Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Lights, Chocolate, and Guitar Repairs

It's been pretty chilly here in the Andalucían desert. I went through a 10-gallon (11kg) tank of butane gas in only two weeks to heat the water for one of the two radiators in my postage stamp-sized apartment. (I leave the bedroom cold--it's just me here, so why not?) So I decided to try an electric quartz heater -- only twenty Euros at the local hardware store. I haven't seen an electric bill yet, so I have no idea which is more expensive, electricity or gas. But at least with the quartz heater, I can set it next to me and warm my hands as if by the fire.

They've put up Christmas decorations on the major streets. It looks very festive. I noted they were silver and gold, (not well represented in the photo to the left) which, as I've written in my upcoming book about my pilgrimage to Rome, is reminiscent of both the beauty of the cathedrals here and the embarrassment of how all that gold and silver was acquired. (From the Shameless Commerce Division: watch for it on Amazon and all other e-book outlets late Spring or Summer 2015. Working title, which will probably change, is Where the Roads Lead.) I took a walk and couldn't help take pictures of a typical Saturday night on the streets of Granada, except now there are Christmas lights everywhere. People love to go out walking at night. In the historic shopping district on weekends it's as crowded as any mall at Christmas, except it's like this nine months a year, when the university is in session and the city is full of students and faculty. Granada, I've found out, is mostly a university town. There's not much industry here, which is why they're having a problem maintaining the population,, especially with the "economic crisis." (I keep wondering when they're going to stop calling it a crisis and just accept that the economy here is the new "normal." After all, it's been six years.)

We had a national holiday last Monday, which was a complete surprise to me. It was the Day of the Immaculate Conception. There are fifty-three (53!) holidays on the official Spanish calendar. I exaggerate the holiday count a little by including local holidays, but just counting those days of observance where most people in the country don't have to go to work, there are twelve (12!) national holidays, Many of those include a bridge day or two - the day before to prepare, or the day after to recuperate. Like I've said before, is this a great country or what? Not only do you get the day off, but you get time to make dinner and decorate, then
time to recover from your hangover. I haven't been here during Holy Week yet, but I've been told you can forget about getting anything done during that entire week and the Monday and Tuesday after Easter.

I don't think I've mentioned in this blog, but I started singing in the Granada Cathedral choir in September. After the Advent concert at the cathedral some of the members of the choir went out for churros and chocolate at a churreria. If you haven't tried churros and chocolate, it's something you have to try once when you come to Spain at least once, even if you're on a strict diet. Churros are deep fried lengths of dough, similar to a donut, but long and straight. You dip those into rich chocolate, somewhere between the consistency of pudding and hot chocolate. The Futbol Cafe here is famous for having the best chocolate, but we went to another restaurant. (See photo.) I suppose I have a lot to learn yet about churros and chocolate--I've had churros at the Futbol Cafe and I couldn't tell the difference between those and what we had at the Gran Cafe Bib Rambla.

And one more great thing about Granada: I've mentioned my guitar in a previous posting about the Camino de Santiago. It was made by a luthier (guitar maker) in a town about an hour's drive from Granada. After playing it for over two years I've decided that I want the frets changed. Not that they're incorrectly installed or bad for any reason, there are just design differences in frets and the way in which various luthiers will shape them, and I'd prefer mine were different. More details I won't bore you with. I don't have a car to make the trip to Jaen where the guitar was made, but right here, not more than twenty minutes' walk from where I live, are six luthiers that I know of, at least two of whom are world renown. I took my guitar to one of those, Manuel Diaz, this morning to ask his opinion of the matter of changing the frets and, if he agreed, how much it would cost to do the operation. Of course he agreed--he shapes frets the way I like them--but to my surprise, the cost wasn't at all prohibitive and it wouldn't take very long to get my guitar back. Praise be to capitalism and competition! Low prices and quick service. He's also a professional flamenco guitarist so I asked him to go ahead and make any other adjustments he would make if he were going to play the guitar. I can't wait to get it back. I fully expect to play 2.5% better, at least.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Graffiti

Graffiti. (Cross-posted from RandomACThoughts.blogspot.com)

One thing about living in Granada, or Spain for that matter:There's no end to graffiti. I've also been in Santiago, Barcelona, Madrid, Sevilla, Bilbao, and countless smaller cities and towns as I've walked through Spain, and graffiti seems to be the national pastime. 

Someone wants to express himself (and I’m willing to bet 99 times out of 100 it’s a he who wields the spray can) so he takes a can of spray paint and goes out at four o’clock in the morning and makes his “artistic” mark on whatever vertical surface looks most appealing or that has the fewest people around to observe him. He and countless others leave their mark on some wall like a pack of dogs marking their territory, and normally what they paint has just as much to offer as what the dog leaves.

But therein lies the problem: It’s not their territory and it’s not their wall.
I really don’t care if the guy is a budding Rembrandt; the wall isn't his to paint on. I was having a discussion about graffiti with another person who said if the painter really has talent she doesn't really mind—some graffiti is really nice art.

Really? I wonder if she would have said that if the “artist” had painted a nice picture on the side of her car.

This is specifically the point. In the right context people can understand the idea of private property—that it’s not OK for someone to do whatever he wants with your property. What if it’s someone else’s property? Most people would agree that it’s not right to paint on the side of someone’s house. OK. So what about the side of an office building, or a wall along a street? Now it’s a matter of whether the owner of the building or the wall has more money than you think he needs, or owns a business you don’t like. Then, for some reason, it’s OK to paint on his or her wall. What if the wall is “public property?” Ignoring the fact that all “public property” is property purchased with money stolen from others in the form of taxation, it remains the case that even the "public" wall is not the property of the one painting on it. The painter has no right to alter a wall that he doesn't own.

I see graffiti as one symptom of a larger problem, a problem that affects our entire society: the fact that the right to private property is not acknowledged as a fundamental principal, inviolable and sacrosanct.

It is specifically the right to private property that is a fundamental bedrock of an advanced society. 
Without it, there is no incentive to plan for the future, to save and invest, to give up today what you might enjoy in the present in order to have something tomorrow. Without the fundamental confidence in the principal that your property is yours and will continue to be yours into the future, forever, to do with as you please, to give to whomever you will, there is no motivation not to consume today everything you produce today. On the contrary, the incentive is not only to consume all you produce, but to produce absolutely no more than you can immediately consume.

It would be nice if human nature were otherwise; if people would work unceasingly solely to give to others without regard for their own well being. It would be a wonderful existence if we were all angels, if no one desired their own property to do with as they please, to make their own lives more enjoyable and comfortable, to secure their own future and the future of their families against an unknown future.

But we’re not angels. And the best way all societies have found throughout history to incentivize individuals to produce more than they consume is to protect and preserve the inviolable right to private property. Property rights promote stability, enable and encourage people to preserve the fruits of their individual labor. Private property enhances economic efficiency. 
Regarding the problem of graffiti, “We may say that a man’s right to property tells us not so much what he may properly do but rather what others may not properly do to him.” (Eric Dalton. “Private Property and Collective Security” Left and Right, No. 3 (Autumn 1966): 33-47.) I would add, not only to him, but to his property.

The graffiti that is so prevalent is not a disease, it is only a symptom. It’s an obvious and ugly symptom, but it’s nothing compared with the devolution of civilized society that is characterized by cynicism, mistrust, and the slow but steady collapse of not only our economic systems but of an entire civilization.

The coming downfall will have been brought on by myriad causes, but in large part it will be the result of the loss of respect for the concept of private property.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Living in Disneylandia

Living in a tourist destination takes some getting used to. Even more so when you’re living at the poverty level, as an illegal immigrant, in the center of activity where you can’t throw a rock without hitting a restaurant, bar, or someone trying to sell you tickets to an expensive dinner-and-flamenco combo or offering you a discount coupon for the nearby restaurant’s daily lunch special—only 19 Euros (about $24 as I write this – an amazing exchange rate compared with the last few years). Each night the bars and restaurants are full of smiling and laughing people imbibing and living the life of Ryan, as I walk back to my tiny apartment from my volunteer teaching position at a small private school here in Granada. (I teach English in exchange for Spanish classes.) My normal diet is rice or pasta and whatever vegetables I buy at the local market as I pass by. Meat is way too expensive here, except for chorizo, a type of sausage, which I add to my meal once in a while. Oh, and of course wine, my one luxury. But it’s cheap here so I don’t feel too guilty. (A drinkable wine is 2.50 Euros. Even I can afford that.)

