My Run with the Bulls

May 17, 2013

After 2 previous flashbacks about the Festival of San Fermin and The Running of the Bulls, I finally get to the meat of the matter.  Did I run with the bulls?  I wrote the following on Sunday, July 9th, 2012 as the adrenaline rushed through me…

Patrick in white pants and shirt with red scarf and red sash in fron tof the Pamplona town hall

My traditional Encierro clothes

I put on the white pants and shirt, red sash and scarf traditionally worn by Encierro runners and jogged over to the starting corral just before 7 AM.  It was filled mostly with men and a few women, many of whom had been drinking and some who hadn’t slept.  I was more worried about them than the bulls.  The runners were packed in so tightly that I was sweating, pressed up against a set of short, bearded identical twins, a dead ringer for Avril Lavigne, two bankers from London, and a drunk guy from New York.  They were all Australian.

Minutes before the start, they asked me if I was nervous, because they said I didn’t look it.  I wasn’t particularly worried, partly due to the false sense of security created by a festive crowd, but more likely a result of the focus that comes from the need for self-preservation.

I chose to start on a part of the course known as Telefonica, just past Dead Man’s Corner, to increase my chances of making it to the Plaza de Toros, the bull fighting arena where the run finishes.  At 10 minutes to 8, the gates holding us in were opened, and we could disperse along the route.  I waited on the right side of a straightaway with a lot of other nervous looking people. The cobbled street is narrow, about 5 meters wide (16 feet), with both sides lined with shops and nowhere to hide.The people around me were nervous.  They were stretching cold muscles, and hopping up and down, trying to see what was coming.  Several Spanish men were down on their knees praying.  Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.

At 8 AM the bulls were released.  I didn’t hear any rockets, so t wasn’t clear when to start running.  A first wave of people ran by and I was drawn along for a bit, but there were no bulls in sight so I stopped.  When the bulls got close it became obvious.  People were yelling and running towards me fast, with fear in their eyes.  I started running.  Hard.

The first animal went by me like I was barely moving.  I had started running on the right side but was now on the left.  There were bulls running to my right.  The runners ahead of me went down, and I vaulted over two piles of bodies.  Simultaneously looking behind to gauge the bulls and ahead to watch for hazards is impossible.  Forced to choose, I looked forward so I could stay on my feet.

As I approached the tunnel leading into the bull ring, I looked behind and to my right to see if there were any bulls on my heels.  I didn’t want to be trapped in the narrow concrete passageway with tonnes of angry, barbed muscle.  It seemed clear, but everything was happening so fast, it was hard to tell.  I sprinted forward, but was hit very hard on my left side and thrown towards the fence.  I barely stayed on my feet, didn’t dare look behind again, and raced through the tunnel into the bright light and thousands of cheering fans.

I was ecstatic.  I looked for the bulls, worried that they might still be loose.  They must all have just passed me, as they were exiting the arena on the far side.  I circled around euphorically and in shock.  Guys were hugging and high-fiving, glad to be alive.  Some fell to their knees on the sand, crossing themselves.

Suddenly a cry rang out and 3 steers burst into the arena.  I was standing near the center of the ring and they were heading straight for me at full speed.  I started to run to my left but was hit hard in the jaw and fell to the sand on my side.  I glanced up and the cattle were bearing down on me.  I was alone in the middle of the arena.  I pulled my feet under me and pushed off hard with my right leg, getting out of the way just before being trampled.

The bull fighting arena is circular, about 30 meters (95 feet) across.  It is surrounded by about 50 rows of tiered seats filled with spectators.  The ground is hand-packed, covered with a couple of inches of sand.  There were probably three hundred people in the ring, mostly young men, all high on adrenaline.  I felt the rush of emotion, but couldn’t rest for long.

Young bulls were released into the arena one-by-one, their horns covered in a thin layer of black tape which doesn’t look like it would make much difference. Each one charges into the ring trying to kill whoever is closest.  The runners try to avoid this, dodging the bull as best they can in the fracas.  This is a challenge because it is hard to see the bull until the people ahead of you split open like a school of moving fish.  Unfortunately, they don’t all shift in the same direction, making it a challenge to stay on your feet.  I moved with my arms out like a linebacker.  Twice I was almost caught by the bull, once running across its path and curling around its shoulder to avoid being skewered.

