Monday, November 29, 2010

There are a LOT of us crazy peeps out there.

While I’m gathering up enough steam to write another “day on the camino” post, let’s talk about the other peeps who are crazy enough to walk 200 miles – or more.

On our way out of St. Jean Pied de Port, we met handsome young Alex from Charlotte, North Carolina. He graduated from college this spring with a major in English and a minor in computer technology – or something like that. He was walking the entire camino – all 500 miles of it – by himself with everything on his back. He was not sending his luggage by way of taxi to the next hotel like we were, so he had his clothes, extra shoes, Head and Shoulders – EVERYTHING – in his backpack. No wimpy lumbar pack for this young man.

At dinner in Roncesvalles, we sat at a big round table with other pilgrims, one of whom was a young man from Sweden. He was a little vague about what he does for a living – I think he was in computer technology too, wasn’t he, Kath? He said he was taking a break to decide on his next career. His English was excellent and, oh by the way, he spoke several other languages as well. Put us to shame, he did. He was also traveling the entire camino by himself and carrying with him all of his gear in a pack that weighed 7 kilos total.

We met so many people from different countries – from as far away as Korea and Australia and Hawaii, and from all over Europe. Some traveled singly – mostly men, young like Alex and older like the gentleman we kept passing on the 2nd hundred miles. He spoke a language that I didn’t understand – surprise, surprise! – so we never did figure out where he was from. He just kept plodding along…sometimes we passed him, other times he passed us.

We met many couples – again, young and older, and many groups. We saw one child of maybe 8 or 10 years, but I think he was doing just a day hike with his family. There were a few groups of teenagers – all European, perhaps all Spanish. One small group was a young Scottish guy walking the entire camino with his girlfriend and her mother. Kathie just went up and started talking with him because he had red hair and beard; she figured he must be Scottish and having walked the Western Highlands she’s now Scottish herself, you know. (Just teasin’, Kath!) Anyway, he was out of work back in Scotland so he decided to walk the camino. He was liking it so much that he said when he reached Santiago he’d probably just turn left and cut down through Portugal. Neat guy.

Some of the travelers were on bikes. Believe me, getting up and down those rocky slopes on foot is tough enough – I don’t know how those guys did it on bikes. Once we even saw a group of guys on Segways. Never saw ‘em again…they left us in their dust.

It is estimated by Wikipedia that more than 200,000 pilgrims will have walked the camino this year – and those are just the ones getting their compostela in Santiago.

From what we saw, the majority were walking the entire 500 miles and with full packs. Bless ‘em all. Buen Camino!

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Day One on the Camino de Santiago (or "A Picture is So Worth a Thousand Words")

By the end of the last post, I was so anxious to get going on the posts about actually walking the camino that I forgot to post a couple of important pics.

Pat, Kathleen, and Kathie across from the pilgrim office in St. Jean

Twilight on the River Nive in "downtown" St. Jean Pied de Port

In our room at the Hotel Continental, getting packed up for day 1

A journey of 200 miles begins with a set of stairs

OK, here we go...

The last downhill we're gonna see for hours

As I mentioned at the end of my last post, we stopped in the pilgrim office in St. Jean Pied de Port. There we picked up a pilgrim passport and a sheet of paper that shows the elevations of each of the camino’s stages. Here’s the elevation for the first day.

Seriously, need I say more? The saying about a picture being worth a thousand words was never more appropriate.

At the beginning of the climb

Up a little ways

About time to start shedding clothes

(The exertion of climbing made us so warm that two of the three of us took off our bras, standing on the side of the road in Etchebestea. Names have been omitted here to protect the guilty. Suffice it to say that this blog should now be called “Pat and Perky”.)

And up further...

How much further does this go?