I’m not complaining—no, really, seriously. I moved here of my own free will and knew I’d have to live for some time on savings as I look for and eventually, hopefully, find enough editing and English tutoring work to pay my expenses. But it takes some mental and psychological effort every day as I walk through hordes of smiling, laughing, happy people to remind myself that I’m living in a Disneyland. (Here they call it Disneylandia.) Outside of the people I see who work in the restaurants and bars, 99% of all the people I see in this part of Granada, the historic district, are on vacation, spending money they have either saved or borrowed on credit cards and having, for many of them, a rare vacation in a foreign country.

As if I weren’t jealous enough of all the vacationers here, having fun and spending money as if they had it, there are the other English teachers I meet here, most of them from the Great Britain, a member country of the European Union and thus able to live here legally and easily find work in one or more of the numerous language schools that go begging for native English speakers for teachers. But because of the high unemployment, no school is going to jump through hoops to hire an American when the Brits are in good supply.


All I have to do is live under the radar for three years, working off the internet or being paid under the table for tutoring, any way I can find to pay the rent and food. Then I can apply for legal residency. Yeah, it seems pretty strange: go to an immigration office, show them my passport with a three-year-old tourist visa stamp and tell them now I’d like to apply for legal residency. But that’s the way it is here. Does it make sense? Not to me, but I’m just a guiri. What do I know? 
The view from the watch tower of the Alhambra looking northeast

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Returning to Barcelona

Traveling allows you to exercise your creativity and test yourself to see what you can accomplish, if you allow it. You go where you don’t know anyone, don’t speak the language, don’t know the customs or the rules. You get lost. You get frustrated. You lose your patience and just want to go back where things are familiar, where everybody knows your name. But you can’t, at least not immediately and you have to deal with whatever comes your way; you have no choice. If necessity is the mother of invention, she’s also the mother of the resourceful and creative traveler.

Finding my way from Rome to the coast and then to Barcelona was no great accomplishment: I was in the middle of one of the world's biggest tourist cities where finding someone who spoke English was about as difficult as finding a Starbucks in Seattle. Everything I wanted to see was within easy walking distance, and all I had to do was ask a few questions, in English, to find anything I needed. But as I made my way to the train station in Rome to catch a train to Civitavecchia, where I’d board a ferry to take me across the Mediterranean to Barcelona, I thought about the past ten weeks: walking the GR trails through Spain and France, getting lost in the middle of nowhere, and having to regularly consult my map and compass to find some road to hopefully take me in the direction of the day’s planned destination. I thought about the times people had appeared to help me at just the right moment to save me from disaster and the people who had invited me into their homes for a comfortable night’s sleep, provided me dinner and breakfast, and had given me advice on the best route to my next stop. I thought of all my pre-planning of the route from Barcelona to Montpellier, and how it all got thrown out the window before I’d even walked a week, as friends in Vic (Spain) helped me plan a safer route. (The GR trails were more difficult to negotiate, but I’m still alive to say I didn’t get run over by any trucks on the roads I had originally planned.) I’d gone places I hadn’t planned, spent more money than I had planned, and as a result had to skip over parts of the route I’d planned. All in all, I’d have to say the only thing that went according to the plan I had developed over more than a year, was that I started in Barcelona and finished in Rome. In all other things I was flying by the seat of my pants. Even taking the ferry across the Mediterranean was a surprise to me. I had planned to fly, but as I got closer to Rome and considered my three-month tourist visa was about to expire, the thought of going through customs at an airport just didn’t set well with me. And the truth is, I’m tired of airports and security checks. The thought of a leisurely Mediterranean crossing seemed like the perfect end to ten weeks of walking.
About three weeks away from Rome I stopped at a travel agency and inquired about taking a ferry to Barcelona from Rome and it turned out to be easy and just slightly less expensive than flying a discount airline. I couldn’t make the reservation at that time because I wasn’t sure which day I’d be traveling, but about five days from Rome I was pretty sure of my schedule and called the agent to buy the ticket. I spent the extra money for a sleeping cabin, the crossing was a twenty-hour trip and the ferry left at 10:00 at night.
The travel agent told me that the train from Rome to the coast would take me right to the dock area in Civitavecchia, but by then I knew better than to trust any non-walker who told me that anything was close to anything else. Good call. When I arrived at the train station in Civitavecchia, I was prepared for the walk to the docks. I had no idea where they were, but by this time I was an expert at following my nose and finding where I was supposed to go (with the help of some policemen who directed me to the right gate once I got to the dock area).

If you want to see a slice of life, spend an hour or two waiting for a ferry, or a train, or a bus for that matter. You’ll probably never see a Bill Gates waiting in line for any type of mass transportation, but just about anybody else is going to be there. Christian Louboutin to flip flops, finely coiffed hair to dreadlocks, it’s all there (although flip flops and dreadlocks are generally the rule).

As I was still traveling with my pilgrim kit – nothing unnecessary – I had nothing to read or occupy my mind while I waited. I had my computer with me, but a Microsoft Surface is not a “laptop” computer; it doesn’t sit easily in your lap for use, so I didn’t even try to pass the time with that. Plus, even though most public places say they have free Wi-Fi, the Surface seems to frequently have problems connecting to it. I don’t know if I could have connected at the ferry’s waiting area though, as Wi-Fi wasn’t free, and I had no intention of paying eight Euros an hour to use it. (That’s almost $12 an hour! Are you kidding!? That was a portent of things to come, as a simple dinner of pasta and a glass of wine cost over $24 on the ferry.)

At the appointed time, I went to the gate to board the ferry. Well, not really board, but stand in line to wait to board. My idea of a pleasant, leisurely cruise was not getting off to a good start. We all stood for about 45 minutes before they started the boarding process, then I found out we still had to go through a security check. There were hundreds of people waiting to board, so I got out my cell phone/portable music device and cranked up Pink Floyd’s The Wall while I waited. (I’m showing my age, but I’m old enough not to care.)

Yeah, we still had to go through a security scanner and they looked at my passport to verify the name in the passport matched the name on the ticket, but it was dark and the light was bad, so I really can’t imagine they would have noticed if weren’t the person named on the ticket. And we put our luggage (backpack) through a scanner, but I don’t think anyone was paying attention to what was showing on the screen, if anything was actually displayed. At any rate, my knife, which created such a problem at the Vatican, didn’t seem to bother anyone and I passed through without remark. I suppose the threat of hijacking a ferry is somewhat less than with an airliner.

We finally got aboard and I found my cabin after walking the entire length of the ferry three times in hallways where my cabin was not. This was a big boat. (You’d think the numbers would be arranged in some logical order, but that’s because you’re not familiar with Italian ferries.) I stowed my stuff in the cabin and met one of my cabin mates, an ex-South African currently living in Amsterdam, on holiday with his girlfriend, an ex-Philippina currently living in Spain. (Have I mentioned recently that I love international travel because of the people you meet?) I went topside to walk around and enjoy the view (not really – an industrial shipyard view is nothing to write home about) and ran into my cabin mate and his girlfriend at the bar. He bought me a glass of wine (friendly chap) and we started talking. Turns out he left South Africa because of the prevalence of violence there; his girlfriend left the Philippines for lack of work. They’re both happy in their new countries. I didn’t pursue the question of how a man living in the Netherlands and a woman in Spain can pursue a relationship – it was none of my business, and after all, we’d just met. But the thought did cross my mind.
We were due to leave at 10:00 but didn’t get underway until after 11:00. Since I was still on pilgrim time, where 0-dark:30 is usually about when you go to bed, it was way past my normal bed time and I was tired, so I excused myself and returned to the cabin.

