Feast or Famine: Pilgrims Eat Their Way up the Via de la Plata.

Yesterday after leaving Salamanca we would have walked five easy miles along the Via de la Plata. We would have passed a series of miliarios and several areas where considerable digging is being done. This is a flat stretch of the Camino and you would have liked it.

We ended the last blog looking forward to a gourmet meal in Braganza. I have been thinking about how well Joanna feeds her tour guests. Both she and Bishop Carlos are so knowledgeable about everything related to Spanish food and wine. Tour participants are the lucky beneficiaries of their passion. For them, every meal is a feast and so it is for their guests also.

For the walking pilgrim, shopping for food and dining out can result in unexpected consequences and some good laughs. Without a Joanna or a Bishop Carlos, we are left to fend for ourselves when it comes to meals. Some pilgrims eat better than others.

Barbara and I have a system that works well for us. It’s not always “feast” but it is rarely “famine.” Feast or famine, it is always an adventure. From a food perspective, let me take you through our typical day and share a few stories with you.

For the walking pilgrim, breakfast frequently starts in a bar.

I figured that would get your attention.

On the Camino some alberges have a kitchen; others do not. Some hospitaleros provide breakfast; others do not. If there is breakfast, it is generally served at a set time. Getting a large group fed can be slow and frustrating. Even if the alberge does not serve brekfast, using the kitchen can be just as slow and chaotic. It’s easier to get up and get out as fast as possible.

Staying in a hotel is about the same. If breakfast is served it rarely begins until well after sunrise. If we wait for the dining room to open, we will have already missed a couple hours of good cool walking time. What to do if you need coffee and you want to get an early start?

A Swiss couple we met carried in their packs little packets of instant coffee. They made their own coffee each morning. We found their coffee packets in the supermercado so we too could make coffee. If we couldn’t heat water in the kitchen we’d have black coffee á la faucet.

Then Barbara found these heating coils and I found these collapsible silicon cups. We discovered that Starbucks, Folgers and Maxwell House all sold instant coffee packets. Our mornings improved dramatically.

Since it is impractical to carry milk, we drink only black coffee. It is bitter, especially Starbucks. A couple of cookies or a piece of chocolate sweetens things up considerably. It also establishes a very bad habit. I now believe every breakfast should start with cookies and/or chocolate. The luxury of having coffee when we wake up is heaven. Both the cups and the heater are available on line. Best part. Barbara brings me breakfast in bed so I am doubly spoiled.

Nota bene! Don’t take off the red label. Keep it and reread it before every trip if you want your heater to last. I speak from experience. It is a tragedy when you burn up the heater on day one of a thirty-day trip. Bring two and have a backup. They are worth their weight. (4oz)

Option number two. You can head for the bar. Usually we do both. The wakeup coffee in bed and then the real deal an hour later.

Most bars in Spain open early. Except for female pilgrims they are full of men drinking coffee, brandy, and smoking cigarettes and cigars. They have good coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice and excellent tortillas.

Often at the bar over our morning coffee we could get information about the day ahead. On one particular morning, this imformation was essential. The day’s walk went through a private game preserve. We needed to call “Mateo” the owner and ask him to unlock the gate to get into his property. I had tried numerous times the day before and although the phone rang no one answered. Was I doing something wrong?

Into the bar we went. Coffee in hand, tortilla eaten through the smoky haze, in my best Spanish I tell the bartender that I have been trying to call Mateo and he doesn’t answer. He laughs. I turn red. I say it again slower and more carefully. All of the men are now listening. I finish. They are all laughing. I am getting redder. I repeat my spiel again, adding the phone number. To make sure they understand I show them the number in the book. Now they are practically rolling around laughing. I am ready to crawl under the table or run out the door. Finally, they take pity on me. “Mateo esta muerto“. “Mateo is dead!” Unlike Mary Baker Eddy, there is no chance he will answer his phone.

But…… “no problema” the gate is always unlocked. It was . We walked right in and past his empty house. It was beautiful. Thank God for smoke-filled bars that open early and are full of men who “know stuff.”

