Exploring Spanish Cities

img_2391One of the cities we visited in Spain was Ronda. Ronda is a mountaintop city in the province of Malaga, Andalusia. The town is set dramatically above a deep gorge. Puente Nuevo, a stone bridge spans the gorge. Plaza de Toros, a legendary 18th-century bullring, is one of the touristy city’s landmarks.

Another hill side town we visited was Compéta. It is on the Costa del Sol and is eye blindig white. img_2529Up in the hills, along hairpins and winding roads, we drove. Along the way we had been told to keep out an eye for another village with a beautiful cemetery. Of course, passed it and then had to drive a few extra kilometers before we could make a U-turn. But it was worth it. I’ve never seen such a unique cemetery: it reminded me of a beehive. Apparently this is the only round cemetery in Spain. The origins or reasons are not known but new graves are stucco’ed on top of each other. img_2523

Another few kilometers uphill is Compéta. We parked the car as soon as we could and then walked through the steep, white village and on for a hike in the hills.

Then we made our way to Grenada to visit the Alhambra. As a small boy, Kees learned about the Alhambra and never forgot his visions of this mystical, mysterious place so it was high on our bucket list. The first lesson we learned here was: plan ahead. All the websites had told us to buy entrance tickets ahead of time, even though we would visit on a Tuesday in November. So we went to book online, about 3 or 4 days ahead of time and were told that all tickets were sold out. The websites also stated that a limited number of tickets would be available on the day of the visit but you would have to line up at 8 AM. We read several accounts of people who tried this, only to stand in line for a long time and then to be told there were no more tickets for that day. We hoped to avoid that.

img_2547It seemed to us that we would always be able to join a tour and obtain tickets that way. But when we tried to book a tour, they were full – even two days ahead of time! We were now starting to worry.

But when we arrived at our hotel (see the previous blog of our crazy race through Granada), they told us they would check online that night. And voila, tickets magically appear for sale again. We were happy not to have to join a tour group but to buy the (much cheaper) regular tickets. We rented audio tours at the entrance so that we still had all the pertinent information on the history of Alhambra. The only other confusing thing that was online, was about selecting a time. It sounds like your ticket is limited to a few hours each day, but this is not true. You just need to decide which time you’d like to tour one of the sites: a palace. They limited the number of people inside so you pick your own time, show up and get inside. The rest of the place is open to you all day, both before and after your palace tour.

img_2584We had pictured Alhambra as a Moorish mosque. However, it is an ancient walled city with remnants of houses and streets, restored palaces and gardens. You can easily walk around all day.

Click here for historical details and a virtual tour: https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/historicalintroduction.asp

Our hotel was in Albaicin, a neighbourhood that is believed to predate the Alhambra, which has its origins in the 9th century. We found it reminiscent of Jerusalem.

The old palaces, reflected in pond, with fountains and incredible ceilings were the highlight of our visit.img_2597

If you visit Grenada, we do recommend the hotel at which we stayed (http://www.casabombo.com/espanol/) but be sure to contact them for directions! I’m told they can even meet you somewhere. If you go by car, I’d stay somewhere else! But the rooms and the views are great.

Right in the backyard of the hotel, but you have to walk around the ‘block’, is a treasure of a restaurant: https://www.facebook.com/trilloalbaicin/  It absolutely had the best food we had in all of Spain but was pricey (so we celebrated our last night in Spain – a day early…).

And then our month of exploring Spain came to an end. I learned many things. I didn’t know that Spain had so many mosquitoes…. I learned that most people here drink coffee in glasses rather than cups. I found more dog poop and people smoking here than I had expected, kind of like Holland ten years ago. I learned that basically all stores and offices close at 2 PM, then stores and restaurants all open again at 7 or 8 PM. The streets are deserted around 3 or 4 PM, but around 7 PM people start to reappear. They stream back into the streets, populate the squares. Kids, people with strollers – they all come out at night, especially on the Plaza Mayor of any town. It was neat to see such a social street life.img_2606

Rocking Gibraltar

img_2483

Salt Spring Island, where we live, is a small rocky island in the Pacific Ocean. It measures 74 square miles and has a population of 10,000.

Today we spent the entire day on the rock of Gibraltar, a small rocky outcrop in the Atlantic Ocean. It measures 2.5 square miles and has a population of 30,000.

I can’t image how people spend their entire lives living on this tiny rock, so crowded with houses, narrow roads and steep edges.

img_2409We researched Gibraltar a little bit before coming here but the online information on sites like the official tourism website, Lonely Planet and Tripadvisor, was confusing. I tried the website for the cable car – but nowhere could we find out the exact answers to our simple questions: how much is a one-way ticket? – can we buy a one way ticket that includes the nature reserve? – how long is the way back to walk and is it marked? So we hope to give you that information here, to help you plan your trip to Gibraltar.

