Thursday, April 21, 2011

Day 15. Zorita de los Canes

In the early 1860’s France, Spain, and England sent armed forces to Mexico, “to protect the interests of their nationals” doing business in the young nation. Since some of these nationals were bakers, this episode is known as the Guerra de los Pasteles (the Cakes War). Among the Spanish forces was a young ensign, Valentín Domínguez, from Zorita de los Canes, who upon seeing the beauty of the New World deserted the expeditionary force to establish himself in the small mountain town of Huatusco, in the highlands of the state of the coastal state of Veracruz, where he found a bride and a new life growing coffee. It was also here that his nine children were born.

Back in his hometown just enough news were received from him to raise him to the status of legend. There are vague recollections that he came back to Spain once, in a crisp white suit and Panama hat, the very image of a successful plantation owner. Finally, in 1907, a letter and photograph were sent, to inform the relatives in Spain of his death. The photograph was duly saved among the pages of the family Bible, and the legend of “the family in America” acquired the patina of old age.

In the meantime, in Mexico, the sons and daughters of Valentín had children of their own, and they grew up hearing the story of the ensign who had deserted, and how he had come from Zorita, and over the generations they spoke of “the family in Spain”. One of the sons of Valentín was Anastasio, who in turn had a daughter named Guillermina, who in turn had a daughter named Norma, who in turn had a son named Horacio Ferriz Domínguez.

Thirteen years ago, on my first trip to Spain, I drove to the northern provinces looking for the birthplace of my great-great-grandfather. I did find a Zorita, and eagerly asked and old man if the Domínguez family still lived there. No, there had never been a family of such name in the town, not even 100 years ago. A few years later, my parents came to Spain to celebrate their Gold wedding anniversary, and duty bound they rented a car, drove to southern Spain, found another Zorita, and suffered the same disappointment: No Domínguez family had ever lived there. Finally, a few months ago, a cousin broke the news that he had found the right Zorita, by the shore of the Tajo River, less than 100 km east of Madrid. My cousin had visited the place and made contact with the family, and from him I got the e-mail of a cousin and made a preliminary contact myself.

And that is why today I woke up early, rented a car, and drove east of Madrid in search of my roots. I ended driving too far to the northeast, but “preguntando se llega a Roma”, and after a bit of backtracking I finally came into Zorita de los Canes, a charming and very small village at the foot of a knoll dominated by the ruins of an old castle. There were also arrows pointing the visitor to the archaeologic zone of Recópolis, so I figured I would do a bit of exploring of the surroundings before immersing myself in family matters.

Recópolis is an amazing site. It was established in the VI century, by King Leovigildo, after he completed the Visigoth conquest of the Iberian Peninsula to form the first Spanish nation (the Visigoths were among the Germanic peoples who spread through the late Roman Empire in the IV century, to later expand into Iberia). Recópolis was to be the fiefdom of the crown prince, and grew into quite the busy town. Nearly a 200 years later, in the VIII century, Arab tribes conquered Spain and turned Recópolis into one of the main hubs of the califate of al-Andalusí. The Arabs were expelled from this part of Spain in the XI century, at which time the Knights of Calatrava took over the region, and moved the settlement a few hundred meters to the knoll of Zorita de los Canes, where they built a castle. The castle and the surrounding town flourished up to the XIV century, and were known for the rather large number of Jews who settled there. At this time a small church was built over the ruins of the Visigoth church of Recópolis, which during the XV and XVI centuries became the hub for celebrations throughout the region, who came to “the old city” to be merry, even though all visible signs of the Visigoth town had long been buried by soils and debris.

Reeling with the impressive history of little Zorita de los Canes I finally walked into the village. An old gentleman was working in his garden, and after saying hello I took the opportunity to ask for directions to the house of Petra Domínguez. He looked at me for a moment, and then said “She is my sister. My name is Aurelio Domínguez” “Well, then you must also be my uncle. I am Horacio Ferriz Domínguez.” He gave me a big smile and told me that his sister had been waiting for me all morning, and had just gone down to the road to take another look. And then family started flocking in. I greeted Aunt Petra, then Cousin Miguel, then Aunts Cristina and Matilde, then Cousin Laura and Aunt Isabel. It was the most delightful and long delayed family reunion one can imagine. They were all tickled pink to greet one of the long lost relatives from Mexico, and I could see strong family resemblance between them and some of my aunts back in Mexico.

We all went to Aunt Petra’s home, where lunch was all ready, and started cross-referencing family connections. Oh, yes, the memory of great-uncle Valentín was very much alive, and later Aunt Cristina produced the original 1907 photograph of my great-great-grandfather, a man with a magnificent moustache. I also had the chance of showing them photographs of the family, which my thoughtful daughter had loaded on my computer.

Alas, I may have met the last generation of Domínguez that can be expected to live in Zorita. Most of the youngsters have left the town, which officially counts with 107 inhabitants, but in reality has only 30 permanent residents. The aunts are all in their late 70s or early 80s. Cousins Miguel and Laura are slightly younger than I am, but their grownup children have already moved out of the town toward the larger cities. They come to visit, of course, but they cannot be reasonably expected to come live in Zorita for good. But it still is, and will always remain, the land of one of my forefathers.

I am insanely happy at having had the opportunity to touch base with the family in Spain. They are charming and generous, and I would very much like to come and visit them again, but this time in company of my daughter and her husband, so links can be forged among the new generations. There is something amazing at finding that the roots of your family tree are deep and strong, and that those that drank life from the eternal waters of the Tajo River, probably since the VI century, are still in place.


Day 14. Santiago de Compostela a Madrid

Oh sadness. Today in the morning we returned the bikes and felt somewhat empty not pushing our noble steeds up the streets of Santiago. To reduce my sadness let me reflect on what it involved:

Time: We figured it took us 9 days of actual travel. In retrospect, it would have been better to plan 11 days; one to take a break mid way, and the other to travel to the coast at the end of the trip.

Equipment: We rented the bikes from TourNRide in Santiago, and the bikes they provided were excellent. Have them provide panniers, helmets, and pedals, but bring your own seats. They provide basic tools and one spare tube. The small levers to change a tune were of plastic and pretty useless, so make sure to bring metal ones.

