Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Jerusalem Coffeeshops / Brunch / Breakfast Spots

Living in a foreign country / environment teaches you a lot about your priorities. One of the things I discovered I like to do is eat breakfast / brunch on a weekend morning, and read, work, blog, write, and code in a café with wifi after brunch. 

Because Jerusalem is a city where the three main populations have three different modes of weekend, finding the "perfect brunch spot" was quite a challenge. 

My ideal set of characteristics for a brunch spot / coffeeshop is: 

  • Coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or some kind of beverage
  • Cheap good food to eat
  • Unlimited free wifi
  • A power outlet
  • Working phone service
  • Walking distance from home
  • Open on Fridays and Saturdays
  • The staff let you sit as long as you want

Notice how I don't care if the staff speaks English or not. 

After exploring the city a bit on foot, I've made this ordered list of my favorite coffeeshops / brunch spots in Jerusalem. I have not ventured to find coffee shops accessible only by bus / train, since I didn't want to spend the time or money doing so. 

My recommendation is to not sit at places like Aroma Café or Café Hillel, which are just coffee shop chains with bad coffee that cater completely to foreign tourists. Try for the more interesting coffeeshops / brunch places along the way.

Places with Wifi

1. The Gallery Cafe in Sheikh Jarrah
My favorite place by far. They have the cheapest breakfast / brunch option of all the places I have been. For 15 NIS, you can get eggs, toast, and a small cucumber / tomato salad. For another 12 NIS or so you can get a cappucino. They have outlets, unlimited wifi, phone service, and are a 15/20 minute walk from my apartment. Usually their hours are 10am to 10pm, but they are sometimes closed on Fridays.

2. The Educational Bookshop in Bab Az-Zahra

Not only a cafe, but also a bookshop where you can buy your mostly-Israeli-and-Palestinian-conflict-themed books. They also have a selection of translators, phrasebooks, guidebooks, and the like. The staff are extremely friendly, speak amazing English, and offer a range of coffees, teas, sandwiches, and light snacks for a decent price. They have the best hours of all the coffeeshops I frequent - the owners cater to foreigners and don't often close for holidays and weekends.

3. Café de Paris in Rechavia
Good wifi, outlets, and a big breakfast are definitely pluses for this coffeeshop. The drawback is that it is closed on Saturdays. The staff speaks very good English and you can sit as long as you want to nurse that coffee.

4. Tmol Shilshom off of Jaffa Street in Nachlaot
First and foremost a bookshop, Tmol Shilshom is the counterpart (not the equivalent) of the Educational Bookshop in the west side of Jerusalem. There are occasionally chats with literary figures, a selection of books, and a selection of decent breakfast items. The average cost for a plate of food is around 50 NIS (a bit more than I'd like to pay for a weekly brunch outing where I can get better-tasting food at The Gallery Café for half the price) and lacking power outlets, they have wifi, a good atmosphere, and a friendly staff.

Places just for breakfast / brunch without wifi

1. Cafe Paradiso in Rechavia
A selection of good food, but a bit on the expensive side. I do like their cappucinos though. Also closed on Saturdays.

2. Mamila Café in Mamila
A selection of good food that for being in Mamila, a shopping complex right in the middle of town next to the Old City, is reasonably priced. The drawback is that they are closed on Saturday mornings. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Jerusalem Snowstorm of 2013, or 15 MITOC Winter School Lessons for Snowstorms and Bad Weather

The largest snowstorm in the last 50  years hit the Jerusalem area this weekend. According to some news articles and hobbyist meteorologist forum threads, the snowfall accumulation was about 50cm from Wednesday night December 11th to Saturday mid-day December 14th. For a place that is used to about 2-3 cm of snow total throughout the winter season on a typical year, this storm was quite a shock (it caused problems in Cairo, the Golan Heights, Syria, and Gaza too). 

Jerusalem is not properly equipped with snowplows and salt like we are used to in the American northeast - most of the snow-clearing vehicles on the streets are of the bulldozer and army tank variety, and I haven't seen salt being used on the main roads inside the city (I assume the small supplies are being used in clearing the two major highways entering Jerusalem). 

My source of (correct) weather throughout the last week has been this amazing Jerusalem weather website

Thanks to some techniques (and practice) gained through MITOC's Winter School (The MIT Outing Club's lecture/trip series in the winter time, filled with tips and techniques for winter hiking and camping), me and my roommates braved the storm and had lots of fun prancing in the storm. 

Before the storm

The 3 or 4 days before the snow had been filled with cold, wind, and rain. It's not unusual for Jerusalem, just mildly unpleasant when you walk to work. 

And when the path from your apartment to the street is covered in an inch of standing water. 

We kept joking back and forth that it's going to snow and not to snow - but by Wednesday afternoon you could smell that frost smell in the air that every New Englander knows. I had stocked up on rice, granola bars, and chocolate (MITOC lesson #1), but not on purpose - I just like to eat those things. Lo and behold, the snow started.

