Sunday, 15 December 2019

Day 3 On The Camino: Palas De Rei To Arzua


Morning Has Broken


It is still dark at 7:20am when I join Jorge for breakfast. My night as the only guest at the villa went well, no Japanese spirits tried to kill me and I feel refreshed and ready for food.

This is my first breakfast since I left home and, for a pilgrim, this is a feast: there are different jams, fruit, cakes, orange juice, fresh hot croissants, hot chocolate, a whole cheese and meat platter and more. Will I manage to eat all of this? Have to!

Jorge joins me and shares his stories from the Camino including his own pilgrimages to Santiago. He's done it three times so far! I'm impressed and admire his pilgrim passports which are full of colourful sellos. Of course, Jorge stamps my passport to document my stay at his guesthouse.

I really enjoy breakfast and have a great view over the Camino which passes the villa and the first people are already on the hike! Sometimes this hike feels like a race. Before I leave the villa, Jorge has kindly organised a local luggage transfer for me. A bit skeptical, I leave my backpack behind. Fed, well-rested and a couple of kilos lighter I can start my day.  

With the sunrise at 8:30am, I'm ready to leave and as the day before, the Camino is busy. I join straight into a pack of chatty pilgrims and get carried away with them. The next two hours are very productive and I make great progress as the landscape is flat and allows a smooth hike.

camino frances pilgrim statue between palas de rei and arzua
camino frances outside melide

 Melide Calling


I pass through medieval villages, local chapels and cross arched stone bridges. After a hike through an autumnal forest, I take my first break in the outskirts of Melide. I help pilgrims with their pictures in front of the picturesque stone bridge in Furelos and meet a friendly Columbian, who travels with me for a short while.

pilgrim outside chapel on the camino frances
furelos bridge outside melide camino frances
furelos village on the camino frances

Furelos goes over into Melide which turns out to be a large town! It has to be as two routes, the Camino Frances (the busiest) and Camino Primitivo (the oldest), join together so the place is packed with pilgrims. The Camino leads straight into the centre past a Galician restaurant on the corner with a bald-headed guy who tries to sell me Octopus. I tell him politely that I can't have any seafood and could end up in hospital. Besides, I'm on a mission and need to keep going. I do see the Columbian and some other familiar pilgrim faces resting at the restaurant so his selling strategy does work. I could do with a little snack so for "lunch" I drop into a small supermarket and get some Mikado. The sugar from the chocolate is nice and I head straight to the church of St Peter. 

The church is open but there's no one to stamp my passport. Anyway, just when I enter the building, it starts pouring. It was forecasted, so I'm prepared and get my raincoat and trousers out of my tote bag. The church is quiet and warm, so I take a longer break in the hope the rain might stop. It doesn't and shortly after 12pm, I get restless and want to get moving.

Oh, It's A Rainy Day!


I leave Melide behind and the rain is a constant and even drizzle. The kind of drizzle you know won't stop for the rest of the day. It's ok, I've dressed appropriately and I march ahead. Outside of town the Camino splits and there's the choice between a shorter, but uphill route (Primitivo) or a longer but flat route (Frances). I decide for the first as it leads through the forest of Ficheiro and the highlight is to cross a stone bridge over the stream Catasol. Two Germans have been around me for a while - mother and daughter. We talk for a bit but I can sense they aren't to keen on having me around. They hike ahead fast and ditch me at the next opportunity.

forest of ficheiro and stone bridge over catasol camino frances

For the rest of the day, I travel alone. It rains silently and gradually. The Camino goes through leafy forests, and there are long periods in which I meet absolutely no one. Even the villages seem to be dead. There are a few hills up and down but not as challenging as the days before, or maybe I have the impression because I travel without a backpack and Carole's walking stick is a blessing. 

At around 1:30ish, I pass through Boente, a little village, and get told Arzua is only 8km - a 2h hike- away. Excellent! After that, the rain gets heavier though. I keep walking through the settlement Ribadiso which has a lovely Roman bridge. After that, it's uphill again.

village boente with chapel on the camino frances
Ribadiso with roman stone bridge on the camino frances

About an hour later, after managing that steep hill, I make a stop at a horrible cafe. There weren't many cafes around today so I make a very quick stop to have some ice cream. The place is a bit shabby, unfriendly and there's a loud group of pilgrims getting hammered on wine. As soon as I sit down I can feel it. I'm damp. My rain trousers are non-breathable so they've created this horrible sweaty climate in between my running leggings. I feel very uncomfortable.

