Ordering and consuming coffee whilst doing the Camino de Santiago – how different?

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Ordering and consuming coffee whilst you’re doing the Camino de Santiago is the same no matter where you are in the world?

Whether you’re in Brisbane’s CBD, in a Christchurch suburb in New Zealand’s South Island or anywhere else in the English-speaking world – it’s the same when getting your coffee hit all the way along the pilgrimage route?

Answer : yes and no.  Look at the photo at the top – the café-bar at Valcarlos on the Camino Francés with two cafés solo, presented impeccably to two pilgrims and think of your take away coffee in your area, in a paper cup.

Coffee is coffee world-wide – yes;  but in Spain it’s called “café” – same as in France and Portugal, but in the Spanish and French Basque lands it is “kafea” or “akeuta“, Catalonia “cafe”  and Galicia the same as in Spanish “café“.  In Italy it is “caffè

Apart from the obvious linguistic differences; there is a big cultural difference in the way people in the English-speaking world drink their coffees.

It is called:

  “take away, throw away

The ubiquitous takeaway coffee, invariably bought in the morning on the way to work and consumed whilst waiting, walking or in transit.  Most times, the used coffee cup is responsibly disposed of in a rubbish bin or what the Americans call a trash can.  Forensically observing these consumers in the morning: their faces reveal deep primeval carnal pleasures whilst swallowing this hot liquid.  These coffee consumers connect to their mornings, to their environments and with their fellow commuters: indicating a successful and satisfying coupling has taken place – the mouth readily accepting this brown or black hot to warm liquid; with or without milk; with or without sugar.  It is both ceremonial and ritualistic and practised at least once a day.

How do you consume coffee on the Camino de Santiago?  First of all: you never have takeaway coffee in a throw away cup.   You must make the conscience decision of physically going into a café-bar or cafetería, requiring you to go up to the counter and order in Spanish – using either good or poor Spanish.  Entering a cafe-bar for a coffee is a very easy and simple choice – it is called need and desire inseparably linked.  It represents a walking break, a toilet break, it gives relief to your back if you’re carrying a weighty backpack, it’s a meeting place and in tempestuous weather; it gives temporary shelter.  And of course, you can order some food to accompany your coffee choice.

Public toilets along the Camino de Santiago do not exist, unless you’re in a major city.  You go to a café-bar instead or you go off-track, so calls of nature can be satisfactorily answered in private.

Here are some photos of places along the Camino de Santiago (Camino Francés) where you go to consume coffee and food.  IMG_0967

Puente la Reina - in Calle Mayor - right on the Camino trackWhat are your coffee choices as a pilgrim-walker? One thing for sure: you do not have the seemingly endless choice which you now have in large urban and city centres.  For example, in one of the main streets at Bondi Beach, Sydney (Australia) this is the choice you have:

Espresso; Double Espresso; Macchiato; Piccolo; Ristretto; Cafe Latte; Cappuccino; Flat White; Long Black; Mocha; Chai Latte.  And each coffee varies depending on size (Regular or Large) and whether it is Decaf, soy milk or if there is an extra ‘shot’ of coffee… (the coffee names indicate the obvious Italian influence throughout the English-speaking world).

Whereas in Spain and certainly on the Camino track your choice comes down to three or four …  CAFÉ SOLO (small black coffee, nothing else); CAFÉ CORTADO (small coffee with a bit of milk – not as strong as a café solo); CAFÉ CON LECHE (the equivalent of white coffee – more milk than coffee) and sometimes CAFÉ AMERICANO (long black coffee with a lot of hot water).

IMG_0968Café-bars along the Camino de Santiago are part of the built infrastructure to sustain and support pilgrims and at the same time they constitute a vital cultural aspect of the pilgrimage community in Spain.  It would be inconceivable not to have them around, open and servicing the pilgrims on a daily basis and often they open soon after 6.00 am – to support this human traffic.   They do an admirable job.  No multiday long walking route in the world comes within cooee (Australian expression meaning ‘very near to‘) of this unique institution called café-bars.

