Curious Incident in North London Life

Two nights ago I went off to see Hamlet at the Globe on my own (my first time there, such a thrill!). Scarlett, who works frenetically, was having a quiet night in front of the telly. Or so I thought.

When I arrived back at her house around 11:00 and asked how her evening had been, she said, “Well there’s been a problem with a mouse.”

“A mouse?” She is not particularly squeamish and mice did not seem a major problem to me.

“A very large one. I had David (her neighbor) over twice.”

“Like maybe a rat?” I asked. That would be discombobulating, if not downright creepy.

“Well I don’t know, but it made a lot of noise,” she said.

“Where?”

“The other end.” She pointed to the far end of her sitting room. I glanced that way, a tad nervous now. “David couldn’t find anything. He got a bit cross with me and suggested he could set a trap. I wondered if it might be a kitten or a baby fox. He said that was ridiculous.”

I had to agree with David, it seemed highly unlikely – although, fair enough,  foxes are rampant in London. I’ve seen what seem enormous ones passing blithely through her small back garden. Still, a fox – or a kitten – in one’s sitting room. Surely not.

We went to bed.

In the morning Scarlett left early to work in Norwich for the day. When I got down to the kitchen, I saw something on the floor, which on closer inspection proved to be a small turd. Hmmm. Not mouse or rat pellets (I assume rats drop pellets as well?) but a genuine turd.

I went into the sitting room and heard scrabbling behind the piano. Okay, she had not been hysterical, there was definitely an animal hiding in her sitting room. I left the room, closing the door firmly behind me to avoid unexpected encounters of the wrong kind. A few minutes later I heard the animal hurling itself against the door. Most un-rodent-like. I texted Scarlett to confirm her suspicions.

She responded that I should go over to David’s and get him to take a proper look. Once I was dressed, I did so, but there was no response to my ring.

I went for a long walk on Hampstead Heath. On my return I picked up another text suggesting I go for a walk leaving both the sitting room door and kitchen door to the garden open, and hope the animal escaped. What a good idea, pity I didn’t get the message before my walk.

By now it was 2:30 in the afternoon. I began plotting… I set up a barrier in the front hall so that if the sitting room door was open the animal could not get up the stairs into the rest of the house. I established a position on the stairs from which I could potentially take a photo of the animal if it emerged. I was highly curious, and the hurling itself against the door (which was not repeated) really suggested a canine-like creature…i.e. a fox. A kitten would mew, I reckoned. This animal made no sound except rather vigorous scrabbling.

All set, I opened the sitting room door. No sound. I settled down to wait in complete silence, cell phone poised for the photo. Time passed. And passed. Not so much fun.

I got up quietly and peered into the sitting room. Silence. I started to make little chirping sounds (imitating a tasty bird, I thought.) A small scrabble encouraged me. I scratched on the barrier, mouselike, right? Time passed. I repeated my small probably not-so-natural noises.

Then I climbed over the barrier and went into the room. The scrabbling I’d heard definitely came from behind the piano where there was a small fireplace. I peered into the crevice. Tried unsuccessfully to move the piano. Put on my flashlight and peered again. Aha! A creature!

At first I thought maybe it was a fairly large kitten , the ears looked right. Then it raised its pointed nose. Although it looked grey, not orange, it was more fox-like than cat-like. But I thought maybe some larger rodent. I began taking very bad photos.

fullsizeoutput_1648The creature did not move until I resorted (very brave now, due to its utter stillness) to poking gently at it with a broom. Then it scrabbled out from behind the piano into another small dark corner. Definitely a baby fox, and a very frightened one.

fullsizeoutput_1649As it turns out, Scarlett’s living room has more small dark corners, between boxes and shelves and behind couches, than I’d realized. (Her son had just dropped off some of his belongings, a temporary storage while he moves.)

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For the next hour, I sort of chased the little fox around the room from one corner to another. Never, alas getting a clear photo of him in flight. He crouched behind an immovable couch, he crammed himself into a pile of wrapping paper rolls by the bookshelf, etc. etc. The only place he did not go was out the door, through the kitchen to freedom.

At 4:00, I began to worry I would not get him out before we had to leave for the theatre that night. I called Scarlett, who was now about to board her train back to London and would arrive barely in time for us to head out. She said Max, a young man who does some gardening for her, would come over – and if that didn’t work she’d call the RSPCA.

I had become quite fond of the little fellow, who sometimes looked at me rather like a timorous dog. I was concerned that he obviously hadn’t eaten in 24 hours and was so frightened. We figured he’d got in sometime the previous day when the door to the garden was left open.

