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Archive for the ‘Castilla y León’ Category

Santiago departingToo soon it was time for us to continue our Iberian journey. We woke up to a very misty morning on our last day in Santiago. After a sumptuous breakfast (I had a feast from the buffet: soy milk, my home-made muesli, choice of cut fruit from at least 8 platters, little pots of gazpacho, grilled baby bell peppers, stir-fried broccoli, raisin bread and herbal tea), we slowly cycled over the cobblestones to the train station. We feel a sense of achievement having made this pilgrimage, and, quite fittingly suffering a bit physically!

The 4 hour train trip back to León where our car was parked, went very quickly. Flitting past the window at 200km/h were sleepy villages, deep green forests, rivers and lakes. On our way to the parking garage in León, we cycled across the impressive Roman bridge we crossed a week ago starting the Camino.
Small villages

Our journey from León took us further south: here the rainfall is less and more unreliable. Green forests made way for olive groves and red soil, with vistas mainly of low dry hills covered with shrub, the occasional acacia tree and patches of Umbrella Pine trees from which the sweet, creamy pine nuts are harvested. Flowering Oleander bushes in bright pink and misty white are planted along the motorway for kilometres on end. The massive plains stretching in all directions were the scene of many wars over the centuries, especially between Christians from the north and invading Muslims from the south. The hills and rocky outcrops are dotted with the ruins of Moorish castles, forts and towers.

Segovia cathedral square

Segovia cathedral square


Three hours later our GPS lead us into Segovia’s old quarter into car-width narrow cobbled lanes to a dead end with a closed boom beyond which was the pedestrian area. No wonder we got a few stares. Turning the car around with centimetres to spare between the car and the already scraped walls from previous cars, we rather followed our instincts to the hotel, which was situated on the main square. We handed our keys to the porter to have the car parked. Our room was on the 4th floor, built into the roof of the small
View from our hotel room

View from our hotel room

hotel. We had views in three directions: one was towards the close roofs of nearby buildings with red terracotta roof tiles faded to light brown, orange and pink; another was across the yellow plains of wheat fields surrounding Segovia (a hill-top town); yet another view was straight onto the magnificent cathedral, admired even from the bed. We were however surrounded by other churches as well, so right through the day and night the loud melodious bells would ring out every quarter of the hour.

Aqueduct in Segovia

Aqueduct in Segovia


The town and it’s aqueduct received World Heritage status by UNESCO in the 1980’s. One evening after dinner we strolled towards the aqueduct, built during the 1st and 2nd centuries: unbelievably intact with huge granite blocks (apparently 25 000 of them) cut to precision and meticulously placed without using mortar, over a distance of 800m. The sight of this Roman engineering feat with its 170 arches is just astonishing – at 30m high the structure almost looks like a stage set made from polystyrene yet it’s over 2000 years old. In the Middle Ages Segovia was an important trading centre in wool and textiles due to its geographical position on the nomadic trading routes. Still today, the town is known for its woven fabrics and beautiful embroidery.
City walls and bridge

City walls and bridge

With a perimeter of 3km, the city walls that date from the 10th C neatly enclose this amazing historical town. There are no fewer than 80 towers and 5 entry gates, 3 of which are still used today, as entrances for cars. The Alcazar of Segovia (royal palace) was already documented in 1122 and was the favourite residence of the Kings of Castile. Re-built after a destructive fire in the 1800’s, it looks like a castle in a faerie tale picture book with steep turrets, a draw bridge and forbiddingly high walls rising above a head-swimmingly deep gulley below. One evening we attended an energetic flamenco show held in the open courtyard inside the palace. The music, dance movements and beautiful costumes (a new set with every song) were mesmerising. Segovia offers so many interesting sights and walks (one particularly lovely one was around the outside of the walls in a continuous park planted with tall trees and vegetable plots, in the deep valley where the river hugs the town in a C-shape), that I only went into the Cathedral on the morning of our departure. Built in the late 1700’s, it was the last Gothic cathedral to be built in Spain, considered a masterpiece of Basque-Castilian Gothic style. It must be one of the most beautiful cathedrals I’ve seen: light in both colour and structure, it had 27 chapels inside! My eyes feasted on beautiful paintings on the walls inside the chapels, uniquely painted ribs and vaults in each chapel, magnificent altar pieces and ornate Baroque wrought iron gates (saved from a previous church that once stood there).

