Svalbard: A cool escape

78° 13′, just less than 12° from the North Pole, there are very few lands at this latitude: Greenland, the October Revolution Island in Russia, and the only place you can easily reach by plane: the Svalbard Archipelago. This set of islands is so remote that nature reigns supreme here. Join me on this summer trip around the islands to discover the mysteries of this archipelago – you will be surprised by what can be found here.

This trip was proposed to me by a newfound friend, Jasir, whom I got to know after moving to London. I was delighted to find someone who shares my passion for extreme trips (and cheese as well).

The main city is called Longyearbyen, named after the American businessman, Longyear, who visited the islands during a cruise in 1901. Seeing the abundance of coal, he recognized the potential for business development in mining, and five years later, he founded the city, hence its name (in Norwegian, “byen” means “city”). This is the northernmost community in the world, and here you will find the northernmost of many things: the northernmost supermarket, the northernmost university center, the northernmost bus stop, and so on.

We landed on the only runway the airport has, with flights coming exclusively from Oslo. After leaving our luggage at the Svalbard Hotel Polfareren, we headed straight to explore the community.

The economy here is driven by coal mining and tourism. The village consists of the main road, lined with shops (the northernmost shops in the world), bars, and pubs, and several other streets mainly dedicated to residential areas. There is also a zone called Beverly Hills due to its resemblance to the more famous one. Near the sea, on the fjord, you’ll find the industrial zone, home to various companies and farms. Here, you can also visit the university center, the Svalbard Museum, which showcases exhibitions about the incredible natural life and interactions between humans and the environment in the archipelago, and the North Pole Expeditions Museum, mainly focusing on the Umberto Nobile and Amundsen’s expedition on board the airship.

On a small hill to the left of the main street, there is the church. The town has everything needed to support human life: a cinema, a sports center, a mall, a hospital (although it seemed closed from the outside with no one working in it), a post office, a supermarket, bars, pubs, restaurants, and cafes. The first thing that struck us was the sign at the entrance of every indoor place, forbidding the entrance with guns and rifles. It is not uncommon to see people walking around the village with rifles on their back. Additionally, no one is allowed to leave the village without a rifle or a guide who possesses one. This is because the real danger outside the village comes from polar bear attacks.

The population on the islands is about 2600 people, while there are 3500 polar bears, making them the majority on this land. Polar bears typically feed on seals and walruses, and occasionally birds, but they view humans as prey, making it risky to venture out of town without protection. In 2020, due to the presence of a polar bear wandering the streets, nobody could enter or leave the archipelago. As a curious fact, neither the cars nor the houses are ever locked. If anyone finds themselves in trouble due to a polar bear, they can always seek shelter in any nearby car or house. Polar bears can run at speeds of up to 30 km per hour, with peaks reaching even higher speeds of 60 km/h. Outrunning them is impossible, so the only ways to survive are to find shelter or scare them away with warning shots. Killing polar bears is not allowed, as they are a protected species.

Another interesting feature we noticed was the position of the post boxes. Instead of being located next to each house, they are gathered together in small cabins on the main streets, providing better protection from snow and ice during the long winter and easier access for postmen.

On the same night we arrived, we fulfilled our first mission: to observe the midnight sun. It feels very strange for those not used to it, sitting in a pub at midnight or 1 a.m. and watching the sun move horizontally high in the sky, as if it were 11 in the morning. One of my favorite pubs in town is Kroa, where the atmosphere inside is very cozy, but I would not recommend trying their pizza…

With the sun so bright at night, one doesn’t really feel tired, and we felt like we could live the “night life” all night long, even though we couldn’t afford it, as the next day was already waiting for us. So, we closed the windows and went back to sleep.

In the “morning,” if we can really call it that, we went to the Husky’s cafe to have our “morning” coffee (well, not me, as I don’t drink coffee). Here, the dogs and huskies can “work,” and they have proper turns since some of them cannot work together due to incompatibility. They probably do one of the best jobs on the planet – going around the tables to be cuddled by clients.

Afterwards, we headed for the beach near the harbor and decided to brave the frigid waters of the Arctic Ocean. I knew it was a bold move, not really because of the temperature around 4°/5°, but because I knew my friends would be upset as I don’t like bathing at the sea, even in Apulia in August, because the water is too cold for me. I also knew they would use this episode to convince me to go to the beach with them afterward. Anyway, the entrance to the water was hard, but then I started feeling the effects of hypothermia and tried to enjoy it. Just kidding, the bath didn’t last more than a few seconds, as soon as I entered, I lost feeling in my legs.

In the afternoon, we went to the entrance of the World Seed Vault, a special facility located on this island that stores seeds from all over the world. Its purpose is to maintain the biodiversity of plant species in case of natural disasters or war. Countries from all over the planet can send their seeds here to be safely stored in the cold. The vault is located inside a mountain at a certain height to safeguard the seeds in the event of a rising sea level scenario. It has already been utilized by Syria when their seed bank was destroyed during the war, and they withdrew their seeds from the World Seed Vault. We were unable to enter, so we stopped by in front of the facade. During the winter, the artwork on the facade reflects the light, creating the illusion of the Northern Lights. However, in the summer, it appears as just a grey passage inside a mountain. Nearby, there is also the Arctic Data Centre, another facility used to safely store world data. The entirety of the Github code is stored here, as well as data from the Vatican and other types of data. The only way to see it is by visiting Mine number 3, as the World Data Centre lies inside the mountain.