Barbara does breakfast. I do lunch and dinner. I also carry all the food except the cookies and chocolate. (I can’t be trusted with them.) For breakfast on our own we have yogurt and bananas with our coffee, but neither of them works in the backpack. This means we must shop each day at the end of our walk. We restock, buy wine, and get enough food for dinner and the next day’s breakfast and lunch. For emergencies we carry packets of Justin’s Chocolate- two for each day. Sixty weigh just about four pounds.

We shop; and as tempting as it is to stock up, the weight adds up. Not too much: “Give us this day our daily bread”. Pears, tangerines, apples, kiwi and grapes are our go-to fruit. They pack and keep well. Tangerines are the best afternoon pick-me-up and we usually eat four-to-six each day.

Cheese is good too. Occasionally, when as Barbara says, “We need grease,” we get some chorizo. For vegetables, it is usually tomatoes, radishes and carrots. All of them ride securely in four little zip-lock boxes that fit nicely in the top of my backpack. Bread does not keep well nor is it easy to carry. We try to find a bread van or bakery along the way. If not, we go without.

From time to time we have a couple slices of pizza left over from a night out, but as good this tastes it is messy to carry. Bottom line: We eat simply but well and get to know all of the local cheeses.

When it is time for lunch we find a place with a good view, sit down, and open the boxes. Very rarely, we will eat at a restaurant.

Sometimes the view is better than the lunch.

After lunch it is siesta time unless it is raining. Walking in the rain is not unpleasant; eating in the rain is no fun. The second you stop walking, you are freezing. Lunch in the rain is quick and quiet.

On some of the more popular Camino routes pop-up food stands and food trucks have begun to appear. These are much appreciated and the food is generally fresh and delicious.

Today your walk would have begun and ended in two tiny villages. These small villages tend to have elderly populations. As you would have discovered, there are few if any restaurants or bars. Opportunities for food and water are limited. Most of the residents do not speak English. When the weather is fair the women sit outside and knit. They have their opinions about pilgrims.

Barbara and I walked into this village at the end of a long day. It was hot and I was wearing shorts. We both carried our backpacks. As we walked by, one of the women gave a huge sniff and said, “YUH. ALEMANIAS”. “Ugh. Germans!” Later we returned to the same women to ask if there was a grocery store. I asked in my best Spanish, “Aye supermercado?” “Is there a grocery?” One woman said to another “Just say anything, they won’t understand.” When I laughed, she quickly told me where the shop was.

On the way back from the grocery, we stopped in the church. The very elderly priest kissed our hands and said he had never met Americans before. He gave us a blessing and a stamp for our passports. It was lovely.

Another questionable habit that we picked up walking is having a beer and potato chips at the end of every day. We started this after I read in a book on sports nutrition that the most important thing to do at the end of a hard workout or race was to replenish minerals and nutriants in the body. Beer and chips rated near the top when it came to resupplying the body and preventing leg cramps. Laugh if you want but it works. Fatal if you do this at lunch, but just right at the end of twenty miles.

When Camino villages have resturants they usually have what is called the Menu del Dia– the menu of the day or the pilgrims’ menu. Generally it offers three courses-soup or salad, chips with meat, fish or spaghetti, dessert- flan, ice cream or fruit, bread, water and wine for about 10-14 euros. It was filling.

As the cook, I usually “made dinner”. Look familiar? For “dinner” I would add arugula, a bottle of wine and maybe smoked salmon, fresh mozzarella, a can of olives and fresh strawberries for a treat. Barbara didn’t complain. We ate the same thing night after night and it was delicious. Once I bought a tiny bottle of olive oil but we decided it wasn’t worth the weight to carry it with us. Another time Barbara made a huge batch of candied ginger which we ate for days. On another trip I stole a big hunk of ginger cake someone had made for Fr John Andrew while he was staying at our house convalescing. When I fessed up later, he said he suspected I had nicked it. On our next trip he duly called the cake maker to bring him another cake. John sent us off with a huge slap. Now that was worth the weight. Like I said we ate well.

If there was no grocery, sometimes a grocery van would arrive with an assortment of fruit, vegetables, and other fresh food. Other times the freezer man came with a supply of frozen foods. When he came, we usually ate dessert first and hoped that the microwave in the alberge would be good for something other than trying to dry our wet clothes. Times for these trucks were usually posted in the alberges but they were pretty hit or miss.