The runners attempt to touch the bull, preferably on the blunt end, in an intense free-for-all.  The people in the stands egg them on.  One brave young guy vaulted over the haunches of the bull, much to their delight.  They roar louder when someone is trampled or thrown by the bull.  After a few minutes the bull begins to tire, and a giant ox is lead into the ring by handlers for the bull to follow back to its pen.  This massive creature scared the hell out of more than one unsuspecting runner.  It would have been virtually impossible to avoid two bulls in the commotion.  After a stressful 20 minutes, the melee was finished, and we filed out of the arena.  As I write this hours later, I can still feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins.

Patrick in Encierro Costume with a dog dresseds similarly

Me with a fellow San Fermin participant

My friend Julia asked me why I wanted to run with the bulls, and I didn’t have what I consider to be a good answer at the time.  One runner I read said that people risk death here to more fully experience life.  I did it for at least two reasons…  I had set this as a goal, and I feel a sense of accomplishment when I achieve an objective, more so if it is something difficult.  Another dream fulfilled.  Dream Big.  Also, it scared the crap out of me, and I find that I grow a lot when I face my fears.  Live Boldly.  Even more so when I face them knowingly, so I ran with the bulls again the next day.

Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.


Encierro — The Running of the Bulls

May 3, 2013

Last Friday I wrote about the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain.  I said that it’s famous for The Running of the Bulls (‘Encierro’ in Spanish), but left you hanging for the details.  Well here goes.

Each morning during the Festival of San Fermin, hundreds of people run with bulls along a narrow course through the streets of Pamplona.  Each morning, thousands of people line the route to watch and cheer.  Many rent an expensive spot on a balcony to get a good view.  Thousands fill the Plaza de Toros (bull fight arena) at the end of the route to cheer the successful runners.  Each morning, people are injured and ambulances cart them away.  Each morning, the event is broadcast live on Spanish television.

The fronts of 5 coloured buildings each with many balconies on the various floors, each filled with spectators

Spectators lining the balconies along the Encierro route

Every year 200 to 300 people are injured during The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.  Most of the injuries are contusions due to falls.  Since 1910, when record keeping began, 15 people have been killed, usually a result of goring when a bull’s horn pierces a runner’s lungs.  Despite a high concentration of adrenaline-high drunken tourists, only one foreigner has been killed, an American from Illinois who was gored by a bull in 1995.  There is also a high likelihood of being trampled by other runners, which can result in serious injuries if runners pile up. The worst bottleneck is the entrance to the Plaza de Toros, a narrow concrete tunnel with no cover and no escape except out the other end.  A Spanish man suffocated here in a pile of runners in 1977.

2 fences narrowing to a runnetl with red doors on the side of the arena

Narrowing entrance to the small Plaza de Toros tunnel

Bull running has a long history in Spain.  It evolved with the tradition of bull fighting, something many animal rights activists protest.  Early each morning cattle drovers would herd fresh bulls from a corral on the outskirts of town through the city streets to the bull fighting arena.  Young men started running in front of the bulls, even though it was not allowed.

Why do they do it?  Perhaps for the thrill of it?  To outdo their friends?  To prove their worth, to themselves or others?  All of the above?

“There are only three sports:  bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” – Ernest Hemingway

Runners dress in the traditional clothing of the festival which consists of a white shirt and trousers with a long red sash around the waist and a red neckerchief,   Many have been up all night.  Runners congregate in a starting corral in the town hall plaza.  Police guard the entrances and patrol on foot through the corral, removing anyone who is too drunk or disorderly, not wearing proper footwear, or is carrying a backpack or camera equipment.  Anyone over the age of 18 is eligible to run.  There are no tickets sold, and no controls of the number of runners who crowd the route.

The course runs right through the narrow downtown streets of Pamplona, the same streets where people were, until a couple of hours before, partying all night.  It is half a mile in length (826 meters) starting near the bull corral and finishing in the Plaza de Toros (bull fight arena).  It goes through four streets of the old part of the city (Santo Domingo, Town Hall Square, Mercaderes and Estafeta) and a newer section called Telefónica before entering into the bull arena.  The course is slightly uphill for most of its length and the footing is uneven, a mix of pavement and cobblestones with hazards like curbs and drain covers.  The route is cleared of people, the garbage removed, and the streets washed just before the run gets underway at 8 AM.  Unfortunately, that means that the footing is also wet and can be slippery.

Where the course is not lined by buildings, a wooden fence is erected to close off the side streets and keep the bulls and the runners on route.  The 7 foot (2.13 meter) high, railed fence allows the spectators to see the action, and allows injured runners to be dragged from the course under the bottom rail.  In theory, a runner can also climb the fence to escape a bull, but the rails are usually overrun by spectators, making this much more difficult than it sounds.

