Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Legend of St. Rete

Rainy Day walking along the highway. Rainy Day in Santander - a not very interesting big city. I have to include a picture, so here's a confusing one - 20 minutes to go 4.9 k - because it's by boat. My map only has this crossing, no land crossing even listed. Father Ernesto said last night that there's another place in a day where you need to do a exclusive train bridge crossing or walk an extra 7k. So even pilgrims must abandon their feet occasionally.

As I walked along the lonely, rainy road, I recalled the story of St. Rete - a variation of which I related at an open mic at Burning Man after our first Camino seven years ago.

The Catholic Church has a pantheon of Saints that are enlisted when God needs a little extra bugging about our entreaties. St Francis and St Roque are the only two I ever recognize in picture or in stone - Francis for his stigmata and Friar Tuck haircut and Roque because he is usually accompanied by a dog that is bringing him bread. St Rete, aka the Saint of Timely Advice, is not (yet) officially part of the Catholic Super Friends.

There was a young man named Rete from Switzerland who went to walk the Camino de Santiago. Ten days into his journey, he turned over in bed one night, and dislocated his shoulder. The doctor he consulted told him his journey was done - he could not carry a pack with such an injury. Head hung low sitting on a bench on the street outside the doctor's office, he looked up and noticed little old ladies coming and going from the grocery store across the street - each of them with a small cart trailing behind them. Shortly thereafter, Rete returned to the trail pulling his own pack-laden cart with his good arm. It was unbelievable what type of terrain he covered with his modern day mule and the speed at which he traveled. He often beat us to the next town.

After meeting Rete, and getting his most interesting story, we noticed that he seemed to have quite good insights as to the Camino. Saints are required to have 3 miracles to gain this title (post-humous miracles are fine - but don't worry - nothing bad happens to Rete). The first timely advice Miracle occurred at our favorite town of O'Cebreiro. The Albergue on the far side of town was filling up fast - his advice, "not a good hostel, if you can find a reasonably priced pension in the center, take it". Running around avoided, Mike-Janine argument diffused, and no trip required to next town to find beds (which many pilgrims were forced to do) - Miracles do not have to be large.

Rete's second miracle steered us in a different direction. He encouraged to stay in the 500 year Old Convent in Samos that had 100 hostal beds in one room. Not the best night's sleep but a unique experience in every way.

The Timely Advice Miracle #3 occurred when he suggested we not follow the prescribed destination (top of the page of the map for those of you who have read earlier posts), and instead stop a little early at a very nice B&B in Morgade. We did so but there was no room in the Inn. It was lunch time and we decide to dine, informing the woman we were interested in a room if for some reason she had a cancelation. Lunch was great and as we were getting ready to move on, the phone rang. Room canceled - awesome place to stay for the night.

A post-Camino miracle also occurred. As mentioned, I told a version of this story at open mic at Burning Man. I had notes but the story was not tight and in preparation I needed to get the bit down to 5 minutes. I walked off into the desert to work on my timing. Far from my camp and on the edge of civilization (no more tents, just deep playa), I realized I didn't have a watch. As this happened, I looked around and LITERALLY saw the Virgin Mary inside a Guacamole - the St. Mary of the Guacamole Camp was immediately to my left. I took it as a sign, went in, explained my predicament, and successfully borrowed a watch for an hour. Both the Playa and Camino provide.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017


I'm currently on the Camino Del Norte (or the Northern Way). Janine is on the Camino de Frances (the French Way). The vistas here are hard to beat, but I'm a beach freak - I'm assuming if you loved endless wheat and corn fields (and lots of little villages) you might prefer the French Way. But one thing I definitely like about the traditional Camino better than my current route are the housing options: More frequent towns, more choices, wider range of prices. On the traditional way there is usually a town every 5 km and usually some place to stay in most of them, often an Albergue.

El Albergue de Abeulo Pueto
The Albergue is essentially a hostel for pilgrims. Often you can't get in unless you have a credential ( a pilgrim's passport with stamps from various churches and stopovers along the way). They are often full late in the day (2 nights ago I slept in the garden). They usually charge 15 Euro at the high end (if private) and 5 at the low end (if municipal). Some are strictly donation. Janine tends to not like Albergues with good reason: we're often in a large room with 14 other people, 5 of them with severe sleep apnea. The common showers are often a little gross and out of hot water (last night). But occasionally they are amazing, such as the one I am in tonight.