From time to time we did go out for dinner. One time got us into lots of trouble. I contend it was not our fault. Well it was but here’s what happened. Most menus are in Spanish. Some are in Spanish and English. The translations are entertaining. See below.

It is not very hard to figure out that “old cow” means aged beef but what do you think pig prey to Cocacola reduction tastes like It might make you laugh.

What would YOU do if you were handed a menu that had been carefully translated into English just for you and you read that you could eat this for dinner.

Green Jews

Green Jews with Garlic

Green Jews with Bacon

When this happened to us we were stumped. We knew that judias meant Jews and verdes meant green but what were these Green Jews that we were supposed to eat ? My dictionary was no help.

We ordered Green Jews with Garlic and out they came. Here they are. We laughed until we cried and were afraid we would be thrown out. To this day, I have not been able to find why string beans are called Judias verdes in Spain.

So we had our adventures in fine dining and we almost always ate well.

Two times we landed on the “famine” side of the of the equation.

Once we arrived in the town to discover the only bar/shop/ restaurant was permanently closed. Scrounging around in the pack produced two cans of sardines, a hunk of stale bread, two squishy bananas, two packages of cheap cookies, no wine, and a plum we had to spilt. Not my finest dinner.

Our second “mean cuisine” dinner consisted of three Justin rations each and a bottle of wine which we split. We ate this shivering under the covers wearing every stitch of clothes we carried including hats and mittens, because our room in the old stone house had no heat. Breakfast served the next morning in the adjoining room was plentiful and there was plenty of heat.

The food was as bad as the photo.

Most of our meals came down on the feast side. Even when I was the cook, the wine and cheese were good.

Let me finish with two places among many in my Camino memory where the food was outstanding.

The first is Bar Estrella in Pontevedra on the Portuguese Route. The young owner Michele Cingolani and his chef mother team up to produce incredible food. We had a two-day rest stop in Pontevedra and discovered his place by accident. Charged by our fellow walkers with finding a place for dinner, we returned with them that same night, and again for lunch the next day, and again for a second dinner before we left town. Need I say more?

Two years ago, Barbara and I stayed in a little inn beside a gas station in the Picos de Europa. We were checking out wild orchids and obscure Camino routes. The inn, another mother-and-son operation, had its own restaurant and offered a three course menu del dia for 14 euros- the usual price.

What a gem. Why it doesn’t have a Michelin star I don’t know. The young owner offered three courses of the freshest and most creatively prepared and served food I have ever eaten. The menu changed every night. We ate there three times. Everything was amazing. Here are my favorites.

A fresh head of lettuce served with scissors and salad dressing on the side into which to dip the leaves, a scallops ceviche and a pot de creme served in a clay flower pot. All dinners came with wine, homemade bread, homemade butter, and sparking water for the same price as those chips and meat you saw earlier.

And so while Joanna may know everyone in the food and wine world and take us to meet them and Bishop Carlos may cook us incredible meals and teach us about quemada, we walking pigrims do OK. We eat well. Very well – how else can you explain walking 15-20 miles a day and losing only a pound or two? It was not feast or famine. It was not an either/or proposition. The occasional skimpy meal only made the good ones more memorable. It was feast with a little famine thrown in now and then to keep us grateful. As my father used to tell me, If every day were sunny, life would be a desert.

When I’m dead, you can write on my grave: She ate well and enjoyed every bite.

Hasta mañana. I know we’re doing something somewhere, and I promise to tell you all about it in the next blog. For now. Too much feast!

Salamanca-Part Two Imagination on the loose.

We are refreshed. A cup of coffee and a piece of hornazo– a local pastry made of ham, bacon, sausage, cooked eggs and even chicken- a Spanish empanada if you will, and we are ready to head up the tower of the Cathedral.  We’ve eaten enough protein to get to the top of the tower (210 steps if you go to the bell tower) and consumed enough calories to necessitate a few more hours of walking. Let’s go. 

