I never had a desire to go to Spain. Not that I had anything against it, it had just never caught my attention the way other countries in Europe had. I blame World War Two History presentations as it doesn’t seem to concentrate much on Spain. I could list a bunch of things I desired to see in France, England, Italy, and Germany, but nothing in Spain. A failing on my part which I have happily remedied.
In 2011 the movie, The Way, with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez came out about a journey on the Camino De Santiago, or in English, The Way of St. John, a pilgrimage dating back to the Middle Ages. My friend Ken and I saw it at the theater. Ken and I started talking about it, being backpackers having hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail and other lesser-known trails in Pennsylvania.
Changes in both of our lives occurred in those years some good, some bad, but we kept talking about it, and we had other adventures in between, including our Racing The Sun Day and other camping trips. The Camino was unlike any hiking we had done before, it would not require carrying tents, or food or cooking utensils as we would stay in hostels or motels every night, and we would purchase food at cafés and restaurants along the way.
Ken retired and committed to hike The Camino. He would be taking the Camino Frances, the most popular route starting near the French-Spain border and walking all the way to Santiago de Compostela a total of 780 km (484 miles to those not familiar with the metric system like the rest of the world). Ken invited me to join him on it and I said sure.
Ken arrived in Spain about a week before me and made his way to the border to begin the initial hike over the Pyrenes Mountains and into Spain with his friend Ken. I would join Ken and Ken in Pamplona.
I love travel, I have been 38 of the 50 states, traveled extensively in three provinces of Canada, and 7 other countries on 3 different continents. But I had never been to Europe, and never outside the U.S. on my own, except Canada.
Nothing against Canada but if you can navigate the U.S., you can travel easily in Canada. There are no language barriers, they drive on the same side of the road and the food is nearly identical to American fare. During my travels in May on Nova Scotia it was still a bit chilly and I was wearing my typical garb a hooded sweatshirt and cargo shorts, and a lady commented that was typical Canadian garb and she would not have known I was an American till I started talking.
But I had never traveled outside the U.S. except in one missionary group situation and with the U.S. Army so I never really had to change trains, get taxis, order food, or operate the lighting fixtures in a hotel before. Traveling around the world with an M16 is a very distinct and different experience than relying on your very poor Spanish to get from Madrid to Pamplona.
If you want to be humbled, if you want to stretch your brain, break out of your comfort zone, travel to a country where you do not speak the language and rely on the kindness of the natives and their desire to earn a living by providing you goods and services. You will grow, change, and learn. I made a majority of my reservations before I left, including train reservations. But it is always a little nerve wracking when your feet are on the ground; what gate/platform do I need to get to, will I get through security, is this my seat, did I get on the right train. (I am getting tense just typing this.) Now add the additional factor of not being fluent in the language of your tickets and the signage and it is truly a stimulating experience.
Like I said earlier I had no expectations of Spain, I did not have a ‘must see’ list of Madrid or any other part of Spain. I had a day in Madrid before my train so I wandered around the city center, thru parks and neighborhoods, had my first lunch in a café that did not have English menus and overall had a pleasant day.
A word about the food in Spain, it is fresh, it is very good and it all seems to come with ham, or jamon in Spanish. Ham is a key ingredient is a lot of Spanish dishes. They display dried ham under glass in a lot of restaurants and marketplaces and butcher shops are a mainstay. Before leaving the Madrid airport on my way home, I had a small bag of chips with jamon flavoring. In every bar and café, they have fresh sandwiches under glass for the day and the main ingredient, you guessed it jamon. Not saying there are not other tasty dishes, I did have a few bites of Ken’s potato dish that I loved.
Another item that seems as prevalent as ham is bread. Freshly made, wonderfully tasting, as common as ham, bread. If you have seen any movies set in France, someone in the background always seems to be carrying a baguette, or a long thin loaf of bread. The same thing in Spain, there was not a food shop, or come to think of it some non-food shops that did not have a fresh loaf of bread for sale.
After arriving in Pamplona, I stayed at a Holiday Inn Express, next door to an Aldi’s which was next door to a mall. For those that are adventuresome and want to experience diverse cultures, do not go a mall. Spanish malls, except for the language could be placed anywhere in America and aside from a few different stores you would not know you are in Spain. So, I walked around a Spanish mall so you will not have to, you aint missing anything if you skip a Spanish mall.
