April 24, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I didn’t plan to write about the Camino – I hoped for it to be an opportunity to just spend time with myself, taking in all that I could from the experience. I didn’t take notes and I didn’t bring my fancy camera. I just brought an open mind and an eagerness to challenge myself in ways I’d never been challenged before.

But then I had the most amazing and magical experience of my life.

Never have I gone through something so trying both physically and mentally. If I learned one thing, though, it was that anything is possible. And because of this, I feel compelled to share the experience with all of you.

About the Camino
The Camino de Santiago consists of a web of trails across Spain and beyond, all leading to one very special city in Galicia: Santiago de Compostela. Legend has it that the remains of Saint James rest there, thus the motivation behind the pilgrimage’s creation. The most popular trail in existence is the Camino Francés, which stretches 800 kilometers from the border of France to Santiago in Spain. Some do the trip for religious reasons, but most probably embark on the journey for a variety of other purposes – from soul-searching reflection, to tackling the physical challenge.

While many travel the entire 800km from France (taking about a month to do so), to officially “complete” the Camino (i.e. get the fancy certificate) you must only walk at least 100km (or more if you go by bike or horse). As such, many people – especially Spaniards – begin their journey in Sarria, which is a three-to-four-day’s walk away from Santiago. I decided to begin my trek in Ponferrada – eight days, countless yellow arrows, and 200km away from my destination.

Perhaps the most peculiar part of the Camino, for me anyway, was that it felt like a parallel universe – one in which time stopped and everyday life slipped away and didn’t seem to exist. Taking in the world around me one step at a time allowed me to experience my surroundings on a much richer level. A day felt like an eternity of memories filled with sounds, sights and thoughts. There was something refreshing about not obsessing so intensely on the long-term goal, but rather focusing on each step as it came. I suppose that was my first takeaway from the experience.

The physical
The walk itself isn’t necessarily the most difficult of treks. It’s not easy, that’s for sure, but in terms of hikes, it’s not exceptionally hard either (I’m not a major hiker, or even a hiker at all for that matter, but scaling the trail to Upper Yosemite Falls was definitely strenuous on a massively different level). In my opinion, what makes the pilgrimage physically difficult is the quantity of walking. Trekking 25km a day (and up to 35!), one day after the next, while carrying all of my goods on my back, took a major toll on my body. This meant that basic walking often became very tiring and even painful. By the end of the trip, I had (and still basically have) seven blisters, swollen ankles and a messed up a knee.

Despite the discomfort, though, every morning, I’d rise from my albergue (hostel) bunk bed, limp around and eventually hit the trail. The first half hour was often slow and even hurt a bit, but soon the pain would disappear. How? Well, that brings me to my next realizations and the deeper meaning that I discovered behind my Camino.

The people
I realized quickly that the Camino was largely possible due to the people I was with and the strength that they gave me. I’d never met any of them before, as our meeting was just a matter of our coinciding journeys (and I do mean that in the physical sense, I think…). But they became like family, and knowing that we were all going through the same pains, joys and triumphs subconsciously reinforced that my goal was attainable. Suddenly, because everyone thought it to be possible, it just seemed possible – whether it felt like it or not. It just never occurred to me that I would stop. Why would I? We were all it in it together, and if they could continue, then surely so could I.

In the last years, I’ve learned that my attitude changes EVERYTHING. I don’t want to get all preachy about remaining positive, but it just seems true that if you believe you can, then you will….and conversely, if you don’t, then – surprise – you just won’t. On the Camino, this was reinforced at the ultimate level. Because WE ALL believed we could, we did. And every day, as pain and blisters tempted to distract me, I just believed and told myself that I could and I would.

Sure enough, I did. Then, like clockwork, when I arrived in Santiago, my mind gave in and the pain started to reveal itself. A day later and I was nearly immobile, certain that I could never have gone a kilometer farther. But you know what, if there were another day, I bet I would have been able to…because the mind is funny that way.

I am SO grateful for the experience and for the family I gained along the Way. Just the thought of each of their faces greeting me at an unexpected café along the Camino, or at an albergue at the end of a long day, or in Santiago’s main plaza after 200km walked, gave me so much comfort. I’m especially grateful to my friend Candace, who sparked the idea of going on the journey. She initiated me into the world of backpacking, albergues and creative dining (it seems anything is possible with a baguette, some chorizo and a Swiss Army knife…and maybe some wine).