The Low Point Is Here


Grumpy, I continue my hike. Unfortunately from here, it is pretty much all downhill for me. I can deal with rain, I can deal with challenging hills, I can survive my feet which have gone into stiff mode again - BUT there's nothing more in the world that I despise than being soaked. It gets worse with every step I move forward. I sly through a forest and I'm on the lookout for somewhere to sit. There's no stone fence or any other opportunity so at one point I sit down on the side of the forest ground which looks reasonably dry. Within seconds the rain trousers soak up the water and I'm wet through the trousers, my leggings, and my underwear. GREAT!

camino frances hike from palas de rei to arzua

Wet and cold, I drag myself along the final kilometers to Arzua. It is horrible. I'm so fed up it is best if I don't talk to anyone and end the day pretty much as soon as. Arzua is a long stretched settlement and it takes forever to reach the small tourist information in the centre. A few days ago I received a message on Expedia from my host tonight, but it's in Spanish and I really don't fancy to sort this out right now. Luckily the girl at the Tourist Information is super helpful and she translates for me and calls my host as instructed per his message.

Ending The Day At Casa Lucas


At 4pm, I get picked up by an elderly man called Lucas and he's very friendly. I try hard to get a conversation going but it doesn't help that I'm still soaked and cold. Lucas takes me to his guesthouse, again a beautiful converted Galician villa in the middle of nowhere, located by a lake with spectacular views. His guesthouse is a family-run business and his daughter deals with all the admin side. I'd say she's in her early 20s, super nice and she speaks fluent English. She checks me in and allocates a beautiful little room across the courtyard. Their dog, a huge shepherds mix, follows me around. I feel instantly safe and a bit better after having a cuddle. My backpack has also arrived and is waiting for me in my room.

casa lucas arzua camino de frances lakeside pension

I head straight for the shower and let the hot steaming water run over me for a good 20 minutes. It is sooo good. Afterward, I lie on my bed. It's only 5pm! The room is small but very pretty with lovely features that make the place homey. Lucas will drop me off in the morning in Arzua and I'm happy I'm staying again with friendly locals. A group of hikers which I've seen a few times on the Camino has also just arrived. They will join me in the morning for the trip back to Arzua.

I prepare for tomorrow's route and text Carole & Denise to check in if they are ok. Carole replies back they made it to Arzua and stay at the modern San Fransisco Albergue. We agree to meet up in the morning and travel together, which makes me happy and looking forward to tomorrow. It is early evening but I'm glad I'm no longer out on the Camino. It still pours down and will do so for the rest of the night. I'm warm and comfy, and feeling myself again, although earlier I had massive doubts about myself.

casa lucas arzua camino frances grounds

Back on the Camino when I was wet and grumpy, I felt this hike was a challenge too big for me, I was that fed up. I'm not trained in hiking at all. Sure, I do my occasional 10km runs in London and try to pick up ice skating again, but in general, I've never been a sporty girl so doing this pilgrimage is quite intense. 

Luckily I'm warm now and even my emergency pasta pot tastes rather nice. I hiked another 26km - well it was supposed to be 33km today if I hadn't "cheated" with yesterday's taxi ride to Jorge's guesthouse.

I have it comfy and I will see Carole & Denise tomorrow. 

I'm good now.

Thanks so much for reading.
Till next time,
Carolin
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Monday, 9 December 2019

A Perfect Day In Madrid

jorge-fernandez-salas-madrid skyline

On my way home after hiking the Camino de Santiago, I made a stopover in Madrid. Here I had less than 48h to spent so I filled my day with some quality sightseeing and culinary treats. Unlike sightseeing in Rome or my previous trip to Athens, I feel Madrid is not the "traditional" capital I would choose for a sightseeing heavy city break. However, there are a few things worth visiting as the city has an incredibly lively atmosphere with excellent food and interesting architecture. I had a great time and if I had to relive the day it would look as follows:

Morning In Madrid


9am: wake up at one of Madrid's überstylish hotels. Barceló Imagine, H10, the NH collection or Tryp are all great choices when staying in Spain's capital. A great hotel can make all the difference and excite you to start the day, plus all of these are located centrally and are in easy walking distance to all the actions in the city.

breakfast served at antipode australian cafe in madrid

My stop for breakfast would be the Australian cafe Antipode in Calle de San Bernardo Street for 10am. The cafe offers healthy vegan and classic breakfast options such as avocado on toasts with poached eggs, but there's also porridge, homemade granola, and pancakes. Literally, anything from the menu is a winner. I ordered a variety from the card such as their tropical oats and matcha pancakes. Add a berry smoothie and freshly pressed orange juice for a perfect start to the day.

