Kate and I keep a personal journal to document our travels. In it, I usually add little drawings to highlight certain memories. Below, you can find some pages from our first ten days on El Camino.
Kate and I keep a personal journal to document our travels. In it, I usually add little drawings to highlight certain memories. Below, you can find some pages from our first ten days on El Camino.
As much effort as we put into proving otherwise, we are still children at heart no matter our age. At no time is this more apparent than when we unexpectedly find ourselves confronting a smell, or taste, or sight of something long forgotten that makes us feel like we did long before attaining the overcelebrated title of maturity. For us, what transported our minds to a more youthful state was the window of a chocolate shop that lied down a glittering hallway in Brussels on a gloomy December day. Trimmed in glowing evergreen branches that illuminated the red poinsettia leaves running alongside it, the shop offered a cinematic picture of Christmas that beckoned us towards it. Practically pressing our noses to the glass, we peered inside the shop as elvish workers strolled about the gold and burgundy trimmed store. Sweets of every shape and size filled the shelves with the crown jewel of the collection being, in our mind anyway, the pralines which, befitting of their value, were neatly displayed behind a glass case much like a fine jewelry would be. The value of the two were indistinguishable to us.
Across the hall, the aroma of fresh waffles and chocolate sauce demanded the attention of our noses, which we promptly followed only to be distracted by a nearly life size cookie depiction of St. Nicholas in a speculoos shop. Now, if the word speculoos does not send you salivating, you should know that the cookie can be best described as thin, crunchy, caramelized, and infused with flavors of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and cardamom among others. Perhaps now you can understand our distraction at the sight of them and also, perhaps, our childlike joy at finding ourselves amongst a heavenly array of sweets. There was only one problem, we were vegan and everything described above was most definitely not. Did I mention that the disposition of children is also very flexible? Along with our obsession over sugary treats, it appeared that we would be adopting that trait as well, if only for our week-long stay in Brussels.
Like our other stops in Europe after finishing El Camino, our main purpose for traveling to the Belgian capital was to visit friends. This time, it would be to see Doriane, whom we had shared a house with in Spain in 2012 and who had traveled to the States to be a bridesmaid in our wedding in 2016. It was time to return the favor, and we were very glad we did, if not only to see a good friend, then also to experience the festive mood of the city as it kicked off its holiday season.
And of course, no blog about a visit to Doriane would be complete without mention of her cat Pumpkin Pie, or as his friends know him, Pumpkin, whom we will pay homage to in the next two photos.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Man oh Manny,
you really had to go.
Four hundred years of one steady flow.
You don’t seem to care
that people can see.
Don’t you want some privacy?
My only request
for the sake of this town,
is that when you finish, put the toilet seat down.
Most places Kate and I travel to require our family members back in the States to pull out the nearest map before being able to appreciate our excitement in going there. “Oh, Raja Ampat?! … And that’s in…Indonesia. Okay…which is…above Australia kind of. Okay, cool!” Knowledge of our destination’s geographical location never quite cut it though and it usually wasn’t until after our trip, when pictures and blogs had been posted, that family members were truly able to share in our excitement for having visited the places that we had. It was refreshing then, to have a city on our itinerary as synonymous with international travel as London was. Finally others would be able to take part in our enthusiasm prior to our trip.
Never before had we been to a place depicted in so many movies, tv shows, books, songs, and the like. Seeing double decker buses whiz past us, red telephone booths dotting the street, and the Union Jack waving from atop the Houses of Parliament, we were positively star struck; like getting to spend a few days with a celebrity. It was a feeling that would last for the entirety of our brief four days in the city. Some may argue that that is far too short a time to see London, and I would agree, but in a way, it was perfect. We were able to leave the city at the peak of our excitement in being there and, for that, it will always retain a special place in our memories.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Hop off the bus and look around,
Tower Bridge is easily found.
While passing through Trafalgar Square
observe the lions’ stately stares.
Spin around the London Eye
to see the city scrape the sky.
Watch Houses of Parliament wield their power
while Big Ben tolls at every hour.
Near St. Paul’s stretches Millennium Bridge,
Be sure to look down at each thin ridge.
There are treasures there easily missed,
not found on any tourist’s list.
Tiny wads of discarded gum
have been shaped and painted for a bit of fun.
Once forgotten, dismissed as trash,
they’ve found a home in an artist’s cache.
