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France 2016: A Game by Game Diary

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France 2016

A Game by Game Diary

By

Dean Johnston

Copyright 2016 Dean Johnston

Shakespir Edition

ISBN: 978-0-9936400-7-0

License Notes

This ebook is the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download a copy. This ebook may not be re-sold. If you would like to share this book with another person please respect the time and effort that went into it by downloading an additional copy for each recipient. Thank you for your support.

Table of Contents

Let the Games Begin!

On to the Knockout Stages

One Cinderella Down, One to Go

All Set for the Finals

And Your Champions Are…

Wrap-Up

Teams of the Tournament

Excerpt from Random Acts of Travel: Featuring Trepidation, Hammocks and Spitting

Excerpt from Buen Camino: Inspiration Agony Adventure on the Camino de Santiago

About the Author

 

[] Let the Games Begin!

With the European championship being expanded from 16 teams to 24 there were some concerns about diluting the overall talent level, although the overall competitiveness of the qualifying stages suggested we had no need to worry on that score. In the end, the results were anything but lopsided. Plus, although having 16 of 24 teams move on to the knockout stages reduced the difficulty of advancing, it also kept a lot more teams in the mix right through the group stages. Even down to the end of match day three most teams still had something to play for which made for plenty of excitement and drama. In the end, we got our usual quota of surprise results, thrilling finishes and compelling storylines, all coming together to produce one of the most entertaining European Championships ever.

Early Drama!

France 2 Romania 1

I watched Dimitri Payet a lot this past year and he always looked good, but never that good. He was twice as good as anyone else on the pitch even before he scored that incredible winner. France will be tough to stop with him playing that well alongside all their other stars. But their defense looks sketchy, at best, and I think they’ll need to get Sagna attacking more if they want to beat the better teams.

Romania, on the other hand, was quite a surprise. I think everyone assumed they’d just sit back and hope for a break on the counter but give them credit, they pressed hard, played open, and almost took advantage of a French team clearly nervous throughout the opening match. It will be interesting to see, though, because if they can keep that intensity up against the Swiss and Albanians they could sneak into second place. No points for Griezmann or Pogba, although both had their chances. Man of the match: Payet, obviously.

Switzerland 1 Albania 0

Not sure if the Albanians were better than expected or the Swiss were worse, but I didn’t see much from that match that made me think either of those teams are dangerous. An assist for Shaqiri. Man of the match: Granit Xhaka (he’s going to look good in Arsenal colours this fall).

Wales 2 Slovakia 1

Now Wales and Slovakia, on the other hand, what a game! There were some stretches where it was just punt and hope, but with Allen and Ramsey in the midfield working with Bale up front the Welsh are going to be tough to stop. And Williams and Davies were amazing at the back. The Slovaks were still clearly more skilled overall, and could easily beat anyone in this group, but they seemed undisciplined and moody. And Skrtel, as always, is a red card/suspension waiting to happen. He could very well end up costing them. A great free kick goal for Bale, came close to a couple more, and should have had an easy assist if Ramsey hadn’t been too tired to shoot with a minute or two left. Man of the match: Ashley Williams.

England 1 Russia 1

Oh, England, you little tease. Fairly typical, in the end. Lots of possession, good chances, no finish, give up a heartbreaker in the end. What was different was how creative they looked and how offensively Hodgson set things up. Having Rooney play central midfield against a stronger side would be a risk but it worked pretty well today. But why exactly did he have Kane, his biggest aerial threat, taking corner kicks rather than receiving them? Bizarre. Of course, I felt the same about Dier taking that free kick and then he scored, so what do I know? And Sterling was his usual self – always looking dangerous but never amounting to much. Despite the disappointing finish, though, a pretty positive start for England and if they can keep pushing their fullbacks that far up against better teams they’ll always have a chance. Russia, on the other hand, looks terrible. Lucky to get a point, and they might not get any more. Man of the match: Most were saying Dier, but for me it was Kyle Walker.

Tomorrow:

Turkey vs Croatia – This could amount to an elimination game when all is said and done.

Poland vs Northern Ireland – First look at the Lewandowski-led Polish, my personal pick for darkhorse of the tourney.

Germany vs Ukraine – the Germans looked shaky in the last few friendlies, now we’ll see if they simply turn things up a notch now that it counts or if those results actually meant something.

