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.

Places in my heart……Burgos

Certain cities will always make me feel like I’m home and Burgos is one of those. Maybe it is because the first time I visited I was a young and tired pilgrim looking for a simple bed and some decent food. The albuergue or pilgrim’s refuge used to be in a park on the outskirts of the city. It was quite rustic but I have fond memories of the communal sleeping area, the outdoor picnic tables and ice cold shower and I had returned with student groups many times to share the experience with them before it closed. There is a scene in the movie “The Way” where they walk up to the gates of this park and I am always rushed with emotion every time I see it. The municipal albuergue is now in a lovely building close to the Cathedral.

Santo Domingo De La Calzada

Burgos is elegance and humility in one. The people are kind yet not exuberant, the pedestrian areas and parks are classy and filled with statues representing the historical and cultural importance that the city holds. The local gastronomy is a mixture of comforting and hearty food with the elegance and detail of modern cuisine. It is a friendly city where one feels comfortable as a visitor or a pilgrim.

The statue of Santo Domingo de la Calzada near the roman bridge in Burgos represents this man known for the construction of bridges, a hospital, roads and a church to help the pilgrims whom he had observed from where he lived as a hermit in the 12th century. There is a town named after him in the same place where he passed away and it continues to be a sacred place for all who walk the French route of the pilgrimage.

The Santa Maria of Burgos Cathedral rises high over the city center. It’s poise and beauty honors hundreds of years of architectural geniuses from its groundbreaking in 1221 up until the 18th century. The main architect of the Cathedral in Granada , Diego de Siloé, was born in Burgos and is responsible for the gilded staircase in the Cathedral of Santa Maria in Burgos. We will also find here the remains of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, otherwise known as El Cid, along with his wife Jimena.

Last summer I was in Burgos with a group of students. I have been working with this school as long as I can remember. It was the Spanish day of sign language and the gate of Santa Maria was reflecting the color for this once the sun went down. One of the students in my group was losing her hearing due to an illness and had been learning sign language. We spent this amazing moment sharing with this lovely group of people from Burgos. They loved being with the students and teaching us new signs. It was one of those moments of gold that you never forget.

I’ve slept many times at a hotel that looks right out onto the Cathedral. The name is Meson del Cid and I loved waking up in the morning atnd having my first view be of this amazing Cathedral. I plan on sleeping there again very soon with a lucky group! It’s amazing how life is a circle.

young me at Meson del Cid, my favorite hotel in Burgos….

Burgos has an amazing gastronomical scene. There are certain things you need to eat when you are visiting such as Morcilla de Burgos (blood sausage with rice), Burgos fresh cheese, river crabs, trout, suckling pig and so much more! All washed down with amazing wine.

An albacore tuna with olives, anchovy and a vinaigrette that I ordered was out of this world. It ranked next to some of the best pintxos I’ve had in the Basque Country. We also had some grilled ribs with potatoes that were humble and flavorful at the same time. Followed by a martini glass layered with egg yolk, pork cheeks and spicy potatoes, we were good to go!

Everything we ate in Burgos this summer was absolutely amazing but one of my favorite memories was from this small bar next to the Cathedral. The tapa came with our wine and we enjoyed it thoroughly along with the great ambience of the bar on a summer evening. Thank you Burgos for reminding me how much I adore being close to you and that I need to bring people there very soon!! I have so many memories here and cannot wait to make more.

Best simple tapa of cured cheese, chorizo and salchichón.

Love in Burgos….

Changing colors….

“Mom, it is so green!” These are the words from my daughter’s mouth every time we land in Boston, Chicago, New Jersey. She walks on the grass everywhere we go, sidewalks no longer exist for her. Grass, green and lush under her feet. She relishes this feeling along with every single rainstorm, walking happily as the drops wet her face and arms.

I remembered her words clearly as we drove through the arid plains of Castille a few weeks ago. On our way to the Basque Country from Madrid we took a couple of stops along the way. Our first was just for lunch in the town of Turégano on a crossroad between Segovia and Sepúlveda. On a hot afternoon in August the town is quiet to say the least. But, like many towns that I have visited in this area it’s grand castle towers over the main square and we are reminded of the centuries of history that this now quiet town has witnessed. Fernando the Catholic stayed here on his way to marry Isabel in Segovia in 1474.

Romanesque Church of Santiago

Next to the church of Santiago we found a nice posada where we had lunch. Throughout history posadas have been a place for weary travelers and their horses to rest and eat. We arrived a bit late for Spanish lunch time but were treated graciously and fed well, as it should be at a decent posada. I have a weakness for “judiones” whenever I am in this area. Tender white beans stewed with different pieces of pork. At home I prepare them vegetarian but when in Turégano……

Judiones de la Granja

The traditional festivities of Turégano begin today. I spend a lot of time explaining the “encierro” or “running of the bulls” when I’m working in Pamplona. I remind my travelers that it is important to know that we have encierros throughout Spain and Turégano is a perfect example. The statue on the way out of town reminds us of this. The festivities here include three days running wth the bulls along with their other celebrations.

