Category Archives: Storytime

Texas State Fair Report

I’ve lived in Dallas for three Texas State Fairs, and this Saturday finally went. I should have gone sooner. The Texas State Fair is everything you could hope for: fun, silly, huge, full of unhealthy food and drink, and crowded but not scarily so. It was great.

It’s not cheap, however. I spent a total of $43.50, and could have easily dropped much more. That included a discounted entry ticket and 60 “coupons,” which you purchase with actual money and then use across the fair as currency. The purpose of coupons is, I assume, to dissociate you from questions of what’s a fair price. “The fries over there are 14 tickets and these are 12 tickets,” you might say, instead of the more reasonable “Seven bucks for fries?!?”

When friends Lindsay, Ethan, and I arrived, we began a casual counter-clockwise walk around Fair Park. Lindsay hadn’t eaten all day, so we bought her happiness in the form of a giant turkey leg, and then sidled up to the beer tent, which was offering a confusing-sounding experience: funnel cake beer.

Funnel cake beer

Here it is! Note the sugar around the rim.

Specifically, Community Beer Company’s Funnel Cake Ale, a special offering meant to taste like dessert, and served with powdered sugar around the rim. Now, at first the thought of this revolted me, but I realized: hey, you only live once.

Community Funnel Cake Ale, shockingly, does not suck. In fact, it’s not even desserty. “It tastes like beer,” Ethan complained. “I feel cheated.” I think there was a genuine attempt to add sweet flavors. (Community denies using actual funnel cake; their goal was just to get something light and refreshing.) However, the self-respecting brewmasters also added a ton of hops to make sure the sweetness did not run rampant. The combination of bitter hops and sweet sugar turned into an intriguing semblance of citrus, with an acid kick. As a result, when you’re out in the sun at the fair, Funnel Cake Ale is actually one of your more refreshing choices.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Cotton Bowl, all sorts of livestock were on display: horses, steers, mules, multiple aisles of llamas, and piglets.



Stealing the show, probably, was Boris, the 1,270-pound boar. Boris didn’t do much. When we visited, he was lying down, fast asleep. Life is hard when you weigh 1,270 pounds, I guess. A posted sign announced that Boris is on a special diet.

There are more animal-based attractions. You can see the Ostrich Races, which are earnestly corny and feature an emu-herding sideshow and a hilarious race where small children attempt to “herd” ducks. The ostriches have actual adult jockeys who seem sincere when they congratulate each other on a race well-run. Next door is the petting zoo, which has zebras, a “teenage” giraffe, yaks, and several animals I have never even heard of.

The food court doesn’t have animals you’ve never heard of, but it does have animals you rarely eat. The New Orleans booth featured some totally delicious fried alligator, in a gloriously salty and peppery batter. I was unable to track down the critics’ choice for “best taste” (Gulf shrimp and all the traditional shrimp side dishes, smashed into a big ball and fried), but I was able to sample fried Sriracha balls, which are just stupendous. Speaking as a Sriracha skeptic, when you mash it up with corn, shredded chicken, and tomatoes, and then coat it in a crispy tortilla-chip batter, the result is delightful. It’s only medium-spicy, but the lady will hand you a bottle of hot sauce if you need extra heat.

Deep-fried sriracha balls. I will say that $1.50 per ball is not a bargain.

Deep-fried sriracha balls. $1.50 per ball is not a bargain, as shockingly tasty as they are.

Really, only one fried food I tried had a similar expectations/reality ratio. Mom, please sit down before proceeding.

Deep-fried pumpkin pie.

Deep-fried pumpkin pie

Somewhere under that golden crust is a small slice of pumpkin pie.

Oh my god. This is glorious. The pumpkin pie innards are gooey, intensely pumpkiny, the texture of a truffle. And the fried coating is sinful, excessive, ridiculous, and oh so good. Lindsay got the deep-fried s’mores, and I can confirm that this is also stupendous.

Disappointments? There were a few. The “auto show” was not vintage cars, but a shameless showroom of General Motors’ new models. We walked through a weird number of mattress store product-placement areas. The Texas wine booth confirmed my distrust of Texas wines, except for Messina Hof’s red zinfandel. And Austin’s own Eastciders Gold Top, the best hard cider I have tasted outside the United Kingdom, was represented–but $7.50 bought you a tiny little plastic cup, barely half a bottle.

