A year ago today is a day that will be implanted in my memories forever. For two reasons…..first it’s my Pops birthday, and secondly because a year ago today we finished our Camino. If you’ve been reading my blog then you know last year I walked almost the entire length of Spain with my Pops. We started our pilgrimage in St Jean Pied de Port and walked over the Pyrenees walking to Santiago de Compostela about 100km from the Atlantic Ocean. I had purposely planned for us to arrive into Santiago on the 29th of October so we would be issued our Camino certificates on Pops birthday. And so that’s exactly what we did.
The night before we stayed in a town called Lovacolla on the outskirts of the Santiago airport about 11km to the Santiago Cathedral. We woke up early as we had plans to arrive in Santiago by mid morning. The Camino had other plans for us though. We left before the sun was up and started out in the pitch black of the early morning hours. This was pretty much the only time we got lost on the Camino and we spend the better part of an hour scouting out the famous yellow arrows we’d spend the last five weeks following. With our headlamps on we just couldn’t make sense of where we had lost the trail and we back tracked and wandered around trying to get our bearings. I have a way over active imagination so being in the woods in the dark is the setting for a horror movie I wanted no part of. We eventually ended up coming across a yellow arrow and were finally on our way.
We made it into Santiago a little before 12pm and went directly to get our Camino credential and to store our bags. On the way to the pilgrims mass we ended up running into 2 older Japanese/American ladies who we had crossed paths with several times and made plans to meet up later. Somehow we confused the Museum for the Cathedral and attempted to go to mass there- the employee thought this was hilarious. We finally got ourselves sorted and took in the traditional pilgrims mass and then in honour of Pops birthday I had booked us for lunch at Casa Marcelo, a Michelin starred restaurant. It was the bomb. Seriously such a great meal. After several glasses of wine we day drunkenly made our way back to pick up our bags and head to the hotel. En route we ran into an Australian guy we had meet a couple weeks before. I refer to him as Dr Bob. While not a doctor he gave me blister advice and helped Pops with his shin splints so he will always be affectionately known as Dr Bob to me. He and Pops shared the same birthday so we made plans to meet up a couple hours later at the cathedral.
At 5pm we wandered to the Cathedral and met up with Dr Bob who had 3 plastic cups and a bottle of red wine and we sat on the cold stone out front catching up and watching other pilgrims arrive. Within very little time we were reunited with several pilgrims we knew- some Americans, a fellow Canadian, another Australian, a girl from the Netherlands, and Swiss guy. We took a ton of pictures in front of the Cathedral and wandered off to find something to eat as a group. A few of us later went for dinner and then out to this bizarre bar with a live jazz band where one of the dudes was very clearly on some type of drugs, but nonetheless an amazing musician. We drank beer and listened to the band play and Pops had a very special day.
For obvious reasons this will always be a day that stands out in my memories of our time on the Camino. There was a huge sense of accomplishment, but also of sadness that the Camino was over. That we had walked nearly 700km over 5 weeks, and that the walk was over. A few days later we would leave Spain and return to Paris. As I’ve mentioned before not a single day has passed in the last year that I haven’t longed to be back on the Camino, the sun coming up, the wind gently blowing, and my feet carrying me across nearly an entire country. So for now I’ll just rely on my memories until I walk again.
And a very Happy Birthday to Pops who I’ll be seeing next week. Can’t wait!!!
Today marks my Camino anniversary. A year ago today Pops and I woke up filled with anxiety and excitement in the town of St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains. We ate a typical Camino breakfast of toast with jam, coffee and juice and we packed up and headed out in the mid mourning hours. We stopped off in a small church and I said a prayer for safety for the journey that lay ahead. I’m not especially religious, but I would repeat this habit in countless churches spanning the whole of Spain. Mostly asking for a safe journey, a quiet mind and an open heart. We crossed the main bridge leading out of town, stopping to take a selfie. Well two selfies really, because Pops has this uncanny ability to look completely surprised in almost every photo. The second one he looks slightly less surprised. We followed the bronzed metal markers that dot the streets leading up the hill outside of the town. These markers then turned into wooden signs or spray painted arrows that we would follow for the next 5 weeks westward across Spain to the city of Santiago de Compostela.
We spent the next several hours climbing. That first day was only 8km but we would climb 600m into the hills to our first nights stay at Orisson. Those first 3-4km I referred to in my journal as deceiving. They didn’t seem that hard, but the last 4km were very steep. I had trained very little for our Camino- mostly because it was difficult to do much hiking in the months leading up to it on account of living in Saudi Arabia where the temperatures were still extremely hot to be hiking outside, and that mostly everywhere is flat. I had trained with my pack on a treadmill. The conditions going over the Pyrenees were nothing like walking on an incline on a treadmill. First off I had no idea that my feet would get so sweaty. My shoes it turned out were not especially breathable, and it only took me about 4km to start to develop blisters. Yep 4km. Those blisters would haunt me the next 450km all the way to Leon where I finally broke down and bought new shoes.
The scenery that first day was mesmerizing as the town of St Jean disappeared and we slinked up the hillside. The hillsides layered against one another forming a sort of tapestry with the differing hues of green and browns of the hills playing against the bright blue sky. Pops was extremely patient with me as we stopped numerous times to tend to my feet. Cows passed us, as did other pilgrims. We sat on a log and ate some nuts and hydrated. Further up the path we stopped at a scenic overlook where 20-30 buzzards were gliding in circles on the air current with the Pyrenees in the distance. A little further we came to a flattened area and then a small downhill that dropped us at our refuge for the night. It was mid afternoon by the time we arrived and we dropped our bags in our room. We were lucky enough to arrive and be given one of the only private rooms for the night. We then went and ordered a well deserved beer. If I close my eyes I can still feel how crisp and refreshing that beer at Orisson was. We sat outside looking at the view and eventually made our way to shower and wash our sweaty clothes and lay them out to dry for the following day.