Max came. We attempted to block every cranny in the room and nudged the fox out of the wrapping paper. Once again he eluded us, scrabbling into an unanticipated crevice. By now I could prod him with the broom and he wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want to hurt him, just wanted him to find his way out. We moved all the furniture around, creating barriers, stuffing cushions into every space we could find. I poked at him and poked again. We decided we would have to call the RSPCA.

Then we made one last effort, pulling out the box he was crouched behind. Eureka! With no corners left available he streaked out the door down into the kitchen and out. Whew! I firmly closed the garden door and thanked Max profusely. He left and I started to putter about making supper.

I glanced out into the garden, and there was the poor little fox trying to jump over the back garden wall, and failing. It was pathetic. He’d run and leap, hit the stone wall and fall. I don’t know why he wanted to get over the back wall, which is a couple of feet higher than the side ones. Maybe he thought his mother was back there? Where was she anyway?

But now I had such a good photo op, with him in full light. I went out into the garden. He flattened himself before the broom-wielding monster. I got a decent shot. Then he raced down the garden to the side of the kitchen under the sitting room window. I decided not to follow and terrorize him any further.

fullsizeoutput_164dBut back in the kitchen I had a horrible thought. What if he had not entered through the garden door originally. What if there was some hole in the house wall and he’d headed straight back to the sitting room?

Fortunately I have not seen him since, nor have there been any unusual noises, though Scarlett and I both crept into the sitting room and listened when we got home later that night.

I know I said I wouldn’t post again until I next travelled, but how could I not share The Curious Incident of the Fox in the Sitting Room?

 

 

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A Glimpse of Spanish Life

Camino completed, we three parted ways early last Tuesday in Santiago; Scarlett and Pablo headed home (to London and Barcelona respectively). I took a train to Leon, in the north of Spain, to visit Belen, a woman I’d met last year while volunteering on a English immersion program for Spaniards in La Alberca. She met me at the train and whisked me off to her home in the village of Cuadros outside Leon.

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Belen & I in her backyard

Belen, her husband Alvaro and sons Mauro (17) and Hugo (13) live in this tiny village in a lovely house. They have a lively affectionate English setter, 3 horses and I’m not sure how many falcons! Both Belen and Alvaro are chefs and teach at a cooking school in Leon. Belen also judges horse-jumping competitions (national and international) in various parts of Spain, and Alvaro raises (and hunts with) falcons. He had a 3-day old in a sort of incubator, and an egg which hatched in another incubator while I was there. The older son Mauro plays flute, guitar, mandolin and spent a lot of time at the conservatory in Leon, while Hugo plays handball and had plenty of practices. So between work of various kinds, managing the animals and transporting children to and from Leon for their activities, these were BUSY people. But they made time to show me around Leon and the countryside.

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streets of Leon

fullsizeoutput_15aefullsizeoutput_15b6Leon is gorgeous – the entire old city is pedestrian-only, so a delight to wander. The cathedral is stunning (better than Chartres or Notre Dame), with masses of stained glass windows.

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Leon Cathedral

fullsizeoutput_15bbIMG_3890There is a lovely building designed by Gaudi, a notable basilica and modern art museum, and innumerable cafes and bars. The day I arrived, Belen had to take Mauro to a music class & suggested she show me around the city and we have a drink while waiting for him. Hugo wanted to come too. I was impressed that a 13-year-old would want to hang out with his mother & English-speaking friend. He spoke very good English (as did everyone in the family) and at one point suggested we take a different route in our walk so I could see the old city wall and a particular view of the Gaudi building. We had wine and tapas – which turned out to be potato chips – in a bar, collected Mauro and got home around 9:30. Alvaro was making supper.

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Gaudi building

The next day I had a lazy morning (they all left about 8:00) and took a bus into town to visit the cathedral, meet Belen after her classes – and we then went to the cooking school where Alvaro was the chef leading a class in preparing a lunch based on various kinds of algae. Hmmm, not the most appealing idea, but the school has arrangements with certain producers and highlight their products (Belen is specializing in sprouts!) The set-up was very similar to the Stratford Chefs School, a small dining room serving mostly faculty, family & friends of the students. They have various streams: some study cookery, some service and one class does both. Students (and faculty) attend either in the morning or the evening; lunch is served 3 times a week, dinner the same.

