Hermano Peregrino……dedicated to Ismael Izquierdo.

“We must never stop dreaming. Dreams provide nourishment for the soul, just as a meal does for the body.” “We always have a tendency to see those things that do not exist and to be blind to the great lessons that are right there before our eyes.” Paolo Coelho

The facade of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. October, 2020.

Six years ago when I started leading a 16 day bus tour across Northern Spain and Portugal I was reintroduced to a deep part of my being. It wasn’t that I hadn’t revisited the Camino since my own pilgrimages, because I had. Actually, many times to different places and in different situations. I had even walked portions of it with other groups in the past 20 years. But, this time it was different for me. We were not walking the pilgrimage and nor was it the name or theme of the trip. We would talk about the history of the Camino de Santiago, stay in the Paradores, Hostal dos Reis Católicos and San Marcos, visit the Cathedrals and see pilgrims all along the route. Being a two time pilgrim and greatly affected by both experiences I wanted to share the other side of the pilgrimage. So, on that very first tour I began to develop a bus chat that what I named “a day in the life of pilgrim.” I wasn’t quite sure how it would be received or even where it would lead to on that first trip. Surprisingly, my personal story rolled off my lips naturally as I shared the accounts of my two pilgrimages in detail; why I decided to walk 500 miles across Spain alone, what daily life is like on a pilgrimage, the miracles that happen along the way, important words and legends, the food I ate and people who I met and who touched me. I share the original books I had used for both walks and my pilgrim passports, a bit worn from their age. My voice cracks a few times as I share this piece of myself and when I look up from the microphone I can see tears in some of my guest’s eyes. The questions and comments are profound and true gifts for me. I’ve had some guests come to me with bits of my talk written down for me to “use when I write my book”. There were 10 years difference between my first and second Camino and 10 years from the second Camino until that first bus tour. A lot has changed in almost 30 years, especially myself.

There are many different words pilgrims use when walking the Camino de Santiago. One that I learned and experienced on my first walk was “Hermano Peregrino” or Brother/Sister Pilgrim. People do a pilgrimage for many different reasons. And these also provide different relationships. For religious people it can be shared between themselves and their God and religion. Other people are seeking to find themselves or have lived some type of trauma or need to make some personal decision. But, there is a third and very important relationship on a pilgrimage that is between yourself and those who walk beside you even if they do so in silence. They will become your Hermano/a Peregrino. An Hermano/a peregrino can also be someone who you meet later on in life that has also done the pilgrimage. You are somehow connected because of this shared experience.

On my first Camino. My “bota’ from Pamplona.

On my first pilgrimage I met so many different people. I was alone for most of the walk so people were constantly adopting and taking care of me. A young North American woman walking alone nowadays is quite common but on my first pilgrimage I was a rare bird or a green cat as a dear friend in Granada would have said. I still remember the people who I shared meals with, walked with for a few days and those that helped me with my blisters. OUCH! My Spanish Grandpas adopted me and fed me in many places along the road and we enjoyed a great meal in Santiago de Compostela with their wives who had met them there. However, at the end of the Camino I had two great Hermanos, Juan and Ismael. I had met both of them at the very beginning of the pilgrimage. Juan, 62 was from Madrid and retired. It was his 10th pilgrimage. He would wake me up every morning, “Margarita, son las 5:10”, and he taught me how to be a good pilgrim. He knew all the plants along the way, the monasteries we needed to visit and what to eat and where. Ismael was just 21, and living in Barcelona. He had started the pilgrimage with a friend who had to leave due to an emergency. His laughter was contagious and we probably had too much fun every once in a while. Like having to leave the massive refuge in a monastery at 1 am because we couldn’t stop laughing. Or sneaking into the refuge in the monastery in Santiago after our late night out, terrified we would be caught by the keepers. I remember having meals at the Parador of Santiago, the Hostal dos Reis Católicos because Juan taught us that the first 10 pilgrims who arrive each day could dine there for 3 days in a row. We ate in the Pilgrim’s dining room and were served with smiles and bottles of local wine. Little did I know that many years later this Parador would become like a second home to me and the people who work here would become dear friends.

Photo of Praza Obradoiro, taken from the Royal dining room of the Parador of Santigao de Compostela

Ismael and Juan became more than Hermanos Peregrinos for me. They were my protectors, my sun in a rainy day and two people who marked me for a lifetime. A relationship that develops after days together, sharing pain and laughter, each one on their own pilgrimage alone yet together is deep and remains forever.

Juan and I visited each other many times. A noble and dedicated family man who found and gifted to me a passion for the Camino de Santiago. He has since passed away. Ismael and I lost contact for a few years until one day he came to Granada and asked every person he could find near the plaza by my house if they knew Margaret, the American. That was Ismael Izquierdo. No social media back then and he had lost my address. He was dedicated to find his Hermana Peregrina. We went out for tapas and he took me to this hard rock bar in Granada. He was a fan of rock music and eventually opened a bar where he was living near Gibraltar. We lost touch again for a few years and on my very first 16 day tour six years ago right after I told our story to my group, I received a friend request from him on Facebook. We remained close ever since. There is a connection between us that no distance or time could tarnish. Except for one. For my heart at least.

