Bom Caminho! Portugal’s Camino Way

The Camino Way is an historic pilgrimage route (over 1,000 years old) to the alleged burial site of the apostle St. James. St. James’ remains reputedly lie within the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral.  Some years ago, Chris and I biked the Spanish Camino Way (aka Camino de Santiago) from Pamplona, Spain to Santiago de Comp0stela, Spain which is still one on our short list of the best biking experiences.  There are trails all over France, Spain and Portugal that lead to the tomb of St. James.  So when we decided to spend some time in Portugal in September, we looked into biking the Portuguese Camino Way starting in Porto, Portugal and ending in Santiago de Compostela.

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The scallop shell is the iconic symbol of the camino, and is used with the yellow arrow to guide pilgrims heading to Santiago de Compostela along its many different routes. Painted on trees, sidewalks or tiles, the yellow scallop shell (and/ or yellow arrow) helps pilgrims find there way to the next village.  There are many stories tied to the significance of the scallop shell. In French, the scallop is called Coquille Saint Jacques.  We love this system as it typically (not always) makes for easy navigating and you can travel for hundreds of kilometers without a map or GPS.

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Fellow pilgrims are typically super friendly, and part of the etiquette on the trail is to greet fellow pilgrims with “Buen Camino” or in Portugal “Bom Caminho”.  Traditionally, the camino was done for religious reasons.  Today, folks from all over the world walk or bike the camino for a variety of different reasons- spiritual experience, health reasons or social aspects.

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We started our mountain biking journey in the charming city of Porto known for its port wine production.

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But before biking out of Porto, we picked up our camino passports at the Se Cathedral. Hotels, restaurants, bars along the camino have stamps for the passports verifying the distance and noting the days.  The Se Cathedral is in the Romanesque style built between the 12th and the 13th century.  (The Portuguese Camino was used by Queen Isabel of Portugal in the 13th century crossing North Portugal and South Galicia, Spain.)

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Our first destination on the camino after leaving Porto was Barcelos, Portugal.  This was supposed to be a relatively easy ride the first day, but it took us a little while getting out of Porto dogging tourists, cars and buses.  Once out of Porto on the back trails to Barcelos, the trail was quite peaceful dotted with beautifully tiled cathedrals along the way.

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Barcelos is a relatively small village in northern Portugal with a rooster as the town’s symbol and the unofficial symbol of Portugal.  The legend of the rooster is tied to a pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Compostela who was wrongly accused of crime in Barcelos and sentenced to death.  The pilgrim repeatedly voiced his innocence and swore to the proof of his innocence by pointing to a cooked rooster and said that the rooster would crow at the hour of his hanging as proof. As he was being hanged, the roasted rooster appeared and stood up on the table in front of the crowd and crowed just as the pilgrim predicted. The judged realized the mistake and rushed to save the pilgrim.

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From Barcelos, we headed out to Ponte de Lima, Portugal- the last village in Portugal before biking over the Minho River which divides northern Spain and Portugal.  Lucky for us, there was an end of summer festival happening in the small village of Ponte de Lima. The village was packed with festive decorations, activities and locals.

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The following day, a rugged path along a small stream among grape vines took us over the Minho River into Tui, Spain for the evening.  However, before reaching Tui, we had a steep and challenging climb in front of us.  The biking distance from Ponte de Lima to Tui was not far, but the terrain was challenging and we ended up biking about 5-6 hours that day. The charming, walled city of Valence (an old Roman village) on the eastern side of the Minho river in Portugal was on the agenda for the day.

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When we crossed the border into Spain (Spain is in a different time zone than Portugal), we lost an hour which we were actually pretty happy about since Spain does not eat until late (very late by US standards around 10-11 pm at night or midnight in major cities) and we were hungry after the big climb and a solid day of biking.  We were also thrilled to be back in Spain for a few nights.  It gave us an opportunity to practice our Spanish, eat wonderful Spanish food and enjoy the vibrant Spanish culture.

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Bridge over the Minho river which is the border between Portugal and Spain

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From Tui, our next destination was Pontevedra.  We spent a Sunday night in Pontevedra and while it is a fairly good size city (about 83K people), it was pretty sleepy.  Restaurants, shops, bars are closed on Sundays in most of Europe.

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Burgo Bridge built in 12th century near the former site of a Roman bridge that gave the city its name, the “old bridge”  (Check out the Camino shells that mark the bridge.)

From Pontevedra, we headed to Lestrove, Spain for one night.

