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Journal

Follow here my journey and stories around the World. 

 

Filtering by Tag: Castilla y Leon

Day 12: Villafranca del Bierzo - Samos

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

Leaving the day before with one casual thou glorious pilgrim family dinner, a new day was about to start and new heights were to be conquered!

Cozy albergue dining 

Sleeping in a lovely cozy house, with about other 30 pilgrims per room, it's not rare to be woken up at early hours by some plastic rattling and pilgrims waking up early (check day 3). However, this time a rather uncommon sound woke us up everyone at the same time. Imagine yourself sleeping tenderly among fellow pilgrims, wrapped up in your sleeping bag and all cuddled up when... SUDDENLY, a big BANG wakes you UP! In addition to this, someone cries out anxiously "Oh Dios mio!!!" (=Oh my Gosh!) with a strong English accent. Being the room pitch black, making sure it wasn't me and not hearing anyone complaining any more, in a mix of startled and sleepy situation... I soon went back to dreamland.

With the first sun rays hitting my eyes I finally woke up and we all discovered the night's mystery, there was a person who literally fell down from one of the higher bunk beds, which was what made that big noise. However, the "Oh Dios mio!!!" wasn't the same person, it was someone else bewildered by the banging noise. Mystery still surrounded on who was the person who fell down... that's when an "Ondiñas" member confessed: Carla fell down! Even with a slim body as hers, the bang was an impressive one and although she didn't cry it out, the "Oh Dios mio!!!" jokes didn't stop during the whoooole day :)

After this revelation we soon attacked our breakfast in one of the loveliest albergue dining rooms I've ever seen. The breakfast itself was glorious too, to Andrew's rejoice, they served us bacon and eggs on delicious bread. I also caught up with Fee, the Danish pilgrim from day 11 and I could do another of my famous photo interviews with Blanca, who works at the albergue where we stayed. This made me yet stay behind again, but it wasn't just that, awed by Villafranca's charming beauty, I couldn't leave without a photography moment, check it out below.

The gorgeous Villafranca del Bierzo

Stopping by a small village to quickly sip a coffee, to my surprise the unstoppable Andrew arrived behind me, he got slowed down because he walked with some pilgrims he found on the way. Riding together, he told me a story that happened to him: he was simply riding on the road as usual pilgrims do, with his luggage rack, bike and all when he suddenly sees at some near distance a group of cyclists, quite a bunch of them! When he neared more and more, with his weight and all, he saw it was a cyclists peloton that were taking part at the Cycling World Championship we saw the day before, in Ponferrada. The thing is, he had at some point to overtake these professional guys riding 10.000 € bikes... the funny thing is that the guy in the car told Andrew to "back up, back up", to which he simply answered: "Well, they've got to ride faster then!" Yep, the amazing Mr. Andrew with a heavy trekking bike and loaded, was faster than World cycling champions... what a rider! (we then guessed the team leader didn't probably want to discourage the riders from being overtaken by a heavy loaded bike pilgrim ;) ).

Climb and you'll get rewarded

Thirteenth recommendation of the Camino: follow your way step by step, don't fear the big players, sometimes you even overtake them!

We later entered the beautiful area of "Los Ancares" where Andrew took the lead (try to keep up yourself after the story I just told you). Therefore, I rode mostly alone on the way up to Cebreiro, until I encountered two Basque men doing the Camino on foot, we had a fun chat and I went on for a last push and climb the 1098m heights of the first Galician village. With unplanned perfect timing, I found there the "Ondiñas" team, who had taken the main road vs. the secondary one I did. I actually already knew Pedrafita do Cebreiro quite well, it was one of the places I used to bring friends to visit and specially see the traditional dwellings called Palloza. Besides of this, they also have one exquisite gastronomic delicacy: the "Queixo do Cebreiro" (= Cebreiro cheese, more info here; Spanish only). It's a bit like a ripened soft cheese, that you can almost spread on bread but not as soft as French Camembert or the other Galician cheese "Tetilla" (read more about the "little breast" cheese on my day 10). I then convinced Andrew to stay there a bit longer and visit this small village, it wasn't difficult to do so, he happily agreed by ordering two beers while I got us one piece of this cheese, bread and some delicious home made raisin marmalade; mmmmm delicious!

Delicious Cebreiro cheese and my favourite beer

After yet another gourmet moment, what wrongly looked like a smooth ride down, soon became another steep hill to be conquered. We even adventured ourself to a typical narrow trekking path... which was becoming an impossible task, to such an extend that pilgrims almost overtook us and we nearly fell down twice on that rocky climb. However, this made the arrival to the top even more rewarding, once there, we mingled with three Brazilian pilgrims who were amused by our exhausted faces. Lucky thing too, there was a nearby bar where we had a few well earned beers: cheers to that!