It is an interesting place with a unique history. This rocky toe that Spain hesitantly sticks into the Atlantic Ocean, at the point where the ocean turns into the Mediterranean Sea, really ought to belong to Spain. History, however, claimed it for the British. Reminiscent of Hong Kong, this strategic harbour was claimed by the British in 1713 already. To our surprise, the local Spaniards we talked to felt that it was a good thing. “Without the British here, Gibraltar would just be another rock in the ocean,” they told us, “Now it is an attraction, an oddity that brings us jobs and a good economy.”

img_2479

Walking across the runway

We found an AirBnB literally a stone’s throw from the border. Just a small bedroom in a crowded apartment building, but it offered a safe parking place inside a garage. We managed to get inside (both us and the car) – very complicated because they don’t seem to have street addresses and all the bloques of apartments looked the same – and walked across the border. It is possible to drive across the border but at rush hour you face long line-ups. Plus, worse, once you get into Gibraltar, there is no place to park. You might as well walked all the way. The first thing you walk across is the almost none-existing border patrol. A bored official waved us across without looking at a passport. Then you walk across…. the airport’s runway! If a plane comes in, you’ll have to wait. But without planes, you just cross the runway under the air traffic control tower. A weird experience.

Once across the border, people speak perfect English, cars have GBZ on the license plates and prices are in pounds rather than euros. However, you can pay with either. One button on the cash register converts the price for you.

img_2421Rather than taking an organized tour, we hopped on a city bus and, for 1 euro, rode it across the entire length of the island to Europa Point, the southern most point of the rock. From here you can see the mountains of Morocco. It’s nice to see a Roman Catholic church right next to a mosque. Further on the island we noticed a synagogue next to a Hindu temple. A local assured us that all people, of all races and religions, get along just fine on this rock.

We walked back for about 8 KM to town, along narrow roads with not many sidewalks. Most noticeable was the lack of signage. No signs towards ‘downtown’. We often had to ask which road to take. We ended up in town by the cable car station.

The signs there still did not answer our questions about options and costs and I overheard several others in line commenting on the confusing prices. In the end, we had no option to buy a one-way ticket and dished out about 60 dollars (or 45 pounds) for 2 tickets to the top. The way back was included even though we wanted to walk. The ticket also included caves, tunnels and a nature reserve. If you want just one of these, you had to buy a ticket that included them all. You can buy a simple cable-car-only ticket but then you can’t visit any of the sites at the top. I find this price a bit “over the top” (no pun intended) for a 6 minute cable car ride. The views, of course, can’t be beat as you look out over southern Spain, the ocean and towards Africa. img_2429

Jumping monkeys aiming for backpacks were included in the price. The nature reserve wasn’t terrible well defined but I hope that a portion of our money helps to protect plants or birds, somehow. There were absolutely no signs at the top telling us which way to go. We asked a few times before finding the right path down.

img_2459It was a good hike until we came across caves. We hadn’t read much about the caves before but since we had paid for it, we decided to go in. And we were pleasantly surprised. The caves were well worth the visit. Huge cavernous spaces filled with stalactites and stalagmites, created over thousands of years. Ever changing lights turned the caves into quite a light show.

From there, a very precarious rocky trail led downwards, with broken railings and no signs.

We made it back to town, were we had a well deserved coffee and apple pie at the Trafalgar Pub. It seems a bit out of place, in this southern part of the continent, to hear the Queen’s English and see British pubs with fish and chips. We strolled back through Main Street, past tax free shops and Irish pubs, red mailboxes and English telephone booths. Back across the runaway and into Spain. A fun, interesting day full of contradictions that, somehow, get along. Just like the people that call the Rock of Gibraltar home. img_2475

Seville, Spain

img_2278After driving throughout Portugal and Spain, we decided to crash on a beach for awhile. Hoping to avoid crowded shores with highrises, we booked an AirBnB apartment in a small town called Matalascañas.

The flat was just perfect – a small kitchen, comfy couch, Ikea furniture, a separate bedroom and – best of all – a large window overlooking the beach and Atlantic ocean. We slept, made our own breakfasts and lunches. We worked, having good wifi available. And we walked on the beach. Kees hiked for miles while I sauntered along the waves.

There were plenty of little shops and cafe’s nearby. But funny enough, just as we were getting used to Spanish restaurants closing from 4 till 8 PM and eating very late, the restaurants in Matalascañas all closed by 7 PM and there was nothing to eat after that…

img_2315After a few lovely, restful days it was time to explore Seville. We had done our online homework and decided that we did not want to drive in downtown Seville, but we did need a place nearby with parking. We found a room in an apartment building that sounded good, including a parking spot. And the location was indeed perfect to walk into the old city center. Getting into and out of the apartment building felt a bit like serving time, with several locked gates and complicated lockimg_2323s….

We walked into the city through the ancient city gates in a huge stone wall. We enjoyed walking the labyrinth of alleys, crooked little streets, churches and shops. At one point, we were very ready for a cup of coffee. Several places had hard, wooden stools or didn’t look too inviting so we kept walking until we spotted the perfect place: a cozy, Spanish coffeeshop with wicker chairs, lots of plant pots and heat lamps on the sidewalk. We picked a table and made ourselves at home. However, the man who approached us did not come to take our order. “Would you mind terribly to move again?” he asked. “Why? We want coffee…” I said. “No,” he insisted, “we are filming a movie here… I’m sorry.” Turned out we had crashed the film site of Game of Thrones being filmed in Seville right now. We did find coffee around the corner, but not as nice a place…

We also found the famous Cathedral of Seville. Build on the 12th century site of a Moorish mosque, this is the 3rd laimg_2325rgest church in the world. Its construction took place from 1401 to 1506. Size and age alone were impressive enough. We walked its cavernous spaces, the ship of the church, admired the side rooms with art, paintings carvings….
I did get a kick out of seeing the tomb of Christopher Columbus, whose name really was Cristobal Colon. Somehow ‘colon’ just doesn’t have the same ring as ‘columbus’, does it? I would have been skeptical about this truly being his grave but apparently recent DNA tests have confirmed that his weary bones do indeed rest in this spot.

