Javierada – the pilgrimage to Javier

 

The people of Navarra made the first pilgrimage to Javier in 1886, to the birthplace of their patron saint and pioneering missionary San Francisco Javier, to petition him to end the cholera outbreak plaguing the area at the time. Now called the Javierada, every March thousands of people from Pamplona and its surrounding towns and villages make the pilgrimage through the countryside to honour their patron saint at this historical and sacred site.

People choose to start from various locations but from Pamplona the pilgrimage is roughly 50km and although this is a fair distance the walk is mostly flat and runs along pathways or roads that are closed for the event. Me and Esteban, the father in my host family, set off early in the morning to arrive in time for the celebration that is held in Javier for the pilgrims at around five o’clock in the afternoon. There was a cloudless, blue sky and the sun was creeping up over Pamplona as we left the house loaded with supplies for our journey. It’s not a trek through the wilderness so all you really need is food and water for the day. We had made a couple of huge tasty looking baguettes the night before and because in Spain it seems unthinkable to eat without it, we also took a bottle of wine.

As we began the walk I was surprised by the amount and variety of people the pilgrimage attracts. For the duration of the walk it seemed like there was an endless stream of pilgrims and you will find people of many different ages and nationalities most of whom are more than willing to have a chat and share some stories. It is a long, enduring walk but like any hike, take some comfy shoes and clothing, food and drink and maybe some company and you will have everything you need. As we left Pamplona behind the route passed through some small villages as the countryside becomes more dominant and after a few kilometres we were surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards circled by the mountain ranges in the distance. Walking through the peaceful countryside in the sunshine, soaking up the friendly atmosphere of the pilgrimage and the buzzing collective energy for reaching the destination my mind was easily diverted from my tiring legs and sore feet and the kilometres rolled by.

The first real landmark or dramatic change in scenery came a few hours into the walk when my energy was dwindling and we were both ready for a break. After powering up a gently inclined path for a little while we came to a clearing at the top where panoramic views of the snow topped Pyrenees in the distance instantly re-energised me. I didn’t expect to see them so clearly and dramatically. This was a perfect opportunity for a rest so we had a sit down in the grass, took out the baguettes and cracked open the wine to enjoy our lunch with a view.

Now feeling refreshed, we continued the route with renewed pace and were soon descending to the small town of Sangüesa, the next checkpoint of the walk. Just 10km from Javier, Sangüesa is a popular starting point for many of the pilgrims as, from here, you can follow the procession all the way to Javier. Here we met the two boys of my host family and grabbed a coffee to give us the last push to the end. By late afternoon we began the descent to the castle of Javier in time for the mass that is held for the pilgrims.

Although the journey is what this experience is all about, the sight of the town of Javier and its impressive castle swarmed with people feels like an oasis in the desert after a day of hiking. It was great to lie out in the grass in the shadow of the castle and celebrate our arrival with the buzzing of pilgrims around us. You will need to save a little energy reserve however as a visit of the castle and its adjoining Basilica is very worthwhile. Dating from the 10th century the castle was the property of the family of San Francisco Javier and now that it has been restored you can explore the rooms and courtyards and climb the central tower to see uninterrupted views of the grounds and mountains in the distance.

An exciting journey through the less well explored countryside of Navarra, this is a great event that gives you an opportunity to meet all sorts of people and be part of this historical and unique pilgrimage. If you are planning to visit Pamplona during march I definitly recommend the Javierada!

 

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What is it like to live with a host family?

 

When you are moving abroad it can be really difficult to integrate into a new community and find your feet, especially if you are moving somewhere with an unfamiliar language and culture. To be welcomed into a family, I think, really enhances your experience and it can be very comforting to have a group of people giving you a little bit of love when you are starting out in a completely new environment.

I found my host family by chance. I didn’t realise at the time that it was such a popular option, and how valuable it would be for a family to have a native English speaker live with them. One day at school a fellow teacher asked me if I had thought of living with a local family as he knew many who would be interested in having me stay. He phoned around and I met one of the families after school. They seemed to like me so the next day I moved into my own room in a flat with the family, really close to my school. On the day I moved in I was given a key, presented with my own unique napkin ring and welcomed into the family feeling very blessed to receive such a welcome. They gave me a tour of the house and one of the sons showed me around the town and helped me settle in.