Later, we went hiking with a guide on the mountains near Longyearbyen, where we observed a couple of reindeer filling their bellies to survive the long winter. At the top, we were able to taste the typical blackcurrant syrup with Norwegian biscuits.

The next day, we boarded the “Polargirl” for a boat trip to Pyramiden because when you are already north, you can sometimes go even further north, even if only slightly this time. On the boat, we met several people, including a Svalbard guide and entrepreneur who first settled on the island in 1964. I made him stand up every time I went out to observe animals popping out, and although he might not have liked me at first, we eventually started laughing about it. There was also a group of very energetic Germans who grew louder as the trip went on; they had been drinking since they stepped on the boat. During the journey, we observed a walrus, many puffins, Belugas, a Minke Whale, and even a polar bear, which is very rare to spot, especially in the summer.

Finally, we arrived at Pyramiden, a village named after the shape of the mountain next to it. Pyramiden is a Soviet ghost town that was once a mining village, but now only hosts a hotel and a bar. A total of 15 people live here, working in the hotel or as guides. The city remains intact thanks to the cold, and one can truly feel the Soviet atmosphere in this frozen-in-time village. There are still USSR flags, and a Lenin statue dominates the main street, named after the 60 years anniversary of the October Revolution. Inside what used to be the canteen, the school with the gym and the swimming pool, and the social building containing a theater, a library, and a leisure center, we observed the mine, residential buildings, and hospitals from outside.

Apparently, people living there say that when you want an alcoholic drink, you are supposed to have the same amount of alcohol in it as the latitude of the place you are in. Thus, in their bar, they serve a typical drink called the “78°40′,” which is 78% alcohol. I had to try it, but I cannot really tell how it tastes because for me, it was like fire in the mouth.

On our way back, we stopped by one of the many glaciers they have. Going closer than 200 meters to the glaciers is prohibited, as doing so could result in a fine and the loss of the boat license, as the glaciers must be preserved in any possible way.

Let me just pause a bit on their food. Fish and meat are at the base of their cuisine; cod, salmon, and the Arctic trout can be easily found anywhere, as well as reindeer, which is one of the most common and traditional foods of the islands. By the way, it tastes like a normal steak to me. If one is really into trying every possible dish on the planet, they can find some delicacies that are inaccessible elsewhere, namely the meat of whale and seal. Also, in Longyearbyen, there is the northernmost brewery where they produce their own beers, which you can try in the various pubs and bars on the main street. Most of their beers take the name from the most famous animal there, the polar bear. The brewery aims to extend and become a distillery as well.

This is a place that strongly changes with the seasons, so one should visit it several times. We both agreed that we need to come back during the long winter and even in spring. There are still so many experiences that need to be done, like running a dog-led sleigh on the ice, sleeping in an ice cave, bathing in the Arctic Ocean during the winter, observing the long night, watching walruses, seals, whales, and even the Arctic fox (which changes color with the season, switching from winter white to summer grey/brown and unfortunately, we couldn’t spot during this trip, but they are so cute). Living the Longyearbyen life during winter and, if lucky, observing the Northern lights.

In the end, we need to go back.

My Big Fat Greek… Conference 

Everybody, at least in Italy, when asked about Greece, replies that the first things that comes up to mind are the sea and the islands. This time I am going to talk about mainland Greece, which we discovered, surprisingly, to be at least as cool and interesting as the islands.   

As for every good adventure in my life I was accompanied by incredible travel mates, just like Don Chisciotte and Sancio Panza. This case is no exception, as I left from the port of Bari with my colleague and friend Matteo. We carry research on Supergravity (some weird extension of General Relativity) at the University of Padua, and our destination was the XXIX conference on Supersymmetry and Unification of Fundamental Interactions in Ioannina. The cold and windy night we spent on the last deck of the boat that carried us from Bari to Igoumenitsa did not prepare us for the luxurious hotel the conference organizing committee chose for us in Ioannina. The arrival was expected at 5:30 in Igoumenitsa, but we did not know that Greece was in a different time zone than Italy, so we slept no more than 4 hours (this is something you should take into consideration when planning a trip to Greece). Arriving so early, we decided to take the panoramic road to Ioannina. Apart from some unexpected pebble streets, I did not regret driving on those paths, staring at the sun while it comes up the shoulders of the hills, so typical of the Greek inland landscape.   

Arrived in Ioannina, we took the chance to explore around the city. The town lies on the shores of Lake Pamvotida, where people can run, enjoy the views of the other banks or live the night-life in the various restaurants, bars and pubs located in that zone. Indeed, at night the view is even better, with all the lights coming from the island at the centre of the lake, where some monasteries lie, and from the houses on other banks, looking as candles floating all over the dark water of the lake. The night life in Ioannina is not only restricted to the shores of the lake, there are also many suggestive streets and alleys near the old town, filled with restaurants and bars, where losing ourselves was a pleasure both for the eyes and for our mouths. The food in Greece is renowned all over the world (Gordon Ramsey also admitted that he prefers Greek food over Italian cuisine, BTW he likes to be controversial, so I would take his statement with a grain of salt). In mainland Greece one can usually find a lot of different types of meat: pork, chicken, lamb, etc., but cheese lovers like me should try saganaki cheese (it’s just fried cheese, but it is scrouptious) and then obviously the choriátiki saláta (the Greek Salad) with feta. We also had the chance to eat a typical dish from the island at the center of the lake, which is frog’s legs (fried), I did not like them and I can state that they reminded me the taste of chicken, but you should go for it at least once if you have the chance to pass by Ioannina.

