Bulls I NEVER Expected in Pamplona, Spain

Our arrival into the city of Pamplona came the second to last day of the festival of San Fermín.  Many festival goers come at the beginning of famous eight day Running of the Bulls, but Russell and I were big fans of going during the festival’s end—less tourists, more diehards, and we were actually able to get a room!  A huge feat considering we only decided to go five weeks prior to the festival. We booked a Pobre de Mí package through a charity called Personal Philanthropy working with www.pamplonahousing.com. It was definitely not cheap, but when you do a once in a lifetime thing like this, you have to be willing to splurge for the experience.  The package was two nights at the four star Hotel Puerta del Camino www.hotelpuertadelcamino.com, balcony reservations overlooking Dead Man’s Corner for the Running of the Bulls, tickets for the final bullfight of the festival, and a final Pobre de Mí celebration party with an incredible tapas (even the pricey baby eels!) and wine spread in a penthouse with huge terrace overlooking the city hall and plaza below.

On the first afternoon in Pamplona, we joined the rest of the revelers in the city center and sipped sangria on the street while watching random processions march by.  100_2888

It was such a vibe of joy and chaos that I was quite unfazed when a guy smoking a joint offered Russell some jamón (ham).  As we were chuckling about that, we spotted our first unexpected bull.  Those of us who have been to Disney are familiar with those cartoon characters milling about, but Spain has its own darling in the Kukuxumusu brand’s Mr. Testis.  I almost lost my sangria when I spotted this character coming toward us, stopping to pose for photo ops with adults and children alike.  I couldn’t resist a shot of my own, although it is blurry probably because Russell was laughing while snapping the photo.100_2889

As we had just arrived in Madrid that morning, hopped a train to Pamplona, arrived and went out, we knew the jet lag would be catching up with us so we started heading back to the hotel as we needed to be up for the next morning’s bull run by 6:00 a.m.  On the way back we snaked through jam-packed streets of partiers.  At an intersection I heard screaming to my left and saw the other unexpected bull of the trip.  In the middle of the sea of people a person was weaving through, wearing a huge metal bull frame with fireworks blowing out of it.100_2972

Huh?  My mind could not register the thought behind this—“Hey, there’s a crowd of people, adults and children, packing a narrow street.  I think I’ll strap a welded bull to my back, load it with fireworks and run through the crowd burning people.”  I’m happy to say I made it out with just a dozen holes burned through my shirt and a burn from a big chunk of burning embers on my head.  I never planned to actually run with the bulls but I guess in a way, I had.

The next morning was pure adrenaline when we made our way to our balcony before they closed the street at 6:30 a.m. Watching the runners warm up and getting caught up in all of the anticipation—it was all so exciting.  Several times we were tempted to head down to the street and join the runners, but then we came back to reality.  When the rocket fired it wasn’t long until we saw the movement of some of the runners coming around Dead Man’s Corner—known as such for all of the incidents and gorings that take place here.  And then the bulls rounded the corner and it was four seconds of pure chaos and then……nothing.$00_2924  It was all over.  If you watch the run on the corner, don’t blink.  Although we saw a lot of action and two people get hurt, I would recommend watching from a balcony on a straight stretch as you can appreciate the run for a longer period of time.  However in those few seconds we were able to see the fury of a bull named Gavioto that wreaked havoc on the runners with 11 hospitalized and 4 gored.  We would see more of his destruction later.

After attending the San Fermín mass at San Lorenzo, watching a parade, and sneaking a nap, we headed to the Plaza de Toros for the final bullfight.  It was a total frenzy in the bullring with one section looking more like a fraternity party.  Gavioto did not disappoint at the bullfight, knocking one of the picador’s horses completely over right in front of us and really going down with a fight.  The event ended with the celebration of the matador Sebastian Castellas who cut two ears (bullfighting award) and was carried out on shoulders through the grand door–a rare event in bullfighting and the perfect finale to the festival.  Almost.  We still had the closing ceremony in front of city hall—the Pobre de Mí—at 11:30 p.m.  This “poor me” ends the festival with music, singing, candles, and thousands of people jammed into the Plaza Consistorial.100_2991

But we had an even better place to see the Pobre de Mí—from our penthouse terrace right above the action.

