Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Hiking the Dune du Pilat in the Arcachon Basin near Bordeaux, France



My friends Mel and Sue say that everyone has a dune story to tell when they come to this stunning southwestern French Atlantic outpost near Bordeaux.

When I hiked the Dune du Pilat, my dune story was the thrill of climbing to the ridge of the immense dune and having the constant bird's eye view of forest and ocean on either side. It was as if walking on the spine of a giant slumbering beast: I could also see the Arcachon Basin, an amazing estuary rich with diverse bird and sea life. I could just make out the waves at Cap Ferret, a narrow finger of land that almost closes the basin off from the ocean. And on my way up, I met a smart young Bavarian woman who was an agriculture student and spoke passionately about (re)creating a world where we grow good food locally and with sustainable practices. I hiked and learned and saw the potential of that world all around me.


When I descended from the spine after trekking the 6-kilometers long trail, I discovered a little open-air dune-side restaurant serving simply prepared, just-foraged mussels, perhaps the best I've ever eaten. The mussels came from just over the rise in the Arcachon Basin, and the chef was happy to share her recipe, noted below.

Arcachon and the Dune du Pilat are an easy day-trip from Bordeaux: Take the train from Bordeaux’s St-Jean station to the town of Arcachon where right in front of the train station is a bus going to the dune.  






Dune du Pilat Tarragon Mussels

1 ½ to 2 pounds fresh mussels, cleaned, rinsed, and discarding any that are open or broken.
1 small white onion, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
¾ cup dry white wine
¼ cup fresh tarragon leaves stripped from the stem but not chopped.
Salt & pepper to taste

Sautee the onions in the olive oil in a large pot. Add the mussels, white wine, tarragon, and salt and pepper. Cover and bring the pot to a boil and then lower the heat to steam the mussels until they open. Once they open, take the mussels off the heat and discard any that did not open.

Enjoy the mussels with a glass of dry white wine (ideally, the same one you cooked with) and crusty bread or french fries.



Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Camino de Vino Across Southern France and Northern Spain on the Way of Saint James


Both pilgrimage and wine are about the journey and on the Camino de Santiago the two are often in one glass


Nothing connects me more deeply to wine than walking eight hours a day through vineyard after vineyard across southern France and northern Spain on the Camino de Santiago, that thousand year old pilgrimage route to Saint James the Greater’s supposed tomb in Santiago de Compostela. Life unfolds at the pace of photosynthesis and footfall. At night the two fuse over a glass from the land and with the locals I met that day. (I've been walking this road, on different routes, since 1995 and it keeps calling me back. My most recent trek was this spring. There is always more to learn!)


In Gascony, heavy clusters of golden Petit Manseng hanging on a fence high upon a hill overhead dazzled me as the sun backlit them in late morning light like luminous angels descending from heaven. At night, I found a bottle of Jurançon from the vineyard and shared it with fellow pilgrims: It tasted like the day, a liquid journal, right down to the sweep of wind through sorghum and sunflowers and the distant moo from the caramel-cream spotted cow.

In Navarra, I took in a local glass at the old wine monastery of Irache’s fountain with two spigots, one for water and one for wine, a tradition carried on by Bodegas Irache to honor pilgrims and recall Jesus’ first miracle. Like Jesus’ wine, theirs was pretty good.



In Leon, I joined the harvest and stomped Tempranillo with acquaintances in an old bathtub in their garage. We barreled and stored the future wine then uncorked prior years’ vintages and feasted all night on backyard grilled paprika chicken, potatoes, and salads plucked from the garden.



In Galicia, at Santiago at last, two brother chefs at Café Iacobus celebrated my finish with a gift, grilled sea scallops and a glass of small-production Albariño, both procured from the same coastal spot.

 
How can one separate the Camino from wine when this intimately bound together?

The Camino’s making was directly connected to winemaking. With their medieval building campaigns to support the pilgrimage, celibate foodie monks also revived the interrupted ancient wine craft brought to southern France and northern Spain by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans millennia before. On the church stones they engraved copious wine scenes, from wine miracles (water to wine, wine to blood) to the vine representing Jesus who sustains it all.


When around AD 1139 the monk Aimery Picaud wrote Europe’s first travel guide, The Pilgrims’ Guide to St James of Compostela, he praised the wines of Bordeaux, Estella in Navarra, and Carrion de los Condes in Castile. In Galicia, so close to Santiago, he bemoaned wine’s scarcity but in the same pen-stroke praised the cider.



If Picaud and the other monks had wine as much as salvation on their minds, I feel fine following in their footsteps. The Camino will work this magic anyhow, weaving the walker into the sacredness of the land and people, with wine as its conduit.




Some Camino wines with heavenly little plates:

Southwestern France
Gascony
Jurançon sec and Abbaye de Belloc sheep’s milk cheese
Madiran and dry cured duck prosciutto with fresh figs

Basque Country
Irouléguy rosé with jambon de Bayonne and melon

Northern Spain
Rioja
Crianza and sautéed wild mushrooms with garlic and thyme

Bierzo
Mencía and spicy lamb meatballs in tomato sauce

Rias Baixas
Albariño and grilled sea scallops and chives

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Najera’s Cave, Rioja, Spain

(among the most magical (and often most-overlooked) places on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, begun on 6 June 2014)


Straddling the pretty Naverette River with red sandstone cliffs and green river banks, Nájera is a gregarious town hiding a holy cave. 