If you get frustrated in your attempt to drink great cider, or your attempt to stand in line for a half-hour to try the deep-fried loaded baked potato and deep-fried bacon-wrapped cinnamon roll (those were served by the same stand), you can always fall back on the State Fair’s greatest pursuit of all: people-watching. It ought to be considered for some kind of People-Watching Olympics. From the dozens of llama owners to the guy who got on a ride twice to flirt with my friend; from the earnest folks with serious faces doling out fried Oreos to this guy who is super excited to meet a zebra…


And he was a complete stranger. He just really likes zebras.

…the people at the fair are incredible.

In conclusion: the Texas State Fair is awesome. Next year I’m going back. And next year I’m going to try to do more.

Spinny carousel doohickey

But not this. I’m happy to just take pictures of this.



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How to Taste Not Enough Alsatian Wine in a Thunderstorm

1. Plan to visit the Alsace in mid-July, and, as part of your kamikaze attempt to enjoy as much of France as possible in 13 days, schedule a single weekend for it. Spend the first night in Strasbourg and budget just one Saturday for traveling the Route des Vins south to Colmar.

2. Enjoy Strasbourg. It’s a great city, cozy and cosmopolitan. Also, it’s pretty.

Please take a moment to consider that for some people, this is the morning commute.

Please take a moment to consider that for some people, this is the morning commute.

3. Get a primer on Alsatian cooking. Jambonneau, a.k.a. ham, is likely to be served as what appears to be an entire leg, slow-cooked to tender perfection. Flammekueche is an extremely-thin-crusted pizza with lots of salty ham, giant onion chunks, forest mushrooms, and Emmenthal cheese. It’s kind of addicting. Mostly the side dishes are potatoes.

4. Take the train south of Strasbourg on Saturday morning. Exit at Gertwiller, known throughout Europe as France’s gingerbread capital. Discover that the gingerbread kind of stinks. It is chewy and the sugar frosting cancels out the ginger tang, making the fabled Alsatian gingerbread taste like glorified donut holes.

5. Walk in disappointment along the Route des Vins towards the next villages, Barr and Mittelbergheim, which compensate for the disappointing gingerbread by being pretty, friendly, and in the middle of the Saturday morning food market. Grab some snacks, then wander through the Grand Cru vineyards surrounding the villages.

A Grand Cru vineyard between Barr and Mittelbergheim. Thunderstorm approaching!

A Grand Cru vineyard between Barr and Mittelbergheim. Thunderstorm approaching!

6. This is the part where the first thunderstorm should pop up.

7. Run back to the train station and duck under the small awning while you wait for the train. Stand next to a bunch of French ladies carrying their shopping from the morning market.

8. Take the train to Dambach-la-Ville, where the rain is continuing. Duck into literally the first wine tasting room you see.

9. Drink lots of wine samples. You will be offered a spittoon to be a pro wine taster who doesn’t swallow the wine. Never use it. Who do they think you are?!

10. Learn the classification system. Most Alsatian bottles specify the Grand Cru vineyard from which the grapes originate. These vineyards, like Frankstein and Zotzenberg (which I walked through), are often shared by different wineries, or the grapes are bought up by merchants who create blends or do the wine-making elsewhere, after trucking off the harvest. The best, most exclusive bottles are often only US $20. Good ones start for under $10, although in my experience, the wines were both hugely diverse and rather uneven.

11. Grab lunch and wander around town.

Lavender and grapes outside Dambach-la-Ville.

Lavender and grapes outside Dambach-la-Ville.

12. This is the part where the second thunderstorm should pop up.

13. Hide and take shelter in somebody’s garage until the rain is letting up (approx. 30 minutes).

14. Time is running out on the afternoon, and you have a concert and World Cup game to catch in the evening. Catch the train to Colmar.

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Crazy Scandinavian Ideas

The Scandinavians have some crazy ideas.

