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Spain - El Camino, Roundabouts, and WiFi

January 2, 2018

 

 

 

When my friend Jeanee James sent me a message out of the blue and asked if I would like to meet her in Barcelona, hike El Camino de Santiago, and explore Northern Spain, I had no choice but to say yes. I've been saying yes a lot more in my life these days, and it has served me well thus far.

 

Jeanee and I both worked for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines for many years, and met in 1995. Although we have stayed in touch and bared witness to each other's lives via holiday cards and social media, we hadn't seen each other in over 20 years. We are both happily married, artists, entrepreneurs, meaning of life seekers, empty nesters, seasoned travelers, and treasure hunters.

 

We met in Barcelona and hit the ground running. I'm not usually a tour person, however we decided to hire ourselves a guide for the day. There's a great site called With Locals, and they offer tours all over the world. You choose an activity from a list of options, then choose your guide from their video introductions. We hired Edwin Navarro for our 90-Minute Kickstart Tour of Barcelona. Because we were there in November, which is considered low season, we had Edwin all to ourselves. 

 

First stop, La Boqueria Food Market in the heart of Las Ramblas. The moment you walk through the grand iron gates, you step into a flock of international treasures regarded by tourists and locals alike. You are immediately hit with bold colors and the stimulating aromas of fish and spices. My head felt like it was on a swivel, up, down, left, right. My eyes darting in every direction to take in the panorama. 

 

Photo by Jeanee James

 

Photo by Jeanee James

 

Don't be alarmed if you see an entire pig on ice, along with several legs of Jamon Serrano and Jamon Iberia enticing you to take a slice. Jamon is a staple in Spanish cuisine, and takes 12-18 months to cure. There are numerous Museo del Jamon (Ham Museum) locations around town, so you know it must be the pride of the country. You are also sure to find various tapas with jamon as the star ingredient. 

 

The Gothic Quarter is a photographers paradise. Street performers share their craft, while people stroll through the cobblestone streets eating roasted chestnuts and gazing into storefront windows offering the finest in ceramics, old books, cheeses, and bottles of vino tinto. Kings and royalty once reigned over these streets, and some of the architecture dates as far back as 15 B.C. One of my favorite things about Europe is the preservation of history. It is in constant repair and upkeep to ensure that it is savored and adored by future generations.

 

 Photo by A Model Traveler

 

The remains of the Roman Temple of Augustus were discovered in the late 19th century, and are now incorporated into the medieval buildings that were built around them.

 

        Photo by A Model Traveler

 

Our trusty guide and newfound friend Edwin, invited us to an outdoor concert the following day, and we really got a sense of what a Sunday afternoon consists of in Northern Spain. Gato Suave (Cool Cat) was the featured performer and would remind you of a perfect combination of Bob Marley and Bob Dylan. He is beloved by the Catalan people and has quite the YouTube following. One of the most impressive things about the day other than the music, was the fellowship of the concert goers and the lack of cell phone use. In every photo Jeanee and I took, we never spotted a single electronic device. They were too busy talking, laughing, and engaging with one another to be bothered with such a trivial deed as posting on social media. They left that exploit to the two of us.

 

              Photo by A Model Traveler

 

One of my favorite experiences was attending Catholic Mass at Sagrada Familia Sanctuary Chapel. It was constructed by the famous Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi in 1883. To me, it doesn't matter what religion you practice, what faith you adhere to, or what language you speak. It's about compassion, curiosity, and a need for understanding. After all, Spain has nearly 100 churches and cathedrals, so you might as well enter one. The entire service was in Catalan, and it was beautiful. The priest asked those of us from out of town to make our way to the front for a special blessing. We found it very touching, although I'm not sure I can say the same for one particular altar boy. He just didn't seem to share the same sentiment as Jeanee and I.

 

                    Photo by Jeanee James

 

 Photo by A Model Traveler

              

              Photo by A Model Traveler

 

If you're interested in the unconventional, explore one of the 12 abandoned Ghost Metro Stations. They've been providing tours since 2011, and are thought to be haunted. No thanks, I'll stay above ground. 

