My life and my heart have been tightly intertwined with the Camino de Santiago for 25 years. I did my first pilgrimage, the French Way, 25 years ago. Innocent and alone. After that month on the Way I knew that I would never be the same again. 10 years later I did my second pilgrimage, the Northern Way, with quite a bit more knowledge and more money in my pocket. The Camino didn’t fail to change me once again. Since then I have repeated the pilgrimage with many groups of students and adults. Each time has been it’s own precious experience. It has become one of the most sacred pieces of myself.
Today, July 25th, we celebrate the Day of St.James, the Apostle Santiago, James the Great. The Patron Saint of Spain. Every person can choose their own interpretation of the history and legends regarding the pilgrimage and Santiago himself. That is what makes it the Camino magical.
Pilgrims uplift and encourage each other saying, “Ultreia” translated as further..beyond…come now…come on!! The original saying was “E ultreia, e suseia, deus adjuva nos”. Simply translated as, let’s keep going further with God’s help. You can also just say, “Buen Camino!”
We passed through a bit of two paths that run through Portugal on the way to Santiago in the past few days. I could feel my heart pulling my back to the Camino, back to Santiago de Compostela. My city of stars. A big part of my heart is always there and has been there especially for the past few months. See you soon Santiago, see you soon old friend!
“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
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 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.
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.
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.
“You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.” Emilio Estevez, The Way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Some of my favorite coastline in the Basque Country is between Bilbao and San Sebastian on the Cantabrian sea. Zarauz is a relaxing village that comes to life in the summer offering excellent food and one of the longest beaches along the Cantabrian sea. Last year we spent a few days in the nearby fishing town of Getaria and walked the 3 mile seaside walk to Zarauz a few times to enjoy the beach and to dine at Karlos Arguiñano, a restaurant owned by the famous television chef. The walk between the two towns is right along the Northern Route of the Camino de Santiago. We fell in love with the rhythm of Zarauz and decided to spend a few nights there in a hotel and returned again this summer with the van.
Last year we stayed in a hotel right in the main square and there was a protest going on about the attempt to close one of the local bars due to political reasons. In the Basque Country there are bars called “Herriko Tavernas” where members of the Basque Nationalist organization meet. They are also just regular bars with excellent pintxos. The Spanish Government is trying to close them down. The protest consisted of the signing a proposition, selling t-shirts and live music.
One of our favorite bars, also in the main square, has a great display of pintxos. Everyday at 10 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. the bar was quickly covered in various types of Tortilla (spanish omelette). Some are sliced in half and layered with different fillings like crab salad, ham and cheese or tuna salad with piquillo peppers. Others are prepared with potato and onion, chorizo and peppers, or any mixture of fresh vegetables. The choices are endless.
The classic Pinxto, which should be eaten in one big bit, is the “Gilda”. Named after Rita Hayworth as “Gilda”, this pintxo is spicy, salty and green! An olive, a spicy pickled pepper and a cured anchovy are what you get on this long toothpick. Whether you are in Zarauz or any other bar in the Basque Country you can always find a “Gilda” surrounded by many other plates of art that are prepared to touch all of our senses.
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..
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!
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.
I am a little behind on posting but, “mas vale tarde que nunca”. And now I am on a clean eating spree so it is good to go back and reminisce about the amazing food we enjoyed on our trip.
After we left the small city of Chaves my wonderful partner decided to take us on a drive through the beautiful Douro Valley, famous for it’s gorgeous scenery and internationally renowned wine production. The whole region is filled with “Quintas” or wine producing farms. Many of which are built on slopes to protect the vineyards from the humid winds. Before stopping in the town of Peso de Règua we took a short detour so my love could show me the ¨lock¨ that raises and lowers the boats in order for them to pass through the different levels of water in the Douro River. I had never seen a lock before or my memory is blocked. I was so amazed by how it worked (and freezing cold) that I forgot to take a picture! But you can look it up on the internet or watch it https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MDEG5p3IwA here! This one has an 89 foot drop. My next trip (besides going back to the USA) is a boat trip on the Douro.
We were a bit tired from New Year’s Eve and very hungry so we stopped in the town of Règua for lunch. We found an excellent restaurant, Castas e Pratos, that was built right in the train station. Being New Years Day they had roasted baby goat as a specialty. It was served with the most delicious rice, roasted potatoes and sauteed broccoli rabe. In Portugal everything has to be served with potatoes and rice. Atkins would not be happy. The other dish we ordered was filet mignon with a gorgonzola sauce and risotto with wild mushrooms. Surprisingly not a potato on the plate.
The wine list was a book, being in the Douro region. The service was impeccable and we enjoyed every moment. We can´t wait to go back!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This year has been a great adventure in travel, love and of course great food and wine. All of which will follow soon.
El Camino de Santiago or The Path of St.James is something that I hold dear to my heart. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Campostela has many different routes that begin in various places throughout Spain and the rest of Europe. I’ve walked it twice, two different routes, at two very different moments in my life. For me, the Camino is filled with fear and denial overpowered by magic and love. At the moments when you aren’t looking for it, you will always find a sign that points you in the right direction or gives you that last bit of energy needed to move forward. On my last Camino across Northern Spain we had “un día de estos” or “one of those days”, exhausting and eternal. It seemed like we would never arrive at our destination that day.
When we did make it across a very long and slightly creepy dam, we found a “town” with a closed down hotel that only brought one image to my mind……. the film Psycho!!! My first thought was, ” let’s get the heck out of here”. After hightailing it 3 more miles up a very dark and windy road we finally got to our new destination, Grandas de Salime. We were greeted with a warm wonderful meal and a place to rest. Although I had many flashes of horror films as we hiked those last 3 miles, I knew that we would be okay. Earlier on that day I had found the most amazing design that someone had left on the earth. The Camino brings it all to the surface.