1. Putting throne rooms on the top floor of castles. Rosenborg Slot, the marvelous little castle in Copenhagen (jewel of an enormous, wonderful garden park), devotes almost the entire third floor to a massive throne room. Somehow I was thrown off. Wouldn’t you want it on the ground floor? “Excuse me while I run upstairs to be king for a few minutes!”

Rosenborg Slot

Nice attic, guys. (All pictures expand when clicked.)

But on the other hand, it does make a certain kind of sense. You want to intimidate and impress visitors, right? What better way than to make them huff and puff up two flights of stairs before they get to see you? You can just sit there on the throne, watching them catch their breath and sweat, and feel superior! Wait okay this is a great idea. Next.

2. A gelato shop called Dental Clinic. Who are we kidding. This is an amazing idea.

I figured you guys would need proof. By the way, elderflower gelato is really good.

I figured you guys would need proof. By the way, elderflower gelato is really good.

3. Asian Station Hot Dog Corner. This is in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen.

Asian Station

The menu: pulled pork and beer. Because what do you expect from an Asian hot dog place? Get used to the pulled pork. It’s kind of a big deal.

Truth is, the Danes have odd ideas about a lot of ethnic foods. Many restaurants advertise an “American Special”: either a pulled pork sandwich, which is fair enough, or a pulled chicken sandwich. A pulled chicken sandwich sounds not-good, but I was kind of tempted to try it, because where in America can you get an American Special? I have photographic proof that a chain over there is charging US $19.95 for a “pulled chicken burger”. Those poor, poor people.

4. An autonomous hippie commune where everybody’s stoned all day and they have a fake UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque. Say hello to Christiania:


Photography is banned in most of Christiania. It’s certainly banned on the main streets. This is one of just two photos I took, and yet this photo PERFECTLY captures the entire spirit of the place. If you want to imagine Christiania in your mind, just look at this guy, and what you imagine is correct.

Christiania is Copenhagen’s semi-autonomous hippie commune. There is an unease and ill-defined relationship with local authorities, where the cops mostly look the other way, ignoring a marijuana culture that would make Colorado turn colors with jealousy. I ran into a fellow American guy there and said I was from Texas. “Austin? You from Austin?” “No, I’m from Dallas.” “Oh, wow. Usually everyone from Austin dreams of coming here but nobody else in Texas has even heard of it.”

The drug dealers pitch camouflage tents, like you’d see on M*A*S*H, to conduct their business inside. There’s also a conveniently situated bakery. But Christiania also has non-drug areas: art galleries and installations, a cinema in an abandoned warehouse (predictably, it shows only avant garde film), a few quality bars, and a great vegetarian restaurant where they cook one meal a day and if you don’t like it, you go somewhere else. Christiania is also sited on canals which feel downright rural; you’re in the heart of Copenhagen but it feels like you’re way out in the countryside. It’s really a remarkable place. Maybe it should be protected by UNESCO. Maybe.

5. Simpsons bread.

Simpsons bread

This is why, when you travel, you should always visit a grocery store.

6. Building a gigantic warship so stable and safe that it can travel up to 0.8 miles before sinking! Meet the Vasa. In the 1600s, Sweden was at war with Poland and needed a few nice big warships, so they ordered some. The shipbuilders got to work on Vasa, a top-heavy colossus with two decks of cannons. Unfortunately, the cannons moved the center of gravity upwards, and the ship was about four feet too narrow. So on the triumphant maiden voyage, a test voyage of sorts on which the crew members brought their wives and children, the Vasa got 0.8 miles into the harbor of Stockholm when a “light breeze” knocked it nearly onto its side.

Heroic efforts by the crew managed to get the ship upright again, but water had flooded in the openings for all the cannons, and once it was upright, it sank to the bottom instantly.

The story gets crazier. 330+ years later, some determined Swedes found the ship, intact, at the bottom of the harbor. So they managed to pick it up, pull it out of the water, put it on land, cover it in preservative chemicals, and build a spectacular museum around it.

After nearly 400 years, the original Vasa is 98% intact.

Vasa ship

Just so you get some perspective on size, do you see that little black thing in the bottom right corner? That’s a person.

