Advertising (kind of)

Empty wine bottle (sketchy)

With the firm agreement that Sketchy Behaviour (Jaén’s best drawing club) should be resurrected for 2016, we thought we’d start things off with a bang! This particular cheeky number is only just over 2€ in Lidl, and very delicious it is too (if in a slightly ribena-y way).

The Camino Cleanse

Packing List

No lemons, cayenne pepper or questionable bowel habits – I promise! I’ve already posted about the inevitability of a sexier post-camino ass so you’re not going to take need such drastic measures. And if you don’t know what this camino I’m going on about is, feel free to investigate here, here or here.

This cleanse is an altogether different kind of cleanse. A cleanse that one might achieve by first becoming (arguably) a little bit dirtier.

It started with the realisation that an albergue is simply no place to apply concealer: the lighting is TERRIBLE, you probably have to share the mirror with at least two other people and the all pervading smell of feet will make your efforts seem a bit, well, dirty.

I’m not going to go on an all-out war on make up on or off the camino: there is a pan-species precedent for adornment (thanks Darwin!), and personally I like wearing a bit of lipstick and mascara. But few animals have taken quite as far as the court of the sun king or it’s modern equivalent: Somerset House during London Fashion Week.

At the risk of sounding like a “feminine personal care” advert, we all need to be clean and well presented, but do other people care what we look like as much as we’re lead to beleive?

The back story (or, how I obliterated any sign of my actual face, daily)

As a very long time acne sufferer, I spent at least 20 years covering my skin in “product”.  My skin was very red, bumpy and I would have new painful “blind” spots and whiteheads almost every day. I spent, probably (I’m pretty ashamed to say) thousands of pounds over the course of around 20 years trying to clean, cover or otherwise rid myself of this broken .

I’m eternally thankful to Elaine Mummery whose dietary advice has almost completely rid me of this issue: no topical products required.

But it’s made me angry: mostly about my own naivety . Claims made by cosmetics companies via their generally beautiful and delicately complexioned staff who, (visibly not suffering from skin complaints) could reasonably peddle any advertising information they had been given as some manner of universal skin health truth.

My own profession too, seemed to play into, rather than stand to oppose expensive and medicated solutions.

A free face at last (I know, this back story is going on a bit isn’t it?)

Imperfect, but reasonably clear appearing skin has been a liberation: from the mirror (minimum half hour prep before leaving home) to the obligatory financial toll of all that snake oil from both the skincare and make up industries.

I was glad about the liberation of my own face, but I hadn’t really considered properly stripping back on, say moisturiser, masks, the odd bit of concealer here or there, nor indeed had I thought in any detail about the products which I continued to buy and my role in continuing to fund an industry which is worth more in the

But the camino forced me to pare back further: to really consider the cosmetic choices I continued to make. I left my first albergue with the decluttered wash bag: a toothbrush, toothpaste, sunscreen, body wash, a nail brush, razor, tweezers, black mascara and red lipstick.

No Poo? Low Poo.

The observant among you will have have noted there was no shampoo or conditioner in that list. I’m not technically “no poo”: I do wash my hair once every three to four months – but I did wonder if the sweat and soil of the camino might push me over the edge. I decided to risk it, in the knowledge that shops were never too far away.

But for every one person who recoils in disgust for my “no poo” lifestyle, many more are disturbed, grossed out or squeamish about my “no deo”. I have intermittently not worn deodorant: at home, at the weekend, and the camino seemed as if it might be a bit sweaty regardless, so I dumped it for the 30 day duration as well.

The Unadorned Face

How will people react, when I speak to them, face (and indeed, hair and armpits) unadorned?

It turns out: totally fine. Although my face would best be cast in the part “scullery maid number 3 (no lines)” in a period drama, or on a bad day (and let’s face it, on the Camino there are bad days) as a stand in for Woody Allen, it turns out that other people couldn’t give two hoots.

