Santiago de Compostela, Spain – A Pilgrims’ Pause

Pilgrims walking sticks
Pilgrims walking sticks

There’s a reason why the area of Galicia in Northwest Spain is so lush and green – the “rain in Spain” in concentrated here along with dramatic scenery, great seafood and a glorious cathedral that has drawn crowds for centuries to Santiago de Compostela. This small Medieval city is the final destination point for wanderers, travelers and especially pilgrims who have completed the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). The complete passage is over 500 miles across northern Spain from the French border in the east to Santiago in northwestern Spain and is Europe’s mother of all pilgrimage routes. It draws participants from all over the world – more than 200,000 per year. Some undertake the entire journey while others nip off stages. Most make it a spiritual journey, others appreciate the historical significance and quite a few simply want to check it off their bucket list since it became so popular in recent years (see The Way movie starring Martin Sheen.)
Historically, St James, one of Jesus’ apostles, made the first pilgrimage from the Holy Land after Jesus’ crucifixtion. James and his brother were originally drawn into discipleship by Jesus’ words, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men,” and after Jesus’ death, James took to heart the Master’s last commission, “Go, make disciples of all the nations,” and he ventured in northern Spain. Legend has it that his bones were discovered hidden away in the town that now bears his name – Santiago – and now lay in the cathedral where many generations of pilgrims have trekked to pay homage. While I’m not big on relics or bones, I can appreciate the significance of undertaking such a journey and finding a charming and welcoming city with a beautiful cathedral at the end of it.

Cathedral of Santiago
Cathedral of Santiago

The end of our not-so-arduous journey to Santiago was a delightful hotel called Costa Vella. It was a perfect place to call home for a few days as our hosts were keen on providing the best experience possible for their guests. This little 14 room establishment is tightly run on perfecting hospitality and is an oasis of quiet and beauty in the old city. We spent many relaxing moments on the terrace, in our garden view room or on a veranda enjoying an afternoon espresso, a picnic from the local marketplace or a long siesta.

Costa Vella garden
Costa Vella garden
Spanish style breakfast
Spanish style breakfast

The rain is a way of life in Galicia region, so we adapted by sightseeing under a big umbrella provided by the hotel. Attending the noon mass (The Pilgrim’s Mass) in the cathedral followed by a tour of the cathedrals towers and rooftops was the highlight of one day.image

Our days started with a beautiful breakfast on the hotel’s glassed-in veranda, and continued with slow sightseeing which included lots of stops for stopping for street musician entertainment, shopping at a local tienda, buying fresh produce from the farmers market for picnic on a park bench or cathedral steps, and afternoon espressos, pastries or gelatos. The evening was usually capped off with a late dinner – twice at a highly recommended eatery, Bodeguilla de San Roque where the Galician specialty, Pulpos de Feira (Octopus with paprika – sweet and hot) was a big hit.

Octopus with parika
Octopus with parika

Santiago de Compostela is traditionally an ending point for most wanderers to the city, but for us it was a starting point from where we would train across northern Spain and experience many vastly different cultures from Galicia to Basque country to Catalonia. All aboard! Next stop – Burgos.

Porto – on the river

Rabelo boat
Rabelo boat on the Duoro River – Porto

Our intiation to Portugal was definitely enhanced by the hospitality of our friends but now it was time to venture out on our own.  After saying our farewells, we boarded the train in Pombal and headed north arriving a little over an hour later in the beautiful Porto train station.

Porto train station
Porto train statio

As is typical in old Medieval European cities, if you have booked a room in a hotel in the old part of town, you may have to hunt for it. We knew our hotel (Apartmentos sobre o Duoro) was on the Duoro River so we headed downhill through the crowded and somewhat tired-looking old city to the waterfront. The tight, cluttered streets suddenly reminded me of Naples Italy but thankfully minus the stench and the garbage. After many passes by our address, we discovered our place had no reception – just a phone number taped to the door (also typical in Europe unless you are staying at a 4-5 star hotel.) We found the owner in a nearby bar and being somewhat unsure of our choice of accommodations, we were more than pleased when he showed us our upper room. The entire place had been restored with particular attention to the original high ceilings, stone walls and old wood beams but it was decked out with the latest modern conveniences and impeccably clean. Our room had big french windows facing the river and opened wide to reveal the sights and sounds of the waterfront.image

Our stay in Porto was one short night dampened by pouring rain, so rather than walk the city we took refuse across the bridge in a “port cave” (Ferreria Cellars) and waited for a port wine tour/tasting of the liquid delicacy that put Porto on the map. Who knew there were so many different varieties of port wine? My new favorite dessert!

