Looking Down On Cities

Last year I did a 365 Project, partially as a challenge to myself as a photographer and partially as a way to document what I guessed would be a year of transitions. As it turns out, it was. I finished my Fulbright year in Spain, traveled on my weekends, walked the Camino de Santiago, got engaged, and returned home to familiar spaces in Michigan to start a new job in Detroit.

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Many distances were crossed – by plane, train, bus, car, but sometimes on foot.

I am working on a new creative project for this coming year, but it won’t be a daily photo project – partially because the tail end of the year degenerated into commuting/grading/cat pictures, and it’s hard to measure up to last year’s images.

I had a lot of adventures in 2012. I met a lot of amazing people, and traveled to some incredible places. My favorite parts of my travels were always the times when I climbed to a high place – often at sunset – and looked down on the cities I had spent the day exploring.

I learned a lot about travel this past year, and a lot about myself as a traveler. In the future when I go to a new city, that will be my destination – somewhere I can see the shape of the city, where small individual details dissolve into twinkling lights, and the iconic buildings from postcards become small silhouettes, dwarfed by the sky.

Granada - Ciudad Encantadora

Looking down on Granada from Miguel Del Alto. (Photo by my new Brazilian friend, Carolina.)

Granada - Ciudad Encantadora

Granada – actually in late 2011, but it was the beginning of a year of looking down on cities.


Barcelona, from Parque Guell.

Navidad en Madrid

Madrid, last Christmas.


Paris, from Sacre Coeur in Montmartre.


Rome for Easter.


Ancient Rome


The ruins of Pompeii



Senderismo en Jávea

Jávea / Xávia


Tabarca – not a city, but a small island off the coast of Alicante.

Senderismo en Calpe

Bird’s Eye view of Calpe, after a harrowing climb up the Peñón de Ifach.


Marrakesh, Morocco, from the roof of our riad.

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco

Aït Benhaddou, Morocco – you have probably seen it in a movie.


Not a city – but the Berber tents where we stayed in Zagora, at the edge of the Sahara.

Among all of the beautiful cities, my favorite was Alicante, where I lived for 10 months and that I often looked down on, from the heights of the Castillo de Santa Barbara. Nostalgia always adds a cast of golden light, but it was a beautiful city. Someday I will go back.

Santa Barbara


Tour de Alicante

All the lights lit for Christmas along Alfonso el Sabio.


La Playa Postiguet, full of sunbathers.



Woke up early today, in the middle of the mess of luggage that had been mailed from Alicante to meet up with me in Santiago. Spent the morning packing and drinking wine – we didn’t finish it last night, and how can we waste that Last Delicious Spanish Wine?

Before heading to the airport we had time for a few more lasts. Last walk around Santiago. Last visits to Spanish jewelry stores (looking for an engagement ring a little more permanent than the now-wilted daisy.)

Last small talk in castellano. Last Spanish breakfast. Last tortilla española and café con leche.

It was the Last Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice that did me in and made me cry. (Or maybe it was the morning wine – Last Appropriate Midday Drinking.)

After all that we finally did get on the plane, and left Spain behind to fly north to Dublin. It was cold and rainy, because it’s Ireland. I forgot how wet and cold rain actually was, or that sometimes you really can’t just wear sandals and put on a scarf and be warm enough. But we found the pub recommended by one of our Irish pilgrim friends, and we drank Guinness with the Irish grandpas. (Who are actually harder for me to understand than the Spanish yayos.)


Today was a day of lasts.

Last full day in Spain. Last menú del día. Last tapas. Last cheap, delicious wine and cheese and olives.

It was also my Last Risk of Death Due to Spanish Safety Regulations. 5 years ago I visited Santiago for a weekend – definitely a different experience, coming in by train from Ávila instead of on foot, younger and less accustomed to Spain and travel in general. While I was there, I rode the ferris wheel on the top of the hill in the center of the city – tall and incredibly fast and a little rickety. It’s still there, still somewhat creaky-looking, and since I was ballsy enough to ride it the first time, I decided I was ballsy enough to ride it a second time. So I did. It wasn’t bad. I don’t know if it has gotten less terrifying, or if I’ve just gotten tougher.

We wanted to have our Last Spanish Picnic with our Last Wine and Last Cheese (Last Drinking Alcohol in Public) but the park was too crowded (Last Spanish Outdoor Party) so we ended up having a picnic in our room at the pensión. After all that aprovecharing and all those goodbyes, I was exhausted and couldn’t even stay awake to finish the wine.



Finisterre back to Santiago.

Early this morning we woke up in cold mist, climbed back up the steep slope, and walked back into town to have coffee with the Galician fishermen before catching a bus back to Santiago. We’ll spend two more nights in the city before catching our flight.

We didn’t sleep much due to our night on the cliff that was more dramatic than comfortable, so once we got back to Santiago we checked into an albergue, wandered a bit, dozed in the park, bought some groceries, and then took a “nap” that lasted around 13 hours – so much for waking up and cooking dinner.



Santiago to Finisterre. (By bus – our walk is done.)

Today we took the bus to the coast, to Finisterre, where many finish their Camino after passing through Santiago. Once we got there I understood why. After the crowds and the vague feeling of disillusionment upon reaching Santiago, I didn’t want my journey to end there. This – the misty coast – felt like the end of a journey.

The Romans believed that this was more than that – Finisterre, or Fisterra, was considered to be the end of the world. We felt it, walking out onto the narrow strip of land reaching out through the mist and into the Atlantic ocean beyond it. It was like standing on the edge of a cliff and looking into nothingness.