Asparagus Amuse Buche

Asparagus Amuse Buche

This is an asparagus growing area, with asparagus (when in season) appearing in various forms on menus. I had lovely meals in our hotel: an Amuse Buche of white asparagus, palm hearts and maize, drizzled with balsamic vinegar.
Grilled vegetables in Segovia

Grilled vegetables in Segovia

This followed by a delicious grilled vegetable main. One was an asparagus mousse: I think a successful vegan version would be white asparagus gently steamed, then blended with thick almond cream, psyllium powder and heated with agar-agar. Stir through some sea lettuce flakes and set until firm.

On our second day in Segovia, I had a fabulous raw lunch at a café. It was the perfect dish for such a hot day. I supplemented the meal with my own wholemeal biscuits.

Raw vegan lunch in Segovia

Raw vegan lunch in Segovia

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Astorga Roman city walls

Astorga Roman city walls

We made the decision not to tackle the bone-crunching steep mountain of Montes de León the next morning, because the following day would be our toughest having to cross over an even higher mountain. Our leisurely breakfast buffet was enjoyed in the restful garden (I had my subtly cultured soy yoghurt, own blend of sugar-free muesli, the fruit from the buffet, sprinkled over my Vitamin B12 and steeped my nettle tea, which contains lots of iron). This would usually be enough food for me, but since we’re doing tough cycling, I decided to also have a slice of sourdough bread from the buffet, poured over a little olive oil and added a slice of sweet tomato. We then went sightseeing around the town, walking along the Roman walls. Astorga used to be a Celtic settlement before the Romans founded the city here of Asturica in 14 BC. The city walls near the church are in pristine condition!! Even the Roman baths (from 1-3 AD), sewers and original military camp can be viewed.

Chocolate galore

Chocolate galore

There were so many chocolate shops! Most sell only very dark, dairy-free chocolate, so I had a feast. We went for tea at a lovely tea shop, which had a tea menu of 6 pages with all their different teas. (“Té Rojo’ is Pu-er tea, sometimes translated as Red tea; Rooibos keeps its name while “Té Azul” is Oolong). I had a tea made from olive blossoms, and my partner had one made from cacao nibs, vanilla, cardamom and raisins. There is a lovely organic shop, on the town’s square, called Edybel (18-19 Plaza Santo Cildes). It has a fridge section, cosmetics, teas, pulses, grains and healthy packaged foods.

We then took the bus (what a joy fold-up bicycles are!), to Ponferrada. An ugly mining town, we intended only to have lunch on the square before continuing our journey. We opted for an Italian restaurant – the only place that was serving at 12 already – and I had their vegetarian pizza without the cheese. I again experienced the local people’s generosity: when I stood admiring the town’s only worthwhile attraction, the 12th C impressively large and restored castle of the Knights Templar, a man walking past eating white cherries, saw I was a pilgrim and gave me his entire bag of white cherries! (To show one is doing the Camino – that one is a pilgrim – a scallop shell is tied to one’s bag/rucksack.)

Ponferrada cycle route
Our cycle route for the afternoon was mostly on quiet back routes for walkers and cyclists, going through small farming communities. Rows of wooden houses are built canter-levered style on the second level. After cycling 20km we stopped for afternoon teas: I had another 2 bliss balls, my left-over white cherries and a few raisins with my fruit tea. Soon we stopped again, at one of the pilgrims’ churches to have our Pilgrim’s Book stamped and dated – already our books boast a number of interesting pictorial stamps. The elderly woman who stamped my book, took me around the church explaining some of the paintings and stained glass windows, in Spanish. I could only catch snippets of information. All the while a group of young studying priests were chanting in unison in an informal group in the pews. The woman kissed me on both cheeks and pressed a card into my hand on which was written the well-known words of the Pilgrim’s Prayer.
Stork nests

Although we only had 27km to do, we had a number of very steep hills. We were rather relieved when we finally spotted the spires of the 3 churches of our destination not too far away. We had cycled against a dreadfully strong wind in our first really hot day in ten days on the north. We headed for the square where we shared a pot of herbal-flavoured Rooibos tea while munching on mixed nuts (hazelnuts and almonds) from a nearby shop, plus I had 2 blocks of very dark chocolate (one was sweetened with stevia, the other flavoured with hazelnut pieces) and a Greens energy bar.