I've met several travelers going backwards on the Northern trail - they all said "Make sure you stay in Guemes, it's really special". It is.

Father Ernesto, after traveling the world in his Land Rover, returned to his birthplace to rebuild his family home and start good works in Spain and abroad. About 18 years ago, he saw the opportunity to help the pilgrims and reach some like-minded folks. The place has a dozen or so rooms and can sleep about 70. It's the first Albergue I've been to that serves three meals a day - I made it in time for lunch which was just as delicious as dinner. It's run by a small army of volunteers including a Californian and a young women from England who translated from Spanish to English the talks given by Father Ernesto and his helpers about the history of the Albergue and the Camino.

Father Ernesto is a proponent that the struggles and joys on the Camino are a metaphor for life. The real secret is not so much to make it to the end but to help each other along the way.

Two days for the price of One

Yesterday, which seems ages ago, was a trek across town with full pack to the Guggenheim in Bilbao. (Brief stop, by chance, at the Inglesia de San Francisco de Asis). Richard Serra with his free standing 12 foot torqued steel plates were worth the price of admission. Toulouse, Claude, and their pals were also okay.

Massive Steel Installation by Richard Serra

Morning Fog and Del Norte Arrows
A hot walk across the city got me to a semi-local bus that delivered me to the coastal town Castro-Urdiales where I somewhat successfully managed to pick up the Camino Del Norte - another road that leads to Santiago but along the northern coast of Spain. The ankle seems to be doing better and it needed a test drive. Supposedly accommodations are somewhat sparser on the Del Norte and this was certainly true my first night - I ended up sleeping on my air mattress / pool raft / sciatica relief cushion in the garden. It was a nice night, so it was all fine except the occasional bug and some light fog that required me to cover myself with the poncho in the middle of the night.

The day was spectacular with shortcuts supplied by locals and seaside vistas. I did take one wrong turn near my destination and ended up walking about an extra hour - backtracking on the good advice of a friendly Spaniard who was particularly intrigued with Lombard Street in San Francisco.

I bypassed the massive beach town of Laredo to stay a little further down the road in Santoña - another resort town that has probably seen better days.

Several people I've met are walking the Del Norte backwards, and they've all mentioned tomorrow's destination of Guemes as a special place.

Sunday, July 16, 2017


Since I stayed in San Sebastián, the self-proclaimed gastronomical center of the universe (unlike Fremont, that does not categorize the centrality), I thought I'd write about Pintxos and a life lesson.

Life Lesson #1: Always ask your waiter what they like.

This doesn't mean you can't refuse their advice or steer them towards your taste - but 8 times out of 10, if you are an adventurous eater, your waiter will nail something you never would have ordered. This was never more true in the Pintxos world.

Most bars in the Basque Country have an insane array of food, usually atop a piece of bread, that you pick and pay 1 to 3 Euros for. For many in Pamplona, and Estella, and San Sebastián, and Bilbao, these can constitute a meal - after eating these for almost a week, I tend to disagree, but I am a curmudgeon.

The tapas wave hit the US about two decades ago and while fun, always seemed to me a scheme to order more food and run up my bill. Pintxos, while I actually love many of the ones I've tried, seem to have turned this capitalistic corner.

Regardless - I encourage whether you are ordering food at an Appleby's (gasp) or a Mom-and-Pop roadside stand, ask what they like and try to let go.

Here's how my adventure unfolded in San Sebastián :

I took a bite of the Bacalao
First time out. I was jonesing for some sardines and anchovies so I pick one of each and then asked the waiter, in Spanish (aren't you impressed), whatever you think is best. What he brought me cost a bit more, and I waited for 20 minutes, but the result was a Foie a la Plancha (liver!) that almost made me cry it was so good.

The next night out, I simply asked the bar man to give me three of what he liked. Strangely one had both anchovies and sardines, one had a purée of Bacalao (cod), and the third had mushrooms with grilled goat cheese. I was in heaven.

The forgettable plate
Statistics do catch up with us. At the next bar that evening, I tried the same tactic and the food was somewhat forgettable.

Life Lesson #2: Nothing makes food tastes better than being hungry. Not hungry? Have an apple or some protein and skip a meal.