As we exited the church we were once again exposed to calls of “madame, a horse carriage ride?, a tour?” We ignored them all and walked along the winding streets, the Plaza de Toros, the treelined Avenida de Hercules, and the ancient Alcazar. We hopped on a city bus (any C bus) that drives around the perimeter of the old city city. The city bus is 1.20, a lot better than 18 euros for the Hop-on bus – although you also don’t get commentary with the city bus.

img_2379

Flamengo dancer in Seville

The best thing we did was splurge on tickets for a flamengo show. Seville and flamengo are synonymous so we felt it was a must to see a show here. We asked locals for their recommendations: Casa de la Memoria and Tablao Flamenco El Arenal. I’m sure there are many others that are good. We picked the lateral and bought tickets for their 7:30 PM show. Arriving early paid off since we got the best seats, although almost every table was good in the small room, around the small stage.

We bought the least expensive seats that only included one drink. You can also purchased tickets that include a full dinner. You can buy tickets online or in many souvenir shops on the same day.

The music and caliber of the show blew us away. A cast of 10 played guitar, sang and danced. Colours and sounds whirled together and left us exhausted – as if we had danced all night! A colourful end to memorable day in a colourful city.

Extremadura – a string of ancient pearls

img_2131

Galisteo, Spain

Before we came to Spain, I decided that I wanted to see the Extremadura region. I read several articles about the area, specifically an article about one of the oldest, medieval pubs on the continent, which I wanted to see. Ironically, once we got here I could no longer find any information about the pub or its location…

Extremadura was described, in many travel articles, as a long-isolated region, a bit backward, not very popular with tourists. I was curious about its towns and history.

Extremadura turned out to be different from what I pictured: not a deep, green valley but a dry region of rolling hills. We found lovely towns with a rich history, and we enjoyed the lack of hordes of tourists. In fact, we often commented that we had entire roads to ourselves.

img_2148We started in Plasencia, driving south to Cáceres. We soon discovered that we were here during a local holiday and ended up having to book several nights in one place to ensure we had a place to stay. We stayed just outside the village of Casar de Cáceres, in a lovely B & B called La Encarnacion, our room was in a remodeled barn.

(http://www.hotelquintalaencarnacion.com). We were served a traditional Extremadura breakfast of warm bread, thick, soft cheese, paté and bread with tomato/pork salsa inside.

Many of the towns in this region boast medieval buildings: castles on a hillside, often a whole village still surrounded by thick stone city walls. Galisteo, just west of Plasencia, is an old village that is still completely surrounded by these walls, with only a few gates that offer entrance to the town. We had to park our car outside the city walls and walked to the town square with its ancient clock on city hall, chimig the hours as it had for centuries.

img_2157We spent one day in Trujillo, high on a hill side, the town is still partially surrounded by walls with a castle and ancient church guarding the corners. It is easy to stroll along the battlements and imagine enemy armies approaching across the plains… We walked up and down streets from the middle ages that weren’t much wider than 1.5 meter in some places, with purple and red bougainvilleas cascading down white stone walls.

Our final couple of days in the region were spent in Mérida, where the remains of some buildings were much older than the Middle Ages. Mérida boasts numerous Roman sites.

img_2190

Templo De Diana

We found a lovely AirBnB in the old downtown core, enabling us to walk to the different sites. We started at Puento Romano, the longest (in length) surviving Roman bridge. From there, we walked to the Templo de Diana, a facade and pillars left standing among stores, coffeeshops and narrow alleys. We then hiked across town to two large Roman aquaducts, the most imposing one of which is the Acueducto de Milagros: 25 meter tall arches spanning an area of about 800 meters, displaying impressive stone work that has lasted almost 2,000 years!

If this history is what makes Extremadura unique, combined with first class pastries, ham, cheese and chocolate, than the area deserves a lot more visitors!img_2200

Camino de Santiago – 3

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I have been falling down on the job I guess, because my last blog was from 175 km ago: the day after I left Leon. I am now in Sarria, only 110 km to go to Santiago. I am waiting here for Margriet who is teaching in Venezuela and should be here in about 5 days or so.

Two days out of Leon I arrived in Astorga, one of the typical, cute Spanish towns in north western Spain. Since I was ahead of schedule I decided to stay an extra day there and found a little hotel on the edge of town. I explored the city and then discovered that I was extremely lucky to have decided to stay there. I was having dinner on the edge of a large plaza when someone stopped in the middle of the plaza and installed a sound system.