All According to Plan?

Strangely enough, three and a half days in and still no real upsets. I mean, sure, as it turned out England probably should have beat Russia but you’d hardly have called a draw there a shock before the game. And Italy beating Belgium is maybe a little surprising since we haven’t heard many good things about this Italy team, but in hindsight a good manager and a couple good centre-backs seem to be worth a dozen Hazards, Lukakus and de Bruynes. There’s got to be a shocker coming sooner or later, but so far, so predictable…

Croatia 1 Turkey 0

This looked like the toughest group from the start and this game didn’t change that thinking. Turkey is supposedly a pretty decent team but they looked outclassed most of the day, and the score line definitely flattered them. Croatia looked extremely dangerous and could/should have scored four or five. They hit the woodwork three separate times and just missed a couple low crosses that would have been tap-ins. Yet, despite all that, it took a wonder goal from Modric to get the win. He was typically outstanding all game and an easy choice for man of the match.

Poland 1 Northern Ireland 0

Another game where the score turned out much closer than play suggested. Poland looked extremely talented and fluid, although it’s possible that much of that was down to Northern Ireland’s lack of skill and passing, especially in the midfield. They had their hands full with Lewandowski and Milik on defense and never threatened on offense. They will have their work cut out for them to pick up any points. Meanwhile, Poland looked like a contender, but that was a tough game to judge it on. Man of the match: Gregor Krychowiak.

Germany 2 Ukraine 0

The end result looked pretty typical but this one was anything but. Basically, Ukraine is pretty good. Even though the Germans dominated the first half, the Ukrainians had the best chances and if it wasn’t for Neuer they would have had the lead. Of course, having the best keeper in the world is one of the reasons Germany is favoured. But just like the French, that new backline looked pretty shaky (mainly Hector and Mustafi). When the top two seeds in the tournament look really vulnerable like this it should make for some fun games down the line. In the end, though, the Germans stuck with their game plan and eventually wore Ukraine down. Ozil seemed uncharacteristically off most of the game until suddenly taking over the last 10 minutes and laying on a beautiful cross for Schweinsteiger’s dramatic insurance goal. All in all, there aren’t going to be any easy games in this group. Man of the match: Jerome Boateng.

Spain 1 Czech Republic 0

This was complete domination, with a lot of impressively desperate defending and great goaltending from the Petr Cech. Even though Morata didn’t actually make it to the scoresheet, his movement and energy created all sorts of room for the Spanish maestros in the midfield. As ever, Spain looked awesome but never really put it away. I’d expect that to continue, and probably to cost them points sooner or later. Can’t wait to see them play Croatia. Man of the match: Tomas Sivok (yes, he’s a Czech, but without him it would have been 3 or 4).

Ireland 1 Sweden 1

A hard-fought – if not necessarily scintillating – match. Both of these teams defend aggressively but struggle to create clear chances, which made for a bit of a slog. The own goal by Ciaran Clark was disappointing for Ireland, but a point for each still seemed like the right result. Man of the match: Wes Hoolahan.

Italy 2 Belgium 0

The disciplined, yet still attacking, Italian system made the Belgians look like a group of 8 year-olds chasing the ball around most of the day, but then for some reason the Italians decided 25 minutes left was late enough to close up shop and pretend the only move they know is the desperation lob. Before that they were in complete control. Hazard looked good, but everyone else was just standing still while he dragged defenders around. Lukaku added looking moody to the mix. The scary thing is that as awful as Belgium looked much of this game, they still easily could have tied or even won it, and if they get their act together soon could still be a factor in this tournament. As long as Origi never sees the field again, that is. Man of the match: Leonardo Bonucci.

Now tomorrow we get to see which Portugal team has come to play.

Eating My Words

Well, you had to know that was going to happen. As soon as I ramble on about how there haven’t been any upsets Hungary goes and takes out Austria and Iceland plays Portugal to a very surprising draw. I’m sure these won’t be the last big surprises.