Our night’s accommodation in Villafranca del Bierzo was in a renovated boutique hotel, decorated in calming whites and creams throughout. Notable about this village, and others we cycled through, was that the houses’ roofs are not tiled in terracotta but instead semi-circular black slate tiles are used. Another peculiarity of this wine-growing area of Bierzo, is that wine is drunk from saucers instead of glasses!

Our room in Villafranca boutique hotel

Our room in Villafranca boutique hotel

We again had our own early dinner in our room, consisting of a large jar of 5 different vegetables, a tin of grilled red bell pepper (“pimientos”), I also had a handful of packaged chickpeas (cooked, then air-dried and unsalted – the protein is a whopping 22.1g per 100g) and left-over sourdough bread bought earlier in the day. Just before bedtime we had Rooibos tea brought to us on a tray, which we enjoyed with my home-made rusks (baked a couple of weeks ago, for the Camino when I wouldn’t have an oven). I also added a probiotic capsule to my small box of rice milk I packed in, to cultivate my own yoghurt for the next morning.

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León- start of our CaminoWe departed León at 8, after a hearty buffet breakfast at our Parador. On the outskirts of the city we passed a troglodyte village: houses were dug into the hillside and fitted with small wooden doors and shutters. This almost looked like a film set for ‘The Hobbit’. Our first day cycling the Camino de Santiago was an easy one: even though the ride was in strong wind, it was only 50 km long, with few and relatively short up and down hills.

Hospital de Órbigo stork nests

Hospital de Órbigo stork nests

We stopped along the way in the small village of Hospital de Órbigo where a group of storks made their nests on top of every ledge of the church’s bell tower. We pushed our bicycles over the smoothly worn round cobbles of the well-preserved (with modern extension) Roman bridge that connects the church with the rest of the town. We sat outside at the first café one encounters coming off the bridge. I ordered herbal tea (most of the time you get 2 choices of herbal tea: camomile and mint. A good tip is to bring your own tea bags to add to the pot to combat the boredom, such as 5 spice chai, berry or licorice), while enjoying my snacks of 2 home-made bliss balls (blended cashew nuts, cacao powder and dates), a few almonds and some goji berries. We sat looking across to the bridge, thinking of the passage of time, the thousands of feet that tread over those cobbles and reading on our iPhones about historical events that took place in this town.
Roman bridge in Hospital de Órbigo

Roman bridge in Hospital de Órbigo

The area around Astorga has some interesting inhabitants, called the Maragatos – an ethnic group of unknown origin. It is thought they descended from 8th C Berber invaders. By marrying only among themselves, they managed to preserve their customs (language and unique building style) through the centuries. Their traditional trade was mule-driving and their clothes closely resemble that of Ukraine with embroidered flowers, head scarf and huge jewellery pieces for the women and the men wear balloon knee-length pants, boots and box hats.

AstorgaWe entered Astorga, our first overnight town, when the various bells of the churches and the Town Hall rang out at noon. Absolutely magical. We slowly drifted past Roman ruins and saw groups of nuns in different colours of habit, reflecting their different denominations. The Renaissance exterior of the Santa María church was utterly amazing: I’ve never before feasted my eyes on such magnificent architectural embellishments – even the buttresses were gabled. The statuary at the entrance, the meters’ high figurine engraved wooden double doors and sculpted alcove entrance in beige truly take one’s breath away.

Astorga cathedral

Astorga cathedral

Astorga lunch: 1st course

Astorga lunch: 1st course

For lunch, my parter chose a cosy restaurant where he could have a ‘menu del dia’, I ordered only the vegetable soup and supplemented with my own German-style bread slices from previous town, spread with Marmite (rich in B-vitamins) and a 1 tablespoon-sized tofu-and-artichoke spread I brought along (bought way back at an organic shop for this purpose).

