Camino day 3: Airexe – Melide 23.69km

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An early-morning pilgrim selfie in Melide.

Today was Holy Thursday – or Maundy Thursday as we call it in the UK, and we’re finally hitting our stride.

Having said that, today was definitely the hardest so far, not because of distance but because of heat and lots of climbs and descents. We set our alarm for 6.30, and quietly made our way out of the cosy Pensión Eirexe: our favourite on the Camino due to the friendly hospitaleros, cleanliness, comfort, and value for money. Sadly, the only bar in Airexe was closed, although they had promised they’d be open from 7 o’clock (“Spanish 7 o’clock,” said Carlos ruefully to a fellow waiting pilgrim). So we decided to leave without breakfast. We helped ourselves to a stamp in our credenciales from the desk in reception in our accommodation, filled our bottles from the spring, and set off with the moon still in the sky.

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Some of the crosses and cruceiros we’ve seen along the way.

In the next place over the hill, Portos, the bar was also closed, and the lack of coffee and tostadas was starting to affect both our moods. We carried on to Lestedo where a stone cottage, a turismo rural called Rectoral de Lestedowas opening for the day and the attendant let us in. We ate looking out over the hills and with another stamp we were off and out. From Lestedo it was less than 5km to the next larger town on the map, Palas de Rei. Walking into town after 2 days in the countryside was a welcome return to civilisation as I desperately wanted to go to a pharmacy both for some aftersun lotion and for a remedy for some (umm) digestive troubles I was having. I was able to find both pretty quickly and in small backpack-friendly packages, thanks to the helpful pharmacist (hurrah!).  We grabbed another coffee at a bar and I was also able to replace my lost fleece (new word: polar) for €7 in a dedicated Camino shop, although most of the businesses in town were closed as Maundy Thursday is a public holiday in Spain.

Today was the first day without mist, and it really started to get hot at about 11am. As Palas de Rei is a stopping point in a lot of Camino guides, we saw crowds of pilgrims for the first time since we were in Portomarín. By the time we reached San Xiao do Camiño -the prettiest Camino village we saw during the whole time in Galicia – the heat was really starting to become oppressive as there was little shade. I grabbed a refresco in a bar, we looked at the church (locked), took pictures, and pushed on.

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San Xiao do Camiño.

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Rural Galicia – also taken in San Xiao do Camiño.

By the time we arrived in loverboy namesake Casanova just over 2.5km uphill later, we were both glad to sit down in the shade. There were a couple of bars and we just went to the first one. We each had a delicious bocadillo de tortilla de queso (cheese omelette sandwich) and an Estrella Galicia, and I took my boots off (blessed relief!). Opposite us and sitting next to one of the charming rustic elevated Galician granaries a couple of young girls, clearly not pilgrims, were having an animated, emotional conversation which culminated in an intense phonecall to a third party.

The rustic granaries in this style are only found in Galicia, although I remember seeing vaguely similar things in Astrurias and Cantabria. They are known as hórreos and they became emblematic of our Camino for me.

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A typical Galician hórreo (photo credit).

The walk was just as hard after lunch – lots of climbing and descending a gravelly track, although in the afternoon we mainly had the Camino to ourselves. The hardest part, without a doubt, was the industrial estate which we had to walk through on the outskirts of Melide. It was all concrete, filled with memorials to dead pilgrims who expired walking the same route not so long ago, and with zero shade. It was all a bit much. Luckily I’d started dipping my buff in water every time we saw a stream or water source, and putting it back on sopping wet. It would dry again within 45 minutes, but would keep me significantly cooler during that time.

I stopped talking for the last 5km. It was too much effort. Once we reached Furelos, only 2km short of Melide, I slumped by a wall in the shade. Carlos said afterwards that he didn’t think I was going to make it to Melide, but of course I was. I just needed a moment.

In Melide we had our least favourite accommodation of the Camino – the Albergue Privado Orois. It was clean -and we had our own bathroom, always a bonus- but sterile and although it was recommended in our guidebook (the generally very helpful El Camino de Santiago en tu mochila) it wasn’t really a pilgrim place. Lots of people seemed to be looking for a cheap room so they could make the most of the Easter holiday and drunken partygoers kept us awake all night.

If my first impressions of Melide were bad, I quickly revised them. Outside of the shabbyish modern part, Melide has a truly beautiful casco viejo. As we approached the church, they were preparing for mass but a lady at the door instantly recognised us as pilgrims by our dishevelled appearance and plastered toes. She stamped our credenciales and as we left the church we heard gentle singing. It turned out that local women were singing in a parish building for Maundy Thursday, and maybe it was because I was exhausted after walking all day in the sun, but tears came to my eyes listening to it. It was lovely. We took an outdoor seat in a bar so we could listen – I sampled the local wine, albariño.

