So There I Was Buck Naked Again – pt 2

If you are reading this post, you might want to start with my previous story about my Korean Spa experience. Being led around naked by middle-aged women seems to be a trend for me. Maybe not quite a trend, but I’m posting about it twice so not sure what this says about me.

Anyway, I arrived in Istanbul after another whirlwind Fiesta in Pamplona and knowing I would be exhausted and likely a tad dirty, I had the forethought of booking a Turkish bath for the night of my arrival. After checking into Hotel Amira (would stay here again without hesitation…great staff and lovely rooms), I walked to Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Humami just a few blocks up the street, between the Hagia Sophia museum and the Blue Mosque.

IMG_3994I was in Istanbul durning Ramadan and so there were lots of people on the lawns between these landmarks, the two largest points of interest in the Old Town. It was a lovely evening but slightly hot and I was hungry, tired and on a mission to be cleansed. The entrance to this beautiful hamam (bath house) was down a flight of steps adjacent to a mosque. The hamam was immediately an oasis and I was greeted by a nice girl who promptly took my credit card and invited me to a dressing room to remove my clothes and don a Turkish bath towel (called a pestemal) and plastic slippers. I followed directions and was then led into a gorgeous white marble domed room and then into another, slightly smaller, gorgeous white marble domed room.

turkish bathWhen I say “white marble,” I mean that every surface (floor, wall, bench, ceiling, slab, and water trough) was marble. It was pretty and rather ethereal, but it was also steamy.I was coming off of five days in Pamplona and to say this hot wet room was making me a bit lightheaded would be an understatement. But a detox was likely in order and so I just made sure I had good footing on the wet slippery floors, held on tightly to the hand of my attendant, and did what I was told.

My attendant, a very sweet and plump Turkish lady, disrobed me and motioned for me to sit on a marble bench while she filled bowl after bowl of tepid water from a brass spigot and poured it all over my body and head. This was all very refreshing but also slightly alarming. I never knew where the next bowl was going to hit me and she didn’t seem to consider that when dumping a bowl of water over one’s head, one can’t breath. In any case, I smiled and she smiled and mimed directions for which way I should turn or shift.

After a thorough cleansing, the sweet Turkish lady took my hand and my towel (read: I am walking bare naked in plastic sandals) and led me into another room which was identical to the last room but in this room, she used a hand mitt (called a kese) to scrub the crap out of my skin. It wasn’t as painful as the Korean Spa but a bit more awkward as I was sitting and so I kept having to shift around in order for her to get all of me. I suppose it would have been easier had I spoken Turkish. Miming directions in that situation is just never easy. I kept leaning right when she was trying to scrub my foot or something. It was comical. Even more comical (or sad sad sad) is the sweet Turkish woman showing me the mitt with a shocked look on her face. She was either removing two years of dead skin or a week of fiesta grime. I’m going with the latter.

After my attendant was satisfied my skin was nice and exfoliated, she doused me with more bowls of water and then led me into another room (yes, identical to the first two…not sure why we couldn’t have accomplished all of this in Room 1). There, the sweet Turkish lady slathered my body with mud and told me “five minutes.” Gawd, it was hot in there! Five minutes felt like a week. But dangit, I was going to enjoy it. If I could just keep the mud from dripping into my eyes. I think I would have loved this part if I had been invited to lie down on the marble. In hindsight, I probably could have. But I follow directions and lying down was not one of them.

Six minutes later, things got AWESOME. Sweet Turkish lady (I wish I knew her name) doused me with more bowls of water and led me (still naked…not sure the purpose of the towel she carried around for me) to the central domed marble room with a heated slab. It’s called the göbektaşı and means “belly stone.” There, she lay me down on top of my towel (ok, towel purpose) and then dipped a big mesh fabric that resembled a pillow case (called a köpük torbası) into a big brass urn of soapy water and if I had spoken Turkish, I would have totally stopped her so I could understand how she did what happened next. I was suddenly enveloped in more soapy bubbles than that London rave circa 1992. It was heavenly! My body was pilled high with pillow case after pillow case of soapy bubbles. As much as I love the filth of Fiesta, this was the cleansing I was waiting for. I seriously couldn’t see above a 45 degree angle because the bubbles on my body were THAT high. After a rub down, I was dowsed once more with water and the sweet Turkish lady sat me up, handed me another towel and walked me into the reception area where I was served yummy Turkish Delights and a lovely cold sweet tea while I waited for my masseuse.

The massage was wonderful (except for the exacerbation of the mysterious bruises on my legs…clearly, I run into things. Read: Windsor Pub). After miming to her that maybe I could just sleep in the hamam that night (I’m good at miming and she laughed), I changed out of the plastic slippers and into my street clothes, thanked the nice Turkish women for making me clean again, and wandered back to my hotel.

Turkish bath: check.

Just when you think you might die of thirst…

This was my mom’s favorite story I told her about the Camino so you get to hear it, too….

At the end of June this year, I was wrapping up my five days on the Camino de Santiago and after having survived a couple of meltdowns and contemplating cutting my feet off at the ankles, I had finally settled into the walk and was quite enjoying myself. This, the fourth day, found me and my friend Katie walking separately from Bruma to Siguero. It would be around 28km and the terrain would change quite a bit…less mountains and more farmland. Sadly, the fabulous water fountains we had been accustomed to also mysteriously disappeared. As did any villages or small towns in which to buy food. Somehow I wasn’t all that upset by this development and pretty much bounced along the trails and dirt roads with a grumbling tummy and parched lips, but happy the weather was nice and simply relieved my flip flops had restored my feet.

About 8 hours into this 9 hour walk, I spotted a figure way up in the distance. It was Katie Ford!! I couldn’t believe I had caught up to her as I was certain my lazyass pilgrim’s leisurely breakfast had likely put me way behind. But Katie had taken a wrong turn that morning and was also feeling some pain and so was taking the day’s walk gingerly. But the one thing I knew Katie did have going for her was a camelback. Yes! At this point I had not had a sip of water in almost five hours!

