Belarus

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.

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One of the first things we did upon arriving in Belarus was to visit an animal reserve on the outskirts of Pushcha Forest.
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The elk calling out in this picture was extremely friendly. On a couple of occasions, he would walk up to us and let us pet the thick, wiry, and extremely dirty hair on his neck.
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The short and stocky Konik horse
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The reserve was also home to bison, which were absolutely massive

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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.

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Slots where the latches of a ladder would have been inserted to allow for safe passage in and out of the tower

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.

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Unwittingly on our way to a funeral at the church in the distance

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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.

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Father Frost welcoming us to his palace

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.

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There is something significantly more appealing about the thought of a flying moose pulling a sleigh as opposed to reindeer.
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The moment we were anxiously waiting, a picture with Father Frost. Apparently, one of his incarnations is notorious for strongly encouraging people, particularly women, to hold his staff during pictures with him. This one did not, though for some reason, I still chose to do so.

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…

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At this mill, you are supposed to place your hand on the stone whose size corresponds to how many lies you have told throughout the year. The stone is then ground to dust and the lies forgiven.
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In this area, there were statues representing each month of the year. You could make one wish for the upcoming year to your birth month’s statue, but only by whispering it in its ear.
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On this bridge, you could make a wish for every log that you stepped on while crossing the bridge. We were ill-prepared and ran out of wishes by the end.

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:

Ded Moroz

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,
the trees,
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.

Santiago de Compostela

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.

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After beginning our journey with 1,000 kilometers to go, it was a surreal moment once we began seeing signs for the city in the single digits.
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Catching our first glimpse of the cathedral, we weren’t sure whether we wanted to quicken our pace or slow it down.
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We made it!
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A pilgrim sitting in front of the cathedral taking it in.
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Once at Plaza del Obradoiro, it’s common to come across people you’ve met along the way that you thought you’d never see again. The man wearing the red backpack on the left is someone we had walked with and parted ways with nearly a month prior to arriving in Santiago. We both entered the plaza at about the same time.

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After finishing El Camino, you can go to an office to get a Compostela, a document saying that you’ve walked and completed the pilgrimage. While it was exciting to receive it, we knew that it meant we were no longer pilgrims.
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Nighttime in Santiago

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A statue of St. James atop the cathedral
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Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, a hotel built for pilgrims by Isabel and Ferdinand after they walked El Camino. Sadly, it’s now a luxury hotel that most pilgrims can’t even come close to affording.

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While the cathedral was under construction during our time in Santiago, we were still able to see its magnificent altar.
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Lit candles inside the cathedral

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Winding staircases at the Museo de Pobo Galego

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A view of the cathedral through the rain

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In Santiago, it’s not uncommon to be served wine in saucers. On our last night in the city, we sipped on many-a-saucer while reminiscing about our walk, a great end to a great journey.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

El Camino

Thud
goes the satchel
as it sinks down
into the dirt,
narrowly avoiding
the mud from that morning’s
Galician rain.
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
of thanks
and sorting through thoughts,
he idles,
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.

Smack
sounds the Osprey
as it makes contact
with pavement,
just missing
the puddle from the rainstorm
hours earlier.
I follow,
sitting cross-legged,
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’m here.
I begin to whisper a prayer
of thanks,
but my breath falters,
not able to find words.
I linger,
when I leave, I will no longer be a pilgrim,
a chapter will end.

 

 

Lunch and Dinner on El Camino

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.

Restaurants

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.

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When we did go out to restaurants it was usually in bigger cities and almost always to get a durum, which is falafel, lettuce and tomatoes wrapped in a tortilla.

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.

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Some of the many chestnuts we passed while walking

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

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!

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Having a tomato sandwich on the road
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When failing to plan properly, your lunch can end up being a stale piece of baguette!

Supper

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.

Full Kitchen

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.

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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.”

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This dinner was in a town called Cea, which is famous for the bread it has been making and selling to pilgrims for centuries. Weighing in at one kilogram, we made sure to eat as much of it as we could before packing it in our backpacks the next day.

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.

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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.

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Enjoying a hearty batch of stew after a cold day spent in the rain
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Having a bowl of stew back stateside

Microwave Only

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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When we didn’t want to bother with digging out the glass, we would cut the gazpacho container open so we could dip the baguette directly into the container.

