Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Slowly coastal in A Coruña, Spain and Valença, Portugal.

From Llanes we headed west through Spanish coastal farmland to A Coruña.  Our big plans included the famous Galician seafood tapas, a UNESCO lighthouse, and figuring out our next move.

seafood tapas: check

UNESCO lighthouse: check

(we also found an amazing beachfront cemetery...

... next to an amazing beach)

Everyone we met in A Coruña was friendly, especially the people we asked for directions.  One man pointed us toward our pension and explained how to get there in broken English, and then exclaimed with a big smile, "It's nice to be here!"  We still aren't sure if he meant that he was glad we were visiting, or if he really loved his town that much.

 next move: check

In Valença we explored the fortress and the bordering Spanish town of Tuy, where one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago begins.  Both were sleepy towns, especially on the rainy Saturday we were there.  More nice people including an old man who joked with Jen (in Portuguese) at the market.  We enjoyed our time there a lot.

fortress #745

rainy reflections

cute kittehs

We also enjoyed Jon Stewart, free breakfasts and hot showers at the hotel.  On our last afternoon we got lost looking for a grocery store and wandered around back streets in a middle class neighborhood for an hour or so.

Pretty exciting stuff, eh?  That's how coastal travel should be though...  Slow and meandering with lots of sidetracks and plenty of indoor time because it's cold and sometimes rainy.

Lodging notes: both were hotel(ish) places as this was all we could find.  For being budget hotels they were actually quite nice.
  • Pensión Las Rías in A Coruña - great location, good price, helpful hostess, beautiful little room.  Only down side was that there was no tea kettle for coffeemaking in the morning and no breakfast.
  • Hotel Val Flores in Valença - right next to the fortress, less than 10 minutes from the Portugal/Spain bridge, great breakfast, good price, lots of channels on TV.

Food notes: other than the calamari and tuna empanadas pictured above in A Coruña, and maybe a pastry here and there, we grocery-stored it.  So exciting, right?!

Now we're halfway through our week in Porto and trying to keep to the "slowly" theme.  It's almost 2:30pm and we haven't left the apartment yet... think we're doing a pretty good job so far.

the soap wrapper ALWAYS knows

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Beautiful, coastal Llanes and hiking the Cares Gorge.

The general plan for Spain was to head north from Barcelona and then go west, keeping to the coastline as much as possible for the scenic views. From Pamplona we had a few options:
  • a seven(ish) hour bus to A Coruña that left later in the afternoon (meaning we would pass through the most scenic vistas in the dark)
  • a three(ish) hour bus and overnight stay in busy, commercial Santander, with an earlier bus to A Coruña the next day
  • a four(ish) hour bus and a few nights in coastal Llanes, just north of the Picos de Europa

Guess which option we picked?

The absolutely stunning video of the Cares Gorge found on this blog post, along with numerous online recommendations praising the Picos de Europa, resulted in a vague plan to hike the gorge on Jen's birthday - "vague" because (#1) it would require renting a car and (#2) the weather for Tuesday looked questionable.

We almost gave up after learning that a car rental in Llanes would be twice the amount we were willing to pay. Luckily, our friendly hostel manager pointed us to the rental car shop in Posada (two towns over) which was exactly what we were willing to pay. Since we were literally sleeping at the train station, getting to Posada would be no problem.

The weather required some consideration. The gorge hike follows a trail etched out in the mountain with no rails or ropes along the edge. If you watch the video linked above, you can see the narrow path and the depth of a possible fall. Was it dumb to try this 20km hike on a slippery rock path on a potentially rainy day?


Luckily again, though, the weather held out until we neared the rainier side of the mountain around 8km so we just turned around and hiked back. We didn't make it all the way to Cain but that was fine - just a few kilometers on this amazing trail would've been worth the price if the car rental. We understand that summer can be quite crowded and miserably hot, but because of the off season, we only saw one runner, two hikers on the path down below, and a bazillion goats. And Jen's hands stayed cold pretty much the whole time.

Our pictures won't do the day justice but here are just a few. Many, many more start here.

the trail is at the top right of the photo

yep, that's the trail...

... carved out of the mountainside

a kid got stuck -
Mom had to coax her down

one of the only two railings we saw on the whole hike

specks in The Universe,
merely specks

This was possibly the best hike we've ever done. If not it's definitely in the top three. If you are anywhere near the Picos de Europa it would be a crying shame to skip it.

Llanes food notes:

napoleanitos chocolate for second breakfast
(actually purchased in Posada)

otherwise, meals cooked at the hostel

and some really good €1 wine

Lodging notes: the only budget hostel that came up in our search was Aubergue La Estacion actually located in the former Llanes train station... which is also the current Llanes train station.

he thinks he can...