But alas, Katie Ford was also out of water. And food.

We walked together for a while but she really wanted to go slow and I really wanted to sprint to town before I died of thirst. I forged ahead and after another hour I finally made it into Siguero. As I approached the city, it kept feeling like there should be a convenience store or gas station around every turn. But, nada. Then the Camino took me through a pretty little city park and I’m thinking, “perfect…for sure there will be a water fountain or at least a bathroom with a sink.” Psych! Seriously, I was walking through there very audibly saying, “REALLY? REALLY?? NO WATER????”

But then, and this wasn’t the first time that something so unexpected would happen on the Camino, I rounded a corner and BAM! Huge public swimming pool with kids doing cannonballs and parents lounging around on a blanket of green grass. I marched my dirty pilgrim butt up to the counter, paid my 2 Euro, changed into my swimsuit and sprawled out on the grass with a giant pink popsicle. I’m hard-pressed to think of another time I’ve felt so overjoyed with such a simple pleasure.

So there I was, buck naked again…

I originally wrote this story last January in an email to some girlfriends. I debated posting it due to some nudity but then figured that while it was a little bizarre, it was perfectly legal (I think) and so here goes…

January 7, 2013
So I’ve been up in Dallas working and was feeling a little worn out and beat up from the past few weeks. This afternoon I decided to look for a yoga studio or something to unwind and relax. I remembered a friend of mine talking about a Korean spa and sauna that her sister had tried so I Googled it and found King Spa & Sauna. Since there were tons of great reviews on Yelp, I thought, “what the heck, I’ll try it.”

Around 6:30 tonight, I drove up to North Dallas and as soon as I pulled through the huge entrance flanked by 30 foot tall fiberglass giraffes and into a packed parking lot in front of a mammoth building, I knew this was no Milk & Honey Day Spa. KING SPA & SAUNA (all caps seems more appropriate) had already made an impression. Of what, I wasn’t quite certain.

With a tiny amount of trepidation, I walked past a pair of life-sized bronze lions, up the steps and into to the reception hall. I was a little unsure of what to do but the Yelp reviews had informed me of a couple of things. For instance, the staff may or may not be friendly and helpful (may not, check). You must immediately take off your shoes (check). And they have a scrub/massage/facial package for $120 that everyone seems to love (where do I sign up!).

While the staff who greeted me were not friendly nor helpful (annoyed with another non-Korean speaking white girl seemed more like it), I did at least gather that I was to book spa services in the actual ladies locker room area. So I paid my $27 entrance fee, got my plastic bracelet with locker key, removed my shoes and found the ladies area. I also knew from the Yelp reviews that complete nudity was pretty much the game so wasn’t too shocked to walk into a large locker room full of completely naked women of all shapes, sizes, ages and ethnicities. I approached the young girl standing at a little table with a schedule book and mimed my request for a 9pm spa reservation. Ok, so two hours to kill….what next?

Since the schedule girl spoke zero English (or at least pretended not to), a nice naked lady told me where to find my bright orange t-shirt/shorts outfit that is the mandatory uniform for the entire facility (sans the locker room and wet room, of course). She gave me a few other tips and off I went. Or rather, off went my clothes.

After storing my things in a locker, I strutted my stuff into the wet room (there is a separate one for men). The big rule posted everywhere is that you must shower (basically high school-style with shower heads lining a wall) before entering any of the pools. I obeyed and then took a dip in one of the hot whirlpools. I’m not a huge fan of hot tubs so I moved to the cold pool next. After that shock (it was more like Barton Springs than just a cool-off pool), I tried the wet sauna. I liked that one the best. I immediately felt all the holiday booze pouring out of my skin. There was one other completely naked lady in there with me and at some point, one of the staff girls opened the door and said something to us in Korean….it seemed like a reprimand but we weren’t sure what we were doing wrong. I mean, sweating in the buff seemed to be the thing to do.

Anyway, after showering again, I put on the ridiculous orange uniform (I surmised that they make them so doggone ugly to prevent theft) and headed out of the women’s area and into the main hall of the spa. This is basically the co-ed part of the place and there were people everywhere. All in matching orange uniforms. It sort of looked like prison, except everyone was happy. There were couples (young and old), families, gaggles of teenagers, random people like myself. This place is actually open 24/7 so I guessed it was an overnight destination for many. Cheaper than a hotel, right?

Down the center of this hall were a series of very Ming Dynasty-ornate chairs (um, guessing maybe a Chinese reference is politically incorrect in a Korean story, but I don’t know any Korean dynasties), small little dainty tables with slightly less hugely ornate chairs, little tables and chairs for kids, and at the far end, rows upon rows of big leather recliners in front of an enormous TV screen with no sound. But don’t let the close-caption mislead you….this was not a quite place. To the right was the “cafeteria” with all sorts of Korean dishes, smoothies and teas….lots of clatter and chatter. But finally, on the left side of the hall were all the different saunas. I headed to the very end of the hall, thinking I would try them all and work my way back to the ladies wet room where I would get my treatments later. And also thinking I could get away from the throngs of people.

The first one I tried was the Infrared Room. Basically it was a room with some infrared lights. It was actually quite soothing and totally quiet but then I couldn’t remember if infrared light causes skin cancer and I got myself freaked out and left. Next I tried the Gold Pyramid Room. It was also very relaxing and quite a bit warmer than the first room. The gold plated walls and ceiling cleanse you or make your energy vibrate or something. It smelled good. But there were two girls in the corner whispering and playing an iPod through earbuds (which you can totally still hear) and so it was sort of hard to concentrate on my third eye and stuff.