Happy rainy rides!

Fully recharged, we hit the road again to dive into the magnificent landscapes of my beloved home region Galicia; hills, cows, trees, fresh air and unique views were welcoming us to one of the greenest areas of Spain. Of course, in a region that is similar to the French Brittany or Ireland, we couldn't be welcomed without one of its most outstanding elements... the RAIN! This source of life poured on us in its most natural form and in just a few minutes we were completely soaked up, which, contrary to general belief, made us happier and have even more fun on our ride down. 

The "Ondiñas" team in the Samos Monastery

After this fresh downhill, we finally arrived to another unique place: Samos! Its most noteworthy point of interest is the wonderful "Monasterio San Xulian de Samos", a medieval monastery belonging to the order of the Benedictines, dating back to the 6th century with examples of three different architectural styles: late Gothic, the Renaissance and Baroque. Among the likes of the Cathedral of Santiago, Samos is on its own rights one of the most beautiful places of my home region.

The Monastery's Church

When we reached our final destination of the day, Andrew and I had a great welcome from our "Ondiñas" friends that arrived just a few minutes before. Settled down in the nearby albergue, after a quick shower, we went to the Monastery and enjoyed a guided visit of the grounds. In the visiting group there were some people who didn't speak any Spanish, so, since no else offered, I did them the translation into English. Both non-Spanish speakers were really grateful for my assistance and even fray Horacio, who was our tour guide, wanted to recruit me for the congregation. Before leaving, he even told me "Think about it!"... it was a funny anecdote for something I will... not do ;)

The amazingly tasty Zamburiñas

In a whole: good cheese, magnificent green landscapes, rainy rides, one beautiful town, people and our "Zamburiñas" (like small scallops) dinner, made again for another wonderful Camino Day. 

Day 11: Astorga - Villafranca del Bierzo

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

With day 11 on the agenda and almost touching my home region Galicia with my fingertips, off we went the 7 of us direction Santiago de Compostela (if you missed the growth of our "Ondiñas" team, please check back on day 9 and day 10).

The "Ondiñas" team

As usual for us bikers, we were the last ones to leave the Albergue and right after went to indulge our early morning breakfast ritual. We rode mostly together, until at some point I lost the "Ondiñas" team by adventuring into a rough path, which on a given moment narrowed to a human size passage only, but a very fun one.

On the way I met Klaudia, a Spanish girl from Malaga who was doing the Camino to find herself and her own path. Strangely, she pointed out that I was one of the first Spanish she met and that most people only talked English, which she doesn't. It actually is true, most of the people I've met were from all over the World, so if you're going to do your Camino to learn some Spanish, you might consider the other paths like the "Camino del Norte" or the "Via de la Plata".

Camino Tech Station

When amidst bushes that were almost covering the whole track, my GoPro and camera run out of memory, so I simply pulled out a Pop Up Camino Tech Station, check out the pic. Cards emptied, off I went again through the treacherous narrow paths where I suddenly got reunited with one of our newer companions, the unstoppable pedaller, Andrew.

Cruz de Hierro - Iron Cross

Achieving together the heights of "Cruz de Hierro", what initially seemed to be a hard ride up, ended being a very pleasant one. The "Cruz de Hierro" is actually the highest point on the whole French Way, 1600 m of altitude. On top of it stands a 5m high pole with a cross (replica of the original) that gives this place its name (check here for more information; in Spanish only). 

Suddenly to our surprise, we found there a cinema crew too, they were filming some scenes of the film adaptation of the besteller book from the German Comedian Hape Hakeling: "Ich bin dan mal weg" (=I'm off for a while, then). In it, he covers his Camino de Santiago done a few years ago, narrating all the stories and people he encountered. It is not any kind of movie, it is one of the big German film productions with renowned actors like Devid Striesow, mainly known for his role in the Downfall and the Counterfeiters. Funny coincidence thou, that I started my own Way and travel blog precisely mentioning this book and story on day -1 while sipping a coffee in Bordeaux. 

When we were leaving the scene of this German "Hollywood", the crew were putting up some fake Camino stones and props. It was remarkable too, how fresh and energized the Camino "extras" were, their jeans, yes, jeans for an 800km "pilgrimage"... and their bags were immaculately clean. But you know, cinema is cinema! Meanwhile, dirty us, we hit the road to continue our dust gathering.