There’s no way to prepare you for seeing the Vasa. It is one of the most spectacular sights in Europe, housed in one of the most spectacular museums in the world. A rather thrilling documentary explains the mind-boggling process of raising and restoring the ship; exhibits include original cannons, one of the original sails (somehow partly preserved in the water), and some of the bodies of the drowned. And then there’s the Vasa, around which the (extraordinary) building has been designed.

Stern of the Vasa

There’s just no way to explain it. What you’re seeing here are the carvings on the back of the ship. This photo covers about 1.5 stories of your typical house. HUGE.

The Swedes are convinced that there is nothing else like this, anywhere in the world. They are probably correct. And why was the ship so perfectly preserved? Because it sank instantly in the cold northern waters. Had the Vasa gone into battle, nobody would have seen it again.

7. And you thought IKEA was the start of the practical furniture trend. Nope. Have a look at this thing in Drottningholm Palace, which remains to this day the residence of the Swedish royal family, and where photography is illegal, but that’s not important right now:

Surprise cabinet

Quick! Name That Furniture!

So, what is that brown thing with the marble top and the nice wood carvings? Hah! You’re wrong. It’s a bed. Duh. Back in the 1700s, the king wanted to have a servant boy around at all times, so they made a little fold-out bed for the servant kid, and had it fold out of a fake cabinet.

8. Having a bar called Garlic and Shots that serves nothing but garlic, shots, garlic in shots, and just for variety, garlic beer. In the interest of selfless journalistic enterprise, I went. Full report coming soon.

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Biker’s Island

Last week I got back from Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, and had a great trip. Enjoying Copenhagen and Stockholm was no surprise; they’re awesome cities, especially Stockholm, clean and lively and friendly, teeming with history. The big surprise came between all those big cities. Before we left, my travel partner Carolyn suggested we make a detour to the island of Gotland, located off Sweden in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is not exactly a legendary tourist destination, so I agreed without having any idea what to expect. Answer: happiness.

Gotland Map

Just so we’re all clear on where Gotland is (click to expand)

To get there, you must take a car ferry full of Swedish people – I only saw one family of English-speaking tourists. The ferry boat is not exactly small.

Ferry boat

Here’s, uh, part of the boat, as viewed from the ferry terminal windows.

The boats all go to Visby, the island’s capital. Visby traces its roots back to the medieval trading networks, and in the 1200s the local government built walls around town. The walls weren’t to keep Vikings out. They were to keep out foreign traders, who were consigned to a ghetto while the locals got to live inside. The walls are still standing, incredibly enough, and a few parts are walkable, although not many. Inside of them, the old town is relatively intact: our hotel was built in the 1600s, although I’m happy to report it has been remodeled since. There are also numerous ruins, including quite a few gigantic ruined old churches.

View of Visby

View of Visby. Notice the roof-less medieval church.

In the summertime, Visby becomes Sweden’s unlikely party capital, but in May, it’s merely adorable, a town of cobblestone streets, al fresco cafes, and narrow passageways. The competent local brewery, Gotlands Bryggeri, is in an old house. And the food is excellent: fresh fish and lamb, since Gotland is full of sheep. (Got does not translate to “goat”; it has more to do with “Goth”.) I had an incredible plate of fried fish – not battered and deep fried until stiff, but lightly battered and almost red, the way (coincidence?) my mom would do it. I also had a delicious ox steak. Ox tastes a lot like beef; it’s comparable to a good New York strip. And then there’s the dessert I’ll be raving about for years: a creamy, toasty “blueberry sandwich”.

Another delight of Gotland is simply renting a bicycle and biking around. You don’t need to be much of a fit, practiced biker to do this. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in 8 years.

Most of the island is, if not flat as a pancake, still pretty darn flat. Most of it is covered in gorgeous fields, forests, lakes, and medieval churches. And even if you don’t go far, you will find rewards. My plan was to bike out to Roma, a good 11 miles, and see some ruins there, catching a few sites on the way. I didn’t even make it half the distance. For one thing, not biking for 8 years turns out to be a bad decision. For another, I kept turning off every side road and dirt path, and they kept leading to cool stuff. A series of houses with mailboxes painted in detailed farm scenes; enormous fields of yellow flowers; some kind of top-secret installation with a sign that clearly said “No Traffic” but whatever, nobody stopped me.