A wooden fence with heavy posts and 3 rails

The railed fence

In some sections, there is no escape.

A solid wooden fence with deep scrathes running horizontally

What do suppose made these deep gouges?

In total, 12 animals stampede through the streets of Pamplona (not including homo sapiens). There are 6 bulls which can be recognized by their darker coloring, giant testicles, air of authority, and strong desire to kill anybody who gets in their way.  In addition tothe bulls, 6 steers also run to try to keep the herd moving together in the right direction, with varying degrees of success.  The steers run every day and know the course well.  The bulls only run once.

A stuffed black bull with horns behind glass

An ex-bull

Along the course are gates that are closed after the bulls pass.  This prevents the bulls from running back along the route, which would be disastrous if people weren’t expecting it.  The gates require that runners keep up with the bulls or be barred from proceeding.

A long metal gate attached to a heavy wooden post in the open position up against the fence

Long, heavy gates along the route

The bulls are closely followed by drovers carrying long sticks.  It is there job to keep the bulls moving in the right direction.  A bull is most dangerous when it becomes separated from the herd and doesn’t know which way to run.  While it tries to figure this out, it passes the time by crushing and goring people.  Runners are forbidden from touching the bulls on their hind quarters.  This has the unfortunate side-effect of causing them to stop running and turn around.  The long sticks are not for the bulls — they are for the runners.  Anyone who touches a bull’s backside receives a slash across the chest.

A black bull standing and staring at 2 people, one trying to balance on his hands on the top of a post, and the other laying on the ground trying to hide behind the post

Lone Bull

The bulls take from 2.5 to 6 minutes to complete the half mile distance, depending on whether they stay together or not.  The average speed of the herd is 24 km/h (15 mph).  With the large number of runners participating, the uphill grade, the bad footing, and the speed of the animals, it is virtually impossible for anyone to keep up with the bulls for the entire distance.  The bulls pass or trample those who start along the early sections of the route, most of whom don’t make it to the end.  About 10 minutes before the bulls were released, the gates holding the runners are opened, allowing them to distribute themselves along the course.  If you want to make it to the end, you should take up a position along the last half of the course, preferably after Dead Man’s Corner.

The Encierro begins with the runners closest to the bull pen singing a benediction in front of the statue of Saint Fermin. It is sung twice, once in Spanish and once in Basque, “We ask Saint Fermín, as our Patron, to guide us through the encierro and give us his blessing”).The singers finish by shouting “Viva San Fermín!, Gora San Fermín!” (“Long live San Fermin” in Spanish and Basque).  A rocket is fired at 8 AM when the corral gates are opened.  A second rocket signals that all 6 bulls have been released  The rockets cannot be seen or heard along most of the route.  A human chain of police officers bars the street near the corral until just before the bulls are released.

A huge crowd on a narrow street being held back by a line of police offiers

Police line holding runners back

This ensure that the bulls get a running start in the right direction (like they really need an advantage!).  Two final rockets signal that all of the herd has entered the bull ring.  The average duration between the first rocket and the end of the Encierro is 4 minutes.

People walking in a narrow street with stone walls on both sides

The first section of the route (not during the run)

Runners try to run close to the bulls.  Although it is much safer, it is considered very bad form to run too far ahead of the bulls.  If you do this, the spectators will throw their drinks and other garbage at you.  It is called ‘running with the bulls’ after all, not ‘running where the bulls will be later.’  It is considered the best form to run directly in front of the bulls for as long as you can.  When you tire, you try to dive for the sidelines or you pay the price for your foolishness.  A wiser move is to run right beside a bull, perhaps touching it on the shoulder or back, all the time willing it to keep running, anything other than stopping to chat with you.

3 bulls stampeding down a street with runners all around them

Running of the Bulls

Encierro runners face many challenges.  Getting up early enough to get into the starting corrals before 7:30 AM.  Holding their bladders through the entire event.  Running very fast on uneven ground.  Getting close to a herd of bulls at a full sprint without getting trampled, or crushed, or skewered.  But the biggest risk of all is not the bulls, it’s the other runners who push or trip you, who fall in front of you.  The bulls just finish the job.

A bull trampling 2 men

Are we having fun yet?

Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.


San Fermin

April 26, 2013

I attended the incredible festival of San Fermin while in Spain last July.  The festival coincided perfectly with both the route and timing of my wife Diane’s trek along El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) with her friends Joanne and Julia.  The ladies arrived in the city of Pamplona, where the festival is celebrated, on the exact day at the exact time that the festival was getting underway.  Coincidence?