Good coffee for about 2 Euros per cup of coffee isn’t a bad price along the pilgrimage paths.

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What time of the year to do the Camino de Santiago?

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The writer would like a dollar each time he is asked this question or variations of the following:

What is the best time of the year to do the Camino de Santiago?

This question is invariably and consistently asked in Camino Downunder classes and workshops in Australia and New Zealand.  Ironically, when the question is posed, the participant has often made up his or her mind and wants validation that they have made the right choice.  The writer would prefer that all future pilgrims keep an open mind, precisely because of the premise that you should make an informed choice; it’s a personal decision-making process; and most importantly you have to decide what are your priorities and not try to have everything, see everything and do everything whilst you’re undertaking the Camino de Santiago.

Nonetheless, all the options need to be put on the table – freedom of choice.  Outlining to future pilgrims all the options is a de rigueur process in the classes.  This process is much appreciated, whilst the participant weighs up the pros and cons.

WHAT ARE THE FOUR OPTIONS?

Late October, 2009 walking through the deciduous beech forest in the Pyrenees and just inside Spain

  • SUMMER (verano) – June 21 to early September
  • AUTUMN (otoño) – September 21 to early December
  • WINTER (invierno) – December 21 to early March
  • SPRING (primavera) – March 21 to early June

WHAT IS THE CURRENT SITUATION?

There is now a quasi formal pilgrimage “walking season”.  Most pilgrim hostel accommodation usually closes for the winter months; all open their doors once Easter has finished (March or April) and these seasonal «albergues/refugios» (in Spanish) close their doors, sometime in November, and which varies from pilgrim hostel to pilgrim hostel.  However, there are albergues and refugios which are open all year round for the very small winter pilgrimage foot traffic.  More about the winter pilgrimage traffic later.

The majority of Australians and New Zealanders prefer to undertake their pilgrimage during Spring or Autumn, as do most non-European pilgrims.

WHAT THEN ARE THE ATTRACTIONS AND CHALLENGES FOR EACH SEASON?

Summer:

  • Summer crops along the Meseta are maturing to full growth as are the vegetable gardens (huertas) in the first two regions (Navarra and La Rioja).
  • In early September (late summer) wheat harvesting commences on the Meseta.  Grape harvesting (mostly manual labour) is taking place in all the wine regions along the Camino Francés (Navarra, La Rioja and the Bierzo region of León province).
  • Most, if not all the snow found on the GR65 (la Route Napoléon) between St-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Col de Lepoeder (just inside Spain) has disappeared and the track is now quite dry (unless it has been rain affected).  There still may be seen some snow on the peaks of the Cantabrian Mountain ranges which are always on the right hand side (north) as the pilgrim travels west.
  • Summer heat is at its strongest – certainly in the afternoon and should be avoided when it is most intense during the mid-afternoon (around 3.00 pm).
  • If you are a morning person and you don’t mind getting up well before sunrise, you should begin walking during the cool of the morning (around 5.00 am), with its endearing qualities and finish soon after midday, to avoid the damaging afternoon sun on the Meseta between Burgos and Astorga – just over 200 hundred kilometres long.
  • The challenge for the non-Spanish pilgrim is to adhere to the tried and tested Spanish siesta traditions (moving successfully between cultures): making sure you finish your walking before 1.00 pm and hopefully get to your designated albergue, going inside and staying there until around 5.00 pm when the central town squares (Las Plazas) burst into life with the locals doing their customary “paseo” – social stroll, to be seen and to meet; coinciding with commercial establishments and shops opening from the late afternoon to until 8.00 pm or later.  What do you do for lunch?  Hopefully, you would have obtained your provisions before 1.00 pm or eaten in a café bar located right on the Camino track which sometimes stays open during the daily siesta period and during the walking season.
  • July and August are the peak times for the locals (Spaniards) who get on the track (mostly in Galicia to do a minimum 100 km of walking) during the peak summer holiday period.
  • Some overcrowding may be experienced in the last region (Galicia).
  • The foreign pilgrim experiences Spain up close and personal because life can now be better enjoyed outdoors from late afternoon, even in Northern Spain; the walking pilgrim is challenged each day to start very, very early.
  • For ornithologists and bird lovers entering Spain and less than 2 kilometres from Roncesvalles, the Centro de Migración de Aves – Roncesvalles/Orreaga opens its doors on the Camino track from July 1 until end of November. Its purpose is to study and observe the 22 birds of prey and the 22 other migratory birds crossing overhead.