We couldn’t explore more around in the neighbourhoods of Ioannina, due to the conference, but we had great times learning about various aspects of this marvellous symmetry that should describe our Universe in one of its phases called Supersymmetry. What better place to discuss about Physics than Greece? The land which gave birth to Mathematics, Physics and Metaphysics… We had the chance to meet new people, and a lot of new friends (PhDs from other nations), among them also some native people who pointed us to the right places to eat and buy some food to bring home with us, what best souvenir than some Greek cheese? Sharing lunches and dinners with our new friends has been one of the greatest pleasures of the time spent there. Getting to know new cultures and traditions from people coming from Chile, Germany, Perú, Poland, Brazil, Japan or Taiwan all together in front of some souvlaki (skewers of meat) on the shores of the lake is the kind of emotion I would always look for. Remember to conclude dinners with Tsipouro, a typical Greek liquor, and if you are with Japanese people do not say “Cin Cin” when you toast, as Italians usually do, as it means penis in Japanese. Even though most days we were busy learning about Supersymmetry, we managed to visit Meteore, which literaly means “in the middle of the air”, and are suggestive monasteries built on top of rock formations in the 13th and 14th century. One can only reach them by walking uphill along the mountains and the views one gets once there is exceptional and enveloped in the mystical atmosphere only belonging to sacred locations. We have also been able to visit the village of Vikos Gorge in the North of Ioannina with its monastery’s ruins and the typical round arches bridges. 

After so many beautiful experiences we had to leave Ioannina and – sadly – our new friends, but we had time for one more small adventure. We got into the car with a Greek friend of ours, who we met in Padua some months before, and we had a small road trip to Athens. The panorama along the road is astonishing, and incredibly various, one passes next to mountains and hills and then finds the sea and then again cliffs. During the trip, discussions about life, relationships and physics made the time fly by, everything surrounded by “Rembetiko” music, a typical Greek music genre that goes back to the 1920s (suggested artists: Markos Vamvakaris and Vasilis Tsitsanis). Arrived in Athens in our room with a marvelous view on the Acropolis we visited Syntagma Square where we could attend the change of guards in front of the Parliament and then we moved to grab some beers in “Exarchia” and “Metaxourgio”, two unconventional districts of Athens, where among bars and pubs one can easily finds buildings belonging to anarchists and banners and posters exalting freedom and peace. It is nice to see how these areas of the city form a peaceful continuum with the main centre and different residential zones. We also had the chance to pass by the National Academy before going back to sleep. Once in Athens, it is inevitable to visit the Acropolis and its museum (even though British stole the most beautiful pieces of art from Greece). Even though there is plenty of pictures of it on the web, one is never really ready for the magnificiency and impressiveness of the Parthenon. At the Acropolis, one can really feel the weight of history. Walking in the same places where Themistocles, Pericles, Plato, Aristofanes, Sophocles, Eschilo, Euripides, and other eminent personalities of the past used to walk, discuss, present their comedies and tragedies made me feel insignificant yet also proud to be part of this species which achieved so much during the centuries. 

With this last experience, the conference and the trip were really ending. Greece gave us a lot in term of knowledge (as usual), fun, hospitality and friendships and I hope to be back soon. Let me conclude with a quote from Heraclitus, which was also the motto of the SUSY2022 conference and gave us a fruitful source of reflection (I hope can be the same for you): “The one follows from everything and everything from the one”.  

Towards Santiago

Pawns are usually considered the least important pieces in a chess game. By itself, a pawn is doomed to die, but their strength lies in the cohesion with each other. We arrived in Redondela after 43 km of walking in just one day, exhausted, our legs were drained, but we met new pilgrims on the way, who would have shared the walk with us, and just like pawns we instilled force into each other. This metaphor became even more fitting, when, once we sat in a Bar to have Breakfast, before starting to walk, we were approached by a strange man who wanted to play chess with us. So, we started the day playing chess and discussing about German philosophers and writers, before effectively begin what we planned. In the end, despite waking up early, we left Redondela relatively late, but this is also the “Camino de Santiago”.

There was nothing special along the way from Redondela to Pontevedra, but I would like to stress out the matter of the equipment. We were surprised in the middle of the forest by heavy rain, and walking in the mud with non-waterproof shoes is not properly like a thermal mud massage.  So, if you plan to do the “Camino” I strongly recommend to bring very good and comfortable shoes (Hiking boots are an overkill for the Camino but there are some shoes which are something in the middle between hiking boots and sneakers that are excellent on these types of grounds).

Arrived in Pontevedra all wet and dirty, we took some time to visit the city. This small medieval helmet is a precious piece of jewellery nestled on the Ria de Pontevedra, and it is probably the most characteristic city we met along the road. Of course, we started from the “Iglesia de La Virgen Peregrina” (church of the pilgrim Virgin). Its round façade is already peculiar by itself but entering is even more impressive. The statue of the virgin dominating from the Chancel above the altar, with her orange coat, the pilgrim’s hat and the stick is there to tell the pilgrims that they are at a turning point in their itinerary. It is also very suggestive to walk down in Praza da Estrela and have a glance at the “San Francesco Convent” where we had the opportunity to attend the mass during the Holy communion. I also recommend to get lost in the cobblestones paved streets and little alleys, maybe in this wandering, you’ll have the chance to reach the Praza Da Lena or the Ruinas de San Domingos and remain enchanted by the charming and warm atmosphere the city can offer. 