Hungary 2 Austria 0

This game seemed to be going along as expected at half-time, with the Austrians looking more dangerous, although far from a sure thing. But whatever adjustments the Hungarians made really seemed to pay off as they opened up the Austrian midfield with regularity in the second half. Then a couple really nice passes by the Hungarians to set up the first goal seemed like it would change everything, especially considering the curious decision by Austria to take off Janko at 0-0 with half an hour to go. But Austria bounced right back and appeared to have tied it except for a brainless (and dangerous) offensive foul by Dragovic that not only erased the goal but got him a second yellow and kicked out of the game. After that, every Hungarian counterattack was dangerous and eventually they got the insurance goal on a beautiful chip of the keeper by Stieber that looked more like something you’d expect from Messi or Neymar. I honestly can’t say if this means anything going forward for Hungary, they certainly have limitations, but 3 points is already more than most expected of them. This group is wide open now. Man of the match: Balazs Dzsudzsak.

Portugal 1 Iceland 1

Portugal dominated this one in possession, chances and their typical national specialties – crying, diving and feigning injury. Oh yeah, I almost forgot about petulant looks and screaming at the ref. A real testament to sportsmanship and the game of football, those Portuguese. At least it was enjoyable watching Ronaldo blow chance after chance. A hard-working point for Iceland, who made the most of the few opportunities they were able to generate, but make no mistake, Portugal was definitely the better team and in the end this probably doesn’t hurt them too much in the weakest group of the tournament. Man of the match: Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.

Round 2 Begins

Nothing too definitive through the first set of second games. Big wins for Slovakia and England and solid draws for Romania and Poland. So far, other than France, everything will still come down to the final group game.

Slovakia 2 Russia 1

The misery keeps piling on for Russia. Losing this one fairly comfortably after stealing a single point against England is an awfully poor start, but maybe their fans will do them a favour by getting them disqualified… Russia actually controlled things pretty well, but individual skill was the difference here with Hamsik and Weiss scoring nice goals while Russia had trouble getting a good final ball all day. Skrtel was surprisingly steady as well, although he did give away a stupid and dangerous free kick just as time was running out with a one goal lead. This result makes the England-Wales game even more fascinating now. Man of the match: Vladimir Weiss. Could have been Hamsik until he lazily let his man go for the Russian goal.

Switzerland 1 Romania 1

These Romanians just don’t roll over. The Swiss were the better team, but not by much, and the Romanians refuse to just back it up and hope to defend. If they had a little more quality in the final third they could have won both their games. Their final game against Albania should be entertaining with plenty still left on the line. Man of the match: Xherdan Shaqiri.

France 2 Albania 0

This scoreline was deceiving again for the French. Just like in the Romanian game, they were very lucky to take points here, and this time they didn’t have first game nerves to blame. Right to the final seconds this game could have gone either way. Payet was good again but Giroud was in his so familiar from Arsenal “close, but no cigar” mode, and neither Griezmann nor Pogba started (although both came on as subs and Griezmann finally scored). But overall, pretty uninspired. I’m starting to think they really aren’t that good. Lots of talent but they are pretty young and haven’t really played together as a unit much and it shows. Albania took a page out of Romania’s playbook, being a bit careful but not really backing down. Their centre-backs, Ajeti and Mavraj, were incredible all game until they inexplicably took Ajeti out with 5 minutes to go, then promptly gave up two goals. Substituting a centre-back late in the game is basically unheard of, so either there was an injury we didn’t see or this was one of the biggest tactical errors of the tournament so far. Man of the match: Arlind Ajeti.

England 2 Wales 1

Wow, late dramatics from the English instead of against them? How unusual. Big win for them and a pretty strong performance all around. Wales wasn’t far off but even though they will regret giving up the lead, they would have been fortunate to get a point here. It’s now all wide open going into match three. Man of the match: Kyle Walker, again. Slovakia better find a way to contain those runs of his or they’re going to have trouble.

Northern Ireland 2 Ukraine 0

What a monumental win for the Irish, and a well-deserved one from what I saw. After the Poland game I didn’t really think Northern Ireland were much of a threat. Did they play that much better or are the Polish that good? Well, I guess the Polish result against Germany answers that question, although the Ukrainians will still hope for a desperate win in their final match against Poland. Man of the match: Johnny Evans.

Germany 0 Poland 0

I don’t think many people would have picked this game as the first 0-0 draw of the tournament. Even though there weren’t any goals, though, it was a pretty entertaining game between two good teams. The Germans still controlled the play, but didn’t overly trouble the Polish defense.

Takeaways:

The German defense looks much better with Hummels next to Boateng.