Sometime in the night, I awoke suddenly to the sound of the ship scraping the bottom of the sea, or possibly we had gone off course and the rocks of the shore were tearing into the hull. The noise was thunderous, awesome; I expected the lifeboat sirens to sound at any second.

Then I realized it was only the sound of the third cabin mate snoring – such snoring as I’ve never heard in my life, and as a pilgrim who has spent many a night in albergues crowded with snoring men and women (OK, mostly men, but there were some women who gave the best of the men a run for their money in the snoring department), I thought I’d heard it all. How this man could sleep through the sound he was making is a mystery science has yet to uncover. I’ve been awakened by the volume of snoring on the other side of a wall in hostels and pensions, even with ear plugs inserted nearly to my eardrums, but they didn’t begin to compare with the snorting, rasping, gurgling, and other sounds that have, as yet, escaped the distinction of onomatopoeia, emanating from this man. The only thing that kept me from smothering him with a pillow was the fact that from the sound of him I was sure he was near death anyway; I only had to wait a little longer and I’d be able to sleep again. I would have thought that the din of his snoring would awaken anyone, but the South African/Netherlander was obviously sleeping blissfully through the racket, as he was snoring also, albeit not quite as badly as cabin-mate number three.

Somehow I managed to get some sleep, either because cabin mate #3 died or I was so tired I was able to sleep through the racket. By the time I awoke, he was out of the cabin. As you might expect, later in the afternoon I tried to take a nap, being tired from not getting much sleep the previous night and just to pass away the time. We were sailing into strong headwinds and that, coupled with our late start, meant we were going to be three and a half hours late getting into Barcelona. Naturally, cabin mate #3 had the same idea. A few minutes after I lay down, he came into the cabin and within minutes was fast asleep, sawing logs as the night before. I went back to the bar.

We finally made it to Barcelona at 9:30, as they had reported the revised estimated time of arrival, but the ferry carries 1,000 people, more or less.  By the time my feet were on Spanish soil it was close to 10:15. I had made a reservation at a youth hostel (I don’t know why they call them that – there were plenty of old farts there in addition to me) and guaranteed payment for the first night, so I wasn’t concerned with being late. But where was it? For some reason, the woman I talked to at the hostel when making the reservation told me to take the red line metro and get off at Paral-lel. (That’s how they spell it in Catalan.) As soon as I got off the ferry I asked the first Spanish policeman I came to where the metro station was and he directed me. Strange thing was, I came to the hostel before I found the metro station. I don’t know why the person I talked with didn’t tell me the hostel was an easy walk from the dock. My experience had been the opposite for my entire adventure. I got to The Ramblas – quite a place to be late at night, if you ever get the chance – and still didn’t see a metro station. I asked a cab driver where one was and told him where I was going. I had half a mind to just take a cab, but it turned out I was about 100 yards from the hostel at that point.

That’s it for now. It was sure nice being back where I could talk with people and ask directions. It was warm and pretty humid, and it had been a long, nearly sleepless passage across the Mediterranean, but I was overjoyed to be back in Spain. 
The Ramblas in Barcelona close to midnight

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Day in Rome

July 27, 2014

There I was in Rome, finally, after ten weeks of walking mostly solo through Spain, France, and Italy. Since leaving Barcelona I hadn’t experienced any huge cities, and even Barcelona is small compared with Rome, or seems to be. Maybe it was because I’d been ten weeks walking mostly silent countryside roads and paths – the only sounds were birds, cowbells, and an
St. Peter's Square
occasional car, motorcycle, or truck passing by, and the only people I encountered, sometimes for days at a time, were hospitalers and bar keepers –and here I was, suddenly thrust among a million tourists, cars, buses, mopeds, bicycles, and every type of sign, banner, and gizmo the mind of man has yet come up with to attract attention to something for sale.

Whatever the reason, I couldn’t wait to leave. I’m sure Rome is a wonderful place if you’re prepared for it and that’s where you want to be, but it’s a difficult environment for one who has come in out of the cold, as it were, without a period of transition back to normal life. And that’s only if life amidst a million tourists can be called normal.

I did take in some of the sights. Naturally, I spent some time in St. Peter’s Basilica. (Editorial comment: Is it just me, or do other people have a problem with St. Peter’s Basilica, St. John’s Cathedral, St. Mary’s Church and all the rest. Aren’t they Jesus’ basilicas, cathedrals, and churches? Would it be so difficult to say, for example, St. Peter Basilica or St. Paul Cathedral, without the possessive to indicate the saint’s name is just that: a name? Seems to me we shouldn’t say the basilica belongs to or is in honor of Peter, only that it’s been given a name to make it easier to find in the phone book. Things have gotten all wound around the axle the last couple thousand years, in my humble opinion.)

Getting back to the basilica, I have to say, that’s one impressive building. The sheer size of it alone is enough to give pause and make you wonder how on Earth it was ever built, much less considering that it was begun half a millennium ago. I know it took 120 years to build, but still, that only takes us to 1626 for its completion. How was even one marble column lifted up? Then how was a roof put on it? The building has to be one of the engineering marvels of the world. People inside are dwarfed by the scale of everything inside this building. Even the cute, little cherubs in the sculptures are ten feet tall. The only sculpture in the basilica that doesn’t dwarf every human being in the place is Michelangelo’s Pietà, and you can’t get near that, ever since a crazy man attacked it with a hammer over 30 years ago. It’s now behind bullet proof glass.

The size alone is impressive, but then you look down at your feet and see almost every square foot of the floor is inlaid marble of exquisite design and craftsmanship. Every detail in the basilica was painstakingly created by the best craftsmen and designers that could be found. Ralph Waldo Emerson said of the basilica, it is "an ornament of the earth ... the sublime of the beautiful." I’d have to agree.

The only thing I wanted to make sure I did was to attend mass in the basilica. A tourist office employee told me that if I went to St. Peter’s Square at about 7:45 in the morning I wouldn’t have to wait in line to get in and that mass was at 8:30. The pilgrim hostel was about two and a half kilometers away, but that was nothing after a pilgrimage of almost 2,000 kilometers, so I got up early and walked to the basilica. I had no idea what to expect, except that among the million or so tourists, there had to be a good number of Catholics who would also wanted to attend mass in St. Peter’s. As has been the case so often in my 57 years, I was wrong. I entered the church at about 7:45 and took my time walking around its interior counter-clockwise, trying to look at everything that was open to the public. As it was getting close to 8:30, I was starting to wonder where mass would be celebrated. I assumed it would be in the Chapel of the Sacrament, at the front of the building where the morning sun shines through Bernini’s Dove. There were a few hundred chairs set up there, and it looked like a logical place to hold mass for the throngs of faithful Catholic tourists who must be waiting for mass to start, also wandering around the basilica as I was.

Nope. Not there. Close to 8:30 and it was still devoid of people.

I asked a group of nuns who were standing outside one of the other chapels where the 8:30 mass would be held. They had no idea, but directed me to someone very official-looking who pointed to a chapel on the other side of the church. I made my way there, was allowed in by a guard making sure that only mass attendees were allowed through, and took a seat in one of the pews of the smallest chapel in the basilica among the other 20 or so people, about a quarter of whom were nuns. So this was it? Millions of tourists in the Eternal City, Vatican City itself, the pope’s hang out, and this is the best the faithful Catholic population could do? Shocked is the word: I was shocked. Well, it was only 8:30 after all. Maybe everyone had been up late at the bars last night and they’d be at the afternoon mass. But then they’d have to stand in line for hours just to get in – there’s no special line for Catholics or anyone else for that matter wanting to go to mass in St. Peter’s. Personally, I think there should be, as there should be a separate line in Starbucks for people who only want drip coffee. But no one asks my opinion of these things.