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!

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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!

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Language Key

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)

Shells

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.

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While walking on El Camino, it is common to attach a shell to your backpack to identify yourself as a pilgrim. In medieval days, when a pilgrim’s sustenance came from the generosity of villagers along the way, the shell was used as a bowl to place food and water in from those willing to give.
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Along major roads it was common to see signs both directing pilgrims which way to go as well as warning motorists that this particular stretch of the road is part of El Camino.
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During medieval times, an order of knights was established to protect pilgrims along El Camino. The Order of Santiago, as it was known, often used the scallop shell as a symbol for their order. In this picture, a house in Salamanca is covered in the shell, leaving no doubt that the former owner of the house was a wealthy member of the order.
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A bar along El Camino where the owner has hung a shell bearing the name of every pilgrim who has stopped for a drink or snack. The shells seen in the picture are only a fraction of the ones on display in his establishment.
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Our shell
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We even came across shells in Brussels pointing the way towards Santiago. Here’s one on a church we walked past…
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…and one we found on the ground.

Read on for a poem by Kate:

The Shell

Look —
Each line
bursts down
like inverted sun rays
convening
at the calcified cathedral.
Straight paths,
everyone of them.

Feel —
Tracing the indentations,
each bump and groove
is a hill, rock, river traversed,
beer, blister, dinner shared.

Listen —
Not to the ocean
or the rush
of circulating blood,
but to the stories
centuries of pilgrims are telling.

Siesta

For nearly four years, the people of North Korea ran on “Pyongyang Time,” a self-imposed  time zone that kept clocks on the north side of the Korean Peninsula 30 minutes behind those of its neighbor to the south. As strange as this manipulation of something as universal as time may seem, it pales in comparison to that which takes place within the borders of a far less controversial country: Spain. Despite having lived in the country for nearly a year and having spent the past seven weeks walking through it day after day on El Camino, I am still trying to figure out what perception of time exists there. Familiar purveyors of hours and minutes can be seen in the form of clocks adorning local government buildings and watches strapped across wrists, but the time they read and the life that coincides with it obeys neither rules nor, in most cases, logic.

As an example, take the story we heard of a Zambian hostel owner currently living in Spain. After being invited to a couple’s home for dinner at 8 P.M., he arrived at the house surprised to find the kitchen lights off, no smell of cooking whatsoever, and one of his hosts still amidst an afternoon siesta. A little later, both husband and wife were awake, not busy in the kitchen heating up an already prepared dinner, rather serving drinks and chatting. At around 2 A.M. the cooking finally began and after dinner was over, coffee was served as the night was still apparently young. At 5 A.M. the evening came to a close and, instead of going to bed, the Zambian hostel owner instead opted to just drive back home as a new day, for him anyway, was about to begin.

Now, while this is an extreme example, it is by no means an anomaly. Ask anyone who has lived or traveled in Spain and you are bound to encounter a pantheon of head-scratching stories pertaining to the Spanish perception of time. On El Camino, having a loose grasp of this perception is crucial for nobody wants to walk for hours on end only to find that, at your destination, a service you need, whether it be a well-deserved meal or supplies from a pharmacy, inexplicably unavailable until an unforeseen hour or sometimes even day. And so, it is extremely important, whether visiting, living in, or walking through Spain, to have an understanding of the siesta and how everything else in Spain’s off-kilter timetable revolves around it.

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The varying hours of a Starbuck’s in Salamanca

Just as with Spanish, we had once thought of ourselves as competent in the language of siesta after we both had studied abroad in Spain as well as lived in Granada for nearly a year. Yes, we had our occasional mishaps as, for example, the time we suggested to go out for drinks on a weekend night at midnight. After uttering this apparent nonsense to our housemates, a great deal of scoffing ensued followed by an assurance that midnight would be far too early as the bars would be lifeless, not because the hour was too late but rather too early. And there was also the time we tried choosing when to go to a popular restaurant for dinner. Notorious for being hard to get a seat, we cleverly planned to arrive well after the dinner rush. Upon entering the doors at 11 P.M., a flustered hostess backed by a raucous crowd of diners asked us if we had a reservation. When we replied no, she made it very clear that we would not be getting a seat for the next couple of hours.

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Sometimes places that look like this…
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…can feel just as abandoned as ones that look like this.