On our last day in Belarus, we spent the afternoon walking around Minsk looking for a sign labeled “сувенир.” If you happen to read Cyrillic, the alphabet of the Slavic world, congratulations, you can skip ahead. If not, take a wild guess at what that word might translate to. A couple of hints, it is pronounced almost exactly the same as its English counterpart. Need another one? The sign pertained to a shop where we would be able to find traditional Belarusian keepsakes to take back to the States with us. Still can’t crack it? Perhaps you can use this phonetic key to help: с=s, у=u, в=v, е=e, н=n, и=i, and р=r. Yes, “сувенир,” is “souvenir.” If you enjoyed doing that and are amused at how a word pronounced exactly the same can look so different, then you may understand just how fun it was for Kate and I to learn the Cyrillic alphabetand try to decipher signs, seeing if they bore any resemblance to their English translations. A few more of our favorites were:
While we found the most joy in deciphering common items like those above, perhaps our favorite contrast between the two alphabets was for the city of Nezvizh, which in Belarusian was written as “Нясвіжскі” (pronounced “knee-ez-Vee-chee”). There, we planned to tour the city’s palace, which dated to the 16th century and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Belarus. Before being allowed to enter though, we had to go through our first ever mandatory coat check, where our coats were taken from us with such sternness and efficiency that we almost felt as if we had done something wrong by choosing to dress warmly that day. Being a bit chillier than we had hoped to be after being unburdened of our coats, we began to tour the palace, where we were confronted with the excessiveness of wealth, inspiring in us equal feelings of awe and envy, as all displays of wealth seem to do.
Prior to the trip, Belarus’s history had been completely unknown to us and we were now coming face to face with the physical manifestations of its grandeur. As a part of the ill-fated Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the land and people of present day Belarus were once members of one of the largest, most populous and most powerful empires of the Middle Ages. It remained this way for the better part of three centuries until the Russian and Germanic forces that bordered it began eating away at its prominence. We were glad that remnants of its glorious past were still on display for us to have a glimpse into.
Perhaps the easiest (read “least fun”) translation we came across was the town of Mir which was unceremoniously translated as “Мір.” There, we would tour a castle that shared its name with the town. We thought that the name for the castle, which is Belarusian for “peace,” was a rather Orwellian name to bestow upon a military fortress. Inside, we roamed its vast halls and elaborate rooms, though it was its exterior that intrigued us the most. This created a dilemma as seeing the outside of the castle involved being outside, a feat that presented a significant challenge as the weather was in an arctic kind of mood that day.
As we went outside, we were thrust into the grips of winter and shuffled about the castle’s grounds in a futile attempt to stay warm, teetering all the while between our desire to see as much of it as we could and our increasingly more urgent desire to find a warm place to escape into. Before succumbing to the latter, we made one more heroic push against the gusts of frigid air in a quixotic attempt to walk around the grounds outside the castle so we could view it from afar. As these grounds were even more open to the elements than we had been when in the castle, our heroism didn’t last long. Kate made it about one hundred yards in, turned around, looked at the castle for about five seconds, chattered “Okay, good enough,” and shivered her way back to the cafe where our friends Emmet and Olga were waiting for us. Foolishly, I continued on, though once bodily numbness became an issue, I quickly abandoned my pursuit to circumnavigate the castle and scampered back to the cafe to join them. There, over a cartoonishly large cup of hot cocoa, and some of the more delicious Belarusian food we would have during our time in the country, Kate and I had a long and painful thaw as our toes and fingertips regained feeling. Just as we were beginning to recall what warmth and comfort felt like, it was time to leave.
Towards the end of our time in Belarus we began feeling very confident about our Cyrillic skills, so much so that I assured everyone that I could comfortably split from the group and follow road signs to meet up with them at a predetermined destination. My reason for doing so was to get some pictures of Belarusian houses, whose colorful facades had intrigued me since our first day in the country. “It’s very easy, just look for this sign, take a right, and then the next left and that road will take you directly there,” Olga explained to me. “Got it,” I said. I didn’t have it. Not even one hundred yards into the walk I saw the street sign that I thought could possibly be the one she was talking about…and walked right past it. As it turns out, like with the Roman alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet has different fonts and letters can look slightly different depending on which font is used. So, despite the letters on the sign looking similar enough to the ones I was expecting to see, they were still just different enough for me to convince myself that I should continue lumbering forward. It wasn’t until I got to the edge of town and the road I was walking on turned into a highway that I suspected that I may have missed my turn. I frantically retraced my steps through the rapidly darkening landscape, making guesswork of where to turn and, by complete dumb luck, happened across the store where we were supposed to meet. As it turned out, beer had saved the day. Kate, Emmet and Olga, justifiably worried that I was lost, were planning to get in the car and drive around to look for me until they remembered that they had forgotten to pick up beer in the store and went back in to get it. I arrived just as they were checking out. The panicked moment was brief, but worth it as I was able to capture the houses that I had become so endeared by.