Even so, Milik had a couple really bad misses that could have helped Poland pull off the upset.

Poland is pretty good, but maybe Lewandowski needs to stop being the decoy and start getting the ball himself. The one thing Milik has proven so far is that he is definitely no Lewandowski.

Man of the match: Toni Kroos.

More Late Goals

Still plenty for most teams to play for, with only France, Spain and Italy having guaranteed themselves spots in the knockout stages.

Italy 1 Sweden 0

Italy finally broke through at the end here with a great individual effort by Eder. It’s not like Italy were particularly impressive but Sweden is really brutal, just very dull and uninspired. No ideas going forward at all. Italy at least attempted a lot of different things, they just couldn’t pull any of them off until the very end. Not sure how they’ll score against better defenses but no one will have an easy time of it against them. Man of the match: Emanuele Giaccherini.

Croatia 2 Czech Republic 2

WTF? For the first hour this was the most dominating performance of the tournament (at least until Spain bitch-slapped Turkey later in the day), then the Croatians took off Modric, fell asleep for a while, let the Czechs slip one back, started to panic a bit, watched their fans/morons almost cost them the game by fighting and throwing flares on the field (oh, how clever, what an amazing thing to do!), then panicked a lot, gave up a penalty that tied the game, then almost lost it in the final few minutes. Crazy game, and even though I was rooting for Croatia, the meltdown was worth it just to make everyone blame those idiotic “fans”, and to shove it in the face of the announcers who spent 15 minutes after Croatia’s second goal gushing about Croatia being “through to the knockouts” and “untouchable” and that “the game is surely over”. Or maybe the problem was the water polo cap Vedran Corluka eventually chose to wear to keep blood from pouring out of his head. Man of the match: Ivan Perisic.

Spain 3 Turkey 0

Now that was impressive. Definitely the most in-form team in the tournament at this point. Great games from Pique, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Nolito, Morata, well, really, everyone except De Gea, because he just looked bored. Expected more from this Turkish side but it may not be fair to judge them against this juggernaut. It will be interesting to see how the Spain-Croatia game goes. Croatia is good enough to cause them problems (battle of the two best midfields in the tournament), but how will they react to their disheartening draw with the Czechs? Man of the match: several choices, but I’m going to go with Nolito – a goal, an assist, and lots of hard work tracking back.

Belgium 3 Ireland 0

Signs of life from the Belgians and their star-studded attacking core. This was a dominant win and comes very close to officially knocking Ireland out of the tournament. Man of the match: The two cool finishes by Lukaku were good, but Kevin de Bruyne was at the heart of everything the Belgians did in this game.

Iceland 1 Hungary 1

This was a surprisingly entertaining game, and even though both teams had decent chances, Iceland was a bit unlucky not to hang on for the win in this one. Now they are going to need a win over Austria to move on, while the Hungarians may be able to progress even if they lose to Portugal. They are one of the surprises of the tournament so far. Man of the match: Kolbeinn Sigthorsson.

Portugal 0 Austria 0

I thought this would have been a more even game but it was all Portugal. Unfortunately for them, they seem to have forgotten that the point of the game is to put the ball in the net, not just near it. Another tough one for Ronaldo, with a missed penalty and a half-dozen other blown chances that will make for a difficult night’s sleep for the Petulant Portuguese. Even so, thanks to the weakest group of the tournament they only need a win over surprising Hungary to move on. Man of match: Austrian keeper Robert Almer.

The Field Narrows

Our first set of eliminations has taken place with Romania, Russia and Dzyuba going out with a whimper. Soon we should start seeing some real separation.

Albania 1 Romania 0

A monumental win for Albania, although it still probably won’t be enough to get them through to the knockout stages. Interesting that they played more wide open against the French and Swiss then sort of parked the bus against the Romanians, but you can’t argue with it when it works. Man of the match: Arlind Ajeti, again. This guy has earned himself a big payday somewhere.

France 0 Switzerland 0

Cynics suggested these two teams might play out a dull 0-0 draw since that would ensure both cruised into the next round. Hmm. It started out energetically, though, with France looking looser and more dynamic than in their previous two games. Pogba, in particular, finally looked like the star we were expecting. But the game slowly fizzled out, coming to life briefly when tourney star Dimitri Payet was eventually brought on, but in the end nothing came of anything. Swiss keeper Yann Sommer made some big stops, but really the only saving grace for France is that they will now face a third place team. But after that I don’t like their chances. Man of the match: Yann Sommer.

