Friday, June 15, 2012

Farewell Dinner

Farewell dinner


Cathedral at night
Last evening's farewell dinner deserves a post of its own. I made a point of writing down the names of all the courses as they were served so that I would not forget any. We walked as a group from our hotel to the restaurant which is fairly close to the cathedral (as is our hotel).

At first, of course, we had bread ("pan Gallego) -- the wonderful, crusty Gallician bread that we have been enjoying for the last few days. There was a good olive oil for dipping. Along with the bread, there were platters of three different cheeses, all delicious.

Then the courses starting coming in earnest. In almost all cases, they served more than our adventurous group could finish.First to arrive were "empanadas gallenas," filled with cod, tomato and various other goodies. Next was the salad, with lettuce, tomato, tuna, asparagus, egg, and carrots.

This was followed by platters of "pulpos," octopus similar to what we had for lunch in Melide yesterday, but frankly not as good. Perhaps that is why the pulperia in Melide is a must for pilgrims passing through.

"Gambas," huge shrimp served whole (head and all) were next. They, too, were delicious. Most of us Americans are unused to having our shrimp served with the head on and were not as adventurous as our guides in sucking the flavor out of the heads.

Meanwhile, the true Spanish flavor of the occasion was enhanced by the fact that Spain was beating Ireland in "futbol" (soccer). The game was being shown on television in several locations throughout the restaurant and a loud cheer went up at every Spanish goal. The red and white wines which were flowing also enhanced the festive mood.

Of course, the food kept coming. Calimari was next, and it was the best calimari most of us have ever had. It was very lightly dusted with flour and fried to tender perfection. After the calimari, came scallops served on the half shell. Again, for most of us Americans, this was a new experience since we can only buy scallops at home that have already been removed from the shell.

Moving on to the next course, several platters of mussels were brought out. These were followed by "navajas," or razor clams. These long, thin clams were entirely new to me. The word "navaja" means penknife or razor.

Next was "tortilla de esparrrago" -- similar to the breakfast omelet with potatoes that we have frequently been served, this egg omelet had fresh white asparagus.

Next came a choice of desserts -- either flan (which I chose), or cheesecake or tarta de Santiago (which we had previously tried for Larry's birthday).

Guy with flan, Belen's tarta in foreground

All good things must come to an end, and this meal ended with farewells from our guides, Philipp, Belen and Enrico, to us, and from us to them. During these final moments we were offered a selection of coffees and local liqueurs. We had left the hoetel at eight, and did not finish the meal until just before midnight!

Philipp and Enrico said goodbye as they had to leave very early this morning to drive the van and bicycles to the next tour starting point (I forget which city, but I know that they have an eleven hour drive). Belen had breakfast with us this morning and then she heads home for a week, after which she will start her second camino! Larry and Pat left for an early plane. Which leaves Mary Kay and Bob, Nancy and Mike, and I to enjoy hour last few hours in Santiago, including the Pilgrim's Mass at noon. Tonight I fly to Madrid, and back to San Francisco tomorrow.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Santiago at last

Santiago at last
As you can see from the photo above, we have arrived safely in Santiago. We are standing in front of the cathedaral (partially obscured by a few raindrops on the camera lens).

Today's ride was only 25 miles, with some modest climbing. However, we had "Seattle rain" most of the morning, necessitating rain gear most of the time. We grouped at a cafe a couple of miles from the Cathedral so that we could navigate the city as a group.

Our first stop was the pilgrim office where we produced our stamped passports, and received our compostelanas -- the certificates (in Latin, including our names) attesting to our successfully completing the pilgrimage along the way of Saint James -- the Camino de Santiago. We then had a brief visit to the cathedral, including a walk behind and above the altar where we could touch the statue of St. James which adorns the altar, and then below the altar where St. James is entombed.

We then adjourned to the hotel (nice and modern again), said good bye to the bicycles that served us so well and prepared for our final day together. We have a group dinner tonight and then go our separate ways after breakfast tomorrow. For most of us, tomorrow will include the Pilgrim's Mass at noon (Larry and Pat have an early flight tomorrow, so they biked to Santiago earlier than the rest of us, and attended the Pilgrim's Mass today).

