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By Bill Lawyer 

 

Back in the spring, a friend from my college days, Bob Shull, and I started planning a trip to Portugal and Spain. For me, it was to enjoy the outdoors and handle the tests that nature brings your way. For Bob, there was also a spiritual component, following Christian traditions and principles and applying them to daily life. 

 

After doing our research, we put our faith in the Portugal Green company, which transported all of our luggage from stage to stage of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage walk and made all of the hotel arrangements. They also provided us with maps and trail guides and emergency numbers to call. 

 

I hiked through nine of the 12 stages without a hint of discomfort. I was unfazed by the stage between Ponte de Lima and Cossourado that our guidebook called “the most challenging of the Portuguese central Way of Saint James, due to its irregular terrain (you have to climb Labruja Mountain) and distance.” That’s 1,328 feet. 

 

The morning we set off to reach stage 10, from Pontevedra to Caldas de Reis, which is less hilly than many of the previous stages, I was feeling pretty confident. After all, I was physically fit, and people have been making the trip since the Middle Ages — long before L.L. Bean and Patagonia came along to provide high-tech hiking gear.

 

Perhaps I was a little too confident that morning. I didn’t bother doing my normal stretching exercises, nor did I take the time to balance the weight of the things in my backpack. And I drank more coffee and less juice and water than I should have at breakfast. 

 

Midway through stage 10, with the sun beating down on us, my lower back began to hurt, and I felt woozy. I struggled to sit — rather than fall — down under the small patch of shade provided by a vineyard next to a cornfield in the Galician countryside.  

 

As I reached for the water bottle in my backpack, I realized I’d left it at a café a few meters back. I thought too about the homemade walking stick I’d left by the path so that someone else could use it.

 

I stumbled to the ground, but before I could attempt to get back up several fellow-walkers came forward and brought me water and packets of instant hydration fluids. 

 

Within minutes I revived. And, by an amazing coincidence, our stop for the night was the Balneario Acuna Hotel and Spa with thermal springs bubbling up throughout the village.  

 

News travels fast on the Camino, and by that evening people I didn’t know were asking how I was doing and what could they do to help. And I knew why had done the walk — one day at a time.  

 

 

No doubt I could write a book describing all the people we met, the things we saw, and the lessons we learned. These are just a few of them. 

 

Day I

We started at the village of Mosteiro, a few kilometers north of Porto, to avoid dealing with urban sprawl. It’s just one of many charming, old-fashioned communities, with very narrow roadways and no sidewalks.  

 

Apparently, no one told the farmers that they should drive their huge tractors slowly, as we kept having to squeeze up against the many walled roads.  Also, we were just a few miles from the airport, which served as a reality check.  

 

As things became more rural (and less truckish), we started meeting up with other pilgrims who had begun that same morning.  

 

A few of them settled in at our pace, and we enjoyed talking and learning what the trip meant to them. The path was generally narrow, but fairly level.  One couple — a retired policeman and a social worker — hailed from Bristol, England. Another was from Holland. The wife had developed a bad blister on her heel, and we predicted that she would be dropping out soon.  

 

As we got closer to our destination, we crossed two rivers, the Ave and the Este, by means of bridges dating back to Roman times. I thought of the fact that our Tappan Zee Bridge lasted fewer than 100 years.  

 

The countryside took on a recurring pattern — cornfields, vineyards, local cabbage, orchards, eucalyptus trees (some wild, some planted for forest products), cobblestone paths, and boundary walls.  

 

We knew that three of our stage lodgings were not located within villages, but rather old farmsteads that had been converted to rustic but up-to-date bed and breakfasts. Everyone had Wi-Fi!  

 

The first farmstead, the Quinta de Sao Miguel de Arcos, was at the end of stage one. It had two swimming pools, bicycles for use by the guests, and a large hall for weddings and other events. They also did laundry for us.  

