If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows: Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip If you’re leaving in winter, are far away … Read more Raja Ampat
To wander into a restaurant in Harbin, the capital city of China’s northernmost province, is to find a scene not too unlike one you might find in a ski lodge. Red faces appear frozen in their last expression, hands cling desperately to hot beverages, mounds of clothes lay piled on any available furniture, and, perhaps … Read more Harbin
Pictures can only prepare you so much for the reality that they depict. Just as watching your favorite actor in your favorite movie can never dull the feeling of fluster and starstruckedness upon seeing them walking past you on the street, so a photograph of a beautiful place can never fully prepare you for the … Read more Bagan
“Mei you hua,” the fruit vendor shouted in a bemused tone as we hiked past her stall perched on the hillside. We were making our way through the mountainous countryside of Wuyuan in hopes of seeing the region’s valleys flooded by the seasonal rapeseed flower and were just told that there weren’t any. The bright … Read more Wuyuan
If the beauty of a place is measured by the amount of wows muttered and gasps taken while witnessing it, then China’s Jiuzhaigou National Park may very well be the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen. With lakes so blue they practically glowed through the damp browns and greens of the forest surrounding them to … Read more Jiuzhaigou
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 atPlaza 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’m here.
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 orqueaproveche 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)
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.
For nearly four years, the people of North Korea ran on “Pyongyang Time,” a self-imposedtime 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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€.
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.
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!
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!
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
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…)
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.
On your right—
On your left—
Only one way to go—
It´s a flecha fiesta—
We come to a fork:
Where are the flechas?
it´s time for siesta.
Lying in bed, half awake, half asleep, the alarm goes off. Never mind that the previous night’s sleep was fitful due to the bear-like snoring of the person in the bunk bed next to you or that the previous day was spent walking 18 miles through open fields under the glare of the Spanish sun, it is 6:00 A.M. and time to go. Any thought of hitting the snooze button is quickly put to rest as the other ten people sleeping in the room will be getting up shortly as well, eliminating any chance of having a dark and quiet refuge in which you could return to sleep. Contacts are placed in dry eyes, shoes on sore feet, and a backpack on a tired body. Another day of walking is ahead, this one a mere 15 miles!
So goes the morning of a pilgrim on El Camino, and if it sounds dreadful, I can assure you that it’s not. While the arrival of the alarm is never a harbinger of joy no matter the context, it is often accompanied by a much more welcome form of ringing, that of a bell in a village church, tolling six times in agreement with the hour shown on your phone. The place you woke up in could be anything from a centuries-old monastery in the middle of a lively city to a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of a quiet village. While you often have to share a room with others, you also get to share many more things with them, namely stories, meals, conversations, an occasional glass of wine, and above all, the camaraderie that comes with the shared hardship of traversing the world on foot day after day. And, though the body may protest the lacing of shoes and strapping on of a backpack, the mind is eager, for, while the day ahead is long, you will undoubtedly be walking under the stars, past a sunrise and through the effortless and inexhaustible beauty of the Spanish countryside. One could get quite used to waking up to that every day.
For us, a typical day on El Camino goes as follows:
What Rivendell was to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings so Mérida was to us on El Camino: a beautiful city offering a comfortable and luxurious stop at the beginning of what would be a long and arduous journey. For us, the beautiful part of Mérida came in the form of its Roman ruins, pristinely preserved and still dominating the city’s life 2,000 years after their construction. Luxury came in the form of a one-star hotel that, through the eyes of these pilgrims anyway, looked like the Waldorf Astoria with its top-of-the-line amenities: a double bed, locking door with keys, and private bathroom. Our stay wasn’t long (just one and a half days) as we didn’t want to completely lose the pilgrim groove we had worked ourselves into with much effort over the previous week and a half, but it was a welcome and wonderful visit all the same. Below you can find some pictures from our time there as well as a poem by Kate.
Epithet to Medusa
Are you aware
of the irony
of your preservation
your only companions—
in a writhing frenzy.
Your staring eyes—
more damaged than before—
and your memories
before your life
was as tangled
as your serpentine tresses.