Lunchtime In Madrid


For 12pm it is time to give my mind some "food". Museo Reina Sofia, the local art gallery with contemporary paintings and displays of Miro, Dali, and Picasso, would be my address. The museum is renowned for showcasing a fine collection of Surrealism and Cubism, two art movements which Spanish artists are well-known for. On Level 2 I would admire Picasso's Guernica or engage in Miro's sculptures in the museum's courtyard.

salvadore dali surrealism painting at museo reina sofia madrid
miro sculpture in the courtyard of museo reina sofia madrid

Spending 2h at the museum is enough time to see everything. Afterward, it is time to stroll along Calle de Bellevue and admire some beautiful architecture whilst aiming for the centre. There's some incredible architecture especially the countless old skool cinema buildings or the Telefonica building on Gran Via. The later was inspired by New York architecture and applies a world metropolitan touch to the city skyline. Pass by Playa Major the beating heart and Playa Sol to see Spain's geographical centre the Kilometre Zero. Then catch a first glimpse of the hustle and bustle of Gran Via, Madrid's major shopping street.

art nouveau cinema in madrid
kilometre cero in madrid in plaza del sol outside the post office
victor-streets of madrid

Spending The Afternoon In Madrid


It is an unwritten rule that one can't go to Spain without indulging in Churros. Churroria Chocolateria San Gines is THE address in Madrid. The place exists since 1894 and offers outdoor seating for people watching. I ordered a batch alongside the classic hot chocolate dip and a bottle of water and paid 6.50 € in total.

traditional curros served by san gines in madrid

For the late afternoon, I can recommend a sightseeing bus tour. The tour starts at Museo Prado and I found 4pm a great time in the day to do this little trip around town. For around 2h I enjoyed circling the city twice. You will not only love the ride in the sun but also spot major sights such as the Royal Palace, The Egyptian Temple of Debod, the Neptune Fountain or Plaza de Cibeles.... and bypass a couple of nice restaurants, too, which are worth checking out later for dinner.

in the heart of madrid city centre
eleni-afiontzi-madrid metro sign

A Memorable Night In Madrid


6:30pm - Time to head to the rooftop bar and take in those stunning views over the city. ME Madrid in Plaza Santa Ana is the right place if you, like me, love spectacular views and an easy-going atmosphere. I loved their mocktails which were all delicious whilst listening to chill out beach tunes. Good vibes, great conversations, excellent views, and interesting people.

rooftop terrace views from ME Madrid

Before dinner, I decided to hit the stores on the Gran Via for a short late evening shopping tour. At around 8:30pm most places are empty and easy to browse.

Dinner is rather late in Spain, so for around 9:30pm, I can recommend to check out Ôven Mozarella Bar - a quirky Italian at the end of Gran Via. Although the place is a small chain it charms with a calm and modern ambient and affordable prices. I tried their pasta bake and my dessert wasn't too bad either. I could easily spend the entire evening here, have casual chats or hang out with friends. It is a fantastic place with lovely food and a feel-good atmosphere.

The city is still alive at 11pm, so I would take a final stroll before bedtime and admire the buildings such as Banca Espana, which are all lit up now.

Thanks so much for reading,
Till next time,
Carolin
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Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Bruges Pre Christmas Is Always A Good Idea

olivier-depaep-bruges during christmas time

Pre-Christmas getaways are just as popular as the regular weekender and experiencing the Christmas spirit in another country is always a big winner to get into the festive mood even more for many. 

Having said that, coming from Germany I'm already spoilt by the traditional markets in Dresden in Leipzig which are beautiful, however, there's one more city which has Christmas written all over it and to me that is Bruges. Protected by the UNESCO World Heritage, this medieval 13th-century town has everything to give you all the festive feels: adorable fairytale buildings, chocolates galore, seasonal decorations, enchanting lights and a good portion of chilly winter weather. 

A visit to this fantastic little town is a treat trip extravaganza, so be prepared for lots of food, cosy cafes, and unforgettable food comas.

How To Get To Bruges & When Is The Best Time


The fastest and easiest way to get to charming Bruges from London is via Eurostar. Keep in mind the Eurostar train is not for the spontaneous as tickets are expensive on short notice. Therefore, start as early as possible to monitor for deals - as early as three months in advance and be flexible with dates. You can also gamble and wait for the BlackFriday Deals but better avoid the disappointment of missing out by checking prices regularly beforehand. 

I managed to get return tickets from St Pancras for £60 for a two-day trip in mid-December. A one night stay is just about the right amount of time to explore all the festive markets and roam the fairytale cobbled streets at night, which is an absolute must! 

vanveenjf-bruges at night

The journey to Bruges will take you all day, even though it's only 1h away from Brussels and the Eurostar journey from London to Brussels is a straightforward 2h trip. It can take and feel longer as there's the 1h time difference when crossing the Channel and it depends how quickly you can catch a connecting train in Brussels. So if you leave London shortly after lunch, you'll be there for dinner time.   

Christmas in Bruges - What To Expect


The town with its many medieval 12th and 13th century stone buildings and warehouses creates already a unique flair but decorated with whimsical twinkling Christmas lights, the city gets an added cosy charm which is enchanting and magical.