The church at Follingbo has been there for nearly 800 years, and nowadays it’s still an active church, but a quiet one. When I reached it, nobody else was on or even near the premises.


Follingbo. Actually this is just about the entire town. There are still fresh flowers in the little cemetery by the church. By the way, please notice that I was on an island in the Baltic Sea and managed to have sunny skies.

Down the road a ways, a dirt track wound back into a nature preserve, so I decided to follow it. Eventually the trail ran out the back and dead-ended at an active rock quarry, but not before passing an abandoned quarry which had been turned into a very dramatic pond.

Lake in Gotland

Pictured: the only pond I have seen that has its own cliffs. (There were cliffs on three sides.)

Another path took me, or so it promised, to a “scenic overlook,” which I never found. Not that it mattered, because everything was gorgeous. I can’t say anything beat that nature preserve, though. To get to the pond, you have to pass through some spectacular forest scenery, such as this:

Forest in Gotland

As always, click to gigantify.

In other words, Gotland is one of those unappreciated places where everything is wonderful, even the wrong turns. It’s not famous because it doesn’t have any marquee attractions: no spectacular lakes, or spectacular ruins, or sprawling cathedrals, although it is well-known in Scandinavia for its beaches. Gotland isn’t always stunning; it’s just always really cool, always charming. I only saw about 1% of it, probably, and while at some point there’d be diminishing returns as you witnessed more identical scenery, there is certainly tons left for me to explore. It’s not often you stumble on something so cool and so far off the tourist industry path. Tell all your friends! Or maybe don’t tell them, and just go see it for yourself.

Visby waterfront

The gorgeous waterfront in Visby.


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Fermi Questions

My brother Alex recently introduced me to the concept of “Fermi questions.” I would define it here, but it’s much easier to steal this site’s definition:

A “Fermi question” is a question in physics which seeks a fast, rough estimate of quantity which is either difficult or impossible to measure directly. For example: The question “How many drops of water are there in Lake Erie?” requires an estimate of the volume of a drop, the volume of Lake Erie from its approximate dimensions and conversion of units to yield an answer.

Another classic problem is, “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” (You can’t look at a phone book.) In other words, a Fermi question asks the solver to find some plausible mathematical way to at least guesstimate the answer to an utterly ludicrous question. And, as readers of this blog will know, there are few things I do better than asking utterly ludicrous questions.

So without further ado, here are a few problems for your consideration.

1. How many Olympic swimming pools full of methane are released by the world’s cows every year?
2. How many notes are played on the album A Hard Day’s Night?
3. How many coffee mugs’ worth of gasoline does America spill on its shoes every day?
4. If there was a giant bridge to the moon, how long would it take Forrest Gump to run there?
5. If you were smuggling contraband Post-It notes out of the country in cellos, how many cellos would it take to smuggle five million pads of Post-It notes?
6. How loud, in decibels, would it be if you stood in the middle of a field as cargo planes dropped 500 grand pianos around you?
–6a. How many splinters would you get?
–6b. How much would that stunt cost?
7. How many commas have ever appeared on Yahoo!?
8. If you wanted to turn yourself completely orange from head to toe, how many Cheetos would you need to use?
9. How many hippie bumper stickers are there in Austin, Texas?
10. How many times have you ever sneezed?
11.  If you wanted to build a full-size Lego replica of the Seattle Space Needle, how many Legos would it take?
12. If you wanted to build a Jenga block tower the height of the Seattle Space Needle, and had an indoor space controlling for wind and other atmospheric effects, how many blocks could you pull out before it fell over?
13. If you printed the Internet, how many sheets of paper would it take?
14. If you filled every bathtub in Tokyo, and then covered them all with rubber ducks, how many rubber ducks would that take?
15. How many pints of soy sauce would the world’s hungriest man require for his meal of 50,000,000 pieces of sushi?

Pictured: the world’s hungriest man’s nightstand.