Only a handful of trains went through each day and the other guests left on our second day so it was pretty quiet, and once again the owner left each evening around 7pm. And we had all the Simpsons in Spanish we could ever desire! Despite the slightly creepy factor of being alone in an empty train station it was just fine.

birthday dinner

Meltdown notwithstanding, Llanes was the perfect place for a coastal stopover. Looking forward to more of these in Portugal!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Thanks, Pamplona - operation "work off loaves and loaves of white bread" has officially commenced!

The main draws to Pamplona are the aforementioned bull stuff and the ginormous citadel in the middle of the city.  (And the shopping, if you're into that sort of thing.)

the citadel is pretty awesome

The town was pleasant and easy to get around, and made a great stopping point after Barcelona, but we weren't really excited about the hokey Hemingway bars or countless perfumerias so we took a few walks instead.

One day we headed west out of Pamplona along the Camino de Santiago. Of all the things we didn't expect to do on this trip, hiking part of the Camino was definitely high on the list! The sky was a little ominous but the rain held off all day and we enjoyed five hours of trekking through Spanish farmland. (It wasn't prairie, it wasn't mountainous - what's in between those? Hilly?)

how about just "lovely"

We saw a few pilgrims along the way, and a few hikers, and a few mountain bikers.

and some horsies

Otherwise we walked in solitude.  Fitting.

long but not so winding road

far far away land

Alto del Perdón monument

Kudos to everyone who has done the whole thing, whichever route you took.  We enjoyed our short bit a lot.

On our last morning in Pamplona we headed east toward San Cristobal, a former fortress-turned-prison-turned-abandonedmilitarystructure-turned-wherethelocalswalkforexercise just 4km outside of the city. That morning fog covered the valley and we couldn't even see our destination, so we hoped for reasonable weather at best and maybe a cool fortress at the top. We got both and a huge bonus - when we were almost to the top we passed through the fog and found sunny skies and amazing vista points.

hey Sting, we have a new song idea for you

looking east
toward the pea soupy valley

looking west -
we were there two days earlier

Otherwise, when we weren't hiking or taking Clarence on his bull run tour we just meandered a little. We sat around a lot. We read our books. We took gloriously long hot showers.

It was nice. Pamplona was nice.

Food notes:
  • Aside from a pastry here and there we cooked at the hostels. We did try chorizo from the local market... and decided to stick to veggie stir fry meals from there out.
  • But let's not forget the inexpensive Spanish wine.
found this gem for just €1.20 -
worth every €0.01

Lodging notes:
  • Hostel Hemingway mostly for the kitsch factor - it actually had a really cool vibe, great kitchen and good breakfast selection, and the price was right. But the only beds left that night were in the teeny tiny 7-bed dorm, and the next morning Jen woke up early as usual and went to the common area to do some writing only to find it (and the kitchen) locked until 8am. For a place that probably attracts artsy insomniacs, that was pretty annoying. Fine for one night, glad we went elsewhere the next two nights.
  • Aloha Hostel - AWESOME. Hugo, our host, was amazing. He recommended the fortress hike, left breakfast out early for us, and generally treated us like guests in his home. The hostel was spotless, light and airy, and completely empty our first night.

Three days in Pamplona, about 35 kilometers added to our boots. To the mountains for more hiking, please...

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Guest blogger Clarence explains Pamplona's running of the bulls.

Hi folks, Clarence here. You may remember me from such photos as "where's Clarence?", "where's Clarence?", and "where's Clarence?"

I don't seem to get out of the backpack much these days. This is actually just fine with me - I've been traveling with Jen since 1994 and I've seen plenty, thank you very much. Besides, these Slowly Global people go to all kinds of weird hostels and take all kinds of ridiculous pictures. I'd rather just stay out of it. And then sometimes? They work on farms that don't even have cows! Can you imagine such a thing?

Anyway. I usually enjoy staying in but I was thrilled when they invited me along on their encierro tour in Pamplona! I had such a great time and I learned so much about this interesting tradition. Now, you might think it's odd that I, Clarence the Cow, was excited about this. I can't say that I necessarily support the sport of bullfighting, but it's part of the culture and barring a few exceptions I'm always game to learn more about things I don't necessarily agree with or understand. (Exceptions include golf, goose liver pate, soap operas.)

My memory ain't what it used to be - 20 in cow years is pretty much "dead" - so I took pictures of all the signs and copied everything here verbatim for your reading pleasure. This also explains typos or odd wording that got lost in the English translation. Well, most typos anyway... for some you'll have to pardon my fat hooves.

