The rain in Spain falls mainly in Galicia

August 10, 2009 at 2:30 PM | Posted in Travel | 6 Comments

Hello after a long break! I got back from Spain yesterday (Sunday) night and wow, do I have some stories to share…

PART ONE: SANTIAGO AND LALIN

I got to Santiago de Compostela on Friday night (July 31) and was instantly charmed by the town.  Don’t know what I was expecting, but it was the perfect medieval city.  What I didn’t realize is that Galicia, the province where Santiago is and where I ended up spending the next week and a half, is the coldest and rainiest part of Spain.  I thought Spain in August would be hot, so I left all my warm clothes in Paris, along with my umbrella and rain gear…oops.  Dana, Eliza, and Lorena had rented a cute little apartment in the old city for a few days, and we spent a day or two tapa-hopping (in Galicia, you get a free tapa with every drink–and they are often really good!  And I discovered Albarino, a really amazing white wine), relaxing in a water spa (three hours of steam-rooms, saunas, therapeutic showers, concentrated water jets that massage your head and neck and back and legs, and a head massage…all for 15 euros!), meeting up with other friends, and getting to know the city.  Eliza and Lorena lived there for a summer, and it was great to get to see “their” Santiago.

Then we took a bus about an hour south to Lalin, a place that skirts the line between small city and big town, where Eliza and Lorena’s adorable grandparents, Carmen and Armando, live.  We had told Carmen and Armando not to wait for us for lunch on Sunday since we were getting in at 3 pm, but of course they waited, and of course we had already eaten, and of course we had to eat again.  Dana had told me about Carmen’s pulpo-pushing (pulpo is octopus, a Galician specialty) ways, but I had to see it to believe it.  Carmen would give everyone enormous portions of pulpo, potatoes, empanada gallego (a savory tart with a tuna filling in a yeasted crust), fried chicken cutlets, salad, bread, all doused in copious amounts of delicious olive oil.  Then she would keep one eye on her plate and one eye on everyone else’s.  If someone’s plate started to look to empty (like if there was any plate showing at all), she would sneak a hand onto the serving spoon, stare at the spot on your plate, spoon up a huge portion of whatever it was she was refilling you with, and–without making eye contact–deposit it onto your plate, despite all protesting.  The pulpo was good, but since it was homemade it still had all the purple membrane on the outside, which had a fatty texture and which was hard for me to choke down. When Carmen wasn’t looking, I quickly cut off the membrane and hid it under a lettuce leaf on my plate, and nobody was the wiser.  And in Galicia you are not allowed to drink water with pulpo–apparently it makes the pulpo expand in your stomach until your belly sticks out to aqui–so it was all washed down with lots of Rioja.

PART TWO: CAMINO FISTERRE

After a day or so in Lalin, Dana and I got on a bus to Murxia, where we were going to begin the hike back to Santiago.  The bus, apparently, is a no-farting zone, as evidenced by the sign by the driver’s seat:

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We got to Murxia, a lovely little fishing village on the Atlantic coast, where we found a room in a little pension and took a long walk along the shore:

Church that is very nearly in the ocean

The next day we began the 31-kilometer trek from Murxia to Fisterre, which is the home of Finisterra, which is the westernmost point in Europe.

Galician green...these little structures are everywhere, and are used to dry fruits and seeds and grains

Galician green...these little structures are everywhere, and are used to dry fruits and seeds and grains

Dana on the camino.  The air was so misty that you often couldn't tell whether it was actually raining or not

Dana on the camino. The air was so misty that you often couldn't tell whether it was actually raining or not

We finally got to Fisterra around 3 in the afternoon, after a beautiful day on the trail.

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The next morning, we walked to the faro (lighthouse) at the westernmost point of Fisterra, where pre-Columbian Europe thought that the world ended.  I couldn’t get that song “It’s the end of the world as we know it” out of my head.

The approach

The approach

A peregrino (pilgrim) contemplates the end of his journey

A peregrino (pilgrim) contemplates the end of his journey

"O beautiful for pilgrim feet" (did you know that that's actually a verse in America the Beautiful?)...these are my boots, as I sat just above the point

"O beautiful for pilgrim feet" (did you know that that's actually a verse in America the Beautiful?)...these are my boots, as I sat just above the point

At this point, I was starting to feel a little uneasy about the camino path we had chosen.  Santiago de Compostela is the holy city that is about 100 km from the western coast of Spain, and the main Camino Frances is a 1,000+ kilometer route leading from the Spanish border with France westward to end in Santiago.  There is then the Camino Fisterre, which is a continuation of the camino to the coast.  We had started in Murxia and were hoping to work our way back to Santiago, but once we got to Fisterre it became clear that the path was meant to be traversed in a westward direction.  So we made the difficult decision to split up, since I wanted to spend longer on the camino than Dana did, and it was important to me to meet other peregrinos, which we would not get to do if we were walking east, and from what everyone told us, we had already seen the prettiest part of the route.  Which brings me to…