And yet, in the UK the average spend on cosmetics and skincare alone last year was £1,759 for 19 to 24 year olds, rising to £2,238 in the 45-54 year olds. The beauty industry say women spend this money because it’s fun and empowering to experiment with your look – and I did too – what am I going to say “I spend the money because I’m ashamed of my face”?

Did I (a vegetarian and pet lover) consider animal rights too heavily when I was trying to rid myself of my suppurating skin? Nope. My face became an ethical blind spot: everything was justified in the name of promise never delivered.

The scientific evidence for the products with which we layer our skin is nigh-on non existent. The marketing budgets for all international cosmetic companies dwarf any spending on product development: their investment in really trying to improve our skin.

Still Travelling Light

The make up bag I carried on the camino continues to serve me now. I have some locally made soap in place of the body wash, and I’ll update the make up with ethical cruelty free brands (more difficult than it first appears – advice appreciated) when they run out.

My hair was rinsed many many many times (particularly after swimming in the sea) but no ‘poo was used during the walking. Although I did wash slightly prematurely at the end of the 30 day walk, and my “low poo” regime continues to this day.

As for the antiperspirant? I certainly wouldn’t bother heading back down that road. Ditch your cosmetics for a small soap and a travel face towel and really “freshen up” in the toilets.

Am I saying “ditch a cleaning ritual”, “ditch the pleasure of beautiful scents and fragrant skin”?

No. Feeling relaxed and pampered is a wonderful gift. I’m more likely now to spend money on going to a hamman or spa: paying a person for their time, and some oils or honey than a pot of high-tech empty promises on a shelf.

Although my cleanse was perhaps less spiritual than  most, removed from daily life, this journey across Europe’s north coast can become a place of experimentation: assumptions, possessions and values which we carry can be challenged, and if necessary discarded. I’m sure I’m not alone.

Must we all be beautiful? It’s very tiring and and sometimes a bit of a chore, and I’ve not seen all of series 2 of “House of Cards” yet.





A Sexier Ass in 30 days? That’s a Given, Baby – Why the Camino Bestows an Allure that Lasts all Winter.

walking uphill

My ass was in excellent condition when I finished the Camino del Norte this summer. I was leaner, with toned legs and “a bit of colour” – which is as sun-kissed as someone with decidedly northern european colouring can manage without flirting with a melanoma or suchlike.

But it’s true that summer’s lease hath all too short a date, and my fleetingly toned thighs and rear have given way to flabbier, more pallid self (or “the real me” as any acquaintance might recognise).

But the Camino’s sexiness bestowing powers are more than skin deep!

So here are 5 sexiness enhancing attributes that will last you long into winter:

1. Improved fluency in other languages

Language learning can be a bit sexy, or make you an enormous arse (not of the sexy toned kind). If you are one one of the webs growing community of language learners, you might wish to flex some lingual muscle chatting to some of the many nationalities on the camino.

Walkers are still predominantly Spanish, and if you’re looking for some low cost hispanic immersion, you can definitely find it here. The Ruta del Norte still isn’t as commercial as the French Way, and 30 days of café con leche and the odd caña will certainly give you a solid “holidaymaker’s level”.

Following the publication of French intellectual, Jean Christophe Rufin’s “Immortelle randonée, Compostelle malgré moi” there are a fair number of Frenchies to be found en-route, so learners of the language of Voltaire won’t be disappointed either.

Avoid being an enormous arse by 1) not making prior assumptions about any one person’s level of any given language and 2) being courteous with those who wish to practice their English with you.

2. Amigos Internacionales

On the french route much is made of “a camino family”, a concept I find frankly claustrophobia-inducing (anybody with me on this?). The Camino del Norte offers a more gentle camaraderie on the level of a facebook friend. Return with tales of “your new family” and your mates will think you’ve joined a cult. Return with a scattering of potential European coffee dates and you will instantly seem enchantingly more mondaine.

3. An Enviable Instagram Feed

The millennials are sexy on and offline. I was born in 1980 and as such missed the party by a whisker (very much my general style), my brother, only 18 months younger, is a child of the age of IT.