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cod with algae

The food ( and drink) was impressive and copious: 3 appetizers, 2 main courses and dessert, served with beer, cider, white wine, red wine and dessert wine – the wine made at the school (this was the inaugural launch of these wines, and I think the wine program – it was just fine!) Around 4:00 we rolled out of there and home. I had a siesta and then Belen took me for a long walk up into the hills – quiet, beautiful, and all dirt tracks.

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walk near Cuadros

fullsizeoutput_15e5fullsizeoutput_15e8fullsizeoutput_15e3That night we sat down to a light supper (with absolutely delicious red wine from Leon) at 10:30PM – the whole family.

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Hugo, Belen, Alvaro & Mauro

I really don’t think I could get used to the Spanish dining hours, since (as many of you know) I am usually in bed by 10! But of course, when in Spain…

It was such a pleasure to spend time with Belen and her family. We discussed politics and travel and falcons and horses…they made me feel very much at home.

Then I bussed and flew to Barcelona to stay with Pablo for two days. He lives in his late father’s house with his disabled younger brother. Despite his warnings that the house was falling apart, I was gobsmacked at the scale of the place (and although one could see it needed some work, hardly falling apart!) A massive house, with something like 8 bedrooms (mine was larger than my living room) all with en suite bathrooms, two gigantic living rooms, 2 kitchens,  a couple fo studies, dining room, halls wider than some rooms in my house, an interior courtyard and immense grounds with swimming pool, palm trees, patios, etc. etc. WOW!

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Pablo’s house & grounds

fullsizeoutput_161bfullsizeoutput_1610I have visited Barcelona several times, so did not focus on sightseeing, but rather visiting friends and relaxing. That night I took the metro to the city centre to see two other women, Carolina and Maria Teresa, I’d met at the English program last year. We wandered Placa de Catalunya and up the Passeig de Gracia – and ended up eating excellent tapas in an outdoor café specializing in Iberian ham. It was lovely to see them, catch up and listen to them argue about the impact of the Catalan Independence issue on Barcelona.

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Carolina, Maria Teresa & yours truly

On my final day in Spain Pablo drove me to Sitges, a small seaside town south of Barcelona. We ate an enormous lunch sitting in the bright sunshine, then wandered along the beach, letting the waves lap our bare feet, and solved most of the problems in our worlds anyway. We ate at a more reasonable hour that night – and the next morning I flew back to London and Scarlett.

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cafe in Sitges

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Pablo in Sitges

After the hectic schedule of Morocco and the Camino, it was perfect to spend a few days relaxing in friends’ homes, experiencing just a little of the real life of Spain.

Now I am ready to come home… after a few days of theatre-going and walking Hampstead Heath in London.

I suspect this will be my last blog post for a while. Thanks, all, for journeying with me when I was somewhat at sea – and across the sea. I will pick up when next I find myself a-travellin’!

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Camino Highlights

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In Pontevedra.

Yesterday we completed our scheduled Camino walk. While it was exhausting, no question, it was also an adventure.

The weather varied considerably, as did the route & conditions, the hotels, and the towns we passed through. In Portugal (for only 2 days, as it turned out, rather to our surprise; the Portuguese Coastal Camino actually starts in Lisbon and ends, of course, in Santiago de Compostela in Spain. We started quite far along the route) it was hot and sunny. Sometimes too hot, but since we were mostly right on the coast, we had a lovely sea breeze. In Spain it was cooler and we had a couple of quite chilly days and some rain. We also hiked through mountain woods, which was lovely. The most challenging part of the whole Camino was that so much of the time we were on paved paths and roads, very hard on the feet, legs, hips, you name it! When we did get to walk on dirt paths it was much more pleasant.

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My usual view – bringing up the rear; on pavement

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same view, but ahhh, dirt!

Viana do Costelo, where we began, was a fairly large town, but with many pedestrian-only streets and pretty squares, quiet and benign. Caminha and Oia were smaller, and also featured lovely squares, churches and ocean views, and a very old monastery in Oia. In Baiona our hotel sat on a sheltered bay.

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Oia monastery

Then we hit Vigo, a massive industrial city, where we would have had to walk about 6 km within the roaring city limits to reach our hotel. Scarlett & I had parted ways with Pablo, who chose to strike out through the mountains along a different part of the Camino (rather confusing) to reach Vigo. After we’d followed the yellow arrows (our best friends once we found them) marking the way along a labyrinthine route which seemed to double back on itself without bringing us any closer to our destination, for about an hour – we stopped at a bar and got the owner to call us a taxi. So we avoided the miserable city trek. In the morning a friend of Pablo’s drove us from our hotel to the outskirts and we proceeded to Redondela and finally Pontevedra, which has a beautiful old town, basilica, and ancient bridge over the river.