We’ve come to look forward to seeing what seemingly mundane things capture our attention when visiting a new country. If you had asked me before traveling to Belarus what I thought would intrigue me the most, grand medieval castles and palaces or modern everyday houses, I would undoubtedly have chosen the former. But, as I look back on our time in Belarus, it is the houses that come to mind first along with the language whose characters, masquerading as the familiar Roman alphabet, twisted our minds time and again trying to discover what familiar word lay behind them. We’re thankful to have been able to see all of the incredible sites that we have throughout our travels, but it’s the unexpected places, people, and experiences in between that have stuck with us the most, and for those, we are even more grateful.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Groups shuffle past
frozen in frames,
at each passerby
who absently takes in
and scarcely scans
their golden name plates
They pass through
From family trees,
that now encases them.
their roots stood firm,
growing into a home
to live their lives
in a palace meaning peace.
the castle is a museum,
as disconnected from its visitors
as it is from its former inhabitants.
A part of a holiday,
a piece of an itinerary.
Below, you can find some pictures that didn’t quite fit in to any of our posts about Belarus, but that we thought were worth sharing still.
Nothing quite captures the imagination like a good, old-fashioned ruin. One can fill their hollow shells with as many fantastic stories as they wish, conjuring up a cocktail of questions that are just as entertaining to answer as they are to think of.
Belarus’s Ruzhany Palace was no exception to this. As we toured its dilapidated remains, we wondered at the idea that the ruins we were walking through used to be a center of bourgeois life in one of the largest and most populous empires of medieval Europe. Hallways once tread by kings and queens now bore a carpet of grass and dirt. Grand halls once famed for their literary collection and the world-renowned theater troupes that performed inside of them, now harbored a mini-forest, collections of bushes and twigs replacing the vast collections of books and art that once called them home. Blurring the line between the two extremes was a thick fog, concealing hidden corners and obscuring the blemished state of the palace. We found that, if we unfocused our eyes just enough, the imagination didn’t have to work too hard for an image of what the palace once was to come into focus.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
I wander through
covered in tapestries
woven by brittle vines
and decaying leaves.
My feet sunk
into plush carpet
of rich soil and fragrant grass.
I find myself
in a grand ballroom,
or perhaps a kitchen,
a whisper of stairs clings
to the crumbling brick wall.
once closed off to the outside
is now open to the elements
to hold court.
offer their winged subjects
places for shelter and rest.
Breezes loosen seeds
from dried flowers,
scattering them about the earth.
They take root, new life rising up
to join the old.
I watch through the fog,
marveling at the harmony
of nature’s law.
In the summer of 1941, two years into the onset of World War II, German and Soviet soldiers were still serving side by side in a fortress in Belarus, their complacency with one another kept afloat by the buoy of a non-aggression pact signed two years earlier. Tides were rapidly turning though as Hitler grew increasingly dubious of the slumbering Soviet bear lurking in the north. The pact, like a buoy in the face of a tsunami, was doomed.
On June 22, with the tactical flip of a switch, Operation Barbarossa, whose end goal was nothing less than the seizure of Moscow and the extinguishing of the Soviet empire as a threat to the Nazi agenda, was initiated. At Brest Fortress in Belarus, German soldiers began firing on the Soviets, forcing them to scramble into a frenzied counter-offensive against people who had been perceived allies just moments before. The capture of the fortress, like the operation that spawned it, did not go as planned though. For one, the Soviets offered far greater resistance than the Germans had anticipated. Also, the Soviets had an important ally, the Russian winter, and their lopsided immunity to it when compared to their German foes, who died in the hundreds of thousands due to their ill-equipped gear.
Brest Fortress was captured long before winter arrived, or fall or even mid-summer for that matter, entering German hands on June 29. Despite the swift takeover though, the defenders of the fortress were stingier than anticipated (the last Soviet soldier wasn’t captured until July 23), which did its part in interrupting the Nazi push towards Moscow. Because of this, the fortress played a pivotal role in the turning point of the war and earned it a mythical standing among the annals of Soviet propaganda; an esteemed status still appreciated among its visitors today.
A dense, unmoving fog lay spread across the landscape. Out of its depths one can make out the faint outlines of familiar figures: houses and cars and fences making their presence known through their clouded, somber forms. Above all of these rises an unfamiliar silhouette, the bulbous dome of an Eastern Orthodox Church, its figure sitting unceremoniously through a view splintered by the bare branches of a nearby tree. We are in Belarus and one could say that a similar fog lay over our understanding of the country; our knowledge of its culture and history just as obscured as our view of its landscape. Luckily, we were visiting our friends, one of whom grew up in Belarus, so our knowledge about the country, unlike the fog that would occupy its terrain for almost the entirety of our time there, would become significantly less hazy.