Poster with a drawing of a guy pointing outward wearing a blue hat with the words "I want you for San Fermin 2012"The festival of San Fermin has been held annually for hundreds of years from July 6th to July 14th.  The week-long celebration involves many traditional events, but is most famous for the daily Encierro (The Running of the Bulls).  The festival has become a huge international event, with an estimated 1 Million visitors flocking to the city of Pamplona during this period each year.  The town’s population is only one-fifth that amount (197,000 as of 2012), so the city is literally overrun with visitors.  A huge street party consumes the town for the entire period of the festival, which is a local civic holiday.

The festival honours Saint Fermin of Amiens (San Fermin), one of the 2 co-patrons of Navarre, the region of which Pamplona is the capital.  According to local legend (it was a very long time ago), Saint Fermin was the son of a high-ranking Roman who lived in Pamplona.  He converted to Christianity, was ordained a priest in Toulouse, France and returned to Pamplona as its first bishop.

Many people in white clothing holding their red scarves in the air

Let the festivities commence!

The festival kicks off at noon on the 6th of July with the launching of a rocket from the balcony of the city hall.  Thousands of folks cram into the small plaza in front of the hall to watch and participate.  The people, all dressed in the traditional red and white festival costume, hold their red scarves above their heads and sing.  The scarf, whose purpose is shrouded in history, may symbolize the blood of Saint Fermin, who was beheaded in Amiens, France in the year 303 CE.  Only once the festival is underway do they tie their scarves around their necks.The party gets going immediately when people open hundreds of bottles of cava (Spanish sparkling wine) and spray them into the air.  Wineskins and bags of sangria are also squirted into the air, literally drenching everyone in sticky red juice.  People emerge from the square with their white clothes stained pink for the remainder of the festival.

Hundreds of people in formally wet clothes drenched and looking pink

Wet and pink

Diane, Joanne, and I were caught up in mob.   The ladies were both loaded down with their backpacks, and we took refuge in a shallow doorway to watch the action.  Police barred the street we were on, controlling access to the city hall plaza.  As soon as the brief ceremony was over, in addition to the rain of cava and sangria, people started throwing buckets of water onto the crowd from their balconies!  The party had begun.

Diane with her arm around Joanne

Joanne looking slightly uncomfortable with the craziness

The most important day of the festival is July 7th, when the statue of Saint Fermin from the Church of San Lorenzo is paraded through the streets.  This procession includes many other officials, dancers, and performers, including some giant animated figures known as Gigantes.  The festival concludes at midnight on July 14th, when people gather to sing Pobre de Mí (Poor Me) in a candlelit ceremony at the city hall plaza.

In the intervening 9 day period, the city is consumed by non-stop partying in the streets and bars.

A street filled with people wearing San Fermin dress

Street filled with partiers

Traditional sport competitions are held, usually accompanied by heavy betting.  Musical performances run all day on stages through the city.  There are bull-fights every afternoon in the arena.  Marching bands parade randomly through the streets leading huge processions of spontaneously acquired followers.

Marching band and spontaneous parade

Marching band and spontaneous parade

Each night there is a large fireworks presentation, followed by a rock concert.  All festival activities, except the bull fights and the booze, are free.

Fireworks in the sky

Nightly Fireworks above the Citadel

I have been to some big parties before — music festivals in Canada, beach parties in Thailand, Oktoberfest in Munich – but none of them begin to compare to the craziness of San Fermin.  I have never seen people party so hard day after day.

A street filled with people drinking

Drinking until dawn

2 young women and a man with a red head sitting on the grass

A break in the action

Most of the shops in town close for the week of San Fermin, covering their windows with plastic to prevent this from happening.

A guy facing the other way peeing in a corner

Not enough restrooms

Some go so far as to erect temporary walls 6 inches thick that they bolt into the pavement to cover their storefronts and prevent damage.

Glassware isn’t prohibited at the festival, and garbage constantly piles up in the gutters.  Leave your open toed shoes at home!

A guy sleeping on a narrow bech with broken glass and glasses of beer around him

Don’t fall off the bench!

The bars stay open until 6 AM.  During the night, the streets become tacky with spilled drink and mystery fluids.  In the early morning, it is literally difficult to walk because of the combination of sliminess and stickiness.

A low level picture of a gutter full of glass and plastic with piles of garbage bags

Watch your step!

Because the number of visitors greatly exceeds the number of beds, the prices for accommodation are sky-high and many people sleep outdoors in the park or on the street.