As a preview, the run itself is much shorter than I realized. And while I'd pictured Pamplona as a small village with dusty dirt roads, in actuality the cobbled streets where the run occurs are lined with tapas bars, and dozens of high end shops are really close by. Thanks, Mr. Hemmingway!

he made Pamplona famous
when he wrote The Sun Also Rises

Okay, let's get this bull run show on the road. Be sure to read about the Casa de Misericordia at the end. I had no idea this was such a philanthropic tradition.



let's begin at the beginning

The origin of the Bull Run goes back to medieval times. The bulls for the bullfight used to be driven through the streets at dawn from outside the city walls to the public square that served as a bull ring. Many young men from Pamplona became accustomed to running in front of the bulls, a practice that was repeatedly banned by the authorities but continued to attract large numbers of followers, until finally it ended up turning into a long-standing tradition. The Bull Run is now the main event of the Sanfermines. It is held from 7th Juli to 14th Juli every morning at 8am.

The letting off a firework at 8 o'clock signals the start of the Encierro. The bulls run at great speed up this steep slope.

not too steep... unless you're a bull

Moments before the start, the runners sing to San Fermin three times to ask for his blessing and protection.

and a one, and a two, and a...

while the bulls continue running

The bulls cross City Hall Square towards Mercanderes Street. In this square each 6th July the letting off of a firework marks the beginning of the Festival.

City Hall

and City Hall square

and as an aside, Pamplona's trash cans are amazing!

The bulls are faced with a 90 degree turn at high speed, causing much of the herd to crash into the fence.

(not pictured: fence)

enter runners
(not pictured... you guessed it)

In this popular street the runners get involved in spectacular races. The bulls tend to run more slowly in this, the longest and straightest stretch of the run.

just can't imagine bulls tromping through this corridor

the end

The run finishes in the bullring where the cow hands take the bulls to the enclosure, ready for the bullfight in the afternoon.

where only the strong survive

The Pamplona Bullring, which belongs exclusively to the Casa er Misericordia, is one of the most representative buildings of the Navarra capital and, along with the traditional bull run, is one of the vital elements of the San Fermin festivities.

The Casa de Misericordia organises the bull runs and all events related to the bullfighting spectacle held during the San Fermin festivals, hiring bulls and bullfighters, setting up the Corralillos del Gas bullpens, organising the mini bull runs and main bull runs, the assembly and placement if the fences and the hiring of herders, dobladores (herders in the ring), mules, music bands, medical team and the 300 people in the bullring staff.

we couldn't go inside but I bet it looks like this
(at least in July)

The Casa de Misericordia became the developer and owner of the Bullring in 1920, by means of a bond issue and with the help of local financial institutions. It is the oldest bullring in Spain made from reinforced concrete.

The building of this edifice, which was designed by Francisco Urcola, began in March 1921 and the Bullring was officially opened on 7 July 1922. Around the central ring, which measures 52 metres in diameter, a series of sections, stands and upper tiers with large boxes were built. At that time, the Bullring had a seating capacity of 12,200.

As a result of increased demand for seats among both the local citizens and tourists, in 1966, the Navarran architect Rafael Moneo extended the structure to seat 19,700 people. It is currently the third largest bullring in the world, after the ones in Mexico City and Madrid.

the bullring looming at the sidewalk's end

The Casa de Misericordia would like to highlight the importance of the organisation of the San Fernin festivals as a source of income and development for this charitable institution, which currently houses 550 residents with a mean age of 85.

Between 2004 and 2005, the bullring was adapted to comply with current safety regulations. As a result of this, a fountain and channel were found under the main ring, which provided water to the old fortified town up until 1852. A small bridge was also discovered, along with the remains of the Tejeria Ravelin which once formed part of the old city walls.

For over 300 years now, as an independent and civil foundation, the Casa de Misericordia in Pamplona has been a shining example to the city as regards caring for the most underprivileged members of our society. Today, this institution, which was founded in 1706, remains faithful to its original principals of charity and hospitality, giving priority to elderly citizens with no financial resources or family, and those in situations of social exclusion.


Well, folks, that wraps up the tour.   I hope you enjoyed it!  If you did, or if you have any questions, please leave a comment.  And now if you'll excuse me I have some hiding out to do...

why I stay inside, exhibit #395

Monday, January 20, 2014

In a week we will laugh about this. Hopefully.

I had a bit of a meltdown today, the day before the start of month #10 on the road.