If asked to name a fact about Belarus, most people would struggle to come up with one. When calling to inform my bank that I would be visiting the Eastern European country and not to block my card while there, the teller on the other end asked which country Belarus was in. Now, while we at least knew it was a country, and could perhaps point it out on a map, nestled in between its better known neighbors of Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland, the ceiling of our knowledge topped out there. Some may recognize Belarus from its cameo in HBO’s Chernobyl and most anyone would recognize its translated name “White Russian” as an alcoholic beverage. But, like a landscape obscured by fog, there is much more to the country than one might initially think. For starters, Belarus is a proud owner of several European superlatives, including being home to the continent’s largest forest, which earned it the nickname “the lungs of Europe” and is even represented on the country’s flag in the form of a large, green stripe. It is also home to Europe’s largest land animal, the bison, and its most dictatorial state, with pride in the latter varying depending on who you ask. And, so as not to end the list with mention of a dictatorship, Belarus manufactures the world’s largest dump trucks.
Our time in the country began at our friends Emmet and Olga’s guesthouse (Holiday Home Olenia), which sat on the outskirts of Belovezhskaya Pushcha Forest. As the fog surrounding the guesthouse dissipated, we realized that it was hiding far less than we had imagined, namely, a collection of sleepy cottages, the quirky blue body of the church, and, of course, trees. “It’s better during the summer,” they reassured us, painting a picture of green across the landscape filled with flowers and life, though this was unnecessary as we found the scenery beautiful even at its blandest. Inside the homestay, the Danish concept of hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah” which is appropriate given that adhering to the concept feels like getting a warm hug from your living space) was in full effect. Heated floors created a warm and cozy environment, decorations were derived from the natural world, and hot beverages were always on tap. A day spent entirely in the homestay would not have been a day wasted. However tempting it was though to while away our time in Belarus relaxing there, especially since it had come at the heels of our 800-mile hike through Spain, we were eager to get out into the country, see its sights, and learn about its history and culture.
The first historical site we would see was the Kamenets Tower. It was our first glimpse into Belarus’s rich history, one as equally grand as any of its European counterparts, filled with castles, knights, princesses, and, as we would be seeing at Kamenets, medieval watchtowers. The tower, whose name translates to “White Tower” in English, though its red brick facade suggests nothing of the sort, was built in the 13th century. Spotting it from afar, it looked like any other brick building in that it appeared to be the whole of many parts and thus, like a puzzle, we didn’t have to do too much imagining when picturing how to dismantle it. Looks can be deceiving though, and the tower, as we would find out, is more akin to a column of solid stone than a column of Jenga pieces, with each brick being impossible to remove; as evidenced by the generations of frustrated peasants who have tried to do just that in order to use the bricks for their own construction projects only to fail time and time again. Luckily, we wouldn’t have to worry about finding a way to penetrate the impenetrable as the front door was standing open upon arriving, signifying the tower’s transition from a closed-door establishment as the essential component of an kingdom to an open-door one as the essential component of the tourism industry. We were happy for the change as we roamed its levels and heard its stories.
After touring the tower, we spotted an Eastern Orthodox Church nearby and decided to check it out. On the stairways leading up to the church, beautiful displays of flowers were laid strewn across the ground, a kaleidoscope of colors and dimensions seemingly exploding from the crevices of the steps. Almost immediately after entering the church, we ran into the backs of a large congregation assembled inside of it. Having lost track of what day of the week it was, we just thought it must be a popular day for worship, like a Sunday or Holy Day of Obligation. Soft, beautiful music filled the church’s interiors and paintings and decorations unlike anything we had ever seen before were hung about its walls. As our eyes trailed about, feeding our voracious appetites to take in our new surroundings, they were met with a most unfortunate sight: a gray, expressionless body lying in an open wooden box. “Corpse!” popped into our heads first, followed shortly after by an, “Oh no.” Suddenly the plethora of flower displays, groups of children playing outside the church, somber music, and, most notably, the sad faces that looked at us questionably as we entered the church, all made sense, we were at a funeral and we were crashing it. Like a dog who’s just been discovered having a snack from the family garbage can, we put our metaphorical tail between our legs and slinked out of the church as quickly as possible.
One of our last experiences before leaving our friends’ guesthouse and exploring the wider Belarus was to head back to Puscha Forest and visit Ded Moroz, the Slavic world’s equivalent of Santa Claus. Bearded, wearing bright colors, giving gifts to children at year’s end and delivering those gifts from a flying sleigh, Ded Moroz, or Father Frost as we would come to know him, bore many resemblances to his Western counterpart. However, he is slender not rotund, wears blue instead of red, gives gifts on New Year’s Eve instead of Christmas Day, and has a sleigh pulled by moose rather than reindeer. If you are thinking, “Hey, Father Frost just sounds like a cheap, copyright infringed version of Santa,” you should know that the two are equally ancient and that many of the modifications to Ded Moroz’s character came with the dawn of Communism in the Slavic world as the U.S.S.R. tried to distance it’s cultural icons and holiday festivities from those celebrated in the West.
