Friday, November 9, 2007

Camino de Santiago - Santiago and Finsterre!

Santiago de Compostella! - September 5 to October 6, 2007

Santiago de Compostella! Its a beautiful sight to see, especially if you just walked 500 miles to see it. What´s left to say.

And for me, the highlight of the Camino is Finsterre and watching the sunset over the Atlantic Ocean. It´s really hard to describe in words. It´s breathtaking.

Its a ritual that at sunset, you burn an item of clothing that you wore on the Camino. Its actually not a bad idea because after 30 days of wearing only 2 changes of clothes, all of your clothes are completely ruined.

But maybe it symbolizes the old part of you that you let go. The part that the camino changed and replaced with something better. Who knows. But it made a nice ending to an incredible experience!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Camino de Santiago - Some Highlights

I´ve decided not to elaborate on every detail of my experiences and lessons learned on the Camino because, 1) there is just too much to say and ... 2) I´ve decided to write a book that details most of it.

But I do want to include some highlights and interesting points.

1. I walked over 500 miles straight! Over the Pyrenees mountains and the entire width of Spain.
2. I slept in a church (and the crucifix looks a little spooky at night.)
3. I slept in a corn field with nothing but a sleeping bag and a poncho (in October). There was so much fog that my sleeping bag was completely soaked when I woke up.
4. I attempted to walk 90 kilometers in 1 night. I would have had a better chance if I didn´t miss a waymarker at 12:00 midnight and get lost for 2 hours. When I finally found someone, they couldn´t point out where I was on my map.
5. I fasted for 3 days (drinking only bottled water) walking over 30 kilometers each day. I lost about 10 kilos or 20 pounds in the process.

Other random points of interest:

In Spain, when you order a hot chocolate, that´s exactly what you get. It´s a bar of chocolate melted down into a liquid. Its the real deal! If you let it set a while, it will actually start to harden. It´s the way hot chocolate should be done.

Hungry? Sometimes you got to do what you got to do. Life on the Camino is good but its not easy. :)

Zoom in and take a look. That´s 6 flies crawling around on his face. I know your thinking, ¨Yeah, what´s the big deal¨ but try it. It´s impossible.

This is my friend´s foot, not mine. Now those are real blisters.

Moral of the story? When you drink beer, please drink one at a time.

Any many many more...

Camino de Santiago - Don´t drink the water!

I´m on day 19 of the Camino de Santiago. My blisters have, for the most part, healed. My boots have broken in and my body has become accustomed to the daily grind of hiking each day. And even my mind, with occasional lapses, has becomes used to the slow pace of walking for hours and hours.

And when the day finally came that all of these things came together and I felt like I had finally mastered the Camino, I and several other pilgrims made the mistake of drinking the water. Drinking the tap water is the norm and I´ve been doing it from the start of the trip. In fact, Spain installed public water fountains along the trail so that pilgrims wouldn´t go thirsty. But the rumor is that some farmers (those bastards) because of a mild winter, had sprayed the crops to kill a rodent (mouse looking creatures) from destroying the crops. In doing so, it got into the water system, into the tap water, in the fountains and the taps, into my water bottle and into my stomach for the last couple of days.

Some people became sick immediately, diarrhea & vomiting that very night. But I was fine. The next day, we found out the water had been contaminated but it had only given me gas. I figured that whatever bacteria I got from drinking the water in Costa Rica was eating whatever pollutants they had here in Spain, mere child´s play.

And so I tracked on to the next town not giving it much thought. Well, at about 5:00pm that night, I started to feel really tired and decide to take a afternoon siesta (God bless Spain.) It was then and there that it hit me like a freight train. Fever, chills, upset stomach, etc. I was so exhausted, I didn´t want to get up to go to the bathroom. It was bad news. Luckily no diarrhea or vomiting though!

Fortunately, I felt better the next day, at least enough to walk about 10 miles to the next town to get some rest. I´ve been taking it easy since then. Each day gets a little better.

By tomorrow, I will be in Leon, Spain.