I have been thinking about the difference between the Salamanca landmarks that we are going to see today and the architecture of Antoni Gaudí in Barcelona. Gaudí is famous or infamous for his churches, his houses and his parks. Within the Catholic Church, Gaudi, a devout and self-effacing layman, is the subject of a credible case, enthusiastically supported by the people of Barcelona, for beatification as a saint. He lived and worked in the late 19th and early 20th century. Gaudi’s architectural legacy is definitely the product of his powerful imagination and is carried on within his masterpiece, Sagrada Familia Basilica, by an entire school of disciples. No less so the four places we will look at today, each built hundreds of years before Gaudí was born.

Take a look at the towers of Sagrada Familia, begun by Gaudi in 1882, still under construction but nearing planned completion through a vigorous campaign sponsored by the City of Barcelona.

Now look at the towers of the Salamanca cathedrals built in the 12th and 16th centuries. Both are products of rich imagination.

Below on the right is the Torre de Gallo- the rooster tower of the old cathedral. On the left is the Mocha Tower of the New Cathedral.

For 3.75 euros it is possible to take what is called the Ieronimus Tower Tour. I have not taken it because I did not know it existed. This tour takes you up both towers with various historical and sacred exhibits set up in rooms along the way. There are observation platforms on each level, overhead views of both cathedral interiors and even a traffic light system on the descending narrow staircase. Trip Advisor rates it #2 in things to do in Salamanca and says it is most spectacular in the late afternoon or early evening. Next time I will check it out.

What I do know is this. I went up a staircase which gave a wonderful view of the interior of the new cathedral.

I continued out onto a terrace with the most closeup views of the details of the old cathedral tower. Between the little balls surrounding the windows, the fish scale roof and the curly pinnacles it looked like a drip sand castle or maybe a candy cane house. Add the red tile roof, the stone cutout railings, and the basic shapes and it looks like a kindergarten project – a combination of folded paper cutouts, structures made from those colored wooden blocks we all played with and maybe a few legos thrown in. The view over the countryside wasn’t bad either. I look forward to taking it to the next level but for now there is more to see back on the ground.

We make our way to the University of Salamanca, a medieval child at 800 years old in 2018. The main facade of the University is in the style known as Salamanca Plateresque (in the style of the silversmith from the word plata – Spanish for silver). This style of architecture, likened to silver filigree, flourished in Spain from the late 15th to early 16th centuries. This facade is one of the best examples in Spain.

As is characteristic of this fashion, the entire surface is of the building is covered with a proliferation of scrolls, medallions, decorative shields, pinnacles, flowers, fantastic creatures, kings, queens, popes, skulls and even a frog.

Three horizontal panels are divided by five vertical columns. In the center of the lower section are the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella. The middle panel features the shield of the Kingdom of Spain, flanked by the Roman double Eagle. The upper level has the Pope, seated, offering his protection over everything.

Among the various decorations, it is this frog that gets the most attention and is the most famous. Finding this frog perched atop a skull is a challenge for both students and tourists alike. For students however the stakes are higher. Allegedly a symbol of sin and and a warning against lust, it is believed that once the student finds the frog he or she will have good luck as a student and success with exams. For a group of tourists, the only reward is bragging rights.

Compare this with Gaudí’s facade where every inch is also covered. In both cases, someone’s imagination has been set free. Those creative doodles have been cut in stone.

Back at Salamanca University, we pass through the quadrangle on our way to see the original classroom where Fray Luis de Leon taught in the 16th century. It is his statue presiding over the facade that we passed outside. Fray Leon came here as a student at age 14 and graduated at 30 after a rambling educational and spiritual journey. At 31 he was elected a theology professor and taught and translated biblical and classical literature. He wrote novels, poetry, and a book entitled The Perfect Wife, a handbook for the newly married that proved such a popular wedding gift that it was published in six different editions. Imprisoned for four years for heresy and for translating the Bible into Spanish, upon his exoneration Fray Leon returned to his classroom four years later. He began his lecture, “As I was saying yesterday…”

Four hundred years later, those same words were repeated by Miguel de Unamuno. He returned to the University after a 14-year exile for supporting the Allies in WWI. Unamuno, a literary jack-of-all-trades: poet, playwright, philosopher, novelist, was twice elected Rector (president) of the University. Highly influential throughout Spain, Unamuno died in 1936 under house arrest for his opposition to the Franco regime.