After the basilica I wandered the streets, taking in the Museum of Rome at the Palazzo Braschi, the Pantheon, The Trevi Fountain (being restored and waterless behind massive amounts of scaffolding), and just generally spent the rest of the day trying to see what I could without spending money. I would like to have seen the Sistine Chapel, but I was unwilling to wait in line while my life ebbed away. Same with going up to the dome of the basilica. Honestly, after seeing St. Peter's, I'd had enough of Italy and Rome and just wanted to head back to Spain where I would find a place to live and finally be able to get dressed in the morning without digging through a backpack. Another time, in another universe I’ll visit Rome and see more of the sights, but at this time in my life, I was killing time until my train to Civitavecchia and the ferry across the Mediterranean to Barcelona. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Arriving in the Eternal City

July 27, 2014

In Campagnolo-de-Roma I caught up with Eva, a German pilgrim I’d crossed paths with over the last couple of weeks, walking an occasional day with her here and there. We walked to La-Storta, the final city before Rome, then walked into Rome together.

Every town I had walked through previous to La-Storta had a “centro storico,” an historic district composed of the most ancient part of the city, normally from Medieval times. La-Storta seemed to be a town that grew up as a suburb of Rome in the 20th Century, no centro storico to be found. It did, however, have very nice pilgrim accommodations with plenty of beds, even considering the large group of previously mentioned high school students were there. The town also had a very nice restaurant, although it didn’t open until 7:30; the norm for all restaurants except bar/cafes. That schedule doesn’t fit in well with that of a pilgrim. We’re normally up and on the trail by 7:30, some much earlier, and by noon we’ve had lunch and are ready for dinner well before 7:30. As soon as night falls we’re tired and sleep comes early. Waiting until after 7:30 for a restaurant to open for dinner just doesn’t work.

With that said, I was in the mood for pizza, and not just a slice of pre-made pizza you find in a bar, I wanted a freshly made-to-order Italian pizza for my last night on the road. The next day’s walk was relatively short so we didn’t have to worry about getting an early start. Eva didn’t mind indulging my whim, so we had beer and tapas while waiting for the restaurant. Good decision.

I don’t have the name of the restaurant, but I doubt many readers will be going to Campagnolo-de-Rome anyway. If you go, it’s the only pizza restaurant on the main road through town and very near the church on
The restaurant is near this church on a hill.
the hill (pictured). It had a gorgeous interior courtyard complete with shade trees and canopies to protect patrons from the sun. I enjoy outdoor dining in Europe, but normally you have to put up with street noise. At this restaurant we had the added benefit that the courtyard was well behind the restaurant building, so it was insulated from the traffic noise, making for a very pleasant dining experience.

If that weren’t enough, the pizza was excellent, the best Italy has to offer. I had a “white” pizza: that’s one with no tomato sauce. The crust is topped with cheese and whatever meat and vegetables you choose. Mine was sausage, mushroom, and some type of lettuce. Yes, you read that right: lettuce. It had the appearance of being very healthy. Whether it was or not, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Besides, if you walk 25 kilometers a day for nearly three months, everything you eat is healthy. Your body seems to find whatever it needs from whatever you eat and keeps on truckin’ without gaining weight. Pizza and beer are no competition for vigorous, daily exercise. We had our choice of Roma or Napoli style pizzas, which I found out are thin and thick crust, respectively. I like thin, so I chose Roma. I don’t mind saying that the best pizzas I’ve ever had were in Italy, and this was the best of the best. It was baked in a wood oven on a stone slab, well-seasoned by a hundred thousand other pizzas over the years. The crust was light, airy, crunchy, and delicious. I normally leave the thick part of the pizza crust on the plate, but I ate every part of this one. Every bite of the flash-baked lettuce (can’t think of any other way to describe it) with the sausage and mushrooms, and the perfect amount of mozzarella cheese were like an orgasm for the tongue. You may think I exaggerate, but until you’ve tasted the best pizza Italy has to offer, you’ll just have to take my word for it. I’d had enough beer that day, so I opted for the house table wine. I’ve mentioned before that, in my experience, the house wine in France beats the pants off what is served in Spain and Italy, but it made no difference; I was so thoroughly enjoying the pizza that I could have been drinking Cool-aid and still enjoyed the meal. I had every intention of stopping with the pizza, but the waitress suggested desert, and being the last night on the Via Francigena, I allowed myself another indulgence. I chose a chocolate cake filled with a chocolate fudge sauce. I think most American restaurants would call it, “Death by Chocolate.” This restaurant didn’t have to come up with any catchy names for their desert; this one spoke for itself. As good as the pizza was in the pizza category, this was equally good in the desert category. I offered Eva some, even asked for a second spoon for her, but she wasn’t into chocolate and only had one bite, which was fortunate for me – I would have had to order another one.

That was one of the highlights of my Italian experience, even without the two mafia guys who came in and sat at the table next to us. Not that they told us they were mafia – you can just tell about these things, the way they come in the back door, the owner greets them with respect, shows them to their “usual” table, and they talk in hushed, gravely voices. Yes, I’m sure they were mafia.

The last day’s walk was not too pleasant until we finally got to a walking path, which was only recently created. After about two hours of walking along a very busy, noisy, and dangerous street, most of the time lacking even a sidewalk, we stopped at a bar for a little mid-morning refreshment. (Eva and I have the same routines when it comes to the morning part of the walk. After about two hours it’s time to look for a bar and stop to enjoy the local cuisine and beer.) Just as we sat down at an outdoor table the heavens opened up and we made a hasty retreat inside the café, barely avoiding a good soaking. We took our time there until the rain subsided, then hit the road again. There was no clear marking of the Via Francigena trail, so we asked a passerby if he could tell us where it was. He didn’t know, but he told us that there was a recently-created path that went almost to St. Peter’s Square and showed us where it was. From there we had a pleasant walk to Vatican City, away from traffic and noise, for which we were immensely grateful. 

As a side note, and to be completely open and honest, and without putting too delicate a spin on it: Italy has a trash problem. I don’t know what the root of the problem is, but I suspect that there is no house-to-house trash pickup in most Italian towns, and many people seem to dispose of their garbage where ever they can, whenever no one is looking. Or maybe everyone does it so no one even cares if anyone is looking. All along every road I walked as I got within a few hundred kilometers of Rome there was trash. And not just litter, but trash in bags, trash falling out of broken bags, trash that never saw the inside of a bag. There was construction debris, appliances, cars, trucks, tires and other auto parts. It was incredibly sad; I walked through some beautiful countryside, but every kilometer of it was lined with trash along the road. The closer to Rome I got the more trash there was.

But back to the story, Eva and I eventually came to that crest on a hill where we looked out and saw the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica amidst the buildings of the Eternal City. I wish I could say I had a great
The first view of St. Peter's Basilica
emotional wave of elation, or that tears welled up in my eyes, or that the past two and a half months of walking through Spain, France, and Italy suddenly flashed before my eyes and I suddenly knew, spiritually and emotionally, why I had made this pilgrimage. But all I felt was relief – I was finally here, in Rome. The journey was at an end. I would soon be able to not live out of a back pack and search every night for that hostel, abbey, or monastery so I could eat something and go to bed. The difference between my first view of St. Peter’s and the Cathedral of Santiago two years prior couldn’t be more stark, but I’ll save that discussion for a future post.

It was already 11:00, and we wanted to get our “testimonials” as soon as possible because Eva’s guide said the office closed at 1:00 and we still had a ways to go to St. Peter’s Square, and then had to find out where we had to go to get them. We found out later that the office didn’t close at 1:00 and it would have been better to check in at the hostel first. We also found out there are two testimonials a pilgrim can receive: one is for those making the pilgrimage for spiritual or religious reasons which is received at the sacristy. The other is for those making the pilgrimage for other reasons – historical, cultural, or just for the fun of it which is available at a tourist office. I asked a Swiss guard where the pilgrim office was, thinking of the sacristy, and he directed us to the tourist office. Since we were looking for the sacristy, when we got to the building he directed us to, we didn’t realize we were at an office where we could get a testimonial. Neither did we realize that that testimonial was exactly the same as the one we’d later receive at the sacristy and could have been acquired much more easily. So we kept looking and Eva saw a Portuguese pilgrim about a block away whom she had met some days earlier. We followed and caught up with him. He asked another Swiss guard were we could get the testimonial, who directed us to a police van just outside the gate where we had to check in first.

