Monday 27 October 2014

Marvellous Menorca: Less Known Balearic Beauty

The Balearic islands of Majorca and Ibiza are some of the most famous resort destinations in Europe and host a significant number of Spain’s tourists each year. However for those looking for something slightly less intense, the lesser known Balearic beauty of Menorca is the perfect getaway.

Departing regularly from many major airports throughout Europe, flights to Menorca are frequent and flexible. Visitors will be nothing short of mesmerised after landing, eager to explore the 270 square mile island, all of which is a UNESCO biosphere. Here are a few of the island’s very best activities for visitors to magical Menorca.

Flora and fauna
The island was designated a UNESCO biosphere in 1993 thanks to its wildlife and landscapes. The forests, gorges, salt marshes, wetlands, lush rolling hills and of course pristine beaches all serve as important habitats for all variety of wild things. Much of the island is accessible by foot if not by single track roads with the piece de resistance of landscapes (or its Spanish equivalent) being Mount Toro, situated in the heart of the island and reaching some 258 meters above sea level. The peak reveals staggering panoramas of the island, views which extend all the way across the sea to Majorca on a clear day.

Menorca has been shaped over the years by a series of visiting colonisers ranging from Roman to North African to Turkish, British, French and of course, Spanish. As a result the island’s culture includes everything from prehistoric sites to Gothic, Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture. Once more, UNESCO recognized the importance of Menorca’s cultural history in 2004 when it extended a protective reach over historic sites, in effect prohibiting the development of any large-scale high-rise resort development. This allowed locals to establish rural hotels known as agroturismos which are the accommodation option of choice for travellers looking to experience authentic Menorca.

Idyllic island perks
While Majorca and Ibiza have beaches packed with tourists, Menorca’s shores are significantly less crowded but boast more beaches than its busy neighbouring islands combined. The shores of the island feature a seemingly endless series of gorgeous small bays and coves away from the main resorts that range in size from tiny to sprawling. Some visitors may wish to undertake unmarked trails to arrive at a deserted beach while others may choose to explore the coast by boat, taking in the terrain from the surrounding waters. There are sea caves to explore, sea creatures to observe and endless Spanish sunshine to soak up.

Menorca is a well-preserved colonial gem in a sea of highly developed resort tourism. Majorca and Ibiza may have gained international reputations for the club-loving jet-set, but Menorca flies blissfully under the radar of major Mediterranean resort development. The island’s various cultural influences and natural beauty make it truly one of a kind for those seeking a peaceful, authentic getaway.


Friday 24 October 2014

Camino Portraits: Slava & Irena

There were not many Slovenes we met on our way to Santiago. Only three of them to be exact. Actually since Slovenia is a pretty small country with a total population of only 2 million people, we were not expecting to run into many Slovene pilgrims anyway.

Slava and Irena are two friends who felt Camino might bring some variety into their retirement. They were also quite amused by responses from their loved ones. Everyone back home thought they have gone crazy and will not be able to make it to Santiago. This only fired them up more and off they went...

Apart from coming from Slovenia, there was one more thing we had in common - tendinitis. None of us was willing to quit the trip because of it and we just kept limping towards Santiago.

We ran into each-other for a few times within our second week and were always glad to hear our native language. Hopefully they were able to enjoy the rest of the way at least as much as we did.


Wednesday 22 October 2014

The hardest day of the Camino

Actually I do not remember much of this day. It is probably better this way... it was pretty much all suffering.

This was day 11 of our almost one month long Camino de Santiago adventure. Click on the Camino de Santiago label to see all related posts.

The day began with moderate pain in my right leg. It seemed pretty much the same as the day before. A long evening walk we did around the centre of Burgos did not seem like such a good idea any more.

Since getting into the centre of Burgos took us forever the day before, we were expecting a similar exercise on the way out of the city. Luckily the suburban area on the western side of the city was not so huge. We were out in the countryside pretty quickly.

We definitely preferred walking down a country road when compared to hard asphalt surfaces of Burgos' suburbs. It is interesting how you start noticing different hardness levels of surfaces after a week of constant walking.

Once we got into the flat countryside the views stayed pretty much the same for the whole day. All was flat, with wheat fields all around us as far as we could see.

As kilometres went by my tendinitis problem was also getting worse with every step and soon enough all I was thinking about was: "Left, right, left and right again". I just kept repeating it... till the late afternoon. It seemed like forever.

I was walking pretty slow and stopping did not help either. It only made me suffer more once I started walking again. The whole walking procedure was draining so much energy I totally lost interest in taking photos. Visualizing a photo and taking it seemed pretty much impossible. The result is no photos from the walk.