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Parroquía de S. Pedro de Melide.

Melide also offered an exceptional dinner at the Pulpeira Ezequiel, which the guidebook said had an almost legendary status on the Camino. It seems they were right (order the tarta de queso!) and as we entered the communal tables were packed with pilgrims. We sat next to a couple of German girls, and I had my first conversation in English for several days (I’ve been keeping my Spanish-only promise, but it seemed rude to refuse to speak English to friendly non-Spanish speakers).

We went for an orujo nightcap by the church in the old town, and then off to bed.

Camino day 2: Portomarín- Airexe, 17.59km

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The road out of Portomarín.

A shorter day today as we put an extra day in our itinerary, worried we wouldn’t be fit or strong enough to complete the final 113km Sarria – Santiago de Compostela stage in the recommended five days. So we have six days’ walking, which makes things easier.

It gets light much later in Galicia than at home in the UK or further along the coast where Carlos’ family comes from: the sun doesn’t rise here until around 8am in April, although it does stay light until well after 9pm. There’s talk in Spain of changing the clocks so that they match GMT, as this would better suit Spain’s geographical position mainly west of the meridian. The slightly out-of-sync timezone affects Galicia the most, being so far west, and in fact we catch a short TV programme looking at the debate about why Spain should switch to GMT while we’re on the Camino. Either way, it makes early morning walking difficult, and we see pilgrims’ torches lighting the way as we look out from our window in Portomarín at 7am.

We grab a quick breakfast in the bar at the albergue and I have toast with olive oil and tomato, a typical breakfast of the Spanish south, which Carlos is embarrassed to ask for as it marks us out as tourists – as if my heavily-accented Spanish didn’t do that already. Incidentally, we’ve both made promises to do things we know we’ll find hard this week: Carlos isn’t eating any meat, and I’m not speaking any English.

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A pilgrim cross with offerings (and rubblish).

As we leave town I’m in good spirits as I slept better, and I’m full of breakfast. It’s misty and cool as we climb up into the hills into the woods, and Carlos tells me legends about witches (meigas in Galicia and brujas elsewhere) and spirits (duendes) who supposedly live in the woods in his native Cantabria. I’m learning plenty of new vocabulary: the wood of oak trees we’re walking through is called a robedal.  A little later on we follow a yellow arrow pointing across farmland, indicating a camino complementario, or scenic route/detour through Gonzar. These “complementary” routes often lead to churches that the main Camino passes by. We see the church – sadly locked, as others have been – but grab a cafe con leche in nearby Casa García. We’re the only pilgrims present and I want to relax, but the sun is getting hotter and it’s time to move on.

Next, we go through tiny Castromaior and I want to stop for a drink in the appealingly-named Hospital da Cruz, but its one bar is shuttered and its albergue is slightly out of our way. Instead, we push on to Ventas de Narón where we grab a bocadillo de tortilla de atún (sandwich with tuna omelette) and a bottle of Estrella Galicia each. Sadly, I leave my turquoise fleece top on the back of a chair, and although Carlos phones the bar later there’s no sign of it – it’s lost to the Camino.  A little later on, as the heat is getting intense and we are both suffering, we spot a plain black scarf made of light material at the side of the road, dropped or discarded by another pilgrim. Carlos was able to use it to protect his neck from further sunburn, and I hit on the idea of wearing my buff like a Muslim woman’s headscarf to protect my neck and shoulders.

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A well-earned bocadillo and a beer in Ventas de Narón.

We found our first rural church open as we were leaving Ventas de Narón, attended by a blind man whose hand I guided to stamp our credenciales. He shook hands with us both and told Carlos to buy me a beer later on. In the afternoon, we see a medieval pilgrim cemetery and the house where Philip II stayed on his way to A Coruña to catch a ship to England to marry Mary Tudor. We also see more horseback pilgrims.

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A medieval pilgrim cemetery.

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The views from the top of this hill (almost) made it worthwhile climbing it in the heat.

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Sunset in Airexe.

