Tag Archives: Europe

Patient Hospitaleros

A quick update on where we’re at – we are just finishing our stretch in Castille and Leon and are at a hostel tonight in Villafranca del Bierzo before the climb tomorrow to O’Cebreiro and Galicia.

I love beakfast. It’s my favorite meal of the day.

I have been impressed with the seemingly limitless patience of the folks who run the hostels – called “albergues” – along the Camino. The “hospitaleros” (and hospitaleras) face an unending stream of smelly pilgrims coming through day after day with dirty boots, oozing blisters and, for the most part, lousy Spanish. And all of us seem to expect the unique Camino experience every night – enough tasty food, clean bathrooms and showers, and comfortable beds.

In the little town of Zarinaquiguie, maybe 10 km from Pamplona, I found myself in the position of speaking the best Spanish in the hostel for most of the evening. A sort-of language savant showed up later who spoke French, Spanish, German, English and even a little Basque, though she was proof that just because you can speak a dozen languages doesn’t mean you should. She commandeered the evening’s dinner conversation with little interest in anyone else, and though she spoke perfect French, she failed to accurately interpret our Quebecois and French companions’ eye rolls – something I’ve always thought transcended spoken languages the world over.

What’s not to love about loin and white coffee for beakfast?

Anyway, back to my story – before she arrived, a German pilgrim asked me if I knew what was for dinner, and if it was fish, could I tell the chef he wanted something else? I grabbed the Basque chef as he buzzed around the dining room getting the table ready for dinner and told him that one of his guests doesn’t eat “fishermen.” Without batting an eye, he knew what I meant, and Frederick got a heaping plate of spaghetti, while the rest of us had salty bowls of baccalau. The chef genuinely seemed to enjoy serving us, so when we were finished, I made sure to tell him that the salad, the lentils, the soup and the fish were all “very, very beautiful.” He graciously smiled at me and bowed slightly before zipping back into the kitchen.

A few nights ago, in Mansilla de las Mulas, just before Leon, our servers weren’t quite as understanding. We’d amassed a large group for dinner, and a continuous stream of quid pro quo drink buying throughout the afternoon made us louder than normal. We’ve met and been walking at roughly the same rate as a very cool Quebecois couple who started their camino deep in the French countryside a month and some 800 km before us in Le Puy. The husband, Daniel, is quiet even in his native Quebecois-French. But at dinner time, he enjoys rousting entire restaurants to toast the Camino, toast the servers, toast our fellow pilgrims at the dinner table in their native tongues. It seems to be his way to show appreciation. That, and he freely doles out sublime foot massages. “I mass your feet?” he offers. “I’m a very good masser.”

Though I’m sure they appreciate it in some measure, the hospitaleros always seems to feel a little uneasy in the spotlight. Perhaps they were a little on edge when we asked them (in Spanish), “What…is…the soup?” Our server spit back something that sounded like “hegetales,” which should have been easy enough to translate into “vegetables,” but our minds were elsewhere and we didn’t make the connection.

“What…is…vegetables?” I asked in Spanish.

“Vegetables are vegetables, you idiot. Carrots, onions, cabbage, potatoes…Vegetables.” I have no idea if this is actually what she said to me, but I let my imagination run a bit as it slowly sunk in that it was vegetable soup she was talking about. I’m just trying to imagine how an American in a town of a few thousand people in the United States might respond to a bunch of foreigners yelling demands at her in four languages, interspersed with shouts of “Sante!” and “Salud” and “Proust!” and “K Pis!” (Apologies to our Dutch and Finnish friends – I should have asked them to write down their respective toasts.) My estimation is that an American waitress, even one who depends on tips, would quickly lose patience with us.

In the end, the vegetable soup was delicious, just the salty broth of vegetables I needed. Things ended on a bit of a sour note, when one of our fellow Americans went on tirade against a Dutch guy who, as I understood it, asked her simply (in perfect English, as all the Dutch seem to speak) whether she didn’t mind the weight of carrying her iPad. After leveling an inappropriate response about how pilgrims’ supplies have evolved over the centuries, she stormed off. The Dutch didn’t speak French, and most of our other companions speak very little English, so in an effort to ease the tension, Daniel toasted the Dutch guy a few times and said, “I am love you,” and “You my friend. You my best friend.”

Thankfully, it seems the Dutch were forgiving, as they seemed to harbor no ill will this morning, probably thanks to Daniel’s efforts. I suppose even an attempt in a common language has the potential to heal wounds.

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Working dogs

As we’ve been making our way across the meseta, we’ve had some terrific experiences, including two of my favorite days on the Camino. I’m working on a few more substantive blogs, but in the mean time, here’s a cool video Anne-Claire shot of a shepherd moving his flock through Castrojeriz.

We came around a corner to find him waiting for a clear lane through the sporadic traffic with a hundred or so sheep. Every so often, he’d whistle and throw a tiny rock, and the dogs would wheel the flock to the left or to the right. In the midst of the pandemonium every time the sheep moved is a donkey who’s sort of a center of calm in the herd. I used to work for a guy who said you need only watch the way the blindly follow each other and you can see why religious texts compare us humans to sheep so frequently. I don’t think it’s a compliment.