I had thought - with dread - about this day for months. Thinking that a lumbar pack would be cooler and easier on my back, I ordered one from L.L. Bean. And so that I would not repeat the miserable day two years earlier on the Hadrian's Wall walk, hiking in ill-fitting boots, I strapped my sneakers onto my pack for in case I needed to change. In my pack, then, I carried sneakers, rain gear, two liter bottles full of water, lunch, etc. It was a wee bit heavy and flopped around on my hips more than I liked. Being a novice lumbar pack wearer, I cinched the strap tight around my waist to minimize the flopping. When I finally figured out the tight strap was cutting off my air supply, making the climb all the more difficult, I loosened the strap. The ascent was still really tough, but my face changed to a lighter shade of puce. Then again, that might have been the result of applying sunscreen over dried sweat over sunscreen, which feels a lot like rubbing your skin with gravel.

Finally, at Frontera, we crossed into Spain. In another 4 kilometers, we hit Col de Lepoeder, elevation 1450 meters. Tradition says that Charlemagne's rear guard, commanded by Roland, was ambushed and slaughtered in this area back in 778. Ever read the Song of Roland? No, I haven't either. I hear it's over 4,000 lines long. It's probably on Kathie's reading list.

We took a bit of a break here before heading down to Roncesvalles. The nice pilgrimage office lady had advised us to take the road down, which would be kinder and gentler on our knees. Did we listen to the nice pilgrimage office lady? Nooo - we were real women and knocked ourselves out going down through the forest - which I have to say was very pretty.

The way down

Finally we arrived in Roncesvalles, where we spent the night at La Posada, right next door to which is a 12th century Romanesque chapel – supposedly the burial place of Roland’s slaughtered soldiers.

There are also pilgrims buried in there. After this day, I can understand what happened to them.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Background (or why on earth anyone would walk 200 miles in 2 weeks if they didn't have to)

Tour St. Jacques, Paris

One of the best books I’ve ever read is Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. The first Follett book I had tried to read bordered on pornographic and Pillars is over a thousand pages, so it was kind of a miracle when I finished it – and loved it – over ten years ago. Up until recently when I reread it, I remembered that it was a story about cathedral building (and builders) back in the 12th century and the intrigues of the church and nobles, and it ended with the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

For some reason, one small part of the story in particular – no more than about five pages of the thousand – caught my attention and made enough of an impression that I remembered it all these years. (Highly unusual for me – I usually have forgotten not only the details but even the general plot of a book within a month after I finish reading it.) This was the story of Lady Aliena’s following Jack the Builder to Paris, only to find that he’s left on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest of Spain. So with her newborn, she sets out on horseback to find him there.

The pilgrimage Jack took was the Way of St. James, or Camino de Santiago. For a thousand years, Christians have trekked from all over Europe (and these days, from all over the world) to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James the Greater are kept (or so legend would have you believe). Back in the old days, this pilgrimage was as important for Christians to make as the pilgrimage to Jerusalem was. Supposedly, it was established and promoted by the Cluniac order as a means to expand the influence of Christianity; the French kings used it to build their political and economic power in Spain as well. The route was protected by the Knights Templar and the Order of Santiago; monasteries, churches, and towns sprang up along the route to provide for the pilgrims’ spiritual and physical needs. There’s a whole chapter in James Michener’s Iberia about the Camino and his (second) trip to Santiago in 1966. Other people he lists as having done the pilgrimage were:

• Charlemagne
• Louis VII of France
• St. Francis of Assisi
• James III of Scotland and England
• Pope John XXIII (before he became the pope, that is)

What does this have to do with Pat and Kathie? you ask. In 2008, Kath, Joan, Hisako, Tetsu, and I walked all 84 miles of the Hadrian’s Wall trail in northern England. Last year, I was working on our Magnet project so I very reluctantly and sadly had to turn down Kathie’s invitation to hike the Western Highlands of Scotland with her, Kathleen, Sally, and Jan. So when Kathie suggested earlier this year that we do at least part of the 500-mile Camino in Spain, I was – as usual – nervous that I couldn’t get physically ready for such a hike, but curious enough about the pilgrimage that she didn’t have to twist my arm too hard to get me to go along.