The group of twentysomething on the terrace was a mix of Spaniards and Europeans and a couple Americans.  We quickly bonded with José Carlos who taught us the words to the Pobre de Mí song and all night long we went back and forth belting out “Uno de Enero” and “Pobre de Mí” while enjoying vino tinto from Rioja and swaying with our celebratory candles. 100_2984

A side note—lit candles and San Fermín are not a good combination. I watched one of the women on the terrace that night get her candle too close to her long hair.  She ended up with an unintentional Pamplona mullet of sorts.  Nice souvenir.

We called it a night at 1:30 p.m. and decided to sleep in the next day to finally catch up from the jet lag.  I awoke in a panic when I saw the clock said 11:46 a.m. and we needed to check out by noon and be on a train by 1:00.  My heart had been pounding the entire time we were in Pamplona, so it was appropriate that it was still pounding as I stepped on the train and said goodbye.

 

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This Girl is on Fire—A Roatán, Honduras Adventure

High on the list of most scuba divers is a trip to the Honduran island of Roatán.  We spent a week at the Bananarama Dive Resort www.bananaramadive.com in West Bay because of its excellent dive shop, its location on a great beach, and fantastic offshore reef for snorkeling.  Our friends Coco and Tricia traveled with us and we settled into neighboring cabanas at the resort. 102_2515

On our first full day there we eased nicely into island mode as we prepared for the evening festivities of a live band, fire dancers, and a pig roast.  Normally on vacation, we glam up a bit at night but on this particular night, we seemed to have skipped that step.  You know those people you see at like 10 p.m. still in their swimsuits and you think, “what idiots”?  Yeah, that was us.102_2536

I knew we had a 9 a.m. dive departure the next day so I planned to be in bed early.

Unfortunately Timmy102_2535

and Wilma102_2546 behind the bar and the band had other ideas (correct, I am taking zero responsibility for my actions) and let’s just say I missed my curfew.  I do not recommend diving on little sleep, but somehow I trudged through it and managed to take in the excellent reefs and not drown.  I say not drown as our friend Coco, a constant prankster, accompanied us on the dive.  He is not a diver but tagged along to snorkel and free dive.  At one time I was down about 25 feet and heard a strange sound—a knocking on my tank.  What?  I turned around and there was Coco in front of me waving, his snorkel just bubbling away.  Laughing into your regulator is not a good idea!

Following our second dive it was getting wavy so our boat dropped us in the unsavory town of Coxen Hole to take a van back to the resort.  My husband Russell and I and Coco were waiting for the driver and sitting in the van with the side door open.  Suddenly a man appeared at the door that looked like the great-grandfather of Bob Marley.  Speaking to us in neither English nor Spanish, he proceeded to chat up a storm and I will never know if he was looking for money, selling some “product”, or just lonely.  It looked like he was going to get in the van with us.  I hoped not as he had an odor that was somewhere between incense and cat hoarder.  Luckily our driver showed up and shooed him away just in time.

On the subject of driving, do not do this in Roatán.  It is bad enough to be in a van or a taxi watching your driver go around corners on the inside with oncoming traffic on high roads with no guard rails.  Then there are the pot holes the size of a dive boat and you probably want to return your rental car without paying for it.  We took a taxi to West End a couple nights because there are a lot of restaurants over there, but the ride was always an adventure, sketchy road block and all.

One of the nights in West End, we went to Tong’s Thai Island Cuisine.  Everything looked and smelled so great and we got to sit on a pier overlooking the Caribbean.  It was wonderful.  Until I ordered.  Let me say that I eat a lot of Chinese and Mexican food and when the menu shows things like 3 chile peppers by an entrée, I usually have no problem ordering that.  So I went for one of these 3 chile options on the menu.  Everyone at the table was finished with their dinners and raving about how great they were.  I was still only about 5 bites into mine.  I think mine was great too.  I remembered thinking it was really delicious right before parts of my body started to shut down.  Starting with my mouth and spreading over my entire face, I started to slowly simmer until I had no feeling from the neck up.  After one hour with my food, I still could not even finish a third of it and the rest of my group was sick of waiting and ready to take our taxi of death back to West Bay.  When we got back to the cabana that night and I drank all of the bottled water in the room, I settled into bed thinking how glad I was that that meal was over.