After four and a half years of living with friends at university I had become quite happy living independently and enjoying the freedom that comes from living in your own house so at first it was a bit strange integrating back into family life. I expected this but it was an odd transition. Remembering to be back for dinner, contributing my dirty socks to the family wash at regular intervals and getting my place in the bathroom queue most mornings certainly took some getting used to. Honestly, by living with a host family you have to be prepared to give up some of your freedom. This becomes particularly hard when you start making friends but I still think it is a great thing to do as the benefits more than make up for any freedom you may loose.

So why is it a good thing to do? Firstly, if you are hoping to learn the local language and improve your language skills, living with a family is great. The parents I lived with spoke no English and they enjoyed talking to me in Spanish a lot. I learnt loads just listening to them talking and explaining things to me and after a few weeks we developed a relaxed relationship where I felt comfortable practicing my speaking skills, asking questions, and developing my language with daily practice.

During my time at University I had mastered pretty great pesto pasta however, for the time living with my host family, this skill was not necessary. On my first night staying with the family, I was taught how to make the infamous Spanish omelette, and during my time I have been really lucky to taste traditional Spanish culinary delights daily. Spanish cuisine is quite distinctive and it has been a real treat to learn some Spanish dishes and enjoy them with the family, something I certainly wouldn’t have experienced living on my own in a flat.

 

One of the best things about living with this family were all the random experiences I had with them. For them it was just normal life, but when you move abroad all your senses are heightened to the differences of your new life and the new place you are living in. What may be normal life for your family, can be a great experience for you. Having lunch with the grandparents, helping prune the olive trees and visiting aunty in the mountains are not only all great ways to see what it is like to live here but they are also experiences that I wouldn’t have had without the family.

Living with a family is not all about you and what you can gain from the experience. It is also about what you can give back, like any family. The obvious appeal to having me living with them is the help the family can get with their English skills. The two boys in the family are learning English at school and they got to practice their English daily with me and I gave them a few relaxed lessons a week to help them improve. Furthermore, as much as I enjoyed learning from my family about the Spanish culture, they too enjoyed asking me questions and getting insights in to what it is like to live in England and the cultural differences between the two countries. I even taught the parents a few English words and treated them to a deluxe version of my pesto pasta!

Finally by living with a family you can make a real attachment to the place you are living in and feel like you have integrated into the community a bit. It gives you a chance to meet great people and create a friendship that will last. I will certainly be back to Pamplona in the future!

 

 

 

Things to do near Pamplona #1, Olite

 

The first time I visited this little Spanish town the experience wasn’t great. I was with my host family on the way to have lunch with the grandparents and we stopped by Olite because they had told me it was very beautiful and were eager to show me. My eagerness to see the town didn’t last long upon arrival. This was back in February and I was still in denial that the whole of Spain wasn’t warm all year round. As a result I was severely underdressed for the freezing cold rain pouring down and the wind that was bending my umbrella all over the place. My host family too were having a bad time and after a few minutes we agreed to get back into the car and put Olite in our diaries for another day.

Olite is a small town in the centre of Navarre and only 42 km south of Pamplona. It is a pretty medieval town with grand stone houses and narrow cobbled streets with many little shops selling treats of Navarre. Pinxos are the tapas of the north and you can find a few welcoming bars where you will be able to enjoy a caña (the Spanish standard sized beer) and a delicious pinxo for around 3.50€. In the sunshine, if you are lucky. The town is famous for its palace but there are also two churches, one built during the 13th century adjoining the palace and the other located next to the town dating from the 12th century that are worth the visit. The town also has a monastery, underground medieval galleries, and numerous vineyards and bodegas producing the famous wine from the region surrounding the whole town.