However, the markets in the grand market square are slightly underwhelming, though the smell of caramelised almonds, mulled wine and spicy gingerbread will linger from every house around. The town is decorated in its finest with light chains, Christmas stars and candles everywhere. After dark, it is a special experience just to roam and get lost in the labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets, enjoy Hot Chocolates to get warm again and admire the countless little independent shops. De Witte Pelikaan is a fantastic local Christmas shop with intricate decorations and there's also a small Käthe Wohlfahrt near the main market. Very bizarrely have a look at McDonald's which is located inside a medieval warehouse. The wooden constructions inside are spectacular!

In the daytime, you can take a canal tour which costs 8 EUR and you get to see Bruges from a different perspective. You'll learn The Church of our Lady area is extremely interesting as there used to be a medieval hospital and cloister. The Bonifacius Bridge nearby could be a setting straight out of The Lord of The Rings and has been used in various films. 

bonifacius bridge in bruges
canal tour in bruge passing historic buildings
medieval bruges explored by boat on a canal tour in december

The ride in one of the horse carriages costs now 50EUR and unless you can maybe split the costs with friends, it's not really worth it, if I'm honest. I've done the tour on my first visit in 2005, and it cost us a tenner each between my group of three. The ride itself lasts for about 30mins and takes you through most of the inner city which by then you'll have walked a few times yourself anyway.

And of course, don't miss out on the opportunity to sample all the chocolate shops. Every second shop is a chocolatier and there's a reason why Belgium chocolate is rated as the best in the world. I can recommend Dumon, which has three individual stores in the town centre and sells delicious chocolate-coated Florentines and confectionery.

Where To Eat & Drink In Bruges


When you visit Bruges in December, you do exactly two things: you'll head outside admiring the town and its festive decorations and then you get back inside to warm yourself up and eat - don't worry, you won't starve in Bruges, as the town is a treasure trove for food.

Most eateries are quite expensive, especially around the main market where it is super touristy. I found Ellis Gourmet Burger in the smaller market Stevinplein, a 5mins walk away, a nice and affordable alternative. It's a burger specialist with a very pretty and modern interior which is far from a typical fast-food style. 

Café-wise, BlackBird in the North of the city is worth a visit. The cute tea room is beautifully decorated and if you're lucky and manage to get seated by the window, you get excellent views over the canal. 

Black bird cafe inside in Bruges
christmas white hot chocolate served at black bird cafe in bruges
prime spot at black bird cafe in bruges

For the ultimate chocolate kick, you have to go to The Old Chocolate House at the entrance of the city. It is sooooo good if you love (hot) chocolate just as much as I do! There are hundreds of options to choose from including chocolates with 70% cocoa, waffles, confectionery and special branded chocolate options such as Oreo, M&Ms or Snickers.

the old chocolate house in bruges during christmas
snickers hot chocolate served at the old chocolate house in bruges
snickers hot chocolate from the old chocolate house in bruges

I ordered the Snickers one and received a bowl of steaming hot milk, a stirrer, and a massive Snickers cupcake, purely made of sugar, caramel, and hazelnuts. It was almost too sickly to eat but then I got the hint and dissolved the ENTIRE thing in the milk.

I'm still alive but one thing is for sure, you won't have to eat for a while and you might feel oversugared for the rest of your evening.

Thanks for reading.
Till next time,

Carolin
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Monday, 25 November 2019

Day 2 On The Camino: Portomarin To Palas De Rei

Into the misty mountains portomarin camino frances

A Busy Morning


After all the walking, muscle pain and no chocolate, I thought I'd wake up on Day 2 and finally have the shape of a top model. It isn't the case, but the muscle ache is still there.

I check out at 8am and get a lift into town by the guesthouse's owner Mario. He speaks no English, but he is a friendly local and we manage a basic conversation. Mario kindly drops me off at Portomarin's Church of San Juan so I'm spared of walking 1km uphill. Unfortunately, the church is closed so no sello for me this morning. I also get a novella text from Jorge, my host for tonight, asking me lots of questions. When will you arrive? Do you need dinner? What do you eat? Do you need pick up? - Ahhhhh, stop stressing me out. I've not even started the day so I have no idea how fast I'll make progress today. I reply with a short text that I'm just about to leave Portomarin and aim to be at the guesthouse before it gets dark (8pm). That should do, right!?!