I had seen a stage on the edge of the plaza, but no activity. However that changed rapidly. Within an hour there were hundreds of chairs set up and people came from all sides. It turned into a huge dance festival that entire evening. What a shame that I did not have my camera with me! Beautiful colorful, traditional clothing was worn by the participants, exciting Spanish music with dances on the stage all evening. How lucky I was!

After Astorga the terrain stared to change and become much more interesting, more hills, more greenery, more small scale farming, more small villages you walked through, what a difference with the days before Leon.

The following nights I stayed in some of the nicest little cities Spain has to offer: Rabanal, Molinaseca, Villagranca, Triacatela and finally Sarria.

Again, the terrain changed more and more, higher and higher hills, more different green colors, steep terrain, difficult hiking through villages where the cows moved through the streets with the resulting slippery surfaces.

I walked into one of the nicest provinces: Galicia, absolutely gorgeous views down valleys and across hills high enough to be called mountains by some people. Until the last day before Sarria the weather was great. Only the last day I got soaking wet after 6 hours of rain and more rain.

Sometimes the food is good, sometimes not so much. Last night I had a terrific pizza in an Italian restaurant, a few nights earlier I looked forward to pizza which was advertised on a large sign out front of the restaurant, but it turned out to be a ‘Costo’ frozen pizza warmed up in the microwave, what a disappointment.

A few days ago I walked up to one of the highest points on the camino: La Cruz de Ferra, it is a large pile of rocks that is created by the pilgrims. You are supposed to bring a stone from your home area and leave it on the top of this mountain. It was started around the year 1000 by a monk called Gaucelmo. He erected a cross on the site that was an original altar built by the Romans for their god Mercury. Since the 11th century every pilgrims and there have been many millions have brought a stone to put on the pile. Of course it has grown into a large pile over the centuries. Several months ago my grandson Nico gave me a rock he picked up from the beach when we were out walking one day. I told him that I would take that rock with me to Spain to put in a special place. And carry it I did. I did put it on the pile of rocks and made my wish as you may when you bring a rock. Unfortunately that day my ipad refused to take pictures and I could not sent him a picture of my putting it on there. However with my other camera I did did pictures and as soon as I get home I can show him.

So now I have landed in Sarria. I found a cheap hostel where I can stay this week, found a bookstore with a few English language books and will be just fine holed up for awhile. I”ll check and see if I can catch a bus to Santiago to pick up Margriet from the airport and then we’ll take the bus back to Sarria to walk the last 110 km of the camino together. I can’t wait to see her after 5 weeks on my own. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

BUEN CAMINO that is what every pilgrim wishes every other pilgrim when we meet on the trail or passing a pilgrim resting somewhere. It sounds like ‘BON CAMINO’ and is usually the second greeting after ‘Ola!’. Hola is used to greet any person, pilgrim or not, and is primarily used in the afternoon because morning greetings are usually Buenos Dias (good day) which is often shortened to Dias or even Das. Even if you know little or no Spanish, as I do, these words you’ll learn pretty quickly just walking the camino.
Other than that it depends on how much you want to learn or how much you rely on the Spaniards to speak English. I found in 1999 that people under 25-30 would usually speak some English because they apparently learn it in school.
Today that age group has grown to 40-45 and it makes communicating a little easier. In the beginning of the hike you can figure out some of the words on a menu, later on, after having seen some English language menus you even start to recognize the Spanish words for certain dishes. Although a few times I have been surprised with what they put in front of me. Not to worry, usually you are hungry enough to be brave and try it and most of the time it is a pleasant surprise.

The town I am in right now, Sarria, is the starting point of the camino for about 25% of the people who walk it. It shows because the town at times looks like it is overrun by people who seem unprepared for the 100 km hike. They either have huge packs, or no packs and use a taxi or ‘porter’ service to have their luggage moved to the next place. I met a few of them and in some cases I wonder if they will make it beyond the second stage, however I hope I am wrong because some are spending a lot of money to get here and to stay in expensive hotels along the way. Four elderly people from Australia admitted that they rarely had walked more than 15 km a day and never for a whole week every day. You just hope that they don’t get themselves into trouble. A friend with whom I walked at the start of the camino for a few days, arrives in Santiago today or tomorrow and reported that after Sarria de trail got a whole lot busier and she was seeing a lot of white legs walking ahead and behind her. Anyway, I’ll find out for myself in a few days. Tuesday we hope to start tackling the last 110 km.