16. I kind of like the idea of the world’s hungriest man. The world’s hungriest man wants to eat 3500 pounds of mashed potatoes. How many kitchen cabinets filled with Yukon Gold potatoes will he need?
17. How many flushing toilets would it take to equal the volume of Niagara Falls?
18. If you made a chain of people from Columbus, Ohio, to Columbus, Georgia, what’s the total number of calories they would eat in a day?
19. Assuming perfectly steady seas, how many individual strokes would it take to row from Miami Beach to Reykjavik?
–19a. If you left Miami on June 1, how long could you stay in Reykjavik before the temperature dropped below 0 Fahrenheit?
20. What’s the total number of years people are sentenced to in your state penitentiary?
21. If the world’s hungriest man bought an M1 Abrams tank and filled it with slices of Gouda, how many official servings of dairy would that be?
22. How many points did Olympic judges give out in 2010?
23. How many times did a tennis ball hit the ground in the 2011 U.S. Open?
24. The world’s hungriest man uses a napkin every time he eats one barbecued pork rib. If he is about to sit down to a feast of three U-haul trucks of pork ribs, how much money will he need to spend on Walmart’s cheapest brand of napkins?
25. If you covered Interstate 90 from end to end in tortillas, how many tacos are you an idiot for not making instead?

So maybe I wrote this when I was kinda hungry myself.


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Galician Food and the Pilgrims who Love It

The pilgrims who walk to Santiago de Compostela, and from Santiago to the Atlantic coast, are a diverse bunch. Many of them are German; in fact, Carina and I had a couple of German friends. We called them, simply, The Germans. They were two blondeish men, aged about 30, formidably tall and thin, and on our second day of walking we ran into them almost every hour. They were faster, more professional walkers, with big packs and big gaits and a lively pace, but we passed them often because they had one weakness: every time a cafe or bar appeared, The Germans stopped for coffee and cigarettes. Then we’d pass and wave to them as they smoked, and the whole process repeated itself.

There were other regulars on the path to Fisterra: a couple of blonde Spanish girls who avoided the rest of us, and who badly paced one of the longer days and as a result arrived at the night’s shelter after 9 p.m., when, due to the odd hours of the trail, I was in pajamas already; a seriously pudgy man with a messenger bag who overtook us quickly and then overtook us several more times despite us never visibly overtaking him; and a gang of six Americans, who had never met before the trail and who had all started in different places but apparently met and said, “a fellow American! We should stick together the rest of the way.”

Some of the villages were tiny enough that, for instance, we once inadvertently had dinner a table over from the six Americans. That was in Olveiroa, at a marvelous little restaurant-bar called As Pias where the menus were printed on wine bottles, the meat was divinely tender and flavorful, and the soup served in veritable pots.

A brief explanation of Galician food: they have hearty soups, lots of potatoes, and everything else is made of gigantic slabs of meat. Galicia is culturally very close to Ireland (Carina even saw a bagpiper in the street; also, compare the words “Galicia” and “Gaelic”) and the meat-and-potatoes cuisine certainly is a part of this. At one restaurant, in the coastal town of Cee, Carina and I split a platter that looked like this:

Even though we were sharing this, we could STILL only finish half. Of course, that might be because there was a first course of rice covered in fried eggs and tomato sauce. Yes, you read that correctly.

Most of the restaurants and bars on the trail serve either some cut of beef with potatoes, or bocadillos, which technically means sandwiches but in practice might better be translated as entire loaves of bread with stuff in them. Bocadillos are approximately a foot long, one small Quizno’s sandwich wide, and six inches tall. They’re also delicious, being made of terrific bread and a select handful of yummy ingredients (like the superb local chorizo). Then there are empanadas, which are, in Tex-Mex terms, more like cold quesadillas, not the empanadas we know and devour.

Carina was lucky to have temporarily abandoned her attempt at vegetarianism, because it’s a hopeless pursuit in Galicia. (Worse because there is no Spanish word for “meat”; “carne” does double-duty, also meaning “beef,” so if you ask for food without meat they bring you pork.) Our only really well-rounded meal on the trail itself was in the village of Ponte Maceira, which has an outstanding restaurant worth the extra cost to stop and savor. Take a look at our goat cheese salad, leavened with lettuce, asparagus, tomatoes, and more greens:

I could go for this right about now.