Finally, after a further climb rewarded by lovely views, we stop in tiny Airexe (population 35). We walk first into the municipal albergue, but there’s no attendant and we feel uncomfortable just grabbing a bunk in the dormitory without speaking to anyone first, so we go to the private Pensión Eirexe where we get a comfortable double room with sink and shared bathroom for just €25. We have our laundry done and relax with another beer at the bar opposite. We walk around, but there’s not much to see: a locked church, a few stone houses, an old cruceiro. We walk back down the hill to a bar we passed and have a pilgrim menu for dinner. As a pescatarian/vegetarian the pilgrim menus aren’t always ideal, but bars always seem willing to prepare me egg and chips as a main course when I ask politely. After, we talk to the older man who owns the albergue where we’re staying. He’s always lived in the area and he says when he was a child the pilgrims who passed all used to dress in brown robes, like monks.

Camino day 1: Sarria to Portomarín – 22.75km

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The first day out.

After an inauspicious start yesterday which involved heavy traffic on the way to Stansted Airport and getting to the wrong gate for our flight, we’re finally about to start our long-planned Camino de Santiago. We arrived at our starting point of Sarria in the late afternoon – we flew to Santiago de Compostela, caught the bus from the terminal to pretty Roman Lugo, and then caught a train to Sarria, where I was excited to see other pilgrims on the same train. As we arrived, there was a party atmosphere in town: groups of young people were playing music outside their hostels, and other pilgrims were chatting and enjoying drinks in the sun. We quickly found our accommodation (we pre-booked Casa Barán which was right on the Camino in the old town in Sarria), had a delicious 3-course pilgrim menu with wine nearby, and headed to bed. By 11, the town was completely silent and still.

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Lugo, where we stopped on the way to Sarria.

I woke up a 6.15 when I heard talking in the street. I also heard what sounded like a taxi – plenty of pilgrims use a luggage transportation service to take their backpack from one stop to the next. I couldn’t get back to sleep. Breakfast was plentiful and delicious – we got talking to the waiter who brought us some local soft cheese from O Cebreiro as a treat, which we ate with honey. We also met some charming Nicaraguan women who we’d see again and again on the Camino – and finally in Santiago itself.

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The view of Sarria from our room in Casa Barán.

We made at late start, at 8.45, with our first stamps in our credenciales: I was worried when the man on reception at our hotel told us that the first stamp had to be from a church – but that the local church was closed until 11. He had some pre-stamped church ones in his desk, but as we’d already written our details in ours, he didn’t offer us one. Feeling slightly that we were off to a bad start, we stopped for a photo at the turn of the Camino out of town, and followed our first yellow arrow.

I needn’t have worried. On the outskirts of Sarria is an old monastery with albergue attached – and it was opening its doors as we passed by just before 9am. The older man inside happily gave us a sello, and invited us in on an impromptu tour with some other pilgrims. We left happier and continued past the cemetery and up the track, where we climbed a steep hill that had me seriously wondering if I was cut out for pilgrim life.

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Convento de la Merced, where we got our first religious stamp.

The weather was perfect for walking: misty and cool, and Galicia’s Celtic heritage really shows in the deep green of its hills and fields. We kept walking until about 12, where we stopped for a couple of bottles of Estrella Galicia and a slice of empanada at Casa Morgade, just before the 100km waymarker.  It was a relief to take my boots off, but I wasn’t really feeling in a chatty mood. Carlos was though, and he quickly made friends with an older Russian couple who live in Germany. They had walked all the way from León but were going slowly today as the man, Aleksander, had a leg injury.

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Green Galicia.

We put our boots back on, the sun came out, and we carried on refreshed. Despite suncream, we both burned – Carlos on his ears, me on the side of my back. I had on a new sports top with a cutaway design that I wasn’t used to: the exposed skin burned red and later peeled. We stopped briefly another couple of times – once at the farmhouse of an hospitable couple who provided homemade wine, buñuelos, and treats in return for a donativo. We got talking to a Mexican couple there (the man was recording everything including our conversation with a prominent camera on his backpack, which made me feel sort of nervous). The couple were in Europe for a friend’s pre-wedding party, and they’d already been to Madrid, Paris, and London – now they were on camino. I wish I’d got a stamp so I could remember where we were.

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Near the farmhouse – another stall offering refreshments in return for a donativo.

Sweaty and tired but still very much alive, we arrived in Portomarín in time for a well-deserved late lunch of wine, empanada, tortilla, and Santiago almond cake. Despite dire warnings along the way, we had no trouble finding a place to stay.

This was a feature of our time on the Camino – we were told almost everywhere that the next place would be full and we’d struggle to find a place to sleep, but we never did. We were also told in Melide that attending pilgrims’ mass at 12 would be impossible unless we arrived at 10am. I’m not sure where these rumours came from – canny private albergue owners or worried pilgrims? – but even though the route was busy because it was Semana Santa, there was plenty of accommodation everywhere and we were only turned away once – so we got a room in another place, 20 metres away.