We chatted with fellow pilgrims. We were all bonded together by this shared journey that we were embarking on. Walking quite literally into the unknown. We shared our first of many communal meals that night. Something that would become one of my favourite parts of the Camino. Little did we know that this band of characters would become the backdrop of our Camino experience. How our paths would cross and intersect and we would get news about some of these people days later by way of the Camino grapevine. There were the 2 Irish sisters. The Korean girl who we would see many times throughout our Camino. The 2 older ladies from Quebec. The loud Texans- a couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary and their uber fit daughter and son in law. And then there was the older American man who talked loudly into his phone. The first time we laid eyes on him he was having an animated conversation and Pops and I looked at each other as if to say “bloody Americans.” His name was Richard and he played a huge role in our Camino. We would walk countless days together. Sometimes in a group, sometimes solo but in sight on one another, sometimes with other pilgrims. We would later learn that the person on the other end of the phone was his wife Sherri and over the next 5 weeks we would be invited into the calls with her. Richard is also one of my best Camino memories and a true Camino blessing. So many of my funniest Camino memories involve him. A personal favourite was when Pops and I were waiting for him at the top of a steep hill and Richard made his way over the crest holding his phone against his ear yelling “Taxi!!” Richard was the best.
In honour of this anniversary I thought I’d make mention of the many, many things I miss about walking the Camino. Because truthfully not a day goes by that I don’t think about it and long for the sound of crunching gravel under my feet, the wind blowing against my face, and the quiet sounds of nature.
-I miss being outside as the sun is coming up. Watching the changing light and colours as the sky lit up. Almost every day of those 5 weeks I saw the sunrise. It would rise behind us lighting up the path in front of us casting shadows of our silhouettes. I would stop and take picture after picture spaced out by a few minutes, each picture more stunning than the last.
-I miss the simplicity of the journey. Walk. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. Except it was more like wake up- eat some type of breakfast. Walk. Second breakfast and cappuccino. Walk. Lunch. Walk. Beer. Shower. Dinner. Wine. Sleep. Or something like that….
-I miss the introspection. The quietness of being alone with my thoughts. Having the ability to tune the outside world out. Walking the Camino is like being insulated inside a bubble. You end up being disconnected from the outside world.
-I love seeing the world at walking pace. There is something to be said about crossing a country powered by your own two feet. I’ve always been a fan of slow motion travel and not much is slower than a walkers pace. You observe things you would otherwise miss traveling by car or train. You take note of things like the smell of wildflowers or the texture of a fern. It’s really something to turn around and look at the landscape behind you to see how far you’ve come.
-The people. Pops and I met so many lovely people. The Camino has a way of leveling people so that it really doesn’t matter what your income is or what your education level is or what your job is. Literally no one cares. What they care about is your reasons for walking. Your observations and experiences. How your feet are doing. I loved meeting people from so many different countries. In fact our last night in Santiago we met up with fellow pilgrims we had crossed paths with from the U.S, Canada, Netherlands, Korea, Australia and Switzerland. A whole new group of international friends.
-As I’ve mentioned I loved the evening pilgrims communal dinners. It was such a fun way to unwind after a long days walking. It also didn’t hurt that the wine was refillable. By now you know how much I love wine. And Spanish wine is very drinkable.
-Being someone who isn’t especially athletic completing the Camino was a huge accomplishment to me. I know I surprised some of the people in my life, and I even surprised myself. I miss the feeling of accomplishment after a hard days hike.
-Getting to spend so much time with Pops was also one of the best parts. There weren’t many father daughter pairs on the Camino. In fact I can’t actually recall if we met any others. We have a pretty great relationship and he learned pretty early on that if I was in the midst of a blister melt down it was best to just leave me be. I get upset fast, but I’m back to my normal happy self equally as quick. I’d happily walk across another country with him as my sidekick.
For the last year I’d planned to blog a ton about our experiences on the Camino but every time I sit down to write I’m at a loss of words as to how to describe the whole experience. I had walked the Camino to find answers to the age old question of “What the hell am I doing with my life??” But instead I ended up with no answers and only more questions. What I did make of it is this though- that I strive to live a full life with an open heart. To be brave even when things are scary. To tell those I care about how I feel about them even at the risk of it not being reciprocated. To live without regrets. Or as Daniel puts it in the iconic Camino movie The Way……You don’t choose a life. You live one. I couldn’t agree more.
Buen Camino my fellow pilgrims. I hope our paths cross again….
Pops and I completed our Camino three months ago tomorrow. Where the heck has the time gone? I learned so many things on the Camino and wanted to share these Camino lessons with you. These lessons come from stories told by other pilgrims, notes or messages left literally on the path, or feelings and thoughts I had while walking. Enjoy!
1. Anyone can do the Camino- even you! I have met people 40 years older than myself who blew past me on the hills. People who weigh much more than me. People with disabilities. We met a lady who had MS who walked with her daughter and a blind man who walked with a guide. People walk with children. We met a couple who walked with their son who was 20 months old. Our favourite Camino sidekick was a 73 years old American and he carried his backpack the entire way. You too can walk the Camino!!
2. The body is amazing. The changes that you will notice in the period of a few weeks are awesome. Your strength and endurance change quickly. Hills that previously would’ve made you stop and take a breath every few minutes you can suddenly walk without stopping. Pops and I would joke that when we finished we wanted to fly back to the starting point and re-do the hike from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles just to see how much easier crossing the Pyrenees would feel!
3. Nature is good for your soul. It was especially good for mine. Seeing the world at walking pace is like a day long meditation. Everything is slowed down. You take notice of things you otherwise wouldn’t. I loved the quiet and the peacefulness of the walk. In fact I found it very jarring when we occasionally crossed paths with a large group of loudish pilgrims. I would make Pops stop and wait until they were out of hearing distance so I could get my peaceful space back. My eyes tended to focus on the brilliant colours and the texture of the foliage that surrounded us. I’ve never been a real nature junky but this trip changed me. It changed the way I see nature.
4. Be kind to yourself and to your Camino. It is your Camino and yours alone. Do it on your own terms. Accept that sometimes it won’t go according to your plans. Ours sure didn’t. We had planned to walk the entire 800km carrying our packs the entire way. That was our “plan.” Our Camino took a different “plan” though. Because I had such painful blisters we were forced to skip about 100km of the walk on the meseta (the flattest portion) and jumped ahead to Leon to rest for 4 days and so I could buy new shoes (breaking in new shoes part way through was definitely not in my plan!) And we ended up shipping our bags several days to give us a break and to help with Pops shin splints. We had to be kind to ourselves and just listen to what our bodies were telling us. And since it came down to making the decision between walking and shipping our packs ahead, or not walking it was pretty easy to let the guilt fall away about shipping our packs.
