Tuesday, July 29, 2008

100th Post!

Today (meaning, the day we started this trip last tuesday) we are doing something I have always wanted to do. Inspired by two movies, North by Northwest and Risky Business, I am eagerly anticipating our overnight train ride to Santiago.

Wendy told me the sleeping compartments were small, but I literally laughed when I opened the door and stepped inside. I have closets bigger than this! Luckily the ceilings are high and there’s space up top for the bags. I folded one of the beds away (which you need a key from one of the train attendants to open again) and that gave us a little more upper body space.

“You’re going to sleep with me?”
“I always sleep with you.”
“Beds are kind of small.”
“They were small in college too, did that stop you?”
“Just saying.”

Sadly there wasn’t much to see out the train. It was just getting dark as we got there and the windows showed nothing but blackness. But we found the dining car (it was in a straight line, imagine that) ordered a bottle of wine and mulled over what to share for dinner. We eventually settled on a bowl of seafood soup, a rare steak and pork medallions.

Train food is definitely not plane food, yet again something the railways in Europe have over flying. All three of our dishes tasted like distilled essence of their original parts. Our seafood soup tasted like the bottom of the ocean. In a good way. It tasted like the sea and the best creatures in it. Our pork was succulent and rich in a pure flavor of pork like I hadn’t experienced in a long time, if ever. The steak tasted like a starving man would imagine it. It was almost better than real, tasting like someone had slain a free range cow that morning and slow roasted it all day. And they just served the choicest, best part to us.

We hoped it was a sign of things to come, since one of the goals of this trip was to gorge ourselves on fine food all along the coast. And relax, which we both desperately needed.

A bottle of wine in us and my Risky Business fantasy fulfilled we quickly fall into a deep sleep.

Tip – The beds in a college dorm room are bigger than the beds on a train. My belly is also bigger than it was when I was in college. There’s no air conditioning on this train so within an hour of Wendy being held by a 98.6 degree blanket we’re both sweltering, cramped and awake. And with no key, we have no way to get the other bed down. I sleep a lot better than Wendy does on the ride, but we’re both still exhausted when the train pulls into the station just as the sun is coming up at 7:35.

We take a taxi to our Parador (Paradors are old Spanish castles that have been transformed into beautiful hotels) and thankfully, yes, we can check in this early. We make our way through the gardens and courtyards and passages of the castle and eventually to our room. I am disappointed to find that we have two twin beds pushed together but make no attempt to climb in with Wendy. We get into the softest beds I have felt since leaving my pillow top mattress in Vermont. The sheets are soft, the pillows are clouds, the air in the room is cool. Soon, we are both lying in a puddle of drool and snoring.

Three hours later finds us refreshed and ready to really start our day.

One of the very great things about Europe is they don’t conserve water. I’ve never even seen a plunger because the tank dumps three gallons of water into the toilets when you flush. And the showers, like the one today, are not the stingy little drippings that we get in the States but more a of warm fire hose combined with a massage. You have to lean into it to maintain your balance. After sweating all night on the train, I feel like a new man. A man that has been scrubbed and massaged by a bristle brush.

Wendy climbs in after me.

“Oh my God, this shower is great!”

Everything here is of the finest quality. We have enormous multi-layered curtains over the window that will completely block out the sun if we so desire. The sheets’ thread count must be in the thousands, the bathroom is enormous and modern, and just getting to the room is a walk through history. Our window looks out into a courtyard with elegantly manicured hedges and a cupola in the center.

I am truly blessed.

We both need caffeine and head out into the street to look around and find a nice little bar “Maria Castana” with a nice wooden bar, wooden tables, stone walls and some patrons dressed in period pieces. Wendy explains they are Gaiteros. One of them has a small bagpipe called a Gaita and soon he starts to play. The music has a wonderful Celtic sound to it and a man joins him on a flute and a woman joins him with a tambourine and the bar erupts in music. The drunkest of the gaiteros (at noon, on Wednesday) claps and shouts encouragement.

We have arrived.

Now that we’ve had coffee, it’s time to sample some of the local fare. We’ve been advised by a friend to try a restaurant called “Los Caracoles” (The Snails) so we head there first. We get a couple glasses of the local favorite wine, a white called Alberino, look over the menu and decide to try both versions they have for sale. Soon a dozen snails have been drowned in a mixture of water, red wine, cheese, parsley and a slice of bacon.

1. The bacon was crap.
2. The sauce was crap.
3. The snails were crap.

Soon a second platter comes but this time in white wine. It doesn’t help things. No Christmas card for the friend who recommended that place.