The day after we walked down the ancient “Ponte do Burgo” bridge, and we decided not to continue on the traditional way but to pick the so-called “Variante Espiritual”, a special variant of the “Camino Portugues” which passes by monasteries and allows the pilgrim to travel along the Rio Ulla on a boat, reliving the last trip of Santiago, when its ashes  were delivered to what now is called Santiago de Compostela by his two disciples: Atanasio and Teodoro. Passing by the swampland of “Parque da Seca” we reached the small town of Combarro.  

This city has a peculiarity: it is filled with some structures resembling little temples, the Horreo, even though these are not real temples. These structures, which are typical of the Galician region, are just warehouses for wheat. They are built in this peculiar way because Galicia is a very rainy area, so it is useful not to have the wheat on the ground and in addition they feature breaches in the walls so that the wind can keep it dry. From Combarro the route climbs up the hill. The atmosphere that day was evocative thanks to the fog we met during our climb in the forest to the monastery of Saint Mary of Armenteira. 

We spent one night in Armenteira and apart from the monastery there is nothing around. However, there is the possibility to assist to the mass in the monastery where the priest together with the nuns pronounces the blessing to the pilgrim. Attending it is strongly recommended. Even though the spiritual variant is not chosen by many pilgrims, in the small hostel we got the chance to know many new wayfarers and meet again some old faces. 

Leaving Armenteira at our shoulders, we traversed the “Ruta da Pedra e da Auga”, a spectacular route which follows the flow of the river “Rego Da Armenteira”, trough musky trees, small waterfalls and leaps where the water gushes fast streaming down the hill passing below the watermills that crowd the path. Along the way, we even found a village made of stone, with its bakery, the church, farmers, animals and an unavoidable Horreo. 

The path leads to Vilanova de Arousa, a little village lying on the Ria de Arousa. Here you can try the mussels and other kinds of shellfishes, which are typical of this region. Indeed, the Ria de Arousa is thronged with platforms for the farming of mussels. The Zamburinhas are strongly recommended, taste it if you pass by this region!!

Finally, the last day of “Camino” arrived. We boarded the ship which would have brought us from Vilanova to Padron along the only Via Crucis on water existing on earth. Crossing Vikings vessels (yes they arrived until these remote places) and small islands and patch of lands surmounted only by crosses drowned in the fog we reached the city where Santiago’s disciples landed. In the Padron’s cathedral, there is “El Pedron”, this Roman votive altarpiece of granite which, according to the legend, represents the piece of land where they made landfall bringing with them the rests of the Apostol. 

We arrived quite early in the morning there, but we could not miss the chance to taste the “Pimientos de Padron”, so we had our breakfast with this typical plate of fried green peppers which have a peculiarity: the majority of them is not spicy but some of them are. In Spanish, there is the saying: “Pimientos de Padron unos pican Y otros no”, namely one is spicy and the other not. 

After this light breakfast, we slowly approached our destination, roughly 25 km separated us from our goal. It was emotionally intense when, from far away, you could look ahead and see the town of Santiago de Compostela in all its splendour. 

But even more heart-rending, was the arrival in “Praza do Obradoiro”, the majesty of the Cathedral provoking intense sensations in the pilgrims who arrive there and release their joy with chants and shoutings. In the square, the melting pot of the “Camino de Santiago” shows itself in all its glory, with a mixture of languages and sounds filling the air. The atmosphere is fantastic, absolutely astonishing, set in the marvellous frame of the French neoclassical palace, Pazo da Roxoi facing the cathedral. Exactly at its basement, we lied down, backs against the columns, bags hurled at our feet, the tiredness in our legs and our faces, but jet the happiness of living that moment. Looking at the cathedral’s façade we took the chance to free our thoughts and relax for a while. The spirits of all the pilgrims filling the square are almost palpable and the emotions cannot be described by words. 

In the end, we collected the “Compostela” an official document of the catholic church, completely written in Latin, even our names were translated, certifying that we accomplished the Camino. Usually, in the afternoon there is mass for pilgrims where the “botafumiero”, an immense incense burner, is swung from the ceiling in the central nave (in my opinion to cover the pilgrim’s smell). Unluckily, the cathedral was under construction and so we could not attend this spectacular event. Luckily, we still had the possibility to visit San James’s tomb, our final goal. 

Finally, after taking off the pilgrims’ cloaks, we enjoyed the nightlife in Santiago with a special Galician dinner and the “Queimada”. The latter was the last surprise this trip reserved us. It is a typical drink, prepared in Galicia, garnished with sugar, lemon, and orange peels. But the peculiarity stands in the fact that it is served inside a cauldron, the waiter sets fire to the liquor, mixes it and pours it in the cauldron while the customers have to pronounce a sort of magic spell to ward off the devil. For us, it was a farewell ritual, but even if my legs hurt and the ligaments disagree, I hope it was just a goodbye to Santiago. Because the Camino will always remain in our souls, and I am quite sure it will call us back to Santiago again in the future.