My Pilgrim’s Passport from my first Camino. A couple of the many stamps and pages

Last week I received news that left me speechless and tore into my heart in a way that I cannot explain. My dear friend Ismael Izquierdo passed away at the age of 45, leaving two young sons behind. Another Hermano Peregrino has left this world. I’m sure he is laughing wherever he is and smiling down upon us. I will do the Camino again for you dear friend. That you can be sure of, Ismael.

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, clouds and a bit of rain. How Santiago is in my heart.

“You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.” Emilio Estevez, The Way.

Sleepy in Seattle (and Edmonds)……part 1

I was so blessed to be invited to Seattle this past January. Right now it actually seems like a dream. Positive energy and uplifting are the words to describe the experience. First of all, I was able to share it all with some very close friends and as a big bonus met so many outrageously friendly people while I was there. Genuine, that is another word to describe my experience those 10 days. Most of the time was spent in Edmonds where Rick Steves Europe is based. It is a gorgeous town North of Seattle and reminded me a tiny bit of Flagstaff, Arizona with a lot more rain. I also got to spend a bit of time enjoying the city of Seattle. I had never been to this part of US so it was like a whole new world for me. Every bit of it. The only reason this is titled “sleepy” is due to the brutal jetlag that I had for days.

The day we arrived was a bit rough after my 3 flights but we managed to get ourselves out and about to eat and enjoy this rocking city. It was Sunday so we were lucky to bump into a great brunch at one of the cool downtown hotel restaurants. My friend had eggs benedict and potatoes and I had an avocado toast with chilis and perfectly boiled eggs and a super spicy bloody mary. Yes, it was after 12. Yum! That was the first of a few I had while in the states. Welcome home Margaret! We made our way to Pike Place Market and enjoyed the fish tossing, great street performers and ambience and then walked and walked enjoying the beautiful downtown area until we finally needed to collapse.

While we were in Edmonds we were taken care of and fed very well. So unbelievably well that even on our free nights we did not need to eat out. We had food from Mexico, Uzbekistan, Korea, England, India, Vietnam and much more. On our last afternoon my friend who has been here many times rushed me over to “The Market” in downtown Edmonds for a lobster roll. They were so good that our conversation completely stopped and communication remained only with looks of serious pleasure as we wrapped our mouths around those delicious sandwiches. I can’t wait to go back and repeat.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are obviously known for its home brews. I liked the vibe at one of the breweries close to our hotel in Edmonds and went back a couple of times. Being in a brewery makes me feel like home and takes me back to some great memories in Flagstaff, AZ during my university years. It was extra special to share it with one of my closest friends from Spain who had never had a good brewery experience. Brigids is both a shop and a bar with a great open space with couches and tables to hang out and play games or chat. The bartender was probably a bit confused as to why an obviously American woman would be so in awe and open mouthed when reading the selection of beers. I tried to explain to him that we don’t have this where I live. I’m pretty sure he still thought I was from Mars. Their “Mexican Cake” brew was insane. It was like a meal and dessert in a beer. Chilis and whiskey. Spicy and thick. I went back a few days later for a repeat.

I loved the weather while we were here. I haven’t seen that much rain in an extremely long time. And walking around Edmonds is so beautiful. They are completely inundated with Europeans for 10 days and the people are so welcoming and friendly. We got stopped on the street many times by people wanting to know about Spain (our name tags had the flag) or to share their travel experiences. The rain held back a few times so we could walk along the beach and even see the mountains peaking through the clouds. The area is popular with divers since Edmonds is home to an underwater park with two and a half miles of trails. The train also runs right along the water. Trains and school busses are always two things that quickly snap me into the reality of being back in the US.

Sorry about the detour to the US but I had such an amazing experience here that I wanted to share. Part 2 coming next. I’m grateful to my daughter and partner for supporting me and letting me take off for 2 weeks. And to all the great people at RSE who made us feel so welcome and filled us with positivity and great energy, especially Rick! I even have a new partner in crime based in Seattle.

Oh, and dinner at Rick’s house was especially cool!

The long road home….

I’ve heard some people comment about being bored these days as we are on lock down. I believe in Spain we are now on the 16th day. As my doctor ordered, I can’t even leave the front door of my apartment for the allowed reasons so I look out onto the street from my balcony and windows. I can see the Sierra Nevada Mountains freshly covered in snow. The road up to the Alhambra is now completely still except for a public bus every few hours and the streets are silent except a random masked and gloved neighbor coming home with groceries. Police cars patrolling and a random dog walker. However, I have not been bored even for a second. I cook and write and do exercise and give some online yoga classes and enjoy other great classes along with concerts and virtual visits to many places. I was trying to remember the last time I was actually bored I couldn’t come up with anything really.