I shall do a final in-country posting tomorrow, and probably at least one more "wrap up" that I will prepare on the plane home.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Monteroso to Touro -- Wednesday June 13, 2012

Probably the best day yet. I have to say “probably” because each day has been special with several great moments. But today had it all, with great weather, beautiful scenery, roads that seemed to push the bicycle along, and a very special lunch.
Mary Kay

Because it was a short day, we enjoyed a late breakfast and a leisurely pace, mostly along small country roads. Our lunch target was Melide, and we were concerned about arriving too early because yesterday’s extended right took several miles off what would normally be today’s ride. Normally it is hard to find a place serving lunch before noon (often much later). But when we hit Melide shortly after 11, our target, the Pulperia Ezequiel, was open and starting to handle the luncheon rush.
What’s the big attraction, you ask? Octopus! Pulpo is octopus, and pulperia is a restaurant specializing in octopus. Somewhow, all the pilgrims hear about this place, and all find it a “must.” Even those who have never tasted octopus try it and fall in love with the delicious, tender morsels. Trust me, when you are in Melide, you must eat here and try it.
After lunch, we had three short climbs through increasingly rural farm country, until we arrived at our lodging for the evening, a traditional country house (similar to a B&B). This one is a restored manor house from the 16th Century. It has a small chapel (apparently no longer used) which is now being used to store our bikes.
Pazo de Andeage -- our home tonight

Tomorrow’s ride will be even shorter, and will take us to our final destination – Santiago.

O’Cebreiro to Monterroso – Tuesday, June 12, 2012

After yesterday’s tough ride ending in the long climb in the rain, I slept wonderfully, and awoke to – more cold wet weather. I dressed with multiple layers and all of my foul weather gear and set off in the fog. Throughout the day we had a mixture of weather. We had occasional sprinkles, but no real rain; we had fog which made the wet weather gear useful, and (near the end), we had wind.

In this first picture taken shortly after leaving O’Cebreiro, I am standing with bronze sculpture of a larger than life pilgrim. Notice the amount of clothing. It was taken for me by a Japanese pilgrim; of course, I took one for her with her camera as well. There is a universal language for “will you take my picture, please?” which needs no words. We use it often.

Today had a lot of climbing – over 4600 feet, but nothing really difficult. Most of it was “rolling,” although tougher than what we usually consider to be “rolling hills” because of the length of both the descents and ascents. The momentum from the downhills doesn’t last long enough to be of much help on the uphills.In fact, in Spanish they call them “rompepiernas,” or “leg breakers.” After a pleasant lunch in Portomarin, we had a sustained climb for about seven miles, but it wasn’t too steep. It was just a matter of grinding it out and hoping that the rain would not return – by now we had shed most of our rain gear and maybe an extra layer as well.
In Portomarin

Portomarin would normally have been the end of the day’s ride, but because they were unable to  book hotel rooms there, we continued on to Monterroso which is good for two reasons. First, we have the long climb out of the way, and won’t have it to start with tomorrow. Second, we are staying in a delightful “casa rural” where we are experiencing the true Gallician countryside. This small complex of four buildings used to comprise an entire village. The old buildings have been beautifully restored. On our way in, we had to stop and wait for a small herd of cattle to pass along the side of the road.

Our Gallician dinner was combined with a birthday party for Larry. It was a festive affair with huge quantities of food. For starters, we had an excellent tortilla (typical Spanish omelet with potatoes), jamón, salad with wonderful fresh tomatoes and lettuce, crusty bread. The next course was an array of grilled vegetables. This was followed by roasted chicken, Gallician style. We then had the typical “tarta de Santiago” (purchased by our guides in Portomarin) as Larry’s birthday cake. This gluten-free cake is made solely from almonds, sugar and eggs. It was excellent. Then we had the planned dessert of  a local flan. Finally, an after dinner “witches brew”which had been flaming on the side board for an hour or so was served (after appropriate ceremonial incantations read by Belen). This consisted of a grappa-like drink in which lemons, oranges and coffee beans had been soaking. The Gallician name for this is  “queimada.”

As was the case last night, we do not have WiFi today, so this day’s blog will be posted tomorrow.

Cacabelos to O’Cebreiro

My apologies for two days without posts -- we did not have WiFi. It is now Wednesday, and I am catching up.

Happy Anniversary Kathleen. Wish you could be here!

No WiFi access here, so this account will be posted tomorrow (or as soon as we do get WiFi).

Today’s ride was short (just 24 miles), but dominated by a sustained climb, which brings us into the province of Galicia We gained just over 2000 feet of elevation in the last five miles, which averages out to a 7/5% grade for the whole stretch. Parts were considerably steeper. I think mathematical principles would require that some parts were also less steep, but I don’t remember them.