Portomarin church of san juan camino frances

It is approaching 8:20am. Sun's not up yet, but everyone else is. The village is super busy. Like London rush hour busy. Everyone is out and about. Pilgrims join from every corner of the small village to tackle today's route to Palas de Rei. Some check out of their hotel, at the other end of the road are pilgrims taking pictures with the Portomarin sign. A Chinese couple shoulder their backpacks, others quickly drop into the tiny supermarket by the church to buy last-minute snacks for the day. The chatter, laughter, and clicking of Nordic Walking sticks create a buzz in the air which is inspiring and infectious. We can do those 30kms, off to Palas de Rei we go!

portomarin with stone pillar 90km to santiago camino frances

Together with the rest of the pilgrim pack, I descend Portomarin. The Camino leads straight out of the village on the other side and two more bridges from the old days of Portomarin come insight. I stop briefly for the view and read up on Portomarin's history from an information plate. The village was completely relocated in 1960 when the river got dammed. Brick by brick, the church, and other historic buildings were moved up the hill and reconstructed. At low tide, the river reveals the old ancient remains of the original bridge, as well as some buildings. The pictures look eerie and the morning fog creates the perfect image for a mysterious setting. 

Into The Misty Mountains


The Camino leads straight into the wild, uphill of course "into the misty mountains", as I'd like to call it. The thick fog hangs over the hill like a blanket and the cold from the wetness creeps in. The first two kilometers are really tough. I take my time to tackle that hill - one step at a time. What I don't know yet: most of today will be uphill with the strongest elevation gain of the whole hike to Santiago. It will be an interesting day for sure.

early morning in portomarin with river minho

After 45 minutes, I reach the top. Here, the Camino follows alongside the main road past some old abandoned factories of Portomarin. I feel like I can hear voices from the inside of the abandoned buildings, but it could also be the echo of the pilgrim group ahead of me - chatty Italians who are awake and enthusiastically walk ahead. The rest of the pack is already miles ahead, but come 11am after a hike through a mysterious dense forest, I take a break at Hosteria de Gonzar and suddenly everyone else is here too craving breakfast. We all sort of caught up with each other and start from the same place again. I'm having orange juice and hot chocolate to refuel as I'm not hungry. A quick bathroom stop and I'm back on the road.

The day goes on and most of the distance is either steep uphill or downhill with occasional walks alongside the main road. At least walking on smooth tarmac helps to cover longer distances, but there's barely a cafe or opportunity to stop for a break. The landscape changes to open planned vast areas, then the path leads through leafy autumnal villages. I do travel less alone today. There are pilgrims passing regularly and I meet a familiar face from yesterday - Gary, the American. He meets me a few times after lunchtime. His companion today is a friendly young lad and they make it their mission to tease me every time they get ahead of me.

highest elevation gain portomarin to palas de rei camino frances

In the next village, I pick up a Romanian lady who is afraid of dogs so we travel together for a bit. It's only a short while before I'm alone again. Two British ladies in their early 60s cross paths with me occasionally. As the day moves on, the sun burns from the sky and I feel I've taken more breaks and have barely moved forward. At one point I see a sign for a small church off the Camino which apparently its stamp is needed for the Compostela certificate. I'm thirsty and struggling with my toes which are squashed again. I wait a bit to see if other pilgrims take the detour to the church but no one cares and they all walk straight ahead. I decide against the detour too, as it would mean an additional 4km and I have to use my energies sparingly today. So I continue and follow the Camino.

Frustration Has Struck


After two kilometres I'm desperate for a break but there's no opportunity to sit down somewhere. Even cafes have been quite sparingly on today's route. I keep going but reach my breaking point soon and eventually sit down by the road in the shadow. It is only now that I realise I have overheated. The two Brits from earlier approach me and check if I'm ok. I explain I'm overheated and will be fine in a sec. They are concerned but my introverted self acts aloof enough so they keep moving on.

There are more hills to tackle but I keep pushing forward. I really want to make some good progress in the next few hours. After 2h of walking downhill at 30% slope, my toes ache like hell from sliding in my shoes. I'm forced to sit down and find a spot at the end of the hill in the shade. This is the first time I actually take off the boots, massage my feet and check on my toes. No blisters but my toes are swollen and very red. Not great. The frustration nearly makes me cry. Instead, I listen to some music and think about London. London and my friends. I do wonder what they are up to at this very moment. I guess they are at work at their desks and have no idea I'm in the middle of nowhere about to cry over my frustration. The thing is I still have energies and enjoy my time on the Camino. The landscapes are amazing, the dynamic amongst Pilgrims is very friendly and I'm excited to get to see all these places and learn about their history. Argh, if only the pain in my stupid toes wasn't so unpleasant! I have to make it to Palas de Rei, whatever it takes!