In her usual way, Kathie set about lining up other walkers to go with us and making arrangements. Of course, she booked hotels and bag transfer through Macs Adventures again. For my part, I didn’t really start to prepare for the hike ‘til July. (Typical!) Our other sister, Janie, walked the bridge, Folly Beach, or Citadel Mall with me most evenings – right up until the day her evil gallbladder sent her to the ER. For the couple weeks between then and the start of the trip, I slacked off. What’s the worst that can happen, I asked myself. When it comes right down to it, all ya gotta do is keep putting one foot in front of the other. I’ll get through it like I always do, I thought.

September 17th finally arrived and a gallbladder-free Janie drove me to the airport then wished me good luck as we parted. I had been instructed by Kathie that I was NOT to check a bag so I had what I thought I would need for a 3 week trip, including 3 days in Paris and 14 days on the trail, packed in a carryon and a lumbar pack. Riding in two water bottles nestled in the pockets on each side of the lumbar pack I carried as a handbag were 5 pounds of peanut M&Ms that I had rationed out into 22 baggies – one for each day. I can only imagine what the airport security peeps thought when they saw that. (At least they didn’t have to hunt through my bags looking for mysterious white powder like they did in Kathie’s. What was that, Kath? Hydralite, did you say? LOL!)

In Atlanta, I met up with Kathie and Kathleen for the flight to Paris. If you’ve read the last few posts here, you know that we had a great time there. On Monday morning, we went back by the Tour St. Jacques before going to the Louvre. (It had been closed the evening we stopped by the first time.)

Pilgrim Statue at the base of the Tour St. Jacques

It was at this place that pilgrims from all over Europe met in the old days to start the 900 mile journey to Santiago de Compostela. So here we picked up buckeyes from the grass under the buckeye trees, and touched the monument for good luck on the pilgrimage.

On Tuesday evening, we arrived at the trailhead in the town of St. Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees Mountains. Here we visited the pilgrim office for guidance, got a bite to eat in a Basque café, and roamed along the top of the old city wall in the dark. The next morning, we set off on our incredible adventure.

Paris, Sitting

Before Patty moves us along on our adventure, I must comment on a phenomenon I've seen in no other city but Paris - sitting around outdoors.

Who hasn't said when asked what they planned to do in Paris "go to to the Louvre, and sit in a sidewalk cafe" or "go to Versailles, and sit in a sidewalk cafe".

Since we had a lot to see in our three days we did a lot of walking, trust me, a lot of walking. But everywhere there was this curiosity of Parisians sitting around and, had we been in Paris longer, we would have lounged around more in these beautiful places.

Patty already showed us the Tulleries, but she didn't point out that chairs were provided for people to sit around. They must have been set there but the city and people must value them so highly they don't get stolen. Nice chairs, at that.

They were lounging all over Versaille,

down the hillside at Sacre Couer,

and around the gardens of Luxembourg Palace.

Again, those chairs at Luxembourg that can be moved around, congregated, or isolated, whatever your mood or desire. Reading, talking, congregating, looking, and in no hurry to get anyplace.

What is it about Paris or Parisians that brings out this behavior of sitting outside? Do they have that Buddhist "in the moment"? Because the city is so expensive?

Whatever the reason, I said when I got back to San Diego I would look for some sitting around outside. Haven't found it yet except at the beach, but I'll be looking.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Let's Wrap This Baby Up.

I've been dragging this Paris story out far too long. We were only there three days, for heaven's sake. Time to wrap it up and get on to the real story.

So back at Carol’s on Monday evening, we repacked our bags, showered, and went to bed. In the morning, we had our last French breakfast with Carol. She called a cab for us and we had an exciting ride to Montparnasse train station for the TGV to Bayonne.

Such a nice train – and very fast! The suburbs melted away and we passed through farmland and hills crested with lines of modern white windmills. I wrote my notes about Paris…

Generally, I enjoyed Paris very much - much more so than I did 40 years ago. Perhaps it’s an age thing, or the Parisians are pleasanter now, maybe it was my traveling companions…maybe it was all three. The weather was wonderful, so traveling on foot and by metro was enjoyable. And our B&B location was perfect! Here are our recommendations if you're planning a trip to Paris:

• Wear a scarf about your neck – if you’re female, that is. Even wearing jeans, the Parisian ladies wear a scarf.
• Get a museum pass and keep in mind that some museums are closed on Mondays – e.g., Versailles. And be aware that labor strikes can close a site unexpectedly, so have a back-up plan.
• Take lots of money – Paris is tres expensive!
• Eat at the Louvre's cafe, use the metro, and stay near Notre Dame so you can see it every day.
• And do get out at night.