Wednesday / Thursday (Day 1): A Reasonable Storm

By New England standards, the falling flakes of snow were like a light snow not uncommon in Boston or New York. I just never expected to see it in Jerusalem. 

The apartment was slowly getting colder. Remember, buildings in places not used to snow don't have luxuries like central heating. I wore my wool socks (not cotton, in case they got wet, MITOC lesson #2) and slippers, together with a fleece, and was perfectly warm and happy throughout Thursday. To sleep under my three thin blankets, I boiled water before bed and put it in my Nalgene covered with a sock (MITOC lesson #3). In the absence of a person, there is nothing like hugging a radiating bottle of warmth in bed.

That day was clearly not a work day, so I slept, ate, read, and was generally lazy most of the day. But every New Englander knows that they have to clean their porch during the day after a snow so it won't freeze and become black ice the next day. No shovels, but squeegees do just fine. Let's ignore for a second the fact that it rarely gets below freezing and the likelihood of black ice accumulating on our steps was close to zero.

I went to go sit in the nice wifi with a coffee at the Educational Bookshop for an hour before meeting Noemie and Wilem (my roommates, French and Belgian) for a walk. (Of course at the Educational Bookshop I met an international filmmaker who wanted to ask me questions about MEET, but that's a separate story). 

With a city not prepared for snow like this, the roads don't have proper drainage from the melting snow. And the temperature outside was hovering right above freezing, so there was no ice accumulation on the streets. But for those experienced with snow this can only mean one thing: the dreaded slush. To combat this (in the absence of waterproof footwear), we put plastic bags around our feet, socks around them, then put our shoes on. Mountaineers have a fancy name for this - a vapor barrier liner. The idea is to trap the heat around your foot so that even if the thing around your foot is wet, you stay warm (MITOC lesson #4). 

Of course, the rewards of going out in the evening in a snowy city are unbelievable. Hot drinks (MITOC lesson #5) and "it's all about the picture" (MITOC lesson #6). 

 Note the fire coming out of a trash can by the bread seller on the streets of the Old City. 

And the magical palm trees with 2 inches of snow on the ground. Breathtaking. 

It is critical to stay out of the wind to stay warm (MITOC lesson #7), so Noemie, Wilem, Stefano, and I taped the seams of the window frames in the living room with plastic wrap and blankets to block the cold wind from invading the apartment. 

That night was colder than the last - Noemie and Wilem had two space heaters, so we sat all together in the living room with the space heaters until it was time to go to sleep. This time, it was time for the sleeping bag, chocolate and jumping jacks before bed, hot water bottle, and hat / gloves on standby (MITOC lesson #8). 

I kept my cell phone and computer under the covers in case our power went out and I needed to preserve battery. Cold doesn't do good things to electronics (MITOC lesson #9). 

Friday (Day 2): A Bit More...

Waking up on Friday to even more snow on the ground (and an even colder apartment) had the same feeling as waking up during the American northeast Snowpocalypse of January 2010 - WHAT. I seriously considered making a website called As you can see, I didn't. The wifi (and perhaps the power too) had gone out in my apartment, so I decided to try my luck in finding my usual Friday morning brunch place with wifi. 

Damascus Gate was surreal. 

And believe it or not, there was a snowman right next to the Western Wall

And the street musicians on Jaffa street apparently continue to try and sell their wares. 

By far the most creative snowman I saw in the city - on Jaffa street. 

 As it turned out, I didn't have much luck in finding power or wifi until I walked around the entire city to the touristy Jaffa street. I ended up having brunch at Tmol Shilshom, the famous bookshop near Jaffa street. 

After sitting in the cafe for a few hours and the snow again starting outside, I decided to make my way back home.

There was still the one dedicated fruit seller near Salahuddin Street / Damascus Gate. I was tempted, so I bought some tomatoes. It was getting tiring to eat just rice and sausages for all your meals ...

At this point home was getting inevitably colder. I wish I had a camping stove so I could continuously boil water. Putting on a hat inside made it infinitely warmer (MITOC lesson #10). Noemie's approach was the burrito wrap (MITOC lesson #11). 

The wall of heaters in the living room threatened to throw the circuit breaker every time we made a pot of tea. Every time it did, I'd have my headlamp in my pocket so I could find the breaker switch to flip it, and make sure you have spare batteries (MITOC lesson #12). 

And the snowmelt kept dripping into the apartment through the leaks. The landlord basically said this was the worst snow in decades and that he'd fix it when the snow stopped. In temporary consolation he gave us a third space heater. As long as we kept ourselves dry, we'd be warm (MITOC lesson #13). This meant there was a constant changing of socks, pants, and shoes every time anyone went outside.

Saturday (Day 3): A Real "Sheleggedon"

By Saturday, Day 3 when the snow continued (the roads had been closed for two days now, basically no travel in or out of Jerusalem), the Old City was absolutely gorgeous. People were playing in the streets, snowmen and snowangels abound, and all the shops around were closed. 

The trick to staying warm outside: scarf, hat, gloves. And layers! (MITOC lesson #14). 