Our accommodation for the night was in a pretty 3 star hotel with only a handful of rooms. Ours, upstairs, opened out to the neat courtyard garden of white roses, clipped box and a fountain. Sitting on the bed, I have a close-up view of one of the towers of

Astorga lunch, 2nd course

Astorga lunch, 2nd course

that beautiful church. Conveniently, the Chocolate Museum was only 2 minute’s walk away. There we learned that Astorga was a pioneering town in Spain in the chocolate making process from the 17th C. In 1924 there were 51 chocolate factories in the town (population of 12 000 today). I had of course chocolate as an afternoon snack: typical from the various chocolate shops are thick, dark chocolate disks, into which a walnut, 3 toasted hazelnuts and orange zest were pressed. Delicious. The shops also sell slabs of 75, 80, 85, 90 and 99% dark vegan chocolate.
Inner courtyard of our accommodation

Inner courtyard of our accommodation

We still have to get used to the late serving time of dinner (8:30 or even 9pm) – too late for a tired pilgrim! So we had our own dinner in our room: a jar of corn, mixed nuts, whole grain bread, soy milk and a jar of chickpeas and tomatoes. The left-over soy milk I left to ferment for yoghurt the next day, by adding the contents of a capsule of probiotic (specifically ones that need not be refrigerated).

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It took some careful planning to decide what I’ll pack for the 6 days cycling the Camino de Santiago (Via de Compostela) and the few days in Santiago at the end, making it a 10 day trip. Trying to keep the weight of my pannier down, I was careful to pack dry food stuffs mostly, but with maximum nutrition, few clothes and just the most essential toiletries. The pannier for my bicycle was just over 3kg.

Food I packed for the Camino: protein, dry biscuits, snacks etc.

Food I packed for the Camino: protein, dry biscuits, snacks etc.

Food I packed:

Muesli (my own mix: oats, sunflower, pumpkin, chia seeds, hazelnuts)
6 raw protein sachets (Garden of Life)
Vitamins: 6 cranberry capsules; 6 probiotic capsules (not the refrigeration type), 6 little sachets B12
6 x nettle tea bags, for extra iron
6 x chai tea bags, to add to chamomile or mint tea as extra variety
6 x almond-rooibos tea bags
6 x honey bush tea bags
Soy “postre” (soy-based yoghurt-type little container, cane sugar-free, no need for refrigeration)
3 x 50g Bio veg pâtés (porcini mushroom, artichoke, olive-bell pepper): tofu-based (50g contains 9g protein; brand name is “Grano Vita”
1 x 125g Bio veg pâté (tofu-tomato), also “Grano Vita”, nearly 7 g protein in container
1x small 50 g plastic screw-top jar Marmite (for B vitamins, Iron and salt)
2 different packets whole-wheat bread sticks, one also with added sunflower seeds
1 small 250 ml box rice milk, to cultivate with probiotics
1 x 300 ml Kombucha fermented tea, in plastic bottle
2 x small bottles olive oil
3 Tbsp red quinoa, to sprout
3 Tbsp TVP, to soak
2 Tbsp dried porcini, to add to quick stews
150 g packet cooked, air-dried, unsalted chickpeas to add to a salad for protein
150 g packet oil-fried, lightly salted broad beans, also to add as protein
1/2 slab dark (75%) vegan chocolate, with roasted hazelnuts
1/2 slab dark (80%) vegan chocolate
6 x home-made bliss balls of 2 tsp sized each (cashew nuts, dates, Dutch dark cacao, cinnamon)
6 x home-made chocolate rusks, with added protein powder in the dough, with sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, wholemeal flour, almond pieces and dried fruit
6 x cane sugar-free biscuits, sweetened with dried fruit, bought at an organic shop in Pamplona (3 raisin-oat, 3 date carob)
6 x Green Energy bars
small packet toasted almonds
small zip-lock bag: raisin & goji berry mix
small zip-lock bag: baby dried figs & 10 dates mix

Other:

BPA-free plastic water filter bottle (Seychelle), to cut down on buying plastic water bottles
plastic spoons
silicon collapsible bowl
sharp travel knife with rounded front
thin fabric fold-up shopping bag to cut down on plastic bags
nut milk bag
passport
credit card, drivers’ licence, Euros
Camino stamp book
cell phone
shopping bag
toilet paper

Toiletry bag, all organic:

small cotton bag for toiletries that doubles as handbag while walking in town
SPF 30 natural sunscreen (30ml) – Beyond Coastal, USA
SPF 10 lip protection – Lavera naturals
Bio carrot face & body cream (40ml) – Logona, Spain
cucumber eye-cream in small tester pot (1ml), Éminence, USA
hairbrush, comb, 2 hair fasteners (I have waist-long hair)
toothbrush, travel toothpaste (5ml), few lengths of dental floss
Arnica sachet for sore, inflamed muscles
tiny sachet triple-anti biotic cream
plasters