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Baiona beach

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Pontevedra Basilica

Our best hotel experience was in Afife, our first night on the Camino – which I described last post. Others were sometimes lovely vis-à-vis setting (in Redondela we were right on the ocean with a sheltered outdoor café, and a massive roof terrace, virtually unused, where we played cards in the late afternoon) but maybe not so great re. actual rooms – very basic. In Baiona the hotel was a bit like a university residence but the hosts were very chatty and served us a huge meal, followed by a digestive that could strip hair, I think.

We did not meet many people on the trail at all in the first days. We did keep running into a German fellow who was the only other guest at our Baiona hotel and laughed his head off at the face I made when I tasted the digestive. En route to Vigo, he came across Scarlett & I having lunch and joined us for coffee, we parted ways and greeted each other like old friends when we somehow arrived at the same bar from totally different directions trying to get into the city. He shared our taxi. We then did not see him again for 2 days but on our last we kept bumping into him as the rain came down, always exclaiming in mutual delight.

fullsizeoutput_1526On our last day I briefly thought I’d lost Pablo and Scarlett. We reached a place where there was nary an arrow to be seen (often the case when we needed one), and upon asking directions were told 3 different routes by different people. I was a bit ahead (for a change) and opted for the route closest to me when pilgrims ahead shouted out “an arrow!” Meanwhile Scarlett was pointing in another direction, but I figured we’d all end up in the same place and proceeded. On this day, for the first time, we were encountering LOTS of pilgrims, and I ended up walking with a couple of very lively Irish gals. Off we strode and I sent a quick text to Pablo (I thought) saying “I’m following arrows, hope to meet up with you. I’m with the Irish”.) I mistakenly thought these were the same Irish women who’d been pounding back beers on the patio at the hotel the previous day. I hadn’t actually seen them as my back was to them, but their accents were almost incomprehensible. In any case I actually sent the text to my friend Terry in Canada, who responded a bit later “That would require taking a plane”. I stared at this response for a minute before realizing my mistake and laughing aloud. By now I was getting very chummy with Glenda and Carol (we’d pretty much shared our life stories by the time we parted) and we were climbing every mountain on lovely paths, and working up a right sweat under our rain gear. I called Scarlett & she said I was just ahead of them. Of course in short order they bypassed us, but I stuck with my new Irish friends, who were walking at a more moderate pace (and carrying all their gear on their backs.) We all had lunch together on the outskirts of Pontevedra, hugged and said goodbye (as they were going further that day). They offered to put me up in Dublin if I ever got there… maybe next year?

We also had some adventures, of course, when we got lost – or discovered we were on a Camino route that was NOT actually the coastal route (don’t ask how, I have no idea). When this happened we grew befuddled by the arrows, some blue on yellow backgrounds, others yellow on blue (who creates these codes?) and then we’d discuss which path to follow and sometimes would separate. Pablo was the most independently adventurous…one day he insisted on following the coast after we’d been beside the highway way too long. Within minutes the arrows led Scarlett and I up into the hills where we had amazing views of a lighthouse and the sea, while walking through eucalyptus forests, which smelled divine. A couple of properly directed texts and Pablo caught up with us.

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view from the hills

In Redondela, where our hotel was quite far out of town (fortunately in the direction we were heading), Pablo and I set off, following the hotel receptionist’s directions, to find a grocery store…with the help of Google Maps we eventually found it, but felt we’d taken rather a long route so decided to cut crosscountry (or rather cross farmer’s fields and properties) on the way back. Ultimately this involved lowering ourselves down from a 6’ high stone wall into an overgrown field where the brush was higher than our heads. We fought our way across this expanse, unable to see anything but greenery and encountering a few nettle-like plants (ouch) but we reached the beach leading to the hotel with our water, beer and nuts – which we enjoyed while playing cards before dinner.

Today we took a train from Pontevedra to Santiago de Compostela; the Cathedral is the destination of all the different Caminos. It is a lovely town – and the cathedral and square before it quite magnificent. In a way I wish we had ended our walk here as it is a scene of celebration as pilgrims reach the cathedral – and it would have been nice to see others we encountered on our way….but they won’t get here for at least 2 more days. By then we will have left, going our separate ways.

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Cathedral in Santiago

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Famous 80 kilo censor used in pilgrim masses

One of the mysteries I plan to research is WHO spray painted all the yellow arrows along the route – on the pavement, on telephone poles, etc. for miles and miles. I imagine a wondrous thoughtful devotee of the Camino (but probably not a monk from Santiago) walking the well-known route, perhaps by moonlight, with a can of yellow spray paint. Whoever he or she was – I am grateful!