Gear: Thanks to Norma and Evan we brought only the bare essentials and at times it seemed too much. The list included:
- Boots, which you will be wearing. Don’t use biking shoes. You will be walking a third of the time, uphill and on slippery slopes, so you will need good hiking soles.
- A small sleeping bag because some hostels don’t have blankets
- A small towel
- Two biking shirts (not three, not four, but two). All biking stuff is made of synthetic materials that dry pretty fast (or not if it is a cold and dreary day). One of the two you are wearing at any given time, and that is true of all items below.
- One camelback backpack (priceless!)
- Two biking shorts (the ones with padding in the butt)
- One pair of long pants
- One pair of shorts
- Two pairs of undershorts
- Two pairs of biking socks
- Two long-sleeve shirts
- One felt vest
- One rain jacket and pants
- One pair biking gloves
- One pair wool gloves (some mornings are really cold)
- One pair biking leg warmers
- One pair biking arm warmers
- Toiletries
- Small bag of clothes soap (you will have to wash every day)
- Camera and charger, and USB memory stick for backup
- iPod and charger (my trusty travel companion, but optional)
- Computer and charger (optional, but otherwise you would not be getting my updates)
- Sun block
- Dark glasses
- Money (lots of money!)

Planning: Damn the planning! Go with the flow and seek shelter wherever the night catches you. It is part of the fun. No need to bring GPS, maps, or travel books; just follow the yellow arrows.

Company: It is absolutely necessary to have a super companion, like Raúl. Look for someone who is stout of heart, good natured, intelligent, curious, lover of good food, tuned into nature, optimist, and not a complainer. Remember, El Camino is not a destination, but a quest, and to get the most of it you want an akin soul by your side. I am reminded of the words of a song from my youth, who advised “Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.”

Both Raúl and I are amazed at the fact that we completed such a long way without mishap. Think about it. 550 km is like biking from Mexico to Guadalajara, San Francisco to Los Angeles, or Frankfurt to Paris!

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and after a walking visit to Santiago, which is a lovely city, we took a taxi to the airport, boarded the plane to Madrid, and were back in the real world. We came to the house of Maria Eugenia and Juan, Raúl packed his bags, and I walked him to the metro, where he left for the airport and Barcelona. He is a good friend, and I look forward to our next adventure (we are toying with the idea of a trek to the Himalayas sometime in the next couple of years).

I had some money burning a hole in my pants, so I wandered to Puerta del Sol, the tourist center of Madrid, and performed the last ritual by going into El Corte Inglés to buy the poem El Cantar del Mío Cid, and a pan to make tortilla española (I plan to poison my daughter with it when I get home).

When Juan came home, around 8:30 pm, we took a stroll down to the Rio Manzanares and the newly improved river park, and then went for tapas into a tiny neighborhood bar, El Delfín. The owners, Paco and Carmen, are old friends of Juan, and elbow to elbow in the crowded small place we enjoyed tapas of Callos a la Madrileña, Caracoles en Caldillo, and Braised Lamb Livers. Oh, how I am going to miss the good Spanish food.

Day 13. Arzúa to Santiago de Compostela (40 km)

We did start a bit earlier than usual, and it is still dark. It is Sunday morning, so the few cars we see on the road are of those who caroused all night, and we are weary of drunk drivers. Finally it gets clear enough that we can see the yellow arrows that have guided us throughout the route, and we can take the pilgrims path. But it has been raining for two days, so the path is muddy and slippery. I feel tempted to keep to the highway, but Raúl is a purist and prefers following the path through the mountains.

The day is overcast, and there is a gentle drizzle, but the country we are moving through is glorious. At some point the sun breaks through the clouds and the pasture fields blaze like emeralds surrounding old stone farms from which issue columns of smoke rich in comfort and fragrant with breakfast. We have not had breakfast, or coffee, because every bar we pass is closed.

The drizzle is intensifying, and without really noticing we are getting wet. It is borderline between drizzle and rain, so I decide not to use my rain jacket. It is a bit cumbersome and makes me sweat, and I am sweating enough with the ups and downs of the path. We are done with the big mountains, but there is enough relief here that for every descent to a valley there is a walking ascent to the next ridge. It is slow, slippery work, and despite all our efforts the morning is ticking away.

Finally we find a place that is open, sometime around 10:30 am, and we gratefully gulp cups of café con leche. The friendly bartender also fixes us an appetizer of jamón serrano and cheese, which restores our much diminished strength. Alright, this is it, Santiago or bust.

It was almost bust, because now it is raining on earnest, and pretty soon we are soggy wet. But we press on, with the interminable up and down, until finally we make it to Lavacolla (32 km). The story goes that this is the last big stream before Santiago, so pilgrims took the time to make their ablutions (hence the name, which in Spanish means “clean your butt”) and made themselves presentable for coming into Santiago. The good Lord has taken care of our ablutions with his rain, and still dripping we push up the last hill. It may be the last hill, but it is interminable. All our forces are spent and we climb it with our hearts.

Finally we reach Monte de Gozo (37 km). From here, we are told, the pilgrims got their first sight of Santiago, and rejoiced at having reached their long awaited destination. I am not sure where to look, because it is quite hazy, but another rejoicing pilgrim points toward some distant pines and says “There, to the right of the pines, you can see the tower of the Cathedral.” My God, it must be several hundred miles away!

One last push and . . . we did it! Covered with glorious mud we enter Santiago de Compostela, sometime around 2 pm. 550 kilometers in nine days, and with only three flat tires. We barely remember the fluvial valley of Burgos, the hot meseta of Castilla, the fertile plains of León, the snow storm in Cruz del Ferro, the valley of the Knights Templar, the insane climb to O Cebreiro, and the grueling ridges and valleys of Galicia. We are here!

After unloading our few worldly and soggy possessions at a convenient hotel, and spreading them out to dry like if it were the laundry yards of Mumbai, we headed to the Cathedral to give thanks and to complete the rituals of the pilgrim. Our credentials are examined, and we declare that we have done the trip from Burgos for cultural and religious reasons, and in exchange we receive a certificate that goes back to the Middle Ages, in which it is stated that Raúl and Horacio (names written in Latin) have completed the pilgrimage to Santiago “pietatis causa” (for reasons of devotion).

The last step, which we gratefully do, is to hear mass in the magnificent Cathedral, and to pray for those for whom we have made the pilgrimage. We missed the Pilgrims Mass, Sunday at noon, and have instead come to the 7:30 pm mass, but it is a solemn act nonetheless, and a fitting finale to a most remarkable trek.

Day 12. Ventas de Narón to Arzúa (37.5 km)

Morale is high! We have had a good night sleep and our hostess tells us that after a short climb we will be going all the way down to Melíde. Unfortunately she is a compulsive liar and pretty soon we start going up and down small valleys and intervening ranges. It is tiresome pushing up a somehow steep slope for about 500 meters, then zipping down another 500 meters, and then starting all over again. We love the country, but our forces are waning away at an accelerated pace. The sky is overcast but the rain is holding.

Finally we make to Melíde, and just as we are entering the town Raúl gets a flat. God looks over his pilgrims, though, because 50 m away there is a bike shop, and right in front of it is one of the best pulperias in the country. A pulpería is a restaurant that specializes in pulpo (octopuss), which is first boiled until tender, then sliced, passed over hot olive oil, and served with paprika powder and coarse sea salt. We had a heavenly lunch!