Something Magical Happens


There haven't been many cafes today on the Camino but I find one outside of Palas de Rei. I can refill my water bottle and trot along the Camino dragging my feet along as my right foot has gone stiff and won't roll properly in the shoe anymore. I sit down again and try a reality check paired with good motivational self-talk. I simply have to accept that I will make it to my checkpoint at some point but in extreme slow-mo and potentially way past my targeted arrival time.

jon-tyson-camino frances stone pillar

Two pilgrims approach marching happily ahead as if they've done nothing else than hiking in their life. It's the two Brits from earlier! But this time I've got no choice. Both of them recognise me immediately and come over to join me. They are really concerned about me and want to help, so we sit in the late Indian summer light and they share cakes and sweets with me. The Romanian girl also joins us and we motivate each other that we can do the final kilometres to Palas de Rei. Within minutes,  I've gone from being alone to being part of a group and our little fellowship marches straight ahead into Palas de Rei.

And then, something happens that has never happened in my life before: I get adopted by the two Brits. They CHOSE me!

The two ladies, Denise and Carole, have been lifelong friends and hike the Camino mostly in memoriam of Carole's deceased brother. Carole even shares one of her Nordic walking sticks and it is such a blessing. The heavy backpack no longer weights down on my lower back and I can lift my whole body off in one fluent movement. So we travel together for the final kilometres and also meet a Finish guy who has been on the hike since France with his massive poodle puppy Bilbo. We make it in time before the closing of the Church in Palas de Rei to get our stamp. RESULTS!

Then I join Carole and Denise for a drink at a small bar next to their accommodation. We have a lovely chat revising the day and analysing what still lies ahead. They suggest a luggage transfer so I can get rid of my backpack for the rest of the trip. Unfortunately, their transfer company won't serve my next guesthouse but they suggest to speak to my host later tonight. My accommodation is actually another 8km away and already part of tomorrow's stage. After some concerned protest from Carole and Denise - especially with my feet and the evening approaching - I decide to take a taxi. We part for today but agree to meet up on Monday and have dinner together in Santiago.

Porto de Bois Apartamentos Turísticos Camino Frances

Straight Into The Next Adventure


I'm heading straight into the next adventure as the taxi drops me off in the middle of nowhere. There's only a handsome Galician stone villa and nothing much around so I approach the building and see that it is completely closed down. I text Jorge, the guesthouse owner, and he replies he'll be there soon. I now understand why he messaged me so early in the morning and I feel slightly embarrassed because I thought the place would be like a hotel with a serviced reception. The villa is incredible though with a small but cute bar and a generous terrace with the most amazing views over the grounds.

Owner Jorge turns up 20 minutes later and shows me my apartment. It is a spacious flat with a fully functioning kitchen, polished stone floors, a huge walk-in shower in the bathroom and cosy bedroom. The penny drops slowly that I'm Jorge's only guest for tonight and I will have the whole villa to myself. It is cool but a tiny bit creepy at the same time.

Jorge is super nice. Turns out he and Mario are best pals. We have a great conversation about the villa and I learn that it has been his family's house. He rebuilt it as a guesthouse and has only been in the Camino business for 4 years. So this place is still a top-secret tip. He organises a local luggage transfer company for me and gives me a checklist for breakfast. I tick all the boxes from fresh croissants to muffins, Galician cakes, fruit, orange juice and a selection of jams. Can't wait to have a proper breakfast, which I haven't had in four days.

Porto de Bois galician countryside camino frances
Terrace Apartamentos Turísticos Porto de Bois Camino Frances

After our chat, Jorge drives back home and I head back to the apartment which is spotless and has everything I need. If I had known, I could have filled the fridge with food and drinks and thrown a little party. Maybe something to consider for next time. I take a long hot shower and then snuggle up in the comfy bed. The stone walls in the darkness play tricks on me and I can't fall asleep. I'm the only guest staying in the house. The pressing silence is ocassionally interrupted by an owl's screech outside...somewhere deep in the dark forest. Spooky! Really don't fancy to be killed by a supernatural Japanese revenge spirit in my sleep, so I lock the doors and leave the lights on in the main room.

It is review time in my head: tomorrow is halftime on the Camino. I'm also pleased I'm staying again with a friendly local and learn about their life with the Camino. The Camino guide I picked up from the Pilgrims Office reads that tomorrow's 30km stage to Arzua will lead through some pretty medieval villages, churches and magical leafy forests. Rain is forecasted so it promises to be an interesting day.

Thanks so much for reading.
Till next time,
Carolin
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Thursday, 7 November 2019

Day 1 On The Camino: Sarria To Portomarin

sarria welcome sign on the camino

Travel To Sarria


My first day on the Camino starts early: after a quick shower and little faffing about, I'm ready to leave my hotel in Santiago at around 7am in the morning. I'm glad I've ordered a taxi for the ride to the bus station as it is pitch black outside and it would have been quite a walk - and I'll be doing lots of walking later.

I've pre-booked my bus ticket with Eurolines for the 8am service from Santiago to Lugo. There's a good chance I will miss the connection bus to Sarria which will leave when I will arrive in Lugo. In that case, I'm planning to spend the 3h gap for the next service for some exploring in Lugo, but we'll see.