A single man in San Fermin clothes passed out on the grass of the park

‘Sleeping’ in the park

Every morning, a massive cleanup effort is required to revitalize the city after the previous night’s debauchery.

A grass park field littered with garbage

The morning after the night before

Crews collect mountains of garbage and literally scrub the streets.

Workers cleaning the streets into a garbage truck in the morning

Cleaning the streets every morning

During the 4 days I was at the festival, I stayed in the S&M Motel, parked on the street a comfortable walk from the downtown. It wasn’t quiet though.  I stayed near the Citadel where the nightly fireworks are held, just up the street from the outdoor stage where rock concerts begin every night at 11 PM.  Because San Fermin is a civic holiday, street parking is free for the duration of the festival.

One guy lifting another into the air while other San Fermin partiers look on

Enthusiastic Partiers

Despite all this craziness, I never felt unsafe during San Fermin.  Even in the crush of the crowds, the atmosphere is upbeat and friendly.  I saw no violence or even aggression, which I would have expected when you have so many drunk people in one place.  I believe that I would have been safe sleeping alone in a park or on the street, though I didn’t try it to find out.

A guy in grey t-shirt and jeans laying on the grass beside a flower bed, both littered with garbage

This looks like a good place to sleep

Have you been to San Fermin?  If so, what was your experience?  If not, what is the wildest event you’ve ever been to?

Flashback Friday — this is another in a series of posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.


Camping for Free in Europe

March 29, 2013

It is definitely possible to camp for free Europe across Europe.  Free camping, dry camping, wild camping and boondocking (all of which have slightly different meanings) are terms used to describe camping somewhere other than a paid campground.  In most countries in Europe you can camp for free with a motorhome anywhere it is legal to park overnight.  Free camping is usually not allowed (or is much harder to do) if you are sleeping in a tent or a trailer (known in Europe as a caravan).

We choose to free camp because it allows us to stay in unique places where we couldn’t stay otherwise (e.g. in the wilderness, at the beach, close to cities or attractions, or at any desirable stopping point along our journey). In some cases there is no campground available or conveniently located, or they’re not open (which is often the case when traveling out of season).  We also choose to free camp to reduce costs.  Campgrounds in Europe typically charge $20 – $45 a night for two people.  On an extended journey, these costs really add up, so we try to spend multiple nights free camping for every night we spend in a campground.

In some places, free camping is illegal or discouraged.  It may be against the national law (like in Greece where this rule is commonly ignored), local bylaws, or the sensibilities of the local residents or police.  There may be signs restricting overnight parking or specifically RV parking.  There are often height barriers on parking lots to prevent RVs (and particularly gypsy caravans) from entering a parking area, in which case we are forced to take our free camping and our business elsewhere.

There are several common ways to free camp in Europe.

Aires

Aires de Service (service areas) are places designated for the parking and servicing of RVs.  They are very common in France and are available to a lesser extent in several other European countries (e.g. Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal)  Aires provide free or very cheap RV parking and often services like drinking water, grey and black water and garbage disposal, but rarely electricity.  No trailers or tents are allowed.  Items should not be set up outside one’s RV (e.g. no awnings, folding tables, chairs, or clothes lines.)  Aires are usually provided by cities, towns, or businesses to encourage visitors and patronage.  Provided a parking place for RVs also discourages visitors from parking overnight on the streets, and concentrates them in a particular area.

Sign saying 'Aire de Stationnement Reservee Aux Camping-Cars'  showing a picture of a car being towed awa

‘Parking Area Reserved for Motorhomes’

Aires are usually basic affairs — parking lots, paved or unsurfaced, with a service point where clean and dirty water can be on and off loaded.  The service points are often custom-built, just a fresh water tap and access to the sewer.  Sometimes the service points are commercially produced versions, which use money or tokens to gain access to the services.  Most Aires are unmanned and the service points are sometimes in disrepair, which is made worse if some people dump their waste anyhow.

A white metal box with buttons and hookups for water

A Nice Service Point

Aires rarely have the charm or the privacy of a national or state park campground.  European commercial campgrounds almost never provide privacy anyhow, so they aren’t much different in that regard.  Aires provide hassle-free parking that is often close to cities, attractions, or beaches, and a place to service one’s RV.

A white sign with blue border showing a black motorhome dumping water below

RV Service Point Sign

There are web sites and books that identify and describe the thousands of Aires available in Europe.  As a traveler, it’s useful to have all the information you can get when trying to find a place to stay.