We always prefer the road less traveled and so we find ourselves on the national highways and passing through these beautiful towns wherever we might be. The colors change drastically from one place to another but it is easy to find the beauty and history along the way.

August in Castilla y León
Santiago

elegance and quality on the Camino……..

 

image

From personal experience, this yellow arrow will always lead to somewhere magical. On one of our many excursions to Portugal we found ourselves on “La Via De La Plata Portugues”. This Midevil Route of the Path of St.James led us to the beautiful city of Braganza in the region of Tras os Montes, Portugal.  This city with human settlement dating back to the Paleolithic Age welcomed us with Christmas music played in speakers on the streets, an open fire in the plaza to warm our hands and its incredibly well preserved Castle dating from the 13h century.

image

We spent the night in the Solar de Santa Maria, a small hotel placed in the old home of the chief of police from 1639.  The owner asked at what time we would like breakfast the following morning.   When we came down we found the best spread I have ever seen,  set up just for the two of us. Homemade jams, Christmas sweets, fresh fruit, rolls and a variety of local cheese.  We rate hotels by their breakfast and this is definitely sharing the number one spot!

Magical Mountain

There is a magical place up high in the Pyrenees if you have the patience to travel the narrow highways and to keep going just when you thought you were already at the end of the road.  In the province of Huesca you will find the National Park of Ordesa and Monte Perdido.  It is a protected area and home to species such as the primula aricula or bear´s ear, a precious purple flower that grows on the calcareous rocks of the canyon.

iphone finally 825

If you follow one of the rivers with magic, the Cinca, it will take you to its headwaters at the Valley of Pineta.  In this breathetaking glacier valley you will find the waterfall that heads this river and one of the most peaceful places on earth.  The sound of cowbells and the river in the morning is a gift that is hard to replace. I have been blessed to sleep here many times in the past 16 months and I still can´t get enough of its greatness.

iphone finally 819 iphone finally 817

At the end of the road you will find the beautiful Parador, a small hermitage dedicated to the Virgin of La Pineta, and a cross country ski area with a small refuge.  You can choose to hike up further into the Monte Perdido (lost mountain) or to just wander around with the cows and do cartwheels as I choose to do.

iphone finally 316IMG_9694

Everytime I arrive I find the Valley in a different mood.  I have seen her covered in snow, flowing with waterfalls, cold and bare or lush green.  I never tire of discovering new parts of this magical place.  My love and I thought we discovered a “bar” once.  Well, we found a sign anyhow and were happy that we had brought our own wine.

iphone finally 2096

I look forward to returning in autumn and discovering more of the Lost Mountain.  To visit my friends, the cows and see how their babies have grown.  And to hopefully see my favorite of all, the chamois, a small goat that likes to hide from me lately.  Hasta Pronto, hasta la pròxima querido Monte Perdido.

IMG_9657iphone finally 826

Vinho Verde………good for the soul.

photo(10)

After leaving the Douro Valley we drove north towards the Minho river which is the natural border between Portugal and Spain.  This area of the country is absolutely gorgeous.  One of those places where you just want to unpack and stay for a very, very long while.  Lush green landscape is the backdrop for this river that is almost 2 kilometers wide where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean..

photo(11)

We drove to the town of Caminha one day for lunch.  Caminha is a small but very classy town located only a couple of kilometers away from the Ocean.  We sat down for lunch at a cafe  in the in the main square which is surrounded by beautiful Renaissance and Gothic houses.  This area of Portugal is known for a type of wine called Vinho Verde.  It literally means “young wine”.  Vinho Verde should be consumed within a year of bottling and is produced in red, white and rosè varieties.  Some people think it is difficult to drink due to the rich color but we love it!

Navidades 2014'15 037

The wine went perfect with our ¨light¨lunch of salad, a hamburger and a ¨bifana¨.  The Bifana is a sandwich of slowly simmered pork served with a mustard sauce on an excellent roll.  In retrospect we should have ordered two Bifanas and vetoed the burger.  It was absolutely perfect with a bit of ¨piri piri¨ and the vinho verde.  ¨Piri Piri¨is one of my favorite things about Portugal.  HOT SAUCE.  Always a few different varieties and always available.

After our very long lunch we ran, literally, to catch the sunset right where the Minho River meets the Atlantic.  It was definitely the perfect end to a perfect day.