Despite these erroneous attempts at trying to conform to the Spanish hour though, most of our guesses were right and, returning to Spain seven years later to walk El Camino, we thought that our competence in the language of siesta had not grown rusty, unlike our Spanish. Oh, how we were wrong!

Take for instance the morning in which we made the silly assumption that, in a town with two restaurants that open at 7 A.M., one of them would serve food. Upon ordering a simple breakfast of tostado con tomate though, we were looked at as if we were crazy to be ordering food at such an hour and told that only drinks were being served at that time. Looking around the bar, we were perplexed to see a spattering of truck drivers sipping espresso as if they were in the midst of a grueling overnight drive and not on the cusp of what the rest of the world recognizes as the morning. And so, a day of walking was begun with no breakfast, which wouldn’t have been so bad if the following town we passed through around 8 A.M. didn’t have restaurants, all of which advertised themselves as breakfast establishments, closed altogether. At times we had to re-consult our watch to make sure that indeed it was 8 A.M. and not in fact 4 A.M. as it felt.

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Taking a break from El Camino for a day in Mérida, we were excited to enjoy breakfast in a bustling plaza. After arriving to the plaza at 9:00 A.M., we found every café to be closed with the first one not opening until 9:30. And even then, the atmosphere was far from bustling.

Apart from mornings, afternoons have also been known to cause their fair share of frustrations for pilgrims on El Camino, us undoubtedly included. Normally, you can count on a shop being open until 2 in the afternoon, closing for a few hours, and then opening again at 5 or 6 until finally closing for the day around 8.

There have been instances though where the only shop in the village will be closed in the afternoon or for the entire day, in which case we are stuck going to a restaurant for our meal. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but, as you’ve probably guessed by now, in Spain it is. In one such instance, we spent the better part of an hour wandering in and out of restaurants around 7 P.M. asking to see their menu and being told time and again that each place didn’t start serving food of any kind until 8:30.

In another case, we heard the story of a fellow pilgrim who walked over twenty miles and arrived in a town only to find the local restaurant inexplicably closed. Ravenous from the day’s trek, he decided to walk an extra mile more to a neighboring village where he was told that the restaurant wouldn’t be serving food for another two hours despite it being 6:30 P.M. Faced with either returning to the previous village with no prospects for dinner or waiting for the early bird hour to arrive, he chose the latter.

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Typical siesta hours. On the paper below and out of sight of the camera, it lists that the shop opens an hour later, at 11:00, on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Small shop hours are often very unpredictable like this.

If grappling with the matter of business hours wasn’t enough, you also have to be aware of the days when villages and seemingly entire cities shut down. One of those days occur every week on Sunday and if you ever happen to find yourself amidst the many and seemingly random Spanish holidays or the dreaded bridge weekend, you can be really out of luck. One time in Granada, we were told all of our classes had been cancelled for the day. Curious as to the reason behind our unexpected day off, we asked our school’s secretary who had informed us if it was a holiday that day. “I don’t know,” she replied. Confused but nonetheless happy, we went for a walk through the city and were surprised to find a parade moving down one it’s major streets. Again we asked for the reason behind the celebrations to a bystander and, once again, got the response of “I don’t know.” So, even if nobody is quite sure what holiday is being celebrated, you can count on everybody, businesses included, to act as if it is the biggest holiday of the year.

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One of the largest supermarket chains in Spain closed for the afternoon for siesta. It is often closed on Sundays too which would be similar to a store like Wal-Mart being closed for similar amounts of time.

So, after learning many hard lessons over the first couple of weeks on El Camino, we now find ourselves making Nostradamus-like predictions far into the hazy and unpredictable future of Spanish time for, and it took us this long to finally learn this, there really is no point in trying to adapt, only prepare.

Breakfast on El Camino

What and where you eat first thing in the morning can set the tone for the rest of the day, a fact that becomes especially important when that day consists of walking around 15 miles, hand washing clothes and sleeping in an unfamiliar bed; among other things far from the realm of tasks associated with comfort and relaxation. While walking El Camino, we’ve eaten a range of healthy, in-between, and poor breakfasts, as well as experienced café culture, eating in various albergues, and having breakfast on the road. What you will find here are vegan breakfast ideas for both cafés and on your own (and cost comparisons of the two), a few cafés we particularly enjoyed, as well as a breakfast language key.