And by "a bit" I mean... it wasn't pretty. We'd spent most of the rainy morning figuring out our next few days and afterward I was cold and cranky, so I laid down while Patrick went for a walk. When he came back he recommended that I go check out this amazing park he'd found. I burst into tears, flopped over on my creaky metal-framed bed in our empty former-train-station hostel, pulled the covers over my head, and cried while the city crew jack-hammered on the street outside.

Eventually I decided it wasn't fair if he saw the beach and I didn't (yes, I am about to turn 39 - and your point is...?), so I got my coat and we went for a walk.

the park really was pretty amazing

I can credit hormones for some of this meltdown. This is true. But I think a lot more of it is due to general exhaustion. This kind of travel is hard. And by "hard" I mean, HARD. There's the constant feeling that we are missing a thousand things for every amazing thing we do see, and not knowing if we will ever come back to see the other 999 amazing things. There's not knowing where we will be in three days, sometimes even that very night - yet wanting to stay flexible enough to enjoy every opportunity that presents itself. There's wanting to submit photos to contests and writing samples to magazines but not having the energy (or sometimes the wifi) to do so at the end of the day. There's wanting to scrimp on costs to ensure that our travels last as long as possible while sometimes sacrificing comfortable sleep and/or nutritious food and/or hours of time. There's this stupid Schengen visa restriction that only gives us 90 days of every 180 days in most European countries...

But I'm a project manager! And a darned good one! I've simultaneously and successfully planned the now, the month-from-now and the year-from-now. I've made decisions on the fly and had them turn out swimmingly, and when they didn't go swimmingly, well - no one died, I learned something, and life went on. I've managed budgets down to the $0.01, schedules to the half-hour and scope creep to the nth degree. So I'm trying to figure out what makes this different from any large project.

Three easy answers come to mind. One is that I always had a team to support me. Here and now, I have aforementioned patient and rather awesome partner in crime, but between the two of us there is not enough time in the day to enjoy the now, plan the tomorrow, research the day after, AND maintain our mental and physical strength. Two is that I usually had adequate resources, but now there is only one laptop and two of us. If I didn't already need progressive lenses, I certainly will after months and months of trying to research hostels and train timetables in foreign languages on my iTouch screen. Three is that I (usually) left work behind from 5:30pm-8:30am every day, with a full 48-hour break on weekends... Harder to do on the road. Shouldn't be, but it is for me. I always, always, always feel behind.

And then there's the fourth answer. The biggie. The not-so-easy one. With projects I always knew where I was going. The deliverable, the end product, the countless other words I hope to never hear or write again. With travel? I have no idea. Before we left we had dinner with some friends who wanted to know our "goal" for this trip. We had no answer. We just knew that cubeland was not for us (for the foreseeable future, anyway) and that we wanted to see and do things we hadn't seen and done. That's still true. But my "goal" for this trip? I still have no idea. (I suspect goats might be involved in some way though.)

or possibly Pyrenees horses

or maybe lambs

Honestly, lately there's been this nagging feeling of wondering what the hell I'm doing. We have a Facebook page, we have a Flickr account, we have Twitter followers, we have daily (if not hourly) decisions to make. Other than those things, we have very little. And as for me, other than a truly patient and rather awesome partner in crime, *I*, Jen, have very little to call my very own. I have no job, no car, no phone. I have a small collection of personal belongings scattered in random places. I have a mailing address but no home. I have no pots, no pans, no sheets or fluffy bath towels and rely on strangers for these things... sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't. I travel with a tiny bag of toiletries that does not include a pumice stone or deep conditioner... and I desperately need both.

Before you start with your tiny violin, I will say that while this kind of travel is hard, it is definitely also wonderful. Five days ago I had no idea that the bulls ran such a short distance along such narrow cobbled streets in their annual ritual. Two weeks ago I'd never heard of the town where we saw the beautiful beach today. A year ago I would've laughed if you told me I'd be in Spain at any point on this trip.

I am grateful. But it's definitely not all hugs and puppies. This isn't the first time I've had a meltdown but it's definitely been the worst. I've been feeling it coming for a few days so the other day I googled tips on preventing travel burnout and we're doing most things they recommend - cooking familiar meals, reaching out to friends, getting out of cities, doing laundry in actual washing machines, writing about our excursions, laughing, skipping sightseeing to just sit and absorb. We're hoping to park for a few weeks in Portugal to see if that helps. I have some creative outlets in mind that I think will help.

So I try to roll with it. I shake it off and hope tomorrow brings a successful car rental and a rainy but wonderful walk in a gorgeous place I hadn't heard of before last week. And if it doesn't, I know it will at least bring a warm, dry bed in an empty former-train-station hostel and a new adventure the next day.

At least I know that much is true.