While on the topic of modifications, it’s worth noting that Ded Moroz has gone through one of the more miraculous transformations in history, making the incredible leap from snow demon who lurked in forests and kidnapped children for ransom to heroic gift-giver bringing joy to children most in need of it during the holidays. Somewhere in that transition, he also experienced a brief foray into Communism where he lectured the benefits of the ideology to children, encouraged all of them to work hard for the good of the country, and reminded them that Stalin was the ultimate good in the world.
There would be no discussions about Stalin during our trip to Father Frost’s woodland hideaway. Instead, we would be given a tour of the grounds by none other than Ded Moroz himself. Throughout the tour, we were offered tidbits of information about the legends associated with him in a monotone, deadpan fashion (he had also missed out on inheriting Santa Claus’s jolliness) that was apparently infused with humor as the Russian speaking people huddled around us would occasionally giggle gleefully. Most of the people in our privileged tour group were adults, with only a few children amongst them, though at times it was hard to distinguish between the two. Like going to Disneyland, everyone is made a child again in front of Santa Claus or Father Frost, and it was fun watching all of the adults in the group, us included, act just as giddily as the children when being asked to partake in certain parts of the tour.
As we got to Father Frost’s residence we were handed off to Snegurochka, his granddaughter and helper. The family lineage that takes us from Father Frost to Snegurochka travels through some pretty murky genealogical waters. Among the many stories about her, the one we were told was that she is the offspring of the personification of January and a snowman…or woman…? How Father Frost came into play with all of this was a mystery to us and we left it at that. A bit more enthusiastic than her grandfather, Snegurochka continued taking us around the grounds, letting us partake in different traditions like…
With our view of Belarus a bit clearer after our time in and around Pushcha Forest, we eagerly awaited to find out what else the country had to offer as we loaded our belonging’s into Emmet and Olga’s van the next morning and pushed through the fog towards the far-off places still obscured.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Deep in the Pushcha Forest
Father Frost greets us,
clad in flowing
white and golden robes,
his snowy beard
nearly sweeping the floor.
We succumb to the magic
of the legend,
and the faces lit up around us
as he and Snegurochka
lead us around
their wintry, wooden palace.
Passing gardens for wishes
and letters from children,
we forget for an hour
that we are adults.
The day began like any other. We gingerly made our way out of our sleep sacks, exposing our bodies bit by bit to the frigid albergue air much like a toe to cold water. After layering on clothes that felt as if they had just been plucked from the freezer, we warmed up with a hot breakfast, loaded up our belongings, secured our rain gear (for it was sure to be another rainy Galician day), and headed out the door. While the day’s destination seemed to resemble all the others we had visited, with it’s impractically long and syllable-packed name whose very utterance seemed to suggest antiquity (we had already passed the likes of Castilblanco de los Arroyos, Villafranca de los Barros, Embalse de Alcántara, Calzada de Valdunciel, and Fuenterroble de la Salvatierra), it was different. Unlike the aforementioned, amnesia-inducing towns that had left us pulling out our guide books every 30 minutes to check their names over and over, this one was impossible to forget as it had been on our minds for almost fifty days: Santiago de Compostela. Despite knowing that our Camino would end that day, it didn’t feel real until, in the very ordinary moment of gazing around our surroundings to try and find a yellow arrow to make sure we were on the right path, we had the very unordinary experience of seeing the cathedral steeples rising like a triumphant finish line in the distance.
Like a dog who spends every waking hour trying to devise a way to escape over the fence, only to finally do it and then realize that she has no idea what to do with her newfound freedom, so did we arrive at Plaza del Obradoiro in front of the cathedral, the destination of every pilgrim on El Camino. We had walked for the better part of two months to arrive at that point, but once we were there, we weren’t quite sure what to do or how to feel. At least we had company. All around us pilgrims entered the plaza to the fanfare of their own internal rejoicing, their unbreaking smiles evidence of a journey completed. Amidst the echo of lively bagpipe music throughout the plaza, bottles of wine were opened, strangers hugged and high-fived each other, and loads both literal and figurative were unburdened as their bearers gazed in wonder at the front of the cathedral that had been a focus of joy for centuries. As we looked around at these scenes, we knew exactly what was to be done, which was, quite simply, to enjoy our hard-earned accomplishment. So, we sat down on the cool surface of the cobbled plaza, under the uncharacteristically blue Galician skies, and took everything in for we knew that the second we strapped on our backpacks and left the plaza, we would be crossing the far too thin and sudden line from pilgrim to tourist, and that was something we just weren’t, nor ever really would be, ready for.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
goes the satchel
as it sinks down
into the dirt,
the mud from that morning’s
The pilgrim follows,
crossing his feet,
one leather shoe
over the other,
a hole worn through
the heel, exposing
his skin to the elements.
He looks up
at the stone and wood shrine
in front of him.
He made it.
Murmuring a prayer
and sorting through thoughts,
knowing when he picks himself up,
a journey has ended.