 

Barcelona is alive and full of zest, and the faith and pride of its people is palpable. It is the only city to date to receive the prestigious Royal Gold Metal for Architecture. 

 

Photo by A Model Traveler

 

I always recommend renting a car when traveling abroad. It's the best way to see the sights and come and go as you please.

One minor detail that our rental car agent failed to mention however, is the start-stop technology that is present in most rental cars here in Spain. If you're not familiar with this feature back home, it can cause a lot of undue stress. The basic idea is quite intuitive really. Why should you continue to pollute the air while idling? So, every time you come to a stop, the engine stalls. In one incident, our car "died" in a toll line with several cars and a tour bus behind us. I frantically exited the car and tried to explain in Spanglish to the impatient drivers that our car wouldn't start and therefore we were going nowhere fast. Jeanee will forever remember my face in the rearview mirror as I started to push the car to the side of the road. I'm sure I sounded like the young girl from "The Exorcist" as I roared in a hellish voice, "throw it in neutral Jeanee!" As I pushed, and Jeanee steered us to safety, we noticed that not a single suave Spaniard came to our rescue. I guess when you send the message that you don't need a man, they take you seriously.

 

 

 Photo by A Model Traveler

 

After settling the issue with our car and our nerves, we headed to the official starting place of El Camino or The Way of Saint James, St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France. 100,00 pilgrims walk El Camino every year, each with their own purpose to fulfill. Some may be hiking simply for exercise, others may need to take a break from work and society to rejuvenate, and others hike for spiritual reasons. I believe we were there for all of the above.

 

There are so many ways in which to experience El Camino. It's a total of 500 miles, which takes the average person just over a month to complete if walking 14-16 miles per day. There are 31 sections on the French Way, which starts in St. Jean and ends in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are believed to be buried. Before we arrived in Spain, we ordered our Credential del Peregrino (Pilgrim's Credentials), and upon entering each section or town, you receive a stamp of completion. This is part of the treasure hunt to see how many stamps you can add to your pilgrim's passport. The scallop shell is the iconic symbol for El Camino and symbolizes God's hand in guiding you along the way. The lines of the shell also act as a metaphor for the many roads that lead to the same finish line.

 

Even though we had only planned to hike a few days, we wanted to witness the beginning and the end of El Camino. There was something very special about getting our first stamp in St. Jean, picking our own official shell, adding our names to the log book, and being greeted in French.  We just felt so authentique. 

 

         Photo by A Model Traveler

 

 

Astorga is where we hung our hats for the night before heading out on the trail for the next two days. We would leave our car in a secure parking garage and taxi our way back once we finished our trek. We realized shortly into our stroll around town that the clouds had parted and the heavens opened up to reveal that Astorga is the European birthplace of chocolate. What?!? Everywhere you looked, hand wrapped bars with red wax seals. Dark, milk, white, oh my! Normally, carb-loading before a big expedition refers to pasta and oatmeal, but we decided to take this as a sign from God that the Mexican Cacao bean that was introduced here in 1528, was surely the new fuel for athletes such as ourselves. 

 

     Photo by A Model Traveler

 

Photo by A Model Traveler

 

El Camino de Santiago Day 1
Jeanee and I left Astorga and took our first official steps on The Way of Saint James. Every step a grateful reminder that we have our health. For the first four miles we had the trail to ourselves, then slowly we were joined by other pilgrims all experiencing their own journey. We laughed until we were doubled over, we walked in silence amongst the trees, and talked about life and its many blessings, including great friendships like ours. 

 

Photo by A Model Traveler

 

      Photo by A Model Traveler

 

Yellow arrows and scallop shells guide you along the trail and through the many municipalities just waiting to offer you a cappuccino and a resting place for your weary feet. Every time we peered over a hillside to see yet another fairytale town, we started singing, "little town, little quiet village" from "Beauty and the Beast". 