What makes instagram so annoying, are of course the captions: “enjoying a coffee in Bilbao #caminodesantiago”. Forgo this level of banality. Tell people “yeah, I’m just using it as as sort of visual diary”, and post a date and the hashtag. This alone is more difficult than it sounds as both wifi and plugs can be at a premium.

The occasional, well curated yellow arrow tells a story. Don’t snap ’em all.

Alternatively do snap ’em all. Every last one of the bastards. Geotag and provide a detailed description of each one. You’ll be walking for two extra weeks (at least), but some news media outlet will take up the story of one walker’s obsession with yellow paint.

This should not need said but: DO NOT POST PICTURES OF YOUR FEET.

4. Real or Imagined Survival Skills

But predominantly imagined ones. The important thing is that you survived in the Spanish wilderness with only a flick-knife  some safety pins and your credit card. And that card was NOT accepted at all local retailers.

To your friends in an office in Luton, you might as well be Bear Ghrylls.

5. Profound Insights and Wisdom from this Mediative Experience.

Nietzche, Kant, Bear Grylls, that French one (see above), Dickens, Orwell and Ray Mears .

Many great thinkers and writers are great walkers. Thankfully, and the human brain is better at lazy association than an imagined venn diagram where you are placed within in the “walkers but not thinkers” crescent.

Step after step on the white stones on the forest floor, being buffeted in a costal crosswind or sheltering from a torrential downpour under one of those charming Galician grain shelters, it would be easy to think you were contemplating the greater matters in life, and it’s in the interests of your sexiness that you cultivate this. “I’m running out of Compeed*”, “I think I left my towel in the last albergue” or “I hope that snoring guy isn’t there tonight” don’t have the same pulling power.

My own most profound insight from the Camino was that Paulo Coelho’s the Alchemist is a reliable and powerful “screening question” at parties. “I totally love that book” should provoke a sudden, and urgent need for a trip to the toilet.

*other blister plasters are available, but none are as good.

Where’s weird now?

Move over Austin, there’s a new weird kid in town


Jaén. No, not Jane. “Hayen”, and if you can cough up that “h” like a furball, all the better (you’ll be needing it later).

I’ve often not chosen great places to live, rather, I’ve had great places thrust upon me.

Saving some money to live in Paris, I found myself in London’s Homerton during the “fried chicken years”. First impressions weren’t good. The only shop open after 9pm was “Senoritas”, whose services I was unlikely to require. But over the subsequent four years, and during the early days of it’s gentrification, Homerton was an edgy and exciting place to live.

And throughout my time in Paris, I felt like I’d ditched my quirky, funny boyfriend for a superficially superior specimen, but longed for the weird goings-on at the canals and in the basements of Stoke Newington.*

I came to Spain to learn Spanish and live in Seville. And I did, for four months.

I found some quirky cafes (Thank you Alameda), some tourist strongholds and a picturesque river walk but when I started to look for permanent work, I cast my net wide, knowing this postcard city and I weren’t a match.

I wasn’t keen to come to Jaén, but soon-to-be-beggars certainly can’t be choosers, and I passed up some poorly paid work in the charming Cadiz to come to a town which advertises it’s self as “an interior paradise”. Someone should tell 1) the Jaen tourist board: “ONLY ONE HOUR FROM GRANADA”, they scream, and 2) the Jaén wikipedia entry, which features a large roundabout as it’s main image. I was reassured by my at the time Pamplonian flatmate “It can’t be that bad” she said, “it’s got a  Corte Inglés”.

But she makes a striking impression, arriving from the west, with white houses lapping on the steep hills of Jabalcuz (“Habalcooth”, again go for it with that furball).

Architecturally, she’s underwhelming. Four weeks prior to the famously commemorated bombing of Guernica, Jaén suffered similar, devastating losses during a bombing raid as part of the Spanish Civil War. Narrow arabic streets provided a high concentration of deaths and casualties, and many of the old parts of the town were lost.

There’s not much said, on the internet or otherwise about small town architecture post war and during the Franco era. With good reason: the preferred style was ugly, or should that be cheap.