Now that the storm is over, the temperature is getting warmer, and there is no need to worry about freezing. There never really was (the temperatures barely got below freezing), but all the same I am glad I had my Winter School skills to back me up. 

Our main concern right now is that our water tank on the roof might be to cold to supply enough water. In fact, the  houses in our neighborhood have a water shortage because of burst pipes in the region. Good thing I stocked up on water from my previous hiking adventures to definitely have enough for a few days (MITOC lesson #15). 

The next challenge is to take a shower out of the water bottles heated in front of the space heater, but this is a challenge easily solved.

A Recap: Winter School Lessons for Real Life Snowstorms and Cold Weather

  1. Stock up on carb-filled and fatty foods. They give you energy and alleviate the need to go find a shop to sell you food during a storm. Chocolate is great for a quick burst. 
  2. Wear thick wool socks and slippers to keep your feet warm.
  3. Sleep with a Nalgene filled with warm water wrapped in a sock. In the absence of a Nalgene, rubber hot water bottles are great. 
  4. Make your non-waterproof shoes waterproof with makeshift vapor barrier liners made of plastic grocery bags. 
  5. Drink warm liquids. Tea and hot chocolate are great. 
  6. Whatever your situation, make sure to take epic pictures. 
  7. Wind-seal leaky window frames with plastic wrap, tape, blankets, sheets, whatever.
  8. Do jumping jacks before bed. Eat a bar of chocolate before bed. Keep a hat and gloves near you in case you get cold at night. 
  9. Sleep with your computer and your cell phone (unplugged) under your covers to conserve battery.
  10. Wear a hat inside. "If your toes are cold, put on a hat", said someone famous. 
  11. No hat? Burrito wrap yourself in a blanket!
  12. Keep a headlamp nearby in case the power goes out. Make sure you have spare batteries for said headlamp.
  13. Keep yourself dry. Change wet socks immediately, especially if they are cotton. Better to dry your clothes while they are off of you.
  14. Layer up. It makes you flexible and traps air between your layers of clothing, adding to the insulation.
  15. Stock up on water just in case.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Jerusalem for one year, September 2013 to September 2014

In one of the most crazy decisions of my life so far, I decided I would move to Jerusalem for a year. One year. Starting in September 2013. 

The Context

I just graduated MIT and am mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted from working for four years towards my EECS degree. I want to go back for my MEng (Master's in Engineering) but I don't yet have the energy. What I needed is something different. 

I was a summer instructor for MEET this summer and had no plans beyond MEET, my trip to Italy with Robin, and the Camino. Well, truth be told, my original plan was to go back to the US for a while, bum around with Maddie in California on the John Muir Trail, then go back to New York / Boston, get a few jobs, and learn more about the industry track I seemed to have been pursuing my entire career thus far. 

After the MEET summer news that I had no plans for one year spread through the grapevine to Talya, the MEET program manager, who offered me the chance for an opportunity of a lifetime: life in Jerusalem for one year, working for MEET full-time. Teaching, curriculum development, culture shock, and all. 

The Plan

Needless to say I was horribly confused. Do I run away from my home for a year just to do something different? Do I pursue this passion for education and technology so far from home? Do I leave Robin, boyfriend of two years, for an entire year? Do I leave the tech world for a year? Do I go live in a country where I don't know either of the languages? 

After countless debates and arguments with myself, Robin, and my parents (hi mom!) I decided to take the risk. I decided that living in Jerusalem was indeed the experience of a lifetime. I would never get this chance again, and I would enjoy it to the fullest. 

I would live for a year in Jerusalem, then come back to Boston to finish my MEng starting in September 2014. And here I am. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Why are you closed on MONDAY of all days? To Cornellana, then.

Leaving Escamplero

We were as usual the last ones to leave the albergue at the shockingly late hour of 8am (for some reason these peregrinos were more fanatical about starting early than the ones on the Camino del Norte...). Because there was no hospitaliero (host) at the albergue, the last to leave had to go give the key back to the restaurant down the street. I returned the key and walked on. 

The difference with this Camino was that everything was more gray in the mornings - there was mist everywhere, it was more cloudy, and in general it was a bit cooler. Not to say that it wasn't gorgeous, of course. 

In our never-ending quest to find happiness with the three different walking paces of Leah, Kayla, and I, it became by job to buy lunch food in the next town (which happened to be Grado).


... is mixed up with their days. Well, not really. But Grado is famous in Asturias for it's market, but it's market is open on Sundays. And since every people need a day of rest, if you work on Sunday then your day off is on Monday. Guess what day we ended up going through Grado? Yep, Monday. 

I got to Grado around 11am and went straight for the center of town for some lunch (I was completely out of food) and wifi. The wifi didn't work so I just ended up eating a small bocadillo (sandwich) and café con leche (coffee with milk) and reading some of my book before hunting for a supermarket in the closed town. Of course I had a really hard time finding anything, so all I bought was canned peaches, real peaches, and a box of cereal bars. There was absolutely no cheap cheese or baguette or anything of that kind, so we were going to have to rely on our sardine and tuna stores today for lunch. 