Nevertheless, don't mind too much my ironic account of events, remember that a story might not always be 100% real, but if its purpose is a pure and passionate one, it will still reflect the vision and emotions of a true story.

The amazing Andrew overlooking the amazing Bierzo region

Once back on the road, in total contrast with the previous days' monotonous rides, we were about to start one of my preferred actions on a bike: riding downhills! With a magnificent scenery as a background, our first descents took us through wild stone paths where our breaks had to be pulled constantly. Letting me finally convince by Andrew and to avoid breaking his beloved "wife", we chose a smoother path; consider that if a bicycle stands the fact of crossing from Canada to Argentina (yup, the fricking whole north to south ride), you might as well call her your wife. That's what Mr. Amazing Andrew did among many other great rides. If you're looking for your "wife/husband" too, consider this:

Twelfth recommendation of the Camino: if you plan to ride cross-country and on rough paths, consider a suspension mountain bike. But, if you're more into long distances on mainly flat but also off track trails, you might look at a touring bike; durable and fitted to carry all kinds of racks (that's Andrew's wife! Check here to know more about bicycle types).

Molinaseca village

Once on tarmac, we rode some of the best 20 to 30 min downhills I've ever done on a bicycle, the striking landscape and the serpentine roads made it a glorious descent. It all ended in a cobble stoned little town with a lovely river, a bridge and full of pilgrims. We went on however to the nearby Ponferrada, where by accident, we stumbled into the World Cycling Competition with teams and bikes from all over the World (Andrew has one amusing story with competing cyclists... but, I won't reveal it until the next Camino day).

Passing through this big World competition, we came across a couple of journalists, who actually were from the National Italian tv RAI uno (similar to Germany's RTL or England's BBC). We were bikers of an 800 kms journey, in a now cycling capital, one American long distance rider, a Spanish polyglot and a camera... well, the natural course of events was that an Interview was mandatory. So it was, that I pulled out my Italian side and answered to a few questions to Italy's biggest and main TV channel: my 15 minutes of fame! Yyyhaaa, I can check that one out of my bucket list! (mail me if you wish some signed portraits of mine ;) )

 

Ponferrada's Castle area

 

Trying to avoid the crowded Ponferrada, we ended the journey in Villafranca del Bierzo, one of the prettiest small mountain villages of the region. To our surprise, the girls and Felix were still behind us, their lunch pause got us ahead so it was our turn for the usual mass booking in the town's albergue. While we waited for them, I practised some German with 3 pilgrims and also met the first Danish pilgrim on the Camino, Fee, a young actress walking her first Camino. Don't forget me when you become a Hollywood star ;)

Villafranca del Bierzo's sunlights

Being ahead of time, I decided to grab my laptop (yes, I took my 13incher across hills, rocks, punctures and storms with me) and try to work on my blog. "Try" a peculiar word it is, since it may give you enough ambiguity that a task might not get fulfilled at all. And yes, that's exactly what happened to me. While I was looking for a quite and nice bar to settle down, I saw one with my favorite beer and as soon as I stopped, one of the most common things on the Camino happened, fellow pilgrims that were sipping some beers started talking with me, and I obviously joined them. That's when I met Brian, Emma, Ondrej and Brandon by pure coincidence (a mix of Aussies, Irish and Czech). I also did some arm weights exercises by carrying uselessly my laptop around Villafranca. We had some interesting conversations and it was a pure pilgrims moment, after a journey of effort you gather to meet people and stories in a family kind of atmosphere.

Delicious Botillo

However, part of the family was missing, so I called up the other "Ondiñas" members and as soon as they arrived, thanks to Álvaro a study friend from Ponferrada, I remembered that they produce here a regional dish called "Botillo". At first it might look more like a big chunk of badly shaped chorizo, and it somehow does, but it's made of several pork parts stuffed into a spiced big ball of meat. Best of all, we accidentally ended up in the best Botillo place of the town, we could never have found it if I hadn't asked some locals where to get it. The Don Nacho is on a really narrow road of Villafranca and far off from the bustling city centre; a real local's secret tip. But be warned, this dish isn't for the softies among you. Check out more here.

Pilgrim Family dinner at Don Nacho

So it was that eleven people that didn't even know each other a week before, were now sharing a big dinner in the most local place possible, we were: the Camino family!

Follow me on the blog and my social media networs for more stories and Camino dinners of my first ever Santiago pilgrimage!

Day 10: León - Astorga

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

As if Galicia, my home region in Spain and host of Santiago de Compostela was anticipating our visit, another rainy day was expecting us (FYI it rains quite a lot there).