Here I must make a correction. In an earlier blog I snidely remarked that only men sat in the examination chair in the Santa Barbara Chapel of the Old Cathedral. How wrong I was! Both Luisa de Medrano and Beatrix Galindo aka La Latina studied and taught here as early as 1508. There is some evidence that both women heard Christopher Columbus when he came to the University to speak about his proposed travels.

Upstairs we see the University Library with its 160,000 volumes of books including a collection of incunabula – books printed between the invention of the printing press and 1501.

True to form. Too much to see; too little time.

In 1904 Gaudí built Casa Batlló, known as the House of Bones. As with many of his buildings, this too included exotic window treatments, ornate ironwork and repeated motifs.

Across the street from the University is the Casa de las Conchas. This House of Shells, a 15th century palace, is decorated by 300 scallop shells. The original owner was a proud member of the Order of Santiago. Saint James’s scallop shell symbol is everywhere, from the balconies to the locks. There is a tradition that behind one of these shells is a store of gold. Unlike the scallop shells on the Camino de Santiago markers, none of these appear to have been pulled off.

Finally we come to the Plaza Mayor, known as the Living Room of Salamanca. King Felipe V ordered this plaza to be built (1729-55) as a place to stage bullfights. With its irregular square shape, 88 arches of villamayor stone and granite, today it is full of tourist shops, restaurants and ice cream parlors.

Bullfights ceased here in the mid 1850s, but even now aspiring toreadors are honored in front of the city hall.

Honored too with medallions on the pillars and spandrels are people associated with the history of Salamanca.

Franco’s medallion was removed from his pillar on June 9, 2017, no doubt with many of the local Spaniards watching from one of the 247 private balconies that surround the plaza.

Gaudí too had his pillars and medallions in his Park Guell in Barcelona. His proposed gated community there was a failure, but his imaginative columns and medallions have succeeded; for now they live on.

It is time for us to leave Salamanca. We began our visit to the city by crossing the Roman Bridge over the River Tormes. We began our tour today eating hornazos.

In our pre-Covid 19 world we would have been in Salamanca the day after Easter. If we had come one week later we could have participated in Lunes de Aguas – Water Monday. This holiday pulls together all the threads of our visit.

Years ago that same Filipe who built the Plaza Mayor was concerned about the morals of the students at the University. To help them maintain their Lenten disciplines he had all the prostitutes in the city ferried over to the far side of River Tormes They were required to remain there until the Monday, one week after Easter. Their reentry into the city was met with much joy and revelry. Students flocked to the banks of the river to celebrate. To this day, students and families continue the tradition partying on the riverbank by the Roman Bridge. Who could think this one up? A little imagination on the loose goes a long way.

Hasta mañana. We’ll walk some more on the Via de la Plata and head for Portugal, where Michelin-star dining at the Pousada de Braganza awaits us. Imagine that!

ON TO SALAMANCA. Today you walk on the Via de La Plata.

Today it’s your turn to walk on the Via de La Plata. From Cáceres to Salamanca is 223 km or 138 miles. You will walk about five miles on one of the most interesting stretches of the route. You will arrive in Salamanca in time to shower, and have a quick tour of the city. You will end your day in the Plaza Mayor enjoying tapas and getting to know Bishop Don Carlos.

On the other hand, it took Barbara and me ten days to walk to Salamanca.


As you can see from this map, it was mostly an uphill trek because for eight days we climbed steadily up to Fuenterroble de Salvatierra, a small town perched on the edge of the Meseta. From there it was a two day walk down into Salamanca.

While you will get a taste of the landscape from the bus, I want to give you a closer look at this varied, hard, interesting section. To give you a feel of what it was like I’m going to walk you through, camera in hand.

Our first days were somewhat barren. We walked through broom and huge scattered rocks. Gradually the trees increased and we walked between lichen-covered stone walls and velvety green moss-covered rocks. From time to time the wall incorporated a miliario (a Roman mile post).

We were now walking on the Calzada Romana, the original Roman road from Mérida to Astorga dating back to the first century.