Then we go back to the roller coaster, climbing painfully, flying down slope, and then climbing again. We are worried we are not doing good time, since our goal is to reach Santiago today.

Entering Arzúa I get a flat. I filled the flat tire with foam, and it seems to be holding, but the repair shop in Arzúa is closed and we are told he won’t open until Monday. Raúl is hungry so he suggests having dinner and observing the tire. We dine, and coming out find that (a) it is raining, and (b) the tire has lost some air. Raúl suggests we stay here for the night, replace the tube in the tire, and try to start early tomorrow. Argh, so close and yet so far!

We only have 40 km to Santiago, but here we are at 5 pm, having changed the inner tube (messy because it was the rear tire, and we had to deal with the chain, the gear assemblage, and all the grease), and all we did today were 37.5 km. We will have to see if we can start real early tomorrow to make for the lost time.

Day 11. Triacastela to Ventas de Narón (57 km)

We slept like logs, and were much recovered by the morn. Our spirits plunged, however, when the weather forecast predicted heavy rain in Galicia. Rats! We tried to depart early (8 am), and made record time to Samos (10 km), where there is a magnificent Benidictine convent. Unfortunately we got there at 9 (my Mom would have called us Los Abominables Hombres de las Nueve), and the earliest we could visit the convent was at 10 am. We were on a hurry to recover the lost time and advance as much as we could before the stormy weather caught up with us, so we contented ourselves with taking lots of pictures from the outside.

We made Sarria (21 km) by 10:30 am. Not a pretty city. Just the type of agglomeration of apartment buildings that I have come to dislike. So we crossed it quickly, and embarked on a very pretty route through the hills. The sun was holding despite the weather forecast, and for the next 40 km we did all that a good bicigrino is expected to do. We went through beautiful valleys, where cows where happily munching away, and charming hamlets of milking farms (the danger of going through cow country is that you have to be very careful where you roll; that next clump of dirt could have your bike smelling for hours!). We went down slopes covered with flowers, grunted up hillsides, walked through mud carrying our bikes, biked along the middle of the road/stream (a clever invention of the Gallegos to make the road and the stream follow the same path, to conserve space), defied dead coming down slippery slopes, and overall had a good time.

We got a bit wet around lunch time, when we arrived to Portomarín (41 km at 275 m elevation), an interesting town on a hill overlooking a dry dam. We later learned that the reservoir had been emptied to make repairs in the penstocks, but it was very strange to see the drying skeleton of what must be a pretty lake. On further inquiry I learned that the old Portomarín lies buried in the sediment of the dam, and that the Romanic Church in the plaza of the new town was brought in from the old town stone by stone! We had a good lunch of Empanada Gallega (filled with bacalao) and Lecón Asado for Horacio and Caldo Gallego and Merluza en Salsa Verde for Raúl, and with full bellies we were ready to resume the road.

And then it happened all over again. We had to climb from 275 m to 650 m in 13 km, so we pushed, and pushed, feeling the strength drain from our limbs. Then, when we thought we could not push any further, there would be a short flat stretch where we could mount our faithful steeds, only to find around the bend another slope, longer and steeper than the previous one. Our hopes of advancing significantly toward Santiago were dashed, and as we reached the crest, around 6 pm, we were delighted to see a small rural hostel a few hundred meters away, in Ventas de Narón (57 km at 625 m elevation). We dragged ourselves in and found another of the many families of friendly Spaniards, where were absolutely delighted to see a pair of tired pilgrims, and offered us a cheery bed in their empty hostel, a warm shower, and a typical Galicia meal. And just as Raúl was taking his shower a veritable deluge fell on the small town. We were so glad we had reached shelter on time!

Monday, April 18, 2011

Day 10. Cacabelos a Triacastela (57.5 km)

We are dead tired. Today was the most grueling day we have had since we started. The day started like any other day, with a good breakfast and departure from Cacabelos around 8:30 am, under a cloudy and menacing sky. We were happy going on flat ground, when all of a sudden the road goes up a hill. Rats! We dismounted and pushed up the hill, which is a fairly tiresome thing to do first thing in the morning. Then we reached Villafranca (8 km and an altitude of 500 m), a beautiful mountain village with a Franciscan convent established by Saint Francis himself.

From Villafranca we followed the canyon of the Valcarce River, which is deeply incised unto the mountains. It was a beautiful ride through the trees, but we were going upriver, slowly gaining elevation. We arrived in Las Herrerias (25 km and 650 m altitude) in good cheer, had a good early lunch with cold cuts, and gained the intelligence that following National Route VI was too dangerous and longer than if we took the short, steep, and paved road across the mountains.

Famous last words! Steep does not make justice to the “wall” we were pushing our bikes on. In three kilometers we reached an elevation of 775 m, and another four kilometers would bring us to the lofty altitude of 1,100 in Laguna de Castilla. The slope was brutal (12 to 15%), and I had to push the bike up using the old trick of counting steps. One, two, three . . . 39, 40. Stop. Take five deep breaths. Start again, one, two . . .

We finally made it to Laguna de Castilla, a group of five houses, when it started to rain. The rain was light, but the cold wind drove it into our bones. Adelante! Three more kilometers, with an elevation gain of 200 m to gain O Cebreiro (35 km and 1,300 m altitude), the first town of Galicia. We were now way up in the clouds, blind with fog and rain. Fortunately there was a bar, so we were able to warm up a bit, with coffee for Raúl and warm wine with sugar for me. For a moment we toyed with the idea of calling it a day then and there, but it was only 4 pm and staying would put us hopelessly behind schedule.

So we pressed onward, and within a couple of klicks we had come out of the clouds and were even blessed with some sun. Now we had the chance to admire the beauty of Galicia, a green and blessed country where every hill is draped in emerald green, interrupted only by the brown stone walls erected in time immemorial, which dissect the landscape like veins. The hills are immense, the slopes are infinite, the canyons are deep, and the clouds had lost their menacing air.

But our pain was far from over, because we dropped in elevation, trudged up again for nearly a kilometer, dropped once more, and had to crawl one last time two kilometers of painful slope. I was so glad to have Raúl for my partner in pain, because tired as he was he never lost his good humor and his geologist eyes.

The last part of the day was heavenly. A 15-km down slope, where we were able to fly with the bikes. The downhill was pretty steep (7%), so we flew cautiously, pressing hard on the brakes and hoping they would hold. Finally we made it to Triacastela (55 km and 600 m elevation), where we engaged a small apartment in a pensión, to recover and dry our soggy clothes.