After having met Felix the day before and now joining our "Ondiñas" team, we headed for a very common morning ritual: Breakfast! After taking a pic of Leandro (check day 9 to know more) and wishing him a "buen camino", off we went to a place I spotted the day before for some great morning food; great tortilla breakfast for Felix and me, and sweeter for the girls.

Rainy Camino days

We were about to leave Leon but not before passing by its magnificent cathedral, where I took the chance to quickly grab a map of the next route in the Tourism office. A good thing I did, because at that moment the other "Ondiñas" were chatting with a fellow bike pilgrim. He was struggling to leave in the rain, so we asked him if he wanted to join us for at least the next route. So it was actually, how we met Andrew from the US who started his Camino in Paris and is right now down in Morocco! What an impressive challenge and it's not the first of his big bike adventures, stay tuned to know more.

There we were now 7 bike pilgrims from all around the World joining paths: one started in St Jean Pied de Port, three in Ordizia, one in Berlin and one in Paris. By destiny or simple coincidence, this is how we ended up being the biggest and most international bike pilgrims group on the Camino: the "Ondiñas" team! 

(check back on day 7 to learn the origin of that name)

Rain rain rain and more rain

In spite of the monotonous roads and paths that we had to face this day, our new companions and stories made it a really pleasant one, only disturbed by some heavy rain again and again. Fortunately, we didn't suffer the Apocalypse of day 8, but it was enough to get us completely soaked and finish our journey a bit earlier than usual in the charming town of Astorga. Once there and registering at the town's albergue, we started hearing a familiar voice... it was Leandro, the priest we had met in Leon!

With this re-encounter and since it was kind of late for lunch, we all went in search of the town's Supermarket to make ourselves some cheese and wine aperitif. We took quite a while to get there, because every pilgrim we crossed stopped and knew Leandro, that's what it means to be a funny and sociable priest pilgrim. Once we finally got to the supermarket, it was a GADIS, a supermarket from Galicia, my region, and full of delicious products from there. No no, don't worry, I'm not going to mention my favourite beer again, but, I will mention one of my favourite cheeses "Queso de Tetilla" (=small breast cheese). As its name indicates, its shape is a sort of cone topped by a nipple.

There's one story (of probably many), which says that its origin goes back to a monastery with one particular female statue. This female statue had obviously a female figure, but a pair of her attributes were a bit bigger than usual. To such an extent, that the monks didn't leave their eyes from her. Outraged by this situation, the Abbot decided to split the statue and only leave the head and shoulders! Deprived from the usual view, the monks simply decided to replicate the statues attributes with a new type of cheese and shape: the "Queso de Tetilla" was born! 

If true or not, this history adds a comic note to one of the best soft cheeses of Galicia that combines perfectly with Quince marmalade for both desert as an evening snack. To cheese or not to cheese, keep reading my next posts if you'd like to read more about Spanish and Galician cuisine.

Going back to the beginning of this little story, there's more to GADIS too. It might be just another supermarket to many, but their local character and promotion of Galician is remarkable. Since a few years, this compromise is best shown in ads that struck directly into the Galicians' hearts. The references and situations that are portrayed are really familiar to us; it also provokes quite a lot of homesickness to the emigrated ones. Check out the video.

Basically, after some good shopping, out we went to indulge our cheese and wine aperitif with the freshly arrived sun. This was all possible thanks to our early stop:

Eleventh recommendation for the Camino: don't rush, take your time, and enjoy the lack of stress!

Strolling around Astorga, we met the biggest backpack ever (it might have belonged to Goliath...) and to our Catalan "Ondiñas" rejoice, we came across the Episcopal Palace of Astorga, from the famous architect Gaudí. It is one of the few of his creations outside Catalunya and together with the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is one of the most representative examples of the Catalan Modernism. That's also where we crossed again our fellow bike pilgrims from our passage in Carrión de los Condes (check day 8). So what better homage could we all do to Gaudi's work, than trying to outdo one of the most famous selfies of this year's Oscars, check the pic below. 

 

Best pilgrim selfie ever!

 

"Take that Ellen and Bradley, I've even got Gaudí in the frame!".

With, our best Pilgrim selfie ever, the last things to full fill were our stomachs, so out we went for some dinner. I indulged myself in one of my best dinners, red tuna with almond crust and another plate of "Morcilla" (check day 7), scrambled eggs and Spanish Chorizo. A great dinner finished by some wine tastings and another of my Camino Photo Interviews with Leandro, our funny priest!

Stay tuned for the next one and good night ;)