I encourage anyone with the ability to get to Spain, to take this journey for a few days, weeks or even a month. I can say that, without a doubt, it was the single most moving experience of my life, and nothing short of magical. And if I can do it – if my new 65-year-old spunky Australian friend John can do it – then you can too (Dad 😉 ).

*Stayed tuned for a future post about what I suggest you bring and not bring on your journey.

April 17, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Travel, Travels in Europe

Confession: I didn’t do my homework on Prague. With travel plans swirling around in my head like a blender full of gazpacho (mmmm, gazpacho), I barely even remembered where I was when I landed at the airport to meet up with an old college friend. Training it into the city center, neither of us knew what to expect, apart from everyone’s enthusiastic proclamations that the once communist city was GORGEOUS.

Yeah, yeah, Prague was super gorgeous – candy-colored buildings, a stone bridge, hilly vistas. Pretty, very pretty. But even better? That place is cheap, like crazy cheap (and I hear it used to be a lot cheaper, too). So we did what any two smart girls would do – we gallivanted around town like two ladies of leisure with a fat wallet full of cash. Obviously.

To be more precise, here I present you with the list of our Prague escapades in case you too should find yourself in the Czech capital for three days and with 4,000 CZK to burn (it sounds like a lot of money, but it’s only about 160 euros!).

We ate
We learned quickly that a proper Czech meal costs next to nothing. Seriously, if we spent more than six euros each, we felt like we’d been robbed and taken for an over-priced ride. I sampled meat-stewy goulash, countless bowls of traditional potato soup, and cake, lots of cake. It seems as though they really like their baked goods because around every turn, a new glistening and frosted creation tempted us. Our favorite? The nation’s famous honey cake – a compilation of cake-y ingredients with an extra helping of honey mixed in, all crusted in crushed cookie.

We drank
There was an unpleasant chill in the Czech air, so sightseeing of course called for brief recharges between stops. Take the castle for example – we marched all over a Prague hilltop looking for the stony structure, but it turns out that the term “castle” should be very loosely translated. Instead of towers, spires and gargoyles, the “castle” consisted of a collection of buildings, such as the gothic Saint Vitus Cathedral, the rather underwhelming Vladislav Hall, and the unexpectedly charming miniature neighborhood on Golden Lane.

After all the invisible-castle hunting, though, we worked up a thirst for something warm. And this was generally what happened every two to three hours throughout the trip, so we ended up discovering countless coffee shops across town. Winning our “favorite cafe to lounge in while escaping the cold” award was Grand Cafe Orient with its cappuccinos, cubist decor, and, of course, honey cake.

We went to the ballet
We’d heard that a visit to the ballet or opera was a must, so we figured since we were rolling in cash, we may as well do something extravagant. We popped by the Národní divadlo (national theatre) and dropped a total of almost two euros each on tickets to that evening’s ballet (big spenders!). For that price, I expected the performance to more closely resemble my third grade dance recital than any proper professional performance. But, wrong again. The theatre seemed better fit for royalty than my worn-out sightseeing self. The auditorium glowed with gold tasseled curtains, velvet chairs, a chandelier the size of my apartment, and a live orchestra. Fan-cy. And the ballet was pretty darn impressive, too!

We traveled
Feeling the urge to escape our pied-à-terre (AKA the hotel), we decided to take a train to the UNESCO heritage sight Kutná Hora. Once rivaling Prague in terms of size and promise, the quiet town now attracts visitors with its Saint Barbara’s Church, and the rather morbid bone-filled Sedlec Ossuary.

Perhaps even better than our excursion to Kutná Hora, was accidentally taking the train in the wrong direction on the way back, ending us up in a random village called Čáslav. Still cold, we resorted to our go-to activity – warming up in a local bar/cafe. A coffee, cappuccino or even water wasn’t happening, though, as apart from being the only girls in sight, we were also the only English speakers. After several failed gestures for water, I settled on pointing at a picture of beer. Yes, I finally had some famous Czech beer, and considering my affection for beer (non-existent), my assessment was that it tasted like….beer.

Yep, Prague surprised us alright. Sure it was gorgeous, the people were lovely, the food was tasty, and the beer was, well, famous, or something. But making the experience that much better was the fact that we could bop around the city as we pleased without feeling like we were hemorrhaging cash. I’m glad that not doing my homework paid off – literally – this time around.