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The “official” Camino logo and arrow

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an example of the much more frequently seen unofficial arrows, our true guides!

Buen Camino!

Spoiler alert: I have shared bits of this on Facebook. And am having trouble uploading photos again – there are more on FB. Just revised due to errors of exhaustion…

We have now finished Day 4 of 7 on the Camino de Santiago, Portuguese coastal route. It’s the first day I have felt hopeful that I will survive the experience!

On our first day we headed out from Viana do Castelo and almost immediately took a wrong turn. Pablo left a beloved (and expensive) watch on the rocks when we stopped to paddle our feet. He discovered the loss about half an hour later and went back to look for it. Scarlett & I proceeded, following directions supplied by Follow the Camino (alas, without detailed maps). We turned left where we should have turned right, proceeded merrily along a lovely wooded path for some time, wondering why we were not passing any of the locations noted in our directions and finally deduced we’d gone wrong. We began texting Pablo (and eventually called him to explain.) He was in mourning for his lost watch, but had begun to philosophise that maybe the Camino was telling him to abandon such materialism, etc. When he had almost reached the place where Scarlett and I, having waded across a field to a bridge we quickly realized was NOT the bridge mentioned in our directions, were sitting by the ocean wondering if we’d ever find the promised waymarks, or see an end to what was admittedly a beautiful day but quite hot, Pablo met two cyclists and asked “Did you see a couple of women, about my age?”, lifted his hat to show his age – and there was his watch in his hat. It had been on his head the whole time. He almost kissed the strangers.

IMG_3664Having regrouped we used Google Maps to try to see where we were, where we might find some lunch (it was at least 2:00 by then), also where our next hotel might be (we figured about another 8-10km) – only to find we were 45 minutes from the hotel. Eureka. Following Google Maps, I led my dubious companions in what seemed an odd direction, right down onto the beach. They protested mightily, quoting all the false leads Google Maps can provide, so I gave in and we started back the way we’d came (this was to become an unhappy theme). Then suddenly from beneath a large rock, a man emerged gesticulating wildly at us  (and startling us – alas I did not have the presence of mind to get a photo). We understood from his gestures that we should in fact continue along the beach and there would be a way out to our right shortly. So we did, and found it (wondering all along what exactly he was doing under that rock)…although when we finally reached Afife my companions were quick to note we could have got there by a much more direct route if I’d listened to them.

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Afife

We had a lovely lunch in Afife (blink and you’d miss it) and proceeded to our hotel (we are using an agency which has booked all our hotels – and they transfer our luggage  – thank god.  We only have to carry daypacks). It turned out to be a beautiful 15th century building converted into a 4* hotel (we think), with swimming pool. We were the only guests. The host was delightful, even spent half an hour that evening explaining to Pablo (in Spanish) how exactly to get to the Camino. We swam and lounged in the pool. All was well. The town was tiny and quaint. We ate supper at the same place we’d had lunch (apparently the only open eating establishment in town) – a bar with outdoor café facing the train track where high speed trains hurtled past periodically.

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At our cafe in Afife

The next morning we departed in good time – and almost immediately missed the Camino and were lost again. We found a gorgeous ocean side boardwalk. It was super hot but an increasingly fierce wind kept us cool, then started sandblasting our faces (the Sahara seemed mild in comparison, but of course I did not have my turban). So we ducked under the ropes and crashed down through underbrush, fighting our way to the road then backtracking a mile or so … and finally, finally, saw our first yellow arrow, indicating we were actually on the Camino.

By the end of the day (15 km total), when we reached Caminha (just across the water from Spain) I was rather in the doldrums. Scarlett charged ahead, Pablo strode after her and I brought up the sorry rear. This somehow seemed incorrect to me. I’d organized this bloody (now seemingly forced) march – and I couldn’t even keep up. My feet were hurting, etc. etc.

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Caminha

Caminha is a delightful little oceanside town with lovely main square (where we had a happy beer), cloisters etc. Our hotel was also quite nice except not very accommodating of our needs. (Pablo is vegan and they told him – we think – he could have garlic for dinner and no, an omelette was out of the question – though they eventually gave in and served him the plainest omelette ever). And despite the fact we wanted to catch a 9:00am ferry to Spain they couldn’t possibly serve us breakfast before 9:30. We went to bed grumpy, got up early to get breakfast at a cafe but only got our order in time to rush to the ferry.