Camino Portugués de la Costa

Yes! This is not a word I would use ordinarily. But “Yes” was my answer when one of my best friends, Edoardo, proposed me to do the Camino De Santiago. We were super-excited to start this adventure, and when the Pandemic spread all over Europe, I was worried the whole trip was going to have to be cancelled. In the end, we managed to arrive in Porto and to start this experience, often considered an initiation route by young Europeans. 

Starting from the Sao Bento station we headed west, to reach the coast, passing by some of the suburbs of the city. It was definitely not the prettiest landscape we encountered on the route, but it had some nice houses. Once reached the coast, in Matosinhos, we met a fellow that would have accompanied us for a big part of the journey: the Atlantic Ocean. Glancing at its vastity after more than one hour of walking in the suburbs filled our souls with joy and enthusiasm. We walked on a wooden gangway on the sand, which was almost perfect. I say almost, because at the very beginning, just after the lighthouse of Matosinhos, the gangplank is surrounded by the sea on the left and by a giant refinery on the right. 

Besides this little inconvenience, the landscape is absurdly enchanting. After passing through small villages of fishermen with their little, colourful houses on the shore surrounded by ingenious lobster cages, crossing wooden bridges, and walking by native houses transformed in museums of traditional arts and craftmanship, just before arriving at our first destination, we decided to walk the last kms directly on the shore. We took off our shoes and let the sand massage our feet. Leaving our talks for the day and our tiredness behind us, together with our footprints. Every new beginning makes a person euphoric and guided by this euphoria we walked for 39 km on the very first day. Maybe, thinking about what would have happened later, it was not the best choice, but yet we arrived in Vila Do Conde, where the grandiose Santa Clara’s convent welcomed us at the entrance of the village, just past the Ave river.

Vila do Conde is a nice small village and the only attraction is an old vessel in the port. From Vila do Conde, crossing wheat fields while waving at and chatting with farmers and breeders we moved to a very tiny village, next to the sea, Marinhas. Here, apart from our hostel, there was only the church of “San Miguel”. Fun fact: we arrived there right on the day when, according to the Catholic church, the Archangels are celebrated, so the only two streets which composed the village were lightened for the celebration. 

On the third day, the way tilted a bit upward, but in order to start properly the day, we had a little break for breakfast. We stop by at the bar “O Lampao”, which in my opinion is a must-see for anyone who attempts the “Camino Portugues de la costa”. Filled with pictures of Ernesto Che Guevara (and sometimes also of Fidel  Castro), with a world map on the wall, where you can see the countries of origin of the pilgrims who visited the place (there were even some from Greenland!!), and decorated with symbols of the Camino and a strange 3-wheels bike at the entrance (always accompanied by a Cuban and a Bob Marley flag), the bar is already a tidbit all on its own. The owner is also a very kind person, always available to help you, and if he can’t satisfy your requests, he will find a way to ensure you’ll be happy during the stay. 

After this small stop, we kept walking, passing by old churches on the top of hills, small villages, and strange works of art made with shoes to show the way. After passing a long steel bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, we arrived in one of the finest hamlets we found on our way: Viana do Castelho. 

A small sore point here, the Albergue dos Peregrinos, where usually one can find accommodation for 5/6 euros, costed 20 euros per person and was not even among the best we found along the route. 

The cost of these “Albergue Municipal” raised because of Covid-19, but usually it was among 6-8 euros per person. This was maybe the only big mistake we did during the holiday. However, in this hostel we met our very first stranger on our way. I had been wondering where other pilgrims were since the first moment, because we didn’t meet any, but soon after my first complaint we met two other French pilgrims, who were coming back towards Porto. As soon as we spotted them, one of them collapsed to the ground, she fainted!! We tried to help them and called the medical aid, but after that I stopped complaining about the fact that we did not meet anyone else along the route. 

Anyways, in the Albergue de Peregrinos in Viana do Castelho, we had the pleasure to meet a young woman from Berlin. We had some nice chat, even though she criticized the way I used to compute the expenses, and we started living the real spirit of the “Camino de Santiago”: the sharing and communion. We had a beer in the historic centre of the medieval village, where she introduced us to other pilgrims she met on her way. It was astonishing to see how at the same table we could speak Italian, French, English, German, a bit of Hungarian and when the waiter was with us even a bit of Esperanto (according to him, it was Italian). We were deeply saddened when the morning after we had to leave this marvellous village. 

But the way in front of us was still too long to think about ceasing our march. We started very early in the morning, the sun still had to raise (Edoardo loves walking in the freezing cold of the morning, I hated it and him in those moments), left the city centre and headed towards the coast, and walked along the sea, through shores and fields brushed by the fog, which, similarly to a ghost, was gently escaping after the appearance of the first sunrays. On our way to Caminha we encountered another travel companion, the rain, which caught us not so inadvertently. 

I have been a scout for 11 years, and Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the movement founder, used to say: “There is no such a thing as good or bad weather, but good and bad equipment”. Well, we did not have the right equipment, we could only protect the backpacks and the upper part of the body, but our shoes weren’t waterproof. But B.P., as the scouts call their founder, said a much more important quote, which also became the movement’s motto: “Be Prepared”. And we were prepared for it, we knew it would have arrived sooner or later, as Dante said “The arrow, seen beforehand, slacks his flight”, so, in the end, it was not a big problem for us.