After Grado the path was straight uphill - we were not stopping at San Juan de Villapeñada, which was halfway up the steep hill, but our goal was to make it to Cornellana. Part of the way up, I struggle-hiked next to a French man named Bernard who did not speak very good English. It was talking to him that I realized I don't know French - between words in English, Spanish, and French, we basically figured out that we were both computer people and that we were both walking with people who were a bit slower than we were. But beyond that, the communication was minimal. He walked on to San Juan de Villapeñada while I stopped to wait for Leah and Kayla at the top of the steep uphill.


We got to Cornellana around 6pm. The albergue was in a corner of a hard-to-find abandoned monastery, but eventually we found our way there. There was a washer and dryer, and all of our friends from the night before. While our clothes were washing, I walked into the town and bought a ton of pasta, vegetables, and pasta fixings. We were so hungry that the three of us ate all the food that I had bought - and went through a bottle of cidra. I also bought milk and chocolate cereal to test our 30km+ hypothesis...

The next morning we split from our new-found friends again (we get up around 7:30am, already later than when many of the other peregrinos start walking) and aimed for a 30km day to Tineo. 

Reflection time

At this point it is getting easier to deal with hiking at different paces - we've figured out a system where we split up earlier on in the hike and only regroup at maximum 2 points during the day, for meals. We have started carrying our own shares of food, and getting to the albergue earlier is OK. It is nice to have people with you sometimes, and it is nice to be alone sometimes. Overall, friends are worth the small annoyances that come with them. It is already 14 days into the Camino, and I don't see a change in my attitude. I was hoping the Camino would make me more forgiving, more patient, more relaxed than I was before. But two weeks in I am still hoping there will be a magic change....

I do sometimes walk and hear small snippets of poetic phrases pop into my head; it would be nice to see if anyone had written a book of Camino poems that talk about sore feet, nice views, sounds, smells, tastes, the constant yellow arrows, and the whole concept of "what is the Way". I haven't heard about any, but many peregrinos cite Ithaka as a poem that reminds of the sights and sounds and feelings of the Camino.

Tomorrow I want to go 30+km - I did buy milk and chocolate cereal for a reason. We've had two easier days of hiking (in terms of distance), and I am excited to get 10km straight uphill before our push to Tineo!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Primitivo Day 1: Asturias and Escamplero

The start in Oviedo

Today was our first day on the Camino Primitivo - not only was Leah coming off of two days rest, but it also made sense for us to start this new thing slowly and only go about 12km today. The goal was to end up in El Escamplero, the first albergue our book provided along the Primitivo. 

Taking advantage of the fact that we didn't get kicked out of an albergue at 7am, we slept until 10. Then we just went downstairs to our El Tayuelu tavern and got tortilla española (omlette with potatoes), complete with a side dose of our favorite wifi. Leah decided to finally throw out the bag of frozen peas she had been using to ice her leg so we won't have to carry it, and we decided to try to find groceries for our lunch. The problem was that we had yet again found ourselves in a major city on a Sunday. 

Sunday is a holy day in Catholic Spain, so everything is closed on Sundays. It took us a long while to find a place that would sell us some groceries, but we ended up buying bread, tuna, and beans for our lunch. We found a bakery to buy sweet pastries for our midday snack - no one can resist the delicious. It also magically happened that I dropped my Spanish cell phone, rendering it completely incapable of making calls. Since at this point Kayla still did not have a cell phone, we only had Leah's phone between us. We hoped this would be enough...

After all the morning adventure, we only managed to leave Oviedo at 1pm. Given that we had no idea where the Camino was through Oviedo, we were lucky to run into two women (who we would later meet as Susana and the Norwegian woman) who pointed us in the right direction. On the way out of town I saw an internet cafe and sat there for about half an hour while Leah and Kayla went ahead (we figured this would be ok, since I walked faster than they did anyway). 

Walking through Asturias

Asturias is different. For one, we are no longer walking by the sea. To give you an idea, here is a map:

The red is the Camino del Norte (the Northern Way), and the green is the Camino Primitivo (the Primitive Way). While the northern route we had been talking so far had been close to the coast, the primitive way was more inland. This means the climate was different (for one, there was less breeze, and it was hotter during the day), but it also meant that we were at higher elevation more in the mountains, and it was colder at night. It also meant the sounds of the ocean were too far to be heard. 

Sensory information was replaced: the low rumble of ocean waves was replaced by the clamor of cowbells. 

The salt small is replaced by a faint smell of cow dung, and the insects seem 1000 times louder. Of course, there are still blackberries lining the sides of the trail, but fewer than before. The mountains (I assume they are the Picos de Europa) are never far from your sight, looming behind you as you walk. It is true that there are fewer people, fewer villages. Finally, we have found the real hiking. 

The villages themselves are more quaint. Every house or complex seems to have a hórreo - a type of granary used to store and dry corn and other food. 

And of course, the views of the countryside are always stunning.