 

Day 2

 

We got off to a great start the next morning, and 12 miles later we crossed the Cavado River (via a Roman-style bridge) and arrived at one of Portugal’s hidden treasures, the city of Barcelos. In the center of the city sits a large and handsome main plaza surrounded by flower gardens. A large flea market was in progress, and people were setting up for a major bicycle race the next morning.  

 

In the small world department, we met a Hungarian woman who works in the British consulate in Budapest — we had seen her a few miles back but she was travelling at a much faster pace. We stayed in a traditional hotel that night.  

 

The next morning, breakfast was served on the 4th (top) floor. There was so much fog that you couldn’t see a thing. But by the time we left, the fog was burning off and out came the sun.  

 

The path this day involved several ups and downs, but that’s the nature of the Portuguese/Spanish Camino. The hills run from west to east, so the streams and rivers follow along. Thus to travel north, you encounter some major waterways, which kept those Roman bridge builders so busy.  

 

Day 3

 

Our second farmstead lodging, the Quinta da Cancela, sits in a rural community known as Balugaes. The whole farmstead is surrounded by high stonewalls and both the gates were locked. It was a Sunday, after all.  

 

Finally, after some vigorous knocking and yelling, a man opened the “blue” rear gate — he was the only guest and he didn’t know where the manager was. It turned out that she had gone home for lunch. 

 

When the manager got back, we unloaded our gear and went to a barbecue takeout place just a few a few hundred yards away. It turned out to be the gastronomical highlight of our trip thus far — three hard-working women were preparing and filling orders extremely fast, and we took ours back to our hotel. We liked it so much we went back dinner. Plus, there was a great bakery just a few hundred yards in the other direction.  

 

It started to rain in the late afternoon, and continued overnight. That was the only significant rain during the whole 12-day trip.  

 

The accommodations were very up to date, with heavy use of granite, one of the main bedrocks of the region. The only problem with our room was that there was no hot water — not a good thing for dusty pilgrims.    

 

Day 4

 

The weather was clearing when we started out the next morning, with views of the various mountains that feed rainwater into the rivers below. This was also the beginning of a bit of fun for our group of pilgrims.  

 

We were walking along when we spotted something white on the trail up ahead. It turned out to be the van of a Spanish tour company. They had seven women participating in a modified Camino walk on the safer, less strenuous sections. Their driver deserves credit, because it’s not easy to get a van onto many of the trails.  

 

From that day onward, we had a running contest as to when we would see the women and their van again. Sometimes we ran into them more than once.  

 

Then came one of my favorite parts of the trip, the delightful city of Ponte de Lima. You enter from a pedestrian allée of plane trees parallel to the Lima River, and soon find yourself in a lovely medieval city. Several restaurants had service on the large plazas. My friend Bob decided to get a massage, as he was worn and dirty from the lack of hot water. I was just happy to have a hot shower.  

 

By this time, a dozen of us had formed an informal alliance and enjoyed moveable feasts at restaurants providing discounts for the daily pilgrim meal. 

 

Day 5

 

This was the stage following the Labruja River up to its source near the top of the mountain. We started the morning by coming upon the highly unexpected Pescaria Café and Fish Farm, consisting of ponds for raising fish, and people trying to catch them. And they sold walking sticks. They also do programs for schools and other groups. Check out their posting on Facebook (www.facebook.com/pescariaribario/.)  

 

Having gone on to conquer the Mt. Labruja challenge, we had a fairly steep descent and then 4 kilometers uphill to the third of our farmstead B&B’s, the Casa da Capela. 

 

Run by a fun and hospitable family, the facility has been very recently renovated and plenty of hot water was just one of the perks. We shared a delicious multi-course supper with fellow pilgrims, and we got some more laundry done.  

 

Day 6 and Onward

 

The next six stages had a somewhat similar pattern to them — hiking over manageable hills from valley to valley, and staying in charming, medieval towns and pleasant hotels. In order, going from south to north, they are: Valenca, Porrino, Arcade, Pontevedra, Caldas de Reis, and Padron.  

 

People really take advantage of the many public plazas and parks for socializing, shopping, recreation, and entertainment. And they make the most of the rivers where they are located to enhance their lives. It’s the industrial areas located away from the residential areas that provide much of the income, but it’s also clear that tourism helps keep their heritage alive.  