All of this more or less changes in the coastal town of Fisterra, which is both a tourist mecca of sorts and a fishing hub. The combination leads to large numbers of fish restaurants lining the city’s harbor. Fisterra is a little more crowded, and there is also a tendency for pilgrims to stay there longer, since for many of them it represents the end of weeks of walking. For Carina and me, Fisterra was a milestone of sorts, the end of the continent, but for some pilgrims it is the end of a month-long expedition.

That may explain why the walk from Fisterra north to Muxia is so little-walked; we met almost nobody on it for two days. We did run into The Germans on our way out of town in Fisterra, and they told us they were finished. We helped them find a pharmacy–one was having knee (?) problems after all that walking–and said a cheery goodbye.

Up in Muxia, the number of pilgrims was perhaps five or six at midday, when we stopped by the official shelter. Then we had a hearty lunch–in my case, a couple of small grilled fish and, what else, soup and potatoes–and got ready to board the bus back to Santiago. The bus took on a few genuine locals, plus only five or six hikers: a couple of unfamiliar faces, Carina, me, and–not really a surprise anymore–The Germans. Ah, but they had taken a taxi up the coast! I momentarily thought that this was uncharacteristically wimpy of them.

But no. They had walked all the way to Fisterra from France. They told us they had been on the trail, walking, for 36 days. One of The Germans napped the whole bus ride home; the other listened to his iPod. Carina napped, too, and I read a spy novel. It had been a long, rewarding journey–but longer for some than others.

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Going for a Walk

Oh, hey! Last month I went on holiday and never blogged about it. Better late than never.

The Camino de Santiago is one of Europe’s most treasured paths. For centuries, since the height of medieval times, pilgrims have walked from across the continent to reach Santiago de Compostela and its cathedral, in honor of Santiago, the saint who (allegedly) drove the Muslims out of southern France and the Iberian peninsula. Most of the paths converge at Roncesvalles, France, from which point pilgrims would have walked the Camino together across northern Spain, a total of thousands every year. And they’re still at it today.

My friend Carina and I decided to start where most pilgrims then and now stop. (Oh, hey, she has a blog too.) We began in Santiago de Compostela and completed a leg of the journey which most pilgrims consider a sort of beautiful postscript: the three-day journey to the Atlantic Ocean and the town of Fisterra (literally “the end of the earth”). Once there we walked for another two days up the coast.

We traveled light. The trail is dotted with albergues, or refuges, which are essentially hostels for hikers, with slightly more service than the typical hostel (you don’t have to bring a blanket or pillow) at a slightly kindlier price, and this lightens the load a bit; so too does a bit of economizing. For example, I discovered Flipbacks, which are tiny full-length books which fit in the palm of your hand and use that special extra-thin paper Bibles have. Incredibly lightweight and pocketable. Also recommended: have a friend who doesn’t mind you (and whom you don’t mind) reusing clothes not infrequently.

The most important thing not to mind, though, is walking. And walking. At some point walking becomes your default state and it’s actually harder to stop walking than it is to keep going; chalk it up to inertia or repetitive-motion exercise, but at the end of one day I realized that, as tired as I was, stopping, sitting down, and standing back up would be more exhausting than to simply continue.

That afternoon (on the second day) was really the only time, though, when I was self-conscious about how crazy it is to just walk for five days on end, a total of 120 km (74.6 miles). The first day had the irrepressible adventure of something new, and ample scenery: lush green hills on the way out of Santiago…

One of my very first photos on the trail.

…perfectly tinted skies…

Over a river valley near Negreira

…and the unforgettable Ponte Maceira, a medieval arched bridge in a village of the same name. The bridge happens to be just downstream from an arcing waterfall:

That's Carina's backpack at the bottom.

The second day found us in deeper forests and rolling farmland, on what may have been the longest stretch at roughly 21 miles. The path–wonderfully marked, by the way, with quite a few charmingly needless arrows and kilometer markers at every major roadway–took us through serious agricultural country on this day, before winding down with a final steep ridgeline on which we talked of the Scottish moors and after which we had to ask a kindly local for some water.