We managed to arrive to Caminha and take the boat to cross the Minho, the river which separates Portugal from Spain. The boat takes 15 minutes to cross it, but thanks to the time zones it took 1 hour and 15 minutes to us, so keep it in mind if you are planning to do the Camino Portuguese da Costa, because you can happen to find the hostels on the other side closed. Crossing the Minho, you pass from Portugal to Spain, from Francesinha (if you don’t know what it is, read my previous article) to “Pulpo a la Gallega”, from Obrigado to Gracias and from SuperBock to Estrella. Also the environment started to change, there are more forests and meadows. For the night, we slept in A Guarda, near to Castro de Santa Trega, a Galician Fort build in 100 B.C.

Castro de Santa Trega

On the fifth day, the due stop-over should have been Mougas, at 20 km from A Guarda. However, we arrived there relatively early at 12 a.m., and we were welcomed by the stone in Mougas signalling the way, surrounded by thousands of pebbles, some of them painted with cartoon characters and symbols. Since we didn’t want to waste a sunny day perfect for walking, we decided to keep on going and arrived in Baiona, 15 km after. Note that if you plan the trip with google maps, you’ll be very wrong and underestimate the distances. The Camino does not follow the algorithms Google suggests, and usually, it takes more time and more km to walk along the Camino. Another thing to keep in mind, above all in this piece of the way, is that the Camino is in general well signalled, but just like the staircase in Harry Potter, the arrows like to change. It can be useful to download the app “Caminotool”. In Baiona, we had the chance to taste another Galician’s speciality: the Zorza, a marinated diced pork loin, topped with paprika.

Always because of lack of time, the day after we were forced to put toghether two stages of the walk, thus left Baiona early in the morning and through the Romanic bridge of San Pedro de la Ramalosa we headed towards Vigo. Vigo is the biggest city in Galicia and indeed it took us more than 2 hours to cross it. But it deserves a stop-over, it is a lively town on the sea, with its energetic and vivid nightlife, and a lovely historical centre. Unfortunately, we could not stop there, due to lack of time, so after lunch we kept going in order to reach Redondela.

In Redondela, there is nothing very special, but before arriving there, the Camino passes by a viewpoint, called “The Best bench in Redondela”. This is a small green bench, for maximum two people, nested on a rock at the top of a mountain. It has a 180 degrees view on the “Ria de Vigo”, a huge river where Vigo sits on, and it should be astonishing to just sit there and rest the feet and the eyes with such a view. Unluckily, we arrived to the bench in the exact moment when heavy rain started. We were unable to see anything, due to the presence of clouds, fog and rain, but trust me, if the weather conditions allow it you should go there.   

Luckily, though, the surprise did not finish for the day, and in the hostel, we met two German guys, who became our friends along the route. Similarly to what happens during life, in the Camino you sometimes cross your path with people who will join you for part of the way. This is what happened to us. After many days of walking, we had two new companions, two new friends who were living the same adventure, and this is much better than watching a splendid panorama from a bench with good weather. Friendship is something that can last a lifetime or few days, but in the end, no one will regret about that good time spent together.  

Coimbra and Porto

Left behind the capital city of Portugal, we headed towards Coimbra. The fourth-largest city in the country, it provides an outstanding example of an integrated university city with the feet firmly planted in the tradition and a gaze to the present. We arrived in the evening and, after a quick dinner, we took the chance to go around and have a look at the night-life. To be honest, I have been surprised to notice that the city seemed a bit dull for a student city. There were not many bars and pubs open, and the few ones available were almost empty.  A bit disappointed we retired in the hostel, but yet confident in the many discoveries the city would have reserved for us the next day. We began our day in one of the numerous patisseries this country has to offer (Portugal has plenty of desserts and everyone should try them!!), “Pastelaria Briosa”. Besides the ever-present Pastel de Nata, unavoidable for each meal, and even outside the meals, we tasted the “pastel de Tentugal”, created by the nuns of the monastery do Carmelo de Tentugal, and the “Arrufada de Coimbra” which is very similar to a sweet pan-brioche that can be filled with ham or cheese on request. 

After breakfast, we directly went up the hill to visit the University, one of the oldest universities in the world, dating back to 1290. The Baroque Library “Biblioteca Joanina” absolutely deserves a look. The exterior entrance is adorned in baroque style with a Latin inscription encouraging to use books as weapons towards wisdom. Moisture, temperature and insects are the most dangerous enemies for the books, but FUN FACT: there are two colonies of bats, that live and have lived there for as long as 2 and half centuries, who help with pest control. Then we moved to the “Capela de S. Miguel”, the chapel of the university. This is one of the only two remaining royal chapels in Portugal. The white and blue-tiled walls are a distinguishable mark of this chapel. The impressive baroque organ, with more than 2000 tubes, was meant for another much larger church and this is the reason why it is so disproportionate with respect to the chapel, but yet beautiful to see.

 Passing by the “Salas das Armas”, the armory (which contains heldberds still used today during academic ceremonies such as the awarding of Honoris Causa doctoral degrees and the swearing of the Rector), one can reach the corridor which runs along the “Salas dos Capelos”, the Great Hall of Acts. Once used as the Throne Room, when the University was used as a king’s Palace, the memories of the glorious past can be still noticed on the walls, where there are portraits of some of the Kings of Portugal. On the benches in the hall only people with doctoral degrees can seat, during academic ceremonies. They have to wear the “borla”, a small hat representing wisdom, and the “capelo”, a hood symbolizing science.