PART THREE: CAMINO FRANCES

At this point, I knew that I wanted to walk the last 100 kilometers of the camino into Santiago, which would take about 4-5 days, which was about how much time I had before I wanted to be back in Paris.  So, based on information gleaned from a promotional map of Galicia that we had been given in Murxia, I got back to Santiago and hopped on a bus to Lugo and then switched to one going to Sarria, which was 112 kilometers east of Santiago and a point on the trail.  But that was all I knew.  I had no real map, no guidebook, my cell phone was dead, I had no place to sleep that night, knew nothing about where I was going, and my Spanish, while certainly beginning to regenerate after two years of consciously trying to forget it all in favor of learning French, was not, shall we say, at a native-speaker level.  And by the time I would arrive in Sarria, it would be 7pm, and I was fairly certain that all the hostels and albergues and pensiones and hotels would be full–such is the nature, I had heard, of the Camino Frances in August.  But for some reason I was really calm about all of it.

Leap, and the net will appear. I got off the bus, and asked a group of peregrino-looking people (they were all wearing technical hiking clothes and carrying backpacks) if they knew how to get to the center of Sarria.  “Are you alone?” the guy among them asked me.  “Yes,” I replied. “Then come with us!” he said.  “We don’t have a place to stay tonight–do you?”  And thus began the adventure of a lifetime.

They were a group of 6 from Barcelona–fun, full of life, and relaxed, and with literally 50 words of English between them.  Talk about a total immersion–my Spanish had no choice but to come back, because it was either make mistakes or not communicate at all. We didn’t find a hostel for that night, but we were directed to the polideportivo–the municipal gym.  Sleeping on the floor.  And I had no sleeping mat, sleeping bag, or really anything resembling camping gear.  But you know what? There happened to be a camping store around the corner, and I could get everything I needed for less than 10 euros total.  And we had a great night, and set out in the morning.

The Barcelona crew...Gustavo, Isabel, Laura, Esmeralda, Monsie, and Natalia.  Our hike started when it wasn't quite light outside yet

The Barcelona crew...Gustavo, Isabel, Laura, Esmeralda, Monsie, and Natalia. Our hike started when it wasn't quite light outside yet

At some point we all started to get nervous because the camino was really crowded, and unbeknownst to us, everyone makes reservations at albergues in the town where they plan to spend the night.  Of course we didn’t have any, but 5km before Portomarin (the next town) we found a beautiful old farmhouse with a restaurant.  Since it had transitioned from Galician mist to full on rain, we decided to stay there for the night.

The view of the inside of the house from my warm dry bed

The view of the inside of the house from my warm dry bed

Way better than for the peregrinos still hiking outside in the rain

Way better than for the peregrinos still hiking outside in the rain

The next day the camino cut through some lovely countryside, complete with baby lambs.

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We were again starting to get nervous because we didn’t have a place to stay, and there was no polideportivo in Palacio Rios, the next town.  But someone tipped us off that there was a family that had a caravan out back where peregrinos could stay, so Natalia and I (who walked faster than the other part of the group) scouted it out.  A Galician woman with no teeth to speak of answered the door, and after some haggling we agreed on a price (at this point we had also been joined by a Valencian woman, Gema, so we were eight).  As soon as we agreed to stay there, Aurelia (the woman) put me and Natalia to work, washing lettuce that she had picked from the garden minutes earlier, peeling just-dug potatoes for papas fritas, and arranging dry-cured salami and chorizo on a plate.  Turns out that all the pork products in the house come from pigs that they raise in the backyard and kill themselves.

Country kitchen, complete with a giant stove powered by burning wood

Country kitchen, complete with a giant stove powered by burning wood

A jar of homemade chorizo, which Aurelia deep-fried for us

A jar of homemade chorizo, which Aurelia deep-fried for us

After a delicious lunch, their 11-year-old grandson Yoel gave me and Gustavo a tour of the family farm.  He was a beautiful child, and had a fantastic personality.  We hung out all afternoon.

The family greenhouse

The family greenhouse

Yoel let us pet their rabbits, which live in a 500 year old barn

Yoel let us pet their rabbits, which live in a 500 year old barn

We didn't really believe Yoel when he told us that he drives the tractor (he's 11), but as I was helping Aurelia with dinner, I looked out the window and there he was, giving Gustavo a ride.  Note that he is so short that he has to stand in order to reach the pedals.  Also note that it has a manual transmission.

We didn't really believe Yoel when he told us that he drives the tractor (he's 11), but as I was helping Aurelia with dinner, I looked out the window and there he was, giving Gustavo a ride. Note that he is so short that he has to stand in order to reach the pedals. Also note that it has a manual transmission.

Yoel said that the fruit-drying structure had cell phone reception, so Monsie, Laura, and Isabel were trying to catch a signal.  It didn't work.

Yoel said that the fruit-drying structure had cell phone reception, so Monsie, Laura, and Isabel were trying to catch a signal. It didn't work.