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L-R: lunch in Portomarín; a pilgrim statue in the town; tasty treats at a farmhouse along the way; the 100km waymarker.

We got a simple room in Portomarín with shared facilities in Albergue Gonzar, near the bridge leading into town. We dumped our backpacks and went to explore the town and pretty local church. I bought a postcard, then we bought cans of Aquarius to drink in the little park overlooking the bridge in the sunshine as we watched the stragglers walk into town. We caught up with the Russian/German couple briefly, and headed to bed.

 

 

Secret Rome: the temple to Mithras in the Basilica San Clemente

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Twelfth-century apse mosaic (photo credit)

Seeing as San Clemente features in most of the larger guidebooks, this church isn’t technically much of a secret. Nevertheless, Rome has more monuments than any other city in the world, and an estimated 4 million tourists a year visit an attraction just metres away from San Clemente: the Colosseum. The crowds are just something you have to deal with if you want to see the top sights. I visited the Vatican once, on my first trip to Rome, and I have to say the sheer number of people piling through (of which I was one, obviously) took the shine off the experience. Everyone’s favourite don, Mary Beard, visited more recently and seemed to feel pretty similarly.

So let’s put it this way – any smaller attraction in Rome has pretty stiff competition. With the Forum, the Vatican, St Peter’s and the Pantheon taking up most tourists’ time, if you’re willing to go off the beaten path a little not only will you see something pretty spectacular that most visitors pass by, you’ll avoid the worst of the crowds and earn bragging rights once you get home. Rome is full of underplayed quirky sights which in most cities would be headline-grabbing attractions, and San Clemente is one of them.

So what is the Basilica San Clemente?

At street level, the Basilica di San Clemente is a fairly ordinary-seeming medieval Roman church – which even on its own is something quite extraordinary. As you walk in, although it’s not impressively old by Roman standards, the floor tiles are fancy marble mosaics from the 1100s, and there are pretty 15th century frescoes behind the altar (and as a place of worship, it’s free to enter).

What’s not obvious from the outside though is that the current church was built directly on top of an earlier church, dating to 392 CE. That in turn was built on top of a Roman house which dates as far back as the first century CE, and around 100 years after its first construction, it was used as a temple to the mysterious god Mithras whose followers used to undergo complex initiation rituals and congregate in shady underground temples.

Most impressively of all, these layered ancient structures still exist, one on top of the other, and you can visit them by taking a narrow staircase down from street level. As a tourist attraction, you do have to pay to visit the excavations: 10€ per ticket when I went in June 2016 with my old friend – and Ph.D in Roman history – Blanka.

So what’s below the ground?

To help preserve the early Christian setting -or perhaps for other reasons- you’re not allowed to take any photos below ground (that’s why the photos in this post have been taken by others). On the first level you reach from the staircase is the old church, containing the tomb of Pope Clement I and of St Cyril, who invented the Cyrillic alphabet and brought Christianity to the Slavs. For that reason, the church is a place of pilgrimage for Slavic people who leave behind tokens such as flowers to their saint. The walls are covered in faded frescoes, and the damp, cool air gives relief from the heat and sunshine of the street outside.

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The preserved Mithraeum (photo credit).

It gets better (and a little more claustrophobic) as you descend down another level to the Roman foundations of the building. You walk on Roman streets and you can see the Mithraeum – the temple dedicated to the god Mithras – which sits in a cave, above a subterranean river. There’s an altar, featuring Mithras knifing a bull, and a river rushes even further beneath you – and you’re already around 10 metres below street level. Here, it’s cold, close, and echoey. The rooms are tiny, tortuous, and small. In places there are small gaps in the stone floor where you can see and even touch the fast-flowing water beneath. People also throw coins in, which Blanka told me was popular in many Roman cults, and is also a practice which dates back to pre-Roman Celtic civilisations in Europe. Interesting that people still like to throw coins in water and make wishes.

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The very deepest level: the underground river, thought to have formed part of the Roman sewer (photo credit).

The quirky, less celebrated sights sometimes make for more meaningful experiences. Certainly it’s not remotely possible that I could ever see everything worth seeing in Rome in a handful of tourist trips (and our upcoming visit to the city will be my fourth). Even an Italian friend, who lived in Rome for 13 years, says there’s so much of the city she’s still yet to see. But as the Basilica di San Clemente is only five minutes’ walk from the Colosseum, I might just be going back.

The history part

If you’re interested in the history of temples to Mithras (and this temple to Mithras in Rome in particular) my good friend and travel companion Dr. Blanka Misic wrote the following for this blog post. The photo is also hers:

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Bull-slaying Mithras.