But Jaen got’s something about it.

It’s weird.

And it’s ok with that.

*There was an excellent Tuesday evening life drawing group in a Stokey basement. Great tunes. I hope it’s still there!

Culinary discovery on the Camino

A walk through the Spain’s North Coast with an unlimited food budget would be a discovery indeed. The Spanish culinary Renaissance is in full swing and the Michelin guide has been complementary in it’s sprinkling of stars over this region.

For the moment, I’m better placed to review relative prices of jars of chick peas in Carrefour and Dia supermarkets.

That’s not to say that there aren’t revelations to be had. The other day I discovered that it’s possible to guzzle non-liquid foodstuffs (chocolate raisins… 2 packets) and that under the right conditions (no other food for 20k) the proteinacious brine surrounding beans can be surprisingly tasty in and of it’s self. I don’t think the palates at Michelin have anything to worry about.

I first saw this contraption at Castillo, walking from Laredo to Güemes. It seems to aerate the drink, adding, I’m told, to ‘El sabor’. Very nice it is too.

Deba: The Steep City

It’s a steepness we are thankfully spared at the end of the day. An elevator in the street drops us around 7 floors, and another by around 5 to town level, where we stay in a well converted station building. An excellent albergue, which could have more clothes drying space! (Where is Albergueadvisor !?)

This is a15 minute sketch of the Iglesia de Santa Maria in the historic (and only) centre. Crowds gathered outside in black, too ‘alegre’ for a funeral and turned out to be musicians preparing for a concert in the nave. The conductor was an especially expressive chap.

El camino (del norte) sin miedo or 10 pre-camino fears debunked!

Here are 10 questions I asked my Andaluz students (the initially confident salesmen turned ill-informed instigators of this travel plan), prior to embarking on the Camino del Norte.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’d prefer something more informative than “¿Yo qué sé?” or  “¿En serio, te vas?”, so the answers are now my own.

  1. ¿Como voy a saber a donde ir?

I know, I know, I know: the yellow arrows. The question how to know where to go is one of confidence. You WILL know where to go, but until you experience it for yourself, you may not believe it (certainly my own experience). You’ve got a smart phone (probably), you can say at least “¿el camino de santiago por favor?”, and you may have a guide book. You are not going to get lost. Well not very often. And not at first at any rate.

If you’re starting from Irun or San Sebastian, and you’re walking with the Atlantic on your right hand side, you are  probably going the right way, and this holds true for a good majority of the walk.

The temptation is to walk on the promenades “not to miss an arrow”, but PLEASE release your feet from their sweaty bindings. Walking in the wet sand where the sea meets the shore is considerably less taxing than pushing through dry sand, and the sea and salt will soothe and strengthen your feet: nature’s natural blister remedy –  right where you need it most! One caveat: wash and dry your feet thoroughly at the many showering stations on any beach. Time taken looking after feet on this path is a sound investment. Remaining sand and moist feet will turn your socks into sandpaper and your feet into tender meat.

2. ¿Necesito una guia?

If you’re a nervy sort, then yes: you are going to need a guidebook. It is perfectly possible to do the camino without, although I think Spanish speakers would be in a stronger position. My students told me that it would be “muy facil compar una guía en San Sebastian”. And it was, very easy to buy A GUIDE IN CASTELLANO, in my native language, or indeed my pretty strong French: NADA.

The shopkeeper in Elkar pointed me towards a very neat, smaller than A5 volume, published by Rother. And it was an excellent recommendation. I had since written to the publisher suggesting they consider a French and English version in their next update, but Rother have sadly informed me that their only update in 2016 will be the German version.

3. ¿Que llevo conmigo?

Ah. The question which launched a thousand posts. Not to mention video blogs and forum questions. The ultimate guide on what to bring on the camino, is as elusive as it is searched for. The truth: as in so much in life, no one solution fits all. These guys have an excellent stab at it:

My personal favourite: Andrew Suzuki’s “Don’t stop walking”

Also commendable are Lindsey Cowie’s heavier, but probably comfier recommendations and a retrospective run down by the couple from “See you soon mom”.