Next I tried a larger and much hotter room (can’t remember what it was named) but there were so many people talking so loudly, I wondered why they were here and not at a bar. Nobody seemed to mind the “Quiet Please” signs and the staff was oblivious so I moved on. I entered the Salt Dome Room at the same time as a very handsome black dude who flashed me a huge grin and told me this was his favorite room. At first it was awesome…we were the only two in there and it was totally silent. It smelled heavenly and was pretty darned hot so the sweat started pouring again and I could feel the toxins dripping to the floor. But then a group of three girls came in, all with iPhone in hand, and just started chatting away like they had never learned English and so the “Quiet Please” sign clearly meant nothing (they were speaking English, by the way). The handsome guy immediately sat up and asked them to respect the quiet and then those damn girls continued to giggle in hushed voices (as if we couldn’t hear them from 1.5 feet away). Ok, deep breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Third eye. I’m in tune with my body. I’m not hearing about their boyfriends. But then the freaking girl sitting next to me starts scrolling through her phone (obviously she doesn’t know you can make it NOT click) and that was it. I sighed and left.

At that point, all the sweating had me feeling a little queasy so I went over to the cafeteria and got a green tea. My plastic bracelet was scanned and the tea charged to my account. I had brought a new book with me called Vortex that’s all about getting in touch with your inner self and drawing things into your life, etc…seemed like the thing to read at a detox spa. But for whatever reason, I grabbed an In Style magazine and read up on hair care instead. I do feel more enlightened, but maybe not in the way Vortex intended.

ANYWAY, after lounging in a recliner and learning a few hair tricks (spray dry shampoo on bobby pins to make them stay in place better!) it was time for my spa treatments. I made my way back to the ladies’ lounge and was instructed to go stand in the wet room and wait for my number to be called. So there I was, buck naked again, standing in the wet room waiting to be told what to do. Finally a Korean woman (maybe 50ish) wearing a black and white polka dot bra and matching panties called my number. She lead me to the far side of the wet room where a row of maybe a dozen massage tables covered in Pepto Bismol-pink plastic were lined up behind a low wall that was topped with glass etched with Bart Simpson’s image. Not kidding. Read that again if you need to.

Suzi (that’s what the sign on the wall above the table said her name was…she did not introduce herself) pointed at a table and motioned for me to lie on my stomach. I did what I was told and the next thing I know she was throwing buckets of warm water on me…what a cool sensation! But then the scrubbing began. At first it hurt like hell. I mean, this woman was wearing exfoliating gloves and rubbing the backs of my legs like she was scrubbing blood out of carpet before the police showed up. But my mind drifted to the Yelp reviews that gushed over how “worth the discomfort” was ‘cuz “your skin would be so soft,” so I relaxed into it and after a while, it actually didn’t hurt so much.

This went on for a while with Suzi flipping me this way and that, scrubbing the shit out of every square inch of my body. Oddly, when she had me flipped over on my back, all I could think of was, “I wonder how she thinks I got the huge bruises on my leg.” And then I thought, “I wonder how I got those huge bruises on my leg.” Oh yeah….NYE at Courtney Mountain Ranch. Makes total sense.

After all the scrubbing was done, Suzi doused me with more buckets of water and then told me to go shower off. I followed orders, making my way past the other women getting the shit scrubbed out of them by middle-aged women in lingerie. After I returned to my table, Suzi patted me dry and then started in on some serious Korean massage. Now this type of massage might be a little rough for some but I’ve had massages in Thailand, China and Bali and so am used to the technique. And Lord knows I needed some intense massage. But I have to admit I’ve never had the twisting and elbowing and pounding followed up with a woman straddling my bare butt and rubbing hot oil all over me. I was trying not to laugh as I pictured my mother seeing this whole episode. I mean, it wasn’t dirty or inappropriate…heck, at least six or seven other women where getting the same treatments just feet away from me…but still.

Next, Suzi began to rub the most delightful peppermint oil into my scalp….now that was amazing. And after wrapping my head in a hot towel, she flipped me over, slathered on more hot oil and then applied a super thick, incredibly cold mask to my face. Once Suzi was satisfied that I couldn’t open my mouth (yes, the crazy mask went right over my lips), she put a swatch of fabric over my eyes and then went to massaging the rest of me. “Maybe the massage will actually get rid of the bruises,” I theorized.

Now, you may be asking yourself if this story can get any more bizarre. Well, yes. Yes it can.

So I’m lying there on my back, covered in hot oil, turban on my head, lips sealed with a mask and my eyes covered with a strip of fabric. I have no idea, and I mean NO idea, what was going to happen next. That’s when Suzi pushes me to a sitting position and literally spins me around on the oily plastic table. It would have been funny (you know, spinning around on your oily bare butt) if I hadn’t been so surprised. Then she laid me back down so that my head was by the hose (yes, there was a garden hose at the end of each table) and began to wash my hair.

I’ll give you a moment to take all that in. It was a lot to experience so I’m sure it’s a lot to digest. I share this with you because many of you have traveled with me (or at least have read my past travel stories) and so I thought you would appreciate one that happened right here in Big D. In any case, that was the end of the treatment and after removing the mask in one fell swoop (I love those kind!), Suzi sat me up and nodded to me. I took that as my queue to smile, thank her and walk my scrubbed, pounded and oiled naked ass back to my locker. Thank gawd tip was included in the price….that could have been an awkward exchange.

I must say that my skin is indeed as smooth as a baby’s butt, my hair feels luxuriously soft, and the giant knot in the middle of my back is gone. Will I do this again? HELL YES. I know it must sound crazy, but honestly we’re the only culture I know who are so dang prude and modest. This place really was about healing and relaxing and using centuries-old wellness techniques. I would definitely prefer a spa like this for adults-only as all the kids (children to high school) were a bit annoying, but overall I was pleased with the five hours I spent there tonight. Oh, and the guy who checked me out at the reception desk was way nicer than the one who checked me in.

The end.

You Gotta Laugh to Keep From Crying

“Baby, sometimes you gotta laugh to keep from cryin’.”

I’ve heard my mom use this phrase my entire life and I can say without hesitation that it has saved me from myself on more than one occasion.  I’m a pretty balanced and positive person but there are times when I crumble like the best of us. And while I’ve experienced much harder challenges in life than the Camino de Santiago, there were a few moments that most definitely tested my mother’s favorite saying.