Random Observations Along The Camino de Santiago
“How hard can a week be?” I thought. Kees had talked about walking the Camino again ever since he did it 15 years ago. Five weeks of walking with a heavy backpack, day in, day out, were not exactly my cup of tea but I thought it would be fun to experience the last week of reaching Santiago together. I wanted to encourage him to do it. “Go!” I said.I had good hiking shoes and walked on them much at home, into town and whenever I went for a hike. I took the bare minimum so my pack wasn’t terribly heavy. But oh.. The slogging wasn’t easy. Up hill, along muddy paths… I did 112 Km in a week. Compare that to the 720 Kees completed. And he faced real mountain ranges, and heat, lonely plateaus and cities. I just trudged through tiny villages and cool forests. A couple of days of rain but, in the end, also blue sky and sunshine.It is always interesting to me to notice tiny little cultural differences in countries. Nothing earth shattering but interesting nonetheless. Here in Spain that includes pillows. In a double bed, there is one long pillow for two people. Why not two smaller ones so that you can each stomp and pummel and turn your pillow. But one long skinny one to share…The menu de diaz, day menu, for hikers along the Camino, is also interesting. For 8 or 10 euros you get to choose from one appetizer: soup, salad (a very large mixed salad) or a large plate of pasta. After this comes the main plate: usually very pale fries, a very flat piece of pork or chicken or a piece of beef. No vegetables. Dessert is cake, pudding or icecream. The meal also comes with large, dry chunks of bread. No butter. And a glass of wine or water. Along the Camino, the specialty is Cake de Santiago: a fairly dry but tasty almond cake. I find it interesting that we can’t get bacon and eggs for breakfast but for every other meal. Lunch is often bacon and eggs with bread. And hamburgers have a big fried egg on top of the meat. Most meat dinners also come with fried eggs. But breakfast is mostly just bread and jam or a croissant.I was surprised to learn that a ‘tortilla’ is not at all the tortilla we know in North America! It’s not a rolled up flat tortilla shell with meat and cheese etc. inside. A tortilla here is an omelette. A tortilla quaso is a wonderful, soft cheese omelette.The villages through which we pass are very tiny, sometimes not more than 2or 3 houses and a barn. Many citizens living along the Camino have realized the pot of gold in their backyard. They have put plastic chairs out and offer coffee or lunch. They must make a bundle because the stream of pilgrims seems endless. People from all over the world hobble along, carrying packs and nursing their feet. Many have joined the Camino in Sarria, like I did. But the real ones come from much farther away – like Kees who passed the 700 KM mark today. There’s no way I would do that…We’re picking up many Spanish words as we go and can order meals, ask for a room, etc.I enjoy seeing the many farm yards as we pass. Flowers like fuchias, hydrangias, sunflowers. And vegetables like zucchini, pumpkins, Brussel sprouts, kale, carrots and potatoes are in abundance. We pass under grape vines in small villages and hear roosters crowing. Once in a while a farmer leads his cows down the road or we let a flock of sheep pass. We do a lot of slip sliding on the cobblestones…And then, 6 days later, we arrived in Santiago. Suddenly there were major highways and many houses. We walked through the outskirts into the old heart of the city. More and more pilgrims congregated here but it was not the stream of people we had expected. Blue sky and sunshine made for a glorious last day. We reach the Cathedral – an emotional moment. We did it. Tomorrow we pick up our certificates as we show the many stamps we collected along the way in our pilgrims’ passports. For now, we will drink a glass of wine to our accomplishments. I will nurse my two blisters and then?… We will have to come up with the next plan!
To Walk the Camino or Not to Walk the Camino?
When I started the Camino in early August I wondered if I would enjoy it this second time around. Now that I have completed it a week ago and have had time to reflect I would say an absolutely YES.
It was very different this time around, many more hikers, probably 5 times as many, but also much more infrastructure to support the pilgrims. The last week of the hike it was so busy that at times I wondered if I was walking down the Camino or the Kalverstraat in downtown Amsterdam or Robson street in Vancouver.
At times, that last week, I wondered if the entire world had descended on the Camino. However overall it was the same experience I had the first time around, one of solitude, sometimes loneliness, but one of simplicity and peacefulness. At times I was very tired, but satisfied that I had completed another section. Sometimes there was boredom because the terrain was not very interesting. Other times it was awe inspiring because the skies or the landscape were so fantastic.
Sometimes it was the people you met, or the fact that you did not talk to a soul for 12 hours. It is so different from what we are used in daily life, that it was fun most of the time and boring at other times; always different and exiting and challenging.
So would I do it again???? YES, at the drop of a hat I would do it again. But first I would hike some more trails in Holland because those are flat and not so exhausting 🙂
Hope to see you on a trail somewhere!

Camino de Santiago

Sunday, August 10, 2014

In 1999 I walked the Camino the Santiago with my brother Rob. When I mentioned the Camino to people back then, I got a blank stare. Hardly anybody had ever heard of this 1000 year old pilgrim path that runs from the France/Spanish border to Santiago de Compostela in north western Spain, a distance of over 700 km or about 450 miles.
When I mentioned in 2013-2014 to my hiking friends that I was going to walk it again, they either had done it themselves or they knew someone who had done it. This trail has become very popular over the last few decades. Where in 1998 about 50,000 people hiked it, in a recent holy year about 250,000 did the same thing.
In order to qualify to have hiked the Camino you officially only need to do the last 100 km on foot or the last 200 by bike. However, just doing the last 100 is not really ‘hiking the camino’. It requires the endurance of the hardships for the full 700 km. Including sore legs, blisters and any inconvenience you can imagine. People have made this pilgrimage since the year 800 and in the Middle Ages literally thousands of people walked it every year. The benefit is, apparently, that you cut your time in hell in half when you walk the Camino. So I figured that if I hike it twice I am scot free and will go straight to heaven 🙂

After many months of preparation I was ready to leave. Margriet will join me for the last 100 km (just to be sure she qualifies for half her time in hell). However I will start in Pamplona, the first city after the Pyrenees where the trail starts. The reason I start there is because the first couple of days you only walk downhill and several friends have had to quit right then and there because they got shin splints so bad that they could not continue. When I walked in in 1999 with Rob I joined him there after he had walked from Amsterdam, several thousand kms. Unfortunately Rob succumbed to cancer a few years ago and even though we had promised each other that we would do it again together, we were never able to do so.