Like the rest of the internet (!) I’ll be compiling a list of what I brought and what I would take next time. The main selling point of my list is that it was ultra cheap – having, as I did, a budget of around 150€ to prepare (including rucksack purchase!).

4. ¿Como es el clima en la costa en verano?

In theory the answer to this is: “it doesn’t really matter what the weather’s like, if you’ve got the right stuff”. In practice, even the for the ultra-high-spec-gear walkers, the major enemy of the peregrinos is the damp.

In my thirty days from San Sebastian to Santiago in June, I experienced 2 days of heavy downpour and 2 days of cloudiness with occasional light showers. The temperature seldom dipped below 18 degrees during the day, and although I saw a few of late afternoons with temperatures of over 30 degrees, the temperatures for walking were mostly closer to 25 degrees.

Things get pretty sweaty inside a waterproof, and bag straps can rub on skin. This is where your high tech fabrics wicking the sweat away from your the skin surface may have an advantage. I’ve mentioned damp feet, and on one day I actually stopped to dry my feet and change my socks before continuing onwards. Aim to pick up some sheets of newspaper at a bar prior to arriving at the albergue on a wet day: stuffing your shoes will help you avoid the misery of a cold, damp boot in the morning.

5. ¿Y si no quiero dormir abajo de las estrellas, podré encontrar sitio para dormir, sí?

Claro que sí.

There are more albergues on the ruta del Norte every year, although, you may have to walk further to get one than one might expect on the Camino Francés.

Sin embargo:

There is one particular area of “patchiness” in the Camino del Norte: depending on the distances covered and route: after Aviles, until and including Ribadeo. I stayed in more guest houses and private albergues in this part of the route than in any other.

Muros de Nalon:   Casa Carmina (Private Albergue, highly recommended – 15€, but some distance from any bars or shops)

Ballota: Casa Fernando (Low price hotel, shared room with 2 other walkers, to the tune of 23€ each)

Luarca: the closest I came to homelessness – on the wettest day of my camino. This stunning fishing village is a draw for travellers of every type, so it’s best to aim to arrive early  in the day. I found out to my cost : 45€, by far my priciest accommodation at the Hotel Baltico.

Arboces (La Caridad): this was a €5 albergue, seriously basic and quite isolated from any kind of provisions (which the owner took full advantage of: offering a free lift to his own restaurant in the town…)

Ribadeo: with only 12 beds, I didn’t manage to get into the Albergue de Ribadeo either. Another €20 down and I stayed in a retro-from-the-first-time-round, impeccably clean 70’s style hotel: Hostal Orol.

6. ¿Hay muchas fuentes en el norte?

Or otherwise worded “I have a 1.5litre SIGG bottle, will there be enough public water to keep this topped up during the day, or do I need another water bottle?”

I kept an additional 500ml bottle topped up, but only ended up using it on the following days:

Deba to Markina Xemein

Markina Xemein to Gernika

Castro Urdiales to Laredo

Ribadesella – Sebrayo

Lourenzá – Gontán (a particularly “dry” stage in my opinion)

Baamonde – Sobrado Dos Monxes

7. ¿Cuanto me costera, en tu opinion?

I had 800€ to last the month.

It was enough. With about 40€ to spare.

But I’ll admit to having had a more frugal camino than most. My eating requirements are irritatingly complex, but didn’t have to be expensive.  I mainly drank (free) water, bought food in local shops and supermarkets, and stayed in municipal albergues where possible.

8. ¿Es peligroso andar sola como mujer?

When I announced my intentions to walk the camino, a concerned friend forwarded me information on Denise Thiem, at that time missing, now known to have been murdered on the Camino Francés.

It was news which unsurprisingly devastated the camino community, and has had a lasting impact on the solo peregrina. Safety is something that you should take very seriously, although I do believe that it would be a terrible shame not to undertake the walk for this reason.

On one occasion, a still drunk from the night before Spaniard tried to strike up a slightly leery conversation.