I don’t think it was an accident that our first day on the Camino was amazing. The weather was mild and the walk was easy.  Katie and I merrily took in our surroundings as we relaxed into our adventure. Our packs were just right, bodies felt strong, the paths were easy to follow.  We stopped after 12km when we arrived at our first albergue in a town called Neda. The albergue, situated on a green lawn next to a pretty river inlet, was brand new and surprisingly void of pilgrims. I had been skeptical of staying in these pilgrim hostals as I am not a fan of dormitory-style arrangements. We couldn’t believe how nice this one was and to our delight, Katie and I had a private room for the bargain price of 6 Euro each!

We picked up some pasta and wine at a nearby grocery store and I made us a nice dinner while Katie washed our clothes. We adorned our picnic table with a bouquet of lavender and dined in the fresh cool breeze with a huge lovely sun slowly sinking on the horizon. With that same cool breeze gently rustling the drapes and a faint industrial clanging sound in the distance, we were both lulled into the sleep of babies. I’m not sure what everyone was warning me about on this pilgrimage. The Camino is awesome!

I’m sure you know where this is going.

The next day started out fine enough. In fact, the next 8-9 hours where quite pleasant. We had packed sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs in our packs before leaving the albergue so a mid-morning snack was in hand. We stumbled upon a lovely beach outside of Pontedueme around lunchtime and enjoyed the ocean air while we sipped beers and listened to 70’s classics coming from the radio behind the bar. We stopped for chocolate croissants and coffee at a cute sidewalk café. We did need our rain jackets as it was misty. But definitely not raining. Piece. Of. Cake.

Around 5pm we found ourselves in a town called Miño. There was an albergue there but it was sort of a gloomy place (especially in comparison to the albergue in Neda) and the next town was only 8km away. We decided to stop for a beer and make a decision. Note to self: do not make super important decisions on the Camino de Santiago after a couple of beers.

With fresh enthusiasm, we decided to forge ahead. I mean it’s only 8km. That’s like, 5 miles. It’s the long loop around Town Lake. We can totally cover that in under two hours and then we will be in Betanzos (way cooler town) on a Saturday night with plenty of time for a good dinner at a nice restaurant.

Sigh.

Now I’m not sure why we thought the terrain we were walking was anything like the flat trail around Town Lake and that the distance could be compared. What we ended up walking for the next 8km and FOUR HOURS was the equivalent of walking Stratford Drive from Zilker Park to Red Bud Trail. Twice. With backpacks. And tired feet. (Non-Austinites, consider the steepest winding road you can imagine and that’s what we tackled).

By the time we rolled into Betanzos, it was dusk (about 9pm) and I was utterly delirious. The red-hot pain that shows up in the balls of your feet had set in and every single step felt like shards of broken glass were piercing my peds. Seriously, it was hard to breathe. The one hopeful moment (that would be quickly dashed) was hearing Claptone over a PA on a party boat as we crossed the bridge into town. I had a fleeting vision of a hot shower, fine dining and maybe some good music later in the evening. Ha. Here’s what actually happened:

After winding our way up two more cruel cobblestone streets to the top of the old town (I’m sure it was cool but I was too exhausted to care), we quite literally stumbled around a plaza where the albergue was supposed to be. There were people strolling arm-in-arm, laughing as they made their way to some fabulous dinner with friends. I wanted to ask them for help or directions but the pain in my feet had paralyzed me and I dove onto the first bench I saw. An equally exhausted Katie Ford stepped up to the plate and found someone to tell us where to go. The albergue was just around the corner. “I can do this…just a few more steps.”

We tumbled into the office of the albergue (this one was in an old church and was cool, but again, too tired to care) where an old man checked us in, stamped our pilgrim passport and gave us mattress covers. He led us upstairs and into a dorm with at least 20 sets of bunk beds, most of them occupied. The lights were dim and everyone was already hunkered down.

As quietly as we could, Katie and I made our way to two open bunks and began to rummage through our packs for toiletries and clean clothes. I was promptly scolded by a mean lady for “jiggling” her bed. Gawd, I think my exact response in the bitchiest tone I could manage was, “OK, LADY.” It was at this precise moment that I panicked. I suddenly remembered reading that many church-run albergues have a curfew and lock the doors at night. I ran down the stairs to the front desk where I asked the old man what time he would be locking the doors. As the words were leaving my lips, my eyes were registering him packing up his things and putting on his jacket. “Cinco minutos,” was his response.

No! No! No! No! We haven’t eaten anything since lunch! I’m so hungry I’m shaking! This can’t be!

I dashed back up the stairs and found Katie in the hallway and quickly explained our predicament. While the last hour of the walk that evening had laid the groundwork for a meltdown, my having to explain to Katie that, “we are about to be locked inside a f**king albergue with a bunch of asshole people and we won’t be able to get any food before the f**king old man locks the f**king front door” was the tipping point.

My mind was racing. How do I piece together, “is there a regular hotel nearby?” in Spanish. The old man had now come upstairs to see what we were going to do. I was frantically trying to ask him if we can hurry and get food or if there is another place to stay. He finally understood and explained that it was 10pm on a Saturday night and he did not know if there is availability at any nearby hotels and that no, there was no time for us to leave and come back because he was going home. When the door is locked, it’s locked. You can leave, but you can’t come back in.

I looked wild-eyed at Katie and pleaded for her to make a decision. I was too bewildered to deal with this and I couldn’t string together a coherent plan to save my life. I was THAT upset.

You know, an old travel buddy and I used to have a saying that went something like, “only one of us can freak out at a time.” One person must always stay level. That night Katie was the calm one. She looked right at me and very gently explained that we have two choices. Go to bed hungry but with a hot shower and a guaranteed place to sleep or take our chances on the street, maybe having to walk for some time to find another room. I knew the smart thing to do was to stay put but my mind was fighting it. Instead of a nice dinner, perhaps some music and new friends, I was faced with a room full of snoring mean people and an empty belly.