 

We wrote on rocks and placed them at one of many memorial sites along the way. Some people bring memorabilia from home as tokens of loved ones lost. Each passerby was met with a smile and a greeting of Buen Camino. This became our mantra throughout the rest of our trip. Hola, Buen Camino. Bonjour, Buen Camino. Hallo, Buen Camino. Ni Hao, Buen Camino. You get the idea.

 

 

              Photo by Jeanee James

 

After 13 miles, we let our bodies have their reprieve in Rabanal. It was nice to catch up with some of the other pilgrims we'd seen along the trail. Hostels (Albergues) are easy to find as they are usually anticipating your arrival. It's a good idea to make reservations ahead of time, but most were very accommodating to walk-ins. You are assured a hot pot of homemade soup and a smooth glass of red for your efforts. 

 

        Photo by A Model Traveler 

 

           Photo by A Model Traveler

 

El Camino de Santiago Day 2

The rising sun was our backdrop, with fall colored leaves and billowing fog. We met more friends along the way, drank cappuccinos in a town with a population of 10, received many blessings of Buen Camino, had random picnics of almonds, dates, and chocolate, and added stamps to our pilgrim passports. We hiked 16 miles over 5,ooo feet of elevation and changed clothing 10 times as the temperatures dropped and rose again throughout the day. We observed herds of Asturian cattle meandering by, chatted with Tomas in Manjarin, and met people from all over the world sharing a common goal. 

 

           Photo by Jeanee James

 

Photo by A Model Traveler

 

Photo by A Model Traveler

 

And sometimes when you're out in the wilderness all alone, you do funny things to kill the time.

 

              Photo by Jeanee James

 

We would like to extend an enormous amount of gratitude to Nuun & Company, Inc. for their generous sponsorship. I have loved their products for years, and it kept us hydrated and energized throughout our journey. Thank you!

 

Photo by Jeanee James 

 

The charming town of Molinaseca was our final resting place before heading back to our car. Jeanee and I celebrated with red wine, and spaghetti bolognese. It was the best six dollars we'd ever spent.

 

We are forever changed by this short time on El Camino, and would one day like to experience the entire 500 mile journey. I highly recommend watching the movie "The Way" with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. This will give you some insight on what we experienced and the importance of having an open mind and open heart. 

 

Traveling by car in a foreign country can serve up some interesting challenges. If you have a GPS navigation in your car, problem solved. However, the one I brought from home was acting up, so we were relying solely on our phones. This of course requires WiFi. We did go "old school" for a short time and whipped out our paper maps, but if you're like most people over 40, reading in the car is out of the question if you want to hold down lunch. 

 

This is where the copious amounts of cappuccinos came into play. We needed WiFi to use our phone's, therefore we needed to stop at every local cafe in order to sign in and get directions to our next destination. It would be inconsiderate to take up one of their tables and not order anything. This could very well explain the two traffic infractions we received upon arriving home, both due to excessive speed. 

 

We did make a wonderful discovery after our fifth coffee. If you connect your phone to GPS and begin the route, in other words the voice starts talking, you are locked in even after you are no longer connected to WiFi. Genius! Now, Spain is

fraught with roundabouts, so this idea only works if you stay on track and make no mistakes. Easier said than done. The moment you take the third exit on the roundabout instead of the fourth exit, you hear the vile word rerouting, and back to the cafe for a cappuccino you go.

 

 

 

A highlight of this trip was arriving in Santiago de Compostela. This is the climax for so many, and a chance to see Saint James's tomb. The Catedral de Santiago was constructed in 1075 and is a combination of Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque architectures. Try to attend the Pilgrim Mass which is held daily at noon. It honors pilgrims who have completed the trek in the last 24 hours.

 

Photo by A Model Traveler

 

                Photo by A Model Traveler

 

For those who have completed the entire trek, or at least the last 100 miles, they receive special credentials affirming their pilgrimage. It was a tearful homecoming, and it didn't seem to matter the distance completed. We all took turns hugging and congratulating one another for our undertaking.  

