Got into Madrid after a long train ride from Bilbao yesterday. Left Bilbao around 9:30am and got in around 2:40pm. Amazing, though, train travel doesn’t leave you feeling wiped out like air travel. I checked into the Hostal Persal, which was a bit of a rude awakening after the fancy Carlton in Bilbao. Basic room, two twins, nothing on the walls, but aggressively clean. Well located and two nights are cheaper than one at the other place. Went to my favorite Mercado de San Miguel for lunch. It has a huge market of tapas and you just walk around and buy little nibbles. Lots of fun. Madrid also has Celiacoso, a Gluten free bakery that is a pleasant place to hang out. Did a round of tapas crawling with Nancy Reynolds from The Camino Experience and then called it a night. Today, I got to the Prado, managed to dodge the line by using my ipad to buy a ticket online while waiting. As I got in the museum, a lady approached me an offered me a guided tour. I decided to do it and was glad I did. In an hour she took me to the most important paintings and explained the history and what to look for. Really worth it. Goya, Velasquez, Tintoretto, Rubens, Greco, Bosch. Wow, what a place. Checked in for my flight, or at least partially since I got a KLM boarding pass but not a Delta one. Oh well, sort that out tomorrrow. Airport bus from Plaza Cibeles to the airport is 5E. Always a mixture of emotions returning from these kind of trips. I’m acutely aware that Europe gets lots of things right, that we don’t even perceive that we are missing. Also notice things they clearly don’t get right, for instance full fluorescent restroom style lighting in fancy restaurants. Wine and food prices seem quite reasonable to outright inexpensive compared to the USA. Lots more people smoke cigarettes here, and any outdoor terrace or restaurant is considered fair game. Spain, at least, seems to have plenty of public restrooms, and you don’t see a lot of homeless people as compared to Seattle, SF or Honolulu.
Bilbao, day two.
Got up at a reasonable hour and headed to the Guggenheim so I’d be there just before it opened. It’s a short walk for where I’m staying and I found a cafe that would make me some breakfast “Sin Gluten.” The building for the museum is spectacular, but I literally saw almost nothing of any real interest within it. I admit that I’ve seen the Jeff Koons stuff before in Versaille, so that wasn’t new to me. Do I really need to travel to Spain to see a bunch of vacuum cleaners mounted on the wall? Basketballs floating in half full aquarium? (I’m not kidding, Koons must be laughing really hard) The Basquiat stuff seem to consist mainly of pictures of the artist defacing things with graffiti in New York in the ’80s. Ughhh. The ground floor had artistically laid out rusted metal. Come on folks, this is supposed to be one of the premier museums in the world, the building shouldn’t completely overshadow the art. Oh well. Took the Euskotran as far as it went in one direction, and then back to the central market. After much walking around and a few pintxos, I picked a place for a nice prix fixe lunch. After lunch, climbed massive amounts of steps to the Virgen del Begona church, which was locked up tight. Back down to Plaza nueva for a glass of wine and some blog work. Tomorrow I have a 6 hour train ride to Madrid, somehow way more pleasant and easy than the equivalent airplane ride.
Yesterday ended up being a long train ride. Because there was some kind of rolling strike I booked as 2 different tickets. That worked in my favor in that I had 3 hours in Burgos, a town I’ve been to twice before. I hopped a bus into town and went to my favorite restaurant, just in time for a late lunch. After a delicious lunch I had time to stroll around before taking the same bus back to the train station and another 3 hours to Bilbao. Bilbao was very booked up as was San Sebastian, and I ended up booking into a fancier hotel than I would normally choose. Have to say it’s nice! Firm bed, decent air handling and best of all, lots of space and FAST wifi! I got up in time to do the morning walking tour offered by the local TI. After that checked out the local market, which happens on Saturday mornings. Then tracked down some lunch in the old town district, and took the funicular to the top of town. Tomorrow will go to the Guggenheim. Last night’s attempt to go tango turned into the usual out of town, go to the address listed, show it to everyone, never heard of it affair. This was slightly unusual in that I didn’t even see an appropriate space. Oh well… So, Bilbao is pretty much the home of Pintxos and so they distinguish them from tapas. Here’s the word I got: With tapas, they are generally given free with a drink, whereas a Pintxo is charged for separately. A Pintxo generally has a toothpick holding it together, and can be a fairly elaborate construction of various items. In the old days a tapas was often served as a cover on a glass of wine, whereas a pinxto is usually a skewer of some sort.
Side note: Picture above was of Emi and Ian whom I shared dinner with in Samos. We all had the same instinct, which was to find the best restaurant in town and have a great meal. That involved walking to the end of town, but it was worth it. Ian and I took turns choosing wine, and we had a nice mixture of food. I heard about 3 days later that he had passed away. I don’t know anymore details, but, he had walked the Camino many times and was well liked. Remember life is short, don’t wait too long to try things, do things or follow your calling!