Mithras is a god of Indo-Iranian origin who becomes very popular throughout the Roman Empire in the second and third centuries A.D. Mithraism is often regarded as a mystery religion, since worshippers had to be initiated, and rituals were performed in dark, often underground, temples. The worshippers of Mithras, often called Mithraists, were exclusively male, and were often soldiers, slaves and/or government officials. The cult of Mithras had small, independent temples throughout the Roman Empire, often called “spelaeum” (meaning “cave” in Latin) or “mithraeum”, where each Mithraic community would perform its own rituals, often consisting of initiations and ritual meals.

The mithraeum below the church of San Clemente formed part of an ancient Roman courtyard-style house and dates to the late second century A.D. Once you enter the subterranean levels via the staircase through the sacristy, you will first see a free-standing cast of an altar to Mithras, dedicated by Gaius Arrius Claudianus, the Pater (“father”) and leader of the Mithraic congregation (IMG 1923). On the altar is the iconic scene of Mithras killing the bull – often interpreted as a symbol of life and renewal. If you proceed further down the subterranean levels, you will find yourself in the earlier Roman period, among the remains of a first century house. The central room of this house was transformed into a mithraeum sometime in the late second century A.D. You can see the room today through a gate – along the walls are benches where Mithraists would have partaken in the ritual communal meal, and at the far end is the original altar of Claudianus (IMG 1927). Above it is a niche through which rays of light would have illuminated the altar. The mithraeum was abandoned in the fourth century A.D., likely due to the official suppression of the cult and the rise of Christianity.

Tips for Semana Santa in Seville: A Survival Guide

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It’s been over a year since my first trip to Seville, and while this Semana Santa I’ll be walking the Camino de Santiago, no doubt I will be reminiscing fondly about the smells and bells of the pasos under the Andalucian sun as we trudge our muddy way to Santiago.

Although I did plenty of reading ahead of our trip last year, there were still –inevitably – things I wish I’d known or would have done differently. I loved Semana Santa in Seville but I’m not sure I’ll be doing it again any time soon – and maybe you feel the same: all the more reason to make sure the trip goes well, right? Here, for what they’re worth, are my words of Sevillana Semana Santa wisdom:

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Taken from the Cathedral steps.

-Be prepared for crowds, and to wait around for a long time before seeing the processions, which move slowly. Streets will be shut off and it will be hard to navigate your way around the city centre – a normally short journey may actually take an hour or two. This experience can be both claustrophobic and difficult, but a few deep breaths (and perhaps a Cruzcampo beer in a nearby bar as you wait for the processions to pass and the street to open up again) will help.

-Book your accommodation near the cathedral. This is something I actually, for once, got gloriously right. It cost un ojo de la cara (an arm and a leg, basically) – but if you’re here to make the most of the processions you may as well pay to actually see them rather than the backs of a thousand heads. We found a cute-but-tiny Airbnb on the Calle Hernando Colón, and some of the pasos came down our street – the clue for us was when the music began to approach and incense flooded the bedroom from the balcony doors. It saved us from the crush and stress of the street, and made for some amazing photos from the balcony. We even witnessed a woman singing a saeta, a kind of holy flamenco song, from a balcony opposite. Magical.

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Taken from the balcony of our Airbnb.

-Be prepared for cold as well as hot weather. That means take a jacket as well as sun cream and a hat. I actually had to buy a pair of leggings one chilly day during the trip, and while waiting for the Macarena to return back to her church at midday we witnessed an older lady swaying and nearly passing out in the crowd due to the crush and rising temperatures.

-Get a free paper guide or a Semana Santa app, or both. We were, embarrassingly, tricked into paying a euro by a street seller for a paper guide which was actually a free supermarket giveaway (Carlos especially kicked himself for this typically guiri error). Ask in your accommodation or in tourist information about where to get your hands on one.

-Know that the Semana Santa bars (that is, bars filled to the ceiling with Semana Santa photos, memorabilia, and other curiosities) are often closed during Semana Santa itself. I was determined to visit La Fresquita, but couldn’t, although I did finally manage it when we returned to Seville in December. Disappointing, but just another reason to come back!

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The Real Alcázar.

-If the processions get too much (despite what devotees would have you believe, to most out-of-towners one paso will blend into another) then consider leaving the city for a while, or doing something different. We made a day trip to Cordoba and also wandered the streets of Triana and visited the magnificent Real Alcázar, the latter being a highlight of the trip.

Secret Confessions of an Airbnb Host – or, why I just can’t host another guest

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Dear Airbnb guests: this is our home

After two years as a host on Airbnb, I’m finally calling it quits.