Here Endeth the Lesson. St. Mike

Learn more about the Tapas vs. Pinchos debate:

Saturday, July 15, 2017

And then I found out it was made of people!!!

Just a little Solyent Green click bait. Read previous post, better pictures.

Going to keep it short (and parenthical) today. The picture is a local delicacy from the Panaderia below my hostel. Essentially cake with a small cream center - their version of a Krispy Kreme. (Not really, but I had to make a Winston-Salem Reference - speaking of which - shout out to my sister - I met a Welsh guy who worked at Camp Cheerio - although probably this century - ouch).

Great wandering in San Sebastián. Swimming in ocean. Good Grisham novel in Kindle (thank you Seattle Library). Multiple glorious walks on beach. More Pintxos later tonight (I had a Foie a la plancha last night that almost made me cry).

They are setting up for the Jazz Festival. Sadly I'll be gone. Off to Bilbao tomorrow (Perhaps Samwise Gamgee the next day?)

Friday, July 14, 2017

Off the Road

Janine's Birthday is the day I left the Camino. It's convenient to blame my sprained ankle - I'm actually surprised how well I've done on it for a week. The day was somewhat unfortunate but it just worked out well on the calendar and it sounds like she had a great day without me. Walking 20 miles because she and her compatriots just felt like walking.

This morning I rose early with her and caught a 6:45 bus to Donostia (the Basque name for San Sebastián ). Shortly after getting off the bus I ran into a fellow pilgrim (we recognize each other by our limp and our scallop shells). He had walked much of the Camino including the northern route (the traditional route is called the French Way). I had pondered walking a day or two up north after a couple of days off. He encouraged my plan - suggesting I walk a few days to the west of Bilbao. I'll likely do that. He, like everyone else, made it a point to mention we were at the grastronomical center of the universe (his caveat: western food).

As much as I think I'm a desert person, I so love to walk along the beach. It was overcast and yet I was overjoyed to be walking sand with the waves washing against my feet as the myriad of children in surf school ran back and forth on my path. San Sebastián is a very touristy town but they do it well. The buildings are a mix of ancient churches and more recent colorful beach high rises that all seem to blend well. The aquarium was wonderful (although a little heavy on the maritime history even with the audio guide). I haven't been too hungry today so I've mainly been feasting with my eyes on the fantastic layouts displayed in all of the tapas (Pintxos) bars. I've taken my nap so I'll be off to explore the food and the nightlife shortly.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

A day late and a Euro short

Despite having lots of free time yesterday, it was suddenly almost midnight and I had not yet written my daily musings. Now I sit at a late morning breakfast outside an incredible bakery on the walking promenade in Burgos - a wonderful metropolitan city with much of its 12th century charm in tact.

Even though we hiked ahead two days ago, yesterday's walk was still a hard five hours including several miles through an uninspiring river park leading into the city. We booked ahead at what looked to be a wonderful 3 start hotel for 2 nights. The room was fair but the view of the cathedral was beyond expectations - perfectly framed in our full length window - just 100 meters from our hotel. The Cathedral was more stunning than the one in Logroño, especially the stone motifs around the back of the altar. Fun Fact: A Cathedral is church where a bishop is seated - Cathedra is the Latin word for seat. (Not researched: but it's what I remember from an audio-guide - feel free to fact check, I'm offline)

Burgos cathedral from our room

We managed to wind our way through the labyrinth of restaurants behind the Cathedral and found a gem named Moritz. We simply pointed at the couple next to us and said, "We'll have that". It was so good that we returned to the same restaurant for dinner with our new friend, Marie from Montreal. Later we found it was one of the highest ranked restaurants in Yelp.


The well regarded Museum of Evolution of Humans (amusingly, to me, called MEH) was worth another hour or so of exploration time. A pilgrim's mass and a brief visit to the ongoing Folklore Festival performance rounded out our day.

We rest today. No packs and minimal walking in sandals. Tomorrow, will bring a big change. Janine will head off to the Meseta (a boring high plain) towards León. I'm taking a break. I knew going in that 37 days of walking was probably more than I cared to do. We've now done more than our first trip or our Italian walk. I think I'm off by bus to the beach town of San Sebastián on the Northern Coast and I'll see where that leads me. I'll meet up with Janine in about 8 days in León to continue he walk (with hopefully a well rested ankle).