So it goes
for a millennia,
sole after soul
arriving to a place
physically transformed through centuries,
yet as a symbol remains
as solid and unbreaking
as a scallop shell.
sounds the Osprey
as it makes contact
the puddle from the rainstorm
one North Face shoe
over the other,
the rubber soles wearing down.
Soon I’ll need
to buy another pair.
I look up
at the mammoth structure of stone
towering above the plaza.
I begin to whisper a prayer
but my breath falters,
not able to find words.
when I leave, I will no longer be a pilgrim,
a chapter will end.
In a country that salivates at the sight of a skinless pig leg (or 20) hanging from a restaurant window, there isn’t much hope for a vegan. And so went our time in Spain walking on El Camino. Having lived in the country before, we knew they had an affinity for animal products, but had completely forgotten the extent to which they took their devotion. On a typical evening at the beginning of our walk, we would wander the streets of whatever town we were in, examining restaurant menus for vegan-friendly options. Clashing with our naïveté was the realization that most of them, apart from perhaps an order of fries, were entirely off limits to us. So, rather quickly, we learned to stop wasting our time perusing the content of menus and instead replaced it with that of store shelves, looking for ingredients to cook with. Below you can find an account of how we were able to remain vegan for the duration of our fifty days on El Camino.
The most common way to dine out in Spain is participating in a menú del día (menu of the day). For a set price, diners can choose from an array of options for each part of their meal: starter, entree and dessert. These menus, despite their abundance of options, will always be off limits to vegans. Going to a restaurant in Spain as a vegan then requires a stubborn adherence to creativity, patience, and persistence for the thought of someone not eating meat and dairy is beyond treasonous, it’s not even in the realm of understanding of most people. In one example, we went to a restaurant for dinner after finding out that all of the town’s stores were closed. Our first mistake was going at 6:30 P.M. which caused an uproar in and of itself as the manager became visibly (and audibly) upset that we were requesting food at such an hour (more on that here). Our second was telling them that we were vegan and asking if they had any options for us. After wading through the initial waves of confusion, we finally settled on a salad.
Now, in Spain, it should be noted that the idea of a salad seems to have been inspired by the Surrealism of Magritte: This is not a salad. No, while there are some leaves on the plates, their efforts for modesty are eradicated by heaping portions of eggs, cheese, tuna and the like. Despite having made it very clear that we did not eat eggs or cheese, our salad nonetheless came out buried under a layer of the two. At least they left off the tuna!
Because of the lack of options for vegans at restaurants and the struggle to create options for ourselves, we only ate out about four or five times, the bill for the two of us averaging 12.45€ each meal.
On Your Own
The one downside to cooking in the albergues was that, after a long day’s walk, the last thing anyone wants to do is go for a grocery run and prepare a meal. Once you get into the habit of doing it though, it becomes just as routine as the walk itself and offers far more benefits, in our opinion anyway, than going out in terms of the overall experience one gets out of their Camino. One of the most striking differences between the two is the price. On average, a meal for the two of us prepared in an albergue cost 3.90€, nearly 10€ cheaper than going out and, as an added incentive, we could often get an entire bottle of wine for the price of two glasses at a restaurant.
Apart from the lure of frugality, eating in also gave us the chance to connect with our fellow pilgrims in a way that we weren’t able to on the road or even at a restaurant. While we didn’t always share a common tongue with those we were staying with, the language of food was more than capable of bridging the gap. After sharing knives, stoves, pots, and cutting boards over the course of many nights, basking in the aromas of each other’s cooking, and all under the veil of silence, a simple bon apetit or que aproveche was all that was needed to bring everyone together into a feeling of community.
It was also interesting to see what other people from around the world ate and how we could learn from them. Kati, a German pilgrim we walked with for about two weeks, taught us to be on the lookout for wild berries that grew alongside the path and could be picked for a mid-walk treat. Pací, a Spaniard, was adept at identifying mushrooms and gathering handfuls to prepare for meals later. And Flora and Enzo, an Italian couple, informed us that inside the urchin-like shells that were falling by the hundreds from trees along the way, were chestnuts that could be boiled and enjoyed just as much as if they had been roasted over an open fire. One of our favorite days on El Camino involved us picking wild berries and apples to snack on along the way and then enjoying a communal dinner with hors d’oeuvres of chestnuts and a main course of mushroom risotto made from foraged mushrooms accompanied by a potato stew prepared by us. The day would have been completely different had we eaten at restaurants for the entirety of our Camino.