Here’s one place where the differences between the Camino and the Via are very apparent. When you get to Santiago you easily find a clearly marked pilgrim office near the cathedral. There is ample room to set down your backpack, then you climb a flight of stairs and wait in line for the next available person who warmly welcomes you to Santiago, verifies your pilgrim credentials, congratulates you on having made the pilgrimage from whatever location you began, and prints out your “Compostela,” the certificate that designates you as one of the millions who have made the pilgrimage over the last millennium. For one Euro you can purchase a hard cardboard tube to place your compostela in for protection as you travel back home, and you walk away calm and relaxed to find a hostel or the nearest bar for a beer to celebrate your accomplishment.

Arriving at the Vatican is a little different. The three of us, Marcos, Eva, and I, went to the police van as instructed and told them we were pilgrims and wanted to go to the sacristy for our testimonials. The guard first asked us if we had any knives in our backpacks. How foolish would one have to be to backpack 2,000 kilometers through Europe without carrying a knife? I didn’t say that to the surly gentleman guarding the pope, but it’s certainly what I thought. What I said was, yes, I have a knife in my backpack. He said we couldn’t enter the sacristy with knives. I asked what we could do with them. Could we leave them at the police van and pick them up after we got the testimonials? No. I asked if he could suggest what we might do with them. No answer. Surly stare. Did we have to throw them away? No answer. Increasing surliness. They were being very uncooperative, as if they’d never encountered pilgrims before and we were nothing more than a complete nuisance on a mission to complicate their day. We decided to go to a bar to see if we might be able to leave our knives there and return after the mission to the sacristy to retrieve them. That worked, so we returned to the guard, reported that we had no knives, and then our backpacks were given a very cursory inspection to see if there might be other contraband contained in them. We were then directed to another office where we identified ourselves and surrendered our passports. Then they gave us a permission slip and directed us to the sacristy. We thought we were home free at that point, as if we’d go to the office as we had in Santiago (all three of us had made the Santiago pilgrimage), climb the stairs to the office, be warmly greeted and all would be well.


Ha! Don’t make me laugh. We entered the building, turned left up the stairs, and were promptly halted by a fierce yell from yet another surly guard. We showed him our hall pass/permission slip and told him we were directed here for our testimonials. He studied our pass, then told us to wait there. Another guard came down the hall after a few minutes, took our pilgrim credentials, and returned some time later with the testimonials sans any form of “Welcome to Rome or congratulations on completing your pilgrimage.” The whole affair was very off-putting and unwelcoming. I’ll write a letter to Pope Francis and tell him about it. The folks in Santiago could teach the Romans a few things about welcoming pilgrims. 
St. Peter's Square (it's actually kind of an oval)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Getting Close

July 24th through 27th were relatively pleasant walks through the countryside. You’d never guess you were less than 100 kilometers from the Eternal City in Bolsena. Then as I walked from there to Montefiascone (7/25), Montefiascone to Viterbo (7/26), and then Viterbo to Capranica (7/27) I kept expecting that the countryside would become more populated, with more towns to walk through, more bars to stop at. I was wrong: until La Storta, the final city before walking into Rome, I was walking through farmland and between large estates of the upper crust of Italian society.

It was after Capranica, walking to Sutri, that I was wishing I were nearer a city. The directions in my guide book didn’t coincide at all with the Via Francigena signs I was seeing, but, as the signs had been fairly reliable, I decided to put the guide away and follow the VF signs. Had I known what I was getting into, I would have found the nearest bus stop and saved myself from feeling like Sir Henry Stanley searching for Dr. Livingstone. As I started down the trail it seemed innocent enough, but that’s probably how Adam felt when
I should have known to turn back when I saw this.
Eve handed him the apple. The night before I had had to stay in a bed and breakfast, as it was the only option available in Capranica. That was my Garden of Eden and what was to come was the cursed ground of thorns and thistles and two hours’ walk under the sweat of my brow.

Maybe I exaggerate, but just a little. I found out later that, as was the case so many times, there was an easy route, and a scenic route. I took the scenic route. Thank you, Italian Via Francigena path-maker people, for giving me the option. The night before brought thunderous storms with rain of biblical proportions. The windows of the B&B rattled, the wind whistled around the eaves of the building, animals were walking two by two past my bedroom window to some unknown destination. This kept up for about two hours, and then subsided, tapering off to a bright, if extremely humid morning. Because of the humidity, no water had evaporated and I walked through a rainforest of barely passable paths, sometimes not even being able to see a path, only hoping that at the other side of the field I’d find some marker telling me I was not lost. Ten minutes into my walk that morning my clothing was soaked – from the outside by the wet brush I was walking through and the trees still dripping from the previous night’s rain, and from the inside by perspiration. I have to admit: many parts of the walk to Sutri that morning were gorgeous. The humidity created a mist in the air that gave a visible presence to the sunshine streaming through the canopy of trees.
Yes, there's a trail to Rome in here somewhere.
Part of the way I walked along a brook. The water was clear as it rushed through the forest, with small waterfalls in many places. I found myself wishing I didn’t have to walk 25 kilometers that day so I could take more time to enjoy the environment I was in the middle of. But I had to get to Campagno-di-Roma and the path was muddy, rocky, full of tree roots, blocked by fallen trees, and in many places steep and dangerous. With my pack of 40 pounds on my back (one hostel I stayed at recently had a scale) I feel fortunate to not have slipped and fallen, spraining or breaking something important in the process.

Less than five kilometers should take less than an hour to walk. Unless you’re walking through a jungle. Then all bets are off. I don’t really know how far I walked, but the guide said the walk to Sutri was less than five km. It took me 2-1/2 hours to get there.



From there, the walk to Campagno-di-Roma was painless and pretty dull, to be honest. I walked along mostly country roads with long distances between towns (read: bars). Not that I’m a lush, but walking 15 to 20 kilometers, many days of the last two weeks of the journey even longer, between rest points with not even a bench or water fountain along the way, can make for long days.


When I got to Campagno-di-Roma I found the pilgrim hostel and discovered, much to my dismay that it was filled with a group of kids I had taken great pains to avoid. Not that I have any aversion to a group of high schoolers making a pilgrimage to Rome – I wish I had had the opportunity at their age – but the group was large and tended to take all available beds in the cheap hostels where ever they stopped. This was the case here, and I found I would be sleeping on the floor in a gymnasium. I was prepared for that with an air mattress, part of my 40-pound kit, but what I was not prepared for was the fact that I would be sleeping next to someone I had shared a room with a few nights previously; someone one snored like a bear
After Sutri the path got much easier.
and kept me awake the better part of that night even using ear plugs. I made a hasty exit and found a hotel. At this point in the journey, the extra money was negligible, and I needed some sleep.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Via and The Camino

I didn’t begin this journey consciously intending to compare it with the Camino de Santiago, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing for the past 9 weeks and I’ve realized that unconsciously, I had no intention to do otherwise. The Camino is the only other experience similar to this that I’ve experienced. The brain experiences thousands of sensations daily, and interprets and makes sense of them by comparing them to memories of those similar. When we taste a new wine, we compare it to other wines we’ve tasted. When we drive a new car, we compare it to other cars we’ve driven. When we hear a new song, we consciously or unconsciously compare it to all other songs we’ve ever heard. That’s my favorite wine, or that’s my favorite song couldn’t be a valid statement if the brain didn’t work that way. We couldn’t even say, “That’s a good wine” if we didn’t have a basis of comparison.

My brain wants to say, “This is not my favorite pilgrimage.” I can’t argue with it, not without being schizophrenic. But I can force my conscious mind to evaluate on a different level, or try to stop evaluating altogether, just experiencing each day as a completely new sensation, halting the comparison, knowing that just because I happen to be walking from town to town with a destination in mind, there doesn’t’ have to be anything that the past 2-1/2 months has in common with the 50 days on the Camino de Santiago. I might as well be comparing a wine I just tasted with a car I used to have.