Our plan for the day was to walk from Burgos to Hontanas. That makes just over 33 kilometres and for me it was one of the hardest hikes I have ever did. It was almost totally flat but it did not help a bit.

The final kilometres were really devastating. Since the landscape was pretty flat we could see really far. At some point we even started wondering if we were on the right track. When we came close to some traffic signs we just looked in disbelief. On one of the signs it was written: Hontanas 0,5.

No matter how hard we looked around us, we could see no sign of a town or even a building. Since it is pretty obvious one should see a town from half a kilometre away we did not know what to think. After a while we just kept walking and 200 metres down the road a basin with a small village appeared right in front of us. Hontanas does not look like much but for us at that moment it was the most beautiful place on the planet.

After we found a place to sleep in the first albergue in the village of Hontanas, we took even more time than usually for our daily stretching-shower-massage-laundry routine. I further extended it with a half an hour of ice massage. Massaging my leg with ice was quite painful but since I knew it would help, it was a no-brainer.

Before dinner I even found enough energy to snap a photo of the village church from outside of our room.

During a talk with one of the pilgrims we kept running into we found out arranging backpack transportation was really easy. All you have to do is ask the hospitalero at the albergue you are staying in about it and they will arrange everything.

You get an empty envelope, on which you write your information and the destination where you would like to pick up the backpack on the following day. You need to put 7 Euro inside the envelope and attach it to your backpack. The hospitalero in our case arranged everything else i.e. called the company and arranged the pick-up early next morning.

We were hoping this would help my leg recover a bit faster. At the same time we could both put all our heavy stuff inside my to-be-transported backpack and have an easier walk in the morning.

It seems like a bunch of companies offer this kind of service. Obviously there is quite a demand for it.
After I used the service for a day, I started noticing many pilgrims with suspiciously small backpacks. Some might even call it cheating but in the end it is all about how you see your own Camino.


Monday 20 October 2014

Endless suburbs of Burgos

This was day 10 of our almost one month long Camino de Santiago adventure. Click on the Camino de Santiago label to see all related posts.

I got out of bed with a feeling of anticipation and also a little bit of fear. The first few steps were accompanied with "Ouch, ouch, ouch..." whispered through my teeth. After a while it got better and I had to admit the pain was just a little bit more bearable compared to the previous day.

It seemed like this new friend of mine called Tendinitis would not go away easily. I knew that if it was going to get at least a bit better every day, I would be able to get through it. I was just hoping it would keep getting better.

We ventured into another cold and cloudy day pretty early. The winding path soon started climbing up a hill and into the fog. I started raining again.

For a while we were walking next to a barb wire fence that seemed to be built around an army base of some kind.

The walk was pretty uneventful and because of the steady rain I kept my photo gear dry inside my backpack. When we got closer to Burgos the scenery turned from bad to worse. Endless suburbs with many industrial complexes. Gloomy weather also did not help and dull shades of grey seemed even greyer.

Our hiking boots were letting moisture in again. Nevertheless it was not as bad as on the second day. We were glad we have bought ourselves quality hiking boots that did not cause blister problems even when wet. Nowadays you can get quality hiking boots almost in any supermarket as well as in specialised sport stores.

Considering the situation we decided to do another short walking day and give my leg an opportunity to recover faster. This also meant we will be able to spend more time in Burgos. Stopping there for the night gave us a whole afternoon to check out the city centre. We could have easily spent a few days there but unfortunately our tight schedule did not allow it.

It is only 24 kilometres from Agés to Burgos, but bad weather and endless suburbs of Burgos in addition to my leg problems, resulted in another long and tiring day.

It was a long walk to the historic centre but the good thing was that once we got there the rain stopped and we were able to search for an albergue without our rain ponchos. For a change we were still early and at first we tried our luck with a couple of smaller options. Since they were both already fully booked, we went for the newly opened Albergue Municipal de Peregrinos de Burgos with 150 posts. It is located just a stone-throw from the cathedral and costs only 5 Euro.
The only thing it lacks is a bit of character, but I guess that was not the main thing they had in mind during the construction.

We were happy to finally get out of our wet hiking shoes. As we learned during many previous wet days our Goretex hiking shoes endured 2-3 hours of rain, after that water started leaking through.

After settling in, our daily routine followed. When we were finished with our stretching-shower-massage-laundry procedure we went exploring the city. In our sandals, as usually.

We took time to admire the magnificent cathedral but decided to skip the tour of interior due to the entrance fee. Nevertheless we managed to take a quick peek inside and liked what we saw.