Wearing in the boots: Roncesvalles through Pamplona

We left our pristine hostel attached to a stunning 12th century church in Roncesvalles. The signpost at the edge of town says Santiago de Compostela is 790 kilometers away, though by foot it should be a bit shorter.

After crossing the Pyrenees the day before, we spent much of our second day ambling through pine forests and in and out of sleepy farm towns in the Basque countryside. The island of Euskadi (Basque Country) straddling the mountains is fascinating, in part because it’s so tough to find out much about the people who live here. A language resembling neither French nor Spanish in any discernible way presents the first barrier. I get the impression that there’s a secrecy to the culture, a pride that depends little on what others outside think. But this is just a gut feeling, as I’ve done little primary research.

Adding to the air of mystery is an undercurrent of witchcraft and mythology. I’ll try to look up the story about the statue to the right welcoming pilgrims into Roncesvalles.

Aches and pains have started to pop up that either weren’t an issue or were masked by adrenalin and excitement. Still, it’s a privilege to watch the landscape change with each step. After lunch, we climbed through the rather ugly industrial town of Zubiri to one of the countless hillside villages paved in cobblestones with walls lined in rose bushes in full bloom. Often you can smell the villages before you see them.

We spent the night in Larrasoana. Just a few days in, we’ve picked up on a bit of frustration with the pilgrims, which is understandable. In general, we’ve found most of us are pretty respectful, but mob mentality takes over a bit and we can be a selfish lot, descending in huge groups on tiny towns, demanding dinner and beds and then taking off the next day. So I’m a bit resigned to the idea that most of the people we meet will be fellow travelers not locals, with a few momentary exceptions here and there.

Let’s start with the travelers. Speaking English makes walking the Camino easy (and traveling in general, I suppose). But Anne-Claire’s French has opened us up to a larger swath of pilgrims. We had the good fortune to sit next to Patrick from Paris and Claude from Quebec at dinner. Claude speaks English, so we had a nice mélange of that and French and enjoyed sharing a meal with them. They both start from Le Puy in France about a month ago. They’d walked together their first three days, then had been separated until just a few days ago, when they ran into each other at a tiny stopover on the way over the Pyrenees called Orisson.

They passed us on the trail the next morning when we’d stopped for breakfast. This is how the Camino goes, I’m told – you see people, make flickering connections and only providence will allow you to meet again.

Much of the rest of the day was spent hiking up to, through and past Pamplona. After the countryside, the bustle of the town’s cars and people were a little overwhelming to us, so we didn’t linger too long, though once again, I was impressed at how beautiful Pamplona is – parks, monuments and a festive atmosphere beg for another visit.

We stopped for lunch in a suburb 5 km outside of town, only to realize we had little cash and were headed to an even smaller town up in the hills for the night. Even what the guidebook calls an “affluent dormitory community of Pamplona” didn’t have an ATM, so Anne-Claire walked a few kilometers to remedy the problem.

We arrived that night in a tiny town that was little more than the hostel and a massive church to find a near-empty hostel (one of the benefits of going just a bit farther each night than the guide suggests). The two other occupants

were none other than Patrick and Claude. We laughed off the day’s toils and shared a bit about our families over beers and the ham and chorizo that Patrick always keeps in his pack, before embarking on a tedious dinner, thanks to a few late-arriving guests. I’m striving to keep snark and cynicism out of this blog, so if you want to hear the story, perhaps we can share a few beers (and some cured meats) in person.

Upside Down Take

Anne-Claire and I have both commented on how backward this trip feels, touring around at the beginning and seeing people and places in Europe before getting down to what we expect will be the hard work of hiking every day for 500 miles.

But our frequent flier tickets worked best to fly into Paris and out of Lisbon, so we’ve made do. When life gives you lemons…

We spent a night with Anne-Claire’s former host family in Aix-en-Provence, about a 20-minute bus ride from the airport in Marseille – that is, the one that we flew into (MSP2). Anne-Claire raves about the meals Amable puts together.

Born in central Spain and raised in southern France, she brings highlights from Castilian and Provencal cooking to every meal, emphasizing fresh ingredients, balance (down to the colors of the food she prepares), and variety. I was surprised to learn that she doesn’t like to eat strong cheeses, but she says she loves buying them because there are so many to choose from.

Her long-time partner Michel is as curious as ever, proudly showing off pictures from a bike trip for a week or so last summer on the Camino de Santiago. He’s hiked the length we’re doing, from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago, twice, and has endless stories about the people he’s met along the way. Once, while he was talking about his time on the Camino, his voice began to crack and he had to wipe his eyes.

That’s one thing I didn’t expect – the importance that people attach to this pilgrimage. As I’ve said earlier, I don’t have a strong spiritual motivation for this hike. I’m here largely for the pleasure of walking a few hundred miles uninterrupted. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised at its importance as pilgrims have been making the trek for hundreds of years. I’ll write more on all this later.