Day 9. Rabanal del Camino to Cacabelos (48 km)

Last night it started raining. I could hear it from my bunk at the hostel. Fortunately the sound stopped after a few minutes and I slept the sound sleep of the ignorant. It had stopped raining because it had started snowing! When we got ready to go in the morning the whole world had turned white! Well, if you must, you must. So we got on our way . . . wait . . . my front wheel was a bit low, so I had to pump some air in it. Raúl was of the opinion that we should change the inner tube right then and there, but I was eager to start and poo-pooed the idea. Famous last words!

We got on our way, on foot, pushing the bikes against a freezing head wind. The slope was too steep for us to ride, so we walked, and walked, and walked, all the time pushing the bikes up an 8% slope. Then I realized that there were little bubbles coming out from every little crevice on the front wheel. Rats! I hate it when Raúl is right!

By this time we were close to the pass, and we were facing a serious gale that, blowing through the pines, chilled us through the bone. Fortunately we found a frozen town near the crest, and after forcing our way into an abandoned porch we were able to shelter ourselves out of the wind to change the inner tube (a 3-ring circus in itself, because the crappy wedges the rental company had given us would bend each time we put any stress on them).

We pushed on. Exhausted and chilled to the bone, we faced what had now turn into a blizzard that was sweeping the crest of the high mountains. We were tired beyond tiredness, and pushed on out of pure piss and vinegar, neither of us willing to admit that we were dead tired or stone cold. The landscape was surreal. The kind of icescape one would expect in the exploration of Antarctica. But we pushed on, laughing and taking pictures, while our limbs became numb with the cold. Finally we made it to the top, and from there we could ride the bikes. But it was like riding down from the high Sierra, with the cold wind biting our faces, legs, arms, and hands. Crossing the mountains has never been for the faint of heart, but this time we outdid ourselves.

Of course, there is a certain reward to doing feats of courage in Europe. A mesón is never too far away, and we did find one 10 kilometers down the road, in a small hamlet called El Acebo (16.5 km). As soon as we walked in, the friendly bar woman placed big plates of steaming soup in front of us, and at my request warmed some wine with sugar and orujo (the local Schnapps) in the microwave, and a few minutes later we were able to thaw from the inside out. I could have stayed there forever, in this small warm heaven inside the frozen wilderness of the Cantabrian mountains.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, so after an hour of heaven we went out there, to brave the elements. By then, however, the furies had relented, and all we saw were the last flecks of snow turn into a light, cold rain. Incidentally, while we were there we had adopted a young Spaniard, who was freezing on the bike, so we jerry rigged some plastic gloves for him with an old supermarket bag, and shepherded him down the mountains until the slopes became more genteel, just as we reached the town of Molinaseca (25 km). Nice town, Molinaseca, with a narrow “Main Street”, and very nice views over the river.

Eventually we made it to Ponferrada (31 km), where we saw the castle of the Knights Templar, and the Basilica of the Blessed Mother Mary. Legend has it that one of the Knights Templar came to the town, and inside an old tree trunk he found an image of Mary, and that is why Ponferrada was established. For us it will also be the place where we had another fine meal of rice and calamari cooked in their own ink, some type of veal cordon bleu, and pimento peppers stuffed with fish. And then there was the wine, and the dessert, and the coffee, and the . . . What a civilized place is Spain!

We pushed another 15 kilometers to Cacabelos (48 km), where we found a wonderfully luxurious hotel to recover our strength. We are going to need all the recovery we can muster, because the daily effort is beginning to tell, and we still have 180 km or so to Santiago.

Day 8. Leon to Rabanal del Camino (60 km)

I need to do this fast, because my computer is running out of juice, so I will sketch the main ideas and flesh them sometime later.

We did go to Vespers, and it was a magic experience. Sor Ana, a diminutive nun who is in charge of the hostel, was expected to come at 9:25 pm to collect us and take us to the church. When she arrived she was all flustered, saying “Where are the bicycles of the Mexicanos?” Well, they should be there; why? She had seen four bicycles in the afternoon and now there were only two, and never, ever, has a bike been stolen from the convent. Fortunately the other two bicigrinos were there, and they promptly explained they had taken their bikes to the repair shop. Sor Ana expelled a deep sigh of relief, and then gathered her pollitos in a hurry because it would not do to be late for Vespers. So we followed her, and in the atrium she gave us responsorial booklets, rehearsed us on what was going to be our role, and finally ushered us into the church. The sisters were just coming in, from wherever the invisible bell they carry in their heads told them it was time, and the service started. It was calming to hear the voices of the nuns repeat the millenary formulas, and at the end the Mother Superior came to the front and blessed us, the pilgrims, with an encouragement to see into our souls and carry there the true pilgrimage of our faith. It was very touching.

The following morning we took off early, enjoyed the city of León in the cold of the early morn, and then went for about 10 kilometers parallel to a busy highway. Not much fun.

Then we got to Hospital de Obrigos (17 km). Pretty town. From there we took off across the mountains. Pretty but tiresome because there were many small up and downs.

Eventually we made it to Astorga (40 km), around 2 pm, just in time for lunch. Maria Eugenia and Juan had told us we should not miss the Cocido Maragato, in the restaurant Casa Maragata, so we dutifully went there (the surrounding country is called the Maragatería, and that is where the funny name comes from). No doubt they meant well, and the food was delicious, but it was not a good idea just before we started up the foothills of the Talano Mountains (the tail end of the Cantabrian mountain range). Peculiar about this cocido (stew) is that first they bring the meat (seven meats that have been slowly cooked in the stew, including pork ear, pork feet, thick chunks of bacon, beef, chicken, and all sorts of chorizos). Then, after you have stuffed your face with meat they bring the garbanzos and veggies. Then, after you cannot possibly eat anymore they bring the broth! Why? Because this was a dish developed during the Spanish civil war by the soldiers and, since shooting could start at anytime, they were anxious to pack the meat first!

Stuffed with food we started the long bike ride up the foothills. They are beautiful, but I am afraid we did not enjoy them as much as we should because we were trying to digest our wonderful lunch. It was soooo painful biking up the unrelenting slope, which was just steep enough to extract the last bit of energy from you as you force the bike up, foot by painful foot.

Finally we made it to Rabanal del Camino (60 km), where a friendly hostel was waiting for us with warm showers and wash basins. The lady of the house told us that we should go to Vespers in the little church, which we did, and were treated to a magnificent concert of Latin chants by the three monks who live in this tiny mountain monastery. It was magnificent.

Since by this time our digestion had been completely ruined, we went to have a glass of wine and some tapas in the local mesón. The mesonero had tried his hand at making callos, which is beef tripe cut in small pieces and stewed in a delicious tomato and garlic sauce. Unfortunately he had only made a small portion, just enough to see if his customers would like them. We praised them heartily, so from now on the mesón at Rabanal will feature Callos a la Raúl.