The weather was changeable, but we had rain more often than not. I wore a full rainsuit most of the time. Just to make it interesting, we also had some wind, although not sustained. Even with the rain, the views were spectacular. I did not get a lot of pictures because (1) the cameras were sheltered from the rain and hard to get to, and (2) I didn’t want to interrupt the climb too often for fear that I might not have the will to start again.

Guy with partial rain gear

Mary Kay

We finished up at O’Cebreiro (elevation approximately 4300 feet), where Spain’s first snowfall of the year is usually reported, often as early as September. With the wind and rain, it is quite chilly. There are fires in the fireplaces and we have heat in our Spartan rooms. The restaurant attached to our lodgings has a delicious “Caldo Gallego,” a hot soup of potatoes and some green leafy vegetable (kale?) – it really hit the spot today. Accompanied by an order of freshly cut french fries I have enough sustenance to hold me until supper.

This small and isolated village is quite charming. It has only 21 residents, but has several small places offering accommodations and meals, as well as two stores with lots of souvenirs for sale. There are several pallozas (mortarless) stone huts with thatched roofs, a style of architecture used by the Celts. A Franciscan monk sits in the small church, interrupting his meditation as need to stamp the passports of the peregrinos.

Nancy and Mike



The accompanying pictures capture all of our riders except Edda. Somehow I missed her, but will capture her in a future blog entry. There is also one here of your “typical roadside castle.”

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Special Edition

Ever safety-conscious, Belen gives us a demonstration of proper helmet use and sun protection.

Astorga to Cacabelos

Camino de Santiago

Where's our arrow?
First, the numbers: 399.24 miles pedaled so far. Four more days to Santiago. 146 pictures taken today. 47 miles biked today, including 3772 feet of climbing and a whopping 5029 feet of descent.

We had a long and relatively steep climb up the Montes de Leon where we encountered the Cruz de Ferro. Those who have seen the movie The Way will recognize it. This is the place where pilgrims heap stones (representing the weight of the sins they are carrying) at the base of the cross. We each picked up a stone early in the morning to leave here.

This was another windy day, but fortunately we avoided rain. Philipp, the guide who went out early and marked our route today, was not so lucky. He encountered heavy rain.

Our descent after leaving the Cruz de Ferro was quite difficult because of the large amount of sand and gravel on the road (due to recent repaving), and the heavy winds. We all made it safely, however.

I mentioned the movie, The Way( Along our "way" today, we met an older man who
Guy with movie star

had a bit part in the movie (he claims). He was selling small wooden shells that he had carved. We all bought one from him.

We have a group dinner tonight, so I will let the pictures tell the story of our day..

Guy, Edda and "Siggy"

Ringing the church bells

Stopping along the way

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Leon to Astorga

We awoke this morning to find the Plaza Mayor in front of our hotel converted to the weekly (or is it twice weekly?) market. The entire square was filled, primarily with sellers of fruits and vegetables, but also a rank ot trucks with fresh meats, cheese, and fish. Since we were not going to start cycling until 10 am, we had time to explore the market and take a few photos.
Pimientos frescos

The ride today was almost like another rest day. We did only 40 miles, with very little climbing, almost no wind,  and lots of cloud cover. There was one fairly long stretch as we finished our crossing of the meseta with almost nothing but trees, and then the remainder of the trip was a series of villages all very close to each other. Along the way I saw several fields with a crop growing on strings attached to very tall poles. I think this was probably hops -- it looked just like the hops fields in the Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington. (Much of the this trip has reminded me of Eastern Washington, especially the wheat fields.)

We did have a very pleasant coffee stop in Hospital de Orbigo next to the medieval bridge (sombe original, some reconstructed) across the Orbigo river. This bridge figures in the Don Quixote folk traditions of Spain. It was quite cold today, so we had our coffee and croissants indoors.

We are in the town of Astorga, staying at an excellent hotel/spa. Since I have a massage scheduled in ten minutes, I will pick this up later.

The massage was wondeful!  Too bad that we don't have this option every day. For half an hour she worked on my habitually painful shoulder, as well as the quads. I feel great now, if a little tired.

Back to Astorga. It is not clear why this town sports a new and well-appointed spa hotel such as ours. This is the first time that Experience Plus has used it, but it seems great. The room is ultra modern -- it took me several minutes to figure out all the controls on the shower!

This town has another of the Gaudi buildings outside of the Catalan region. This one is a bizarre "Bishop's Palace," built for a local bishop. The locals so disliked Gaudi's design that the controversy brought construction to a halt for over 50 years. It was finally finished in 1963 and today houses a fascinating museum dedicated to the Camino pilgrimage route. There are an astonishing number of paintings and statues dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. Next to the Bishop's Palace is the Cathedral with its own museum. I had time to visit both before returning to the hotel for the massage.