We stayed. I came unglued. I pointed my finger at Katie and said, “I will never stay in another f**king albergue. Ever.” I cried in the shower. And then one of the nicest things happened. A sweet Italian lady had overheard our conversation and pushed her lunch pail into Katie’s hands and said, “eat.” Katie and I stood in the bathroom shoving crackers and cheese down our gullets and while it was by no means a meal, it was something. And about the most thoughtful thing anyone could have done for us.

But alas, I still had not laughed. I was pissed and I was going to hold onto that a little longer. I lay in bed that night fuming. The cacophony of snoring was unbearable. I think, no…I know I was sighing very loudly and sarcastically every time I turned over. I wanted everyone to know I was miserable. No one heard. And I doubt they would have cared.

The next morning I was still grumpy. I told Katie to go on, that I would catch up to her later. We had already decided we would walk a few days alone and I’m sure it was clear I was not going to be good company. A few hours later I was having coffee and a croissant and it dawned on me that it was 9am on a Sunday morning, that nothing was going to be open for hours and if I was going to stay here and get a hotel and relax, I likely couldn’t check in until after lunch. Oh, to heck with it. I decided to walk.

In studying the hand-drawn map we were given in Ferrol, it looked like there was a place to stay in a little town halfway between Betanzos and the next major pilgrim stop in Bruma. I figured I could handle 12 or 13km. But here’s something I learned about the Camino that day. It takes you where you are supposed to go. Not necessarily where you want to go.

About 4 or 5 hours later, I walked into a tiny village. It was utterly quiet with only a small cemetery and church flanking a modest plaza with a covered pavilion. There were a handful of farmhouses nearby but not a single person to be seen. I suppose it was siesta.

Surprisingly, I spotted a very large new modern sign with the Camino route clearly outlined. But to my extreme dismay, the “Aqui” marker put me about 3km past the town that I thought would be my half-way salvation. And meltdown #2 commenced.

No! No! No! No! No!  This can’t be!

I still want to hear the voice mail I left Katie in that moment. I’m pretty sure it went something like, “holy shit, I missed a turn and now I’m past the town I wanted to stop in and I don’t know what to do and I would pay a million dollars for a taxi right now. CRAP! CRAP! CRAP! My feet are killing me and this f**king camino sucks! Call me!”

But then I did what my mom would have done. I laughed to keep from crying. I laughed at my predicament. I laughed at my aching feet. I laughed at the crummy faucet I had to get water from (amoebas be damned!). And then I did the smartest thing I would do on that walk. I put on my flip flops. Oh, sweet relief. Now, I have some nice Merrill hiking shoes that are broken-in and quite comfortable and I didn’t have blisters, but there was no getting around the searing pain in the balls of my feet. That was, until I slid those little piggies into a $10 pair of squishy soft flops from Academy.

With a spring in my step, I forged ahead and not an hour later, I stumbled upon a white tablecloth restaurant, quite literally in the middle of nowhere, with a gorgeous view of a green valley and an honest-to-goodness wine list. Adding to my immense delight, I ran into none other than Katie Awesome Ford. She had just finished lunch and had actually already left the restaurant when she doubled back to use the ladies’. Coincidence?  I think not.

Katie walked on while I enjoyed a leisurely lunch. A sweet guy in another group of pilgrims called ahead and made a hotel reservation for me outside of Bruma and then I met two of the sweetest people I would encounter on this walk. Eve and Caroline from Sweden would become great friends throughout the rest of the Camino (and I’m certain forever).

I didn’t have another meltdown on the Camino and for the record, I never put those stinking Merrills on again. I walked approximately 50 miles in flip flops. Yep. And I will always try to laugh instead of crying. It works out so much better that way.

P.S. Later I did apologize to Katie for pointing my finger at her as if the albergue dilemma was her fault. I’m pretty sure I actually scared her when I did that. But, like my mom always says, “don’t cross Lisa when she’s hungry.”


 

L O O K

All along the Camino de Santiago, there are markers that lead pilgrims on their walk. Those markers aren’t always obvious and it really does make you pay attention. It reminded me of a book I read a long time ago called the Celestine Prophecy. The book talks about connecting with what and who is around you. Being grounded. Being present so that you don’t overlook something or dismiss someone who might turn out to be a key part of your journey.

That idea resonated with me and so I’ve made a point to be mindful. Mindful of who crosses my path. Mindful of things that didn’t happen the way I envisioned (and then turned out to be so much better!).  Alert to opportunities to learn and travel and experience. From the quirky to the mundane to the breathtaking, every moment can be significant. Some of you wonder where I get my adventuresome spirit and perhaps this explains part of it. I’m not saying we can’t make discoveries in our own backyard, but putting myself out in the world just opens so many more doors.

And is why I took myself to a seaside port in the northwest of Spain this past June. For five days, I walked with my adventuresome friend, Katie Ford, from Ferrol to Santiago de Compostela, covering more than 120km (that’s about 75 miles for you non-metric Americans). Since there aren’t really printed trail maps you can buy for the Camino (just basic town-to-town maps, many times hand-drawn and xeroxed), your only real guidance is the scallop shell markers found along the Camino routes (there are actually seven official routes that originate in Spain, France and Portugal). It took some faith at first, placing yourself in the hands of strangers who have walked before you. I’ll admit to checking my cellphone GPS on more than one occasion, but the markers were never wrong.

However, not all markers looked the same. You might have the big official stone pedestal with the scallop shell emblem or a scallop shell design conveniently displayed on a manhole cover along a city street. But mostly, and especially in rural areas, you might only have a yellow arrow spray-painted on a tree or in the road or on a telephone pole. And without realizing it, you begin to slow down and look around anytime you pass an intersection. Or when your footpath meets a road. Or when you just sort of need reassurance.

And this is what I mean by looking for signs on the Camino. Your well-being quite literally depended on it, but it was also a constant reminder to pause, look around and pay attention. I like that.