El Escamplero

We had been warned to  not expect as much direct hospitality at the albergues on the Primitivo, and the first albergue on the Primitivo was no different. There was no hospitaliero - you had to go to the one restaurant in the town of Escamplero to check in to the albergue (the first one has to get the key from there too). I got there at 4, so I had plenty of time to relax. When Leah and Kayla got to the albergue in the evening, we and all the other peregrinos staying at the albergue went out to eat dinner at the one restaurant in town. Complete of course with cider sangría - darn good if you ask me. 

We were quite the motley crew: our new Polish friend Susanna, a Polish man in his 30s, a Norwegian woman in her 30s who had done the Camino Francés the year before, a young German guy from Dortmund, a French man in his 30s, and us three silly Americans. We had a great dinner, for the first time with a large group of other peregrinos (aside from my adventure in Güemes). It seemed like the start of a family. 

Back at the albergue the Norwegian woman was trying to lighten her load, so Kayla acquired a set of plastic camping bowls and I acquired some more basic first aid supplies.

Looking ahead

The promise of a washing machine tomorrow sounded like a better promised land than anything we had ever had before - I was flat out of clean underwear for more than 3 days at this point, and my pants had not been washed the entire trip. I was ready to get back to walking a lot and washing out the salt stains from the knees of my pants. Today was 12km and I was hungry for more!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Promised Land #2: Santander, #3: Oviedo, the Primitivo Decision Point

Leaving Güemes

That morning I didn't rush to get up - I read before I went to bed and still got a quiet and calm sleep, waking up naturally before my alarm at 7am. Breakfast was again communal, with tea, coffee, Cola-Cao, biscuits, and jam. The usual Spanish breakfast. I ate, chatted with some more new people, and left. I shook Ernesto's hand and thanked him for his hospitality. 

Walking down the hill from the albergue I was recognized by a family who had heard me translate the hermita discussion. I walked faster than them, but I stayed with them until the split-off between the three options to Santander. We all decided that we would take the scenic route, which didn't exactly follow the Camino, but hugged the coast and eventually ended up where you needed to go. 

We knew that there was a ferry from the village of Somo to Santander, so our objective was just to walk along the coast until we got to Somo, then take the ferry. Alba (the daughter of the family that I met) and I walked faster than her parents, so after making the requisite conversation with them we split off and walked the 15km along the coast to Somo. 

Walking up and down the sand dunes is just like walking through the snow without snowshoes - I was post-holing through the sand, and when we got back to the road I had to spend a few minutes emptying my socks and shoes of sand. 

All throughout the 15km, Alba and I communicated in Spanish - we talked about our education, what we were doing now, and exchanged stories and stereotypes of Spaniards and Americans. We got to the boat dock in Somo after not really having followed the Camino, but all the time we were walking we saw both the dock and Santander, so we knew we were on the right track. 

At 11am, I left Alba to wait for her parents at the dock, and paid the 3 euros for the river crossing to Santander. I ran into none other than the German woman I was talking to the night before, so we sat with each other at the back of the boat admiring the view. 

"the shoes and water incident"

(One of the sad disclaimers in all of this is that I don't know this German woman's name. If she told it to me, that information is lost in the sands of time. If not, we never talked while needing to know each other's names, so it never seemed relevant. Lastly, the chances of our seeing each other again in life is not zero, but negligible, so I did not make an effort to get her contact information or email or name, because I knew that if we were destined to see each other again, it would happen. So this embarrassing story about her will never be tainted with her name.)

She had already changed into her sandals and strapped her shoes to her pack, so  her feet could get some rest. This day was her last on the Camino, as she was taking a bus back to San Sebastián the next day and flying back to Germany. When we were approaching the dock in Santander, she grabbed her pack and slung it over her shoulder. A few seconds later, we both turned around to look back at the water after hearing a large SPLASH sound. She gave a cry of surprise at seeing her hiking boots (Asolo approach shoes, no less), floating away in the water. 

Thankfully, the boat was basically docked and the shoes were no more than 20 meters from the dock shore. So of course, she wanted to go in and save her shoes. We ran off the ferry and she handed me her pack. I sat and watched as she quickly took off her sandals, shirt, shoes, and glasses, and jumped in after her shoes. She was very athletic: a climber, hiker, and biker. So presumably she was a good swimmer as well - it took her no more than a few powerful strokes to get to her shoes. Even though she couldn't see, she skillfully dodged both the fishing line off the side of the pier and the stares and points of the people along the pier. 

She got out triumphantly holding her shoes, carefully put on a second pair of dry clothes, and we walked into the center of town. We parted ways as she went to the municipal albergue in Santander while I went to search for Leah and Kayla. I tried to take some pictures of Santander, but my camera phone was not working, so I only ended up with one artsy picture of Santander. 


I found the girls in an internet cafe (cheap! 2 euros an hour) inside the bus station in Santander. We wandered around to find menu del día for lunch as usual. We were on our way back to the bus station to find the schedules to Oviedo, but we ran into German girl and Romanian girl in a square in Santander, ended up chatting for a few hours and grabbing a beer.  We didn't see any of Santander, nor did I want to. I (as always) wanted to keep going, since I didn't need a rest day. Leah's feet were feeling better from a two-day rest, and Kayla had gotten the chance to sleep off her death march the day before.