And then I remembered being in the town of Manzanares in Castilla La Mancha last August. I wouldn’t call it boring, but definitely peaceful. We spent a glorious 15 days in the Basque Country, both France and Spain. We never want to leave so we push it as much as we can and end up driving at full speed home before vacation ends. Manzanares is a bit over 2 hours from home and as we were getting close we decided we just couldn’t drive anymore. It was hot as hell and we were exhausted.

There is a Parador in Manzanares that by a miracle has not been closed down regardless of its location with a view of the main highway. Paradors for me, mean home. As my friends who work at the Parador in Santiago de Compostela tell me, I’m no longer a “friend” of the Paradors, I’m a sister. Paradors are a chain of hotels in Spain opened in mostly historical or important buildings. You can look on the internet at parador.es and discover more. The page also has a blog where you can find different bits of history and art work and routes through Spain. A couple of weeks ago they closed down all of the paradors and donated all of the food from their restaurants and bathroom amenities to help with the corona crisis.

The Parador in Manzanares was one of the first, opening in 1932. It opened originally as an “albergue” to give truck drivers a place to sleep and eat on this long, empty road. It survived the Civil War and the dicataorship. It is said that in the 1940’s when tourism began the restaurant served lunch to so many tourists that some would have to wait in busses while the others were being served. In 1979 the original albergue closed, reopening in 1980 as a “Parador de Turismo”. The Parador has fought to remain open through financial crisis and more. At first glance this Parador might not seem to be anything special. However, our short stay here was perfect. Our room looked out on the swimming pool and garden and everyone was incredibly friendly, from the front desk to the bar and restaurant. We decided to have a light dinner in the hotel due to the blazing heat and to avoid the walk into town. We are also big fans of all Parador dining. The Maitre D in the restaurant was so lovely. He made us feel like the only people in the restaurant. He invited us to a glass of sparkling wine from the local wine producing area to accompany our tapa of partridge paté and chips.

One of my all time favorite dishes from Castilla La Mancha is Pisto Manchego. My very favorite is at a place called La Venta de Quijote in the sleepy town of Consuegra. I have been stopping there for years with groups and their pisto along with the one here at the Parador are both outstanding. Pisto is a mixture of sauteed vegetables which can vary depending on the area and the chef. The original recipe is made with tomatoes, green peppers and zucchini chopped and without the seeds. Sauteed with a good amount of olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. It can be used to accompany fish or meat or on its own served with a fried egg or two on top.

If you ever find yourself in Manzanares in the dead of August when most bars are closed and the heat is unbearable please go to the Queso Manchego Museum. Manchego is one of the most well known cheese’s worldwide. Not be confused with Mexican Manchego cheese which is similar to a Monterey Jack, true Manchego must be prepared with whole Manchego sheep’s milk and aged for at least 60 days in one of the designated provinces of Castilla La Mancha. You can find four different types of Manchego: fresh, semi-cured, cured and aged. There are 26 Protected Designation of Origen (DOP) producing different types of cheese in Spain. We have an incredible variety to work your way through in this lifetime. However, Manchego is usually the one that most visitors know about before arriving in Spain thanks to our dear friends, Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quijote.

The museum is run by friendly, young people from Manzanares. You can visit for free or pay between 1 to 2,50 euros for a tasting of cheese and wine. The museum walks you through the history of Manchego Cheese dating back to the Bronze Age. It has informative plaques that explain how the cheese making has changed throughout history and also how it forms such an important part of Castilla La Mancha and the cuisine in this area.

Manchego Cheese is sliced in triangles and served as a perfect tapa with bread and wine. Add some local olives to complete your appetizer. Many times you will find it served with a quince paste that pairs perfectly with the nutty flavor of the cheese.

Another part of the museum is dedicated to temporary and permanent art exhibitions. It is like a little added surprise after you walk through the area about the manchego cheese. The temporary exhibition that we saw was a beautiful tribute to the Spanish Poet, Federico García Lorca and the Bullfighter, Ignacio Sánchez Mejías. Lorca was from a town close to Granada, Fuentevaqueros, and was assassinated in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. He was a renowned poet, playwright and theatre director. Mejías, a bullfighter from Sevilla and friend to poets and poetry, died after being gorged by a bull in his comeback bullfight in 1934. He had slept and eaten his last dinner the night before at what is now the Parador de Manzanares. He was remembered by many poets in their works but probably the most well known is by Lorca, Weeping for the Death of Ignacio Sánchez Mejías.

The entire temporary exhibition was absolutely beautiful. A wonderful tribute to many different Spanish poets as well. After we finished our tasting of cheese and wine we went for a hot walk and had lunch at one of the few open restaurants before driving home to Granada. We found this beautiful hotel which is now closed. It was all more than worth the stop!! A great break in our long drive home.