In Astorga

Another Pilgrim in Astorga

It is almost time for our evening meeting and then we are on our own for dinner. Last night's dinner was a welcoming dinner for our new riders and was a marathon affair. We got the restaurant to seat us "early" at 8:30, and the food was still coming at 10:30. Just one delicious course after another. I have a feeling that I will be very unhappy when I get on the scale at home. But until then, life is great....

Friday, June 8, 2012

Rest Day in Leon

I slept in until 8:30 this morning, and it really felt good. After a leisurely breakfast in the hotel, I caught up on email and so forth until it was time for our guided tour of the Cathedral. We had a local guide who gave a very detailed and fascinating presentation on the Cathedral as well as the  Church of San Isidoro and a Gaudi building which we also visited.

The Cathedral in Leon is the greatest in all of Spain in terms of its stained glass, and second only to Chartres in France in this respect. Some of the stained glass is currently being cleaned -- a project that began in the late 1990s. To clean the stained glass, it must be removed temporarily from the Cathedral. At this point, no one knows whether there will be enough money to finish the entire cleaning. Other restoration works are in progress as well. It is hard to believe that the entire Cathedral was built in less than a century.

After a visit to the nearby Church of San Isidoro, we passed by one of only three buildings outside of the Catalan region designed and built by the architect Antoni Gaudi. (Kathleen and I had visited his famous Sagrada Familia (still unfinished) and Gaudi apartments in Barcelona on an earlier visit to Spain.). Here you see the building, now occupied by a bank, as well as me sitting on a bench with Gaudi himself.

The city is very quiet now, since it is siesta time (generally about 2pm to 4:30pm). The streets are nearly deserted, so I took advantage of the quiet to come back to the hotel and catch up on this blog. Who knows -- I may even take a nap before our evening meeting and dinner.

A word about the passport that I have mentioned in many of these blog entries. At the completion of the journey, a pilgrim who has walked or ridden on horseback at least the last 100 kilometers, or bicycled at least the last 200 km, receives a certificate or "compostela." The proof of completion is the passport which you can get stamped along the way at principal churches monasteries, alburgues, as well as many hotels and cafes. You need at least one stamp a day, but this is not difficult. As you can see, mine is nearly full.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Carrion de los Condes to Leon

Once again, an easy winner for the photo of the day. (Doubly easy since I didn't take many today). When we began the tour, we were each given an Experience Plus hat. Our objective is to find someone along the way to give the hat to -- someone who would enjoy it, who would share a special moment with us, and who would pose for a special picture. The recipient of my hat today was the adorable proprietor of the small cafe in El Burgo Ranero -- she was just full of life and really enjoyed serving us a memorable lunch of tapas (the sardines with onions were great), olives, and french fries!!

Our first coffee stop was at Sahagun. They were barricading the streets, in preparation for the running of the bulls. I think we were all surprised to find that Pamplona is not the only place where this tradition is carried out.

The ride will be memorable for a long time because of the wind. Philipp, who has done this tour many times, says that it was the windiest that he has ever seen it on this stretch. It was a long stretch, too. We rode about 66 miles with a headwind or strong side wind for the entire distance, except for one quarter of a circle as we went about a roundabout. Because of the wind, we rode in a close pace line almost all of the day -- not for speed, but to protect some of the riders from some of the wind some of the time. No one would mistake us for a breakaway from the Vuelta de Espana, but we got the job done, arriving in Leon around 5:30pm. On the way in, we passed the Cathedral -- another magnificent edifice -- which we will tour tomorrow. In the meantime, we have checked into another great hotel.
Hotel NH Plaza Mayor, Leon

As were about to set out for dinner, we met two of the riders who will be joining us for the second week of the tour: "Siggy" and his daughter Edda  from Iceland. They joined us for a pleasant dinner at El Llar, where we all shared first courses of Serrano Ham, crogquettes, and baked potatoes stuffed with mushrooms. All were excellent. For a main course, I had the specialty of the house which was a dish of codfish cheeks with mushrooms, red peppers and small potatoes. It was superb.

And now, at 11:30, off to bed. Thankfully, tomorrow is our rest day, so I can sleep in.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Burgos to Carrion de los Condes

No problem choosing the photo of the day. Bob stopped to take a "green door" break and found that Spain has thought of everything for the pilgrim traveling the Camino!