Not quite.  The next day I experienced something that perhaps other consumers of extremely hot foods have endured.  I don’t want to get into details, but I will offer this:  I now understand very clearly what Johnny Cash was referring to in his song “Ring of Fire”.

The rest of the week went by in a blur.  102_2638Diving mixed with beaching lounging, eating mixed with Miami Vices at the Thirsty Turtle beach bar, and even a little karaoke in Spanish.102_2628

On the morning of our departure our new friends said good bye to us, even a friend we had not seen all week.  As Russell was standing on one of the wooden planks of the boardwalk waiting for our van, he felt a tickle on his foot and looked down.  Stretching up from under the plank was the long, hairy leg of a tarantula resting on his foot.  I guess everyone was sad to see us leave.

 

Howdy, Pilgrim—Walking the Camino de Santiago

Much time and planning went into our pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain.  The French Route of the Way of St. James spans about 780 km from the French border to the holy city of Santiago de Compostela, home of the remains of St. James the Apostle.  Walking this trail takes on average 30-33 days, which we did not have.  And so we did what our time allowed and walked about 180 km (about 115 miles) through the Galicia region in a period of 7 days.100_3076

Like many pilgrims, we planned our arrival for St. James Day, July 25, but we went a step beyond that and also planned our trip for the Jacobean Year of 2010 when the feast day fell on a Sunday (the next one is not till 2021 due to Leap Year).  We opted not to stay in albergues/refugios as beds are given on a first come basis and we did not want to stress about that.  Instead I made reservations at hotels, pensiones, and inns WAY in advance so we could focus more on enjoying the journey.100_3017

Our daily routine consisted of rising before dawn, packing up, and being on the Camino trail by 6 a.m.  One hour of walking was followed by a stop for our daily breakfast of tostadas with jam, café con leche for Russell and Cola Kao for me. 100_3012 After that we would walk the rest of the way to our destination.  Upon arrival we would check in, shower, wash the day’s laundry in the bathtub, and head out for a pilgrim’s lunch at one of the local restaurants.  Evenings were spent strolling, plaza sitting, and attending the daily pilgrim’s mass.  At these masses we would always see fellow hikers from the day as you cannot help but keep running into the same people.  Most of our companions on the trail were Europeans and we Americans were definitely in the minority–a very refreshing experience, in my opinion.

Those looking to earn their Compostela—a document given by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela-need only to complete the final 100 km 100_3078but do as many as kilometers as your time allows.  The proof of your journey is in your credencial, or pilgrim passport, that you can get stamped along the way at churches, inns, and places of business.100_3148

The Galicia region is known as the most beautiful landscape along the Camino.  This trail, existing for over one thousand years, passes through small, barren villages, farms, forests, and mountain valleys.  The spiritual component of this journey is profound—between you and your maker and between you and your fellow pilgrims.  Every time you pass another person on the Way, the universal phrase of “Buen Camino” is exchanged.  Good Journey, indeed.

You also spend a lot of time inside your own head.  I came to love the routine of the whole thing and the moving toward a set destination every day.  There is something so therapeutic about simply walking, even if you are doing it with a 25 pound pack on your back.  That said, make sure your pack is not too heavy and watch your knees with all the hills.  On one of our days, I miscalculated the location of our inn and to our surprise arrived there around 11 a.m. instead of our usual 2 p.m.  That made for a very long 23 mile hike the next day.  However, the extra hours of rest at that inn—Rectoral de Lestedo http://www.escapadarural.com/casa-rural/lugo/rectoral-de-lestedo were a welcome respite.  It was also good timing as by this day my husband Russell had started to wear a knee brace because of all the hill descents.  Our favorite parts of the Camino were between Triacastela and Sarria and the area around Portomarin with the gorgeous hills, mountains, and even vineyards and the constant weaving through Galician farms. 100_3084

With all of this hiking, we denied ourselves nothing in the food department.  Each town welcomed us with a variety of restaurants offering a pilgrims’ menu with three courses, wine, water, and bread for around 10 euro a person.  My best food choices along the way were gambas al ajillo—shrimp broiled in olive oil and garlic in a clay casserole—and my daily indulgence (Catholic pun intended) of Torta de Santiago—a dense almond cake.  My worst choice was a tie. There was the day that I was unfamiliar with the word preceding merluza (hake–a white fish) on the menu.  I later assumed it may have meant cheeks when nothing but a fish head came out on my plate.  Or it may have been the afternoon when I ate half a plate of delicious Manchego cheese—glorious at the time, but a penance for my colon for days.