From Aix, we rented a car to get to Cahors. I mentioned how expensive it is to drive in France, and this is particularly true if you’re not traveling up one of the spokes of the bicycle wheel of thoroughfares radiating out from Paris but rather trying to hop between them as we were. Private companies have obliged drivers trying to avoid Paris, but at a high cost in tolls. We drove west to Cahors, which took about six-and-a-half hours.

Again, we were visiting one of Anne-Claire’s former host families. We’d spent a few days with Cecile and her daughters at the end of our trip last summer. I had told them I had blogged about our trip, and of course they asked to see it. Forgetting what I’d written, I plugged the address into Google Translate, and – at least in this instance – it provided a particularly good interpretation of what I had written.

As Cecile and her oldest daughter Maylin read it, I sat shifting nervously in my chair – first, because it’s never fun to watch someone read what you’ve written, and second, because I started to remember what I had included about Maylin’s father. It was only a sentence and wasn’t untrue, but it’s never fun to read something negative about your parents.  Maylin wasn’t upset with me, though both she and her mother cried at points, and Cecile gave me a loud kiss on the cheek after she finished.

Though a lot has changed in their lives – Maylin is finishing up her first year at university and set to spend the summer in Spain, and Elora has started high school – the girls and their mother are still as close as before, and we had a wonderful visit.

Bicycle Heaven

No matter how many times I’ve visited cities in Europe, I’m always impressed at the conventions in place for bicyclists. This is especially true in Bruges, Belgium. We took a short detour there between Paris and Aix-en-Provence. It’s out of necessity, to be sure. Driving is so expensive – parking, tolls and the cost of gasoline (some would say the true cost) add up quickly, as we found out on a 500-km trip from Aix-en-Provence to Cahors on Saturday. Highway tolls for the journey added up to roughly €35, and even in our fuel-efficient, manual transmission Corsa hatchback, we spent about €65 on gasoline – that’s more than $7.50 a gallon, even with the declining value of the euro. Only a weekend special at Hertz (one day for €25) made it more economical to rent a car instead of buying two train tickets.

But to get back to the question of bicycles, cycling is often the most practical way to get around. Cities like Paris and Bruges (which we visited after Paris) are mostly flat; Montmartre in Paris is of course a big exception. Tightly concentrated city centers often make it quicker to pedal than get behind a steering wheel for short trips. Undoubtedly, the role cycling plays in mobilizing all segments of the population makes it easier to justify concessions to cyclists. Paris is dotted with ingenious bike rental stations – just swipe your

credit card and you can ride to anywhere else in the city where there’s another station for a euro or two an hour. In the States, well-established bike lanes and “sharrows” indicating that bicyclists can “share” the road with cars are heralded as pinnacles of bike friendliness. But what often happens is that sharrows are ignored and drivers often see the white line as a restriction to keep cyclists from impeding vehicle progress, rather than as a protected space for the cyclists, which they’re allowed to leave if they need to turn or there’s something in their way. Drivers in the U.S. show little consideration for bikers, I think because they’re seen as more of a nuisance rather than travelers on the road with equal rights.

To be sure, cyclists as a group bring a lot of this frustration on themselves. When bikers don’t follow the rules of the road – for example, ignoring stop signs, weaving in and out of traffic, riding the wrong way – drivers have little choice but to expect the worst from every two-wheeler they see. I wrote an article several years ago about an experienced cyclist who made a fatal mistake in not leaving his bike lane when he should have.

To deal with the ambiguity in how bicyclists behave and drivers react to them, Paris has detailed markings on the road to indicate exactly where cyclists should go. In the picture at the left, the arrows continue, leading bicycles into a safe left-hand turn at a busy intersection.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s difficult to retrofit streets designed expressly for cars with bicycle lanes, but this doesn’t hold much water when you realize that much narrower streets in Europe built centuries before those in America now support many times more cyclists than those in the U.S. probably ever will. In Bruges, they’ve managed this by giving cyclists more rights than drivers. On narrow, one-way (for vehicles) streets, cyclists zip in both directions. When things get clogged up and there’s no room to pass, drivers just wait. Outside the walls of the city, cyclists have a dedicated section of the sidewalk and their own lights to allow them to cross busy streets.

Obviously, this is something I feel strongly about, perhaps for a couple of reasons. One – cycling is just plain fun and great exercise. It’s no coincidence that Europeans, who rely more one walking and biking for transporation, have lower rates of obesity than we Americans (though this is changing). Two – few forms of transport are as egalitarian as cycling. For a fraction of the cost of an automobile, most of us can buy a bike that we can ride to work and use for errands. That means, with the right support system in place including good public transporation, the bicycle can be a tool for upward mobility between classes.

I think there’s a tendency when traveling to want to believe that everything new and different is better than the way you know. I certainly fall into that trap from time to time. In fact, exposure to new ideas one of the reasons I love to travel. After some reflection, you decide what practices are worth keeping and which you can do without. But in their approach to bikes, I think Europeans have it right.