It made sense at first – I was living alone, not earning very much, and I had a spare room. Previously, I’d stayed in Airbnbs in hot tourist destinations such as Barcelona, and so I didn’t really expect anyone would want to stay in my quite ordinary house in a quite ordinary town. So I was surprised when the requests started coming in: but it turned out that as I live close to a big university, plenty of people pass through town and want a clean, safe, cheap place to sleep. So I  -then we, when Carlos moved in- hosted academics, international students, people coming for conferences, students sitting exams, and assorted others.

While it was a good source of additional income,  I’ve finally had enough.

It’s the little things that have worn me down. And the endless requests for freebies.

I’ve been pretty lucky. Most guests have been respectful. No-one’s ever trashed the place, nothing’s ever been stolen, and breakages have been minimal. Sometimes guests have even fed the cats and watered the plants while we were away. Best of all, one of our guests always stays with us while she’s in town, and has become a friend.

The thing I’ve found difficult about the experience of hosting is guests who ask for lots of extras (or discounts for no real reason other than they want to pay a cheaper price) – and expect that we should provide them for free. Now I understand that one of the attractions of Airbnb is the personal relationship you can have with your host and the local community, and maybe it’s reasonable to request a bit of flexibility. So I’ve always agreed when guests have asked to leave their cases for a few extra hours (and even much longer a handful of cases). But other requests have left me shaking my head. Here are some of the things we’ve been asked to provide at no extra cost by guests:

  • babysitting services
  • trips to the airport in the middle of the night
  • extra guests (sometimes one, sometimes several)
  • lifts to the university
  • a day out to a battle re-enactment
  • an extra night’s stay
  • bikes.

I agreed to the bike request, because I have a bike and wasn’t using it that day, so I was happy to help.  But other times I’ve had to say no because, for example, I don’t feel comfortable being in sole charge of someone’s young son or daughter when the parents are a long way away (what if the kid got ill or injured? What if they did something illegal? What parent wants to send their young kid to stay with a stranger anyway?).

Sometimes it seemed to me that guests were actively trying to take advantage. They were getting accommodation at a much lower rate than in a hotel, but they sometimes wanted to get even more – things they probably wouldn’t dream of asking for if they were staying elsewhere. It wasn’t everyone and it wasn’t all the time,  but it became wearing. Ultimately, if you need to get to the airport to catch a very early flight, it’s not reasonable to ask a stranger to take you there for free – even if you are staying at their house.

I suppose that’s the thing with Airbnb. If you’re a live-in host, the boundaries between personal and business get a little blurred. That’s why it also hurt a little when reviews contained something negative – it felt like a reflection on me, or on us, as well as on our home.

But anyway, I’m done. I’m no longer an Airbnb host. If in the future we ever came to own a flat in a large city that tourists love (and we lived somewhere separately) we’d consider doing it again. But unless something changes dramatically, I don’t think we’ll be hosting Airbnb guests in our house again.

 

Prepping for the Camino de Santiago

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The Camino del Norte runs past my in-laws’ place.

I had to renew my monthly train pass yesterday. No big deal (except that British trains are the most expensive in Europe) – and when I looked at the date of expiry, I realised I’d be two days into walking the Camino de Santiago when it ran out.

I was the most excited for this trip before Christmas, when I was booking the flights and working out logistics. I made a flurry of online orders, reading sleeping bag and backpack reviews like it was my job (admittedly, I was at work). A nice lady in my Spanish class even lent me her Spanish-language Camino guidebook. But since Christmas? Nothing. I haven’t even been thinking about it, much less training. I haven’t worn my boots since December. I’ve been caught up in making summer travel plans, and in wedding planning.

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This is the Uniqlo jacket I bought – handily, it folds into a tiny drawstring bag.

This trip has been on our radar for a long time, but due to work and other commitments, we just hadn’t been able to make it happen until now. Finally, it’s just around the corner – and I feel pretty unprepared. Does watching The Way or YouTube videos of Spanish pilgrims talking about their experiences count as preparation?

We’ve got 9 days over Easter for our walk. Of course, given that time frame, we won’t be walking the whole route from the Pyrenees as much as we would love to – just the final leg of the French Way through Galicia. We’ll be doing it “properly” though – carrying everything we’re taking with us on our backs, sleeping in the hostels, and walking every step.

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These are my boots.