Urban Camping

The main advantage of staying in an urban setting is proximity to attractions, restaurants, and nightlife.  It’s nice to be able to walk to the city center.  It’s great to be able to enjoy a night on the town without worrying about driving or transport back to a campground.

When staying somewhere other than an official overnight camping place, it is important to choose wisely.  In the city, it’s important to blend in, typically some place where other vehicles are parked like a truck stop, commercial parking lot, residential neighbourhood, etc.  Ideally it will be a place with good lighting and people nearby (for safety reasons) but no noisy or nosy neighbours, loud traffic or pedestrians, nor trucks running their refrigeration units all night.  In some countries like Germany, Austria, and France it is safe to sleep at the roadside rest stops, but in other countries like Spain and Portugal this is ill advised as robberies sometimes occur.

OUr white RV parked beside a canal with cars in front and back

Parking by the canal in Gouda (yes, where the cheese comes from) in Amsterdam

If you choose your parking place wisely, remain in the vehicle, and don’t disturb anyone, only rarely will you be chased away.  This has never happened to us.  I’m sure it will be very disconcerting when we eventually get a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  If this happens, it will hopefully be the police knocking.  Being forced to move along could be a real problem if we’ve had a drink, and are therefore not in a position to safely drive away.

OUr motorhome parked by the river in front of Rila Monastery

Camping in front of Rila Monastery, Bulgaria

In urban camping situations, especially in places where it is questionable to stay, we try to arrive at or after dark so as not to draw attention to ourselves.  We don’t exit the vehicle and camp in stealth mode with shades drawn and no external lights.  Cocooned in the S&M Motel, we can enjoy a lovely evening, with a fine meal, a good book, or a movie on the laptop.  In the morning the pressure is usually off as there are no issues with parking during the day.  In some iffy situations it is best to depart early in the morning.  Sometimes we’ll drive a short distance enjoying our coffee and tea before stopping somewhere nice for breakfast.

Wild Camping

Camping in the countryside or wilderness settings is a great way to get close to nature.  It allows us to stay close to parks, mountains, beaches or other places of natural beauty and outdoor recreation.

In addition to campgrounds and aires, it is sometimes possible to stay on private land (e.g. farms, wineries, churches, monasteries, restaurant parking lots, etc.)  In these cases permission should be obtained from the owner, which is sometimes difficult to do if they are not to be found or you don’t share a common language.

Our RV in a parking lot with snow and ski slopes in the background

Parking at a ski resort in Andorra

But wild camping is best done on public land away from civilization, in a quiet, remote place.  Ideally this is near a lake, river, ocean, mountains, or other beautiful vista.  There is nothing like free camping with the windows open, to wake with the sun rising over a beautiful landscape.  We experienced this on a beach near Tarifa in Southern Spain, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar.  By day we walked the long sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and at night we enjoyed the lights of Tangier across the water in Morocco (Africa).  We also stayed at the beach in several villages on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece.

Our RV with awning extended with dinner table and chairs set outside

Staying at the beach in Kala Nero, Greece

Our RV in a line with others in a sand parking lot on the beach

Camping ON the beach in Kastro, Greece

The biggest challenge with wild camp sites is how to find them.  If you’re staying closer to civilization, it is necessary to find an out-of-the-way place, preferably a spot on a quiet side road or dead-end street that is obscured from view.  In these conditions, you should try to keep a low profile by following the guidelines for urban camping above.  You should not stay on private land without permission or you risk facing the wrath of the owner.

Our RV in a parking lot overlooking the Tuscan countryside

Camping with an amazing Tuscan view in Cortona, Italy

Sometimes we learn of wild camping locations from other people.  They share this information in person or on the Internet.  A more challenging way to find pristine wild camping spots it to scout them out oneself.  A good approach is to seek out a body of water using maps or the GPS, then follow along it checking the side roads until you find a nice place.  This is a skill that our friends Sue and Martin have mastered, and that we are still developing.

Our white RV parked beside a Swiss lake

Staying beside the lake near Bonigen, Switzerland

We did a lot more free camping in Phase 2 of our European adventure.  The combination of more experience and warmer weather allowed us to stay in some amazing places and to lower our costs.  And when we do get that knock on the door in the middle of the night, there will probably be a blog story in it.

Diane at sunset with a long sandy beach and buildings below ni the distance

View from our campsite on a cliff in Nazare (Sitia), France

Note — this is one of a continuing series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels that didn’t quite get finished while we were on the road.