We had an impromptu dance party by the chicken coop, where Aurelia and I had a brief dance (she was washing all our clothes, which explains the extreme ugliness and clashing-ness of my outfit)

We had an impromptu dance party by the chicken coop, where Aurelia and I had a brief dance (she was washing all our clothes, which explains the extreme ugliness and clashing-ness of my outfit)

Family dinner

Family dinner

Homemade paella gallego

Homemade paella gallego

Cheese from the neighbor's farm (right) and aged Manchego (left)

Cheese from the neighbor's farm (right) and aged Manchego (left)

The meal ended with chamomile tea, brewed from wild chamomile growing wild on their property, and chupitos, or shots of orujo gallego (the local firewater).

The next day, I decided to hike on my own and meet up with everyone in Arzua, a town 35 kilometers away, in which we had hostel reservations.

Hydrangeas (hortensia) growing on the side of the camino

Hydrangeas (hortensia) growing on the side of the camino

Embodying the spirit of the camino: someone set out boxes of freshly picked raspberries, with a locked cash box and a sign that said that each box was a euro fifty.  Total honor system.  Also there were jugs of spring water...right when I realized I was almost out of water.  And I'll bet that, at the end of the day, the mystery raspberry purveyor is not one euro short.  The camino is that kind of place.

Embodying the spirit of the camino: someone set out boxes of freshly picked raspberries, with a locked cash box and a sign that said that each box was a euro fifty. Total honor system. Also there were jugs of spring water...right when I realized I was almost out of water. And I'll bet that, at the end of the day, the mystery raspberry purveyor is not one euro short. The camino is that kind of place.

They were really, really good

They were really, really good

Best graffiti I saw on the camino

Best graffiti I saw on the camino

This day of hiking was grueling.  35 kilometers, with hills that passed the line from rolling to plain old steep.

IMG_0036

By the time I got to Arzua, I was totally exhausted, and my feet were so blistered that I could barely walk.  I saw Gema sitting at a cafe  (she had such terrible foot-swelling that she took a bus from Palacio Rios to Arzua after seeing a doctor there), and she told me that the Barcelonans stopped in a town 15 kilometers further east.  At this point, I had already made my flight for the next night, and so that meant I wouldn’t see them again this trip.  But we have a pretty tight bond.  I’m fairly certain that our paths will cross again.

After showering, I decided that my camino was over.  I had nearly 40 kilometers left to go, and I would have to do it all before 2pm the next day, and with the state of my feet, and the fact that this trip had never been about getting to Santiago and getting a meaningless certificate, I decided that I was okay with not finishing.

Ending with 37.5 kilometers until Santiago

Ending with 37.5 kilometers until Santiago

So the next morning I hung out in Arzua, walked a bit of the camino towards Santiago with some French people to attempt to recoup my French, and watched some reveling musicians who had been partying since the previous night.  Note the time: 10 minutes to 10.  In the morning.

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Statue in Arzua town square

The day ended with a return to Santiago and a flight back to Paris.  And now here I am, showered and well-rested (first night sans earplugs since I left Paris) with clean clothes and blisters band-aided, not as tan as I thought I would be (there were 2 sunny days my whole time in Galicia), calves a bit stronger, and feeling very calm and very centered.  This was a really important trip for me.  Especially once I went off on my own, I feel like I had a really singular experience that I will never forget, and one that gave me a lot of confidence going into what promises to be a quite difficult year.  I don’t know what possessed me to get on that bus and go to Sarria, but a combination of luck and effort and perhaps divine intervention (running into the Barcelonans in the bus station) made for a pretty incredible trip.  I would recommend the camino to anyone, though perhaps not in August (the whole nervousness about not finding lodging put a damper on the calming nature of the experience).  Especially if you are traveling alone.  The camino comes with a built in group of strangers who want to become friends, and there is this wonderful vibe of openness and mutual helping that I have never encountered anywhere else.  There were people of all ages, nationalities (although, to be fair, 90% were Spanish, and I would go days without speaking more than 5 minutes of English), ability levels, and motivations for going.  I found it almost emphatically non-religious, despite the camino’s religious origins and significance, and I met people who had walked anywhere from 50 to 1,600 kilometers, some of whom walked 30 kilometers and day and some of whom walked 15.  And nobody hesitated to share hostel phone numbers or lend a shoelace or band-aid or water bottle or just quiet, mutual cameraderie on the way up a particularly difficult hill.

Now it’s back to Paris for a few days, with my alma (soul) feeling clear, even if the Romance-language-salad emerging from my mouth is decidedly not.

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6 Comments »

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  1. What an adventurous and brave young lady. An extraordinary
    experience so wonderfully expressed.To encounter so many
    friendly people ,is to restore your faith in mankind.You have
    caught the spirit of true adventure and gave Grammy and I
    a chance to share your world of discovery and knowledge.
    Muchisimas gracias et Merci Beaucoup
    Un abrazo fuerte,
    Grammy and Poppy

  2. Makes me desperate to go back to Spain. What an incredible journey you experienced, in every sense of the word…and your words are beautiful. Can’t wait to see you, and hear all the rest!

    Love you, E

  3. It amazes me that someone with approximately 50% of their genetic material from me, is capable of doing what you did (and continue to do). Your dominant adventure genes have taken over from my apprehensive and risk aversive genes. YOU ROCK!

    Love, Mom

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