Camino De Santiago - First week

I am in Day 8 of the Camino de Santiago. Essentially, you wake up, walk 6,7,8 or more hours each day to the next town or city, wash your clothes, eat dinner, and go to bed. Or at least that is the way it has been for me for the last week. This will change though. The ¨Camino¨has a way of teaching you. (or ¨explaining it to you¨as my Dad liked to say). My backpack weighed about 18 kilograms or about 40 pounds because I had my tent inside. They advise you not to take more than 8 to 10 kilograms but I thought the extra weight would be good excercise and I liked being able to camp when I liked. Well, I had no troubles with breathing or muscle pain, but it will tear up your feet and your joints. My feet would be swollen, red and feeling like they were going to explode each night. I would sometimes loose feeling in my toes and it started to take a toll on my knees. Today, I found out you could mail the tent to Santiago (5 kilos) for about $10. ¡Hasta la vista!

Anyway, I learned an important lesson today and each day it teaches me another. It also gives me a pain in a different muscle, joint or just another blister.

And for all of this, I can easily say that this is going to be (and already has to a degree) one of the BEST experiences in my life and I would highly encourage (almost threaten) that everyone do it. It is absolutely amazing! The landscape, the terrain, the people, the camino, the way of life, the simplicity, the time to think, to breathe, the freedom, the pain, everything, its aboslutely INCREDIBLE! I can´t emphasize this enough.

You can walk many different paths and you can take as much or as little time as you like but I would encourage at least 30 days. I get the feeling and other people have said this as well, that the Camino has a way of breaking you down and rebuilding you. Right now, I´m in the breaking down process but somehow, I´m enjoying it. Crazy.

Buen Camino!

Camino de Santiago - Day 1

(Day 1 of the Camino at the train station in St. Jean Pied de Port, France)

The Camino De Santiago ("The Way of St. James" in English) is a pilgrimage to the city of Santiago de Compestella in the north of Spain. You can start wherever you like but the most traversed and the most famous route is the Camino Frances (from St. Jean Pied de Port in France). Basically, its a 764 kilometer (roughly 500 mile) hike across the north of Spain. You can walk another 90 km to the coast, Finsterre. ("Fin" meaning "end" and "terre" meaning "earth." Essentially, the Romans believed that this was the furthermost point on the globe and from here, you can watch the ocean swallow the sun each day. And it really does look like it.) Well, I could go on and on but there are a lot of websites that describe the origins and history of the pilgrimage. It´s worth taking a look.

Go to Wikipedia: or just do a Google search.

I hiked the entire way from St. Jean to Finsterre in about 31 days but I stopped in Santiago for 3 days for the celebration and to meet up with fellow pilgrims and friends. It was one of the best experiences of my life. Hands down.

Day 1: St Jean Pied de Port, France to Roncesvalles, Spain

The first day is one of the toughest. Its about 27 kilometers (about 17 miles) walk over the Pyrenees mountains. The views are spectacular but its physically challenging, cold and long. Within 4 hours, I already had a fresh new blister on my heel that stayed with me (with every step) for about a week. This was the first of many to come. I remember feeling a little soreness in my heel and thinking, ¨I will wait just a bit before I take my shoe off.¨ When I stopped 15 minutes later, the blister had already busted and continued to get bigger and bigger.

When I made it to Roncesvalles, I put up my tent, ate some cereal and just laid there. I couldn´t move.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Where have I been?

Well.... Europe.

I´ve been doing a little traveling all over. Some by train, some by plane and a lot on foot (a little over 500 miles). I´ve ditched the map because it took too long to load but I´ll try to add a link later.

Some of the noteworthy cities:

Belgium - Brussels and Gent
Holland - Groningen and Amsterdam
France - Marseille, La Ciotat, and Paris
Italy - Milan and Bergamo
Germany - Kassel, Munster and Hamburg (coming soon)
Spain - Camino de Santiage (Leon, Burgos, Santiago de Compestella, Finsterra), Madrid, Salamanca, Toleda, Granada and Barcelona!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Aurelie - Paris, France

(Aurelie & Me)

Next stop, Paris, France to visit my good friend, Aurelie a couple of days before I walked the Camino de Santiago. Again, her hospitality was limitless. She showed me around Paris, had me sample different kinds of French dishes (cheeses, breads, wines, crepes, etc. At my request, she even prepared ¨Ratatouille¨like the film. And...