How Kayla got to Santander

When we were sharing stories of our experiences the day before (I of Güemes, Leah of Santander), Kayla shared her story for how she ended up in Santander: in short, she got to Bareyo exhausted, decided to press on, and ended up being driven the last 10km or so along the highway to Somo. She met up with Leah around 7pm in Santander, and they spent a relaxing evening doing laundry and relaxing in Santander while I was having a good time in Güemes. 

Where to go from Santander: continue or change trails?

The day we were in Santander was August the 17th - 12 days into our official walking, and around 14 days from when I had to leave Santiago de Compostela. At the moment, it had taken us 12 days to walk about 275 kms, and along the Camino del Norte route we had another 500 km to go. If we wanted to get a feel for a different kind of trail (more mountainous, more up and down, less road), we had the option of splitting off to the Camino Primitivo at Oviedo, and at the same time covering some lost ground and making closer progress to Santiago. We could not reasonably make it another 500km in only a few more days of time than we had already walked, so we wanted to bus through from Santander to Oviedo (about 200km), and set a target of 300km from Oviedo to Santiago de Compostela in the next 15 days or so.

Ultimately we decided that we wanted a slightly varied experience on the Camino - we had already done 12 days of the Camino del Norte and wanted to see some real mountains on the Primitivo. So our decision was to just bus to Oviedo and start on the Primitivo the next day.

Santander to Oviedo

We only made it to the bus station (and got on the bus) at 5:50pm, scheduled to arrive in Oviedo at around 8pm. We made it to the bus stop just in the nick of time, so I was sent on a quick 3-second grocery store run to get Nestea and cookies for the bus ride. Turns out we didn't actually need it, since the bus ride was basically like a short plane flight - it came with an attendant, wifi, infinite drinks, and some snacks. (For future reference, this 2-hour luxury bus ride with the SUPRA company cost us 25 euros each). 

In Oviedo... at least 4 mistakes

Oviedo where we were headed was the capital of the Spanish province of Asturias, best-known for it's cider. We clearly couldn't start hiking that late at night, so we were going to spend the night at the albergue (camp outside, if nothing else) and then start the next morning. 

Asking at the bus information center is where mistake #2 happened: asking for the albergue and not asking for a map - we got a bus stop instead. This was mistake #2 (mistake #1 was not looking this information up either on the wifi-enabled bus or at the internet cafe in Santander). Mistake #3: getting off the bus too early. Mistake #4: on Leah's 3G-and-Google-maps-enabled device, clicking the address for the "albergue juvenil" rather than the "albergue." (Remember my post about the meanings of different Spanish accommodations more than a year before...). This meant that this was a "youth hostel" rather than an official albergue for the Camino. This particular albergue juvenil happened to be not only way out on the outskirts of town (which to us was not surprising, given that the albergue was either on the outskirts of town or in the center next to the church), but also happened to be part of the international hostel association. This meant bad news for us, since we could not stay there without this international hostel card that we did not have. And we couldn't even buy said hostel card directly at the hostel. (Later when Leah and I were discussing this business model we came to the conclusion that it was basically the dumbest business model ever...)

So here we were, 9pm, on the outskirts of town, not knowing where the albergue was, not having any public transportation options, and not having any food or knowledge of where the Camino was. We didn't even know whether the yellow arrow blazes were as prominent here, or whether they changed into something completely different. 

We were lucky that the man at the albergue juvenil took pity on us (and the fact that I spoke good Spanish helped immensely - he was not that comfortable with English), giving us a map and a list of pensiones to try. We called the closest one and asked how much it would be for three people to stay in a 2-person room (we did after all have all of our camping gear, so we would be totally OK sleeping on the floor. As already established before, a roof is the most important feature). Often we would be forced to stay in a 3-person room (which was of course more expensive), but finally one pensión agreed to let us stay. We walked there (yet another 30 minutes in our exhaustion) and negotiated the price down to 30 euros for the night. Kayla ended up sleeping on the floor, but it was Leah's or my turn next). 

El Tayuelu, and cider

The pensión was called El Tayuelu, and it was also connected to a Sidrería (like a tavern, but specializing in cider, which is called sidra in Spanish). We got dinner there (tapas, specifically chipirones, which are fried whole squids) and extravagantly-poured cider. The cider tradition is that it needs to aerate before it can be drunk (so it is sweeter), so the waiters take a bottle way over their heads in outstretched arm and pour the cider into a cup held in the other hand as low as possible. There's a great show, a great splash, and a great hurry as the buyers of the cider try to drink it as fast as possible. Delicious and alcoholic and sweet. We went to bed late, enjoying our opportunity to sleep in, before starting off on our first short leg of the Primitivo the next day.