Ferriera Port Cellars
Ferriera Port Cellars

Tapas at a cute little side street cafe were followed by a late dinner of ..what else…codfish at a highly recommended restaurant called Baralhoiero on the waterfront. This dish was a large codfish steak baked with potatoes, broccoli, onions and garlic all swimming in a pool of extra virgin olive oil – heaven!image

Falling into bed well after midnight, we were lulled to sleep by the musical sounds of soft Portugese conversations mixed with the clinking of glass and occasional music in the cafe below.image

Lovely Lisbon

Lisbon park play
Lisbon park play

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Lisbon is thriving port city that takes great pride in its history of fearless navigation and exploration to the outer unknown regions of the world in the 15th and 16th centuries. The dramatic monument to the early Portuguese explorers leans out over the waters edge and seems to portray the urgency and resolve of these brave travelers as they gaze beyond the reaches of their country.

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The massive and stunningly beautiful Jeronimos Monastery and Cathedral stands near the waterfront and sprawls out the length of two city blocks.  It stands on what was originally a smaller church where the monks used to provide services for wandering seafarers.  Considerably larger now, its interior houses two museums, cloisters for the religious order, various chapels and numerous tombs of past royals and dignataries.  Construction began in 1500 and took over 100 years to complete.

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A visit to Lisbon would not be complete however without the sampling of one or two (or seven) pastries from the world famous bakery, Pasteis de Belem. Just look for the Pasterlaria with the longest line. Rather than try to find a seat in the crowded and stuffy restaurant, we opted to purchase our goods to go and settled in nicely on a park bench across the street. The typical Portugese pastry called Pastel de Nata (cream pastry) was our personal favorite.

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Speaking of good food, our dinner was a seaside experience at a little town called Foz de Arelho where we sat next to a pool full of fresh crab and lobsters in the restaurant Cabana de Pescador. The seafood stew arrived in a giant copper pot with plenty of bread to sop up the goodness after the shells and meat were all fished out and consumed.

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Navigating Portugal

Foz de Arelho, Portugal
Foz de Arelho, Portugal

As we planned our excursion through northern Spain this August, It seemed appropriate to begin our trip from its southern neighbor because although tiny in size, it has an inpressive history of successful and innovative navigators and explorers. That, and the fact that our good friends opened their home and hearts to us inviting us into their family and Portugese hospitality.  Arriving in Lisbon was pretty much a breeze except for the fact that our luggage was lost for a few days (note to self:  avoid SATA airlines).  For many of you who do a lot of traveling you will understand what I mean by, no luggage, no problem.  It truly is a lesson in resourcefulness and creativity (not to mention patience) when everything you THINK you need is unavailable.  It’s amazing what you can do without.  Quite freeing, actually.  Besides, all the important stuff we carried on.  Everything else was just…well…baggage.

Typical Portugese architecture
Typical Portugese architecture

Our introduction to Portugal was especially sweet thanks to Silvia and family.  We avoided the tourist areas and set camp in Silvia’s generational family home in a little village north of Lisbon called Barracao.  How many places do you go where the hostess’s “tour of the house” includes the attached annex of the old stone barn that used to house animals, vegetables and a winepress?  This was her grandparents home and it still has the charm of the old country with crocheted lace curtains, dark handcrafted furniture and signature Portugese wall tiles.  A dinner at her Aunt’s house just down the road was an all night affair starting at 9pm and ending many hours later with a sweet flan and even more drinks.

Cristina's flan
Cristina’s flan

A day trip to Conselasao Beach began with local fresh pastries from a bakery aptly named Bom Pecado – “Good Sin.”  Lounging on the giant expanse of sand and enjoying the late afternoon sun was the perfect way to recuperate from jet lag.

Conselacao beach, Portugal
Conselacao beach, Portugal

The castle fortress of nearby Leiria offered expansive views over the Portugese landscape.  From its heights the vista was a sea of red tiled roofs over Leiria.