Day 7. Sahagún a León (50 km)

Once again we are blessed with shining sun, even if the coffee houses are closed this early in the morning (“this early” being a relative thing, since I have been awake for hours). Finally we found a place for Raúl to have a zumo de naranja and a magdalena and I a café con leche and a pastry covered in chocolate.

By the warmth of 9 am we were on the road, uncertain if we were going to spend the day biking on the highway. No, that was not the case. After a couple of klicks we took a dirt road that took us through the most beautiful rolling hills and the most bone-jarring cobble road you can imagine. At first we thought that this was the fault of the cursed Romans, who built their roads by piling cobbles thick and high before covering them with the a thin layer of sand. Naturally, since there have been a couple of years since the last Roman engineer maintained the road the sand has blown away and the cobbles are exposed. But not all fault can be laid at the feet of the Romans, since these rolling hills are formed by an extensive layer of river conglomerates that seem to go on and on.

Finally, with our teeth loose and our butts severely sore we arrived to the town of Mansilla de las Mulas, where Raúl had the brilliant idea to stop for a bocadillo and a cold glass of beer. Having recovered our strength and enthusiasm we took to the road, which was sunny, dry, and thirsty, until almost at the verge of collapse we reached the small town of Arcahueja, where a mirage sign claimed that the local bar carried sidra from Asturias (Apfelwein!). The friendly bartender opened a bottle of cool sidra just for us, and holding the bottle over his head he poured it unto two small glasses to a depth of no more than an inch. “Drink, drink” he enticed us “before the gas bubbles wear away”. We, being obedient pilgrims, drank and drank, as he poured time and time again, punctuating the drinking with tapas of patatas (French fries), pimientos (marinated red peppers), and huevos capeados (hard boiled eggs rolled in an egg batter and then deep fried). We made it out of the bar making zig zags in the bikes, but the refreshing coolness of the sidra was absolutely fantastic.

And so we made it to the beautiful city of León, where we went straight to the convent of the Benidictine nuns (patron saint San Benito), also known as The Carvajalas, where we humbly asked for shelter for the night (this is one of the big stops for the faithful, and we felt we had to follow tradition). We were very welcome, and settled easily unto our cots, long enough to shed our biking gear and go out into the secular world to seek food (which ended being a magnificent affair with pasta with shell fish for Raúl and cold cuts for me, followed by a veal cordon bleu that was to die for, cheese cake, and a digestiff).

Afterward we visited the magnificent cathedral of León, which is one of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever seen. It was an important place in our pilgrimage, being a place that is truly conducive to prayer and meditation. From there we went to the convent of San Isidoro, but by then we were beginning to ache, and after a short while we were seeing the monuments of this magnificent city with a little bit of hatred.

We have finally made it to the hostel, and are now waiting for the 9:30 pm benediction to the pilgrims. I am not sure we will make it.

Day 6. Fromista to Sahagun (58 km)

We had a slow start, probably because both of us slept the sleep of the tired and didn’t wake up until 7 am. The hostel was as cold as only a stone building can get, but a good breakfast and the friendly chat of our hospitaleros was all that was needed to energize us for the day ahead. The air was crisp but the sun was shining on a blue sky, so it should be a good day.

Our first stop was Carrión de los Condes (18 km), of dark memory because this was the estate of the two counts who married the daughters of El Cid. They are mentioned in the saga because they behaved very badly with their wives, and ended leaving them for dead tied to a tree. But even if the counts were real bastards, the place was a prominent one, and the Knights Templar erected in it an enormous temple. A friendly native told us stories about the time when the meson was the most popular stop in El Camino, and the best place to eat lechazo churro (an intelligence that was totally obscure to us, because we didn’t recognize any of the words).

Coming out of Carrión de los Condes we stopped to visit the cloister of San Zoilo, and then took a very straight and flat road across the plain of Palencia. This is a dreaded stretch by the pilgrims on foot, because you have the impression of getting nowhere, but we bicigrinos had a good time enjoying both the agricultural richness of the plain and the sight of the Picos de Europa, the name given to the highest, snow-clad peaks of the Cantabric Mountains to the north. I felt at home, because that is the feeling I have when I drive through the Central Valley of California and turn east to gaze on the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada.

For lack of something more exciting to tell, let me describe the ordeal that is going to the bathroom when you are clad as a bike rider: First I have to take off my vest, then my shirt, then the suspenders of my biking shorts, then my shorts, and finally I can drop the biking shorts so I can do my thing. It is a very vulnerable position, which could be construed as indecent exposure by anyone not familiar with the stupid biking attire. Speaking of which, I have to say the biking shorts, with their padded bottoms, are the least becoming of attires on an elderly gentleman with the shape of a pear. Besides, they feel as if I were wearing a diaper. Definitely not my favorite piece of attire.

Finally we reached the end of the plain, at Moratinos (50 km), and all of a sudden I felt totally spent. Maybe it was because there was no sign on the distance of our destination. Raúl, good friend that he is, slowed down so we could move at a steady pace, but after another couple of klicks he also ran out of steam.

We finally dragged ourselves into Sahagún, very tired and hungry, and after a couple of false starts we finally settled on a nice hotel and were able to relax. The term “relax” is a misnomer, because the pilgrim has to wash clothes every day (we only carry two shirst, two pieces of underwear, two biking shorts, two pairs of socks, etc.), take a shower, and then go find a place to eat. Unfortunately most establishments serve dinner from 2 to 4 pm, then close, and do not open again until supper, from 8 to 10 pm, so we had to go roaming until we found a place that would agree to make us a bocadillo. Now, Spain has the most delicious food in the world, but they really need to learn from the Mexicanos how to prepare a torta. You know, they could put some frijolitos on one half of the loaf and some crema on the other, plus a bit of aguacate and tomato so the bocadillo is moist and delicious. Instead they simply slice the loaf and just put the chorizo inside, slapping the two halves shut as if the delicious sausage would like to escape from this desecration.

So, this city of Sahagún is no other but the birthplace of Fray Bernardino de Sahagún (1499-1590), who did so much for the natives of New Spain at the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, and who is rightfully considered the founder of the study of anthropology in the New World. Fray Bernardino died at the ripe age of 91 years in his beloved New Spain.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Day 5. Burgos to Fromista (70 km)

Victory. . . . Victory? . . . Victory. . . . Victory!

We have conquered the first leg of our pilgrimage, and can now say that we are on a quest!