Over the next several days we would see more and more milestones, sometimes in amazing places. You will see some of these on your walk today and perhaps cross one of the many Roman bridges still in use.

Romans and pilgrims were not the only creatures walking this route. The transhumancia was the annual movement of sheep goats and cattle moving between their seasonal feeding grounds. Known as the Cañada Real it was a broad drove road heavily travelled. Although the drives no longer occur, there are still plenty of livestock, animal pens and horsemen visible on the the wide paths. We saw many including this bull. Unlike some we have known, this one did not chase us.

Just before the Arch of Cáparra we walked through groves of recently harvested cork trees, their raw red scars trunks painfully visible.

Cork is harvested entirely by hand. It is a process requiring five people to do the job. Before the first harvest a tree must grow 25 years. It then takes ten years for the bark to grow back at which time it can be harvested again. Since a cork tree can live up to 200 years, they are very valuable.

We walked through the Arco de Cáparra and you will walk here also. This arch marked the city center of Cáparra, a way-station on the Via de la Plata from the first to ninth centuries.

I can’t tell you why these photos of the arch are the only black and white photos out of 1000 that I took on this walk. I can tell you Barbara and I had a wonderful lunch here with Joseph from Belgium.

Joseph was one of a handful of other walkers we met on the Via. We walked with him for six days until he left the path in Salamanca. He taught me a useful German word which got me and my grandchildren into hot water years later. Their friends’ mother heard them using it and knew what it meant resulting in an indignant call from my daughter Emma to me.

After our lunch the three of us sat for a long time watching a colony of ants carrying away the remains of our lunch. We were mesmerized. They (the ants) were focused on carrying crumbs, some as large as they.

Bad photo but there are two ants with bread.

We agreed one of the joys and privileges of the camino was having and taking the time to watch ants and chase butterflies.

From here it was a steady climb. The mountains we had seen in the background got closer and closer. The landscape became greener.We passed above the Alcantara reservoir and walked beside The canal de jerte which supplies water to this area.

Up we climbed to the thermal baths in Banos de Montemayor. Lodging here is more geared to bus pilgrims than sweaty backpack pilgrims so we kept walking.

We did not need this snowflake on the road to tell us that the weather was changing. We were higher up and the temperature was dropping. Gone were the 90 degree day’s. Gone too were our warm clothes. We had sent them home thinking we would not need them. We layered on everything we could find and kept going up.

We crossed out of the province of Extremadura and into Castile and Leon. We arrived in the village of Fuenterroble de Salvatierra where the hospitality was as warm as the weather was cold. We went to mass in the beautifully restored 14th century church La Virgin de la Blanca with its arresting crucifix and life-size carved saints circling the altar.

Warm and spiritually refreshed, we went uphill one last time to the summit of the Pico de la Dueña. At 1140m this is the highest point on the via de la Plata route to Astorga although there will be higher places on the route we took via Ourense. Here amid the wind turbines a wooden cross marks the spot. As in the Camino Frances, pilgrims would traditionally leave a stone at the foot of the cross. Since the cross is surrounded by a barbed wire fence the only option was to fling it over the fence and hope it landed somewhere close. We aimed, prayed and enjoyed the view

Below us was the Meseta, a high tabletop plain. On this fertile plain farming is done on a large scale. Trees are few but we don’t need shade now.

The sky was blue, the temperature bracingly cold and the wind brisk. With the red earth under our feet, we set our sights on Salamanca, visible in the distance. Two days later we crossed the Roman bridge. We had arrived in Salamanca.

You too have arrived in Salamanca, have taken your showers at the Hospes Convento San Esteban and have met Bishop Don Carlos.

You have dined under the full moon in the plaza.

Barbara and I shared one final dinner with our friend Joseph and met Michael , a Frenchman whom we would see off and on for the next few weeks.

Today each of us in our own way had walked the Via de la Plata. We had walked where the Romans had walked, where cattle had walked and where pilgrims still walk. We had earned our rest.

Tomorrow is a busy day. After the best breakfast in Salamanca we will tour the city with the best guide in Salamanca. We will rejoin the camino for another afternoon of walking before crossing the border


into Portugal where we will end our day with a Michelin-starred dinner. It only gets better.

Hasta mañana.

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