The fact is, this walk has been much more difficult than the Camino de Santiago—there are no guarantees that you’ll have an affordable bed to sleep in when you get to a town. The guide book may or may not list one, but even if it does, that the hostel may not be in business, or they may have remodeled and raised their rates. There have been many days when I’ve had to walk 30 kilometers in the heat of the sun without anyplace to stop to rest or have lunch. As I’ve mentioned before, a can of sardines has more than once kept me from feeling like I was starving. Hostels that you find on the Via Francigena probably won’t have a kitchen for your use, so eating in restaurants tends to be the norm. If you’re really trying to be frugal, you can buy food in a grocery store as you pass by, if you see one open, and eat on a park bench or in your room in the hostel. On the Via Francigena there may not be water when you need it. There may not be a direction sign where it should be and you’ll end up walking several kilometers in the wrong direction. And the people I met on the Camino, those who made the journey so enjoyable, aren’t on the Via Francigena. The Via can be a lonely place. If you set out alone, you’ll probably walk into Rome alone.

All that is opposite the Camino de Santiago: On the common routes there are places to stop for a drink or snack at least every couple of hours. There is always someone interesting to talk with, and there are so many people walking it that you’re bound to find someone who speaks your language. You don’t have to look for a place to sleep—an albergue is right in front of you in just about every town you pass through. The albergue will have a kitchen and the town will have a small grocery store to buy food. The albergue will be inexpensive, and if you’re traveling with friends or acquaintances, you can prepare a healthy pilgrim meal for very little money.

But I’m not making comparisons anymore. My son gave me a book about a man who walked and swam the Amazon River from its source to the Atlantic Ocean. He spent over two years on his journey, fending off leaches, mosquitos by the millions, disease, Amazon tribesmen, and worst, South American governments. He had no signposts to guide him, no pubs along the way to stop at, no fresh water every ten kilometers, and certainly no hostels waiting for him at the end of each day. I suppose if I want to make comparisons that would be the place to start. My little trip around the Mediterranean sees pretty cushy now.
So, here in Bolsena, Italy, six days from St. Peter’s Square, I’ feeling pretty good. I’ve just come from Vespers, a Catholic service of evening prayers, conducted entirely in responsorial Gregorian Chant. The church itself was a beautiful Romanic structure from the tenth century. You can’t have that experience in very many places in the world.

I’m feeling grateful—grateful that I have had the opportunity to take three months to go to a writing seminar in London and then walk most of the way from Barcelona to Rome; grateful that I have a family, especially my children, who understand that I need to do things like this and encourage me to do so; grateful that I’m healthy enough to make a journey of 2,000 kilometers, grateful that I have friends in Spain waiting for my return after Rome. 

Saturday, July 12, 2014

A Polite Request

Some people have asked what I do to keep from being bored while walking all day, every day. To which I reply, I get bored sometimes. There is some eye-catching scenery, but then there is boring, industrial, ugly scenery also. And when you get down to it, even the beautiful scenery gets old after a while; there’s only so much red-roofed little villages nestled amidst rolling green hills below sapphire blue skies one can absorb before the brain just has to take a rest. 

One thing I do is have my daily conversation with God and my guardian angels. I know my angels are listening because that’s what they do, it’s who they are. And they’re good angels—never falling down on the job, always patient, loving, kind, and gentle. I appreciate that. But being a Catholic, I know I’m supposed to go through intermediaries—Saint Christopher because I’m traveling, Saint Hugh because I was born on his name day, and the Virgin Mary just because. But I spent most of my life as a protestant and I’m still in the habit of going directly to God. He’s never said anything like, “Hey, DeMar, Can you hold on while I finish this other prayer?” so I assume when I start talking he’s listening and paying attention. So while I walk, I take a few minutes to say prayers for my children, for my brothers and sister, my mother, my father, and my friends. Out of a normal 6-hour day of walking, that takes about 4 minutes, so I have a lot of time on my hands. Even after admiring the beautiful scenery and watching for the trail markings, I’ve got about 5 hours and 56 minutes on average each day to say a few more prayers.

Which brings us to the point of this particular post. I’ve got about three weeks to go on this pilgrimage to Rome if I walk every day and stick to the plan in my guide book. That gives me about 120 hours of walking where I can say a prayer for your particular need if you want. All you have to do is send a comment and let me know what you want me to include in my prayer list and it’s done. If you don’t want me to publish your prayer request let me know, otherwise I’ll hit the publish button and it will be a matter of public record in the blog. I’ll write down your request in a small booklet I carry with me and take some time every day to bring up your request to God and ask Him to help things along in whatever way they can. Of course, if you’re so inclined and want me to direct your prayer to a particular saint, just let me know.

Nothing would make me happier than to have to buy another book to keep track of all the prayer requests. Feel free to share this with anyone you want. 
Just another beautiful end of a day in Tuscany.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Italian

Turning the Way-Back Machine to 6/23/14:

In Torino/Turin, I took an extra day for R&R, paying an exorbitant 35€ a night for a 2-star hotel. I’m not complaining, but the room was so small that the mice were round-shouldered. And talk about the bathroom: I had to step over the bidet to get to the toilet. The shower was so small, it was impossible to step out of the water to use the soap; I had to turn off the water to soap up. Maybe that was the intention. But the room was private and included breakfast which was pretty good by European standards: any style of coffee drink you wanted, plus several kinds of fruit, yogurt, pastries, bread, jams and jellies. It was a pretty good way to start the day. 

I had tried to call the hostel of Parrocchia San Giovanni Battista, the only hostel in my price range, since the day before and tried again when I got into town, each time without success. I got an answering machine once, but couldn’t understand the message so I’m not even sure I had the right number. At any rate, I never receive an answer or a call back. I walked to the address listed in my guide, but it certainly didn’t look like anyplace that might receive pilgrims and there was no indication at the door of the building that there was a parrocchia office inside.

So I walked around, following my nose, which is what I usually do in these situations, hoping for Divine Guidance. Strange enough, it usually works. I asked a group of policemen if they could help me, as I had no idea where anything was and the address in my guide was obviously wrong. One of them led me to the tourist office, which, miraculously, wasn’t too far away and was OPEN! Waa-hoo!!! The woman at the tourist office was very friendly and helpful, which I have found to be the case in all but one town in my journey. She found the above-mentioned hotel—the lowest price in town—and made a reservation for me. She also gave me a map of the city and recommended some sights, one of which, of course, was the cathedral where is housed the Shroud of Torino/Turin. (They call their city Torino, so I’ll use that from now on.) Another church she recommended as the most beautiful in the city, in her opinion, was the Santuario della Consolata. I made a point of seeing that the next day which is where the real story for today begins.

Santuario della Consolata
She was right—the Santuario, actually more of a cathedral, if you ask me, was beautiful. It was ornate in a Baroque style, with all the marble and gold you could ever expect to see in an Italian cathedral. But that wasn’t the best part.

I was walking around looking at the sculptures and paintings when, surprisingly, mass began. I was in a part of the church out of sight of the nave and didn’t see any preparations being made. I just suddenly heard the Kyrie and that was that. I had the whole day ahead of me, with plenty of time, and I thought this would be a good time for a wayward pilgrim to attend mass, so I quickly took a seat.

Even though I’ve been to mass a couple hundred times, give or take, it’s been a while since I attended regularly (since 2005, I believe). I don’t remember the order of the mass and what’s being said, so especially in a foreign language, I’m somewhat lost. But that didn’t really matter once the homily, or the sermon, began. 

I didn’t get the name of the priest who was celebrating mass that day, but I wish I had, and more, I wish I could have recorded his homily. No Baptist preacher ever had anything on this guy for emotion, and Henry Fonda himself would have a hard time competing with him for pure dramatic effect. His voice was like velvet, his sense of tempo and rhythm and pitch; Mozart couldn't have improved it. And his Italian—it was so clear that I could almost understand what he was saying, since there are many Italian words that are close to or the same as Spanish. But even though I couldn’t really understand all that he was saying, his meaning and emotions were clear as crystal, poignant and direct. His facial expressions and tone of voice gave meaning even though the language was foreign. Once I even got chills up my spine. I was rapt. I didn’t want the homily to end. If for no other reason, for all the sights and sounds and tastes of Torino, the day could have ended right there and I would have been satisfied. All the getting lost and sore feet and frustration of high costs and not knowing each day where I would spend the night, all the effort to get from Barcelona to Torino was worth it, just to hear that homily.