Thus ended Day 12. For me, Güemes -> Santander -> Oviedo. The end of the Camino del Norte route, the start point of the Camino Primitivo.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The most unique albergue on the Norte: Güemes

tl;dr - stop at the albergue in Güemes, on purpose.

Hasta la vista (in Santander), baby

We spent the night in the 25-person room at the albergue, and I woke up still exhausted. (It didn't help that I had tossed and turned all night from having a headache and runny nose, needing to take a roll of toiler paper from the albergue to use that day). But I felt invigorated from taking two half-days at the beach and not walking a lot (by that I mean sub-20km) for two days. We had 28 or so kilometers to go until Güemes, and another 20 or so (turns out it was less than that) to go to Santander. We had never pulled a 40+ day, and despite Leah's feet being destroyed, and despite my head feeling like it was the size of a watermelon, I felt up for the task. I knew that pushing forward would clear my head of all it's clutter.

Leah's feet were screwed. Like, completely screwed. If it hurts more to walk in flip flops than in hiking boots, you know your feet deserve a break. We decided that Kayla and I were going to keep walking and Leah would take a bus to Santander. She needed a day-or-two break anyway, and Kayla and I wanted to keep walking.

We had breakfast at the albergue, an early one, left Leah to find a bus from town, and headed off, either planning on meeting in Santander either that night or the next night. Kayla and I gave Leah our map of the town (that also showed where the Camino was out of town) and headed out. We had a really hard time finding the path, but a number of helpful locals pointed us the way. 

We eventually found our way out of Santoña along the beach and had to scramble up and down a cliff that connected the beaches of Santoña and Noja. 

Note the arrows - they are everywhere. 

The beach stretched for miles - we walked at least 3km along the beach or the path next to it. It is hard to walk on the sand, weighed down by your pack. Especially when your shoes are mesh and sand gets into them all the time. The beaches are amazing - whether they are completely empty except for a single couple enjoying the good weather, rocks jutting out along the sand, or a lone young runner along the waves. It is an amazing feeling, standing alone along the shore at peace with the waves and the salt and the sand, seeing only a few people in the distance. 

We passed a camping-albergue, a small supermarket in Helgueras (where we were adventurous and bought a can of canned octapus (pulpo) to supplement our otherwise strict regimen of tuna, sardines, baguette, and tomatoes. We walked into Noja (another 3km from Helgueras) to get food for dinner, each carrying enough for ourselves. We figured Leah would be fine, since she was going to Santander. 

The route

Our book map looked like this: 

so we thought the signs would be hard to follow. Turns out, they were easy, and took us through San Miguel de Meruelo and eventually to Bareyo. We did not pass through Castillo but did pass through Noja. So basically, it was really unclear where exactly we went, but we got to Bareyo eventually. 

Kayla and I split up almost immediately after Noja - I continued to Bareyo until about 3pm when the temping sign of "café, wifi" caught my eye. I had been walking along the road for a while so I was almost tempted. But I thought Güemes can't be that far, so I just paused for a quick granola and water break and pushed on. 


I got to Güemes, expecting a slightly-larger-than-the-usual-10-house-town, but was greeted by none other than my favorite café-church combination. I did not see a sign for an albergue until I got to the edge of town, so I stopped to ask for directions. My pamphlet said 1km off the path was the albergue, so I eventually saw the sign (and many interesting Camino-shell-signs):

until I eventually found the place. 

It was the earliest I had ever arrived at an albergue - it was barely 4pm. I spent some time admiring the pristine cleanliness, the washers / dryers, the triple-bunks, the mess hall. I also spent some time chatting with our various friends we'd met along the way - the French couple from Portugalete, the Spanish couple from Laredo, a few others.

The most unique albergue

When I first arrived at the albergue, I walked into a group of 10 people of various ages and nationalities, some wearing hiking clothes and some wearing farmer clothes and some wearing nicer clothes. There were a few small children with their parents or grandparents as well. The group was sitting on chairs and benches outside the foyer of a two-story ranch house. 

I came up the hill and was immediately beckoned to sit, given a glass of water, and told to relax. An older man was in the middle of a song with his guitar, accompanied by his wife singing. I sat transfixed at the scene before me - I felt like I had just entered into a surreal, musical world. For 15 minutes I was lost in the Spanish guitar, the voices, the melody, and the atmosphere of rural northern Spain. When the songs ended, one of the volunteers at the albergue checked me in and showed me to my room.

I was left mostly to myself for a few hours to nurse my blisters and relax until the next day. I got to admire the triple-bunks, the cleanliness, the washer/dryer (which I didn't actually use because I thought it was too expensive), and the relaxed atmosphere. A German group was in the room next to mine, so there was the low chatter of German. I spent some time lying in the sun reading my book, enjoying just being outside and relaxed in such a nice atmosphere. 

At 7pm, we had a "peregrinos meeting" where Ernesto, the owner of the albergue, explained the history of the albergue and the various ways to get to Santander from Güemes. 

There were about 30 people in the albergue that night, each with his own unique group and unique story to share.