Recently I decided to visit Olite on a solo trip one day after work. The sun was shining and I was feeling adventurous. Getting there by bus from Pamplona is easy, cheap and pretty quick. On arrival the first thing you notice is the huge castle that makes this town famous. In the 14th century King Charles III commissioned the building of his royal palace, establishing it as a royal seat of the kingdom of Navarre for centuries to come. The castle, which takes up a third of the old town, received many additions and modifications throughout the centuries that have given it its charm.

It cost just 2€ to enter and you are free to explore the multitude of staircases, towers, tunnels, rooms and courtyards distributed around the palace. It is so enjoyable to get lost here just wandering around and stumbling across a sun soaked courtyard full of trees or finding a staircase to a room offering fantastic views of the town and vineyards stretching out to the horizon. You can easily spend a good couple of hours or more here exploring. There is quite a lot of information available about the castle and one of the rooms houses a display of the history of the palace and its restoration since it was set on fire by the guerrilla Espoz y Mina who feared it would end up in the hands of the approaching French army.

When you have enjoyed the palace and all its quirky features you can go and explore the no less impressive town and walk among the vineyards, most of which offer wine tours if you have some money to spend.

Who knew what was being concealed by the wind and rain on that freezing day in February? Olite is a great little place and I definitely recommend it!

Thinking of teaching English abroad?

 

So you’re thinking of moving abroad to teach English and wondering if it’s a good thing to do?

The short answer is yes, go for it! Here’s why…

Making the decision to move away to a new place and work in a different country can be a daunting one, especially if you have not lived there before and you don’t speak the native language at all. But here are some reasons why I think it is a great thing to do.

In many countries it seems that the demand for English teachers is very high, particularly in the larger towns and cities. This means that it wont be too difficult to find yourself a job teaching in a school, academy or even privately. If you can get a job abroad while still being in your home country then that is great and will certainly give you some piece of mind so start looking early for jobs in academies and schools. If you don’t find a job before you move, don’t let that hold you back. It seems risky but in my experience it is easier to get a job when you are already living in the place where you would like to work.

I think experience and qualification requirements depend on the country you plan on travelling to, but don’t overlook the assets you have. When I moved to Spain I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t have the qualifications or experience to be a teacher. I had worked with children a bit before but not much more than that. I was surprised to find that when I got my first job my most impressive asset, to my employer, was that I was a native English speaker. This is something I hadn’t really thought about but schools really value it, so you should too.

Being a teacher is a great way to earn money whilst experiencing a new place. As a valued profession in demand, it’s also a pretty well paid one. In my experience in Spain you can expect to get paid between 15€ and 20€ per hour for teaching English and in a school you will probably get a nice lunch included. The work can be more difficult, mentally, but the perks of the job balance this out. When you’re teaching, every day is different. Of course you can expect a few days to be tough but it is more likely that you are going to be having a lot of fun with some great kids and fellow teachers. It is a very rewarding job and if you put the effort in there is nothing better than being personally thanked by a parent or teacher, or seeing a struggling student improving.

Being an English teacher doesn’t have to consume all your time. In my current school I work from nine in the morning until two in the afternoon with some free periods where I can do some lesson planning. Now that spring is here that gives me a lot of time to enjoy and explore the place where I am living. Working hours can obviously vary a lot but just because you are getting a grown ups job don’t think it has to take up all your time.

Speaking the local language is definitely not essential as most English classes will be taught only in English, but if you do want to learn a bit of the language, working in a school teaching can be really helpful. Because you’re interacting with the children all day it is surprising how much vocabulary, and how many useful phrases, you pick up and learn from the kids you are teaching.

Finally, and I think most importantly, living and working in a country is a really great way to get an in-depth experience of a place. You will really get to immerse yourself in a new culture and get to see the less well visited spots, exploring things at your own pace. You will have time to meet some great people and build friendships with locals and parents who can help you get to know your new home and become part of a community.

I hope anyone thinking of teaching abroad has been sufficiently encouraged, leave a comment below if there is still anything you are unsure about. I’m going to write a post about how to maximise your chances of getting a job soon so follow my blog and look out for more!