And she even took me to a very nice Arabic/Morrocan restaurant. I was surprised at how great the music, food and drink were. I couldn´t even begin to tell you what I had but it was all great. It´s like nothing I´ve ever had before. And the treat came at the end of the meal. This bong looking contraption above is a Shi-Sha (I have no idea how to spell it.) Essentially, its a bong and you smoke... Tobacco! There are several types of flavored tobacco you can try. Its more flavor than tobacco but definitely worth trying one time.

I also continued my art education by revisiting The Louvre (looking for DaVinci Code clues and the Mona Lisa), the Orsay Museum, Pantheon, etc. Paris is an incredible city.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Annegreet! - Groningen, Holland

(Annegreet´s home in Een, Holland)

After two weeks in Italy, I flew to Holland to see Anne and her stomping grounds. It´s a shame that Holland gets Amsterdam´s reputation because the rest of the country is nothing like it. The north of Holland is extremely green, lush and beautiful. And because its so flat, you can see the countryside and farms for miles and miles.

Again, there is so much to say about my stay. It was absolutely incredible and one of the highlights of my trip. As you can see, Anne´s parents live in a very nice house in the countryside. (Yes, their house has a thatched roof as do most houses in the area.) And from the time I walked in the door, they treated me like family. Maybe better than. I told them that I liked to see and try different things and they did just that. I had horse meat (lekker!) several times, sampled countless beers, wines, cheeses and typical Dutch dishes (my personal favorite, Stoomport (?sp?), experienced a real Dutch BBQ and birthday party, went on beautiful bike rides and runs through the countryside, went to a horse show (I had to go to Holland to watch one of these...) and much much more. I can´t thank them enough.

(Annegreet´s dog, Fritz)

Fritz, Annegreet´s dog, was great. He absolutely loved to play, especially with his ball. I don´t think I´ve ever seen a dog with so much personality. Sometimes he fetched the ball and others, he made you fetch it from him. We had some good times. I came very close to tucking him away in my luggage and taking him with me. Part of me thinks I should have.

Regardless, when Annegreet´s father had his birthday party, we celebrated outside on the patio. Well, Fritz, thinking that since we were outside and someone would play with him, waited at the trunk of the tree you see above. (They sometimes keep the ball up there when they are finished playing with him.) What´s funny is that he waited there for over 4 hours! Poor Fritz. He didn´t budge an inch in that whole time. He just stared at the ball hoping and praying that someone would play. After it was dark, I went over and threw it a couple times just to reward him for his persistence. Fritz!

(Me, Annegreet, her brother and Mom after the 9K)

As luck would have it, I was able to run a 9K in Groningen with Annegreet´s brother, Henk. Although I don´t remember the time now, I finished in one of my times ever because the entire course was flat. (as is all of Holland)

Anne, her Mom, and our friend, Jolanda were waiting for me at the finish line. And Annegreet´s Mom bought me a bouquet of flowers congratulating me on the race.

I had such a great time and everyone was incredibly nice. It was really hard leaving.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Matteo! - Milan, Italy

(Matteo working on an art exhibition.)

Next, I went to Milan, Italy to visit my very good friend Matteo. Matteo is one of the most incredible people you will ever meet. He is second to none. He just has a zest for life and it energizes everyone around him. Its no wonder he is an artist (contemporary). While at his place, he & his family treated me like royalty. He gave me tours of Milan (including the Duomo), Bergamo, (his home town), and hiked in the Pre-Alps of North Italy.

(Hiking in the Pre-Alps)

Blowout! Matteo & I also went hiking for about 3 hours near Bergamo to get a nice view of the surrounding cities (you can see for miles). Well, just as we are about to reach the peak, one of Matteo´s boots completely blows out. It was like nothing I´d ever seen. As you can see, the entire sole just falls out. And before he reaches the bottom, he is walking with one foot in a boot and the other in a sock. Imagine walking on rocky, jagged terrain in socks for 3 hours. Incredible. I couldn´t help but laugh. I offered to trade boots but he wouldn´t have it. He handled it all in good spirits. It still makes me smile thinking about it.