5. From now on whenever I get asked what my favourite body part is I will answer that it’s my feet. My feet carried me across nearly an entire country. They blistered and healed and blistered again, and still they walked. I’d never really spent much time thinking about what my feet do for me, but walking that far makes you spend a great deal of time thinking about them. Trust me. I’ve come to cherish them!
6. I think it’s important to note that it doesn’t matter how old you are- whatever deep seeded insecurities you’ve battled in the past will likely make an appearance some point on the Camino. It’s also a great place to work through them. I’ve always been the type of person who doesn’t easily ask for help, and often because I offer help quickly to others I also expect this in return (although I’d never tell anyone that!) So this is a vicious circle for me- expecting others to know what I need from them in relationships because that’s what I offer, but never actually telling the other person/s and then getting upset when they don’t pick up on this (because I never told them.) It’s definitely not my most mature quality. But post Camino I’m trying very hard to tell those around me what I need from them instead of resenting them when they don’t do that thing that they don’t know I needed in the first place. There was a miserable two days for me on the Camino when a group situation left me feeling ignored, replaceable and left out. It hit a deep childhood pain similar to those of you who may have been picked last for a team when you were a child. I’m glad it happened though because it gave me a chance to take a deep look at myself and what triggered those feelings for me in the first place.
7. One of the best lessons I learned from the Camino was the importance of looking behind you. Both on the Camino and in life in general. On the Camino since the views ahead were stunning, but especially in the mornings the sun rises behind you and turning around to take in the changing light I was often surprised by how glorious the view was. For those of you like me who are into photography make sure to turn around. The view will endlessly surprise you.
8. There are Camino messages everywhere. Make of them what you will. For me the written messages that line the Camino left by pilgrims of past were inspirational. Some brought tears to my eyes, or made me contemplate things or encouraged me to push on. They were a constant reminder of the massive number of pilgrims who have come before me. Sometimes these messages were of a funny nature also- like the one that exclaimed “Martin Sheen was here!” Or the one advertising “Free Blisters next 16km.” Both made me laugh literally out loud. Thank you to whomever left those!
9. I wish I could go back to a time where I was ignorant to bed bugs. We traveled with a Australian guy who had walked the Camino before and regaled us with tales of bedbugs. Thanks to him there wasn’t a night I wasn’t itchy before going to bed. But also thanks to him we knew how to treat bedbugs and what to watch for. We did have one encounter with these little beasts, but somehow ended up not getting bitten and they didn’t end up in our things. I’ll definitely be treating my sleep sac or sleeping bag properly before our next big walk!
10. For me the Camino wasn’t the spiritual awakening I had thought it would be. For me it was mostly about community. About the human spirit and connection. It was about meeting so many amazing people who touched my heart. Many of who I still keep in touch with, many whom I know I will see again. Our paths were meant to cross and they will again at some point in the future. The Camino strips you all down to being the same. There’s no bullshit. No one cares what kind of car you drive, or how big your house is. In fact those things never come up. People care about why you’re walking. What you’ve learned. How you’re feeling physically. People are quick to offer up help- we met a man who bought a young German pilgrim new shoes because hers were too small and she couldn’t afford new ones. That’s the spirit of the Camino. We are all walking in this tiny bubble together. We are all connected. This couldn’t be more evident than at the end of a days walk and you sit down to chat with fellow pilgrims and get word of mouth updates about people you had lost track with. It’s a really amazing network. One that I long to be a part of again!
I’ll end this with a quote from one of my favourite authors Rebecca Solnit. Her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking is a super interesting read if you’re a little obsessed with walking as I recently have become!
“Exploring the world is one of the best ways of exploring the mind,
Here’s some insight into a day in the life of a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago….Most likely depending on your budget, who you are traveling with and whether you are a light sleeper will determine how well you slept last night. If you’re on a budget and staying in dorm hostels then hopefully you’ve brought a good set of earplugs with you, otherwise the roaring vibrations of your fellow snoring pilgrims likely lulled you to sleep. Or you might find yourself on a bunk bed above or below a restless sleeper and feel like you’re riding on a ship as the waves toss you from side to side.
If you’re in a dorm room you’ll likely be awoken before 6am by a fellow pilgrim. Some are courteous. Some will flick the lights on and rustle through their bags for a lengthy amount of time. To be fair, unless you are sleeping in your next day clothes, it’s difficult to be super organized in the morning as there’s little room in the dorm areas to lay out the things you need. I’m sure you’ve all read how annoying plastic bags are. Don’t pack your things in them. They make a heck of a lot of noise and are pretty annoying for anyone sharing a room with you.
Most mornings Pops and I got up around 6:20am or 6:30am. It should be noted that when we walked in late September into October the sun rose late. If we had been walking in the spring we would’ve been up earlier. Often someone turns the lights on by 6:30. You get up. Head for the loo. Wash your face. Brush your teeth. Get dressed. Pack up. Your feet will now need some attention. Your method of choice will likely included either double layered socks, Vaseline, or covering ever possible inch of skin on your feet with some sort of bandage or tape (this was my method!) You’ll stand up, take a few steps and realize that your socks are bunched up, laces are too tight or loose, or you’ve got a piece of skin not covered by tape. So you’ll drop everything and readjust.
Next it will be time for breakfast. Your alburgue may or may not provide breakfast. If they do lower your expectations greatly. It will likely only include coffee and toast with jam. No protein at all. So if you do manage to find eggs, cheese, or yogurt consider yourself very, very lucky! We stayed in an alburgue where 2 ladies were boiling eggs for their breakfast the following morning. They quickly became geniuses in my book. If your alburgue doesn’t include breakfast then hopefully there’s a bar and it’s open in whichever village you find yourself in. Go there. Get a coffee and a tortilla de potatoe. So good.
Next grab a torch (headlamp/flash light) and hit the trail. In the dark it can be hard to actually make out the yellow arrows that guide every move you make on the Camino. Start walking.
With any luck you’ll come to a village with an open bar in the next 1-2 hours. Stop. It’s time for breakfast number two. We ate double breakfast all the time while walking. Especially if you only had toast at the alburgue you’ll want something more substantial. Then, continue walking.