 

My favorite of the towns was Valenca, which is on the Portuguese side of the Minho River, marking the border with Galician Spain. High on a hill, the extensive 17th-century fort designed by the French architect Vauban looks out over the valley.

 

That day’s hike was only eight miles long, so we got there in time to have lunch and tour the fort, which is now used by the city for commerce, residences, and restaurants. We noted that the “FATUM - Casa de Fados” restaurant had outdoor seating and indoors within the wall of the fort had a great menu of local foods and featured Fado music. Live music is only offered on Fridays, but they play recorded music the rest of the week.   

 

We came back about 7:30 and had some beer while waiting for the dining area to open, at 8. A man stopped by and asked us about the restaurant. He turned out to be Hans de Hoog, a Merck agricultural scientist doing training work nearby. We asked him to join us when we went inside.  

 

We had been studying the menu for a few moments when a woman came in and sat at a table by herself. Recognizing by her speech that she was an American, we asked her to join us as well. We had a great evening, with Fado music in the background and a delicious multi-course meal at our table.  

 

This is typical of the way people get to share their experiences along the Camino.  

 

What I remember fondly from the trip is the seafood at Arcade, those very timely hot baths and massages at Caldes de Reis, lending a walking stick, and our late afternoon get-togethers.

 

While we made it to our destination in Spain and had our “passports” stamped, certifying that we had made it through all the stages of the 141-mile journey, what was most important to me was all the things that happened along the way. 

 

 

Captions

Bill Lawyer and Bob Shull, a friend from college, in front of a direction post

The author on the Ave Bridge

The bay at Arcade

Dining in an old fort

 

 

 

By Chris Cohan

The largest concentration of premier gardens in America is a short ride away. Outside Wilmington, Delaware, is Nemours, the grandest formal French garden in North America. Close by is Mt. Cuba Center, the top native plant botanical garden. Winterthur, the grandest of the many estates in the area, and best known for its decorative arts museum, has glorious, naturalistic gardens to explore. One reason for the concentration of all this beauty is that the area was the center of early American prosperity.

The weather is just that much milder than Rye, providing a wider variety of plant material to choose from. Plants grow lusher and are rarely victim of winter burn.

Turning any gardening dream into reality is not always easy. Especially when you want to transform hundreds of acres of raw land into some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes anywhere. That is exactly what Alfred I. du Pont did at Nemours Estate. He created the largest formal French gardens in North America, surrounded by acres of scenic woodlands, meadows, and lawns.

Alfred loved showering his wife, Alicia, with gifts. No separate bedrooms for that couple. By far the grandest of his gifts was the spectacular home that he built for her on a 3,000-acre plot of land. He hired Carrère and Hastings, a prestigious New York architectural firm, to design the mansion in the late 18th-century French style that she adored. Alfred named the estate Nemours, after the French town that his great-great-grandfather hailed from.

The estate includes The Long Walk. Lined with Japanese cryptomeria, pink-flowering horse chestnuts, and pin oaks, it extends from the Mansion to the Reflecting Pool. The 157 jets at the center of the one-acre pool shoot water 12 feet into the air; when they are turned off, the entire “Long Walk” is reflected in the pool, holding 800,000 gallons of water and taking three days to fill. Carrara marble fountain statues of Triton face each other across the pool. This spectacular work is the crowning centerpiece of the Nemours Vista.

The Sunken Gardens is complete with walls and steps of Italian travertine; the statuary of Carrara marble. The Four Borders is named for its mixed herbaceous borders – 8,500 square feet of annuals and perennials. What garden would not be complete without Americana memorabilia? Cannons from the <U.S.S. Constitution> (“Old Ironsides”), the frigate that took part in the War of 1812, overlook a lawn area.

Mt. Cuba was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Lammot du Pont Copeland, who were visionary in their approach to conservation, and in their creation of the Center. Mrs. Copeland’s founding vision was: “I want this to be a place where people will learn to appreciate our native plants and to see how these plants can enrich their lives so that they, in turn, will become conservators of our natural habitats.”