 

How to Impress the French

Sitges – June 13, 2013

On the recommendation of Jason and Georgina, I came to Sitges to spend a couple of nights. It’s a small bohemian beach town about half an hour south of Barcelona and it is adorable! It happens to be Gay Pride weekend here so you can imagine the dancing in the streets!

Anyway, I was having dinner by myself last night and these two French women around my age sat at the table next to mine.  After a little while, one asked me in very broken Spanglish if I was traveling alone. None of us spoke a common language well enough to communicate worth a flip so we proceeded to have one of those very animated conversations where you act out your story. When I said I was from Texas, Delphine kept pretending to pull out a pair of Colt 45 pistols from her imaginary holsters and shoot me. Ugh, the stereotype (tongue in cheek).

It was an exhausting conversation so I decided to show them some pictures of Chulila and the impressive canyons I had just come from. I zoomed in on a rock climber and they were very impressed. It wasn’t until a little later when they were being so damn nice to me and eyeballing me in amazement that I realized they thought I was the rock climber. As soon as I realized the mistake, I zipped my lips and let them believe it. Honestly, it just would have been too hard to explain.

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If you look really closely, you’ll see a guy in an orange shirt climbing this cliff

The Molar

The Molar – June 8 – 11, 2013

Earlier this week I visited a medieval village (weird, I know) called Chulila.  I had not heard of Chulila before this trip and only learned of it when I found an Airbnb listing for a darling cabin in the woods about half an hour north of Valencia. The photos were so cute and the description so attractive, that I booked the cabin without really having any expectation about where I would be traveling.  What a great shot in the dark!

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Georgina and me

My hosts were Jason and Georgina from London.  They moved to Spain about 10 years ago and have a lovely house with a pool (that they had put in themselves…I can’t imagine a concrete truck getting up the drive!) all nestled into a mountain above the town of Chulila. The cabin was one that Georgina used for writing but they recently began to rent it and Airbnb. I am likely one of the lucky few who might have the privilege of staying in the cabin with such wonderful hosts, as they are trying to sell the property and move back to London.  If you are in Spain and find yourself in this area, don’t hesitate to book a few nights here.

IMG_6079Upon my arrival I was greeted with a bottle of champagne by the pool and each morning, a charming basket full of breakfast goodies was left on my front porch.  There is something so fantastic about a) a champagne welcome and b) having breakfast delivered to you in a picnic basket!

The first full day I spent in Chulila included a gorgeous hike through a canyon IMG_6140below the village down to a lagoon called Charco Azul (blue pool) where, unbelievably, I stumbled upon a group of people attempting to cross the lagoon on a Gibbons Slackline (modern-day tightrope).  It was incredibly windy so it was not surprising that they did not make it very far across the line.  But it was darned entertaining…watch the video here.

The valley is really a gorge with steep rock walls where I spotted numerous rock climbers. If you like to climb rocks, this is a great destination.

If you look really closely, you can see a very brave guy hanging by ropes from the side of this rock.

After I hiked up out of the gorge, I enjoyed a light lunch in the center of the village and then walked up to the remains of the old 13th century castle that dominates the town from the top of a hill that Georgia said is nicknamed, “the molar.” I can see that.

Brought tons of high-tech athletic clothes for this trip and ended up wearing this outfit to hike.

I had planned to leave the next day but over wine later that night, Georgina and I made a plan for me to stay one more day so we could get massages at a thermal spa called Balneario the next afternoon. I mean, who passes up a thermal spa?

Unfortunately the spa was closed but there was the Emerald Lagoon around the mountain, not far from the spa so we challenged the Skoda rental car to a somewhat perilous climb. After a few extremely narrow switchbacks on a gravel road that hugged the side of a mountain, we came to a point where the road was impassable. With no other option, I put the Skoda in reverse and backed down the hill. Fortunately, there was just enough of a patch of grass at the bottom of that slope for me to get turned around. Would have seriously put my driving skills to the test if I had had to back UP the opposite side of the ravine (with a stick shift!).

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Later that night, Jason cooked up some steaks for us and we had a fabulous dinner and even more fabulous conversation under the stars. I feel so lucky to have had the pleasure of spending time with Jason and Georgina and hope that our paths will cross again someday!

 

Winding Roads & Waterfalls

After reluctantly leaving Cuenca, I headed northeast into the mountains of the Serranía de Cuenca National Park, established in 2007 in the Castille-LaMancha region of Spain.  I was driving up to a town called Tragacete to find waterfalls near the head of the Júcar River.  It was a gorgeous drive with stunning views and whimsical rock formations lIMG_6072ying around the fir and juniper trees.  Just past a town called Uña, I came across a gorgeous lagoon.  Like so many other lakes and rivers I have seen in Spain, this one also had the same milky turquoise color.  It must be from high mineral content as the water is very hard.

After winding through numerous gorges on what felt like a thousand switchbacks, I finally made it to Tragacete. For some reason I was imagining a cool little town full of tourists and restaurants with verandas overlooking the river (#1 rule of traveling…let go of expectations so you can see what you are supposed to see).  What I found instead was a tiny deserted town with almost every business closed and two restaurants that seemed to be open but were not at all inviting.  So I skipped that lovely lunch and cold beer I had conjured up in my head and found a sign pointing to the “casades” about 2km up a narrow dirt road.

The weather was quite gloomy and damp and for a minute I considered blowing off this excursion, but I had come this far so no point turning back.  On up the hill I finally found the entrance for the footpath to the waterfall. It was impressively well-maintained with sturdy wooden handrails along the more perilous parts of the trail. The walk was luscious…everything was so green and the fall was beautiful and loud and a bit eerie. I was the only person there. So worth the effort.

Path to waterfall at Tragacete

Waterfall on Rio Júcar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cuenca: Spain’s Whoville

I had planned to be hiking the Camino de Santiago right now but I arrived in Madrid last week to learn that the Camino Primitivo in the northwest of Spain not only had rain (which I expected), but thunderstorms on the radar for the first two days I was meant to hike.  And by hike, I mean walk an average of 15 miles a day through the mountains.  With a backpack.  I like a challenge but I will not suffer needlessly.