Chat with fellow pilgrims. Focus an absurd amount of time to thinking about your aching muscles, your blisters, or why the heck you packed so much shit in the first place. Ask yourself why it seems that French men always wear the tiniest of knickers and parade around in them, or why you didn’t learn more Spanish for this trip apart from being able to order a couple beers. Get distracted by the scenery.
Next it’s beer o’clock. Which is pretty much anytime after 12pm. Keep walking. Consult your guidebook or phone app to review the upcoming elevation changes. Taking breaks is essential, but rest assured for every break you take it will easily take your body 20 min to get back into walking mode. Everything gets stiff. Mostly I started out every morning and after anytime I sat for more than 5 min hobbling like I was easily double my age.
As the afternoon gets on it’s time to find a place to sleep for the night. We mostly called it quits around 2-3pm. It’s nice to arrive at an alburgue, get checked in and get your credential stamped. Choose a bed (if you’re in a dorm), drop your pack and either grab a shower or a cold beer. Often beer then shower, but sometimes shower then beer for us. A cold beverage is so rewarding after a long days walk. Every second to third day will be laundry day depending on weather and the washing facilities wherever you are staying. Then chat with fellow pilgrims. Or journal, or plan how far you might want to walk the following day.
Dinner time is often 7pm but sometimes 8pm in the larger cities. Go for the pilgrim menu as it’s normally good bang for your Euro (3 courses with unlimited wine for 9-10 Euros.) And yes, you read that right…..unlimited wine. The menu does tend to get boring after a while though, but the wine is always good. Many of the alburgues have kitchens should you fancy cooking something. We rarely did this but if you’re on a budget this is a good way to keep costs down. Dinners are by far one of my favourite memories from the Camino. That sense of camaraderie is like nothing I have ever experienced before. To sit around and chat with fellow pilgrims from a mixmash of different countries spanning in age from early 20’s into their 70’s or 80’s is a really unique experience. The Camino has a great way of leveling everything so despite our differences, at our core we pilgrims are all the same.
After dinner is finished and you’ve consumed enough wine to make you sleep through your fellow pilgrims snoring, it’s time for bed. Some alburgues will lock the doors so it’s good to know what time that happens at. We met several pilgrims who returned shortly after curfew and weren’t allowed into the alburgue. So go wash your face, brush your teeth and wedge your earplugs in and dream. Night night!
A pilgirms mantra is basically…..WALK>EAT>SLEEP>REPEAT
Last year I did a recap of my favourite travel destinations and memories from the previous year. So with the New Year upon us I wanted to write another post about my top 10 destinations from 2016. It was another great year of travel for me. Looking back over the past 12 months it was a busy year. I worked full-time as a VIP nurse in Saudi Arabia from January until September when I left to walk the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. I had a whopping 178 days of travel (mind you almost 3 months of this I was technically unemployed!) I visited 15 countries, 9 of them new for me. I saw a lot, I took a lot of pictures, and I lived it up. I hope this doesn’t sound bragadocious, because it’s not meant to (credit to Donald T for inventing this awesome word!) Some of that travel was with friends from Saudi, and I did some travel through Europe with my mom, and then spent about 7 weeks with my Dad while we walked across Northern Spain. Quite a bit of it was on my own- which I’ve become quite a fan. So here’s my top 10 from 2016 (in no particular order).
Romania is hardly mentioned in the top 10 of most people’s bucket lists, and as per my usual form of travel I did very little research about the country prior to going. Usually when I do very little research about a trip (which is most of the time) I am always pleasantly surprised. Romania was exactly that. I spent a week based in Bucharest and did a couple day trips, one to Transylvania and the other into neighbouring Bulgaria. My favourite memories from that trip were visiting Peles Castle and later Bram Castle which is also known as Dracula’s Castle (although in reality it has very little to do with Dracula.) These castles couldn’t have been more different from one another. Peles Castle is from the late 1800s and built in a Gothic Bavarian style, whereas Bram Castle is an old fortress castle that sits atop a cliff. It dates from the 1400’s and has a very eerie feel to it, and even though it’s only a tale, I loved the stories of Dracula in relation to Romania History. The other standout thing from this trip was that we did a walking tour in Bucharest that took us to old decaying places which was super cool. Bucharest is also full of urban art and graffiti of which I’m a huge fan. It’s pretty inexpensive, had great restaurants, and was a very walkable city. So add Romania to your list of places to visit in 2017!
I spent 11 lovely days in Italy solo, splitting my time between Rome and Florence. To say I loved it would be an understatement. I look back on my time in Italy and smile because I was brimming with happiness and confidence. The architecture, the food, the Chianti, the museums were fantastic. Between the two, Florence was my favourite, and I’m sure this was because I booked myself a cheapish hotel that had phenomenal views of the cathedral from my private balcony. It felt like I could just reach across and touch it, and I could hear the street artists below playing music which felt like I had my own private show. This trip was a turning point in solo travel for me, and I became very comfortable in my own skin. I no longer have any issues with eating alone, or going to a bar for a drink, or wandering a city. This trip was a huge confidence boost for me, and made me feel so brave and empowered. Two of my favourite memories of that trip involved random encounters with fellow travelers. I met an American girl around my age who she and her parents adopted me during my time in Rome and it was a real pleasure getting to know them! My other favourite memory was meeting a couple from Texas on a day tour of Tuscany. We met up for dinner in Florence and then for dinner and drinks my last night in Rome. By drinks I mean bottle after bottle of delicious Chianti. This resulted in a very hungover (possibly still drunk) me trying to get to the airport for my early morning flight! Oh the memories we make while traveling…..
3. The United Arab Emirates
I visited Dubai a few times over the last year and one of the highlights for me (and a silly Bucket List item) was to stay at the Atlantis resort. So for one night on a huge splurge (and because if you are a Saudi resident you qualify for the GCC discount) I stayed here. As you can imagine it was very nice. There’s a ton to do, so no real need to leave the resort if you don’t want to. We had free admission to the water park which was pretty cool, but the outdoor pool area and the aquarium were highlights for me. Oh, and the food was really good as well. I also visited Abu Dhabi and as I recently blogged about got to visit the iconic Sheikh Zayed mosque which has long been a place I wanted to visit. If you’re in Dubai make the trip to Abu Dhabi to see the mosque- it’s a stunning example of Islamic architecture.