The public can assist these ceremonies from the lower level. The hall is used as well for the defenses of doctoral theses. Before leaving the building, you’ll pass by the “Sala do Exame Privado”, where the exams used to take place. Only the commission composed by professors and the student were admitted to this room during an exam. The students were examined one at a time.

Before leaving Coimbra, we stopped by the new and the old Cathedrals. The facades are really impressive, the Romanic old one resembles a fortress for the defense of the city, the new one with its baroque style is still used today but we could not enter because of a marriage going on. In the end, we left this amazing village to reach Porto. But before that, we couldn’t resist and we tried the typical dish of the zone near the Igreja de Santa Cruz (Another Baroque masterpiece this city has to offer): the Francesinha. The idea is the one of a toast, but inside it contains whatever meat you could imagine: a steak, ham, sausage, bacon, and then cheese, topped with a fried egg and immersed in a sauce of tomatoes and beer. I thought the Portuguese diet was light, more or less like my Mediterranean diet, well I was totally wrong!

Porto did not reserve us the warmest welcome: once arrived it was rainy and windy, cold bit our ankles and wrists, but Porto had the ability to change a bad first impression with a series of unexpected discoveries. Indeed, it is no wonder Porto is called “The Capital do Norde” and the country inherited the name from this city. We had only one day and a half so we started our tour immediately by walking through the “Avenida dos Aliados”. At the beginning of this street, there is the elegant town hall, dominating the “Praça do General Humberto Delgado”. Walking down, this flamboyant route, skirted by buildings adorned with different styles, from neoclassical to French Beaux-art, we reached the station of Sao Bento. The baroque façade and the side walls are dressed up with azuleyos depicting the Battle of Arcos de Valdevez and the Conquest of Ceuta. Inside the station, turning your head left and right and up and down you will remain astonished by the triumph of azuleyos that cover the walls and the ceiling. There are about 20 thousand tiles all over the station. These little pieces of manufacturing are very common all over the city and in the whole country, you will get used to them walking in the little alleys. Before going for dinner at one of our friends’s house (Portuguese people are incredibly hospital) we took the chance to have a glimpse of the river Douro from one of the Miradouro of the city: “Miradouro Vittoria”. Even though it was cloudy, the sight was enchanting. 

Waking up after a dinner spent with nice company and good wine it is not always easy, but knowing there were still too many things to try, taste or visit, the mood was flying. The first thing we visit was the “Livraria da Lello & Ivrao”. Rumors are that this place inspired J.K.Rowling for one of the most famous places where she set her novel: Diagon Alley. But this seems to be just a legend and the author publicly denied having ever been in that library. Nonetheless, this place deserves for sure a visit. With its curvy handrails and stairs, the colorful glassy ceiling illuminating all over the books and the old-looking shelves this library will likely bring you in a magic world, and maybe remind you where Harry Potter used to buy his cauldron, wand and gown, and where some of you may have lived their childhood.

Leaving behind this fairy tale place, our feet lead us towards the bridge Dom Louis I. This is surely one of the symbols of the city, it has been built by one of the students of Gustav Eiffel and it sits enthroned above the Douro. Crossing it you’ll actually be in another city, but it’s right on the opposite side of the river where you can sit at one of the bars and taverns, tasting a glass of the finest Port wine produced in town. For the wine lovers, you can even try the tour of the wine cellars, but considering the high alcohol percentage of Port wine, you would probably end up not seeing anything else in Porto after that. We did not try the latter, we just tasted a glass of this vermillion wine. 

From the bank, we climbed the hill to reach the “Jardim do Moro” where we took some time to stretch out and relax, glancing at the red-tiled covered roofs of the city on the other side, with its tangle of alleys, lanes and boulevards climbing up the hill and reflecting on the calm surface of the river Douro. We then visited the Cathedral, with its majestic façade, dominating the town, remembering a glorious catholic past and another symbolic church: “Sant’Idelfonso”, an example of the skilled use of the art of azuleyos. 

Something surprising was the visit of the “Palacio de Bolsa”, the old stock market. From outside, it just looks like an old grey building where melancholic businessmen following a formal dress code used to spend their days. But, once inside, you can notice how refined was the taste of these ancient businessmen. The spacious and airy entrance hall brings to your mind the images of a lavish past where powerful men used to meet and discuss about affairs under the enormous glassy dome illuminating each corner of the lobby. The dome is framed by a series of coats of arms, each one representing a country which had trading relationships with Portugal.  On the second floor, one can visit the decision room, more or less like a tribunal, the telegraph room which was used to communicate with other stock markets around the globe, some chamber of delegation, and in the end the flagship of the building: the Arabic room. This is a sumptuous hall, all adorned with arabesques and geometric forms, just like a mosque. With its gold friezes and wise use of the light thanks to colorful balconies and rose windows the room seems always decorated for parties. Indeed, we discovered that it is always possible to rent one of the halls of the Palacio da Bolsa, for concerts, events and private parties. The renting for the entrance hall, the biggest room available is 10 k euro, while for the Arabic room, which is obviously the most requested one, the price is lower, going down to 7.5 k euro. Think about it for your next birthday…

Before going to dinner, we conceded ourselves a brief stop at the Majestic Cafè. Finally, Harry Potter’s fan like me will be delighted to discover that this city still contains some tracks of the most famous magician in the world. In fact, her majesty, J.K. Rowling spent a couple of years in Porto teaching, and she used to spend time in the Majestic café where she started writing the legendary saga that everyone knows. The place is amazing, and I could understand why she picked that place as her laboratory, eve though it is a bit pricy. 