Next post: The Real Story.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Monday at the Louvre, etc.

Monday, September 20th, was our last full day in Paris. On our way to the Louvre, we stopped at one place I'll tell you about in my next post and then at Yves Rocher so I could buy some face cream. They were having a big sale – 50% off the whole store! I behaved myself and just picked up one little jar though.

On to the Louvre, which was fabulous, of course! I'm not going to waste space here writing about its history - all that stuff's easily found on the Web. Instead, here's a visual tour with some comments and impressions thrown in.

That, of course, is I.M. Pei's famous pyramid in the Napoleon Court. The pyramid opened in 1989 to become the main entrance to the museum. Apparently, the original entrance was being destroyed by all the foot traffic, so a new entrance was needed. Voila! The pyramid is very cool!

Because we had our handy dandy museum passes, however, we totally bypassed the line to enter through the pyramid entrance – for which I was kind of sad - and entered through the Richelieu Wing.

Before I go on, here's a note for future visitors - if you need to potty before setting out to see the exhibits, bypass the ladies room on the entrance floor and look for one on the upper floors. The line downstairs is S-L-O-W.

Back to more important stuff. One of the first pieces we saw was the Code of Hammurabi. The writing in this shot says, "If you like art, you've come to the right place!"

Next is a comparison of my photo-taking technique and Kathie's. The first photo of the Venus de Milo is mine. Looks like any tourist's snapshot, right? Why did that guy have to be behind the sculpture? I mean really - what was he looking at? Was her butt showing? Cropping him out would make this a very narrow pic.

Then we have Kathie's photo of the same sculpture. She's hilarious to watch as she waits and waits and waits for the perfect shot - but look at her results! You might see that photo in a guidebook or art text. I just hate her.

Then we have the Winged Victory of Samothrace. I took this photo but it was nearly impossible to get a stray tourist in the background from this angle - I was up on a landing.

Kathleen and I stood back a ways out of the crowd pressing forward to get close enough to snap a photo of Mona Lisa, while Kathie weaseled her way toward the front of the pack to get her shot. Nice job, Kath.

I remember the first time I saw the Mona Lisa in 1970 – what a disappointment! The painting was much smaller than I expected and it was on a wall with all the other paintings, just roped off so she couldn’t be touched by unauthorized hands. Now, she’s on a wall all by herself and behind glass, looking much more impressive than back then. And impressive she is – it took da Vinci four years to complete the painting of La Joconde – probably most of that time was spent letting each of the thirty layers of paint and glaze dry. The technique is called sfumato, the results of which are hazy illusion of depth and shadow. (I didn’t make that up – it’s from the Web but I can’t remember where.) Anyway, the total thickness of all that paint is only forty micrometers, half the thickness of a human hair. Pretty amazing.

We finished up the morning checking out the Lacemaker and several other priority pieces, then headed for the museum cafe for lunch. Yum! We split salmon and eggplant “cake” (gateau), and washed it down with Coke. Double yum!

After lunch, we were walking toward the main lobby (under the pyramid in the pic below), getting ready to split up to go see the stuff we each wanted to see, when we were stopped by a security guard. Looking past him, we could see that the main lobby had been cleared and there was a lone backpack sitting in the middle of the vast floor. Human nature being what it is, we spent a moment mesmerized by the situation, then realized that if there really was a bomb in that backpack, we needed to be skedaddling on outta there. We took off down a hallway of shops, trying to figure out what to do, then headed back the way we came. Lo and behold, the backpack was gone and the lobby was crowded again, as if nothing had ever happened. Weird.

Kathie took off for the antiquities...

...while Kathleen and I lounged around in one of the courts (not the one below but a similar one).