4. The Czech Republic
There’s so much to see in the Czech Republic and this trip was especially special (is that a thing?) as I reunited with a guy I met several years earlier on my first solo trip to Portugal. It was so great to see him and have him take us around his city, and meet his partner, and check out hot Czech guys and eat good food. This was also the trip where my mom and I visited the town we believe is where my Oma (German for grandmother) grew up prior to her time in Germany where my mother was born. We flew into Germany and then spent a few days in Austria before visiting the Czech towns of Cesky Krumlov, Ceske Budejovice, Brno and Prague. We found that it was easier to travel around on the bus than the train (comfortable seats and wifi!) We ended the trip with a few days in Prague which is a fantastically walkable city of which I am always a fan. Also Czech is pretty inexpensive as far as Europe goes so you won’t break the bank while traveling there.
One of the other solo trips I took this past year was to Poland. I only had time to visit Warsaw so obviously a return trip is in order as there are many other places I would like to visit. Warsaw, specifically the old town, is rife with history. It is also rife with graffiti and displays of urban art which brings me a great amount of joy! The city felt very open and green, it was easy to navigate, and I felt totally safe wandering around on my own. The best thing I did while there was take a couple walking tours to learn about Poland’s history in WW2. It was fascinating. In hindsight it might’ve been better had I learned some of this history prior to visiting but seeing as I’m not one for planning or researching much before I go (I’ve become super lazy in my travel style and really only care about where I’m staying) this didn’t happen. Maybe one of my New Years resolutions will be a actually properly research a place before I visit. Somehow I doubt I’ll actually get my shit together and follow through on this. Plus it’s so much more fun making decisions on the fly!
This summer my short few day break to Jordan was just the relaxation I needed. The resorts that line the Dead Sea on the Jordan side are fancy with infinity pools and pool boys who will clean your sunglasses, and bring you towels and ice which make for a very happy me. While Petra itself is amazing, I’m so glad that we made the effort to visit the site at night. Especially since there was a full moon when we visited which provided for a lot of ambient light and beautiful pictures. It was also nice to get to revisit Bedouin culture as a trip to Petra at night includes traditional Bedouin music and tea. Even though it is pretty touristy I would recommend seeing Petra both by day and night. It’s stunning in the day but at night it has a magical mystical feel to it!
I’ve spend a lot of time in Spain this past year. Early last year I spent a week split between Barcelona and Madrid with a night in Zaragoza to see the Arabic Palace called Aljaferia, because as we’ve already established I have a major crush on Islamic architecture. Then this fall I spent just over 5 weeks in Spain walking the Camino de Santiago with my Pops. It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and an experience that if I’m being honest, I haven’t fully debriefed from (hence my lack of blogging about it yet.) We walked around 700km from the French border to the northwestern Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. It was the biggest physical accomplishment of my life, one that I’m quite certain I will walk again (or another route). Everyday the scenery we walked was stunning and it really slowed things down for me and made me think about what I want out of life, and about how much stuff we all have that we don’t need. And how stuff does not equal happiness, but being out in the world interacting with people from all different walks of life does make me extremely happy. So more about the Camino in the upcoming weeks. But in the event you are looking for a cheapish European vacation- Spain is very reasonable, especially once you leave the bigger cities. And the Euro is quite low right now and airfare is pretty cheap to Europe so it’s a good time to take advantage of it!
8. Paris France
I spent a month in Paris this fall in a cute but run down apartment in the nieghbourhood of Montmartre. It was really nice to be able to settle into a place and feel like a local. Shopping at the same stores and frequenting the same cafes. My Pops was with me for a short while and then I was lucky enough to have a couple visitors. One of those visitors I suspect I will always associate Paris with. I spent my time exploring, but also doing some writing and reading and generally just hanging out. I caught up with a fellow travel nurse I knew from when I lived in San Francisco. I drank a lot of wine and cappucinos and ate my weight in cheese. (Not really but I do LOVE cheese a lot.) I walked much of the city. Coming to Paris directly after walking the Camino was a bit difficult because I very much missed walking (I still do.) But often I would google distances to whatever I wanted to do and if it was 5km away I’d think “oh that’s just a short walk” and opt to not take the metro. I was in Paris during the month of November which was pretty great because I get a little obsessive about Christmas. I love it so much- the decorations and the lights and colder weather. It was great to wander Paris with the store windows all decorated for the season. Paris is lovely. Tourism there is massively down given the recent terror attacks there and throughout Europe. But since I’m not one to live my life in fear I would say don’t let that deter you one bit! I spend a month there because with many places on AirBnb you get a discount if you book for a month and it ended up being cheaper than if I had booked for only 3 weeks. But a month was plenty long enough for me. 3 weeks would’ve been perfect because Paris is wicked break the bank expensive and I’m terrible with a budget so it was time to move on.
9. Amsterdam Netherlands
After Paris I took the train to Amsterdam, a city I had long wanted to explore. And boy oh boy did I love it. Loved it as in it’s maybe my favourite European city ever (or at least tied with Copenhagen) at the very least! I spent a week here in a lovely apartment overlooking one of the main canals and had a grand time. Amsterdam is a very walkable city, and so much cheaper than Paris. A friend whom I met walking the Camino came and visited me for a night which was great. Two things really stood out during my time in Amsterdam. The first was doing a nighttime canal tour. It was the beginning of December when I was there and during the holiday season Amsterdam has numerous illuminated art installations around the city. We took a boat tour along the canals which offers a really cool view of the art itself, but also glimpses of life into the stunning historic canal houses. We sipped mulled wine and oohhhed and ahhhed over the interior decorations, wall colours, and the molded ceilings (but mostly I was just trying to imagine what my life would be like if I was living in any one of these houses!) The other thing I would highly recommend doing when in Amsterdam is taking a tour of the red light district. I mean Amsterdam is known for 2 main things (pot and ladies in windows with red lights overhead) so why not actually learn something about it. I’m not telling you to go to Amsterdam and smoke weed. If you do I have no issues but that’s your own choice. Neither am I telling you to pay for sex. Again, your choice. I’m not going to judge how you spend your money. For me I wanted to take a tour to learn how the red light district came to be, and basically how it works. So I did a tour thru the Prostitute Information Center which leads tours by women who have worked as sex workers in the red light district. It was really informative and I learned the following fun facts…..1/3 of Amsterdam’s prostitutes are over the age of 55. They literally come in all sizes, ages and ethnicity. Also the average time men spend with a lady is 6 minutes. Including getting dressed and undressed. 6. Minutes. But the minimum amount of time a customer must pay for is 15 minutes. Also the ladies are licensed and pay taxes so they basically have their own businesses. I learned a variety of other things as well, but since my Pops reads this I’ll try and keep it clean. Needless to say I left my heart in Amsterdam, and I really want to go back and see more of the Netherlands!