I would put the pilgrimage trip to Santiago as the top trip of my life—not only for its spiritual aspects, but also for the physical and mental challenges and the rewarding views every step of the Way.

¡Buen Camino!

**Stay tuned for a future post about our arrival to Santiago de Compostela and the Jacobean Year festivities**

Everything’s Fried in Puerto Rico

You know that writing on the bottom of sunscreen?  It’s called the expiration date—check it out before you use it……

So we’re on the beach in Ocean Park, a suburb of San Juan, Puerto Rico staying at the Numero Uno Guesthouse www.numero1guesthouse.com. Now I love my Vitamin D more than most folks so I was in my chaise all day 101_0266on that gorgeous stretch of sand, reapplying sunscreen every so often and alternating between reading and napping.  When I went in to my room to get ready for dinner, I was shocked to find that I was pretty much a uniform shade of red from neck to toe—thank God for my unexpired facial SPF!  This began five days of suffering not only for me, but also for the housekeeper of our room who must have been disgusted each morning having to deal with sheets coated with a combination of aloe vera gel and Noxema, my nightly full-body “mask”.

Having ruined the beach scene for myself, I turned to food as many heartbroken women will do.  Our meals at Pamela’s at the Numero Uno Guesthouse were outstanding culinary creations.  Some of my favorites were the perfectly blended ceviche and the calamari with a Cajun tomato aioli.  We also roamed the Ocean Park neighborhood and stumbled onto our best lunch find by following the crowd to Kasalta www.kasalta.com. Our favorites here were the Cuban sandwiches and the Spanish tortillas.

During our time on the island we took a phenomenal excursion one day to El Yunque rainforest, Playa Luquillo, and, most importantly, Fajardo, to see Bioluminescent Bay www.biobaypuertorico.com. This kayak excursion, leaving at dusk, took us through a mangrove-lined water path channeling us into the bay, black under the moonless sky.  There we were greeted by millions of the bioluminescent micro-organisms that pulse blue light when touched.  The water surrounding the kayaks, paddles, and our hands moving through the water all glowed a magical blue color.  Spectacular!  Definitely a must-see for everyone.

The last two days of the trip were spent in Old San Juan101_0339 at El Convento Hotel www.elconvento.com.    This historical property was perfection with its colonial feel and rooftop pool 101_0347in the heart of the city.  Many hours were spent strolling the town, El Morro fortress, and then after working up an appetite—eating!  Puerto Rico is known for all of its fried food and believe me, we got a great sampling of that in Fajardo at Playa Luquillo.  But in San Juan we raised the culinary bar.  Yes, we couldn’t possibly leave PR without heading to Raíces www.restauranteraices.com for their famous mofongo, a Caribbean dish of seafood mixed with fried (!) mashed plantains, but the pinnacle of dining was our dinner at Marmalade www.marmaladepr.com.  When I made the reservation I was asked if we were celebrating anything special, to which I replied, “our second honeymoon.”  Ok, not a total lie! Isn’t EVERY Caribbean island vacation a second honeymoon?

Somewhere between that phone call and our arrival, the restaurant switched it to our anniversary and as the hostess led us to our “table”, I felt my cheeks turning red.  Our table was in the corner of the dining room, our seats facing the other diners.  Rose petals were strewn all over the table and floor.  Our seats were not chairs, but instead a sofa of sorts filled with no less than twenty pillows.  My husband Russell just looked at me and shook his head.