We spent the night at the Burgos shelter for pilgrims, which is very basic but very nice. They even lent us two sleeping bags to make up for our unpreparedness. Raúl was a little cold (his sleeping bag had a distinctive “scent”, so he didn’t get inside it), but I was hot and slept almost the way the good God brought me into the world. In any case, we were off by 8 am, ready to tackle the Castilian Plateau.

The first 10 klicks were on the shoulder of the N-102 county highway, which is not very exciting. Once we reached Tordejas, however, we went down a vicinal road which gave way to a dirt road within a few thousand meters. From that point on, the ride went through steep paths that went up from an erosional valley up to the Castilian Plateau. Then we would bike 2 to 5 kilometers on relatively flat roads (but sometimes we would find a big pool of water, and then we would have to wallow through the mud), and finally we would have to go down into the next drainage to start the story all over again. We thanked the blazing sun and a cloudless sky for relatively dry ground, but now and then we would find patches on the plateau that were a true mire, and had to cross daintily so we would not splatter mud all over our face. The plateau would be so hard to cross during a rainy day!

Somewhere half way through the day we met a large group, and of course made the small talk that is expected from pilgrims. Well, it turns that they were four families, with all the kids, who had hired a mini-bus for a weekend family outing, and they were following only their favorite parts of the camino. They asked us where we were from, and exploded with comments once we told them we were from Mexico. The kids were absolutely fascinated, and they kept asking us how long it had taken us to get to Spain. The right answer would have been that we had started from Tierra del Fuego a month ago, and had pedaled across the Atlantic, but had trouble fitting the bikes through the Strait of Gibraltar and had wasted a couple of days there. Alas, I did tell the true, so their enthusiasm promptly waned away.

We kept on our way, stopping at Hontanas (30 km) just long enough to drink a caña (a glass of cold beer), admire their beautiful church, and tell the story of El Medio Pollito when we saw a windvane(remind me to tell you that story one day). By 1 pm were entering Castro Jeríz (41 km), where we admired the Colegiata de Santa María, the Church of San Juan, and the long arcade of the Municipal Palace. We stopped here for a very abundant lunch. Very abundant!

We retook our way around 2 pm, feeling at peace with the world, and right away faced a brutal 12% slope that went on for over a kilometer. It is needless to say that we walked the bikes, making short bursts of 30 to 50 m, and then taking a breather. When we made the top it was only to drop like a stone in an 18% downslope, which we again walked because it looked really scary on the bike.

After that came a flat, long stretch, for which we were very thankful. Just as we were entering Fromista (70 km), we stopped to admire the Canal de Castilla, a fabulous piece of hydraulic engineering of the XVIII century. The canal extends for 200 km, and allowed for transport of grain through barges. At the place we stopped included four gates to lift (or drop as the case might be) the barges over an elevation difference of 15 m (45 ft).

Fromista was our destination for the day, and we were grateful to make it there at 6 pm, in time to find a hostel, take a shower, have dinner, and drop exhausted for a well-deserved night of sleep.

Day 4. Burgos

Burgos is a beautiful city, built at the confluence of two streams (the main one being the Arlanzón River). One of them provides the city with a set of scenic pools, crisscrossed by bridges, whereas the Arlanzón is a green corridor much favored by couples in love and energetic power walkers. These innocent-looking streams carry some punch, however, and in the last 100 years have jumped their banks a couple of times and flooded downtown Burgos under several feet of water.

Today we became official pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago. We got our pilgrim passport, and have now the right to bear the cockle shell that distinguishes those embarking in this trip of faith. I didn’t know this, but after Rome and Jerusalem, Santiago de Compostela is the third main site of pilgrimage in Christendom, so we feel honored and humbled to be part of this sacred tradition.

After being anointed we spent the day visiting Burgos, which we found to be a beautiful and charming city that manages to blend, in an extraordinary way, architecture and traditions that go back to the Middle Ages with bold modern architecture and a lively lifestyle. I have crossed many dreadful Spanish cities, where all you see are drab high rises, so I was delighted to see that Burgos is noting of the sort. Places of note are the gothic cathedral, the statue and memorials to El Cid, the fortress, the promenade by the river, the university, and the Museum of Human Evolution.

Most of the cathedral space is open to tourists and has been tastefully arranged as a museum of the XV and XVI centuries. We were fascinated by the masterpieces in painting and sculpture, but then again that is true for many of the beautiful churches and monasteries sprinkled throughout the city. The place of honor in the main nave is the burial of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, best known as El Cid, and his wife Ximena. I read the saga of El Cid when I was in junior high, just like any other Mexican student, and I was not sure if it was fact or fiction. I must confess I remember little and will have to read it again, but I vaguely remember he was lord of a small state, that he helped consolidate the kingdom of Castile, and that he extracted a solemn promise of good rule from the first Castilian king (something like the agreement of King John to Magna Carta in England).

We had a fabulous lunch, I of a mushroom omelet followed by morcilla (a piquant blood and rice sausage that is the specialty of the city), and Raúl of spaghetti followed by cod fish in a parsley sauce.

After a walk around the fortress (which we could not visit because it is only open on weekends) and magnificent views of the city, we headed toward the university. Here again the Burgaleses have accomplished a tasteful blend of old and new, with the core of the complex being a XVI century hospital that has been beautifully renovated. Funny thing, however, is that the whole university was deserted. After much walking we finally found a guy enjoying a cigarette break outside of the library and we asked him why no one was there. “It is Friday. Nobody comes to school on Friday.” I am sure my students would think this an extremely civilized costume!

Raúl had to attend to some of his business via the internet, so we parted ways and I went for a long, long bike stroll along the Arlanzón River and all the way to the Aguas Blancas forest east of the city. This is the equivalent to Chapultepec in Mexico or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Since the day had been beautiful and sunny, and the afternoon was no less balmy and gorgeous, the Burgaleses were out there en masse, doing what people around the world do when the winter comes to an end and the first sunny weekend finally sets in.

Much relaxed I biked back to town to visit the Museum of Human Evolution. It was one of the finest pieces of museography I have seen in a long time. First there was a very clear explanation of the geomorphology of the surrounding area, which is dominated by a limestone substrate and thus has well developed karstic topography. There are sink holes, caves with extensive horizontal galleries, and caves with deep and sharp vertical drops. Sometime in the 1950’s a cut made for the passage of a train sliced through the clay-filled core of one of these caves, and exposed archeaologic layers filled with human remains. To name but two of the main discoveries, in one of the caves, at a level that must have formed between 1,000,000 and 800,000 years ago, archeologists found a mandible of Homo heidelbergensis, which is the oldest human fossil in Europe, and which pushed back the migration of hominids from Africa into Europe. The second find was a steep pit which apparently had been used by Homo nenaderthalensis for the disposal of their dead 500,000 years ago. They seem to have used little ceremony in disposing of the bodies, simply hurling them down the chasm. A bear would fall in from time to time, no doubt attracted by the stench of rotting flesh. The find is significant because from it they recovered a 95% intact skull. The area where all these discoveries were done is called Atapuerca (and in fact we drove through it yesterday without recognizing its significance), and is in all respect as amazing as the caves of Starkfontein in South Africa, or Chokotiuen in China.