So I did what any comfort-loving pilgrim would do and headed south and is how I found myself in Cuenca, Spain.  I had heard of  Cuenca from my friend, Gordon, who described to me the “hanging houses” built into the edge of a cliff.  Oddly, there is little information about the origins of the “Casas Colgadas,” but they are thought to have been built between the 13th and 15th centuries. While only three remain today, at one time these hanging houses lined the edge of this breath-taking medieval town perched between two river gorges.

The old town of Cuenca is built on a mountaintop and skirted on three sides by gorges formed by the Júcar and Huécar rivers.  The history of Cuenca dates back to 714 when muslim arabs seized much of the Iberian peninsula.  Because the location was perched high on a hill and encircled by two rivers, it had significant strategic value. The inhabitants of this fortress enjoyed prosperity for many years, with textiles and livestock being the primary industries.  But the 11th & 12th centuries found Cuenca embattled and finally conquered for good by Alfonso VIII of Castile in 1177.  Now part of the Castille-La Mancha autonomous community of Spain, Cuenca was granted World Heritage Site status in 1996. 

Cuenca, Spain

Cuenca World Heritage Site

When you are driving from Madrid, you will approach Cuenca from the west and enter the new part of the city.  I was using a Tomtom in my rental car for navigation and forgot that I had only input the name of the city and not the address of the hotel I had contacted.  The woman’s voice on the Tomtom navigated me to the heart of the new city and proudly announced that I had arrived at my destination.  I was sitting on a nondescript busy downtown street.  What?  But I realized my mistake and found my way to the foot of the old town.  Old Cuenca is positioned so high up on a long promontory northeast of the city, that I couldn’t see it at all on my approach.  My little Skoda 5-speed rental car earned some big points for power in getting up the insanely steep and narrow cobblestone streets as I ascended to the top of the old town.

I wish someone could have recorded me as I did this.  I’m pretty sure it went something like, “Holy shit, no way!  Oh crap, really?  Really, am I going the right way? Am I allowed to drive up here?  Are you kidding me with these buildings? OMG, no way can me and the other car squeeze past each other.  Expletive, expletive…” you get the picture.

Entrance to Plaza Meyor, Cuenca

Calle Alfonso VIII

I drive quite a bit in foreign countries.  It’s one of my favorite things to do when traveling.  And oddly, this is not my first jaunt driving into a fortress or castle, but I have to admit this one was a bit harrowing.  I just had no idea how far up I needed to go or what awaited me at the top (like, could I turn around?).  Unbelievably, I spotted a sign for a parking garage tucked into an 600 year-old building sitting on at least a 45 degree incline.  I got myself parked and immediately walked to the hotel across the street and had a glass of wine in the bar.

There is one main road, appropriately named Calle Alfonso VIII, which extends to the furthest point of the promontory with smaller side streets flanking the main plaza about halfway up.  It was drizzling and chilly when I arrived around 5pm and had to walk up and down that steep road for almost an hour before I found my hotel.  I didn’t have a map, only an address and I’m learning that street numbers in Spain tend to repeat.  It’s like they refuse to use more than two digits for a street address and so at 99, the numbers just start over.  But on this street, it was more like 11-54 and then it started over somewhere and suddenly you are at 26 again.  Maddening!

Finally I found my hotel. The side of the building said “hostel” and is why it didn’t occur to me to read the small sign next to the door the first two times I passed it. But if this place is a hostel, then I’ve clearly misunderstood the broad use of the term.  My room at Tabanqueta was absolutely adorable and comfortable.  It had just been renovated with new wood floors, double-paned windows to keep out the wind and street noise, a very modern bathroom (with more toiletries than any nice hotel sans the St. Cecilia in Austin), and hands-down the most comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in.  Not kidding, it was that good.  And for 35 Euro/night, I would recommend this place without hesitation.

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Plaza Meyor, Cuenca

I spent the rest of the evening exploring the little passageways, being dazzled by the views, and eating calamari at a little sidewalk café in the main plaza next to the Santa María de Gracia cathedral.  The architecture is so varied in Cuenca…you have everything from gothic to baroque to rococo to modern. I popped into some of the little tourist shops to pick up postcards and a bottle of wine from the region, but couldn’t find a corkscrew to buy so I went into a proper wine shop where the proprietor, appropriately named María, told me that they don’t sell them (odd) but that she could uncork my bottle for me. Upon seeing the bottle I had purchased, she also told me I had made a bad selection and sold me a better bottle called Fontal Crianza (2009).  I still had not seen the infamous hanging houses but was too tired from the cartoonish drive into the old town and then marathon hiking up and down the streets looking for my hotel to hunt down the houses, so I tucked myself in for the evening.

The next morning, I pondered staying another night in Cuenca.  I was smitten with the town and that ridiculous bed.  But I had a reservation for a cabin in the woods near Valencia that night and so boogied out the door to find the mysterious las casas colgadas. My hotel was near the top of the hill and so I only needed to walk a little further past the remains of an ancient Arab fortress called El Castillo, through the Arco de Bezudo and past a couple of restaurants to where I had noticed a tourist office the day before.  For whatever reason, the tourist office was not open at 10:15am on a Saturday (even though the flyers in the window announced tours beginning at 10).  I spied a map on a park sign at the edge of the cliff and then found the entrance to the trail that would take me down through the gorge.

I was immediately blown away. Cuenca, SpainAll the rain has made Spain very green and this path was lined with a million bright red poppies.  It was so picturesque that I kept repeating (out loud), “Stop it! OMG!  Stop it!”  A lady rounded a corner on the trail as I was squealing to myself about how I might die of delight and I’m pretty sure she thought I had a screw loose. After about 100 meters, the path made a switchback and then descended into the gorge.  I was dazzled (worth repeating) with every step.  I passed a few fenced gardens and a crumbling stone house with some graffiti and what appeared to be the remnants of a swimming pool (can you imagine what that place looked like before??).