Iceland is friggin fantastic. It is very, very photogenic and you can pack a lot into a relatively short visit. I spend 5 nights there in December and it did not disappoint. But while it is beautiful it is not cheap. So bring your money, honey cause you’re going to spend it. Once you get over the initial shock of the price of things I’m quite certain you will have a great time. I mean how can’t you with waterfalls, glaciers, tiny horses and Northern Lights aplenty. I met my best mate there and we spent 4 nights in Reykjavik and had one night on a tour to the southern part of the island with Extreme Iceland. It was fantastic, plus our guide was a riot and super entertaining. We visited waterfalls, and petted Icelandic horses who will come to you when you call them just like dogs do! We ended up getting stuck at a gas station while waiting out a wind storm and were lucky enough to see the Northern Lights in between sipping gas station beers. We walked on a beach covered in icebergs, walked on a black sand beach with a phallic rock formation in the windiest conditions I’ve ever been in. We wore crampons and went on an ice hike and posed straddling a crevasse and ate fermented shark (not at the same time.) As you can imagine fermented shark is not great. It’s one of those odd things that gets worse the longer you chew it, and the taste strengthens in your mouth long after you’ve already swallowed it. Thankfully, copious amounts of Icelandic beer does eventually get the taste out. Our final morning in Iceland we relaxed at the Blue Lagoon which as you can imagine is full of tourists, but pretty awesome. It is good to know that in the winter there is very, very little useful hours of daylight. In fact there was only about 3.5 hrs a day when we were there and I’m being generous with that time frame, as a lot of it was “light” how it is at dusk or dawn. I would love to go back in the summer to see it light until 11pm. I would also love to go back and rent a car and drive the island and have the flexibility to stop at absolutely every thermal pool I came across. I would also stop at every farm that had Icelandic horses and walk up to the fence and call the horses over like the pack of friendly horse/puppies that they are and pet them till my hearts content. Do you really need anymore reasons to go to Iceland? Didn’t think so….
So that wraps up my Top 10 from 2016. 2017 is off to a slow and patience trying start. I have decided that I want to return to Saudi Arabia for another year contract, but things are very, very slowly coming together. But fingers crossed they will fall into place in the next week or so. The first time I left Saudi I felt really excited to get an apartment and sign a lease and buy furniture. The current me has none of those deep gut feelings. To be honest I’m clueless as to what country I want to even settle down in, so returning to Saudi feels right and gives me a chance to save a little more money and see some more things. And you and I both know how much of a fan I am of seeing more things! There are still a couple places in Saudi Arabia I would like to explore. There is a group of islands off the coast of Jeddah called the Farasan Islands that are a protected marine sanctuary that are supposed to be beautiful and I would also love to explore the mountains of Saudi and visit either Abha or Taif. As far as out of Saudi travel I would like to fit in a weekend trip to Oman a place I’ve already seen, and make it over to Africa to visit Ethiopia, Namibia, the Seychelles, or Madagascar. I would also very much like to visit Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia and really any of the Stans. Obviously, I’ll have to pick and choose but these are my top interests. So inshallah in the next couple weeks I’ll have a firmer idea about my return, but in the mean time I’m going to relax and try and get some much overdue blogging about the Camino done.
Wishing all my readers a very happy and healthy 2017. And obviously I wish you some kick-ass travel adventures also…….
I’ve been a little absent on my blog, but rest assured I’ve got a lot of new posts coming, once I get my thoughts in order. It’s been just over 2 weeks since Pops and I finished up the Camino, and we spend the beginning of November chilling in Paris. Chilling because it’s actually been pretty damn cold. We did some sightseeing checking things off Pops Paris bucket list and not giving our feet and legs the much needed rest that they deserved. Pops has returned to Canada, but one of the major things that he wanted to do during our time in France was to visit Vimy Ridge War Memorial. It just so happened that the first weekend in November the Veteran Affairs of Canada hosted a memorial service there. So we bought tickets and took the high speed train from Paris to Arras, the town closest to the site. The train takes about 50min. We ended up staying in Arras overnight because the memorial service times and the train times didn’t allow us to make it a day trip.
Vimy Ridge is of huge historical significance for Canadians. I’m sure most Canadians would recognize the name, but given my WWI history isn’t so great (and I’m assuming the same can be said for some of my readers especially my dear cousin Amber) I’m going to give an overall summary. WWI started in 1914 when Austria- Hungary declared war on Serbia. Because of treaties with neighbouring countries this then drew Germany, Russia, Great Britain and France into the conflict. Once Britain declared war this automatically brought Canada into the war. In 1914 Canada was still a relatively new country and this war was the first time Canadian forces fought as an independent force. By the end of the war 67,000 Canadian soldiers would be killed and 250,000 would be wounded. WWI or the “Great War” as it was known ended November 11, 1918
The battle at Vimy Ridge was fought over a 4 day period in April 1917. Basically German troops held the high ground prior to the Vimy Ridge assault and Canadian forces were credited with reclaiming the high ground from the Germans and this was essential for the advance of the British Army from the south. This victory though, came at a very steep cost. There were nearly 3,600 men killed during those bloody 4 days and over 10,000 wounded.
The Canadian National Vimy Memorial stands as a reminder to all those who served and risked their lives or lost their lives during WWI. The monument stands on soil that saw some of the most vicious fighting overlooking the Canadian battleground. The monument is imposing as its white marble stands in contrast to the surrounding hillside and skyline. The night prior to the memorial service we met some fellow Canadians (we started chatting with them trying to figure out where they got their poppy pins from) and they ended up being from Veterans Affairs Canada and were involved in the ceremony the following day. Being the nice Canadians they were they gave us their poppies and told us to meet them in the parking lot after the service for whisky shots. I liked them a lot.