And then I got to thinking, not to detract from the talents of Puccini, Rossini, Verdi, and the rest of the Italian composers of vocal music, but really, how can you take a language like Italian, with its inherent rhythm and melody, and not create good vocal music? (Yeah, I know. There’s lots of bad Italian music, but I’m making a literary point here.) Italians take a little extra time when they come to a double consonant—motocicletta would not be pronounced the same as motocicleta (if motocicleta existed, which it doesn’t). There’s just a little extra time taken on the second “t” and every double consonant which gives that unique rhythm to Italian. And Italians seem to take their language seriously. They’re not like many speakers of English who seem to take great pride in making the language as mushy and unintelligible as possible. There’s no slurring of consonants and making an art of using as little movement of the lips and tongue as possible. Italians seem to revel in vowels and consonants, pitch and rhythm and tempo. Every vowel is pronounced. I had a diction teacher who said if you were to ask an Italian how to spell a word, he’d look at you funny, then just say the word again more slowly for you. The language is phonetic, there are rules, and they are not broken.
Of course, not everyone speaks as well as the priest I heard in Santuario della Consolata, but almost everyone I hear makes music of the language. I especially like overhearing a girl or young woman talk excitedly—they’re so melodic, it’s difficult not to listen. (Since I have no idea what they’re saying, I don’t feel guilty for eavesdropping.) It’s also fun to hear two people arguing; it’s like listening to good, classically-trained Shakespearean actors, only in Italian.


I’ve read that when the states that became the nation of Italy were being united, someone in government (I admit, here’s one time when government did something worthwhile) took the time to tour the nation, listening to all the regional dialects and languages, to determine which one was most beautiful and would become the language of the nation. Turns out, he found it in Florence, but that’s beside the point. The point is, the Italian language was purposely chosen from all the dialects and languages spoken in the future Italy for its beauty. Whoever that guy was, he made a good choice.
The River Po in Torino. Some days later I'll take a ferry, actually
a fishing boat, across this river.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

General Gîte Notes

Trying to catch up on some notes I've made in my journal, here’s just a few observations about some accommodations I’ve had along the way...

June 17th. I had to walk 4 kilometers on a busy the national highway, the N94, to St. Crépin. No fun, but obviously I survived to write this. As soon as I could I made my way to a smaller road, D38, and climbed into the mountains on my way to L’Argentière-la-Bessée. It’s cooled off quite a bit, which feels absolutely wonderful, but with the cooler air came the rain clouds. It was even a little chilly in the mountains, especially when there was a breeze. The first couple of hours of the morning were clear, but then it began to sprinkle, by early afternoon I was hearing thunder rolling through the mountains and by 3:30 there was a steady rain. There are very few places to eat in this area, at least on the road I’m walking, so I felt very fortunate to find a store in L’Argentière-la-Bessée to buy supplies for dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast and lunch.

Strange thing is, as I write this, I’m sitting in a gîte called Le Moulin Papillon, I’ve already taken a shower and I’m having a little snack of bread and cheese and a glass of wine, and I still haven’t even checked in. I met one of the other guests as I got here. He showed me to the bunk room and told me the owner wouldn’t
Fording a treacherous mountain river. I almost got my
boots wet. 
be back for a while but there was plenty of room so take a bed and hang out until she returns. This would never happen in Spain, where, before you take your bed or room, as the case may be, you present your passport and pay for the night. In France, sometimes I’m not even asked for my name. I’ve only showed a passport twice—once at a hostel in Perpignan that was a member of a large network of hostels around Europe, the other was at a hostel in Arles that was a part of a large hotel. In all other cases, ID is an afterthought and payment is taken just before one leaves. Usually, I have to find the hospitallier to take my money. An unscrupulous pilgrim could travel all over France without paying for a night of lodging. I love Spain but Spaniards can be pretty rigid about legal and procedural matters. This French attitude of trust is very refreshing. (Note: I'm posting this sometime later from Italy. Italy is like Spain - no passport, no bed.)

If you ever get to Embrun, I recommend the gîte I found there, “Les Echelettes.” It’s a part of the owner’s house, remodeled and converted into a communal sleeping arrangement, (you don’t get your own room), but if you’re traveling cheap, that’s the only way to go. When I arrived the owner was just starting a load of laundry and offered to put my clothes in also. Not having to do a load of hand washing is one of those little things that a pilgrim remembers fondly about a gîte. The owner remodeled an old (ancient?) house so it’s clean, modern, and very comfortable. You’ll have to climb a very tight circular stairway to get to the beds; no problem for someone who’s been walking hundreds of kilometers.

The day after Embrun my guide suggested walking to Châteauroux-les-Alps, but that’s a relatively short walk so I didn’t want to stop there. The next suggested stage had me stopping in St. Crépin which was a
Leaving Embrun
walkable distance, but as usual, there’s no place to stay for the night there, unless you’re prepared to spend about $100. But as I was walking, I stopped in the little village of St. Ettienne and met someone who was walking the other direction, going to Santiago. He had spent the previous night in a gîte at the citadel in Mont Dauphin, so I made that my goal for the day.

Naturally, in mountainous country, you’d put your citadels on top of the highest ground you can find, right? So there I was, at the end of a long day, climbing to the top of the highest point for miles around, just the place to keep watch to make sure those Italians weren’t coming to take over your country. But it was worth the climb. I wish I had had more time to wander around the village that has developed
Entering the citadel through a drawbridge.
Not pictured: Knights on top of the ramparts making crude
comments to me such as, "I fart in your general direction!"
within the walls of the citadel on top of Mont Dauphin. It’s full of small artisan shops, bakeries, and cafes. I didn’t get there until closing time, just before 6:00, so I could only see the storefronts and closed shops. But Le Glacier Bleu, my gîte for the night was open of course and even had room for me. (Since I didn't have a phone number to make a reservation, I knew I was taking a risk climbing all that way. Needless to say, I was relieved.) The price was only 18€ for a shared room, not including dinner and breakfast. Fortunately I had enough food to hold me over; I think the price with full board was 40€. I’d recommend this gîte as an affordable lodging IF you’re not allergic to cats. There’s only one there, but he’s VERY friendly and I was finding cat hair on my computer for 2 days afterward.

 
The view from the citadel

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lurs to Peipin

6/11/14
The day after a restful night in Lurs


I woke rested and ready to take on the world this morning. I had to, because Ganagobie was in front of me. I left Lurs, a beautiful, little medieval village, but sadly, without a café, and walked north toward the monastery of Ganagobie. I knew a climb was coming.
Stations of the Cross on a road leading into Lurs. I was
leaving by this road.
Leaving Lurs you take a long, leisurely stroll down-hill into a valley, knowing that every foot down you go on the down slope will be made up with a rise of 2 feet on the up slope when you get near the monastery. I think it’s about 900 feet over a distance of 5km down, then you climb higher than Lurs to get to Ganagobie over a 2km path up the mountain. Needless to say, the climb to Ganagobie is exhausting.
I’ll never learn: I was so looking forward to stopping for a cold one when I got to Ganagobie. Unfortunately, the monastery is dry. Well, not exactly—I stopped in the souvenir shop to see if by some miracle they had cold drinks (I’d take a Coke at this point) but of course, found none. I did find a useful map of the area I’d be walking the next couple of weeks, so I bought that. The priest running the store spoke almost no English, but I was able to communicate that I was not going south to Santiago as he assumed, but east to Rome. He then offered to stamp my pilgrim credentials and when I asked if there might be some water nearby, he took me through a gate to a workshop where I was at least able to get a drink of fresh water from a faucet. (The water I carry in my backpack, as I’ve mentioned, always tastes like plastic and is heated by the sun in the tube that runs from the pack to my right shoulder strap, so every time I take a drink, it nice and hot and tastes horrible.)
That was at the monastery. The ancient church was just down the path another couple hundred meters, and I was looking forward to seeing it. But, a service had just ended and the priest was ushering people out of the church. He could see me and a few other people approaching, but basically shut the door in our faces. Visiting hours were over. Come back later (and bring the broomstick with you, I almost heard him say). No matter—if you’ve seen one 11th century church, you’ve seen them all.