The village of Olveiroa, that day’s destination, was having its annual feast-day, in honor of its patron saint (another, unrelated Santiago). The fiesta was quiet, though, because the village was just a tiny warren of old stone buildings with one cafe (closed) and one restaurant (stupendous, and featuring menus printed onto decorative wine bottles). In the morning we would discover that some intrepid artist-resident has covered three of the walls of Olveiroa in wonderfully bright, trippy painted murals.

The third day is as long as the second, but the scenery makes it miraculous. We began atop forested ridgelines, in a thick early-morning mist…

Bring a jacket. Wear it onto the plane but leave space for it in your bag. It comes in handy.

…but the mist eventually burned off and dissolved into a glorious vision:

To quote a Spanish biker we met on this hilltop: "Maaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrr!! MAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRR!!!!"

Yes: at long last, the Atlantic! It’s a thrilling moment and nearly everyone stops to take it in. Two Spanish bikers had an impromptu picnic lunch, standing up, at this marker; Carina and I sat in the grass and snacked; a group of six Americans turned up, including an older fellow on a not-too-young bicycle with a little wagon hitched to the back. (Note: do not plan to carry your stuff on the trail by means of a little wagon.)

The descent is steep, but you end up in the port town of Cee, where the traveler is rewarded with the very first case of bad signage on the trail. The Camino enters narrow streets of the city center and then disappears, leaving walkers to fumble their way to the waterfront, ask locals for help, and gradually regain the trail on the other side of town. It all culminates in a tiny stone staircase which left the poor guy with the wagon hitch flummoxed and traveling via the main highway.

From Cee to Fisterra is a stretch of quick ascents and descents as the trail cuts through the middle of a couple peninsulas. Then, at the end of a straight path between fields and groves, you round a bend and:

Fisterra: The End of the Earth

There is really no way to show it on a camera, or to put it into words. That tiny little mound juts out into water, surrounded on three and a half sides, like a defiant joke or a loner made to sit in the corner. In real life it looks like a spot in a canvas of blue. No wonder people long thought it was the end of the earth.

The village of Fisterra is more touristy than others on the Camino, since the town is accessible by road, but even the tourist-oriented fish shops are still selling fresh-caught fish from the bay–you can see the boats at work and in the mornings you can see the vans bringing in new fish on ice–and the town preserves its old feel. We thought about trying a pizzeria, but it was closed, just because the owners wanted the day off.

On the next day we visited the true “end of the earth”–the lighthouse at the peninsula’s tip–and walked from there back through Fisterra and north to the village of Lires, only 15 km away. (The leg from Fisterra to the northern seaside town of Muxia is meant to be done in one day, but we decided to split it in two and enjoy ourselves at a little more relaxed pace.) The walk to Lires included an enormous sandy beach…

Q. What would you do if you had a whole beach to yourself? A. Stay out of the water because it's colder than any of the water you've been served at restaurants so far.

…a beautiful forest…

Did I mention you can click for full-size?

…and eventually Lires itself, with a beachside bar for watching sunsets and a cute guesthouse called Casa Raul, whose owner provided us with the only room we had during our trip with its own bathroom (and which we didn’t need to share with twenty other people).

An early-morning walk to our final destination, Muxia, was dispatched by noon the next day, and the walk was complete. It was time to head back to Santiago, by bus, for some serious relaxation time, a nice washing machine, and some saintly upscale Galician cooking. (If I remember to write it, a forthcoming blog post will discuss the people and food of the trail…)

A long walk like that makes you feel accomplished. Sure, you slump into your chair/bed each night exhausted, but you feel like you’ve done something important. And then the bus drives you back in two hours and you realize that what you’ve really accomplished is to have terrific fun. And to walk for five days with a friend imparts a wonderful sense of both feeling alone with the natural world and having company to share the feeling with. It’s just about the best way to travel. We all want our solitude, sometimes, but in case it turns out to be wonderful we also want someone to know just how it felt. So grab a friend and go exploring.

And take pictures. (Sunset at Lires)


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