The morning of the memorial service was blustering cold. The wind was raw, working itself between the seams of our jacket and scarfs. We arrived a couple hours before the memorial service was to start. The entire site is quite large consisting of a visitor center, the monument, a cemetery and then the German and Canadian tunnels and trenches. There is also work taking place to enlarge the visitor center by next year in time for the 100 year anniversary of the battle. We spent some time wandered thru the trenches and then walked back towards the monument. Much of the area is roped off with warning signs of the possibility of unexploded shells and bombs. So people aren’t allowed to walk thru the fields but nearby farmers do allow their sheep to graze thru this area. As I mentioned there is a cemetery, so we walked down to have a look. Most of the graves were unmarked inscribed with the country and sometimes the Battalion of the troops involved. Occasionally there were graves with names. We were the only visitors at the cemetery during our time there. The grave stones were lined in long rows and the cold wind blew the changing fall leaves across the cemetery. The occasional grave was adorned with flowers that had long since died or had a single poppy planted in front the petals still bright red. There was a certain heaviness in the air of all that had been lost during those 4 days nearly 100 years earlier.
We took our time walking back towards the monument. The walkway up to the monument was packed with Canadian troops. Many young, but also several older servicemen. Some were Air Force, some Army, some Navy. Some wore green and others blue. There were a few ladies in the mix. Walking between them was one of those moments where you are filled with complete pride for your country, and for those who continue to risk their loves to protect it. The backside of the memorial is adorned with 2 large statues of a man and woman on either side of the stairs both appear to be mourning. They are known as “The Mourning Parents.” Around both sides of the monument are the engraved names of those Canadian soldiers that died in France. As you walk thru the monument passing by the “Mourning Parents” you come to the front side of the monument and can stand staring up at the 2 large columns in front of you. There are several statues carved into the pillars. One statue stands out more than the others though. It’s of a young woman wearing a cloak. Her sorrow-filled face turned down towards the field below.
The memorial service started a little before 11. I’m guessing there were a couple hundred people in attendance. There were some government dignitaries and the service was conducted in both French and English. Lining the front wall of the monument were the retired servicemen and women holding flags throughout the service. Some songs were sung, poems read, wreaths laid and a moment of silence to honour the dead. It was really special to be able to attend a memorial service honoring Canadian soldiers on such a historical site. By the time the service was over we were frozen. The rawness of the air had numbed our toes and fingers and it was time to get on our way. Luckily, we ran into the Canadians we met the night before and true to their word we followed them to the parking lot for shots of whisky. This seemed like a fitting end to the service and proved an excellent way to warm up! I have never been a fan of scotch or whisky, but I can know proudly say that there is a type of whisky made in Eastern Canada that has maple syrup added to it and it is divine. And coincidentally, it would make an excellent stocking stuffer with the holidays coming up. It’s called Sortilege. So good.
After we warmed our insides with the sweet deliciousness of maple syrup whisky we walked back to the visitor center and had a tour of the underground tunnels and trenches. The Veteran Affairs of Canada has a program where Canadian university students can apply and become guides of the site for a semester. Applicants must be bilingual, but if you know a student that is interested you should encourage them to apply. It’s a really cool program. Our guide was Patrick from BC and he was awesome. He took us through the tunnels and talked to us about what it would’ve been like for the soldiers of that time, and preparation that went into the battle at Vimy Ridge. We then walked thru a small portion of the Canadian trenches. It’s hard to imagine the inhumane conditions those soldiers lived in. How cold, and wet, and scared and hungry they must have been. It’s unimaginable really. We then stopped in the visitor center so Pops could buy himself a book and made our way back to the city of Arras and to the train that would return us to Paris.
If you are in France (and Canadian) I would encourage you to visit Vimy Ridge or the Beaumont-Hamel Newfoundland Memorial which is nearby. Pay your respects to those who lost their lives in honour of our country. My patriotism always comes out when I glimpse a Canadian flag on foreign soil.
Disclaimer: I wrote this post almost 10 days ago and never posted it. I was going to revise it for present day but reading it back I wanted to share my initial thoughts on the Camino because I think they’re relevant even though we’re now 3 weeks in and 300km from Santiago. So I’ll share them anyways…..
So I’ve been on the Camino Frances with my dad for a little over a week- well actually 12 days now to be exact. We’ve walked well over 200km and we’ve walked without a rest day. Granted a couple of the days have been shorter- but still. We’ve walked 12 days straight. It has been both a physically and mentally hard journey thus far. Everyday a new part of my body aches. I’ve had blisters and bruises in various states of healing. Mentally it’s a challenge to get up some mornings. My brain wants to sleep in- to be honest my body wants to as well. But Santiago de Compostello is calling us. And so we walk. The scenery is stunning. Seriously it’s hard to describe it accurately. We get up before sunrise as the sun coming up is my favourite time of day. I love to see the start of each fresh day. The way the colours light up the sky as though an artist was painting with pastels. The sunrise is always behind us or to the side of us so we must make a concous effort to acknowledge it. To me this is the most precious part of our day.
Mentally my brain is mostly alternating between how gorgeous the scenery is or how much my knee, or hip, or toe is hurting. Otherwise my mind is pretty much blank. I hope that in the upcoming weeks I’ll put some issues to rest, make some decisions about which path my life is taking and forgive and say a final goodbyes to some unhealthy relationships that are no longer serving me. But if that doesn’t happen then that’s ok also. I don’t want to put any unnecessary pressure on this experience. I really just want to take each day for what it is. My dad and I have gotten along very well so far. We know when the other one is irritable and when to back off or not push an issue. We both just go with the flow. We have met some awesome people so far. People who started off as strangers but have quickly become friends.
Anyways here are a few of my observations for the first 12 days:
1. Hiking poles have saved my ass. There is no way I could’ve continued after getting blisters to both heels on the first afternoon. Walking uphill ( and trust me there is a lot of uphill) is pure torture. Poles help offset your weight and make it easier to hobble around. They will also save your knees on the downhill. I have found them to be tremendously helpful.