It is entirely up to you (and your bank account!) if you want to begin your morning at a café or on your own at an albergue. In our experience, an average breakfast bill for the two of us at a café was 5.45€, while an average breakfast assembled on our own was 1.90€. 

Cafés

It is difficult to find vegan options on any Spanish menu, but you will always have at least one option at breakfast: tostada con tomate (toast with tomato). This is a traditional breakfast dish and each café has its own flair…or lack there of (read: toasted slice of white bread paired with a small packet of glorified ketchup). In most cases though, it is a toasted baguette topped with grated tomato, olive oil and salt. And, while it is typical to have a cup of coffee alongside the tostada, it is quite uncommon for cafés to have non-dairy milk unless it is in a bigger city (Granada, Mérida, Cáceres, Salamanca), and even then it can be difficult to find. So, to avoid having a confused and, at times, bothered “no” muttered back to you after asking for soy milk, it’s probably best to order tea instead.

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Tostada con tomate with a rare (and thoroughly enjoyed) soy milk latte

Another important thing to keep in mind when choosing to have breakfast at a cafe is what time it opens. Spain is notorious for mealtimes that don’t mesh with those that the rest of the world obeys and if you are expecting a place that serves breakfast to be open at the time you are leaving town, you could be starting the day on an empty stomach. In Mérida, we waited around outside until 9:30 for a café to open (the first one of the nearly dozen that were in the plaza) and we were the only customers until 10:00!

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Not the breakfast atmosphere we had hoped for

On Your Own

Most villages you stay in will have a supermarket or at least a small store, which makes doing breakfast on your own always an option. A favorite breakfast of ours was muesli and soy milk paired with a piece of fruit. We would have a bowl for dessert after supper and then one for breakfast again the next day. If we had any leftover milk, we would leave it in the fridge with a note for the next day’s pilgrims to enjoy. The leftover muesli, which was always of the chocolate variety, would of course never be left behind, rather taken with us as a snack on the road. Occasionally, you will come across basic stores that don’t carry novelties like muesli and soy milk. In cases like this, no matter how scarce the store’s selection is, bread and fruit will always be an option. 

If you’re craving a hot breakfast, having leftovers from the night before is always a good alternative. This always worked well for potato dishes but there were also many times when we would have to get creative as in when we used leftover pasta, reheated it in olive oil, and added a couple of apples we had on hand as well as a garnish of cinnamon. With a mug of chai tea, it was actually quite delicious! Our recommendation for ensuring as tasty of a breakfast as possible is to buy a box of tea and a plastic container of cinnamon; both are lightweight, easy to pack, and add a lot to whatever breakfast you are having!

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Our first and most likely last attempt at cinnamon apple pasta

Recommended Cafés

  • Mérida: Malabar (in Plaza España, opens at 9:30)
    • non-dairy milk options for coffee
    • their tomato and avocado toast is great
  • Cáceres: Casa de Golosos (Calle Pario la Abuela, near Plaza Mayor, opens at 9:00)
    • non-dairy milk and large mugs of coffee (a luxury in Spain!
    • they have different oils for tostada con tomate (garlic, rosemary, orange, spicy pepper)
  • Salamanca: Atelier Clandestino (Calle Placentinos, No. 2, hours are from 9 to 4)
    • vegan snacks and desserts ranging from 3 – 6 Euros
    • non-dairy milk for coffee
    • the owners are a married couple who have walked El Camino before and are very nice
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Menu at Malabar in Mérida
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Avocado toast at Malabar
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The window and logo of the vegan-friendly breakfast spot in Cáceres
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Plenty of vegan options at Atelier Clandestino

 Breakfast Language Key

  • breakfast: desayuno (des-a-YU-noh )
  • tea: té (TEH)
  • coffee: café (cah-FEH)
  • (orange) juice: zumo (de naranja) (THU-mo [deh na-RAN-ha])
  • soy milk: leche de soja (LEH-cheh deh SO-ha)
  • tomato toast: tostada con tomate (tos-TAH-dah cohn to-MAH-teh)
  • lard: manteca de cerdo (mahn-TEH-cah deh THEHR-doh)—lard is a common ingredient in pastries
  • Do you have (soy milk)?: ¿Usted tiene (leche de soja)? (OO-sted tee-EH-ne…)
  • I want (coffee with soy milk): Quiero (café con leche de soja). (kee-EH-roh…)
  • What time does the café open?: ¿A que hora abre este café? (Ah keh OH-ra AH-breh EHS-teh…)
  • yes: sí (SEE)
  • no: no (NOH)

Flechas Amarillas

When walking El Camino, the variety of people one comes across can be just as numerous as the beds they’ve slept in or landscapes traversed.