After settling down from all the fanfare, it was time to order.  I had had my heart set on the four course tasting menu with wine pairings, and even though my stomach wasn’t up to it after my afternoon encounter with the birthplace of the piña colada, I ordered it anyway.  Russell went with a salmon entrée, a wise choice in retrospect.  As my courses started coming out our server told us     the chef did not like serving a course to just one of us so with every course I had, Russell received a mini-portion of the same fare.  Somewhere between the lamb tagine and the chocolate work of art called a dessert,101_0348 I lost consciousness and spiraled into a level-ten food coma.  I made great use of those twenty pillows as I curled up, ready to spend the night.

I was brought back to reality by Russell shaking me to let me know that the chef was heading over to our table.  Through glassed-over eyes I complimented him on the fabulous cuisine and our dining experience.  He graciously thanked us and as we parted ways, made sure to wish us a happy anniversary.

I know.  I’m on my way to confession right now.

Mystical Moments in Machu Picchu

Our train pulled into the town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the Machu Picchu ruins of Peru and upon exiting the train, we had reached our destination for the day: the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel http://www.inkaterra.com/inkaterra/inkaterra-machu-picchu-pueblo-hotel/ .  Groupings of whitewashed tile-roofed casitas surrounded the hacienda style main building, all nestled into the vegetation on the side of the mountain.  The whole atmosphere of this place was like a spa.  From the guided hummingbird and orchid tour to simply sitting in front of one of the main lodge’s fireplaces sipping a mean pisco sour, 102_0627every moment here was heaven.  You could even partake in a sweat lodge ceremony, if so inclined.

And the food!  The meal that most comes to mind was the alpaca steak in a wild blueberry sauce with quinoa cake .   102_0593Meals here are enjoyed on the balcony overlooking the valley of Aguas Calientes 102_0590or in the romantic candlelit dining room down the hill.

Our plan was to spend the day relaxing at the hotel, then rise before dawn the next morning to walk to the town plaza to meet the guide for our tour of the ruins.  We were to be at the plaza when it was still dark so we could see the sunrise over the lost Incan city.  Well, we waitied and waited and finally the guide arrived about 30 minutes late.  I started to lay into him (in Spanish, of course) about how we were going to miss the sunrise experience and then an elderly lady from Spain who was also waiting for him with us started going off on him.  No one, and I mean no one, can curse like a Spaniard so I just sat back, watched her go to town, and thought, “Yeah, what she said!”

We did eventually arrive at Machu Picchu and in fact there was no sunrise as everything was fogged in.102_0629  Great.  The guides there must be used to this weather and also the visitors’ disappointment because I overheard several of them commenting on “what a mystical feeling the fog gives the ruins”.  By covering them completely?  Mystical, schmistical—tell my camera that!102_0649

As we wandered around the archeological marvel, the fog lifted bit by bit until we saw the perfect chance to capture a photo of the world famous view of Huayna Picchu peak and the ruins.  As I settled in on the edge of a trail, my husband Russell was snapping a shot of me in front of the million dollar view when I was a victim of a “drive-by llama-ing”.  This became my favorite shot of the trip.  I think it has a mystical feeling, don’t you agree?102_0677

 

 

Explosive Evening in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

  Unlike most fables, I am going to put the moral of this story first:

Don’t order chicken in a dimly-lit outdoor restaurant in Mexico.

That said, here’s what happened on a trip to Isla Mujeres, Mexico with our friends, Coco and Tricia.  Coco was enjoying his chicken kabobs on the dark patio of an unnamed Calle Hidalgo restaurant. Playa 4--Coco After dinner the four of us strolled the streets of the island.  My husband Russell and I like to do “the Spain stroll”, a very slow, relaxed, after-dinner walk.  After about 20 minutes of this stroll, Coco lets us know he is not feeling well and needs a bathroom.  We are now in an area with no chance of public bathrooms so we start moving faster toward the Na Balam hotel and Zazil Ha restaurant where we were heading to set up our New Year’s Eve dinner reservation. 

As we neared the Na Balam, we came to another hotel and sent Coco into the lobby.  I quickly coached Coco on the correct pronunciation for “Baño, por favor”.  Unfortunately all of his mental effort was being used on colon control so the only thing he did to the lady at the front desk was shout at her “Bah-nose! Bah-nose!”  She didn’t know what to do and instead of pointing him in the right direction, she simply stared.  With a look of increased urgency on his face, Coco emerged from the hotel and we quickly moved down the road to the Na Balam.  But it was too late.