2. Staying at Orisson is essential if you’re at all concerned about your physical capabilities. Also that climb up from St Jean isn’t easy and you will taste the coldest beer of your life at Orisson when you arrive. They also put on an awesome dinner and you’ll make many of your Camino friends that first night!
3. I have complete and utter respect for anyone walking the Camino alone. This shit is hard. Walking with someone else helps motivate you when your mind keeps telling you “just sit on the couch and watch Netflix all day.” Or when you have a mental breakdown on a steep hill with no shade as each step causes your almost healed blisters to rip back open (true story involving a few tears.)
4. I’ve written about this before but it’s proved true on the Camino as well. Kindness begets kindness. On this walk (and in life) sometimes you need help and sometimes you have to step up to help others. We all rely on each other. I have witnessed sandals being lent to help ease the pain of blisters or things given to others out of charity. Sewing kits, band aids, blisters treatment remedies. People are willing to help- often you don’t even need to ask.
5. Many people will say that you carry the weight of your fears and worries on your back. This is especially true on the Camino. I am notoriously an over packer. I like to have the things I might need. I like to have different outfit choices. As a nurse I like to have medications for as many different ailments as my brain can dream up. The Camino is teaching me that I can live with so much less. 2 pairs of pants. 3 t-shirts. 1 long sleeve. 1 fleece jacket. 1 pair of PJs. 3 pairs of underwear. I don’t need much of the things I’ve convinced myself that I do!
6. The Camino is far from a fashion contest for realz. In normal life I’m fairly put together. I try to look nice. But on the Camino….that all flies out the window. I’ve been known to wear my pajamas during the day while the laundry is being done and then wander around a village. I wear socks with sandals (oh the horror) pretty much all the time. Nothing really matches and to be honest I could care less. My hair air dries-no hairdryer or straightener on the Camino and life is still ok! Who would’ve thunk it!?
So those are a few of my initial observations from the early stage of the Camino. Don’t fret- I’ve got loads of other thoughts coming!! Buen Camino!
I’ve made numerous references to my upcoming travel plans over the last few months and the main one has been walking the Camino de Santiago from the French border to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela some 800km away with my father. This has been on my bucket list for the past few years. Like many who have walked before me and many who are in the midst of planning, I heard of the Way of St James as it is otherwise referred to from browsing thru Netflix one night several years ago and coming across the movie called “The Way.” This movie started me on a journey that has led me to this very moment as I write this post from a cafe in Paris and will start my Camino with my dad later this week. The movie came out in 2010 and if you haven’t seen it you should really get it on Netflix and watch it ASAP. In the most basic form the movie is about the relationship between a father and son who chose very different paths in life. The son wants to travel the world, to see it all now, knowing that life is precious and that you have to live it for yourself and no one else. The father has spend his life priding himself in his accomplishments and having financial security and doesn’t agree with his adult sons choices. He gets a call one night that his son has died while at the beginning of the Camino. He flies to France and on a whim decides to complete the Camino in honour of his son and sets off on a pilgrimage that changes his life. The movie is heart wrenching at times to watch. I cry no less than 20 times every time I watch it, and I’ve probably watched it 50 times. No movie has ever felt so true to life or touched me as this movie does. The movie reminds you not to take life or your loved ones for granted because tomorrow is never guaranteed. It shows the immense kindness of strangers and that those people who start out as strangers can end up changing our paths entirely. It reminds you that “you don’t choose a life you live it.”
About 10 years ago I heard about the 88 temple trail in Japan and had always put this in the back of my mind as something I would like to do, so the idea of pilgrimage wasn’t entirely new to me. I’m not particularly athletic. Or more, I’m not really athletic or outdoorsy in anyway. I could lose a few pounds. And yet I’m drawn to the magnitude of this endeavor. To walk 800km is in itself a monstrous task. It will in no way be easy, and the challenge of it is one of the top reasons I’m walking it. I have a deep seeded belief that I will finish it and yet the physical and emotional turmoil of it are hard to fully imagine. A big part of my reasons for wanting to walk the Camino are personal. I want time alone with my thoughts. I want clarity. I want to put emotional issues to rest. I want to just focus the next 40days on walking. That is all I’ll have to do every morning. Just put one foot in front of the other and walk. I want to walk it for the people I know I will meet along the way. To hear their stories. To connect with people in a genuine way. On the Camino no one cares what your profession is, or how much you earn, or what your retirement plan is. You are all Pilgrims (peregrinos). All equal. All walking for personal reasons.
So what exactly is the Camino? Well essentially it is a walk to the place where the apostle St James is believed to be buried under the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. There are several different routes. My father and I are walking the Camino Frances which is the most popular largely on account of the movie and the fact that the trail is well maintained with villages and towns regularly spaced out. Each year sees increasing numbers of pilgrims. This year is a Holy year in the Catholic church so it is busier than normal. The pilgrimage dates back to medieval times- people have been walking it for over 1000 years. Back then it was believed (and many still do) that you were absolved of all your sins once the pilgrimage was completed. The Camino Frances starts at the foot of the Pyrenees in the town of St Jean Pied de Port. We have opted to split the first day into 2 days as we don’t want to injure ourselves and we are in no rush. The first week is often described as “brutal.” Then your body supposedly adjusts and you get used to the pace. I expect to likely cry and probably vomit going over the Pyrenees. I figure if I have this as my expectation I can then be pleasantly surprised if neither of these things happen.
Pilgrims sleep in albergues (hostels) or hotels or guesthouses. Upon arrival in St Jean pilgrims head to the pilgrim office to pick up their pilgrim passport which they will get stamped daily as they make their way to Santiago. Once in Santiago the passport is shown at the office there and pilgrims receive a certificate (otherwise known as a compostela.) People walk it for religious reasons, physical reasons and personal reasons. People of all ages, all nationalities and all backgrounds walk. They walk for loss, grief, clarity, and spiritual guidance. Many people return to walk different Camino routes to Santiago.
I’m going to try a post something every other day to my Facebook page if you want to follow along. Most likely photos or conversations with those I meet and a recap of our progress. But for now Buen Camino…..
“It’s your road, and your alone. Others may walk it with you, but no one can walk it for you.” Rumi