    The bird watching centre on the Camino de Santiago in the Pyrenees and just before getting to Roncesvalles

Autumn:

End of October, 2009 in Spain in the Pyrenees between Roncesvalles and Zubiri

  • The exquisite beauty of crossing the Pyrenees from France into Navarra Spain and walking through a variety of beech, oak, fir and wild pine deciduous forests especially in late October cannot be overestimated as well as the varied colours of the leaves which are either still clinging precariously on the trees or fallen to the ground.
  • In the Pyrenees, the peak season (late September and October) for migratory birds and the huge size ‘scary and noisy’ birds of prey are all observed flying above the Camino de Santiago route and just a few kilometres before getting to Roncesvalles is the impressive bird interpretation and exhibition centre in three languages called: Centro de Migración de Aves.
  • An “Indian Summer” is often experienced in late autumn – an extension of summer, characterised by sustained dry, warm weather.
  • The pilgrim walking into Puente la Reina from Pamplona in late October early November will see on the Camino route the famous Spanish red peppers (pimientos de piquillo) being magically transformed by outdoor ovens: the outer skins are charred and blistered by the intense heat in order to release the exquisite sweet flavours inside the flesh.  Many residential buildings along the Camino de Santiago in Navarra and La Rioja have pimientos de piquillo hanging around their balconies to dry.
  • At the beginning of autumn in Logroño (capital of La Rioja): September 20 to September 26 are the Fiestas de la Vendimia Riojana – wine harvesting festivities lasting one full week and with the city figuratively exploding with people, processions, outdoor activities (viticulture) and with more gastronomy than usual.
  • The Meseta is no longer green or yellow with grains and crops – the harvest is now complete: the soil is a dark brown colour; it lies fallow and unsown.
  • The hunting season begins in both France and Spain – “la caza mayor (game hunting) and “la caza menor (shooting game birds only).
  • Throughout Spain, but especially along the Camino Francés the culturally and gastronomically significant “Matanza del cerdo” (slaughter of the pig) takes place (mainly on 11 November – San Martín) and early December.

Winter:

  • Its grand appeal and attraction in two words : character building.
  • Between Christmas and end of January: the number of pilgrims on the track go down to single digit numbers per week (certainly in the Pyrenees and in Navarra)
  • You must only do the Camino Francés in winter after you’ve done it a number of other times in other seasons: you should by then be reasonably familiar with terrain and topography.
  • You must have reasonably good language skills in Spanish and French.
  • The lambing seasons falls in winter and the early part of the year in Navarra – Pyrenees, La Rioja and Castilla y León.
  • You must enjoy being on your own for most of the day and on most days and not be constrained with a rigid walking timetable.  Time flexibility is important.
  • You must “enjoy” walking through snow and ice; the physical challenges of being exposed to some extreme cold days and to sleeping in some non-centrally heated rooms.
  • You must have either a duck or goose down jacket to wear for immediate and sufficient warmth once you stop walking.  Remember that down jackets can never be used when you are walking: they do not wick out the huge amounts of moisture produced by the body when undertaking heavy-duty walking even if the ambient temperatures are minus zero.
  • Your pilgrimage will be memorable and uplifting due to the many and varied encounters you will have with the locals, especially if you are on the Camino track during Christmas and the New Year period

Spring:

On the Meseta in early May, 2007

  • European Summer Time (Spain and France have the same time because they are in Central Europe Time zone) begins in Spring: the last Sunday in March until the last Sunday in October –  waking up in the dark, but being able to walk in daylight well past 9.00 pm.
  • A veritable explosion of new growth and fauna are sprouting and birdsong is ever-present  – flowers abound along the whole of the Camino.
  • Weather volatility is at its extreme (April and May): such as in the Pyrenees on the Spanish side all-weather records were broken in the first two weeks of May, 2010 – the coldest recorded temperatures since records began in the middle of the 19th  century.  In the middle of May, 2010 it snowed in Burgos (800 metres above sea-level) which is on the Meseta.  There is still significant snow on the Camino track above the treeline between France and Spain in the Pyrenees.
  • In Navarra and La Rioja and on the Meseta: there can be continuous days of rain: even if rain ceases for many days, the pilgrim continues to negotiate walking in mud.  It is the writer’s strong recommendation that walking with hi-tech gortex gaiters allows for a much better daily walking outcome.  The unwritten and genuine joys of walking straight through mud holes without deviating when walking in gaiters is something to experience!  See the earlier CaminoDownunder blog dated August 28, 2011: Good walking gear gives you a better walking outcome – PART ONE.
  • The colour of the Meseta is green and vibrant with the growing wheat fields and dominating the landscape as far as the eye can see, accompanied by constant birdsong all around and every day.

Mid April, 2007 snow in the Pyrenees – just inside of Spain on the Camino

CONCLUSION

When to walk the Camino de Santiago should be based on being well-informed, whilst understanding that each season’s attractions (colours, textures, appearances) is precisely determined by the yearly seasonal cycles which are unique for that season.  Can one still listen to and enjoy Vivaldi’s Four Seasons violin concertos separately (la primavera; l’estate; l’autunno; l’inverno – in Italian)?  Yes.  However, to eventually listen to all the four concertos is to appreciate the differences and complexities of each.  You can say one is your favourite or preferred; but you can’t say one is better or worse if you haven’t experienced it.

The choice made is on the understanding that you cannot experience all and have all the best in just one season – that’s being unrealistic.  In other words, walking along the Camino de Santiago at any time of the year will offer you the very best, but only for that season along with its challenges.

Maybe, starting to walk in one season and finishing up in other season allows the future pilgrim the opportunity to experience two seasons for the price of one pilgrimage in one walking season only.  Think about that as being a viable alternative.

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Navarra: on the Camino Francés at Puente la Reina: early November when the newly harvested peppers (Pimientos del Piquillo) have just had their outer skins roasted.

How young is too old?

Map of the way of St James In Europe

Image via Wikipedia

In 2011 along the Camino Francés there has been a travelling exhibition of photos and displays with the title Cultural and Language diversity on the route of Santiago de Compostela.  Many major and minor Western European languages are featured such as English, Spanish, German, Galician and Euskara (Basque).  The website: www.santiagolanguages.com

In July this year the exhibition was in Roncesvalles.  What captivated our interest about the written testimonies by two women was not so much their different cultural and linguistic backgrounds as to their age and their children’s and grandchildren’s reactions.

Toti Martínez de Lezea (Spanish writer and translator) wrote the following:

When I said to my sons I was going to go to Santiago de Compostela, the very first thing they asked me was whether the retired people’s club organise the journey and whether we would travel by plane to get there.  I looked at them amused and I communicated to them my intention was to do it alone, walking from Orreaga/Roncesvalles to Galicia.  I still laugh when remembering their surprised faces, or rather, stunned faces.

The second person’s testimony is Erika, a German national:

My name is Erika, I am from Kiel, in the north of Germany and I am sixty-five years old.  Two years ago I became a widow and I thought the world was finished for me.  After a full life with my husband, I had no choice but to wait my turn.  I have two sons, two daughters-in-law, five grandchildren who come every Sunday to have lunch and they tell me what they do.  I see the children grow up and I hear their parents.  They have many projects and many years ahead of them, they take care of me, but after all I am the grandmother and I have a feeling they think my time is over.  They are so wrong.