Other interesing facts:

Matteo had to go to a couple of art exhibitions in Germany and he graciously rearranged his plans so I could tag along. Among others, we went to the Documenta Project in Kassel (only every 5 years) and the Sculpture Project in Munster (only every 10 years). I met so many great people, learned so much about art, especially contemporary art, and saw art I wouldn´t think humanly possible and had a great time.

Be careful when you stay with an Italian family. Especially if you are trying to watch your weight. Eating is quasi compulsary, although, I have to admit that I didn´t put up much of a fight. I don´t know where to start. I will say that the cuisine in the North of Italy is a little different from what you expect. But either way, it´s still great. And the ice cream, forget it. It should be illegal.

And in typical Frank style, the first time I drive in Europe (I helped drive back from the art exhibitions in Germany) I get pulled over by the police. Nice!

Friday, November 2, 2007

C´est la vie - Marseilles, France

(The moonlit beach at La Ciotat)

The days in Belgium starting getting colder so Anne and I decided to head somewhere warmer. We looked at the airport for last minute flights but didn´t have any luck. We checked the train station and the gentleman said there was an availability for Marseille, France. I only needed to know one thing, "Is it warm there?"

The next day, we took the train and headed to the south of France, which is incredibly beautiful by the way. Marseilles was a bigger city so we ended up setting up camp nearby in La Ciotat. We camped under an olive tree, soaked up the sun and enjoyed the beautiful weather on the Mediterranean beaches. It was just what we needed. We hung out at the beach, rented bikes and rode around town, and just relaxed. Also, you´d be surprised at the meals Anne can cook up with just a gas camp stove.

On one of the last days we were there, Anne took me out for my birthday to a nice French restaurant. We got all dressed up and made ourselves pretty. (At least Anne did, there´s no help for me.) Before this place, I didn´t understand cuisine, much less French cuisine, and what all the excitement was about. Let me tell you, its an incredible experience: the atmosphere, music, lighting, wine... I couldn´t even tell you, much less pronounce what I ordered but it was great! It wasn´t necessarily one thing that tasted great, the portions certainly weren´t big, nor overly salty or sweet. But it was all put together and orchestrated just right. It´s a must try.

(In France, swimming pools are boxers only)

One very funny story to leave you with (at least I thought it was funny.) At the campsite I'm staying, there is a swimming pool. I went to take a quick dip and right before I got in the water, the lifeguard instructed me that I couldn't wear my shorts. I showed him the fabric and the lining ensuring him that they were indeed swimming trunks but it wasn't acceptable. He said I needed boxers or briefs. He pointed to the pool and sure enough, there were only boxers or briefs (all of the very tight configuration). I couldn't believe what I heard. But then I thought, "When in Rome,...", France in my case. I changed into my tightest boxers and jumped right in. And I've posted the picture to prove it. The world is a great and interesting place.

Also, for some unknown reason, France doesn't believe in peanut butter. I can't find it in any grocery store anywhere. You can buy ground up duck, fish or pork but not peanuts.

C`est la vie!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Gentse Feesten - Gent, Belgium

I flew into Brussels, Belgium on July 17th, and went directly to my old 2002 stomping grounds in Gent. From July 14 to the 23rd, the people of Gent celebrate Gentse Feesten which essentially is a city wide 10 day non-stop party with great music, dancing, food and of course, beer and fries (They are Belgian, not French.)

(The city of Gent during the day)

Annegreet and I had a great time. We met up with some of her friends, danced, sampled the beer, the food (waffles, sausages, and of course, the fries) (Even the French will concede their Belgian.)

(Belgium waffle! LEKKER!)

(Annegreet with the fries drenched with mayonaise and curry ketchup!)

One last thing, I thoroughly enjoyed (and you won't find these in the States) the public urinals. (sorry ladies, men only) I know, I know. It's disgusting but there is something magical about it that I can't explain. You just have to experience it. It's peeing outside like men should. Its freedom. Not to mention, practical. During the festival, if public urinals weren't plentiful, men would be peeing everywhere. It would be a nightmare.

(Me, waiting in line for the public urinals.)