Clothes:

light rain coat
1 x shorts (plus wearing 1)
2 x tank tops (plus wearing 1)
1 x long sleeved thin T-shirt
1 x light warm top
1 x thin cotton 3/4 sweat pants
1 pair ankle-high thin socks
1 bra (wearing 1)
2 undies (wearing 1)
1 pair of shoes: rubber sandals for all-day wear; thin cotton ballet-style indoor slippers
hat with clip-on sun flaps, dark wrap-around sunglasses
fold-up bicycles, Brompton
front clip-on Brompton pannier

The clothes I packed for the Camino

The clothes I packed for the Camino

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Part of Roman wall in León

Part of Roman wall in León

Our drive from Potes to Léon was over another winding mountain pass in dense mist. León was founded in 29 BC as a camp for the Romans’ 7th legion – there are still segments of the Roman wall left that once surrounded the town in a rectangular shape. In the year 856 AD, Mozarabs (Christians who did not flee from the invading Muslims and who decided to live under Muslim regime), repopulated the city when it lost its Roman independence. The Kingdom of León was established a hundred years later, becoming one of the fundamental kingdoms of medieval Spain. In 1301 the Kingdom was consolidated with the Crown of Castile (hence the province today is called León y Castille) – a wound stretching over centuries that refuses to heal, judging from bitter on-going rivalry today: approaching León all the “y Castille” references on road signs had been painted out.

The city boasts a number of medieval treasures: 12th C frescoes in near pristine condition in their beautiful colours and detail in the Basilica Pantheón Real. These depicted mythical biblical scenes as well as life in medieval times. We also marvelled at the large collection of religious books, nearly 1 meter in size (translations of books from the Bible, commentaries on the Bible and sets of moral rules to live by). Their covers were made from wood nearly an inch thick. Iconographic calligraphy and detailed pictures on the parchment made these impressively thick and heavy books. Our accommodation, the Hostal de San Marcos (a Parador – one of the many state-run hotels we’re staying in, which would typically be converted nunneries, monasteries or palaces with their extravagantly ornate exteriors, but plain and modern inside) is a fine example of jaw-dropping Spanish Renaissance in its architectural beauty. It was first built as a monastery in the 12th C to provide lodging for pilgrims on their way to Santiago on the Camino, but the present stunning building was built in 1513 for the Knights of Santiago. We visited the León Cathedral which is sublimely light, both due to its architectural style of late Spanish Gothic, but also from its 125 magnificently colourful stained-glass windows, covering an area of 1800 square meters!

Hotel in León - Hostal Marcus Parador

Hotel in León – Hostal Marcus Parador

León market cherriesIn a country of so many languages, the Leonese language was derived directly from Latin and developed in the Middle Ages. It became the official language of the Leonese Kingdom. The first written text in Leonese appeared in 959 AD. However, today Leonese is considered a seriously endangered language by UNESCO. It is almost extinct, being known and spoken by only a very few elderly people who live isolated in the mountains of the northern part of the province of León. Fearing it may die out completely, there was enough support by local government to revive it: Leonese is now taught in 16 schools in León.

This is a huge cherry and apple growing area, so I thought when I get a chance I’ll make us a dense type of fruit cake with grated apples, fresh cherries and raisins for sweetener. The market was a delight: I saw a stall holder selling 4 different types of cherries; at another bags of all sorts of dried legumes. There are a number of good organic shops and organic bakeries in León, situated in the old town centre.León market pulses

Our last night in León was spent sorting and packing for our pilgrim cycle journey – the Camino de Santiago from León to Santiago, just under 300 km (6 days cycling and 3 days in Santiago). We take only 1 pannier each, making sure we keep our luggage very light, except for a few light vegan (protein) items I’d be taking along. See my next blog which I devoted to everything I packed.

We parked the car in an underground parking arcade just a minute’s walk from our hotel, for the next 10 days. As I fell asleep I thought of our long cycle ride that lies ahead: the insights we’ll gain, other pilgrims we’ll meet and wondered how we’d cope with the mountain passes.

Inner courtyard of our Parador Hotel

Inner courtyard of our Parador Hotel

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