I noted that the village of Ganagobie was only 1.5km away. Certainly there would be a café there. I headed
Way to the left is Lurs, where I had walked from, down through
the valley of the shadow of death and back up!
down the trail to the village, only about 18 minutes away, only to find that there was not a single commercial establishment in the village. It was just a bunch of houses on the mountainside. This was getting old; in Spain, no self-respecting pueblo doesn’t have a bar. I can’t figure these French people out. What do they do when they want a beer?

No problem, the village of Peyruis was only 4km away. I could see it from the mountain down below and it was a large village. Four kilometers takes less than an hour to walk, especially downhill, so I began walking. About 3km down the trail (I was following one of the GR trails), after crossing a Roman viaduct, still supplying water to the area, I came to a sign telling me to take a left away from the village and climb back into the hills. What the heck? I thought. I hadn’t been following my guide because there had been well-marked trails the entire day. So, I headed drastically up and away from Peyruis, climbing yet again, feeling every painful step up the trail. I’d gotten about 500 meters into the trail, climbing up and away from the village, and decided it would be a good idea to consult the map I had bought at the monastery. That told me very little, so I looked at the guidebook to see what it had to say. Here’s what it said, “NOTE: The GR continues on the far side of the road making a steep climb into the hills before rejoining our route in Peyruis.” Steep climb? No shit. I walked back down but had gone far away from where I could have just continued along the road, so I looked down from my vantage point and saw where I might be able to descend into civilization and find the highway. I found myself, yet again, walking along a highway, dodging French drivers. (Whom, I might add, are absolutely fearless when it comes to passing another car on a curve.)

Eventually, though, I found my way to Peyruis, only to find that I was there during siesta. Oh, you didn’t know they take siesta in France too? Until a week or so ago, I didn’t either. The first shop I came to was a “sandwicheria.” Yep, a sandwich shop. One of those things that people eat in the afternoon for lunch. Unfortunately it closed at 1:30 and didn’t open until 5:00. I kept walking and found another café. Closed. I found a pizza restaurant. Closed. A bar. Closed. I finally came to the only café in town that was open and had that cold beer I’d been waiting for. It’s been in the 90’s here, cloudless skies, windless. I’m sure I’d expended about 4,500 calories since daybreak. I deserved a beer.

From the café I called the cheapest lodging in town, where I had made reservations the previous day for directions. Cheap is 31€, but let me tell you, Le Bartèu in Peyruis is a wonderful place to stay. (Rubina and Marcos: if you’re reading this I finally got a postcard to send to you. I was looking for something unique for your collection.) On a pilgrim budget, 31€ is expensive, but as lodgings in France go, it’s a steal. And what a wonderful place. My room is modern, clean, and very comfortable. At that price, I share the shower, but I have a bathroom (water closet) in my room. Oh, and did I mention that 31€ includes dinner and breakfast? I’m sitting here writing, trying to digest the dinner before I go to bed. It started out with a delicious salad of greens, tomatoes, olives, ham, and homemade dressing. The main course was a delicately seasoned pasta dish and a perfectly cooked roast beef. (I know it was perfectly cooked, because it was just like my mother makes it.) Then they brought out a cheese plate, which I had with the wonderful French bread on the table, and then, as if that weren’t enough, they served flan for desert. Of course, the meal included as much wine as I wanted. It was a basic table wine, but it went with the meal perfectly. (As I edit this well after the fact, I have noted that French table wine is, for the most part, superior to Spanish and Italian. Not to denigrate either country—I’m just saying…) I don’t know what breakfast will be like, but I’m actually looking forward to waking up. (Why I didn't get a picture of the house and grounds I'll never know. They were beautiful.)

One other note before I sign off for this post: When I arrived, the hospitaliers had guests—friends from down the road. One of them Maria-Jose, spoke a little Spanish so I was able to talk with her. When she found out I was on a pilgrimage to Rome, she called a friend of hers who had also walked to Rome from a village I was in 2 nights ago to see if she might know someone who would put up a pilgrim tomorrow night along my planned route. She did, and arranged free lodging for me in Peipin with a friend of hers. Sometimes it’s easy to get discouraged and wonder how I’ll make it financially. Then along comes this kind of thing and I’m chomping at the bit to see what the next day brings.

6/13/14
(Writing this after the following night’s activities.)

That was a really nice evening. After a little miscommunication, Silvie picked me up at the café, the only café in town, and took me to her nice house in the hills surrounding Peipin, where I’d walked from Peyruis. Maria Jose had told me that Silvie would pick me up between 4:00 and 5:00, but somehow Silvie got the message
The author "meditating," waiting for Sylvie
that I would call her when I got to Peipin. I arrived there at about 2:00 and made myself a nuisance at the café for a while, then went over to a park and tried to meditate for 2 hours until the appointed 4:00 hour. At 4:00 I went back to the café, ordered a lemonade, and sat, waiting for my hostess. A couple of kilometers away, my hostess was sitting—had been sitting— waiting for my call since 2:00. Maria-Jose told me that Silvie didn’t speak much English, so, even though I had her phone number, I didn’t call. About 5:45 I called Maria-Jose to see if anything had changed; maybe I should start looking for another place to sleep. Maria-Jose’s husband answered and told me she wasn’t available, but that she’d be back in 20 minutes or so and he’d give her the message that I was still waiting for Silvie. About this time, after waiting for over 4 hours, I was getting more than a little discouraged. There was no place else in town to sleep, so I figured I’d be spending my first night camping in the wild. The day had been, and was still hot. The flies were buzzing around my tastefully (for a fly- sweaty body, and I was not looking forward to occupying myself in some farmer’s field until dark.

But then Maria-Jose called to tell me that there had been a misunderstanding and that Silvie would be there in just a few minutes. Almost immediately Silvie did drive up, and it turns out she spoke very passable English. She took me to here artsy house in the hills and I had an extremely pleasant evening with her and Ted, her husband. We discussed my upcoming route and the necessity of shortening my time on the road for financial considerations. She made some calls to friends to see if she might be able to line up some home-stays for me in my upcoming stops. (She couldn’t, but I appreciate that she tried nevertheless.) She gave me the name of a friend who worked in the tourist office in Sisteron, where I was headed next, and said she’d call ahead; maybe her friend would know of some pilgrim-friendly families. This is the kind of thing that warms a pilgrim’s heart.

She showed me to my bedroom, which was decorated in a Hindu style, and the bathroom (not the water closet, the bathroom was just for bathing) which was large and modern and with a separate tub and shower area, and then the water closet, which was wallpapered in comic strips. The toilet seat was of a Hawaiian theme, complete with a picture of a shark on the back of the toilet seat, which was shaped as if it had a shark bite taken out of it. This woman has a unique and very interesting decorating style. I think the most interesting thing in the house was the kitchen sink, which wasn’t really a sink, but a slab of rock that had been used for centuries for hand washing clothes. Someone had masterfully put a drain in it, but it was basically just a well-worn slab of rock, sloping toward the drain.


And the dinner she prepared was simple but way more than the average pilgrim ever receives. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the sheep tripe she prepared was out-of-this-world delicious. (Yes, tripe, the lining of a sheep’s stomach.) She had wrapped each portion of tripe around “herbs-de-Provence,” whatever those are and cooked them in a delicious red sauce. I had several helpings of the sauce so I could soak it up in the French bread she served with the meal. (Maybe my son will add a comment and tell me what “herbs-de-Provence” are. Whatever they are, they sure make for a tasty meal.) In addition to the tripe, she served sheep’s feet—also very good once you got past all the bones. But they were in that sauce; just about anything would have been good in that. She also served an excellent potato and cheese dish, and we had wine with the meal, of course. We sat on their deck eating and watching the moon rise over the mountains. All was right with the world once again. After dinner, Ted brought out a liqueur called Génépi, that was made from some alpine flower: the perfect end to a perfect meal. I forced myself to stop after a second round.
Sipping Génépi, sitting on Ted and Sylvie's deck in Peipin after
a great meal. Does it get any better?