The bus station has a huge underground terminal with several platforms. I do worry that I'm lost but eventually one of the bus drivers tells me to wait at platform 20, right at the end of the terminal. I check the ticket again and again but slowly, other pilgrims join me so I'm feeling less lost. I guess they are pilgrims as they wear big backpacks and are dressed in professional hiking gear. Surely, they will travel to Sarria today too and begin their pilgrimage.

By 7:50am, the bus arrives and we're on the way to Lugo. It is super modern and comfy with aircon, blacked-out windows, free WiFi and a screen for watching movies. Whilst I put Pitch Perfect 3 on I do doze off a few times. I notice the lush landscape that the bus is passing. Cities that lie in the morning fog are starting to wake up. If you wouldn't know you're in Spain, you wouldn't expect it, as none of the scenery outside looks typical Spanish. The sunlight only breaks through shortly then disappears behind a thick carpet of clouds. It gets cold, dark and rainy and I'm putting on my rain jacket to keep warm. The prospect of hanging around for 3h in Lugo doesn't look too appealing to me.

Into The Wild


Luck is on my side though, as my bus pulls in 2 minutes ahead of schedule and I catch the connection to Sarria. It's a very quick in-and-out situation but 30 minutes later I arrive in Sarria. Now I need to find my way to the Camino so from the bus station I head North to the Monastery of Magdalena. 

I walk uphill for a while until I reach a small alley which is seamed with Albergues - the typical pilgrim accommodation. I can feel I'm heading in the right way and tadah! there's the first Camino sign showing the way forward. I'm excited and buzzing. The Monastery comes into sight and for the first time, I draw my Pilgrimage Passport and get my first sello (stamp). My adventure on the Camino has officially begun!

sarria welcome sign on the camino
sarria welcome sign on the camino
sarria welcome sign on the camino
sarria welcome sign on the camino

The weather has cleared up now and I'm about to head into the wild and unknown. For the next five days, I'll be following the Camino sign - a yellow scallop on a blue background for 120km to Santiago De Compostela. I'm excited and disappear into the forest. It is peaceful and I'm listening to the sound of nature. The forest stretches uphill and I can't stop thinking I'm on a quest...like in the Fellowship of the Ring. The trees are old and mysterious. There are lush greenery and small streams and it slowly starts to heat up. The hill is pretty steep so I'm taking my first break. Two Australian ladies from Sydney who have been on the Camino for 7 weeks join me and we have a little chat before they start walking again. They are trained so within 10 minutes they are miles ahead of me.

Leaving sarria into the wild
mysterious tree on the camino
Forest on the camino in the area of sarria

Connecting With Locals


It is shortly after midday and suddenly very hot. My backpack starts to get heavy and I've finished all of my water - but I can do this. Although I pass through many villages, they are dead and I haven't seen a single soul for hours. Eventually, I'm forced to take another break and I end up at A Casa De Carmen. Sweaty and hot, I enter the beautiful yellow Albergue with its neat courtyard and tonnes of plants everywhere. The door is open. I knock and go inside on the lookout for some civilisation. It looks welcoming and warm inside so I end up in the kitchen where there's a lovely lady, probably in her mid-50's prepping lunch over one of these really old school cooking ranges. Beef stew and boiled potatoes as far as I can tell. 

She sees me half dead and the next thing I know I'm showered in a waterfall of Spanish. With hands and feet as well as Google Translate I try to communicate with her, but she has gone into full Mum Mode. She has me sat down, my water bottle already refilled to the brim and a glass of Aloe Vera Squash in my hands. The sugar in the drink feels so good. We're joined by one of the housekeepers who speaks broken English but she helps with the communication. My rescuer is Carmen herself and she proudly shows me her guestbook which is filled with tonnes of pictures of thankful pilgrims and heartwarming Thank You notes. I ask her how long she's been running the Albergue and Carmen's eyes light up. She points at a couple of framed pictures of herself visiting some of her former guests then touches her heart and fondly talks about that having the Albergue, meeting lots of different and interesting people has been the best thing in her life. I'm touched on how passionately she talks about her business and love, how fulfilled she is by being part of the Camino.

a casa de carmen on the camino de frances

I'm having a lovely time and she really wants me to stay. She would even share some lunch with me but I have to politely decline. I tell her I've got accommodation booked in Portomarin, so I have to be back on the road soon. Carmen and her housekeeper look at each other and then make big eyes when I mention Portomarin. It is still ages away! Carmen refills my sweet Aloe Vera drink, then shows me the bathroom and gives me a big hug when I'm about to leave. There's even more Spanish, kisses and more Spanish. I can't help it so I give her a 5 EUR note as a Thank You and promise to email her once I'm back home. Refreshed and happy I'm back on the road.