I had slept badly and as the day turned chilly and grey the minute the ferry left Portugal, I was, shall we say, somewhat ill-tempered. I declared we should just walk at our own paces because I could not keep up and did not want to try… so we did.  We walked for a long time – my feet now burning with every step, which totally improved my mood. At one point when we were following the yellow arrows devoutly along a highway and I was, as usual, well behind them, I ducked off the road into burnout woods , ate my sandwich, rested & aired my poor feet, not caring how far behind I fell. When I caught up (they texted me) they were in the only café we’d come across, a tent in which an old woman sold hard liquor, coffee, packaged pastries and pop. We met 4 other pilgrims (all American) huddled there, 2 of whom I have encountered twice since, as they are sort of on our schedule.

fullsizeoutput_1523We trudged on to complete the 16 km day at Oia. I honestly began to think I would not be able to complete our planned walk. But after sequestering myself in my room and resting/showering etc. while Scarlett and Pablo explored the town, I went out on my own, found a bar with a stunning upper terrace – all grassy and deserted – and enjoyed a restorative 2 euro glass of white wine.

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Monastery at Oia

Heading back to our very basic hotel for a Pilgrim’s meal, I met Ray and Wendy (aforementioned Americans) and she told me I could get this great ibuprofen cream for feet at the nearby pharmacy. So I did.

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Oia

Dinner last night was great. Just us and one other guest but a huge meal with vegetable soup, good bread, stewed beef with potatoes (for me) salad, desert and unlimited wine. I slept like a log.

And then, miracle of miracles (maybe it was the cream, or the swathing of my feet in moleskin, or just that this was Day 4) today my feet behaved. We walked 20 km along the coast and up into the mountains, encountered nice cafes (and stopped at them) every hour or so, had a great lunch at a fancy restaurant and arrived in Baiona to a very good hotel by 3:00.

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views today, between Oia and Baoina

fullsizeoutput_1544So – 3 more days to go and now that my confidence has returned (I even kept up with those two today – though maybe they were being kind and slowed down for my sake), I am able to really enjoy this. Landscape and views have been exceptional throughout, especially all the flowers (wild and cultivated) – it’s a profusion of colour and beautiful scents – and always the mighty ocean crashing in immense waves on our left. Today was not too hot, but sunny and brilliant.

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view from my hotel balcony in Baiona

Many thanks to all my Avon Trail friends for advice (go slow, air your feet, wear sock liners, have moleskin at the ready, take lots of breaks!) Despite yesterday’s pain, I have no blisters – and somehow today, the soreness is gone.

So, Buen Camino, as they say (which I think means “Have a good Camino”).

 

Flash Visit to Lisbon

Literally whirlwind tours of Lisbon. My Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca was delayed 3 hours (with no announcement or explanation – suddenly sign beside flight # just said “termine” – charming. In the end just delayed, but there was a mob of upset people.) Not recommending Royal Air Maroc! I arrived in the Lisbon metro to discover I’d lost my Visa card, so spent the entire first evening on a Skype call to Visa, used up all my Skype credit and of course could not top up, because I have no credit card. Talk about feeling stranded. Fortunately I had a fair amount of cash.

Then up early the next morning to walk to my first tour (an Airbnb experience walking tour, “Shadows of Forgotten Lisbon”). I am in love with google maps – wow! Sure makes it easy to find tour starting points, Airbnb etc.. We walked the city for almost 4 hours, saw many gorgeous places and learned a lot of history – all of which is a tad vague in my mind because I was tired and distracted by Visa issue.

fullsizeoutput_1437fullsizeoutput_1444fullsizeoutput_1451Lots of wars, internal and external – and LOTS of sea exploration. I was blown away by the distances travelled by Portuguese ships and traders in late 15th, early 16th centuries – all over Asia, South Africa, Brazil….they pretty much beat everyone to it, and their kings got nice and rich – and for periods of time relocated to Brazil, until civil or foreign wars called them back. Perhaps the most significant event was the Lisbon earthquake in 1755, which pretty much destroyed the entire city. Sad story of everyone rushing to the biggest square in the city, by the river, to avoid falling buildings, only to find the river dry. Then the tsunami roared in and everyone drowned. Meanwhile a lot of the higher city burned as candles etc. toppled in the quake. The city was rebuilt, and is really gorgeous – though there are tons of tourists. Two monstrous cruise ships photobombed the harbour (photo NOT included).

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Lisbon is built on hills and they have a unique form of street/sidewalk paving stones: very attractive, in different patterns of black and white. Trams rumble up and down the narrow streets, but there are lots of big squares and cafes. Lovely architecture too.