In a panic, Coco and Russell left the sidewalk and scanned the brushy area behind a run-down bus stop for a place Coco could go-NOW!  Tricia and I waited awkwardly for a moment on the sidewalk and decided to head to Na Balam, telling the guys to meet us there.  We didn’t really want to hear anything.

Tricia and I were in the beautiful entrance of the Zazil Ha restaurant when Russell and Coco approached, Coco’s face white as a sheet and his head sweaty.  He went on to tell us how behind that bus stop he found a scooter parked and had used the handlebars for leverage as he released his explosive diarrhea.  We were laughing as he shared this, but were also feeling really sorry for him. 

And then the poor guy tells us how he had to use his underwear for toilet paper.  Well, that’s where the pity stopped for Tricia.  “Those were brand new underwear from American Eagle!” she shrieked, busting his chops.  Here poor Coco just had explosive diarrhea. At night. In front of his friend. Behind a bus stop. Grasping a stranger’s scooter.  In Mexico.  I doubt he was concerned about the underwear!  We all got a big kick out of the whole incident and the next morning when we thought of the poor guy walking over to his scooter, we were comforted knowing at least he was left a nice pair of underwear.

They’re probably still there.isla 2 001

 

A Mouthful and an Eyeful in San Sebastian, Spain

Our favorite destination on the two week northeastern Spain trip was San Sebastian, the jewel of the Basque Country.  Being my second time here, I fell in love even more with this seaside paradise.  If you love culinary experiences, there is no better spot.  This city takes typical Spanish tapas, known here as pinchos/pintxos, to a whole new level.  And then there’s the coast—three city beaches to choose from and a beautiful Belle Epoque promenade.  P1030827San Sebastian is a feeling—a feeling that you are living the good life.  Each time we have been here, we have stayed at the Hotel Niza www.hotelniza.com, the best lodging option in my opinion.  It is located on the promenade with gorgeous sea views and just a short walk to the great food and bar scenep1030845_0245 of the historic center.   You really can’t go wrong no matter where you eat here.  Yes, there are Michelin star restaurants, but you can eat gourmet food even on a budget.  With tapas that look and taste like a work of art, you could really make a meal of these for lunch and dinner.   p1030865_0260Speaking of art, remember that the Guggenheim Bilbao is just a short drive away.

If you are looking for more of a sit down dinner, two of my best meals ever were eaten in the San Sebastian area.  My husband Russell and I had a romantic, top-notch dinner at Bodegon Alejandro www.bodegonalejandro.com. Here we feasted on braised oxtail in a red wine sauce and a tomato stuffed with baby squid in its ink.  Another palate adventure was at Casa Camara www.casacamara.com in nearby Pasajes where you overlook the waterway to the sea in a quaint dining room with a submerged lobster tank in the center.  Be sure to make a reservation—I would come here for the midday meal so you can really drink in the views.  My meal of merluza (hake) in green sauce was amazing!

The residents of San Sebastian have a real joie de vivre and visitors to the city can soak it all in.  On the must do list: hanging out on La Concha beach, strolling the promenade from the Chillida sculpturesp1030860_0255 to the Ayuntamiento’s famous carousel, and doing a tapas crawl through the Parte Vieja. p1030853_0248

In closing I will say a few words about the beach, especially for those of you not familiar with the Spanish beach scene.  You had better get comfortable with a certain level of nudity while here.  The locals think nothing of this, but it may come as a shock to you.  When I tell my high school students about the topless tradition of these beaches, they are all excited until I tell them that Grandma is doing that too.  Also, with the three hour lunch break here, many people come to the beach in their work clothes, change into swimwear, pass a few hours, change again and head back to work.  This changing often takes place right on the beach.

I remember the afternoon I was sunning on La Concha beach and an octogenarian gentleman strolled over to the spot in the sand in front of me and proceeded to completely change from his dress clothes into his Speedo.  Nothing will burn into your mind more than Grandpa bending over in front of you, stepping into his suit.  Nice!  Welcome to Europe.