View from Castelo de Leiria
View from Castelo de Leiria

The Praza Rodrigues Lobo below was teeming with the post-siesta energy of shoppers and diners at stores and sidewalk cafés.  We joined in with a typical lunch of Bacalhao (codfish – which traditionally can be prepared hundreds of ways) and then strolled around the old town where we found unexpected surprises hidden in the little back streets.

Leiria neighborhood of cats
Leiria neighborhood of cats

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Our side trip ended in the historic university city of Coimbra where students still wear the long traditional black robes torn at the hem and reminiscent of a Harry Potter scene.  Dinner at the Taberna Trovador was a treat for the senses as we enjoyed more codfish delicacies, good wine and fellowship under the soulful tunes of traditional Fado music (a blues-style music accompanied by Portugese guitar, classical guitar and a singer.)

Fado concert in Coinbra

Coimbra
Coimbra

Not Everything is Dessert – a Matter of Perspective

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Seeing the beauty among the storm clouds or…

“Life isn’t what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you.”

I remember baking my first cake.  It was my mom’s birthday and I was 10 years old.  I was raised in an era when Mom did all the cooking and Dad and the kids did all the eating.  So, needless to say, I had no kitchen experience beyond the sink full of dirty dishes to wash, but that wasn’t going to stop me.  So, I banned Mom from the kitchen, and using her best recipe, I launched into a frenzy of baking a chocolate bundt cake for her birthday dinner. After careful measuring, precise execution and multiple batter samplings, I popped it in the oven and set the timer.  All good, so proud!  But best intentions don’t count with cooking. I sat on the floor in front of the cloudy window of the oven door watching the amazing metamorphosis of gooey brown batter rising into a beautiful spongy cake.  I could hardly contain myself as the timer finally went off and I carefully pulled the cake from the oven.  Now here is where it all went downhill.  I was impatient to get the hot cake out of the pan,  So, grabbing two handwoven potholders (my Christmas present to her) I inverted the cake pan and dumped the cake on the plate, only to get my hand stuck under it.  As carefully as I could I maneuvered my hand out from under the cake not only leaving the potholder there but breaking the hot cake completely in half!  I was devastated but not undone.  I let the cake cool (a little) and patched it all together with a huge amount of vanilla frosting, attempting to hide the mishap with sprinkles and LOTS of candles. So, when the big cake moment came,  I presented a lopsided cake with melted frosting to Mom.  Her eyes lit up and she ooo’d and ah’d over this crazy creation.  I was just hoping she wouldn’t look into the tubular hole in the middle of the cake and see the potholder.  Of course, when she cut the cake, the secret was out.  Her response?  She laughed and remarked, “Now that is certainly creative of you!  Thank you so much for my surprise cake.”  And then she hugged me.  The cake was a hit, the potholder was famous and I was redeemed as a cook.

That was one of my first lessons about gratitude (and patience!).  And I am reminded of those people that see the cup half full vs. half empty.  Those that have the ability to view this messy life through a different lens and SEE beyond the failures and into the blessings. I know people who have come through fire in their lives and they are an inspiration.  They are real with their emotions, disappointments and anguish but they don’t choose to live there for long.  Gratitude, especially when it’s hard, can be a taste of sweet frosting on a messy cake. 

Someone once said that if you’re looking for things to be thankful for, start with the moment your feet hit the floor in the morning.  If you woke up in a bed, be thankful.  Much of humanity, doesn’t have a bed.  If you turned on the faucet for a drink, be thankful.  Much of humanity has no clean, running water.  If you turned on the light switch, be thankful.  Much of humanity has no electricity at their disposal.  If you walked to the bathroom, be thankful.  Much of humanity is suffering the pain and despair of disease and disability.  If you hugged a loved one, be thankful.  Much of humanity is alone and lonely.  And the list goes on.

It’s easy to be thankful for the obvious when things peachy and going as planned but it is a daily struggle to practice the discipline of gratitude especially in the mundane and the ugly.  But if God is in everything and is so all powerful that “He turns what was intended for evil into good,” then I can relax, breathe in peace and let go.  Many times, MOST of the time, my act of thanksgiving is an act of obedience – of refusing to let go of God and instead let go of my will and my expectations.

In those heart-wrenching moments of trial and pain, I hold on to Him for dear life and in the end He blesses me with new vision, new lens, new eyes to SEE beyond the cracks in the cake and into the sweetness of love in which it was given.