 

 

                   

                  Photo by A Model Traveler

 

 

One particularly touching story was of a mother and daughter from Bulgaria who hiked 20 miles a day for five days straight. Zhelka, at age 73, insisted on hiking more miles per day to keep up with the other pilgrims. She was so touched that the entire room of hikers was making such a fuss over her. How could we not?

 

              Photo by Jeanee James

 

 

We made it to World’s End, Finisterre, the western most tip of Spain. El Camino officially ends here and hikers and bikers alike stop to breathe in the salty air of the Atlantic and celebrate a job well done. It was perfect road trip weather and the fog rolled in to create an artistic backdrop.

 

 Photo by A Model Traveler

 

Photo by Jeanee James 

 

 

We continued onto Benavente for the night before reaching our final destination, Madrid. While exploring this sleepy little town, we stumbled upon Sunday evening mass, and finished with roasted chestnuts sold from a street vendor for one euro. 

 

 

Spain's capital city of Madrid is so alive, and just begging for you to explore her history, her elegance, and her many swanky shoe shops. Gelato was also high on our to-do list, as most of the previous small towns were minus a Gelateria. Bustling business men and women in their finest European attire pause to take a cappuccino break before heading back to work.

 

                 Photo by A Model Traveler 

 

 

Photo by A Model Traveler

 

 

              Photo by A Model Traveler

 

We wandered the brisk fall streets, took a stroll through Buen Retiro Park with sweet elderly men donning painter’s caps and canes. The Crystal Palace, once home to the Spanish king, now acts as the park’s centerpiece. 

 

Photo by A Model Traveler

 

Photo by A Model Traveler 

 

 

While bullfighting is banned is certain Spanish regions, it is still practiced in Madrid. Its origins date back to 711 A.D. Spain was once ruled under the Roman Empire, and owes much of this tradition to the Gladiator Games. 

 

 Photo by A Model Traveler

 

 

                  Photo by Jeanee James

 

 

Sangria was first introduced to visitors at the 1964 World's Fair in New York, and the rest is history. Although the literal meaning is "bleeding", chosen for its color, it is far more delicious than its namesake. It is also cheaper than water, which is a huge plus in my opinion. Take in the sights of Plaza Mayor and savor a pan of traditional paella. It's a perfect way to end the day.

 

 

                   Photo by A Model Traveler

 

 

The big finale was a Flamenco show at Cardamomo. The intimate brick theater holds less than 40 people, and we
felt like we had been invited into someone’s living room for a private viewing. I have never witnessed anything quite like it. The commanding presence of the dancers, the pain and yearning in every voice, the strumming of the Spanish guitar, and the passion with which it was performed, is something that will stay with us long after we leave España. 

 

 

        Photo by A Model Traveler

 

 

Spain, thank you for your frothy cappuccinos, your warm buttery croissants, your copious amounts of jamon and coffee, your stylish leather shoes, your little old ladies
with animal print coats, your enormous scarves large enough to double as a tablecloth, your romantic language, your enormous amount of faith, and for showing us how to slow down and share your life with the people who mean the most to you.

 

 

Photo by Jeanee James

 

 

 

Jeanee James Photography

http://www.jeaneej.com

 

Nuun & Company, Inc.

https://nuunlife.com

 

With Locals

https://www.withlocals.com

 

El Camino Pilgrim Credentials

http://www.americanpilgrims.org

 

Hotel Iriguibel - Pamplona 

https://www.hoteliriguibel.com

 

Hotel Astur Plaza - Astorga

http://www.hotelasturplaza.es

 

Hostel El Refugio - Rabanal

http://elrefugiohosteria.com

 

Casa Morrosco - Molinaseca

http://casa-morrosco-guest-house.castile-leon-hotels.com/en/

 

Mi Rincon de Goya - Airbnb - Madrid

https://es.airbnb.com/rooms/18093383

 

Cardamomo Flamenco - Madrid

https://cardamomo.com/en/tablao-flamenco-madrid/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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