The Copelands transformed open field farmland into a lush botanical garden featuring some of the most beautiful native plants. Pathways are well cared for and accessible for all. Strolling through the calm natural setting the importance of native plants and natural lands is confirmed. It is not enough simply to observe beauty. It is clear we must also protect it for future generations.

Winterthur, founded by Henry Francis du Pont, is the premier museum of American decorative arts, reflecting both early America and the du Pont family’s life. Its 60-acre naturalistic garden is among the country’s best. Gardening was du Pont’s first love. Even after he turned his former home into a museum in 1951, he kept his garden in private ownership until his death in 1969. He said that while after 1951 he was only a visitor to the museum, he was still Winterthur’s head gardener.

The garden at Winterthur wraps around the house. The most formally landscaped and gardened areas are those closest to the house. As one gets farther away, the tame, cultivated garden gives way to a freer wild garden style.

Winterthur’s 1,000 acres encompass rolling hills, streams, meadows, and forests. du Pont selected the choicest plants from around the world to enhance the natural setting, arranging them in lyrical color combinations and carefully orchestrating a succession of bloom from late January to November. The gardens and landscape surrounding the museum are not a botanical collection, but rather an artistic composition that captures a significant period in the history of American horticulture.

Passion is a key to success in whatever you pursue. Having a few nickels in your pocket, a retinue of gardeners at your beck and call, and your name being du Pont doesn’t hurt. While they had to wait decades for these marvels to mature, you may go wander, delight, and be inspired while leaving the heavy lifting to others. 

Captions

Mt. Cuba: Under the dappled light of mature native hardwood trees at the Mt. Cuba Center is the perfect setting for a bench. From this vantage point you are surrounded by flowering plants from ephemerals to native shrubs, trees, and fragrant perennials.

Nemours: The view to the far end of the Long Walk with the Temple of Diana at Nemours is reminiscent of the Luxembourg Gardens of Paris. The marble balustrade and steps with enormous planters leading to raked gravel paths around manicured lawns punctuated with topiaried trees in jardinières all come together to create one of the most amazing private gardens.   

Winterthur: Winterthur has the oldest collection of Kurume Azaleas in America. At the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, the first time they were displayed, Mr. du Pont was so taken that he bought every azalea. He then placed an order for more.

By Cynthia Mackay and Arthur Stampleman

We recently spent eight days, our honeymoon in fact, in a country that has no advertising. It also has no traffic jams, no air pollution, civilians are not allowed to own guns, no chain stores, almost no inequality, no drug addicts because anybody who uses drugs is thrown into jail for a year, and almost no crime. We felt safe walking at night in the most poverty-stricken areas of its four major cities.

Culture is flourishing in this country, largely because artists are paid five times more than doctors and professors. Almost every square in the capital is decked with modern sculpture. We bought quality workmanship goods (<not> made in China) at places as varied as a bus stop and a beach. The number one contributor to the struggling economy is the export of professional services. Emerging countries all over the world have its doctors and nurses manning their medical systems.

This country is Cuba. We flew there among a group of 24 on a tour in mid-January. Half our time was in Havana and the other half visiting Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, and Trinidad – a mix we found just right.

Ironically, one reason Cuba has so many admirable qualities is that this country is so poor. When Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 he nationalized all companies and prohibited all private enterprise, and the U.S. responded with an embargo. This threw Cuba into an economic sleep, which became an economic coma when the Soviet Union collapsed and withdrew subsidies in 1991. One of our speakers remembers the taste of banana peels in his mouth, and his father foraging in the woods for roots and sending him to collect a jar of fireflies to light the house.

The other reason is that Castro — despite his flaws — was fiercely committed to Cuba’s most vulnerable citizens. Cubans hold this belief to this day. One professor at Havana University told us he wanted to “keep Cuba for the Cubans”. He would tolerate a few Starbucks, he said, but no Walmarts, which might throw smaller stores out of business. Cubans want to restore and preserve buildings in Havana, not replace them, and they have made a good start. The challenge for Cuba will be to hang on to its core values as it wakes up and begins to join the world.