We decide to leave most of them and head off in search of better fare. It’s clear we are near the coast and that’s why we’re here. Every restaurant’s front face is an aquarium which has two different kinds of crab and two different kinds of lobster in it. In the window above the tank, shelves contain cockles, Cigala, clams and platters of huge fish.

Lobster in Spain usually comes in three varieties. There is Bogavante which looks similar to Maine Lobster, there’s also Langosta which is similar to the Spiny Lobster you get in Florida and the south, and there’s Cigala which is also called Norway lobster and is the smallest of the three by far, usually looking like a large shrimp with thin lobster claws. I don’t know why, but I am fascinated by seafood. When I go to the market, I have to gaze at all the seafood stands. Whenever we go in a supermarket, I have to make my way over to the seafood section and just gaze at the bounty of the sea. Today, I am in heaven as it is restaurant after restaurant of aquariums and shelves of seafood.

Risking another bad experience we follow our friend’s advice to another restaurant and as she always does, Wendy asks for the waiter’s recommendation.

“What is best here?”
He thinks for a minute “The waiter.”
We laugh. So friendly here!
“Well, considering I don’t see him on the menu and I don’t know how much he costs, what’s next best?”

He points to the berberechos and tells us they are excellent. As we will find out soon, berberechos are cockles, which taste like a cross between a clam and a scallop. He also suggests zamborinos which is a small scallop. This time, the friend’s recommendation is spot on. The food here is excellent and soon we’ve finished two plates and order another plate of berberechos.

We head back out into the street and see more people in period pieces and others dressed as Saint James with the traditional robe, scallop shell, gourde for water and a walking stick. The streets are just packed. Wall to wall humanity. As well as the festival going on, there is an endless parade of pilgrims/hikers moving towards their final destination, the cathedral.

We find a nice restaurant with tables on the street and decide to take up our favorite sport – people watching. I order us a bottle of Alberino for our table rent and we watch the hikers pass us by. Some of them look they’ve been out on a day trip (probably true) and the others have the muscled legs and tanned, weathered skin of someone who walked the entire eight hundred kilometers.

Soon a tiny little old man sits down next to us. He pulls out an enormous cigar, starts to chomp on it and orders coffee and big snifter of brandy. We sit side by side for about an hour and then he gets up and takes his leave. Soon, a couple comes to sit next to us and they ask Wendy if she can move her bag. Only it’s not Wendy’s bag, it’s the little old man’s who left five minutes ago. I grab the bag and go rushing off in the direction I thought he went. Luckily, he’s still window shopping and had only got about fifty yards up the hill when I caught up to him. I hand him the bag, he thanks me, I return to my table. Only now, we find out he’s also left a picture of a woman, who we guess is his wife. Once again I go running up the street after him, and again, he’s not much farther than the last place. I tap him on the shoulder and tell him “also” and hand him the picture.

Shock on his face. Apparently the picture is important to him. He tells me thank you again and goes for his wallet. I decline and he yels after me something along the lines of hey, come back here. I keep walking and go back to the table. A few minutes later he comes ambling back and he and Wendy start chatting. The picture was more important than the shirt. The picture is of his sister and is very important to him. He insists on buying us something, but we still have wine so I’m at a loss as to what to do. He insists on buying us something again. Wendy finally allows him to buy her a piece of Santiago cake, but he won’t be happy until I have something as well. I tell him I’ll have a glass of the brandy he had earlier in hopes that will please him. It does and he thanks us again and resumes his path home.

The brandy is awful.

I go back to my wine.


  1. Thank you Jamie, your comedic timing was excellent, that closing line had me laughing.

    It does sound like a fun trip so far.

  2. Spain seems amazing. I was in europe as a kid and would to see it as an adult.

  3. If your destination is Santiago de Compostela, why didn't you do the "El camino"? (by foot, of course!)
    Ask Wendy what it is, if you dont know it.
    I did last year, i walked the last 110 km or something. They even give you a certificate if you do more than 100 km!
    Santiago de Compostela sure is beautifull....
    Have fun!

  4. Totally agree, you should do at the very least the last 100 km of the Camino. It will change your life. Promise.

  5. Jamie:

    You are one of a kind. I haven't read up on you in a while but thought I would and am glad to hear you are well and your adventures continuing. I have started a blog of my own, i will pass along its whereabouts on the web soon. I have only one post. Things are great here, hope to speak with you soon. Hello to Wendy!

    Jeff (and Leigh)