Cinque Terre

March 22, 2013

Flashback Friday — this is the first of a series of Friday posts about memorable events from recent travels.  They are a collection of writings that didn’t quite get published while we were on the road.

Our plans to visit Cinque Terre (‘Five Lands’) on the west coast of Italy in 2011 were thwarted by a killer storm on the night of October 25th.  We arrived in La Spezia during the early part of the tempest that did harm to the entire region, and catastrophic damage to 2 of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  In progress rescue work and the damage to the trail, the roads, and the rail line made doing the hike impossible at that time.  Not only could we not hike, but we were trapped in La Spezia for 3 days until the first road opened that would allow us to leave.

After this trying experience, we were glad to have the opportunity to revisit Cinque Terre in June, 2012.  We weren’t sure whether the famous Sentiero Azzurro (‘Azure Trail’) that connects the villages had been re-opened or what state it would be in, but we suspected that the people of the region would do everything possible to resurrect the primary source of their livelihoods as quickly as possible.

After our bad experience last visit in the only RV parking place in La Spezia, we decided to stay in a campground by a river in Ameglia, a few kilometers south of town.  The large, concrete bridge over this river that we had crossed during the storm had washed away later that evening, so on our return trip we had to detour upstream to another crossing and back down again to get to the campsite.  The receptionist said that the entire campground, including the buildings and the swimming pool, was flooded under 2 meters (6.5 feet) of water during the storm.  Thankfully everything was restored in time for the 2012 camping season and looked in fine shape to us.

We left our campground at 7:20 AM the next morning, drove to La Spezia to park, walked across town, and caught the 10:06 train to Corniglia, the 3rd of the 5 villages of Cinque Terre.  By doing so we avoided the crowds who walk only the easiest section of the trail between the 1st village (Riomaggiore) and the 2nd village (Manarola).  We would return to see these village and hike this section later in the day.  When we disembarked in Corniglia, while most others walked up the stairs, we hopped on board the free shuttle that runs up the steep hill (something the others may have been unaware of), bypassing the 368 steps and getting a head start.  Corniglia is a tiny village suspended on a rocky outcrop overlooking steep cliffs and the beautiful Mediterranean.  After a quick walk around (these villages are tiny, but we still managed to get lost in the labyrinth) we found the trail and started our hike.

Many coloured houses atop a green slope

Corniglia viewed from the trail

It took us about 1 hour to hike to Vernazza. Despite our proximity to the sea, it was very hot.  I was sweating like a tourist.  We found that lots of reconstruction had been completed (rock retaining walls, hand rails, trail work, etc.) and more was underway, but the trail was easily passable.

Diane standing on a yellow walkway that allows one to bypass trail construction work in progress

Trail construction under way

Vernazza also clings to the cliff along this glorious stretch of coastline.

Village with coloured houses on a cliff jutting out into the ocean

Approaching Vernazza

e ate the Italian salami sandwiches that we’d brought with us on the rocky point by the harbour while children were swimming around us.  Others were eating fresh pizza from the village, or sitting at the restaurant in the bay.  We continued hiking and soon were treated with a postcard view back on Vernazza.

Village of many small buildings surrounding a harbour

Vernazza

By mid-afternoon it was really hot and humid.

Patrick wearing maroon shirt and beige hat, sweating, with grees in background

Patrick Sweating

This last section of the trail was the most rugged and challenging.  We could see why most people skip it on the faces of those hiking towards us.

Steep cliffs covered in trees alongside the ocean

Rugged coastline between Vernazza and Monterosso

Despite this, It took us only 1 hour and 15 minutes to reach Monterosso al Mare.

A beach on the ocean with a small village and boardwalk behind and mountains in the distance

Rounding the point towards Monterosso

Hot and tired, we went for a swim here on the small section of beach which is open to the public.  It didn’t have the amenities of the private beach areas (umbrellas, change rooms, and lockers) but it did have a small fresh water shower to rinse off afterwards.

Looking along the beach with umbrellas and sunbathers and ocean to the right

The beach at Monterosso

I changed on the beach under Diane’s wrap and she changed in the train station bathroom across the street.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have another set of clothes, so we had to put our sweaty and smelly ones back on.  Afterwards we walked out to the point for yet another amazing view.

Small boats at anchor in the ocean with a beach and village in the background

Boats at anchor in Monterosso

We caught a mid-afternoon train back to Manarola (the 2nd village).

A narrow streat filled with people with balconies and awnings on both sides

Manarola’s main street

We watched the kids swimming and jumping from the rocks near the boat launch and then wandered out to the point for another tourist photo op.