April is the month for pilgrimages – I remember from my days as an English literature student that Chaucer’s pilgrims started out on their way to Canterbury during this month. And maybe the fact that we’ll be walking through Holy Week will add to the experience – the Camino’s religious beginnings still provide strong motivation for many pilgrims’ walk. Sometimes people make promises in their prayers, and carry out this pilgrimage (or perform other acts of devotion) when their prayers are answered. The husband of a friend of my suegra’s did such a walk over 20 years ago. This was because he and his wife desperately wanted a baby but despite trying for a long time nothing happened. Carlos says that they doted on him as a child and loved him almost as if he were their son. I suppose they must have prayed for a conception for themselves – and finally, it occurred, and the wife gave birth to a healthy daughter. In thanks, the husband completed a barefoot pilgrimage to a local church.

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I took this photo in Santillana del Mar. The Camino is marked by yellow arrows.

The pilgrimage spirit is still strong in Spain – apparently almost 50% of the pilgrims on the Camino are Spanish nationals. Of course, that’s partly because the Camino is actually in Spain, but it’s my belief that it’s also thanks to the country’s persistent Catholic culture and traditions (it’s telling that Catholic Ireland, a tiny nation, is #6 on the list of pilgrims – above the non-Catholic UK).

Our pilgrimage is being undertaken without a religious motive, but that doesn’t mean we’re not hoping for a meaningful experience. And walking the Camino during Semana Santa, then into the Praza do Obradoiro (there’s live webcam on the square) at Easter will undoubtedly be a moving occasion.

 

The investment in learning a language

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Learning Spanish takes time

Just this week, an email came through letting me know it was time to sign up for the next term’s worth of Spanish lessons. Not wanting to miss out (and always falling for the “places are limited, sign up now!” line), I duly clicked through to enter my card details and get my place confirmation. What I was surprised by, though, was the list of past transactions in my account. I’ve forked over a surprisingly large amount of money to further my language-learning goals since my first class when I was shown a flashcard depicting a sun and another with a moon and the teacher carefully enunciated buenos dias and buenas noches.

Since April 2015, I’ve been taking evening and/or Saturday language classes at my local university. In other words, I’ve been learning Spanish for almost two years now – it’s my Span-iversary (you can have that one for free). From struggling to understand or speak a civil word to my suegros, I’m now capable of watching (and understanding…mostly) the news in Spanish, reading a novel, and chatting away on Skype. I’ve even got my DELE B2 to prove it. So how hard was it to get here?

In terms of money, because I’ve paid for the classes in blocks of 6, 10, or 20 weeks it’s always been a manageable expense. I haven’t been to any pricey DELE prep courses in Madrid or any residential language immersion schools – although some of my classmates have and they sound like fun experiences. There are tons of free resources online, including Coffee Break Spanish, which I’m almost evangelical about. I’ve bought most of my textbooks secondhand, and use the Word Reference free dictionary app.

The real investment has been the time and effort (isn’t it always). I heard while studying for my DELE B1 that the key to improvement in learning a language is daily practice – and so it is, no shortcuts here I’m afraid. So while immersion in a Spanish-speaking environment would have been ideal, I’ve made do with radio programmes, TV, varied reading materials (starting out with kids’ books and fashion magazines and progressing up to more challenging texts) – and daily conversation with my Spanish prometido.

This is where I’ve had a clear advantage over my classmates – as well as the extra language-learning motivation that comes from not wanting to get left out of the animated conversation of the sobremesa on our frequent trips to Spain, I’ve had a human dictionary at home who’s there to correct my every grammatical misstep. But while I’ve been half-jokingly accused of “cheating” in my language learning due to having a Spanish partner, getting this far in the language hasn’t been easy. It’s a constant effort to express yourself in a language that’s not your own, and all too easy to slip back into English when a concept is just too nuanced to verbalise easily in castellano. Frankly, I don’t know how Carlos manages in English every day. But he does, and it’s impressive.

Learning to communicate properly in a foreign language is a struggle, no lie. In many ways, it goes against the grain to speak and understand another tongue – that’s why it’s so unsurprising to me that people can study, say, French for seven years at school and at the end still barely speak it. And it’s why I smiled when I heard a radio interview with Michael Edwards, the first ever British person to be elected to the French Academy, who said he still didn’t feel he’d mastered the French language. I’m sure I’m revealing no big secret here when I say that learning a foreign language is a lifelong process: a really big investment.

Souvenir Shopping in Spain (mostly food)

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Alternative title: What to buy as a souvenir in Spain (or what I buy in Spain).