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From Lestrove, we had about a 3 hour bike ride to our final destination, Santiago de Compostela.  Once we arrived in Santiago de Compostela, we headed to the Pilgrims Office to obtain our certificate given to pilgrims that hike or bike 100 km or more.   The journey from Porto to Santiago de Compostela took us 6 days over about 185 miles.

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While the Portuguese Camino Way was a great experience, for those that are considering doing the camino, we would highly recommend the northern Spain route over the Portuguese section.  The villages, the scenery, the food, history and culture we found more interesting on Spanish Camino Way (aka Camino de Santiago).  It also had more pilgrims (at least when we did it) but not too many which is part of the experience. But if you are looking for another Camino segment, this is not a bad one.

Another Pearl in the Mediterranean Sea

With approximately 800,000 residents and roughly 8 million visitors per year, Mallorca is a popular tourist destination, especially with Germans and Brits. We flew from Paris to Mallorca, and we thought maybe we had flown to Vegas. The Palma airport is quite large for an island of its size, and a crazy amount of people filled the airport at 10pm.  The town was absolutely jamming. It is August in Europe where popular spots will get quite crowded (it is one of the reasons all the locals leave on their own vacations during this time).

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Mallorca is a lovely island off the coast of Spain in the Mediterranean with something for everyone with over 2,500 restaurants, 41 marinas, 400 km of hiking trails, beautiful beaches and  lots of cycling. The main city of Palma is a bustling spot with much to see – beautiful buildings, ancient castles and chateaus, churches as well as many parks and ramblas.

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If you go, here are a few of our favorite spots:

  • Mercat d’Olivar– a fabulous market offering a plethora of local specialties-anchovies, fresh produce, olives, lamb, eggs, bread, wine, cheese, sausage, ham- and a few restaurants and tapas bars. Both locals and tourists swarm the stalls all day long but it is worth dealing with the crowds to get some tasty goods.

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  • Banyalbufar– a seaside village in the Sierra de Tramuntana in the north west of the island of Mallorca.
  • Deia– another beautiful seaside village in the Sierra de Tramuntana that for its size has gotten a little over run, not in terms of development.  The village is stunning but the amount of cars that descent on this little village every day in peak season is high for a village its size- so high a make shift stop light had to meter one way traffic thru the village core.

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  • Soller– a village in the northwest of the island which is very popular with day trippers.  There is a train that goes from Palma to Soller dropping a lot of day visitors on this lovely village.  When we return to Palma, we would likely spend some time staying in Soller.  It has some great beaches, great day trips via sea and land, great hikes and good restaurants. We did a really fantastic hike from here (check out the details).

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  • Valldemossa– a hill town villages situation in the Tramuntana range only 17 km from Palma.

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And visiting the stunning Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma( more commonly referred to as La Seu) that dominates Palma’s skyline is a must.

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We really enjoyed our apartment in old town Palma (our first time out of hotel rooms in over 2 months) walking and running along the promenade and heading to the market to prepare some non-restaurant food.  The city has many harbors and beaches all within walking distance of the old town.  You can also rent scooters and cars to check out some of the other beaches around the island.  It is easy driving and getting around.  Nothing is too far- distance from north to south on the island is only 100 km and east to west distance is about 70 km.

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Majorca Hike: Cala Tuent to Puerto Sóller

“The mountains are calling. I must go” – John Muir

When we planned a couple weeks on an island in the Mediterranean, we were thinking more about the beach and the beautiful, crystal-clear waters. But after a few days in the city and near the sea, the mountains were calling!

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Majorca is an island off the coast of Spain that is a very popular summer spot with European tourists. It is most known for its shopping and nightlife.  However, it also happens to be where the professional cycling team, Team Sky, does some winter training, and so it is also popular with cyclists.  But its mountain range, the Serra de Tramuntana that dramatically cascades down to the sea on the Western part of the island, offers some incredibly scenic walking trails.

 

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After a few days in the capital of Palma with the hordes of tourists, a walk in the mountains with relative solitude was just what we were after.  We chose a route between Cala Tuent and Puerto de Sóller which are both on the northwest coast of Majorca and only about 30 km from Palma. We were day tripping from Palma. So while the 211 bus and the Ferrocarril de Sóller (first train is at 10am) offer good options to get to the Sóller area, we opted to pick up a rental car to give us some flexibility on both ends of the hike. (Travel tip: we reserved a small commercial truck with Enterprise on the Palma port and as expected, they replaced it with a standard car when we picked it up – saving us over 75% the cost of a standard rental.)

