Tuesday, 20 August 2013

El Camino de Santiago

The Way of St. James or El Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrim routes that lead to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. According to tradition this is the place where the remnants of apostle St. James are buried. Since the discovery of St. James there have been an uncountable number of pilgrims who have walked one of its routes and during medieval times this Christian pilgrimage used to be just as important as Rome or Jerusalem.

The symbol of the pilgrimage is the scallop shell that is often found on the shores of Galicia. It has a few legends connecting the shell to St James but I think they all sound a bit silly so I’m not going to include them here. The metaphorical meaning of it is that the way the grooves of the shell all meet in a single point represents all the different pilgrim routes that the pilgrims take and all finish in Santiago. Apparently the shell had a practical importance, too, as it was just big enough to have a good drink or to eat out from it. You can always recognise the pilgrims when you see the shell attached to their backpack.

The symbol is also used to show the right way for the pilgrims. The most basic sign is a yellow arrow. Then you can find many yellow stylized scallops on the walls. Then come the more elaborate signs and some of them are just truly beautiful. On the streets of Oviedo there are lovely brass shells attached to the ground to show the way.  

In Guernica:

In Comillas, Cantabria:

Sings from the Camino Norte, the Coastal Way:


Nowadays the Camino has grown out of its religious shell (sorry for the pun) and is open for everybody, young and old, religious or secular. It has the advantage of being a very relaxed pilgrimage as you can do it any time of the year, you can start it wherever you like, and you can walk as much as you want at the speed you choose. You don´t actually have to walk it, you can ride a horse or a bike, too. You can walk it alone or in groups and you can break it up into bits. In my intercambio group in Barcelona there was a lady who was over sixty and every year she goes and does only 200km of it. She is hoping to finish it next year.

You might be surprised by the length this lady walks every year. Even though you are free to choose where you start your camino, there are starting points for each of the popular routes. The most popular, the Camino Frances starts in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, goes over the Pyrenees and all the way through Spain. The Spanish starting point is in Roncesvalles and the distance from here to Santiago is 800km. It takes over a month to finish the walk although it largely depends on your fitness.

The pilgrims or peregrinos sleep in hostels or albergues (although there are many options to sleep in private albergues or in hotels). These are only allowed to host pilgrims for only one night and are usually very cheap, between 5-10 euros. Here you get a (usually bunk) bed and a shower, there’s hot water if you’re lucky. The facilities are varied, some of them offer a meal for the evening as well as a breakfast the next day, a washing machine and computers with free wifi to use. This however is not common.

You can prove that you’re a pilgrim by holding a ‘pilgrim’s passport’ or a credential. It allows you to sleep at the albergues and by collecting stamps in the accommodation, churches and restaurants on the way the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago can follow the route you took and at the end of your journey award you with a ‘Compostela’.

To earn a compostela you not only have to collect stamps but you have to walk at least a 100km, or cycle or horseride a minimum of 200km. The pilgrimage is then finished by attending the ‘Pilgrim’s Mass’ in the Cathedral of Santiago that is held every day at noon.

I have been wanting to do the Camino since we moved to Spain but there has never been an opportunity before. Now that we are living in Oviedo I am in the perfect position to do it. My chosen route is the Camino Primitivo, the oldest and the original route from Oviedo to Santiago, about 230km. According to history, when King Alfonso II heard that St James’ body had been discovered he took this route to visit the event, making him possibly the very first pilgrim. After reading a lot about the different routes this seems to be the one of the least popular, the most rural, the least visited by foreigners (I bet my Spanish will improve a lot!) and the most strenuous as it is very mountainous.

The tradition says one starts the pilgrimage from their front door and technically I will be able to do just that! During the last few days I have been packing my stuff for the road, only a few things have been missing. I needed a baseball hat and I found one in the Pyrenees in the middle of the road with nobody in sight. I needed a pole and I got a walking stick as a present from a Spanish friend. Paul is lending me his Camelbak so I can carry two litres of water evenly distributed on my back and Paul’s mum kindly brought me a sleeping bag. After stocking up on quick dry T-shirts and a spare pair of trousers from Decathlon I am ready to go. All is left to do is to visit the Cathedral and the pilgrim statue of St. James. I found the latter quite funny as the only person who CANNOT be a pilgrim is St. James himself! But hey, I oblige to the tradition and tomorrow I will start my two week long pilgrimage to pay my respect to St James in Santiago de Compostela.