England 0 Slovakia 0

Another decent performance from the English with very little to show for it. Other than a few late minutes against Wales they haven’t been able to turn possession and chances into something that can actually win a game. Not being able to come through against a pretty average Slovakian side definitely doesn’t bode well for their chances going forward, especially now that they finished second and will face another second place team instead of a third. That hard-earned point will also more than likely get Slovakia through to the next round. Man of the match: Nathaniel Clyne. Maybe it’s just Hodgson’s system that makes these England right-backs play so well.

Wales 3 Russia 0

What a performance by the Welsh! Little Welsh David scoring an easy three against Russian Goliath, and it could have been much more. The Russians couldn’t contain Bale, Joe Allen single-handedly controlled the middle of the pitch, and Aaron Ramsey was everywhere. As we’ve seen with Arsenal, he gives the ball away a bit too much, usually because he’s so reluctant to settle for the easy pass, but the runs he sees and the runs he makes are simply genius. A goal, an assist, and a bunch of tricky passes and even better runs. Now we just have to wait for that ridiculous hair to grow out. Whenever the Russians did put a bit of pressure on the Welsh defense Ashley Williams, in particular, handled things fairly comfortably. I don’t know if Wales has another performance like this in them or not, but they may not need it to advance since they’ve now won their group and will face a third place team. Meanwhile, Russia is going home and I wouldn’t want to bet on the job security (or health) of Leonid Slutski, the ugliest manager in the tournament. Man of the match: Aaron Ramsey.

Surprise, Surprise

As good as Croatia has looked I didn’t see them actually beating Spain, and who thought Turkey would emerge from their doldrums to pick up a comprehensive win? Meanwhile, Poland and Germany got the wins that were expected of them but made harder work of them than they probably should have. Adios, Ukraine and Czech Republic.

Germany 1 Northern Ireland 0

Thomas Muller has made scoring look so easy in previous big tournaments, but not this time around. So many good chances but a combination of bad finishes and bad luck (both a post and a crossbar) has kept him scoreless. He did pick up a nice assist on the only goal of the game, though, and it was enough for Germany to top the group. Man of the match: Mesut Ozil.

Poland 1 Ukraine 0

The first real signs of life from Ukraine, who actually outplayed Poland for most of this game. But they still couldn’t get it done and that bit of energy was too little, too late, and they are now heading home. I guess Poland could be commended for managing a win on a day when they weren’t at their best, as long as that isn’t just the real Poland. Lewandowski is struggling, and while I think the idea behind playing Milik as a second striker alongside him was intended to take defensive attention off him, it seems to have just resulted in Milik getting in the way and taking away touches before wasting them over and over. He was terrible. Man of the match: Ruslan Rotan.

Turkey 2 Czech Republic 0

There was some thought prior to the tourney that the Czechs were a bit past it, with a lot of their best players well into their thirties. Not sure if that was the reason but they definitely did not look good, and go home with only one very lucky point against Croatia to show for their efforts. Turkey, meanwhile, hadn’t looked good in any way going into this one, so despite the poor form of the Czechs this was still a big surprise. Now they have to wait and see what their fate will be, but I’m guessing some lucky group winner would be delighted to draw Turkey in the final 16. Man of the match: Emre Mor.

Croatia 2 Spain 1

Another excellent performance from Croatia, and with Modric out hurt, no less. They have to be considered real contenders at this point, especially since sneaking past Spain to win this group means a much easier draw to the finals. On the other hand, there are just so many reasons for Spain to be kicking themselves after this one. They came out looking just as amazing as they had in their previous games, got a nice early goal, then just so obviously laid back and decided their work was done for the day, thinking they could just pass it around lazily for 80 minutes and Croatia would roll over and give them the group. Big mistake. Plus, De Gea should never have gotten beat near post for the loss and at the other end Ramos’ penalty was pretty poor, even if the Croatian keeper was clearly several yards off his line in full view of both the referee and the assistant which should have resulted in it being re-taken. Now their road just to the semi-finals will include either Italy or Belgium, then probably Germany. That may still not be enough to stop them, but they sure didn’t do themselves any favours giving this one away. Another big moment for Perisic, scoring the winner, then in true bonehead fashion decides to take his shirt off in celebration despite the automatic yellow card that comes with that in a tournament where all it takes is two cards to get suspended. How these idiots tie their boots before the match is hard to imagine sometimes. Man of the match: Nikola Kalinic, with a goal, an assist, and tons of hard work that made the Spanish defense, Ramos in particular, uncomfortable and jittery all day. Mario Mandzukic should have a hard time getting back into the starting 11.