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We were aiming for a 10 am sailing on a water taxi with Barcos Zules from Puerto de Sóller to Cala Tuent so that we could walk the 10 miles back on the Balitx path. It was tight but we made the boat by 10 minutes.

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After squeezing out of the harbor, we followed the coast for about 45 minutes, stopping to check out a couple bays and caves along the way.

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We were delivered to the Cala Tuent beach – which is a nice quiet bay at the base of the mountains (if you are looking for something to eat, there is a restaurant about 200 meters up the trail from the South side of the beach).

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For the first couple hours of hiking the path gains a bit of elevation and also meanders along the cliffs, providing fantastic views of the bays below. The views above and below are spectacular.

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A couple hours in, you climb two saddles and then drop into a gorgeous valley filled with  olive trees and goat farms. You lose most of your shade for the remainder of the hike so it can get hot. It was 35C the day we traversed this spot so we were glad we brought 3 liters of water. (Note: water is not easily accessible on the trail so bring plenty before you hop on the boat – 2 liters per person is a good min for a moderately hot day; more for hotter days).

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Olive Trees – hundreds of years old
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After an hour of wandering through the olive trees, you will reach another saddle and the last high point for this direction.  As you start to descend, you will get killer views of Puerto de Sóller.  You will see plenty of signs on the path for trails to the Port or to the town of Sóller – both about 60-90 minutes down the path.

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Puerto de Soller
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While we found the trail well marked for 80% of the way, we lost the signs as we exited onto a road where we should have been only 20-30 minutes from the end. We had a 50/50 choice in direction and chose incorrectly and ended heading down a busy road for a few more kilometers (if you end up there, take a right back towards the north). But we found a restaurant to grab a couple cold beers and called a taxi to get a ride back to the Port.

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Palma is a fun city (stay tuned), but if you find yourself in Majorca, you need to get out and see the mountains – they are incredible!

La Buena Vida en Madrid

Madrilenos know how to live:

  1. The days are longer here in a leisurely way.  The city does not come alive until at least 9 am during the week.  This is due, in part, to the fact that Madrilenos go out to eat around about 10 pm.  10 pm, the city is just getting going. Chris and I have been in restaurants at 8 pm and are the only ones in the restaurant.
  2. Vino and food are something to savored.  Two hour lunches and two hour dinners (starting at 10 pm) are standard.  Cozy cafes and tapas bars line the streets of Madrid and are heavily used.
  3. A relaxed approach to life is taken, and quality of life is important here.  Work is secondary.  This is noticeable in the overall pace of the city, pace of service at businesses, the hours of operation, etc.  Time is not as critical  or something to stressed.
  4. Squares and streets, in general, were packed with people out and about enjoying life no matter the day of the week.

Plaza Major

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After a couple months in Southeast Asia, we were definitely looking forward to some vino and tapas.  (While vino is available in Southeast Asia, the wine selection is not great in Southeast Asia, and it is just too hot to drink wine.)  However, the temperature in Madrid was much cooler than Southeast Asia (about 50 degrees versus 90+ degrees).  (More on this later, but the packing strategy was definitely tested in Madrid and happy to report, it is working.  More on the packing strategy in another post.)

We also changed gears a bit in Madrid.  Having been to Madrid a few times previously and traveling for a couple of months, we tried to enjoy Madrid as locals versus tourists so we rented an apartment thru Airbnb.  Our first Airbnb experience was quite positive. We found a great spot in the Centro on Calle de Las Huertas which is a walking street so the apartment was super quiet and well-appointed- https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/6996771.  The owner could not have been more helpful, and the apartment was stocked with all sorts of items including a Rosco de Reyes which is a traditional Spanish king’s cake pastry traditionally eaten to celebrate Epiphany amongst other things.  (Chris definitely enjoyed the cake.)  Overall, great first experience with Airbnb.