Navidades 2014'15 038

New Year’s Eve in Trás-os -Montes Portugal

image

En route from Valladolid to Northern Portugal we decided spend New Years in the small city of Chaves in the region of Trás-os-Montes, just crossing over the border from Spain. The city and surrounding areas are known for it’s hot springs. The history of Chaves dates back to Paleolithic times and holds much to discover. It is also on the Portuguese Path’s leading to Santiago de Compostela.

image

The holiday season brings the city back to life with many locals who have emigrated to France. They are home to visit and the restaurants were filled. We wandered into a small place with excellent homemade food. The local cuisine is heart and a good wine is necessary to wash it down. The first dish that we ordered was Alheira, a local sausage with pork, turkey, chicken, bread, garlic and paprika. The origin dates back to the 17th century when the “new Christians” were trying to disguise that they still followed Kosher rule of not eating pork. Here it was served with two types of potatoes and cabbage.

image

Just in case the Alheira was not enough, we also shared a Feijoada. A dish of white beans, various pork products, tomato, carrot, and onion. It is eaten with rice. Luckily there is always a perfect green salad available to lighten up the meal.

image

It was a bone chilling New Year’s Eve in Chaves so we decided to end our meal at a funky little cafe that served up a couple of excellent gin tonics with red pepper seeds. Needless to say 2014 will be a New Years’ to not forget.

image

El txikiteo………………

photo(5)

I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Basque Country. This area of about 20,000 square kilometers is rich in its own tradition, culture, politics and gastronomy. Something special about their gastronomy is that men tend to be the cooks, not just in restaurants but in private homes and families. This is a unique part of their culture and what is the history behind the “Txoko” or closed gastronomical societies that were orignially only open to male members. The Txoco originally began in San Sebastian in the late 1800’s. A restaurant or a basement with a kitchen is rented by the society to cook, eat and socialize. Nowadays many Txokos also allow women to drink, eat and socialize within the txokos but not to cook.
photo(5)
Another great part of the Basque gastronomical tradition is the Txikiteo (chiquiteo). Friends gather in the early afternoon to go from bar to bar and enjoy small glasses of wine or beer accompanied by the ever elaborate pintxos (pinchos) which are usually small slices of bread topped by any artistical combination of ingredients. A pintxo could be pate with an anchovy, goat cheese with carmelized onion and cured ham, or wild mushrooms with garlic. Really there are no limits to the pintxo; sushi, grilled vegetables, a lebanese kebab. I have tried it all. For me they always go best with a glass of Txacoli, the typical white wine from the Basque country (more to follow).
photo(6)
The top of a bar all throughout the Basque Country is a colorful procession of pintxos and some of the best “food art” I have ever seen. In most bars you are given a plate and take what you like from the assortment on the bar. The bar person will then charge you by the amount of toothpicks on your plate. All on the honor system. Just the way life should be!
photo(7)

distracted in Northern Spain and Portugal………………

photo

To quote Ani Difranco, ¨ I just got kind of distracted.¨  With a new tour, with a new life, and with just about a new everything.  A good and healthy fresh start. And most of this distraction began up North on a new tour that I have been doing from Lisbon to Barcelona.  The saying is ¨what goes up, must come down¨………….well, not in my case.  I went up and never came back down.  So, since last March it has been the North for me, over and over and over again.  Happy and at home along my ever significant Path of St.James and eager to share every bit of what I love about this special part of the peninsula.  Sometimes our job on tour can feel like a bit of a roller coaster without a place to get off and rest your spinning brain.  But, I think I now have the chance to rest and to share a bit of my experience.

photo(3)photo(1)

 From the electrico in Lisbon to a fine port tasting in Porto, from the majestic maze of the Parador in Santiago de Compostela to the pintxos in the Basque Country.  The Guggenheim in Bilbao to my beloved chamois in the Aragonese Pyrenees.

photo(2)

This year has been a great adventure in travel, love and of course great food and wine.  All of which will follow soon.

photo(4)

My Favorite Places in Spain #2……………..Salamanca Part 1.

wedding in plaza mayor

 For me, Salamanca is a city of great extremes.  Intense heat and bone chilling cold.  Polished intellectuals and laid back Bohemians.  Extreme joy and happiness mixed with rigidity and formality. Passionate love and melancholy. 

rocking the market

Salamanca is  also home to the oldest University in Spain which was founded in 1218.  The  stone facades and walls of the city are covered with the names of students painted with a mixture of bull’s blood and oil;  a  permanent sign of the intense connection between the erudition and the deep Castilian traditions.  There are so many monuments to see in Salamanca that I often find myself overwhelmed and prefer to enjoy the culture of the street life and the most beautiful Plaza Mayor in the country. 

Casa Lis

Last summer however, when I was in Salamanca with my dear friends Val and Melissa I visited the Casa Lis, which houses the Museum of Art Nouveau and Art Deco.  After wandering through the beautiful museum we discovered the outdoor cafe and I sat down and contemplated the Rio Tormes over a nice glass of Cava.  That morning we had visited the garden that is dedicated to the amorous meetings of the two main characters in the novel, La Celestina.  Calixto and Melibea were their names.  The garden is now filled with padlocks and paintings that profess the eternal love of many modern couples.  Next to the garden you can also see the shelter for pilgrims on their way to Santiago.  Salamanca is on the Via de la Plata, the Path of St. James  that makes its way from Sevilla to Santiago de Compostela.  Thoughts of the Camino and the sight of pilgrims always makes me nostalgic,  a good reason for another glass of Cava.

from the lover's garden