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After that tour I had another set of difficult discussions with Visa (you don’t even want to know – and not their fault. I have the wrong phone plan for this emergency, and the wrong schedule for receiving delivery of new card – really hard to  establish a timeframe for receipt while I am walking the Camino. But I will manage.)IMG_3446

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with tour guige Ricardo

Then in the evening off I trotted for another Airbnb experience “Fado Tour with a Fado Singer”. This was a lot of fun. Only 3 in the tour, but our guide was a very lively attractive young woman who shared a lot of info about Fado, and took us to some of the historically important locations in development of Fado, ending with an evening at a tiny crowded Fado Club (which would seat about 35 on crammed benches and stools at tables, and likely held 50 that night, so we were really cheek by jowl.) A retired French couple were at our table, so I got to natter way in French again. We ate soup, sausage, bread, cod cakes and cheese, with wine – and watched three different singers (about 2 meters away, in the middle of the ”club”) the last of which was our guide, who frankly blew the others out of the water – wonderful rich voice and great delivery! So a very special evening.

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Fado Club

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2 Polish gals, tour guide Cristiana & yours truly

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Cristiana performing

Deep breath…on to Porto!

 

 

 

Moroccan Idiosyncrasies

A few cultural oddities of interest – especially to those who may travel to Morocco:

Tipping is the absolute order of the day. Everyone has to be tipped for everything. Not much, a few cents really, but if you do not tip, beware. At the start of our tour, Driss collected 300 dirhams from each of us (about $45) to tip all our guides, porters etc. – which made things much easier for us. Still if we did any optional activities (for which we paid) – e.g. the hike in the Rif mountains, we had to tip (10%). If you took photos of anyone in the Marrakesh Square or of, say goats in trees, someone demanded a tip. In fact when we pulled over on the side of the road where the goats WERE in the trees, Driss told us to get out, cross the 4 lane highway (fortunately mostly deserted) and NOT take photos from the bus or there might be an attack on the bus.

IMG_3237IMG_3239I never quite understood what claim these people had on the goats (or whether they had deposited them in the early morning hours via cranes of something) but we paid…and if you wanted to hold a small goat, you paid more. Side note: the goats do apparently climb the trees to eat argan nuts (or so the tale goes. The ones we saw just stood in the trees).

We paid to use the washrooms, really to do anything.

Cats abound. Millions of them in the streets, mostly mangy but plenty of cute kittens. At least 2 members of our group photographed them incessantly (fortunately the cats did not demand a tip). I am guessing this may have been a feature of North African countries for eons, given all the cat references in ancient Egypt.

IMG_2573Donkeys and mules are also seen frequently, and used as beasts of burden. Not only did they carry all our bags up into the High Atlas Mountains, the last night in Marrakesh I looked out my hotel window to see a mule pulling a cart collecting garbage.IMG_2804

Traffic is insane. Driss told us, in Marrakech, to always cross the street with a Moroccan, as traffic lights are scarce. There are lots of crosswalks but I never figured out exactly how those worked. The Moroccans did seem to know. Motorcycles are especially dangerous, zipping in and out of lanes, taking the unwary traveller by surprise (even in the narrow lanes in the souks). Whenever a traffic light turns green all the drivers honk their horns (I suppose just in case someone ahead of them takes more than a second to hit the accelerator). I would HATE to drive in Morocco!

The food is delicious and abundant but we were grateful that Driss could tell us where it was okay to eat salads, what food to avoid at any given restaurant (meat cooked over gas could make one ill, or anything cooked in oil which might be rancid). A few of our party experienced digestive issues (ahem), but not bad. I suffered no ill consequences and ate lots of salads! Mint tea (a mixture of green tea and fresh mint, poured from lovely silver teapots) is ubiquitous  … and I did not love it. But whenever you arrive anywhere (hotel, gite, desert tent, bedouin home) you receive a cup of “welcome mint tea”. Olives and bread equally omnipresent – at the start of every meal, including breakfast

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Olives, olives everywhere. 

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Tagines being uncovered

French is spoken widely, much to my delight. I was able to communicate pretty well – and people in the group would ask me to translate or make requests for them. Little did they know how fractured my French really is!

G Adventures is terrific: modest accommodations and many hours in the van, but splendid tour guide and driver (we tipped them both very well I think!) I highly recommend them, especially in Morocco. I met a woman in Lisbon who will shortly be going to Morocco on her own. That will be an extreme challenge, I think. The beauty of travelling with a small, super well-organised group is that you do NOT have to understand the intricacies of this very different culture, as the guide does. Also you move as a pack, safety in numbers!