Do not leave Porto without trying the Oporto fashioned octopus or tripe. Before going to bed we decided to go one last time in Praça da Ribeira, on the river Douro to get something to drink. We also found some street performers entertaining us with music, rendering the atmosphere absolutely enchanting. One last advice, if you get tired about SuperBock, the most common beer in Porto, try the ginja in the chocolate glasses, a true stylishness, you won’t regret. But we did regret leaving Porto the day after. I can certainly affirm: I will come back!

Lisboa and Sintra

The plane took off, the beginning of a new journey, it is always exciting when you embark on a new adventure. The team is small, just me and a long-time friend. We reached Lisbon early in the morning and after leaving the backpacks in the hostel we began our visit of the city. Compared to other European capitals, Lisbon is not so extended, the population is about half a million and it lays on an area of 100 square-km of extension. Nonetheless, there is plenty of things to do, buildings to see, alleys to discover and bars, small restaurants, and clubs to try.

Our hostel was in Rossio, one of the central quarters of the city, we started our tour by walking down Rua Augusta, a cobblestone street where you can lose yoursevels among the shops and restaurants while heading directly to the marvellous “Arco da Rua Augusta”. Crossing the latter, you will be looking at one of the most amazing squares in Europe: Praça do Comércio. This is a magnificent place, on one side there is the Arc and the beginning of Rua Augusta while the opposite side faces the river Tagus, the other two sides filled with bars and restaurants. In one corner, you can get a glimpse of the castle of St. Jorge. 

Praça do Comércio

The castle was our next destination, we headed up the hill; to be honest, this building did not generate in me the feelings a fortress should evoke. After walking around its walls, we stopped in two of the various “Miradouro” the town has to offer. Those are panoramic viewpoints where one can observe the red shingle covered roofs of the houses, which like a mosaic compose the urban texture of the city, the Tagus and the city of Almada on the other side of the river. Two of these amazing viewpoints are the Miradouro de Santa Luzia (this is especially beautiful thanks to the presence of Azuleyos on the walls surrounding it) and Miradouro das Portas do Sol. After a brief passage from the gothic cathedral we walked to a very special place.

Outside the traditional tourist’s circuits, there is this tidbit called LXFactory. In the remaining of what used to be an ensemble of industrial warehouses and hangars, numerous local artists and art collectives, shops and restaurateurs give new life and a hipster vibe to this fascinating place. If you pass by Lisbon, I strongly recommend to take some time to visit this astonishing example of art and craftsmanship. Once there you absolutely CAN NOT miss the “Livraria Ler Devagar”. This old book shop, besides the tall shelves where books and vinylis are exposed near an old original machine to print newspapers, was the set for an unexpected yet extremely fascinating encounter with Pietro Proserpio. 

This old guy, that many consider being the guardian of the library, is an Italian inventor and craftsman who lives in Lisbon. Once in the Livraria Ler Devagar, he will lead you to the second floor of the shop and, just as a tour guide, show you around the various inventions and creation he builds: electrical and mechanical piece of arts, interactive compositions built from scraps that he will explain to you, from the inspiration behind each single creation to the story that this works want to tell. Once there, you enter a new dimension, forgettingwhat’s happening outside, your problems and diving in the ocean of imagination and creativity where Pietro  with his tireless smile will conduct you. 

One of Pietro’s creations: “The Dreamer”

After this fascinating experience, we moved to the symbol of Lisbon, the Tower of Belem, where sailors raised anchor to discover new lands and live new adventures. Not too far from the tower we stopped by the “Padrao dos Descobrimentos”, a monument to the explorers, who left from Portugal to reach the Americas. Following their footprints, we started this trip with the best auspices. 

On our way back to the center, we couldn’t help but entering in the “Pasteis de Belem”, probably the most famous pastry shop in the city. In the end, I don’t regret it and I strongly recommend to taste one of their pasteis, a typical Portuguese dessert based on puff pastry and eggs.

Our visit of Lisbon ended with a dinner in one of the numerous restaurants which occupy the streets of the “Barrio Alto”, where we tried their specialities based on bachalau (codfish),  and a drink at the “Pavilhao Chines”, a fancy bar completely filled with knick knacks. Each room is styled following a theme and this, together with the music, makes the atmosphere perfect for chatting with friends in front of a glass of beer; we of course choose the trains room (I love trains).

Friendship+Trains: What else should I need?

On our second day, we left Lisbon heading towards Coimbra, but before getting there, we conceded ourselves a stop in Sintra. In this village, the kings and noble families from all over Portugal used to go for their buen retiro. This colourful city hides so many surprises. The “Palacio National da Pena” and “Quinta da Regailera” are a total must-see. Due to time-constraints we had the possibility to visit only the latter. The spectacular garden of this palace contains fountains, benches, wells, grottos, lakes and towers, in a labyrinth of paths and ways through a luxuriant vegetation.

It takes a couple of hours to visit it completely, but it is totally worth the time. You will be left speechless by the sight of its gothic façade already from the street, way before entering the palace, with its gargoyles, pinnacles, capitals, the octagonal tower and its unique style. There’s no need to mention the interiors, worthy of a king. This is a must see of any visit to Lisbon and Sintra.