Patrick in burgandy t-shirt and sunglasses with Manarola coloured houses and cliffs in the background

Patrick and Manarola

Leaving Manarola, we walked about 15 minutes on perhaps the best ‘trail’ I’ve ever been.  Hugging the cliff, it was more like a sidewalk and is wheelchair accessible.

Diane waving from the window of a section of the 'trail' enclosed into a rock tunnel with windows

Diane on a great ‘trail’

We arrived in Riomaggiore and decided to immediately catch the train back to La Spezia.  It had been a long, hot, and very memorable day.

Close up of Diane and Patrick seated on the train


Still Tickin’…

October 22, 2012

Things have been pretty quiet on the blog for the last couple of months.  This left more than a few people wondering where we are and what we’re up to.  Don’t worry.  We’re alive and ticking.  Things just got busier through August and September, including a bunch of visits to Europe from friends and family, and some time spent in all-consuming activities like mountain climbing.

We spent the summer exploring Western Europe, including Switzerland, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands.  A lot of this time was in the company of others who visited from Canada, or that we’ve met on our travels.  Making friends and experiencing new things with those I care about is always fulfilling.  Thank-you so much to those of you who joined in our adventure and/or invited us into your homes.

We arrived home safely and are staying with Diane’s brother (our home is still rented) while we catch up and prepare for our next adventure (more on this in future).  Despite the NHL (ice hockey) lockout, we still seem to have plenty to do.  We’re getting back in shape (a steady diet of bread, wine, and cheese can pack on the pounds), and plan on spending as much time as possible through the holiday season with family and friends.

I’ll be continuing to post on the blog.  I still have tales to tell about the last part of our journey.  I have a number of blog postings written but not yet published, and a few stories that just need to be shared.

Patrick kissing Diane in front of a fountain in Dole, France


Capuchin Crypt

July 10, 2012

One of the most shocking things on our trip thus far was a visit to the crypt under the church  Santa Maria della Concerzione dei Cappunccini in Rome.  I’ve seen human bones before, but nothing like this.  Sue and Martin had strongly suggested that we go see this atypical attraction, so we made a point of tracking it down, but didn’t know what to expect.  We were amazed.

The Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (O.F.M.Capuchin) is an order of friars in the Roman Catholic Church, an offshoot of the Franciscan monks.  The Order arose in the early 16th Century when a Franciscan friar was inspired to return to the lifestyle of their founder, St. Francis of Assisi.  Originally persecuted by their superiors, they were granted refuge by another order of monks and adopted their hooded habit (capuccio) from which their name Capuchin derives.

Present-day Capuchin Friars (source: blog Stumbling After Francis)

Due to their visual similarity, both the Capuchin monkey (hooded appearance) and cappuccino coffee (the shade of brown of the friar’s habits) were named after this order of friars.

Capuchin monkey with the brow of his ‘hood’ showing

The Capuchin friar’s life is one of extreme austerity, simplicity, and poverty, following the ideals of St. Francis.  Their chief work is to preach among the poor, impressing them with their devotion, and the poverty and austerity of their lifestyles. Neither the friars nor their monasteries should possess anything, not should any provisions be laid down for future.  Everything should be obtained by begging, and the friars were not even allowed to touch money. Today there are still over 10,000 Capuchin friars and a female branch of the Order called the Capuchin Poor Clares, whose life is so austere that they are also known as The Suffering Sisters.

On our last day in Rome we visited the Capuchin Crypt.  When Capuchin friars arrived at the church in 1631, they brought 300 cartloads of their deceased brethren with them.  Their bones were arranged in 5 small crypts under the church, not as complete skeletons or as simple groupings of similar bones, but in decorative patterns!  The friars also brought sufficient soil all the way from Jerusalem for the floors of the crypts to bury their newly dead.  When someone died, they exhumed the bones of the one who had been buried the longest (typically 30 years) to make room for the new body.  The exhumed bones were added to the decoration, which includes amazing artistic creations (including light fixtures) made from the human bones of approximately 4000 people!

Crypt of The Skulls

The Catholic church explains that the display is not meant to be macabre, but to remind people of how short life is, a powerful message regardless of one’s religious leanings.  On the ceiling of the Crypt of the Three Skeletons there is a skeleton holding a scythe, a reminder that death will cut us all down, and a set of scales, implying that we will all be judged.

Crypt of the Three Skeletons

What you are now, we used to be.  What we are now, you will be.   – plaque in the Capuchin Crypt

Note – Photos are prohibited in the crypt so the images above were scrounged from Google image search.