Every region of Spain has the things it’s famous for (flamenco in the south, Valencia for oranges, Santiago de Compostela for the pilgrims, and so on) and sometimes the gifts or souvenirs you want to take home will reflect the region where you’ve been. Yet some things are great buys all over Spain, and it’s a rare trip when I don’t come home with at least three of the following things in my bag:

fullsizerender-88This is some tasty Idiazabal cheese and Txacoli wine which I had in Bilbao.

  • Cheese! Spanish cheeses might not be as famous as their debonair French rivals, but that doesn’t mean they’re not tasty. Tetilla cheese from Galicia, for example, has a very recognisable teardrop shape (or breast shape, that’s what they’re named after). The Basques have Idiazabal, but arguably the most famous member of the Spanish cheese family –the cheese daddy, if you will- is Manchego. Wherever you are in Spain, a trip to the local supermarket should give you plenty of options.
  • Biscuits baked by nuns. Belgian monks brew beer; Spanish nuns bake biscuits. This is the rule of the world. Asturian nuns bake a type called lenguas de monja (nuns’ tongues) which I really like, but the reality is that nuns all over Spain –and there are many- make varied kinds of repostería (pastries or sweets). They make deliciously quirky gifts and certainly my office mates have been all over them in the past.
  • Bonito del norte. This is tuna in olive oil, caught in the seas in the north of Spain. The tuna is better quality than any supermarket variety I’ve had outside of Spain, and has the added advantage in coming in a very attractive red and yellow can which is perfect for storing things in afterwards. I put pebbles in the one I have in my bedroom.
  • Fans. What could be more Spanish than a fan? You can buy them everywhere from the local chino (local discount shop, often run by Chinese families) to fancy specialist shops in Seville which stock gorgeous hand-painted ones with a price tag to match. A good place to buy authentic ones cheaply is at a Sunday “antiques” (flea) market, but any tourist shop, or indeed the airport, will also do.

fullsizerender-89I brought home one of these candles from the shrine in Covadonga.

  • Religious kitsch/Catholic paraphernalia. Maybe it’s just me (probably) but I love Catholic iconography, despite not being an adherent of the faith. Devotional candles, little statues of the Virgin Mary and religious images are the souvenirs I dream of. In Cordoba last Semana Santa I was gifted one of the candles from a float bearing the Virgin Mary and I just about died. Chinos are a good place for kitschy religious items at low prices, as are religious sites.
  • Turrón. This gloriously nutty, honey-infused Christmas concoction is best in its blanda (soft) incarnation, but you can also get chocolate and hard turrones. You can buy it in any supermarket during the Christmas season, but I’ve had reliable information that it’s available in El Corte Inglés year round, and it’s another product that’s often available at the airport.
  • Wine/sherry/local booze. I don’t necessarily recommend putting this in your case – we’ve had two breakages and now have a suitcase that smells of Andalucia. In Cantabria, the drink I like to bring home is orujo, but they don’t sell it in Santander airport so I have to either risk a breakage when we take a big suitcase at Christmas or else go without. Alcohol is much cheaper in general in Spain than in the UK, so it’s usually worth buying a bottle or two of something typical from duty free even if you can find La Gitana in Sainsbury’s.

Important Drinking Rules in Spain: featured post on The Spain Scoop

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Ever mindful of that nasty boozy Brit abroad stereotype, I wrote this post about Spanish drinking rules a while back and was delighted when the editorial team at The Spain Scoop said they wanted to publish it. I’d originally had the idea when I went to visit my familia política (in-laws) alone in October last year: I was in Spain for the first time without Carlos as a buffer, and while I was patting myself on the back for my dazzling language skills after a sweet old lady at the train station asked me how long I’d been living in Spain, I was still acting like a silly foreigner who didn’t know that it wasn’t the done thing to drink a gin and tonic before dinner. I learned plenty about Spanish culture during that trip. And so, a blog post was born.

Here’s what I wrote:

“No, no, no,” my mother-in-law tutted as I tried to order a vermut in the evening. Eso es para antes de comer. That’s for before lunch, silly!

How was I to know? Growing up in the UK, there were only two rules about what you could drink and when: the first being that beer was OK at lunchtime if you didn’t have a lot on in the afternoon, and the second being that pretty much anything was fine to drink after 5pm. Clearly, when it came to drinking in Spain, I had a lot to learn.

So to save you my embarrassment while drinking with Spaniards, I’ve written this simple guide. Let’s start with the morning. In Spain, it’s morning until you’ve had your lunch, which might not be until 2 or even 3pm. While drinking at breakfast definitely isn’t encouraged, my father-in-law has been known to drink a glass of red wine with a steak he’s cooked himself mid-morning as a treat when he’s not working.

Want to read more? Head over to the full post on The Spain Scoop.