We decided to take a slow stroll around the centre and look for a place to eat. We found a perfect place with great food. We did pay 2 Euro more for the pilgrim menu than usually, but it was well worth it. You can feast your eyes on the below photo of the delicious dessert.

We would love to explore the centre some more but were already pretty tired when we were finished with our dinner. I was positively surprised that the pain in my leg was perfectly bearable when I carried no backpack.
However, instead of wandering the streets some more, we went back to the albergue to chat with our 3 Slovene room mates. These three pilgrims were the only Slovenes we met on the Camino.

Burgos is definitely another one of the places on the Camino Francés where we could easily spend a couple of extra days. Unfortunately due to our tight schedule we had to move on.

Clicking on any one of above photos will reveal them all in a much more flattering resolution.


Monday 13 October 2014

Tendinitis - My new hiking companion

This was day 9 of our almost one month long Camino de Santiago adventure. Click on the Camino de Santiago label to see all related posts.

In the morning when I climbed down from my bunk bed I almost lost my balance. My leg still hurt like hell. I knew it would probably get a bit better after the first few steps, but I did not know how much better. It really did. A little bit.
Despite all that I was already determined to try walking and see how it went. I was not going down without a fight!

Tendinitis (also tendonitis) is an inflammation of a tendon, which attaches the muscle to the bone. Usually it appears after muscles already got adapted to harder workout, because tendons need more time for adaptation. With use of anti-inflammatory medications and conservative treatment (mostly rest) the condition usually starts getting better after 2-3 days.
We did not have those 2-3 days of rest planned and if we went for it, it meant we would have to turn to alternative means of transportation in order to get to Santiago in time for our flight home. We obviously did not want that to happen.

We had a simple breakfast in the albergue. Although this time it was an all-you-can-eat type of breakfast we figured out that breakfasts in albergues were usually not worth the price. It was much better to stop somewhere along the way and have a proper bocadillo (that's a sandwich) for more or less the same price.

After breakfast M. helped me put a compression bandage on my sore leg. Up until that point she had been using both our bandages under socks to prevent direct contact of socks with her skin. By then cheap cotton socks from the Chinese shop were thoroughly tested and seemed to be working fine.

When we started walking it definitely felt a little better when compared to the previous day. So we kept walking. Slowly. This time M. had to seriously slow down so that I could keep up with her. I learned that stopping and taking a break is much worse compared to keeping a slow and steady pace.
Obviously we had to stop for food at some point and used the opportunity for another ice massage. It helped ease the pain for a while and it also brought down the small swelling.

We walked through some charming old villages and after a while endless wheat fields were replaced by young pine tree forest. A strong smell of pine trees mixed with blooming yellow bushes called Spanish broom was in the air. The views were great but the smells were even better. If only I could appreciate the beauty. I mainly focused on walking - it is interesting how much effort one has to put into a simple task like walking in extreme situations like this.

A section of the way we walked together with Mr. Sever (a typical Slovenian surname) and his wife. We learned they were a retired couple from the States, with ancestors in Slovenia. They did not know much more than that.
It was great talking to them - it helped me take the pain off my mind for a while and kilometres just flew by during that time.

Despite some Votaren anti-inflammatory gel and a pill of Ibuprofen (a pain reliever with anti-inflammatory effects) the pain got worse with every kilometre and we decided to call it a day a bit earlier than planned.

We stopped at Agés after walking 27 kilometres from Belorado. Our initial plan was to do a few more kilometres but regarding the situation we were more than happy with the achieved result.

Agés seemed like a cute little village from the distance, but I was just too tired to go exploring before dinner. We stayed at the Albergue municipal de Agés. In addition to many new acquaintances we also recognized some familiar faces. The rest of the evening was spent over a glass (or three) of wine, exchanging experiences with fellow pilgrims.

We also seized the opportunity to share a washing machine with a Hungarian guy. Even though we did not have many dirty clothes it was nice to skip manual laundry work for a day.

Clicking on any one of above photos will reveal them all in a much more flattering resolution.


Wednesday 8 October 2014

Wheat fields of Castilla y León

Clicking on any one of above photos will reveal them both in a much more flattering resolution.


Friday 3 October 2014

The legend of Santo Domingo de la Calzada

This was day 8 of our almost one month long Camino de Santiago adventure. Click on the Camino de Santiago label to see all related posts.

It was the first night on the Camino without earplugs. The luxury of a private room for a price of a dorm bed is always a good thing.
The bad thing on the other hand was damp and moldy air in our small room. Our wet laundry drying inside the room probably also had something to do with the stench.