The day finally concluded with another fine meal of paella and rabbit stew, this time generously irrigated with a bottle of fine Rioja. It is a hard life, but someone has to live it!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Day 3. From Madrid to Burgos

Juan and Maria Eugenia left early for work, and a bit later I walked down to the nearest metro station to meet my friend and traveling companion for this adventure, Raúl. Raúl and I went together to engineering school, from 1972 to 1976, but after school we drifted apart, and it was not until a couple of years ago that we touched base with each other. He found me in the internet, we started to correspond, met in Tijuana (where he was doing a consulting job), then he and his wife Georgina came to visit me in California, and finally me and my niece Maya went to visit them in Mexico City. On that latter occasion we traveled together through central Mexico, and it was during that trip that the Spain adventure was conceived.

We were all excited and thought this was a trip that we could do with our daughters and their husbands, and despite the protestations of Georgina we planned the grand tour of Spain. Then came the bad news: No, so sorry, neither his two daughters nor my own Faby could afford the time or money, and Georgina thought we were insane and wouldn’t hear about our crazy plans. And so it is that two older and perfectly sensible men are embarking in a quest, perhaps not unlike that of the Knight of the Woeful Countenance and his faithful companion Sancho. Who is who in this duet is something only time can tell.

As I started saying, Raúl and I met at the metro station, walked back to Juan’s house to repack the few things we are taking together (2 shirts, 2 underpants, 2 pairs of socks, one pair of shorts, two biking shorts, two biking shirts, and assorted toiletries), and after saying goodbye to Estrella and Armando went back to the metro and ultimately the bus station. We were in luck: A bus was departing in 15 minutes, and by 2 pm we were in Burgos, where we had to pick up the bikes. Friendly natives directed us to the FedEx office, and after one bus ride and some brisk walking we reached their office and took possession of the bikes. Everything was going perfectly, until Raúl noticed that the company had not sent the pedals. Rats! No problemo. We asked our local informants, and they directed us to a bicycle shop about a mile away.

The bike shop was closed (here a lot of businesses are closed from 2 to 5 pm), but we were able to leave the bikes in charge of yet another friendly young man, had a bite to eat, and then came back to the now open shop. We felt great about being recognized right away as pilgrims of Jacob’s Way, and after a few minutes we were fully equipped to start our adventure. First we biked a couple of miles to our hostel, dropped our gear, and called a cab to take us see the sunset at the XII century church of San Juan de Ortega. The church has the sarcophagus and remains of San Juan de Ortega, but is better known for a bassrelief of pilgrims praying to Our Lady, and for the spotlight effect that the setting sun, filtering through an open window, has on the different scenes of this relief. I should mention that when we got there we found the church closed. We asked the young keeper of the hospital de peregrinos (pilgrim hostel) if we could see the church, but he told us that the church closed at 5 pm. Not to be deterred we fell in conversation with him, and learned a lot about the Camino and the pilgrims in it. He also showed us the hospital, and explained how the whole pilgrimage system worked. After a nice 10 minutes of conversation we said goodbye, took photos outside of the church, and were ready to go away when the nice young man came to us and said, “Oh, I cannot let two pilgrims come this far and not see the church. Come along and take as long as you want.” So we did, admired the effect of that last beam of sunlight, and reverently said a prayer for the intention of those who we are doing the pilgrimage for. Our new friend then gave us a very wise piece of advice: “As you walk along keep an eye for the weary and the thirsty, and share with them your bread and water. Then you will be a true part of the Camino.” Words to live by.

We finished a wonderful first day with a fabulous meal of fish soup, fried fish for Raúl and a yummy lamb stew for me, dessert, and a bottle of wine. And all this for only 20 euros! We are certainly going to enjoy our trip!

Day 2. Madrid

With only four hours of sleep Gustav and I headed for the Frankfurt airport, first to seek a much needed cup of coffee, and then for me to embark on the next leg of my trip. The flight left at 7:50 am, and by 10:30 we had landed in Madrid. This city has the best metro connection possible between airport and city, so by 11:30 am I was already walking down the streets of the southern suburbs, headed for the house of my friends Maria Eugenia and Juan Ley Pozo. They both work at a private clinic, Juan as a doctor and Maria Eugenia as a medical technician, so they would not be home at this time of the day, but Juan’s parents would be waiting for me.

As I walked from the metro to their house I reflected on the old saying that Madrid has “nueve meses de invierno y tres de infierno”. The weather was cold and menacing. The wind chilled you to the bone and the dark clouds were ready to let go. So much for sunny Spain! But the weather forecast is good, and tomorrow we should see the sun reappear, and northern Spain should be mild and sunny for the rest of the week. Hope springs eternal!

When I got home I was received by Estrella and Armando with the same love and kindness they have always lavished on me. Juan and I met in Germany 20 odd years ago, when we were both guests of the Von Humboldt Foundation, but I only met his parents 15 years ago, when the whole family emigrated from Cuba to establish themselves in Spain. Estrella is now 88 years old, and is a typical Cuban woman, talkative and very charming. Armando, for his part, is now 104 years old, and claims to be deaf and nearly blind (none of this is strictly true; he has simply perfected the art of selective hearing and of smiling beatifically to the world around him). I love to talk with them, because they are full of wonderful stories. This time Armando started reminiscing about his early years in China. He and his family lived in a small riverine village near Canton, and were very poor, so when he was a young lad (16 years old, I believe), he left his family and emigrated to Cuba, where over the years he worked just every trade imaginable. At the end he settled to be a photographer. He must have been a pretty suave Chinaman, because at age 40 he hooked Estrella (I vaguely remember he made a home-movie of their honeymoon trip, and she was quite a looker at the time), and the rest, as they say, is history.

All along during the story telling we were having lunch (a delicious Chinese fried rice prepared by Armando), and they kept pressing more and more food unto my plate, until at the end I had to throw the towel and roll out away from the table. I wanted to have a nap, but thought it would be better to first take a stroll around the neighborhood. What fun it is to wander through a foreign city, and to be fascinated by every store front. And from fascination to fascination I ended standing in front of a hairdressing school, and on a whim went in to have my hair cut. The charming receptionist asked if I wanted to have a student or a teacher do the cutting. “A student, of course. If they don’t practice they will never get good at it”. I was shown to the chair of a young, petite woman, who very professionally isolated my head from the rest of my anatomy, and who was practicing cutting hair with scissors rather than mechanized clippers. She did a great job, now and then interrupted by her master teacher, who corrected her posture, told her not to start at the center but on the side, and taught her the techniques at her disposal for cutting around the ear or halve the length of the hair on top. I was extremely satisfied with my hair cut, and left behind me a self-assured smiling student.