We didn’t check into an albergue. Instead we found a ledge halfway down the steep slope at the very tip of the peninsula, with an overhanging boulder to protect us from the wind and keep us from falling off the cliff, and mountain goats clambering around on nearby rocks. My boyscout boyfriend built a fire for us to burn our hats and walking sticks.

Except at that point he wasn’t my boyfriend, because he used a daisy as a ring and asked me to marry him while we watched the sun set over the Atlantic.

(Perhaps because he knows me and knows what to do when I am distressed, and in this case I needed something to be excited about in the future once I cross that ocean again, instead of just feeling melancholy about what I’m leaving behind me. Maybe it was the only way he could get me back home.)

So we got engaged, watched the fire, watched the stars (thousands of them, incredibly bright), ate cheese and fruit (sliced up with a pocketknife), drank wine right from the bottle, listened to the waves crashing on the rocks beneath us, and slept wedged between the rocks that kept our slick sleeping bags from sliding us right off the cliff. A good end and a good beginning.


Lavacolla to Santiago de Compestela.

We made it! And look how excited Santiago was to see us. Fireworks everywhere!

(Or perhaps it was because tomorrow is the feast day of Santiago, their biggest party of the year?)

This is the destination we’ve had our eyes on for the last 25 days. So what happens when you arrive?

You get to Monte de Gozo, the Hill of Joy where pilgrims catch their first glimpse of the city – or in this case, where you catch a glimpse of  suburbs, a gigantic monument commemorating Pope John Paul II’s visit, and plenty of people eager to sell you crap.

You walk through the modern outskirts of the city, beginning to feel a little sad knowing that you’re done with the mountains and the peaceful green fields.

You pass into the old part of town, where apartment complexes give way to cobblestones and old stone.

You get to the cathedral – a muddle of steeples and street artists and sweaty pilgrims – in time for the daily noon pilgrim mass.

You do not have time to feel much in the cathedral, in the press of other pilgrims standing or sitting or leaning against pillars during the service, and the stream of tourists pushing through with their cameras.

You get a little excited when they pull out the famous Botafumeiro – the huge incense burner that swings terrifyingly high, spitting out sparks and smoke. You feel impressed – by the bells and the organ music and the sweet smoke mixed with pilgrim sweat – but not necessarily spiritual.

You wander out into the bright sunlight and get someone to take an after picture in the crowded plaza.

You stand in line at the Pilgrim’s office and get your Compestela – the Latin document that says something along the lines of: Good job taking that long walk, pilgrim, and here’s a get-out-of-purgatory-free card.

You find a menú del día that includes octopus, but maybe secretly remember Burgos (and the meal that now will hold all meals to an impossibly high standard.)

You realize that since tomorrow is the busiest day of the year for Santiago – the saint’s feast day – you probably should have booked beds somewhere earlier. You end up paying too much for yet another dingy private room – but outside the window are the steeples of the cathedral, cascades of bells, warm light and plate noise of a restaurant patio below.

You take a shower, take a nap, wander the city, feel a bit wistful about the journey receding behind you, now that you’ve reached your destination.

You soothe your existential crisis with tapas, at an incredible place where ordering two glasses of wine sets in motion a seemingly endless stream of little plates filled with delicious things. You watch Spain beating the U.S. at basketball, which seems unimaginable, so you talk trash accordingly.

You find a spot in the crowd with a view of the cathedral, to watch a crazy light show projected onto the ancient facade itself – making it change colors, catch fire, extinguish itself, dissolve into darkness, and rebuild itself several times, before the sky explodes into fireworks around it.

You try your best to go out and party with the rest of the city – and perhaps the rest of the region – but feel old and tired, once again defeated by the Spaniards’ party stamina. The Camino is done, and so are you.

A brief note from the Camino

I´m sitting in the municipial albergue  (pilgrim hostel) in Ventosa, after approximately a week and a half of walking on the Camino de Santiago – beginning in St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France, climbing through the misty Pyranees (a grueling first day), stumbling through Basque country, wandering through Pamplona, and striding a bit more confidently into La Rioja, feet bandaged and vineyards on every side.

Words fail me and internet time is limited, but suffice to say that the Camino is life changing.

I have always been attracted to the idea of pilgrimage – a removal from daily routines and surroundings, where the journey is more important than the surroundings. I am not doing this walk for a free get-out-of-hell card, for penance, or for a vacation. I have a list of reasons why I began the Camino, but not a list of what I expect to find at the end.

I´m more happy and at peace than I can ever remember being. The physical effort is grueling, but there are a thousand small rewards: the view from the top of a steep hill, a flock of sheep emerging from mist, the sound of real bells, a mossy fountain of cold water just when you need it. I´m learning to forget my feet and take advantage of the headspace.

I´ll see you at the other end.

Between St. Jean and Roncesvalles, the first day.



Pamplona to Cizur Menor.

Not much walking today, other than exploring Pamplona and then walking the short distance to the next small town, Cizur Menor. We stayed in a small albergue attached to an old church belonging to the militant religious order of the Knights of Malta – who like the Knights Templar and other similar orders were charged with protecting medieval pilgrims from what could be a very dangerous trip.

Arriving in Pamplona was fun after passing through so many tiny towns, but after the noise and crowds of the city it was good to get out into the peaceful fields again.


Zubiri to Pamplona

We started the day in the somewhat deserted, semi-industrial wasteland Zubiri and ended it in Pamplona – where we found beds in an old church converted to an albergue, and joined what seemed to be the entire population of Pamplona (and probably of Spain) in watching Spain win the Eurocup final.



Roncesvalles to Zubiri.

We didn’t have a chance to adequately dry our clothes since we got into Roncesvalles so late, so today we stopped to eat lunch in a field in one of several little Basque farming towns that we passed through. We spread our laundry out to dry in the sun, which was effective but resulted in some faint farm smells.


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