When Fidel’s brother Raul took over in 2008, he began to loosen restrictions on private activity. He started by allowing Cubans to have a few guests to eat and sleep in their private houses for a fee. Result: new restaurants (<paladars>) and B&Bs are sprouting like mushrooms all over Cuba. Our exceptionally smart and articulate guide told us that since 2005 the historic city of Trinidad has gone from 250 restaurants to over 2,000.

Cuba guarantees a state job to each citizen, but the jobs do not pay a living wage. Result: highly educated Cubans are flooding into the private sector. Food cost is another area that differs from ours. Our group leader split us into six groups of 4, gave each group 50 Cuban pesos (roughly $2.25) and let us loose in a local market. Our group bought 3 pounds of rice, 2 pounds of taro root, 3 pounds of bananas, 2 pigs’ feet, one tomato, and 2 heads of lettuce. 

The bellhop in our hotel was a professor of Engineering at Havana University earning $20 a month — until he left to make real money. Taxi drivers have doctorates. We were privileged to have Professor Azukary as a speaker. He is also a H. U. professor, and a prominent diplomat (he was Cuba’s ambassador to the E. U.) and journalist (he is the founder and editor of the major dissident publication). He happily spent three hours giving our 24-member group a graduate-level seminar in Cuban-U.S. relations.

We ate only in paladars until our last night. The menu never varied. At lunch and dinner, we had squash or vegetable soup, beans and rice, a choice of what our guide termed the “Three Musketeers”, i.e. chicken, fish, or pork, and flan for dessert. We were warned Cuban food was insipid and tasteless, but the food actually was more than acceptable. And having live music, of excellent quality, at almost every meal, enlivened the experience.

We felt a bit nervous when we drove south and saw rice spread out to dry on half of the little-travelled road, but our guide assured us that the “asphalt rice” was not served to tourists. In many areas, there were more horse carts on the road than cars. Many horses are picketed to graze by the side of the road.

The brightly painted 1950s American cars make the eyes of every visitor to Cuba pop. Enterprising Cubans have refurbished them with a variety of new engines. Our guide referred to them as “Frankenstein cars” held together with “string and spit”. Boy, can they fly.

The crumbling infrastructure is a second eye-popper. We had never seen so much peeling paint or cracked plaster. One member of our group tripped on one of the universally treacherous sidewalks, injured her knees, and spent a day experiencing the packed conditions of free health care at a local clinic. One of the reasons families are so close is that many generations live crammed into packed apartments.

Aside from the ones in “five-star” (read: “three at best”) hotels, public bathrooms do not have toilet paper, toilet seats, soap, or paper towels. Private enterprise has resulted in enterprising ladies who sit outside the bathrooms near tourist areas. For one CUC (one dollar) they will hand out toilet paper, and flush by pouring a bucket of water in the bowl afterwards.

We will never forget the lovely Cubans we met. An 85-year-old fisherman who once ran errands for Ernest Hemingway. A woman who, for 31 years, has rolled famed Cuban cigars. The spunky young dancers of the Havana Queens, an independent dance troupe inspired by street dancers. The children who were plucked from abusive homes and are training to become circus acrobats. The Jewish man who acts as rabbi, moil, and kosher butcher for the main Havana synagogue. The naturalist at Zapata National Park who is trying to preserve the endemic Cuban crocodile.

Few countries in the world welcome U.S. citizens as warmly as this small, poor, harmless country. Cuba is changing so fast that every guidebook will be out of date after a year. We hope Cuba will develop in a way that keeps its Cuban values intact.

Captions

  1. A modern sculpture of a nude woman astride a rooster, symbol of male machismo, sits prominently in an historic square in Havana.
  2. The home of a former sugar baron in Cienfugos

5. Tour group in fleet of 1950s cars

6. The honeymooning authors, Cynthia Mackay and Arthur Stampleman

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