When it was time to meet up again, Kathleen and I waited and waited, wondering where Kathie was. Of course, she'd gotten lost. I knew she would so why hadn't I gone with her? One can only wonder.

We exited through the pyramid and went out through the Tuileries to find l’Orangerie, where Monet's lilypad paintings are on display. Alas, the museum had closed early – consequently we saw no Impressionism. WAH!

So we took the metro to Luxembourg Gardens – a very nice, large park which is well used by the Parisians…joggers to babies (in strollers, of course). The palace is now the seat of the French senate. Hey look - there's Kathleen!

Somehow we figured out how to take the metro to the Ecole Militaire stop to see the Eiffel Tower. We made a stop at Carmine's for pizza. Watch out – parma is ham! Then we caught the last bit of the twinkle lights on the tower but weren't quick enough to catch 'em in a photo.

We stood under the tower and looked up – not a huge thrill – maybe it’s a daylight thing. It's a cool place though – we enjoyed it!

Finally, we hopped on the metro one last time, getting off at St. Michel to enjoy the sight of Notre Dame one last time. Sigh.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Sunday at Versailles

After we left mass at Notre Dame, we caught the train to Versailles, the seat of French political power during the reign of Louis XIV through XVI, ending when Louis XVI was forced to move his family back to Paris during the French Revolution.

Because we had a museum pass, we hopped to the head of the admission line – so smart, Kath and Kathleen! Here's a view of the gate from the inside. Doesn't that tall guy in the bowler hat look like Charlie Chaplin? Whaddya suppose he's looking at? Maybe wondering when the king's chariot is going to arrive?
This little chapel is just inside the entrance. No wonder the French revolted, eh? I mean, really - did they NEED a chapel with a golden altar in their house?
And then there's the Hall of Mirrors, or the Galerie des Glaces, with its crystal chandeliers catching the light from the windows along one wall and reflecting it in the mirrors on the opposite wall. Just imagine all those tourists in powdered wigs and brocaded silk gowns. I know it's a stretch...
Right at the end of the hall is where the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919, ending World War 1. What's there now? A big plastic Murakami "sculpture". Maybe it's just my age, but I totally missed the rationale for having this garish anime exhibit in such a garishly opulent setting. Too much garish for me. Bordering on gruesome. (Are you wondering how I really feel about this?)
Outside in the gardens that seemed to go on forever, we enjoyed walking among the ponds, statues, and trees while listening to classical music. The weather was beautiful and the flowers were tres magnifique!

Down there in the woods on the right, we stopped at a little outdoor cafe for lunch and people-watched from behind our sunglasses.

Back in Paris, we went to Sacre Coeur…a beautiful church despite the hordes of peeps and street entertainers – right outside the front door of the church.

After we observed part of the mass at Sacre Coeur, we trooped down to the Left Bank for dinner at Café Paris, then walked back across to the Right Bank to visit the Tour St. Jacques in the moonlight.

Why did we want to see this relatively obscure 16th century Flamboyant Gothic monument? Ah, that story is yet to come.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Wish They Were Bulletproof

This morning I overheard one of the sheriff's deputies ask another whether Veterans' Day was to honor the veterans that died or all veterans. I wondered what he thought Memorial Day was for, but he's probably not alone in his confusion.

Just for the record here, Memorial Day was started after that blood bath we called the Civil War and Veterans' Day was started after that blood bath we called World War I. November 11 was set aside to mark the anniversary of the signing of the armistice ending World War I, ending the war on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918.

The book is in my stack of "still to read". On that 11th day, both sides were still going at each other with 2,738 soldiers dying and 11,000 total casualties - more than D-Day. Still, almost a century later, the men of the world haven't figured out how to resolve conflict, territorial and ideological disputes, and other differences without sending young ones out to kill and maim each other.

My Daughters of the American Revolution buddies and I go up to Camp Pendleton once a month to feed the Wounded Warriors a good home cooked meal, this month a tasty Thanksgiving dinner, and to give some support. Fun and inspiring as they are, I'll be glad for the day we don't have any more Wounded to feed.