Cuenca, SpainAbout halfway down the 3km path, I was passed by a group of trail runners (lots of opportunities for nice outdoor activities around here). And while I was getting a better view of the walls of the old town built right on the edge of the cliff towering above me, I still had not seen any houses actually hanging over the edge. The path ended on the bank of the Huécar River and as I sat on a rock enjoying the fresh morning air and the sound of water babbling over rocks, my gaze turned up over my shoulder and then, through the trees, I saw the hanging houses looming over me.

Hanging Houses, CuencaIt all looked a bit fake (as so many medieval towns do).  And I am always trying to imagine how in the world things like this were built centuries ago. There are only three actual “hanging” houses left, one houses a modern museum and another is a restaurant.  As I craned my head backward to see these slightly lopsided houses suspended precariously over the edge of a cavernous cliff, I was reminded of Whoville and imagined the Grinch popping his head up over the house and wrapping his skinny green fingers around the balcony. Even the enormous drooping bright green fur trees and tall slender topiary trees fit the scene perfectly.

I will most definitely return to spend more time in Cuenca and would recommend at least a few days to anyone traveling in this region.  This town not only offers incredibly rich history and stunning views, but also an impressive network of trails along both the Júcar and Huécar rivers as well as an extra-wide paved walk/bike path adjacent to the N2105 that heads north out of town.  I saw numerous cyclists along this stretch as I left Cuenca.  And in case you were wondering if I was enjoying this place, I kept shouting, “NO WAY!” and having to pull over to take pictures of the scenery as I tried to leave. Again, dazzled at every turn.

Cuenca, Spain

Sandy beach next to Rio Huécar

Moments from Spain 2012

Spain – 16 July 2012

I love travel writing but often I find myself so consumed with the experience that I can’t stop and write and then at the end, like now on a plane back to Austin, I have to pull it all out at once and hope I don’t forget too many details.  Although having said that, we don’t really remember days anyway.  Mostly, we remember moments…

Like sitting in a café in San Sebastian kicking around what to do next and Roland declaring, “we should go to France RIGHT NOW!”  And you do.

Or in a divine stroke of luck, ending up in Noel Chandler’s apartment AFTER everyone has left the party and he opens up a new bottle of red, pulls out fresh glasses, serves you like an old friend, and pops a Jerry Lee Lewis CD into an old jam box.  By the way, Noel knows all the songs.  I will never ever forget the image of that man smelling his vino tinto while shuffling his white tennis shoes and singing, “Chantilly Lace.”

Or renaming a historical landmark, “Cell phone Jesus.”  Sorry, Mom.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOr sampling wine at a space-ship looking bodega at the foot of the Basque country only to sneak into a backroom to dump your glass because the wine was so bad, but thanking your lucky stars you stopped for that wine because you found a map on the counter for a castle 20 minutes away that ends up blowing your mind.  Castle of AlquézarAnd not only does this castle rock your imagination with it’s ancient cobblestone streets, jaw-dropping cliff backdrop and the invitation to ride rapids at a nearby river, but on your way out you see a sign for a “Pool Bar” and so you stop for a drink to discover not just some little hotel pool, but an Olympic-size swimming pool with lanes (we are still on top of a medieval village).  I may live here someday.

Grand Plage BiarritzOr pretending to stay in the most luxurious hotel in Biarritz and the staff totally believing you.  It’s a good thing your pool towels aren’t sexy, Grand Plage Hotel, or we would have stolen one.

 

Or arriving at Txoxco for morning kaiku and cognacs, wearing a totally garish polo shirt with PAMPLONA embroidered on the collar and news/camera crews zooming in on me like I was famous.  They either thought I was Catherine Donnell or they just liked the shirt.

Or seeing how delighted Gordon was to drive my little rental car up through the mountains to another medieval castle in Ainsa…I almost didn’t’ take them the scenic route because the forecast was rain.  Silly me and my wellies.  We had gorgeous blue skies and I’ll never forget Gordon, Malia and myself laughing that “WTF” laugh as we passed the biggest flock of goats I’ve ever seen.  Or the look on the old villager’s face when we took a wrong turn and upon replying to our request for directions, he smiled at us like we must be completely bonkers for driving where we were.

Or making bread bracelets. Who doesn’t like a spiffy bracelet made from the crust of a baguette slice?  I mean, it is wearing food, but I’ve seen worse.  I once saw a dried meat bracelet on a girl in Ecuador.  Not kidding.  Turns out she was from Austin.  Of course.

Or blowing a 0.00 into a breathalyzer administered by the Spanish police as you’re leaving San Fermin. Sounds crazy, I know.  It happened to me.  In the middle of Fiesta.  It was weirdly exciting…like I had just passed a big exam or accomplished something really important.  Which, I guess I sort of did…like not drinking and driving.  The funniest thing (besides the people in my car shouting, “HOLY F**KING SHIT, I can’t believe that just happened!) was the policia waving me through saying, “ok, lady.”  I don’t know why that cracked me up.

Or hooking up a film crew (ok, just one guy who set up the camera and a girl who came back an hour later to turn it on) to shoot the encierro from one of the best balconies in San Fermin (check out this video).

Or how if feels to be covered from head to toe in red wine…and loving it.

Or having one of the best meals of my life with eight complete strangers at San Ignacio. Those three hours were culinary genius.

Or wanting to have one last beach picnic but realizing the only bottle of wine you have left is a rose that isn’t cold but you drink it anyway and it’s unbelievably delicious.

And there is something to be said for meeting new people.  In the spirit of Radiohead, it really IS easy.  Not only did we have the grand pleasure of reconnecting with some really special people from last year, we also met new people…all of them generous beyond measure.

It really is amazing how quickly we all become family with our fellow travelers…

Actually a quite funny staged photo we took at a hotel in St. Jean de Luz. Roland started the French nautical theme and then it sort of snowballed into this.