So this time I was going to do it by myself, until a few weeks before I left, a mutual friend of Margriet and I, Lies, whom we have known for 45 years, announced that she would join me for the first 2 days. OK, that was fine.
Margriet took me to the airport last Wednesday to get on the plane for (eventually) Pamplona. Victoria, Seattle went fine, no problems with the customs thanks to my Nexus card, on to Amsterdam via Delta Airlines. Ten hours is a long time to sit in a crammed place but at least you can watch as many movies as you want, so it is not too bad. In Amsterdam my luggage arrived no problem, which was an improvement since last February when they left my pack in Paris.
Got on the Iberian Airlines flight to Madrid, but it left 20 minutes late and as a result it lost it landing sequence into Madrid. We circled for an hour and then we had 5 minutes to make the connecting flight. I raced over to that gate and found my friend who was going to join me in Pamplona racing to it at the same time. That was a surprise because we had agreed to meet on the steps of the cathedral in Pamplona the next day at 11 AM. So, we made it but our luggage did not.
Lies went to her hotel 20 minutes from the airport which she had arranged beforehand and I found a hotel close to the airport to await the luggage. Since there are only 2 flights between Madrid and Pamplona a day, it made no sense to sit and wait so I went into Pamplona the next day. I had to buy a few things anyway, so that worked out fine. We explored Pamplona and walked the first 5 km of the Camino through Pamplona. I went to the  airport at 9 PM and lo and behold there were our packs.
The next morning we were planning to leave early, but when I called Lies at her hotel she had not slept well and was not sure she would make it very far that day. By 10 am we did make it to the spot where we had left the trail the previous day. Lies did fine that day, we hiked, climbed and cursed our way though some of the hardest 14 km the Camino can throw at you.

Day 2 announced itself with dark clouds and a forecast of thunderstorms that day. However, we decided to take a chance and go for it. First we had to take a bus to the point where we left the trail yesterday at the southern end of Pamplona. There the real hiking started. Lies did not feel very well and was not sure how far she would make it that day. However, after the first few miles she started to improve and felt a lot better. Lunch at a small village 2 hours out of Pamplona. There we had to make the decision to tackle the hardest pass we would be facing on the first part of the Camino. Or to stay put for the rest of the day. Lies decided that she felt good enough to continue, so off we went. I had trained a lot in hilly country but Lies, living in Rotterdam never had that opportunity and obviously that played a role in her falling behind quickly. However she is a determined person and did make it to the top of the pass and down on the other side. By that time we had done probably 15 km and those were some of the hardest 15 km the pilgrims face in the first half of the Camino. We found a nice refugio in a small village on the other side of the pass and stopped for the night. These refugios are like hostels with 20 or 40 people together in one large room in bunk beds. We had the first pick of the beds, but within a couple of hours the beds filled up in the room. These refugios are between 5 and 10 euros a day and a pilgrims meal is from 10 to 15 euros, ($15.- to 22.50). Not bad, although it does add up after 30 days on the trail.

A quick shower, washing sweaty clothes, a beer and a nap or email and a meal – and we felt better. Lies and I had agreed that we would walk up for 2 or 3 days and then we would each find our own way to Santiago. I wanted to have some time to reflect by myself and be alone.

The changes I noticed compared to 1999 are (at least so far after only a day):
• in 1999 I noticed about a dozen pilgrims the first day on the trail. Today it was more like 50.
• In 1999 there were no mountain bikes on the trail, now there are numerous ones and not always very considered of the slower hikers.
• There are many more refugios, hostels and hotels along the route ( a good thing)
• the trail obviously is much more known and popular. It has become a multimillion dollar tourist attraction for the Spaniards.
These are just the initial changes I noticed between 1999 and 2014.

One Determined Pilgrim

Day 4 on the trail.
Yesterday was a ‘killer’ hike, today was slightly easier. I still don’t recognize any of the trail locations we walked 15 years ago. I wonder if they moved Santiago and had to built a new trail to get to it!
Nothing looks familiar, until I got to the overnight place today in Villamayor. Here I have been before. It is a regufio run by a Dutch religious organization so I can join in the service they offer tonight (if i am not asleep already). We left late, the last ones to leave at 8 AM. However, there are some people on the trail who are really hurting and hobbling along so we overtook several within the first 2 hours. How they ever will make the next 650 km is a wonder.
It is a lot quieter today. The first 2 days we walked, it was weekend and obviously many Spaniards are joining the trail just for the weekend. Still more hills than I liked, but that is Spain for you. My feet are not doing very well, the balls of my feet are hurting pretty good and I may have to take an extra rest day soon. In the last 20 years of hiking (including the 1999 Camino walk) I never had a blister and in the first two days on the hike now I have 2 blisters. Exactly on the same location on both feet so I blame the new insoles of my boots for that problem. Anyway even if I have to crawl the last 650 km I plan on making it. The first 3 days we did about 60 km so a pretty good average of 20 a day.
One thing that I noticed is that a lot more people are speaking English these days here in Spain. Especially the owners of all these new refugios are able to communicate in English. In 1999 nobody over 35 could speak any English and now I have not had a problem yet between their English, my few words of Spanish and a lot of hand gestures. I get what I want.
The refugio tonight is again a dormitory style with 8 bunk beds. Next to me is a deaf/mute man. I wonder if he snores being mute?
Well, off at 7 AM tomorrow because by 9:30 the sun is already too hot to walk comfortably, so up earlier from now on.