You will notice the wind turbines in the background (Sure you will.). We have seen them everywhere in Spain, and today was proof that they have been a very great investment for the people of Spain. We had strong headwinds all day, except for the last fifteen miles or so when we had strong side winds. The ride was  almost exactly 100 km (62 miles) with about 3200 feet of climbing. Fortunately the climbs were not steep at all, but the wind added to the level of difficulty. Nonetheless, we all finished together in reasonably good time.

Our hotel is a converted Benedictine monastery that dates back at least to 948 A.D.! It is very well appointed and has some beautiful commons rooms, such as the dining room where we had dinner tonight. Philipp, one of our guides gave us an overview of the history and architecture of the monastery and the church that is here.

We left the province of Burgos today and entered Palencia (not to be confused with Valencia, an entirely different area. For a good part of the day, our route was the same as, or parallel to, or criss-crossed the route used by the hiking pilgrims, so we saw many of them. We also saw our first pilgrims doing the Camino on horseback. Many of the peregrinos do not stay in nice hotels as we are doing, but in "alburgues," which are simple and relatively inexpensive shelters. Because of the large number of people doing the Camino, there is a priority for obtaining one of the available spaces in these shelters -- first the walkers, second the bicyclists, and third those on horseback. (In many cases these are not feasible  for those with horses because of the need to shelter and feed the horse.) Many of the shelters fill up early in the afternoon, so we see far more hikers in the morning.

We stopped twice today -- once for coffee in the morning at Hontanas. While there we saw an interesting phenomenon (which we also saw a couple of other places). A vendor of a certain type of food -- a butcher, or a vegetable seller, or a person selling bread and eggs, will enter town in his small truck, with his horn blaring to announce his arrival. Because these villages are too small to support a full time grocer, seller of fruits and vegetables, or bakery, people will come out and buy from the mobile seller. So, in Hontanas, for example, we saw a woman come out with her egg carton and buy 10 eggs, the owner of our cafe came out to get butter, and another cafe owner came with two large paper bags to lay in his store of bread.

The second stop was originally planned as a very quick "see if we can get our passports stamped" visit, but we ended up buying a few sandwiches and tarrying a while before heading back into the wind. Fortunately we had good cloud cover all day, and the temperature was actually quite cool. I did not take my jacket off until 1 pm -- it was simply too cold (especially with the wind) before that.

514 kilometers to go (more or less)
Tomorrow's ride is another long one -- 110 kilometers -- that will take us to Leon. We will have our only rest day after arriving there, and will also pick up and additional four riders who will be with us for the remainder of the Camino.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Burgos

We need to start today's entry with a photo of Enrico -- he got squeezed out of yesterday's group photo at Cafe Suiza.

Now, to the chronicle of another superb day. The ride was 56 miles with 3763 feet of climbing.  I took off a little before the rest of the group and spent the morning riding solo and simply enjoying life. To borrow a phrase from my friends from Fort Collins, I found a "happy gear," put my legs on autopilot and just enjoyed the ever-changing scenery. For the most part, we were cycling through wheat fields although we passed extensive acreage devoted to peppers and other crops. Since we had a stiff breeze, all day, I gained a new appreciation for the phrase "amber waves of grain." Of course, at this time of year, they are green, but the breeze blowing through the fields created the beautiful illusion of waves.

As we entered the province of Burgos, I was struck by the immediate change in the quality of the road. We went from superb pavement with good shoulder to relatively bumpy road with no shoulder, and then to a stretch of construction for a few miles. After that, the roads improved considerably.

First stop of the morning was the town of Belorado where I got my passport stamped and then stopped at a small market for a chocolate bar and some bananas which I intended to be my lunch. Next stop was the small church of San Juan de Ortega. I got another passport stamp, took some pictures and was about to eat my meager lunch when I saw the rest of our group who had brought along a substantial picnic (also purchased in Belorado). My chocolate bar was now chocolate soup, and I was glad to join them for a lunch of varied meats, cheeses, breads, peppers, olives, and fruit.

After lunch, we had less than 20 miles of gently rolling road to Burgos (except for one short and very steep hill). The entry into Burgos can only be described as spectacular, as the cathedral came into view. It is a real treat to have a hotel room with a window facing directly onto the cathedral. After showering, I toured the cathedral which is simply breathtaking.

The entire group convened in front of the hotel for a quick briefing on tomorrow's ride (even longer), and then adjourned to La Mejillonera for some appetizers of mussels. This was a fun adventure. We sampled mussels prepared in several different ways -- simply steamed with lemon, "marinera" (with a garlic sauce of a creamy texture), picante (with a spicy red sauce), and with vinegar, oil and chopped peppers.

Pat and Larry