We quickly put our stuff together, hung our still damp socks on the outside of our backpacks and in a couple of minutes we were ready for breakfast. Homemade jam from blackberries and figs on a hot toast was exactly what we needed.

Santo Domingo de la Calzada was the first in a series of beautiful old towns on our way. We made a short stop but the Cathedral was still closed. We were too early again. Obviously the famous cock and hen sleep late into the morning. If you were wondering... Yes, they do keep a live cock and a hen inside the church.

This is one of the most famous legends on the Camino - The legend of Santo Domingo de la Calzada. There are many variations of the same story... here is one of them:

Once upon the time a German pilgrim family stayed in a local inn for the night. A young Spanish girl named Beatriz working at the inn fell in love with their 18 year old son but he was fairly indifferent to her advances.
Offended by the lack of attention, the girl decided to hide a silver cup, belonging to the innkeeper, inside the young German’s cloth sack.
The following morning, when the German family unsuspectingly continued their march towards Santiago, she denounced the arranged theft to the authorities.
The laws of the time, the Jurisdiction of Alfonso X El Sabio, punished the crime of theft with death and, once caught and judged, the young German was hanged without mercy in the gallows outside the town wall. Burdened with grief his parents had to continue the journey to the grave of the Holy James alone.
Several months later, while returning from Santiago de Compostela, the German couple went past the place of execution - when suddenly they heard their son talking to them from the gallows above: ’I am not dead, Santo Domingo de la Calzada has saved my life by supporting my feet.’
The parents immediately hurried to the house of the city’s judge with the news of the miracle. The judge was sitting at the dinner-table with a well-cooked cock and hen on a dish in front of him. He was just about to begin the feasting on this appetizing meal, when the German couple bursted into the dining room and breathlessly reported what had happened.
Incredulous, – and irritated about the interruption - the judge answered that their son was about as alive as the cock and hen he had on the table in front of him. But… just as he said these words, cock and hen both leaped from the plate and began to crow!

Since then – and this is true – the traveller will find a cage in the Cathedral of Santo Domingo, with a live hen and a cock, always white, in memory of the great miracle of Santo Domingo.

Soon after the town we crossed from the province of Rioja to Castilla y León. Pretty quickly endless vineyards were replaced by wheat fields.

As we were closing in on Belorado I started feeling a sharp pain next to the shin bone of my right leg. It was getting worse by every step.
When I complained about it to M. she said with a worried look on her face: 'Say hello to tendinitis - one of the top reasons for not finishing the Camino in the first attempt!'

When we got to Belorado we were aiming for the Albergue parroquial - it is a part of a monastery and built partly into a cliff (look for the windows on the face of the cliff to the left of the church in the photo below). The building looks really interesting and also has a charming church with storks nesting on its bell tower. Too bad it was already full.

When we finally found a place in one of the other nearby albergues (Albergue de peregrinos Caminante) I was already pretty exhausted. Even though we walked only 29 kilometres this day from Cirueña to Belorado I would not be able to walk much further.

After the usual daily stretching-shower-laundry-massage routine we spent the evening in the main town's square. We had a few drinks and tasted a few varieties of local tapas... or maybe it was pinchos - I still can't tell the difference. The most interesting was probably their variety of a blood sausage. We washed it down with some good local wine for a bargain price.

We looked for some decent hiking socks (without wool) for M. in the nearby shops. Her allergy seemed to be slowly getting better. We also needed to work something out about her rain poncho - since we went for light-weight instead of quality, it started to tear in many places. We fixed it with some electrical insulating tape from a nearby shop. Hopefully a proper rain field test will not come too quickly.

M. tried to ease my leg pain with some ice massage. It helped a bit but after we finished our dinner, I still barely limped back to our albergue.

I was afraid what morning might bring. If the pain was the same or worse for the whole next day, I would be forced to stop for a few days. It would be just too much to bare...

Clicking on any one of above photos will reveal them all in a much more flattering resolution.


Wednesday 1 October 2014

Camino Portraits: Pedro

You have already been introduced to Pedro in my previous post. He is the hospitalero at the Albergue Virgen de Guadalupe - a small albergue on the outskirts of the small village of Cirueña.

He is definitely a bit unusual and like no other hospitalero we have met on our way to Santiago. Although he seemed a bit wacky at first, he proved to be a very kind person.

The jam he makes from hand picked blackberries and figs is also really good. We were lucky enough to try it at breakfast on hot toast. Delicious!

The albergue he runs is pretty basic and like its owner it comes with lots of character. As far as comfort is concerned I could hardly say it was one of the better ones we have stayed at. Nevertheless, I am sure we will remember it (and Pedro) for a very long time.

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