The monastery, Monasterio de Santa María la Real, is built right into the cliff. Upon entering you pass through the cloister with its delicate Gothic-arched latticework and then deeper in you reach the church. 


In the very back is the cave, discovered in AD 1044 when the king of Navarra, García III, followed his hunting falcon, who was pursuing a partridge. Behind the thicket hiding the cave he spied a mysterious light and discovered Our Lady of Nájera surrounded by white lilies and the two birds, now good friends rather than predator and prey. 


You can visit the red sandstone cave, most likely carved out of the soft stone around the 3rd century. It was then forgotten, overgrown by forest and hidden, until that mystical day in the 11th century.

More on Nájera's folklore. 

Friday, June 27, 2014

San Pedro de la Rua, Estella, Navarra

(among the most magical (and often most-overlooked) places on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, begun on 6 June 2014


  Called “Estella la Bella” in the Middle Ages, Estella remains beautiful and is packed full with sacred sites but none that exceed the 12th century hilltop church of San Pedro de la Rua.  


The doorway is a multi-lobed Mudéjar style by Muslim craftsmen working in medieval Christian Spain. The archway holds several mystical keys often missing in other entranceways. One medallion over the arch points shows the hand of God holding up three fingers for the Trinity. Another depicts a lamb and the chi-rho that both represent Christ, but notice that the Alpha and Omega are in reverse, leading some to believe that the artisan was influenced by Arabic or Hebrew, both of which are written from right to left. 


Islamic creatures populate the arches, such as the two Persian-style winged birds on the left capital. Interwoven throughout the arches are Biblical tales, fanciful plants, and Celtic knots. 



 Inside is an open, rounded altar that holds Mary on the viewer's left, and left of her, an enigmatic pillar of three braided serpents. Mary is from the 13th century, but the three serpents are the 1893 restoration work of sculptor Cayetano Echauri who was a specialist of occult symbolism. He wanted to restore the medieval esoteric tradition of this region in his work. The three serpents represent good, evil, and wisdom and they are intertwined to represent the interplay of wisdom in discerning good from bad. 
  
Further back, San Pedro’s cloister reflects the mixed heritage from the front of the church, especially in the Basque pre-Christian solar disk tombstones and the Islamic Mudéjar-style plants and animals on the pillar capitals. 



To learn more about the deeper esoteric past and present in Estella and other mystical sites on the Camino, please see my book, The Spiritual Traveler Spain and my app (both on iTunes and Android), The Esoteric Camino France & Spain.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Capilla de la Corticela, Santiago de Compostela, Spain

(among the most magical (and often most-overlooked) places on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, begun on 6 June 2014)   


 
Inside the 12th century Romanesque cathedral of Santiago de Compostela are several splendid little universes.  

Among the most interesting is the Capilla de la Corticela, an overlooked little chapel just to the right of the northern entrance, the Puerta de la Azbachería. It was a 9th century church that was once separate from the cathedral but that eventually was absorbed into its expansion and reconfigured with a 12th century Romanesque entrance. 


 
Step through the threshold and you will likely discover that La Capilla de la Corticela has an amazing magic pulsating in it, as if the old magic of this Neolithic hilltop is for some reason strongest here. If you sit here and pray and meditate a while, you will also witness locals coming and going in their own magical engagement of the space, some leaving offerings and others writing wishes on slips of paper to deposit to the left of the shrine.

Eunate, Navarra, Spain

(among the most magical (and often most-overlooked) places on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, begun on 6 June 2014)



Santa Maria de Eunate is a beautiful little remote round chapel surrounded by grazing sheep and rolling hills between Pamplona and Puente la Reina. 



No one knows who built this octagonal chapel dedicated to Mary. It may have the Templar Knights, who were inspired by the eight-sided Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. What makes this 12th century church all the more enigmatic is its 33-arched cloister surrounding the outside of the church like Saturn’s rings and that eunate is the Basque word for “one hundred doors.” 



From Basques to Christians and Muslims, there is a mixed ancestry at work here. 




Thirty-three is Jesus’s age when he was crucified. Jesus is a part of a holy trinity. Prayer beads in Islam number 33 and are circled three times to meditate on the 99 names of God. Eunate’s 33 arches can be walked around three times like a labyrinth or  walking rosary, arriving at 99. Enter the chapel door and you have “one hundred doors.” 



That this meditation is set in one of the most enchanted landscapes of northern Spain adds to its depth.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Ara Solis, Finisterre, Galicia


(among the most magical (and often most-overlooked) places on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, begun on 6 June 2014)   

Finisterre, an outcropping of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean along Galicia’s rugged fishing coast, is considered a final destination of the Camino after Santiago de Compostela. Here, the old Roman road across northern Spain also ends, marked by the Ara Solis, an altar to the dying sun. It was once located on the highest point near Finisterre’s present-day lighthouse. 


Finisterre also appears to have been the end of an initiatory road dating back before the Romans, to Celtic and perhaps Neolithic times, as indicated by the ancient remains of a nearby Neolithic stone circle on Monte San Guillermo and other Neolithic and Celtic remains sprinkled along Finisterre’s jagged coastline. 


Pre-Christian lore survives concerning fertility rites among women who were having trouble getting pregnant: They would visit a dolmen nearby, on Mount Fache, a tall, vertical dolmen that once stood there, hoping to improve their chances through proximity to its symbolic potency. Too explicit and disturbing for an 18th century bishop, he had the dolmen destroyed. While the dolmen is gone, the climb is exhilarating for the stunning view and feeling of being on top of the world.