The Afternoon On The Camino


The rest of the day is rather unspectacular. The rural landscape reminds me a lot of The Shire in the Lord of The Rings. Lots of wheat fields, veg patches, scarecrows, small villages and in between the stoney winding path of the Camino. It is rarely flat, mostly uphill and if it is flat the path is seamed with big stones. It is incredibly hot, pestering flies are all over me and the smell of cow poo is intrusive. I can tell it is early fall as acorns and spikey chestnuts fall on my head throughout the day. The rare medieval village churches on my way are unfortunately closed so there's no chance for me to collect a sello. I'm alone for most of the day and only get passed by cyclists now and again. For most parts of the Camino, there's a fence of stone plates running along the path, so there's plenty of opportunities to take breaks and rest. Although I'm in the middle of the Spanish countryside, I have a great reception to check my progress. It is frustrating. I've only made 4km in the past hour! I do worry that at this rate I may make it to Portomarin after dark and it is only Day 1.

steep and stoney path on the camino de frances
Camino pillar on the camino de frances

At 5pm I arrive at a small converted barn which sells ice cream, souvenirs and other snacks. It is very popular with other pilgrims and I get to meet Gary and his gang. Gary is a rustic American who travels with a German and another American. They've been on Day 30+ so at the next village, they will find an Albergue and call it a day. We have a nice casual chat and they want to know my motivation for the Camino. I out myself having only just started today and say that I left London after 6 years of working. I'm seeking "more" in life than the 9 to 5 grind. We have an interesting and deep conversation whilst I nibble on my ice cream. Gary's American friend tells me he used to have a flat in London but has sold it a few years ago. Now he's regretting this decision as the flat would be worth millions today. Their German friend is probably a bit younger than me. She is amazed that I had time to put make up on for the hike and is also highly interested in my backpack. She can't believe how much stuff I've managed to pack in there so I share some of my organisation secrets with her. In hindsight, I shouldn't have done that cause Gary would mock me for the next couple of days about my outfits.

The Final Kilometres To Portomarin


Anyway, it's time to keep going. I've got another 2h or so ahead of me and I'd like to arrive before dark. The few scattered settlements I walk through are deserted and there's no living soul for the rest of my hike. It is very quiet on the Camino and I must look odd from afar, trekking alone on the empty road. I have heavily underestimated the distance so for tomorrow the plan is to start hiking as soon as the sun is up. 

The evening is here and I can see Portomarin in the distance. I will just have to go downhill and then I'm there. Well, the Camino has it's own will and the road is long and winding. It is so steep that I slide in my shoes and keep hurting my toes. Not sure what is worse, up or downhill. So it goes on for 30 minutes. I do make it to Portomarin. Shortly after 7pm, I cross the iconic bridge over the river Minho. The village thrones on a little hill whilst the river is misty and dark running slowly under my feet. The bridge is, in fact, a bit scary. It is not very wide, so the space for walking is tight. I have to keep my eyes fixed to not trip over my feet, which are hurting a lot. Only a few more metres and then I'm at the guesthouse.  I'm not fed up (yet) but I would like to be there now and end the day.

Crossing the river minho to get to Portomarin
Portomarin in Galicia Spain

On the other side of the bridge at the entrance of the village is a medieval and very steep set of stairs and I secretly hope that this is not the way to go to the guesthouse. I quickly check on Google Maps for its location and see that it is a further 1km away from the village. Ok, I can do this. So I'm moving past the village to a small peninsula by the river. It is the most remote guesthouse I've ever been to. In the surrounding grounds, some ponies roam freely around and come over to say hello. Then I pass through an autumnal apple and pear orchard and see the traditional Galician stone house. I'm finally at tonight's checkpoint!

apple orchard in portomarin
casa santa marina in portomarin

The place is huge with a main house, a lovely guestroom for dinner, terrace and a couple of bungalows scattered around the huge orchard. The lady at "reception" gives me a room in the house instead of the bungalows, so I feel less cut off from the world and a bit more included if that makes sense. The room is basic but nice and cosy. I even have a little terrace so I can watch the eerie fog ascending over the river and take off my hiking boots. I'm grateful I brought my flip flops along because my toes are slightly battered and can now enjoy being freed of the tight hiking boots. It is bedtime because the darkness crept in way too fast and I only managed some pages of my Strelecky book to wind down from the day.           

I keep thinking back to this morning in Lugo. If I had missed the connection and killed 3h, I would still be out on the Camino. Instead, I'm tugged up in bed and can have a 10h rest now.

Two things are absolutely clear for tomorrow: it will start early and it will be tough.

Thanks so much for reading,
Till next time,

Carolin
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