The history of the albergue

Ernesto, who sported a 2-inch-long white beard and exuded the wisdom of decades, explained in great detail his life and the story of the albergue. A large portion of the guests there that night did not speak Spanish but spoke good English, so a translator was necessary. Fortunately for me (I speak great English and pretty decent Spanish), a British girl had already befriended Ernesto and was chosen to be the translator. She did ask me a few times when she didn't catch Ernesto's phrases to translate, but mostly I got to enjoy and listen to the story.
  • The house the albergue is in was Ernesto's family's home. It was vacated in the 50s by his family, but he moved back here to restore and rejuvenate it around 1975, at the start of the popularity of the Camino del Norte.
  • Ernesto studied to be a priest (in Spanish, a cura) and worked for many years in a small remote village at the top of a mountain. He showed us the picture of the village he worked in (and the trail he used to walk up to it), and it made me glad for the existance of motorized vehicles. 
  • After he finished his studies and working for a time, Ernesto took a "doctorado de la vida" as he called it, traveling the world for two years, stopping in South America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. 
  • Ernesto loved traveling and meeting people so much that he wanted to bring that experience back to his native home, and decided to open an albergue on the Camino del Norte. 
  • The albergue would be a meeting place for travelers, peregrinos, and enthusiasts. The payment would be by donation only, with each paying as much as he thought appropriate for the services and experience he was given. 
  • Those who wanted to stay longer at the albergue could volunteer their time in exchange for room and board for (almost) as long as they wanted. (For example, I met an Irish woman who was working at the albergue for 3 months before going back to Ireland to re-start her new career as an accountant). 
  • Those who stayed at the albergue were encouraged to share their stories and experiences with one another, and bring their positive values back to their home societies.
The end of the meeting also included a song by the man who was singing earlier, revealed to be Ernesto's cousin. 

We were also explained the three different ways to get to Santander: 
  1. 10km along the highway (...groan from the peanut gallery)
  2. 13km half-highway, half-coast
  3. 15km along the coast (cheer!)
Right then and there I decided that I was going to try to go for the coastal route - if I started early like everyone else was bound to do, it would take me only 4 hours maximum and I would meet Leah and Kayla in Santander before lunch.


After the peregrino's meeting there was a communal dinner, cooked and served by the volunteers and full-time staff of the albergue. I sat and chatted with a German woman working at Mercedes-Benz (her adventure stories made me miss my fellow MITOCers and their crazy world travels), a Romanian woman recently-emigrated to the UK starting a new career, a Korean couple, and a plethora of Spanish couples young and old. The young women who were hiking alone were more drawn to talking to each other, since we all were eager to share our stories and experiences. During dinner Ernesto made us all make a communal toast (not religious of course) and pointedly showed us where the donation box is. 

The hermita

After dinner Ernesto needed yet another translator to talk about the hermita on the albergue property. The word hermita in Spanish is most closely translated as a "hermit's lair" without the negative connotations. It is a place to work, sleep, eat, think, pray, and study. 

Ernesto's hermita was an 8-sided structure (not circular to facilitate the building of benches along the inside walls), painted and decorated by a Brazilian artist friend of Ernesto's. Ernesto spent some time explaining the significance and story of the paintings along the walls: 

The Camino is a journey of life, for the heart and the soul as well as the feet. The travelers are laden with their bags and in various stages of tiredness and exhaustion, looking down at the trail for the yellow arrows that mark the path. The shells mark the signs of the Camino, their use for the peregrinos multi-faceted.

The outstretched (multi-racial) hands are asking the universe for a good experience of the Camino. The eyes are constantly searching for the right Way, and the feet are always sore from the day's exertion.

The peregrinos are always searching, always looking, always reaching. They are sometimes lost, discouraged, confused. They are reaching forward towards something, sometimes unclear about what they are searching for or where it is. They all think they are searching for the yellow arrows that are pointing them along the Way.

Some travelers are so focused on the trail that they only follow the yellow arrows without regard for anyone else or their troubles. But some (man, woman, black, white, all kinds) help each other through the troubles of Camino (and of life). Those who help are REALLY the ones following the Way, as shown by the angels bringing down a yellow arrow to the altruistic group.

The Camino is a place to share meals, stories, experiences, and life. It is a place to meet other travelers and experience the goodness that is inside each ordinary person. People walk the Camino to be reminded of the ordinary pleasures of life.

Once you have found that the Camino is about meeting people, helping each other, sharing experiences, and finding the goodness inside yourself, then you have succeeded in finishing the Camino. The end of the Camino is not in Santiago de Compostela (and that is why it is not depicted here), but the end is inside each one of us, as soon as we discover the goodness that is inside each other. The world is brighter for these discoveries, and we need them for the survival of humanity at large.

And onwards

I eventually heard from Leah that Kayla had made it to Santander (I would get the full story later), but because I had such a great time meeting travelers in Güemes, I forgot about the original plan to meet here. I went to sleep happy I had met these interesting people, and glad that I had accidentally stopped in Güemes for the night. If you follow the Camino del Norte, make sure to stop in Güemes, but on purpose.