The cost for the albergue bed in La Isla is 5 euros. On the Camino, I usually felt that this was not nearly enough to charge and I would add 3-5 euros as an additional donativo since I could easily afford it. For me it is important that these little municipal albergues are available and that they stay open for future peregrinos, like me. Until now, the extra gratuity was always gratefully accepted—but not by Angelita—oh no! A stickler for the rules, she was not about to take a cent more than the requested 5 euros!

Then we were directed to the albergue. I should have taken photos!! I got a single bed—no top bunk! The kitchen was well-equipped and easy to use, AND there was a free washing machine (a rarity). I was soooo glad I had not done my wash by hand in that grimy lavadora in Ribadesilla last night. The machine even spun the clothes out so well that they were dry on the line by morning! Such little luxuries cannot be taken for granted on the Camino.

Let’s see:
Ribasedellia albergue: Not welcoming, no kitchen, no useable washing area, packs stored downstairs, 20 euros! (To give them credit—the space was bright and airy and they did provide bed linens.)
La Isla albergue: Sweet hospitera, great kitchen, FREE washing machine, packs handy under our beds, some single beds, 5 euros! (We did have to use our own sleeping bags, which we are all used to doing.)

Which would you choose?