 

 

 

 

 

A good day surfing

 

Surfing is a very unique sport and part of what makes it unique is the importance of the elements whose unpredictability gives surfing both its appeal, and frustration. There are now very sophisticated forecasts available to help you predict everything from wave height and frequency, to wind speed and direction and probably even seaweed per m3 of water, all up to two weeks into the future. However despite all this technology nothing is, and probably will never be, certain. I have turned up to a near flat forecast in the North Sea to find fun sizeable waves that left me grinning from ear to ear. Like wise I have been escorted to promised six foot barrels in Indonesia, only to be washed around in a windy mess.

Since I moved to Pamplona I have been taking regular trips to the Basque coast with some fellow teachers at my school on the hunt for waves. This part of Europe offers endless spots running along the coastline ranging from beautiful town beaches such as San Sebastian and Biarritz, to little coves and secluded spots all with consistent waves and reachable within an hour of Pamplona.

Last week we were headed for Hendaye, a small town on the French/Spanish border with a long golden beach and uninterrupted views of the vast Atlantic Ocean. Looking at the forecast the night before, it was more than tempting to cancel my 7am alarm and wait until next weekend. We were expecting medium size 3-4 foot waves and a disastrous 30mph wind and rain. You don’t need to be an expert to realise that in the ocean, trying to catch waves, probably won’t be a great place to be.

However, we were all committed and at 7:30 the next morning I climbed in the car with my two friends and the journey began. As we crossed the border a heavy rain had begun to hammer down on the car. Along with a temperature drop as we descended the mountains to the town, the prospect of removing our warm clothes and fighting ourselves into a wetsuit was a daunting thought, perfectly illustrated by my friend’s fearful face next to me.

We parked the car and gazed out through the windows shielding us from the wind and rain. The forecast seemed pretty accurate, medium sized sloshy waves being blown around by a relentless wind. My friend was the first to voice the rational response to what we saw, suggesting we wrap up warm, go and have a coffee and maybe head home. But we had come to far now and as bad as it looked I have never been one to decline the opportunity of a surf of any sort. For the next few minutes we all stayed sat in the car conjuring the will power that was needed to venture outside and suit up. In the end it took a communal 3, 2, 1, go! to get us all out and changing as quickly as possible before the cold got to us too much. Car key “hidden” on the wheel, we made our way down to the beach to make the best of what the ocean was offering, despite the lack of fellow surfers in the water being quite disconcerting.

Unsurprisingly the waves weren’t very good, but the rain had stopped, the sun had begun to shine and as always it was great to get into the water after a week in the city.

After a couple of hours being washed around we found each other on the sand and decided to take a walk along the beach to see what else we could find, the strange hope of the waves being better somewhere else always tempting. After striding all the way up to the top of the beach with our boards blowing around in the winds we reached a large man made sea wall separating a harbour from the rest of the ocean, it was quite tall and was creating a little surfers microclimate paradise. Tall, glassy waves were wrapping around the wall that was sheltering them from the harsh wind. These were great waves, and after what we had been in all morning they looked heavenly.

With excitement bursting out of us we all ran across the top of the wall, climbed down the rocks and jumped straight into the line up catching wave after wave in the mostly empty water. Eventually, hours later, we washed up on the beach exhausted but each wearing an adrenaline filled grin of absolute content.

After a long winter I had caught the best waves I have had in a long time, but I had also been reminded of a good lesson for surfing and adventures of any kind. You never know what you are going to find, and sometimes it might seem like the best thing to do is forget it. But the important thing is making the journey and going for it because you never know what surprises you will find!

Is alcohol the best tool to help you speak a language?

 

So here is the scene. I’ve been kindly invited to a party by one of my English-speaking friends and I feel I am making my usual impressions to her amigos as the shy boy in the corner who doesn’t say anything. This is an odd feeling for me because I usually really enjoy talking to different people but tonight my Spanish skills are letting me down and I just can’t.

I pour another drink, smiling and nodding at any questions that come my way, hoping that ‘yes’ is an appropriate answer and they don’t require something more.

Soon my glass is empty and I think about filling it again, giving me something to do. Suddenly all the conversations I’m hearing not only make a bit of sense, but I feel I have words to contribute! Before long I’m saying things I didn’t realise I knew, and I am in disbelief that I am speaking Spanish. This is of course what it feels like to me, it could in truth not make much sense but the great thing is I don’t care and I am reassured as they are responding to me, meaning an actual conversation in Spanish is happening!