Along with a willingness to cook, we discovered a few other things to be invaluable when deciding to prepare our own meals: basic cooking utensils, a reusable cup, and spices. Before leaving Sevilla, we bought a carrot peeler and knife, which was great for lunch on the road or when knives at the albergues were too dull or non-existent. In addition, we also had a glass that we bought as a souvenir, but it rescued us many times over when overcoming the challenge of meal planning with no dishes. We also collected an arsenal of spices, often sharing them with others in the kitchen. They added flavor and a lot more enjoyment to our meals. In our “spice cabinet” (plastic bag), we had oregano, black pepper, bay leaves, cayenne, and cinnamon. We always bought them in plastic containers weighing almost nothing. In the beginning we never would have dreamed of taking spices with us, knowing every ounce counted, but we began to realize just how much they added to our meal, and just how little they added to our weight.
Lunch was often easy to plan. If we had a long walk the next day we bought supplies the night before, carried them with us, and enjoyed a picnic on the road. If we had a shorter walk, we waited until we were in town to purchase our ingredients. For the first half of Vía de la Plata, we encountered quite a few chain grocery stores that carried hummus cups, so our lunch consisted of hummus and a veggie (usually a red pepper or zucchini). We also ate a lot of pisto, which can best be described as a cross between marinara and chunky salsa, that we would dip veggies or bread into (though, we ended up eating so much of this that we eventually had to stop as Kate was becoming physically ill when she saw it in the supermarket!). During the second half of El Camino we became big fans of garlic and tomato sandwiches topped with black pepper and oregano. Another favorite were house olives found at most alimentación shops (small, local grocery stores), marinated in garlic, spice, or just traditional. In addition to our main course of dip or a sandwich, we often added something crunchy and salty (chips, bruschetta, corn nut mix) and a piece of fruit. Leftover muesli from breakfast made a great dessert!
There were a couple of factors that determined how we could cook supper: what facilities an albergue had and what the shops in town carried. For ease of reading, the supper section is divided into three parts: full kitchen, microwave only, and no kitchen or microwave.
Amenities in a full kitchen included pots, pans, stirring spoons, knives, dishes, and silverware, as well as basic ingredients such as oil, vinegar, and salt (oftentimes there were also partial bags of dry pasta). This leaves a pilgrim with a myriad of cooking options. Below are the dishes we made most often.
Pasta: Whole wheat pasta was difficult to find, so we usually used tri-color veggie pasta and cut up peppers, onion, and garlic to add to the marinara. Of course, using our mobile spice cabinet, we added oregano and black pepper.
Potato fry: We cubed potatoes, chopped peppers, onions, broccoli, and garlic and then sautéed them together with either black pepper and bay leaves or cayenne. The leftovers made for a great breakfast, especially paired with orange juice for an added “breakfast flair.”
Tacos: It was a pleasant surprise that tortillas were fairly common in supermarkets. Sautéing pepper, onions, garlic, and beans (chickpeas, black, or kidney) with oregano, cayenne, and cinnamon, we rolled the filling into tortillas and had a nice meal.
Pilgrim stew: This was hands down our favorite meal (we’ve even taken it back to the US and make it regularly post-Camino), and was especially hearty and welcoming during the rainy Galician days. We chopped potatoes, pepper, onion, and garlic and sautéed them with chickpeas or kidney beans, bay leaves and black pepper. Then we added about a liter of water and leftover uncooked pasta from the albergue.
Our first experience with only a microwave came as a surprise. We walked into the albergue’s kitchen, performed our usual reconnaissance, and realized there was only a microwave at our disposal. Fortunately, there were also dishes and silverware. Even if an albergue only had a microwave, nearly everyone had basic dishes for pilgrims. Below are two recipes (one main and one dessert) that we made often in a microwave.
Lentil tacos: Cans of lentil beans were staples in big and small supermarkets. We bought a can of lentils, mashed them, and heated them in the microwave. Then we chopped our usual trio—peppers, onions, and garlic—and added them, either raw or zapped, to the beans along with cayenne. Then we added the filling to tortillas or ate the mixture plain if there were no tortillas.
Baked apples: While walking El Camino in the fall, we were craving a seasonal treat. First, we cut off the top of the apple and set it aside. Then, we cut out the core, being careful not to pierce through the apple. We added a generous helping of cinnamon inside the fruit, put the top back on to retain moisture, and microwaved them for approximately four minutes.
No Kitchen or Microwave
We were bewildered when we happened upon this obstacle for the first time. We asked each other, “What are we going to do? What will we eat?” For most pilgrims, the answer is obvious, “We’ll go to a café and order off of the menú.” For vegans, it’s not so simple; however, we took on the challenge and let our creativity shine, with one example of this being that we learned to buy products in cardboard boxes as they could be fashioned into cutting boards and plates. Below are “recipes” for creating a cold, but tasty, supper.