I met Ken and Ken the next day, they were staying at another chain hotel down the road and together we walked up to the older, the historical section of Pamplona. The area of the city that was hundreds of years old, we walked through a festival in Plaza de Castillo which cites history going back to the 1300’s. Then Ken, not Ken, needed a new chip for his phone so we found a phone store in the old city and I sat outside and watched the people walk by.
We had lunch in a café and found the bullfighting arena. I thought that would be the end of our sightseeing in Pamplona, but like most travels nothing ever goes one hundred percent according to plan.
The next morning, we started off hiking, and like most time on the Camino you can stop and have a coffee along the way. That is when Ken realized he no longer had his wallet. After tearing apart his backpack on the sidewalk opening every pouch, pocket, and package there was no wallet to be found. We stopped hiking for the day and retraced our steps from the previous day and returned to the Ken’s hotel in order to begin the process of cancelling credit cards and such. But the good people of Spain returned Ken’s wallet with the three hundred Euros and we were able to restart the Camino the next morning. So, we were able to do some more sightseeing in the old part of Pamplona, including walking the path of the running of the bulls and the old city walls the afforded the city protection from 74 B.C. onwards and even up to the 1930s’ Spanish Civil War.
Hiking the Camino has its hard parts and starting out early is a good way to avoid the heat of afternoon. All pilgrims greet each other on the path the same “Buen Camino.” The Kens and I were the slower people on the Camino, so we heard ‘Buen Camino’ a lot as we were passed even in the dark of the morning. The Camino as I explained earlier dates back to the Middle Ages and much of it is along old Roman roads. People say that the Roman’s had great roads, but like most roads if they are not maintained they fall apart, ancient Roman roads in Spain are no exception with the remaining roads being uneven, pockmarked, pitted, and cratered.
The countryside of Spain, at least the province that I experienced has a pretty agricultural landscape separated by high cliffs and sharp hills, not high enough to be imposing but impressive in a stark stony way. I understand that that the countryside was a little browner and drier than normal as Spain has had a bad drought this past year. The small portion I walked with the Kens was a series of hills and draws with most older villages being set on hilltops for defensive purposes, in between the village are stretches of tilled fields of olives, grapes, and wheat.
My favorite memory of Spain, the plazas. Each town has it least one plaza, a planned open space surrounded by houses, usually with a fountain. I imagine in older times this was the water supply for the neighborhood. One evening in the town of Estella we sat outside at the café having dinner, watching families with kids play, people meet and great each other in the cooler evening hours and I might have even seen a few budding romances occur. The smaller plaza next to the church in Los Arcos had three separate Coat of Arms on the exteriors of the buildings and was very popular with the pilgrims who drank quite a few beers.
Spain is definitely a different pace than the U.S. Spain is slower, more methodical, more planned. Everyday a majority of shops and restaurants are closed for a portion of the afternoon and do not open again till 6 or 7 pm. I admit it was a bit of annoyance, but it was something I could learn to appreciate and even embrace if I was there longer. Granted I did not have any interactions with medical or government organizations, so I am not sure how they manage the afternoons, but I imagine if that is the way it has always been it would just be a fact.
Would I go back? In a heartbeat. Will I? Maybe if the opportunity presents itself, but there are so many places in this world I want to see, things to experience, locations to ingest, events to enjoy.
Travel tips for Spain:
-The lobby is on floor zero, so when they put you on the 2nd floor of a hostel, you are actually on the 3rd floor, this matters when the building is a couple hundred years old and there is no elevator and the stairs are narrow.
-Modern motel rooms need a card key to operate the lights in the room. The same card key that opens your door is need to operate the lights, so you cannot leave your lights on in your room when you leave the room. (Very Green)
-Cross walks are very critical, cross in the designated area and you are safe, cross in the middle of the street and you are gambling with your life, especially if there are taxis in the area.
-What you see on the price tag is what you pay. No tax at the cash register. (We should adopt this in the U.S.)
-No refills or top offs in restaurants. You want water you pay for bottled water; you want a soda; you pay for each refill.
-In America towns grew up around train stations and train tracks. The towns, villages and cities in Spain were around long before trains. If you think that when you get off a train you will be in the oldest part of the town like in America you are wrong and will have to walk or take a taxi to see anything interesting.
Categories: Travel and Diversions