By the end of the evening I have met some great people and my confidence in speaking Spanish is sky high, for a couple of days.

This effect does make sense. Although the best way to learn and practice speaking a language is just to do it, the fear of embarrassment can be pretty restricting. A party atmosphere gets rid of this and frees you up to practice what you know and learn things you don’t. This kind of environment also gives a pretty good insight in how to get better at speaking a foreign language without alcohol.

Firstly, I am no language expert. Spanish is the first language I am attempting to learn and I have only been learning it seriously since the end of last year. Most advice is just to speak more. If you’re like me this isn’t too helpful as that is exactly what I feel I can’t do but here are some ways that have helped me and can make it easier.

A great thing to do is find some people who you can become comfortable speaking with. For me the family I live with is perfect as they always talk to me in Spanish and don’t speak a word of English, which means anything I can say in Spanish is going to be better than nothing. They are very kind and I know them well enough to no longer be embarrassed. An environment like this is perfect as it means you have to communicate with what you do know, your friends can then help you out along the way. It surprising how little language you need to know to communicate something and this can be really encouraging.

I have found that there are so many people and groups who want to practice their English with you. Find these groups or people and meet up, it can be a bit of an intimidating thought if you don’t know any one but it is really worth it. At first you don’t have to speak anything but English and as you get to know people and feel more comfortable you will find that before long you are practising your new language without forcing it. When you know everyone is learning you feel a lot better about it.

Get a little notebook to write down new words and phrases. For me, a lot of what I hear is new to me but I have found that when I hear a new word or phrase, that is useful to me, I write it down and it helps me learn it. Also anything I would like to say, but don’t know how, I can find out and write in the notebook. Now I have a pretty useful dictionary of common words and phrases that I find myself using or needing to use often.

Finally living in a country where they speak the language you are trying to learn is so helpful. It’s amazing how many things you pick up from hearing others or seeing in your daily life. It creates a reason for you to learn and it’s easy to see the progress you are making just going about your daily life.

Learning a language can be pretty tough, at times you will feel real progress. You will soon be confident enough, when asked by a native speaker do you speak Spanish, to answer “yes, a bit” only to be knocked right back as you listen to a beautiful stream of incomprehensible noise that leaves you silent.

It takes a lot of time so don’t give up. Keep at it and if you’re ever feeling really bad just get yourself along to a party!

 

 

Meeting the grandparents

As I am living with a family in Pamplona I have been lucky enough to do some pretty cool and random things that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do. Some of these have been great, and some have been pretty weird. This story is one of the latter.

On my weekends when I’m not teaching I like to join the family on their adventures and one regular trip is to go and see the grandparents in a small village south of Pamplona. It’s a very quiet place and like all villages here in Navarre, regardless of their size, it has a church and a court to play pala (a sort of squash equivalent).

On my first visit I was greeted by the grandparents like a lost son and instantly got to like them.

We spent the day eating in the sun and relaxing with me trying to practice my limited Spanish skills. I was told I was going to learn how to make a real Spanish omelette and this was exciting for me but almost at the same time as the arrival of this news the atmosphere changed and the visit took a new turn.

Alvaro, one of the sons of the family who I am staying with, cut is head and he, his brother and parents went with him to the hospital. I stayed to learn the art of the Spanish omelette.

However coinciding with this was the arrival of Javier, another of the grandparents’ children. Javier introduced himself by pouring me ciders faster than I could drink and giving me a grilling about my intentions in Spain. I didn’t mind this as these kinds of questions I can handle in Spanish. It was also impressive learning how cider in the north is poured in small amounts into a glass from a great height to make it taste better.

Many potatoes were brought to the table and I was shown what to do with them, still drinking cider, and now struggling to answer the questions of Javier that were becoming increasingly more intense.