Other than that I can really say that I had no problems at all. I was glad to be walking with a stick, which did help me feel that I’d be able to whack any approaching wrongdoer. Some other walkers had whistles, and even simply to alarm anyone approaching, I think this is a great idea, and I’ll certainly be taking one on any future walks!

9. ¿Que voy a comer?

I’m vegetarian, I don’t eat gluten (secondary to bad acne breakouts). No bread on the camino is an inconvenience and an expense! It also renders a menu del día pretty inedible.

The provision of fridges in albergues is variable, and there may be a good few items stuffed into these shelves by the time you arrive. Don’t count on them, that’s what I’m saying.

I carried a small knife, a vegetable peeler, and to the amusement of many other walkers, a miniature colander clipped to the side of my bag.

What I ate on the camino:

Bananas – by the truckload. 6 bananas in one day? easy.

Other fruit and veg: paraguayos (I called them “flat peaches” translating directly from French before discovering they are more exotically named “saturn peaches” in English), plums, carrots, cucumbers, peppers (the occasional treat of an avocado or even a mango) anything not requiring cooking really.

Five hundred gram jars of chickpeas or haricot beans cost about 50 cents, and can be washed at any drinking fountain with your handy colander! I added a can of “pisto” (a Spanish relative of ratatouille), cold of course. I would say that this was a staple lunch.

I would sometimes push the boat out with a can, or packet of “espinacas con garbanzos” (spinach with chickpeas).

Cheese didn’t travel well, and was relatively expensive so unless I bought it with someone for immediate sharing, it wasn’t high on the comestibles list.

Initially, I managed to avoid chocolate and crisps, as I would usually try to keep to a healthier diet: but the calorific demands of the camino would not be satisfied by the pure veg that I had time to prepare!

My camino indulgence was an expresso with a slice of spanish tortilla. Having since found out how this is made (with A LOT more olive oil, potatoes and eggs than you’d think), it’s unsurprising that I was unable to resist it come 10 or 11am.

10. ¿Necesito estar en forme?

Not really.

The real question is how much time and how big a budget do you have? The camino del Norte involves quite a bit of “up and down” and some official stretches  can be long, but by taking it slow at the start I think that most people could work themselves up to it during the walk.

If you don’t have the time or money for that, get out walking for at least a few weekends before. For the sake of your feet if not your fitness!



Reading, investigation and preparation are all part of the camino journey, but ultimately, the questions we ask ourselves can best be answered though experience and reflection: on camino as in life 🙂

A delicious slice of Morroco in Spain

 Thank you Cafe Alsafir (Calle Castillo de Maya, 39. Pamplona).

Twelve and a half hours of changing scenery and family friendly movies have brought me to Pamplona, home of the controversial San Fermìn bull running extravaganza. I’m no expert but I recon British health and safety would make pretty short shrift of it: see example gougings and crushes here.

I’m just passing through though and on a ration of tapa sized tortilla, pisto and 2 peaches, sightseeing was not a priority.

I’d walked by, discounting a Marrocan style meal, usually heavy on the kebabs (from my Andalusian experience) but was powerless to resist the aromas of coffee , cloves and mint following me with the warm breeze.

I was looking for a small but filling plate which wouldn’t be too heavy before sleeping. The waitress recommended the €3 ‘potato salad’. A revelation in taste! Potato, green olives, a shallot (it could have been a mild, pink onion, I’m not great on my alliums), olive oil and a dusting of paprika! Not a large serving , but more substantial than a typical tapa – exactly what I was looking for. I couldn’t identify any other ingredients and yet it was a taste masterpiece. 

I’m the sort of person who likes to finish a meal with a coffee – the Arabic coffee served was DIVINE. The scent lingers with me, and I feel all the more exotic for it! So with a soft drink it set me back €7 in total. If your camino is heading through Pamplona and you can stretch your food budget just a smidge, consider a short respite from some of the camino staples and treat yourself!

The drawing tonight was a slightly secondary affair but ups and downs with the drawing, the path and life!