On to the Sweet 16

Well, there were some wild ones yesterday. Some late drama saw Ireland through, and repeated drama snuck Portugal in, breaking the hearts of Turkey and Albania who both finished with 3 points but went out on goal difference.

Courtesy of www.cbssportsline.com

Iceland 2 Austria 1

A desperate game from both sides, with little Icelandic Cinderella picking up a late winner. As well as their qualifying tournament had gone, still nobody expected this. Now they get England on Monday, which I’m sure is a game they’ll feel they can win. As for Austria, a popular darkhorse before the tournament, they simply never really got it going in any of their games. Man of the match: Karl Arnason.

Portugal 3 Hungary 3

What were the odds of a Hungarian team lacking basically a single recognizable name (other than Kiraly, their 40-year-old keeper who plays in sweat pants), scoring 3 goals in a single game, let alone actually winning their group? Their reward is a date with a Belgian team that still seems to be struggling to find their form. Meanwhile, Cristiano Ronaldo finally broke out with two goals, an assist and nine shots to avoid the undesirable title of biggest individual disappointment (that will probably be reserved for self-proclaimed “Ferrari”, Zlatan Ibrahimovic). It was quite a game for Ronaldo, the only surprise being that each of those goals only got them level again. With Hungary. I can’t begin to guess what their game against Belgium will look like, but I can’t wait to watch it. Man of the match: Cristiano Ronaldo.

Ireland 1 Italy 0

Well, it wasn’t hard to tell which team needed this more. That was a passionate, determined effort from Ireland that, after a lot of poor work in the final third, finally yielded the winning goal they deserved. Italy had already clinched first in their group and rested a lot of their regular starters but let’s not kid ourselves, even Italy’s second team is a lot higher profile than Ireland’s first team. Regardless of what was at stake, the Italians should be embarrassed to have gone out there to play for their country in front of 50,000 fans and an international TV audience and put on such a bland, lazy display. Not to mention that you’d think the backups would really want to impress to give themselves a chance at starting the next game. But, no, apparently they’d rather save their energy. Give the Irish credit, though, they never let up and never let Italy into the game. Not that they scored much, but in the end I guess they scored enough. Now they get France, and if there was ever a team that could be bullied by Irish energy and physical play, it would be the French. Italy, on the other hand, was cruising along with good momentum until this game and now have to somehow regroup and turn it back on in time to face Spain. Good luck. Man of the match: Robbie Brady, a lot of hard work and several great free kicks even before he scored the winner.

Belgium 1 Sweden 0

A pretty even game, which probably doesn’t bode well for Belgium, although somehow finishing a limp second place got them a game with Hungary, followed by either Wales or Northern Ireland. Not exactly the most daunting draw, although playing like this I still don’t love their chances. A bit better game from Hazard helped their cause but it still took a lucky deflection at the death to beat a Swedish team that never showed much all tourney. Zlatan claims no tournament is worth watching without “The Zlatan Factor” but I, for one, am excited to have the chance to see if he’s right. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way to Manchester, Ibra. Man of the match: Eden Hazard.

[] Elimination Time

The knockout round started off with a bang, going to a penalty shootout right off the bat. Then quickly faded to pedestrian in the game between Wales and Northern Ireland, then basically ground to a depressing halt thanks to Portugal and Croatia. A disappointing day as a spectator, but hopefully we can look forward to a little more excitement tomorrow.