Although yesterday’s ride from near Pedrouza to Sangtiago was only about 23km, it was definitely one of the most miserable days I’ve had on the camino. It went from raining really hard to raining harder and being windy at the same time. I got to my rather nice upscale hotel looking like a drowned and slimed rat. They were very kind and non chalant about it all. I took my stuff up to the room and squished back down to return the bicycle to the rental firm. Once that was done, I opened my bags which I had fortunately placed in the bath tub. The rain cover on my pack had managed to trap water and about a gallon of water and mud came out. Thankfully, I pack my clothes in dry bags, so I had a change of clothes that was dry. Waited for my compostela at the Pilgrims office right across from my hotel. An underwhelming preprinted certificate. Managed some recuperation and shared dinner with Sean Murphy, an Irishmen that I’d met the night before. Today, I worked on trying to attach meaning to all the effort involved in this exercise. Spent the morning with a Catholic sister, Katherine, from Ireland who is running something called Camino Companions. She has seminars for people to try to help them process the experience. Ended up with some other Americans from Michigan and we read some poetry and answered some questions etc. All I can say is I’m very much still in process with it all. Had a fabulous lunch at the top rated place in Santiago, Abastos 2.0, which is right by the central market. They do a degustacion menu for 21 Euros for lunch and they bring you morsels of seafood for about an hour. Wouldn’t do it everyday, but when in Rome and the price was certainly fair. Tonight was a rather sad occasion as a mass was held for Denise Thiem, the American Pilgrim who was murdered by Astorga. It was well attended and very moving, with sections in English, but also the Spanish was spoken so properly and clearly that I could understand almost all of it. So sorry for her and her family, the huge irony being that she was from Phoenix, which almost certainly has homicide rate almost 10 times that of all of Spain put together. Anyway, was trying to figure out where to go next, and San Sebastian is so booked up that I couldn’t find anything all that affordable. So, headed to Bilbao on Friday. Of course a train strike almost nixed that, but then I found I could work around it by booking one ticket to Burgos and another from Burgos to Bilbao 3 hours later. Why the RENFE people couldn’t come up with that I don’t know. It most definitely pays to do your own searches.
Ventas de Naron to O Pedrouza, 54km = 33 miles.
Got a decently early start today. Unfortunately the forecast was wrong, and it was pouring rain for the first 12km to Palas de Rei. Eventually it stopped raining, but by the time I called it a day everything had a pretty good coating of slime. Note to self, ask for fenders next time! The goal for today was to get to Arzua, but I thought the place lacked charm and it was early in the afternoon, so continued toward O Pedrouzo. Eventually there was a nice looking place with reasonable rates just before the town, so I went to check it out. Run by an expat Brit, Rodger, who is obviously a detail kind of guy. I was able to hose the bike down (would hate to return it covered in mud) Hose the boots down etc… He’s done a full remodel on the place and it has stiff white sheets and towels that smell good. So tomorrow, only about 24km to Santiago. Hard to believe, as the whole thing is somewhere around 800km! It’s been an adventure, and I think I’m too sore to full process it. I booked myself in to Santiago for a couple of days and will plan to go to the Service at the Cathedral for Denise, the missing Pilgrim, on Wednesday night.
Samos to Vendas de Naron, 45km.
Today was a long day with lots of up down hill sections. Made it to Sarria in the morning in rain showers with lots of wind. Sarria is generally where the “100K” pilgrims start. Eg. the people who do this for the compostela, because Sarria is the nearest big town the 100Km marker and you need to walk at least 100km to qualify for a compostela. That said, there were large groups of people departing in the rain this morning and a huge overall increase in traffic on the camino. Interestingly enough, not that many bikes, probably saw less than 10 all day. (You need to bicycle 200km for a compostela.) I had intended to stay at either Portomarin or Palas de Rei tonight, but arrived at Portomarin around 1:00pm and didn’t find the town particularly nice, so decided to press on. About half way to Palas de Rei after a long climb, I stopped in a little hamlet for a coffee and they had a private room in their albergue, so given the weather and my general level of soreness, I decided to take it. Definitely basic, but there is a charm to these tiny mountain towns. Santiago is now within a few days range, probably slight less than 80km, so, I’m looking forward to being done with the bike shortly!
Villafranca del Bierzo to Samos, 60km.
Really long day. Left Villafranca just as the sun came up, and fairly shortly ended up on a huge climb. Think Ualakaa St. for 5-7 miles and you have the idea. Did lots of pushing the bike up the hill. Just over the top is a lovely stone village called O’Cebreiro, unfortunately a little overwhelmed in Bus tourists. Since it was a pretty good descent from there, I decided I could go on for awhile, and enjoyed a rocking many mile full out highspeed coast down the hill. After a few ups and downs, called it a night in Samos. Famous for a huge monastery, the church was occupied by a big local wedding with everyone turned out in their finery. I met Ian, a former pub owner from England, retired, and Emily, a French banker, and we located the best place in town to have dinner and proceeded to eat quite well.
El Acebo to Villafranca del Bierzo, 39.5km
Today’s escapade started with a long ripping downhill. All the hill climbing yesterday paid off with a series of switchbacks down the mountain. Classic alpine road type stuff. Being on a rental bike with stuff on the back, I kept the speed under control much more than I would have on my own bike. Although Ponferrada was promised to be a navigational mess, my Pocket Earth App. and the downloaded GPS tracks meant that I didn’t get lost. What followed was a series of ups and downs, almost as if doing interval training. By the time I reached Villafranca del Bierzo, even though it was only shortly after 1:00pm I was pretty cooked. This is the only big town, 6800 inhabitants, nearby, so it didn’t make sense to press on and end up in a tiny roadside place. Bierzo has a good Plaza Mayor with all the umbrellas and places to eat. I found a reasonable B&B in short order in a 300+ year old house for the night. Tomorrow promises another almost all day climb up to O’Cebreiro. Mileage wise it might be a short day, but I’m sure it will be strenous! It’s interesting to note that much more than walking, the topography is what makes the bike riding strenous. You could ride many, many miles on the flat or down hill, but even a slight uphill grade wears you down.