Next up: Lisbon!

Marrakech Madness

After out time in the mountains, desert and ocean-side calm of Essaouira, Marrakesh was an assault on the senses. OMG so much noise and chaos, more humanity crammed into one space than I think I’d ever seen in the souks and the square… but also beautiful wide streets, gardens and sites.

We arrived (to a hotel which lacked the charm of previous ones, but had an elevator, café, swimming pool and even room service!) It was located in the new town (all the Moroccan cities we invited had “new towns” – outside the walls of the medina, and generally more European.)

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An hour or so after arriving we went on a city tour. First we visited the Saadian Tombs, and learned a lot of Moroccan history. Originally all settled by Berbers, during the Spanish Inquisition, as previously mentioned, the Moors and Jews escaped Spain for Morocco , the latter coming in increasing numbers and forming an important part of Moroccan culture. Conflict arose, not only between the Arab Muslims and Berber ones, but between different Muslim families, fighting for control. The Arabs won out, proclaiming themselves the true followers of Islam…anyway somewhere in here the Arabs wiped out all evidence of previous rulers, but could not bring themselves to destroy the sacred tombs, so they walled them in and for centuries no one knew exactly what was behind the  walls (except that it was a cemetery.) A French pilot, early 20th century, saw the buildings and (overgrown) gardens, and a passage into the Tombs was created.

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We moved from the “graveyard” to the Bahia Palace, built by the Grand Vizier (right hand to Sultan) for his favoured wife Bahia. Gotta say the whole Muslim treatment of women, especially in the harems, was appalling. The Sultan, Grand Vizier etc. could have 4 official wives for life, the favoured one in charge (and favoured by the man for any reason whatsoever, but once favoured, always favoured). He could also have any number of unofficial wives (there were 28 in Bahia Palace), to entertain him. These were guarded by eunuchs and were, above all, not allowed to get pregnant (tricky business given their main responsibility); only the official wives could have children. The unofficial wives served from age 12 to 20, then became servants. An unsatisfactory unofficial wife (e.g. pregnant) was sold as a slave. Interesting also, obese women were regarded as vastly superior/sexy – so from age of 7 or 8 girls were stuffed with food. Regardless, the palace and gardens were beautiful – especially the detailed carved wood and tiled ceilings.

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From the calm of walled gardens and palaces, our guide led us through the souks (markets). These reminded me a little of the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, except these were roofless – and in addition to the crush of people, motorcycles raced through the narrow pathways constantly, deafening and terrifying us! Of course you can buy anything you want in the souks, but Driss had warned us not to show interest if we did not want to be harassed.

IMG_3308IMG_3307And the same was doubly true of the Djemaa el Fna Market Square….OMG, nothing like it in the world (well, as far as I know) A vast, vast open square absolutely teeming with people, food tents, performers and hustlers of every kind. If you took a photo of a stall, a snake charmer, a performing diapered monkey, a woman applying henna – just about ANYTHING, you had to pay for it. The din was mind-blowing and we all hurried to a rooftop café, at a slight remove, where we could take photos, clutching our bags close at all times.

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The next day our final of the tour) we had a free day in the city – and a lot of people rested, walked, visited gardens. I took a long walk on my own, and saw some lovely buildings, parks and gardens.

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In the early evening 5 of us walked from our hotel to the square for a last visit. At 6:00 it was considerably livelier than it had been at 5:00 the previous day (who would have thought it possible?) We moved as a pack, veering away from hustlers wanting to sell us, show us, let us hold a money, etc. But one of us, Kris really wanted to pay to get photos of her near the charmed snakes, so when a man approached holding a snake, rather than retreating in haste (squeaking in dismay) like the rest of us, wrapped it around her neck, she allowed it, then followed him to the snake carpet and got her photos taken (nasty bit of haggling – he wanted 300MAD; she paid him 40!) I also succumbed to the charms (?) of the square and got a henna design on my finger….cost too much (took 3 minutes) but I had MADs to get rid of.

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Kris & snake

We had a lovely last dinner all together, in the midst of which Driss rushed us up to a rooftop to get photos of the sunset.

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Wine flowed, couscous and tagine were devoured, and we all left feeling  a bit sad… although I did not want to stay in Marrakech any longer. But it was indeed the trip of a lifetime!

tour group Todra

I will write on more blog about Moroccan customs and peculiarities, useful for potential travellers (and kind of entertaining) ….meanwhile, Lisbon, here I come!