In our experience, we have come across pilgrims that trek an upwards of sixty kilometers a day in an adrenaline-fueled test of their bodies endurance; or else a race towards a departing flight. And, on the less crazy end of the spectrum, those like Kate and I who are content with walking a fraction of that distance each day, teetering on the fine line of walking just enough to feel accomplished but not so much as to willingly bring chronic bodily ailments upon ourselves.

There are pilgrims who perform minor surgery on their feet day after day in the form of blister care and others who perform minor miracles by having no foot problems whatsoever. There are 87-year-old Italian priests and twenty-something college students. There are bikers, walkers, and apparently, horseback riders, though we haven’t seen any of the latter yet. There are early risers, late departers, eat-iners and going-outers. There are Spaniards, Germans, Dutch, Canadians, Brazilians, Israelis, South Koreans, and Australians. There are the religious and those without any religious affiliation whatsoever, but in search of something outside of themselves all the same. And, while El Camino is traditionally a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James, there is only one thing that unites all the different kinds of people, and it’s not Christianity, rather, the unwavering devotion to the all-knowing yellow arrows, or flechas amarillas.

Painted on rock faces, tree trunks, street curbs, and traffic signs, to name a few, the flechas are an ethereal lifeline of sorts, pointing each pilgrim in the right direction. While on El Camino, when we find ourselves lost along the way or unsure of whether or not we are moving in the right direction, we pray that a flecha reveals itself, giving us a sign that everything is okay. When we are in the dark or at a crossroads and there are no flechas to be found, we curse them for abandoning us. “How could such an omnipresent force of good be absent at such a time?” is a question that has often passed through our minds. Though, no matter how sparse their presence has been or how frustrated their absence has made us, whenever a flecha is spotted, we are thankful for it, for we are assured that we are moving in the right direction. And on El Camino, as in life itself, that’s all you can really ask for.

Since their inception over three decades ago, the flechas have become synonymous with the various routes to Santiago and for good reason. Despite being a pilgrimage route for over a millennia, by the 1970s, the number of pilgrims arriving in Santiago had dwindled to the hundreds. Then, in the 1980s, a priest and El Camino scholar named Elías Valiña mapped out a route starting in the south of France and painted flechas along it every couple of kilometers or so to guide pilgrims towards Santiago. Elías chose to use yellow arrows because he had seen them guiding hikers through the mountains of France and took note not only of their visibility in the dull browns, grays, and greens of nature, but also of their durability to remain seen through variable weather and seasons. And so, the arrows were conceived and brought to life precisely at the time El Camino experienced a rebirth itself. The original route he mapped out, now popularly known as Camino Francés, attracts nearly 200,000 pilgrims every year and on countless other routes, including the one we have been walking on: La Via de la Plata, the arrows serve as a guiding hand, pointing pilgrims towards their destination, whatever or wherever that may be.

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In the province of Extremadura, large stone blocks not only pointed us in the right direction, but also informed us whether or not we were following a Roman road.

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Occasionally we will come across flecha stickers courtesy of a prior German pilgrim.

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Can you spot the flecha in the distance?
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A flecha pointing us towards Cáceres
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Sometimes the flechas are almost indiscernible from yellow moss that also populates the tree trunks and stones of the Spanish countryside.
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A sign pointing us towards our albergue, which is always a welcome sight at the end of a long day of walking
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Sometimes, there is little to no doubt about which way to go

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When flechas amarillas can’t be found, flechas in other forms, like this one made of sticks and rocks, will make an appearance
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And here’s one pointing you towards Kate’s poem

 

Flechas Amarillas

On your right—
cows.
On your left—
trees.
Only one way to go—
straight.
It´s a flecha fiesta—
painted boulders,
trunks,
posts.

We come to a fork:
gray stones,
mossy branches,
wired rails.
Where are the flechas?
Fast asleep,
it´s time for siesta.