100 KM done, 620 to go!

Well, the first 100 KM are done, only 620 left. The last 2 days we have been lucky. Dark clouds all around us, but no rain at all. It sure helps to keep the temperatures down during the day. When the sun is out is get easily up to 30 degrees, but with a cloud cover it stays down around 25-27 which makes it just a little more comfortable. By leaving at 7 AM or even earlier, you get most of the hiking done before 1 or 2 PM when the heat starts to make walking uncomfortable.
I am not following the official stages which are described in most guide books of the Camino. Those stages usually lead from town to town but I try to find the smaller villages to stay in.
So on Monday morning (August 11) I left Lorca, half way between Puenta La Reina and Estella. Estella is famous for its beer, although it was too early in the day to try it. Ten km past Estella I stopped in Villamayor de Monjardin after a tiring climb up a steep hill.
The next day via Los Arcos on to Torres del Rio. That was enough for the day because after that village some very steep up and downs awaited. I’ll leave those for early next morning when the weather is still cool.
The landscape is interesting, but not spectacular. More and more vineyards are appearing, this area is famous for its wines apparently. The hills are primarily brown and yellow since there has not been much rain lately, few trees to be seen. Lots of old buildings, many just ruins.  Every village has a great church or even cathedral, often worth visiting.

Wednesday morning I left Torres del Rio and immediately had to climb several steep hills to gain (and loose again) several hundred meters in elevation. By 1 pm I walked into Logrono and finished the first 100 km of the planned hike. 
Even though my feet are still giving me some grieve I am glad that the head of the monster has been slain. Tomorrow is a long stage (30 km) which I am not going to do in one day I think. When I walked the Camino in 1999 with Rob we did do stages of 30 and even one of 38 km, but with 15 more years on this body I am not going to try that again. Twenty km per day is fine and that will get me well in time to Sarria where I will await Margriet’ s arrival a month from now.

A NEW EXPERIENCE – WHY, WHY, WHY?
Friday, August 15.

It is a special holiday in Spain today and everybody is enjoying a day off. Fortunately the stores and bars are open.
My last blog entree was from Wednesday afternoon I think. I was staying in a refugio run by a Dutch religious organization. That evening after a communal dinner, someone tried to make me believe something I could not believe. But his stories reminded me of a book I read 40 years ago called God’s Smuggler, an intriguing book about a Dutchman who smuggled bibles in his VW Beetle to countries behind the iron curtain. We had a cordial discussion about religion but after an hour I think he classified me as a lost soul.

Refugio Lorca

The next day I walked 20 km and by 1 PM found a refugio where I was welcomed by a very friendly nun who spoke excellent English. “Six euros for a bed, lights out by 10 and at 6 AM we wake you with music,” she told me. OK. This morning at 6 I heard some very faint chanting. It gradually grew louder and louder and by 6:30 the Gregorian chants were blasting through the refugio. Nobody was sleeping anymore. I laid back in my sleeping bag and enjoyed the chanting for half an hour before I got up. That was the first time I was awoken by Gregorian chanting, very very nice. I’ll try it on Margriet one morning when we are back home.
(Note from Margriet: not sure if this means Kees will do the chanting or if he plans to play a CD of actual Gregorian chants… The story reminds me of waking up in Saudi Arabia to the call for prayer coming from minarets).
So why in the world would anyone want to walk a minimum of 100 km – and many people walk 750 km – to a city for a look at a statue in a cathedral?
That’s what I wondered 18 years ago when I first read about the Camino de Santiago.
Well, as the article in Reader’s Digest explained at that time, Santiago de Compostela in the north western corner of Spain is considered the third most important holy city in the world for Christians after Rome and Jerusalem. Around the year 800 the bones of apostle James were discovered in the area. Ever since Christians have been making a pilgrimage to the site. Of course a church was erected on the site and it became a cathedral of great beauty soon after. During the Middle Ages literally millions of people made the pilgrimage. Considering the fact that the European population at that time was many times smaller than today’s population it was quite remarkable to have that many people make the pilgrimage. During the 18/19th century for some reason the pilgrimage became less well known. Not until the 1990’s did it again gain in popularity, primarily as the result of some articles in magazines and several books from people who had walked it.
By the mid 1990’s about 50,000 people walked the trail. However by 1999 150,000 people hiked it because it was a holy year (this happens about once every 10 years).
By 2013 the annual number in a non-holy year had shot up to 150,000 and in a holy year it is closer to 250,000.
I met a German lady who had just lost her entire family, husband and three children in a horrific car accident and she walked it to figure out what to do with the rest of her life. I met a Brazilian lady who hiked it because she had read a book about it by a famous Brazilian writer. I met a Belgian man who was in his 80’s and who claimed to have walked it 18 times. (He said he did at least 50 km a day!!) A Japanese fellow said his minister told him he needed to do it to find himself. Unfortunately all he found were some robbers who took his money and camera. I ended up sending him copies of all my pictures so he had at least some positive memories. Many people just want to experience the culture and the history of the ail. Some like myself want to do it because it is a challenge.