Monday, 19 August 2013

Arriondas – Kayaking on the River Sella

On the weekend when we arrived in Oviedo it was the annual Descenso del Rio Sella 2013, when a thousand people in their kayaks start from Arriondas and finish at Ribadesella. It´s a great race not only because of the spectacle but also because they do this in a Spanish way, they have a three day fiesta at the beginning and at the end town of the race.

Even though we couldn´t see the event as we had to move to another flat the thought of doing a river kayaking stayed with me and I searched for options. The River Sella is an optimal choice and we found many companies that do kayaking. We picked one and booked our places. It´s very easy to travel from Oviedo as it is in the heart of Asturias´ infrastructure. We found a bus that took us there in 1h20min. 

We were worried about the weather a bit. The forecast said sunshine for the whole day but the bus went through whole villages we didn´t see any hint of sun as they were all in the cloud. Due to this my first impressions of Arriondas weren´t very good either. It was just houses next to each other. After every corner I was hoping to see something interesting but even on the main square the statue was one of a cannon! I gave up on the place.

It didn´t have any nice sights but it did have a lot of one thing: LOADS of kayak shops! We counted at least 10 different companies!

We also found the river and the kayaks were in the process of getting ready for the swarm of people. We saw this guy pushing the kayaks down on the stairs, was quite funny to watch.

After a little walk we found our place, too. It was a nice place with friendly people. We got there at the same time with a huge group so they dumped us together with them. We got a big plastic sealed container as a waterproof place for our stuff (there was even lunch provided!!), paddles and life jackets (when the weather is cooler you get a wetsuit, too) then we had a little demonstration about how to paddle. By the time we finished the clouds have disappeared and it was all sunny.

Then we were off to get our kayaks. They pulled out a kayak of a huge pile, sit you in it and push you down a kind of chute like this.

We asked for individual kayaks but there were double and triple seaters, too. We saw families where the parents were sitting on the ends and the child was waving the paddle around in the middle. We also saw a three seater kayak with two dogs in the middle! Soon we were on our way.

The kayaks are very stable and practically unsinkable so you can try it without having to try kayaking before. The River Sella is an ideal river for kayaking. It’s very shallow so no need to worry about drowning. Sometimes it’s so shallow that you have to get out of your kayak and push it over the rocks. As the river flows slowly you hardly have to work at all, we very often just laid back and enjoyed the scenery. There are a few currents here and there, though, to make the descent exciting. They are not dangerous at all, the biggest danger is that if you don’t steer your kayak properly, you get beached on the side.

The whole length you can kayak is 14km but if you are with children or you get tired there are two more exits on the way, one at 6km (Torañu) and one at 10km (Llordón). Your company will wait for you there with a car and they can take you back to Arriondes or Ribadesella.

As the Spanish are a very enterprising nation after the first 2km came the first ‘chiringito’, or ‘bar at the water’. It is announced with loud music and huge signs. Many people stopped here for a drink.

The experience is really relaxed. The river does the work for you so you hardly have to paddle. Now that the sun was up we were able to see all the hills that surrounded the river. Hills on the side, the sun was shining, the river was gently flowing, it was lovely. Sometimes dragonflies stopped on your kayak to have a little rest. At the end of the route we saw huge fish swimming in the crystal clear water. The kayaks were very colourful and it made you laugh to see other people trying to take control of their kayaks.

We stopped after the second exit for lunch. In the plastic container we had a bocadillo each, a bottle of water, 2 packs of little palmeras for dessert and even oranges! It was lovely lying on the sand in the sun, watching the kayaks go buy, munching on my sandwich. After lunch we were back on the water again.

We went VERY slowly and it took us about 4.5 hours to get to the end point. By then we were pretty tired. They packed up the kayaks on a trailer and took us back to the centre. For my biggest surprise they had showers and even shower gel! I took advantage of these while Paul lay in the sun.