Tacos: Have you noticed a theme here? Tacos resolve most of life’s problems. After our first experiment with making them sans kitchen, we were pleasantly surprised to find that we could still eat one of our staples cold. To make the meal more enjoyable, we also bought rice cups, which could often be found in large, chain supermarkets. Sold in sets of two, they are single-serving pre-cooked rice (or quinoa) that you don’t need a microwave for, although the original intention is to heat them. Using the cardboard from the rice cups as plates and the plastic tortilla bag as a cutting board, we were able to make the tacos fairly easily. Adding a dash of cayenne and cinnamon, the tacos were enjoyable and something we could look forward to at the end of a day.
Gazpacho: Gazpacho is a Spanish staple on menus during the hotter months, but can be bought year-round in grocery stores in cardboard cartons. It is a cold soup made of puréed vegetables and tomatoes. This is where our souvenir glass helped immensely. When we bought gazpacho, we were able to pour it into the glass and either drink it or use it to dip baguette or bruschetta pieces into.
Tomato sandwiches: This was a sad option as it usually meant we were repeating our lunch. It’s a supper that isn’t much to look forward to so we would usually get ourselves a treat (i.e. beer or chips) to make it a little more enjoyable. Just as I mentioned in the lunch section, it’s a baguette topped with tomato, garlic, oregano, and black pepper. The most pitiful supper experience we had was when we ate these sandwiches in a window-less sitting area off of a plastic bag for a plate. While it was sad in the moment, it is a funny memory now!
While cooking required a significant amount planning and creativity, the experiences added a lot to our Camino with some of our favorite memories coming from our time spent in the kitchens and supermarkets of the different albergues and towns we stopped in. Once we fell into the routine of preparing our meals every day, it became a personal competition to see how little we could rely on restaurants for our daily sustenance. The answer, as we found out rather quickly, was that we didn’t need to at all.
Oh yeah, and alcohol is vegan too!
Lunch: almuerzo (Ahl-MWAYR-tho)
Supper: cena (THAY-nah)
Small, local grocery store: alimentacion (ah-lee-mehn-TAH-theohn)
Supermarket: supermeracado (SOO-pehr-mayr-CAH-doh)
Restaurant: restaurante (rehs-tohr-AHN-tay)
What time does the (supermarket) open/close?: ¿A qué hora abre/cierra (el supermercado)? (ah KEH OH-ra AH-breh/thee-EH-ra [ehl SOO-pehr-mehr-CAH-doh])
Does this have meat or fish?: ¿Tiene carne o pescado? (Tee-EH-neh CAHR-neh oh peh-SCAH-doh)
Café: café (cah-FAY)
Menu of the Day: Menú del Día (may-NOO del DEE-ah)
Yes/no: sí/no (SEE/NOH)
Food in alphabetical order
Anchovies: anchoas (ahn-CHOH-ahs)
Beans: frijoles (free-HOH-lehs)
Beer: cerveza (thayr-BAY-thah)
Carrot: zanahoria (thah-nah-OH-ree-ah)
Cheese: queso (KEH-soh)
Chicken: pollo (POH-yoh)
Chickpeas: garbanzos (gar-BAHN-thohs)
Cod: bacalao (bah-CAH-laow)
Eggs: huevos (WAY-bohs)
Fish: pescado (pehs-CAH-doh)
Garlic: ajo (AH-hoh)
Lentils: lentejas (len-TEH-has)
Meat: carne (CAHR-nay)
Olives: aceitunas (ah-thay-TOO-nahs)
Onion: cebolla (theh-BOY-ah)
Pepper: pimiento (pee-mee-EN-toh)
Rice: arroz (ahrr-OHTH)
Tuna: atún (ah-TOON)
Vegetables: verduras (behr-DOO-rahs)
Wine: vino (BEE-noh)
Walk along any of El Camino’s numerous routes and you’re bound to come across one at some point or another. No, not a cross or a church or any other number of the religious paraphernalia one would expect to encounter on a pilgrimage, though there are plenty of those to be sure, but rather, a scallop shell. Adorning everything from T-shirts to buildings to the human body (tattoos of the shell were common), one could argue that the symbol has become nearly as inseparable from the popular pilgrimage as the saint who inspired it. Despite its omnipresence though, we never really grew tired of seeing depictions of the shell for each one was a reminder that we were not only on the right path, but following in the footsteps of countless other pilgrims that had walked down that same path before us. And it is this interpretation of the scallop, as a symbol of the many roads one takes while walking on El Camino, that it draws its most significance. For, just as the many lines on the shell travel across it only to eventually converge at its base, so do the many routes and pilgrims of El Camino travel across Europe only to eventually become one in Santiago.
Below, a sampling of some of the many shells we came across during our time on El Camino.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
like inverted sun rays
at the calcified cathedral.
everyone of them.
Tracing the indentations,
each bump and groove
is a hill, rock, river traversed,
beer, blister, dinner shared.
Not to the ocean
or the rush
of circulating blood,
but to the stories
centuries of pilgrims are telling.