Back at the apartment I took a nap, worked on this blog, and waited the arrival of Juan and Maria Eugenia. They finally made it home around 8 pm, and at that time, tired from a long day at work, Maria Eugenia started to produce a culinary masterpiece: Migas!

According to Juan, this is a poor man’s dish, done with pieces of old, dry bread, maybe with a bit of bacon for flavor. Maria Eugenia stepped up the dish about it by adding pieces of chistorra (a very thin sausage). Preparation is conceptually simple. First you cook the bacon and chistorra over a hot fire, with some olive oil so the thing will not burn. Once cooked you add salt and powder of red pepper. While this is going on, in a separate pan you heat more olive oil, and fry on it the bread, which has been broken into small, quarter-inch pieces. After the bread starts browning add the contents of the other pan, mix together, and voila your migas are ready. It is a salty dish, so you want to eat it with fresh grapes to balance the flavor.

The talk after dinner meandered lazily around old memories, vacation tales (Juan, Maria Eugenia, and their son Juan Armando visited the western US last August, and cannot say enough about the beauty of California and the National Parks of the west), the current economic crisis, and advice about what not to miss while following the Camino de Santiago (Jacob’s Way). There is nothing as pleasant as visiting with old friends!

Day 1. Frankfurt

After a very uneventful United flight (the best movie in the roster was The King’s Speech), I landed in Frankfurt, the springboard of many of my past traveling adventures. This time everything went without a hitch, and after just a few minutes waiting by the curve I saw this beautiful woman waving at me from a luxurious Mercedes convertible. It was my dear Christine, who had come to pick me up in just about the most glorious, warm and sunny day I could have hoped for. I had expected cold and grimy snow slush on the ground. After all, this is Germany, where in the last trip I almost froze my buns. This may bode well for the whole trip, since Spain should have even better weather than Germany, shouldn’t it?

Chrissie had planned a walk through Hessen Park, a historical park in the foothills of the Taunus Mountains, just west of Frankfurt, where the state of Hessen has built a historical cluster of villages. The buildings from these villages are original houses and farms found in the state of Hessen that have been dismantled, transported to the park, and then reconstructed with loving care and amazing detail using the original wood and stone work. Some of the buildings show how Hessians lived in the middle ages, or the 1600’s, or the 1800’s, and others are workshops where docents still weave fabric for reproduction dresses, shoe horses, or demonstrate the skills of glass blowers and coppersmiths. We spent a delightful couple of hours catching up on the family and common acquaintances, and then Chrissie drove her convertible at high speed back home to Doerningheim (fortunately I fell asleep and was thus spared a heart attack).

Back home I took a long nap, to be ready for the festivities that followed. You see, my friends are always very glad to see me, and they always celebrate my visits with copious amounts of good German food, and even more copious amounts of wine and stolid German beer. Me, being but human, have the tendency to overeat and over drink, which is not the best way to start a trip. This time we went to an Apfelweinstube in Sachenhousen. This was an old restaurant specializing in apple wine (alcoholic cider) on the other side of the Mainz River, in “the house of the Saxons”, who were mercenaries working for Carl der Grosste, who had the good sense to have them camp on the other side of the river from the city where he established his court. We met there Chrissie and Gustav, Andrea and Frank, and Anna and Felipito. The last two are the grown up children of Chrissie and Gustav. I call Phillip Felipito only for old time sake, since I have known him and his sister since they were babies, but he is now a grown up man around 7 feet tall.

Besides several liters of Apfelwein the yummy delicacies included Handkaese mit Musik (cheese marinated in vinegar, served topped with onions and cumin, well known for the explosive effect it has with the tender digestive system of foreign visitors), Steak Tartar, Leberkaese mit Kartoffeln, and slow cooked joints of beef. It was a superb banquet, full of laughter and back-and-forth stories, and I managed to eat and imbibe in moderate quantities. Then we went for a walk and we had to try the traditional dark beer brewed in Sachsenhousen (bad idea to mix drinks), and eventually came home to face the real test: My annual lecture in enology, delivered by Prof. Dr. Gustav Kobberger, aided by his well-stocked wine cellar (this tradition goes back to 1989, when we first met in Bochum, in northern Germany, and when Gustav would come to stay for a few days loaded with wines from all over Europe). This time Gustav was sublime: He opened three bottles in close succession (and I must confess I felt a cold chill spread down my spine, as if the consecutive “pop”, “pop”, “pop” were sniper fire rather than an invitation to the epicurean delights of good wine) and the evening started developing like a well known and beloved symphony. Fortunately one of the wines was considered “undrinkable” by my knowledgeable friend (its place was taken by a new “pop”), but three bottles of heady wine can do serious damage to the unweary traveler. Ah, but it was great to relive the old times!

Day 0. The adventure begins

I woke up early, and had a delightful chat with Sandy, who is now pursuing a Master’s degree in Nursing Education at Stanford. She has worked as a nurse for 30 odd years, but after completing her degree hopes to make a slight career shift into education, perhaps at the Nursing program at De Anza Community College. She is writing a big paper on the relative merits of traditional instruction versus computer-assisted instruction. Since I am myself interested on launching an online MS program in Water Resources we had plenty of ideas to exchange, and the morning went by remarkably fast. At 11 am their son, Ryan, took me to the San Francisco airport. I have now the honor of being his first customer on a limousine service he would like to launch. He was not sure what permits he will need, but he wants to build a limousine service driving between the San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland airports, as well as driving people back and forth from restaurants and dance clubs. I believe it has good potential, and am glad I helped him baptize the idea.

2011 trip to Spain

This is the story of my 2011 trip to Spain. Like my other travel logs, I hope it will be a daily reflection of the wonders a traveler gets to see when visiting foreign lands, as well as the small trials and tribulations that are the spice of life abroad. But let me start with the cast of charaters:

Day -1. Once again I am delighted that before embarking on a new adventure I get to say hello to old friends. I am flying out of San Francisco, and started enjoying myself with a brief visit to Sandy and Dave Ashby, the parents of DJ, who is my daughter’s husband. Sandy works as a nurse, and every other Sunday she has to work the graveyard shift, but Dave was the ever gracious host and we had a pleasant dinner of teriyaki chicken as we talked over his retirement plans. He will be retiring next year, and with any luck will be able to volunteer at a nearby golf club, in exchange for playing a round of golf three or four times a week.