New albergues, even new provinces.

Finally my feet are getting with the program and have stopped complaining about the daily mistreatment I dish out on them. Yesterday I did 32 km and today 23 without any problems.

Wow, I am very impressed with the tremendous new infrastructures the Spanish people have developed over the last couple of decades. Brand spanking new highways, new subdivisions, a whole new city (Ciruela) have sprung up in places where I just saw raw land 15 years ago.

Also the infrastructure they have developed for the Camino is really impressive. Where 15 years ago you had to walk on the edge of the highway are now separate pathways, adjacent to the highway, but protected by guard rails and sometimes vegetation. I suspect that the Camino is being developed and maintained by provincial departments because signs often refer to a provincial department. Many cities have gone out of their way to develop nice picnic sites, parks and campgrounds. Not every thing is well maintained, but they sure are doing their best in my opinion.

Today I even walked into a new province: Castella y Leon, from La Rioja. La Rioja was really interesting. In the beginning I saw nothing but vineyards, and more vineyards, mile after mile. Finally after more than a day walking through those, a few sugar beet fields showed up and then grain fields, km after km of rolling grain fields, no end in sight. And today suddenly sunflower fields, still grain fields, but also colorful yellow sunflower fields.

Tonight I landed in Belorado after a 23 km day which was a lot easier than the 32 km yesterday. In two days I expect to be in Burgos and probably will take a day’s rest. The weather is absolutely fantastic for hiking, 25-28 degrees, sun, but also clouds from time to time and a little wind to keep cool. Hopefully it will stay like that for a while.

To Be Continued..

Spain is for Hiking

Thursday, March 6, 2014: Hiking in Spain

While Margriet is freezing her butt off in the Yukon and Toronto I (Kees) decide to find a warmer place to go hiking for a few weeks.
Via Seattle and Paris I make my way to Amsterdam but as soon as I arrived in Amsterdam I noticed how cold it was and miserably windy. My luggage took an extra few hours (and a few more flights from Paris) to arrive and in the mean time I inquired about flights to Spain (southern Spain where it was supposed to be warm). When I finally had my luggage I went into Adam and found the usual hotel on the Overtoom. The next day I tried to get a sim card for all of Europe, but in spite of the fact that you can get those via internet, I could not find an acceptable one in a store. Apparently they are available from some British web sites, but the ones available in A’dam were way too expensive. So I am taking my changes with the wifi in the hostels and B&B’s I am staying at.

The next day I found a cheap flight to Malaga in southern Spain and three hours later I was standing between the palm trees. First a bus ride into downtown and a hostel next to the bus station. That evening I had supper at 10 pm outside on a patio because it was so nice and warm. The next day I first wandered through Malaga, especially the old part of the city, was quite nice. That afternoon I took a bus into the hills above Malaga and ended up in a small very cute village called Competa. Found a small B&B stayed there 3 damn cold nights. It was a beautiful old renovated olive mill, more a museum than a hostel, but cold, damp and hardly any heat to speak of. I was probably the first guest there this season and the thick walls had absorbed all the cold from the entire winter and was releasing it on me every night. The plaza in the village had several restaurants and I tried every one. unfortunately they did not start serving supper until about 8 pm, nor could I get breakfast before 8 am. Everything is closed between about 2 and 5 and if you are hungry or thirsty during those times you are out of luck.
The Local tourist office had lots of information about hiking in the hills and for 2 days I found beautiful (very steep) trails through the mountains without my backpack because i spent 3 nights in the same place. The next day I packed up and walked to another village, unfortunately I ran into a bees nest and got stung several times before I got away from it. Stayed overnight in a village high up on a pass, the coldest I have been all winter, including SSI. The next day I went back down and stayed in a B&B from a Dutch couple. A 200 year old farm house which again is cold as ice, but at least the beer and food are good.
In many places I find my English is understood and in some cases I understand their Spanish as long as they use lots of hand gestures. The maps I have to walk on are poor and yesterday I got lost pretty good, but as long as you stay to the roads and not wander off into the hills you are OK.
When I got 5 bee stings a few days ago, I hitch-hiked to the next village and that was no problem. I wrote on a piece of paper the name of the village and the driver dropped me off there. He would not accept any money. The cost of living here is dirt cheap. The hostels are between 20 and 35 euros ( $30-50) and an evening meal is between 8 and 15.
For the last few days of my two week hiking adventure I took a bus down to Malaga and spent 2 days hiking in the old city and surrounding hills. Southern Spain is a wonderful place to spend a few weeks hiking but February is still pretty cold much of the time unless you hug the coast.

See our other ‘Spain’ blogs for a complete description of hiking the Camino de Santiago. Coming in 2016: Hiking the Via de la Plata!