I like books and when I was reading a novel whose plot took place along the Way of St James I felt like learning more.  I already knew something about the French Way (el Camino Francés), or, “the Stars’ Way”, but it never interested me.  I surfed on the internet, I read diaries of travellers, I saw images of amazing landscapes, towns, churches, castles; pictures of pilgrims walking under the sun and the rain and many smiling faces.  I learnt that in old times, before Christianity, people set out on this journey towards the end of the world and today, so many centuries later, they keep on doing it.  I also learnt that nobody returns the same as he set out, since the experience is unique and I decided to have a try.  After all, what could I lose trying it?

I consulted tourist guides, I learnt by heart names of towns, I marked the most interesting places on a map, I calculated what would be my needs, what type of clothes I should take with me, how much money; I prepared the backpack dozens of times until leaving just the bare essentials and finally, I bought the train and bus tickets that would take me to Orreaga/Roncesvalles.  I know, I know that all ways of St James are infinite, that each of them begins where the pilgrim starts to walk, but I had to start somehow and I did not feel like having enough strength to walk from Kiel to Santiago.  Once everything was ready, I communicated my decision to my sons and their pleas were useless to make me give up the project, or at least, go accompanied.  I had to make the journey on my own, I did not need company and probably I would not find it, but I was wrong.

From the first moment I started to walk I have had someone alongside me.  Men and women, young and adult people have set foot on the same roads as me; we have stopped in the same fountains to quench our thirst, we have contemplated the dense woods, the golden cornfields, the towns where the storks nest in the bell towers, and we have sat down in eating rooms in the evening, with sore feet, to admire sunsets.  I only spoke German when I left Kiel and now it turns out that I speak all the languages of the world!  Well I might be exaggerating, but it is true when I say I understand people walking next to me, or walking ahead or behind me, since there is always, always a moment when we meet again.

I have reached the conclusion that words are just sounds expressing feelings and a greeting or a farewell, they all sound the same in any of the languages on the Camino.  I also have learnt to thank those who receive me or show me the right path to be followed.  They smile, and I am sure they think I am not in my right mind.  What!  An old woman, alone, carrying a backpack and leaning on a stick to make the walk lighter, she has to be a little bit crazy to do such a journey on foot.  Yes, I might be, in fact, I am.  I am crazy about life.

I still have a good way to walk, many kilometres ahead of me, as I am just in the beginning of my journey.  This afternoon I arrived in Estella-Lizarra and I remained a long time on the bridge that links the banks of the river thinking about the thousands of travellers who crossed over there, throughout history, each of them for a reason, an idea, a language, an origin, but with a common aim: to walk, to arrive to the end of the world on foot.

I have blisters, it seems the backpack has doubled in weight, the sky threatens to rain tomorrow, but I have never felt so alive, so young and I have decided to do the same route on the way back.  I will not take any train or plane as previously planned; I will come back the same way as I arrived on foot!  I will say hello to pilgrims and I will tell them it is worth the effort, that the pleasure overcomes the weariness.  In what language?  Bo, gut, mat, ongi, good, plan, bon, goed, bueno, buono, dobry, bra, bun… who cares?  Everybody will understand it.

Camino Downunder classes and workshops are held twice a year in Sydney (Australia) and in New Zealand and aimed to totally prepare and support the independent pilgrim walker.  What is fascinating with Erika’s testimony is that in the Antipodes (Australia and New Zealand) 65% to 70% of participants attending Camino Downunder classes over the last four years are women who are in their 40s, 50s and 60s.   The majority begin as monolinguals, but during their long committed and passionate preparation period, they take on board multiple languages and cultures.  The very best aspect of globalisation in the 21st century would be walking independently along the Camino de Santiago: moving between cultures; using languages and making linguistic connections.

Successfully moving between cultures on the Camino de Santiago