Madrid appt exterior

 

With the exception of a visit to a couple tourist spots, enjoying Madrid as  locals involved:

  1. Taking the Metro, a fantastic way to get around Madrid.  It is clean, safe and heavily used by Madrilenos.
  2. Strolling through different neighborhoods.  Madrid has many different neighborhoods with distinct personalities not unlike Seattle.  On this trip, we did a walking tour through Chueca, La Latina and Salamanca.  Chueca is known at the gay neighborhood and has gone through a renaissance in the last 10 years.  La Latina, a more edgy neighborhood, known for bars and restaurants with locals.  La Latina also hosts El Rastro, a flea market held on Sundays.  We visited El Rastro, and it was packed with people and almost anything one would want to buy.  Salamanca, which is probably my favorite neighborhood, borders Retiro Park and has great shops and restaurants.  Stores like Mallorca are in Salamanca and have wonderful meats, cheeses, pasteries, etc.
  3. A stroll or run through Retiro Park in a must.  This is a gorgeous park in the center of the city heavily used by locals and tourists.
  4. We had been eating out for the last two months so we took advantage of the apartment and cooked a couple nights.  One night, we cooked one of local favorites, Tortilla Espanola.  Put this tortilla in between two slices of fresh bread and it is delicioso!
  5. A tapas dinner.  With so many restaurants to chose from, it can be a challenge to sift through the good, the bad and the ugly.  We found a great tapas spot (right next to our apartment by a well respected chef, Sergi Arola), Vi Cool.  The tapas were creative and tasty.  We especially enjoyed the meatballs in chimichurri sauce served with a goat cheese fondue and the goat cheese salad.
  6. A trip to the US Embassy for additional visa pages in a passport was needed.  Some countries require “X” numbers of pages in the passport prior to issuing a visa.  An appointment is required prior.  After about a few hours at the US Embassy and $82 (USD) later, an additional 24 pages were added to a passport.  Note: I heard that the service of providing additional Visa pages may end at the end of the year but have not been able to validate this.
  7. A trip to a local clinic for the last Verorab shot.  Because my Spanish is so poor, it took about 15 phone calls and trips to two clinics, but we were successful.  That said, the folks at Centro de Salud Montesa could not have been nicer, and we were astonished when we were told we did not have to pay anything for the shot.  European healthcare at its best, I guess.
  8. A visit to the local mercados in Madrid is always fun.  Mercados are uber farmers market with tapas and wine bars to enhance the shopping experience.  We visited Mercado de San Anton in Chueca one night looking for pine nuts.  Another beautiful Mercado is the Mercado de San Miguel, one of Madrid’s oldest and most beautiful markets, which is near the Plaza Major.

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From a tourist perspective, we finally made it to Toledo ( a short day trip from Madrid). Toledo is about 70 kms south of Madrid, and Renfe trains leave about every hour.  Known as the “City of Three Cultures” (Christian, Jewish and Muslim), Toledo is now a UNESCO site with an interesting mix of architectures.

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A visit to the Toledo Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Cathedral, is a must.  A stunning piece of architecture that was started in 1226 and took about 266 years to build.  We did the audio guided tour which we would recommend as it carefully walks one through the history, the chapels, the art work, etc. of the Cathedral.  The stain glass and art work by El Greco are amazing along with intricately carved choir chairs.  The tour takes about 2- 2.5 hours to be able to take it all in.  We took the 10:20 am train and the 3:30 pm return train.  One could easily spend a whole day or a couple days in Toledo.

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Not as good as some of the art museums we went to in Southeast Asia, but a visit to Reina Sofia Museum might be of interest for those interested in 20th century art.  For El Greco’s, Picasso’s and Miro’s art work alone, the museum is worth a visit. Hasta el siguiente tiempo Madrid!

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Good Reads: Hemingway and Pigs

Our short trip to Spain was mostly about regrouping and sorting out some visa issues for next year’s travels. It was also a good excuse to do some reading on the country and what better way than a classic Hemingway and a book on swine.

51YECFM808LThe Sun Also Rises is one of Hemingway’s well known, early classics that launched his writing career.  A review would be pretentious but I will say it was a great read, and I recommend it, if you like his stories.  It is set in Paris and Spain with copious amounts of drinking, bull-fighting and, in classic Hemingway fashion, tortured souls.

 

 

 

511kUXZ9GkL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Lesser Beasts, A Snout-to-Trail History of the Humble Pig was something completely different.  This non-fictional work charts the history of the pig and human relationships.  It is a fascinating read and a must if you are curious about history, the food chain and pork belly…or you find yourself in Spain surrounded by cured jamon.  It is filled with so many interesting factoids that are typically not part of history books.

  • Pigs and pork were a destabilizing political force during the Roman rule as pigs provided a means for the poor to cultivate their own food source.
  • Pig drives were more prevalent than cattle drives during the expansion of the Western States.  It is suggested that the West would have taken at least 100 years longer to develop without them.
  • 20K pigs roamed Manhattan in the late 1800’s.
  • The Chinese symbol for pigsty and outhouse are the same….for an obvious and disgusting reason. Enjoy your bacon.