[travelist location=”Prague, Czech Republic” type=”img” url=”http://www.latortugaviajera.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/bike.jpg”]

April 10, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

I started following the spunky identical trio over at the Traveling Triplets awhile back. Via their blog, they cover everything from their adventures, to favorite recipes and even fashion tips. Recently, Megan made a stop in Barcelona and had the chance to go to a fútbol (err soccer) game. As my latest guest poster, she gives a quick rundown of the highlights. (And because these ladies are just too adorable for words, I’ve embeded their intro video below, as well.)

Hi! This is Megan from Traveling Triplets where my sisters and I blog about traveling and life as an identical triplet. I recently returned from a trip to Europe during which I was able to spend a few days in Barcelona. One of the highlights of our visit was going to a Fútbol Club Barcelona game at Camp Nou!

You can’t go to Barcelona without going to a fútbol game, as Fútbol Club Barcelona has become a symbol of Catalán culture. Barça is more than just a club, they are international champions supported by a huge fan base – both in Catalonia and around the world.

Before going, I got my tickets for only 43 euros here. And almost just as important as the tickets, was learning the chants and picking up a team scarf before the game (not only to support the team, but also because when we went in February it was absolutely freezing!). The only thing better than going to the game? The fact that Barcelona beat Real Sociedad 2-1, and Lionel Messi was even more amazing in real life!

So grab a hot dog for a few euros and experience Barcelona’s passion for fútbol. I recommend getting to the game about an hour early to beat the crowds, because on your way home there is no escape. Have fun!

To learn more about Barcelona see our Top 10 list here!

April 3, 2012 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Spain, Travel, Travels in Europe, Travels in Spain

I found love in Catalonia – in the colorful hanging buildings of Girona, inside the quirky walls of Dalí’s house in Cadaqués, and while tip-toeing across river stepping stones in Besalú. But my biggest Catalonian love? The calçot.

The Catalonia region claims cuisine fame for many things: pan con tomate (bread with tomato), crema catalana (similar to crème brulee), the sparkling wine cava and, sure enough, a special little onion called a calçot. With their long green shoots and wiry roots, they look an awful lot like leeks or oddly monstrous green onions.

Sure, so you’re thinking, big deal, Tortuga – I’ll see you your gigantic special green onions and raise you some organic jicama from Whole Foods, or something. Ah, but there’s so much more to a calçot than just simple, giant oniony goodness. This is because a calcot’s future is so much more exciting than that of your typical grocery store produce.

The special-ness takes place during early winter and late spring, when the famous veggie comes into season. Since the onions are so fabulous, Catalonians often partake in a proper gastro celebration, called a calçotada – a feast filled with wine and food, but mostly mass quantities of calçots.

They start by spearing loads of the stalky green onions onto a wire, like a necklace, before draping the creation over a blazing fire. The exterior layer chars on one side for a few minutes, before getting flopped over to the other side. Wrapped up newspaper, the calçots stay warm, while strand after strand of vegetables has its turn above the flames.

At the table, hungry mouths water while sleeves get pulled up, ready for the impending mess. After all, they won’t be eaten tidily with forks and knives, but rather by hand. You see, to get to the sweet interior, one must pop the bottom off, then slowly peel away the outer layer with care. Holding the calçot by the green stalk, the tender tip is then dunked in a bowl of romesco sauce – a fire-colored concoction made of bell pepper, garlic, olive oil and nuts like almonds, pine nuts or hazel nuts. Honestly, everything at the table (at least my table) ends up getting dunked in that amazing sauce – bread, spoons, fingers – it’s that good.

Peeled and doused in romesco, it’s time to dangle the calçot above your mouth, noshing away at the toasty sweet bottom portion, just up until the green part begins. Then you repeat the process again….and again…and again, because it’s amazing, and even better, it’s crazy healthy, so there’s no logical reason not to eat these things like you’ll never have another meal for the rest of your life. Truly.

The only tragic part about this whole experience is that I feel as though there is a pre- and post-calçotada aspect to my life these days. Now, whenever I see anything resembling a calçot at the store, I get really excited, thinking it’s my beloved onion. But not only is not a calçot, but even if it were, I can’t quite see myself whipping up a bonfire on a Madrid sidewalk in order to get my calçotada on. Although…..I’m totally not above that….

Disclosure: I traveled through Catalonia as a guest of Charming Villas Catalonia. Rest assured that I’m keeping it real – all opinions are entirely my own.