My understanding of Spanish is pretty good, but my speaking skills are not yet up to the job of explaining myself properly. As we peeled and sliced potatoes we moved from topics such as what is the colour of your girlfriends hair? And is she fat or thin? To why did England reject the pope and accept a fraudulent religion? And whether I agreed that the Basque country we were in had been stolen by Spain? The answer to the last question I found out quickly, to Javier, was that yes this is NOT in Spain.

As I continued to peel the potatoes furiously it was clear that I was not able to express my self properly and as I continued struggling to answer questions the three people with me (grandparents and Javier) became more and more heated and demanding of explanations.

I enjoy odd situations, and it was at this point I realised how odd this one was. Sitting here peeling potatoes in a strange new house in a tiny Spanish village in the middle of nowhere, giving incorrect answers to deep questions with three Spanish (Basque, sorry Javier) people I had never met before.

Finally to my relief, after a couple of hours of awkward grilling, my host family returned and the eldest son, who speaks English, was able to help me explain how the Church of England was not a strange cult gripping the English nation, and I wasn’t in denial of the existence of the Basque people!

This is what living abroad is all about, getting into strange situations and experiencing something different. If you’re interested in something more conventional to do here, read my favourite things to do in Pamplona.

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My favourite things to do in pamplona

Since February, Pamplona has been my home and after the initial disappointment of discovering the weather was identical to back home in England, and not the endless sunshine of the Mediterranean coast I had been used to, I have discovered it is a city deserving of love.

Pamplona is located in northern Spain in the region of Navarre, just to the south of the Pyrenees, full of history, beautiful scenery and a lot of friendly people who will enjoy telling you that you are in fact not in Spain but the Basque country!

Pamplona has become famous for its annual running of the bulls during the festival of San Fermin, but there is much more to the city than that, these are my favourites (nearly) all costing no money.

River walk

Running along the north of the city is the river Arga, and on a sunny day it’s great to take a stroll along it for as many hours as you desire. As well as the scenic views, you can get a great view from the riverbank of the old city and cathedral with its backdrop of mountains. You will find the river is periodically crossed by old, picturesque bridges and there is also a mill that you can enter with information about the river walks and this side of Pamplona.

 

City Walls

Pamplona is a city with a load of history and some impressive architecture remains from times gone by. The best way to see it is taking a walk, starting from the fuerte san bartolome. If you want to spend 1.50€ you can go into the fort and as well as having a look around, it has a few rooms with a lot of information about the cities origins displayed in an interactive way. I am lucky that I had local friend with me to use as a personal historian but if it interests you it’s worth the 1.50€. From the Fort you just follow the huge walls around the city that are studded with impressive gateways and elaborate defence mechanisms. The walk is short and ends when you arrive at the equally impressive Ciudadela.

Juevinxo’s

Juevinxo’s is the name given to the gathering of people in the old part of town to enjoy the famous pinxos every Thursday. Although I’m sure a local will tell you otherwise, for me pinxos are basically tapas, and on Thursday you can get delicious pinxos and a drink for about 2€ and it is definitely worth it. If you arrive before the sun goes down you can wander around the old part of town enjoying the Spanish architecture and winding streets. From around eight the bars begin to fill up and the atmosphere of the old town is great. You can happily spend a whole evening hopping from bar to bar, tasting their finest pinxo’s meeting locals and if you don’t go crazy, you don’t have to spend too much money.

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The Ciudadela

The Ciudadela is the big star shaped fort built to protect the exposed side of Pamplona. It is impressive to walk around, but I like the middle where you can find a relaxed environment with grass and benches and some great exhibitions housed in the redundant buildings of the fort. All the exhibitions are free and seem to change monthly so it’s well worth a visit.

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One of the exhibitions at the ciudadela

Fuerte de San Cristóbal

If you’re into hiking then I definitely recommend climbing to the Fuerte de San Cristóbal. The mountain is easily seen from Pamplona being it’s closest, and the old fort is perched on the top. The walk is probably a good 2-4 hour hike up and down, depending on where you start and how long you want to take, where you will walk up the ridge of the mountain through pine forest and get beautiful views of Pamplona and the surrounding countryside the whole way up. At the top you find the fort, which is not legally open and owned by the ministry of defence, but it seems as though you can walk round and do some exploring without any problems.