When I came out all and clean I realised that we can actually see the Picos the Europa in the background.

When we walked back Arriondas showed us a completely different face. The sun was shining and the mountains gave a lovely background to this little town.

After a nice cold drink we went back to the bus station and returned to Oviedo. It was a lovely day and we would do it again any time.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Asturias – The wooden clogs (madreñas)

 The climate here in Asturias is humid and often rainy making the roads and the fields wet and muddy. It was necessary to be able to carry on about your business and somebody came up with the idea of the madreñas. These are over shoes that you can slip your feet in with your normal shoes already on. On the sole there are bits that stick out so that you are raised further from the mud. Again, these are not limited to the principality but also can be found in Northern Spain and the mountainous areas.

They are made by madreñeros. Years ago there was a whole village in every county where all the neighbours dedicated their lives to make these shoes. You could easily place the origin of a pair of wooden shoe just by looking at the design and the décor that is often carved but sometimes painted. The design is usually different for men and women.

In the pub in Oviedo where the language exchange sessions are held (much better place than a library) there was a pair of madreñas. We didn’t know what they are so our new Spanish friends explained it to us. I could even try them on although they weren’t designed for flip-flops so I put them on without. Or rather, my Prince Charming helped me with it!

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Asturias - Hórreos

Hórreos are granaries or barns that are very typical here in Asturias. They are usually built next to a house and are used to contain food, mostly grain, fruit and vegetables or tools inside. They are square shaped and stand on four smooth pillars so that the rain that is so frequent here cannot go in. There’s a little staircase that leads to the door however it doesn’t reach to the floor but stops before to prevent rodents from getting inside. The walls are built of wooden planks and have slits on them to allow ventilation. The space underneath is used to keep the wood for winter or trucks or ploughs.

The other great thing about them is that they are just like a huge construction toy, they can be taken apart and carried somewhere else to be put together again easily as the pieces of wood are joined without using any screws. I could just get one shipped over to my parents in law’s garden in London. Now that’s an idea!

I find these little granaries an ingenious idea. It’s so simple but so effective and makes you think why didn’t others think of this before? I could only spot one in Oviedo in the outskirts that was not in a very good shape and was worried that there are only a few hórreos are left however having travelled a bit further out and in the countryside I have seen many nicer ones, too. I had to realise that they are actually very common.

Since then I have read that some of them are very old, more than 200 years. Due to advancements in agriculture hórreos are not needed anymore and while years ago almost every farmhouse had one nowadays there are less and less and lots of them are in a poor state. It has been realised however that they are part of the Asturian culture and there’s a growing awareness to maintain them properly.

They can not only be found here in Asturias, there are some in Galicia and in Northern Portugal as well however those have a different style. I really hope that the hórreos will live on and stay an important aspect of this area.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Asturias - Fabada

 It feels like Oviedo is an integral part of Asturias, not an individual entity like Barcelona therefore I’m going to label my posts as ‘Asturias’ from now on.

While in Catalonia I was desperately trying to find anything that is a typically Catalan meal and in 4 months I could only find 2, here in Asturias everything is Asturian. Wherever we go everything seems to be a ‘very Asturian meal’ and we already have a long list of meals we want to try.

We first tried the signature dish of Asturia, the Fabada. It is basically a rich bean stew made from white beans, or ‘fava’ beans. In Spanish the ‘v’ and the ‘b’ sounds are very similar so I guess this is how the name ‘fabada’ came to existence. With the stew you get three pieces of meat, cured meat such as chorizo and ‘morcilla’, which is similar to black pudding, and a bit of pork. Oh, and a lot of bread to the side, of course.

Usually the price of the meals in Asturias costs more than they did in Barcelona however you get almost twice as much! The portions are huge and we have been sharing almost every meal and it’s enough for both of us. It was true for the fabada as well. We couldn’t finish one bowl together! It is (as you can imagine) high in calories and fat and served hot. As most of the Asturian meals it’s very hearty, very heavy and tastes predominantly like chorizo.

Later while we were walking home we passed a shop that sold ‘Productos Asturianos’ and saw these premade packs of Fabada. We loved them! You can buy only the beans and make your own stew, too.