Poland 1 (5-4) Switzerland 1

This was a tale of two halves, with Poland looking comfortable and dangerous throughout the first. They finally got their nose in front just before the half on a nice finish from Blaszczykowski. I wonder if Milik was watching to see how it’s done, because he has been hands-down the worst striker in the tournament. If he had any ability to hit open nets this game would have been over 20 minutes in. If it is actually Poland’s strategy to have Lewandowski do all the work to set up Milik, well, it has been a spectacular failure so far. Or maybe Milik is just terrible at everything so missing nets is still the most useful job for him. Switzerland, on the other hand, looked shaky early but really came on in the second half and extra time – the contrast in managerial adjustments at the half was a pretty clear win for the Swiss. However, it still took an absolutely unbelievable bicycle kick from Shaqiri to finally tie the game, followed by an absolutely unbelievable penalty miss from new Arsenal signing Granit Xhaka, to eventually end it. High drama and a well-played match. As much of a struggle as it’s been, Poland has to feel pretty good about making the quarter-finals without a single offensive contribution from Lewandowski. Obviously they still have room to improve. Man of the match: Xherdan Shaqiri.

Wales 1 Northern Ireland 0

Well, Wales won’t complain about the result, but this was not a very watchable game. In fact, I thought it was pretty horrible until the Portugal-Croatia game came along to set a whole new standard for the word “horrible”. Both teams were understandably reluctant to take any chances and, other than the Welsh big three of Bale, Ramsey and Allen, everyone on the pitch was mainly concerned with making sure nothing even vaguely resembling soccer took place. What made it worse, however, was how badly both teams executed when they did actually attempt a pass or, god forbid, a tentative dribble. Hennessy alone must have booted half a dozen straight out of bounds (not to mention one right to the other keeper when all they needed to do was keep possession to kill off the game). So, in the end, it was fairly fitting that the only scoring play came on an own goal. In fairness to McAuley, though, it was a very good low cross by Bale that surely would have been tapped in had he not stuck his toe in. Not a game to inspire great hopes for Wales going forward, but I guarantee they couldn’t care less at the moment. They’ll be anxiously waiting to see if there are any lasting injuries to big captain Ashley Williams or little Jonny Williams after what was definitely the collision of the tournament. Man of the match: Gareth Bale.

Portugal 1 Croatia 0

For 115 minutes this was one of the worst games I’ve ever seen. Not just timid and unambitious, but just so poorly played as well, especially from an offensive standpoint. Bad decisions, awful passes, no movement off the ball. Surprising, to say the least. Then we got five minutes of actual soccer right at the end. Each team got their one chance, Croatia hit the post while Portugal had a rebound bounce straight to Quaresma, and Portugal moved on. Man of the match: 18-year-old Renato Sanches. He made a bunch of mistakes but at least he always wanted to be on the ball, tried to make things happen, and started the move that resulted in the winning goal. I think it’s safe to say he is going to be a huge star in a couple years.

Sunday Fireworks

Well, that’s more like it. After the limp, cautious displays we were subjected to on Saturday I was worried everyone’s plan was to play not to lose. But these teams showed a lot more confidence and heart than, say, Portugal or Croatia, for example. And we’ve still got Spain-Italy to look forward to tomorrow…

France 2 Ireland 1

This game got interesting in a hurry with Ireland pressing right off the bat and forcing France’s always shaky defense into giving up a penalty. Pogba actually committed the foul, but considering he was a midfielder chasing from behind inside the 6-yard box with no other defenders around I think it is safe to say it wasn’t entirely his fault. Brady’s penalty was then either masterful or lucky, depending on how much he was actually planning to ring it off the inside of the post. And from there it was game on, because if France had ever considered playing it slow they certainly weren’t about to once they fell behind a goal, and because Ireland put in one of the gutsiest efforts of the tournament so far. They chased down everything, always put in the hard tackle and blocked shots like their lives depended on it. I could have done without all the weak efforts to dive for another penalty that the referee wisely ignored (although maybe a yellow card or two for diving would have helped reduce some of that), but overall a pretty inspired performance, even though the more talented French eventually prevailed. Even after going down to 10-men after a desperate trip kept Griezmann from finishing off his hat trick, the Irish managed a couple more chances that could have got them level. No lead is safe with Adil Rami lumbering around back there. All told, a deserved win for France, but Ireland didn’t go down easy. Man of the match: Antoine Griezmann – two excellent finishes under the pressure of an entire nation, plus dozens of good runs that opened up space for his teammates.

Germany 3 Slovakia 0

Well, that was clinical. That was what we had been waiting to see from the Germans. Right from the start they worked the Slovaks over and never let them into the game. They are still occasionally careless in the defensive zone, usually the fault of one fullback or the other, but going forward it felt like they were in complete control with goals being simply inevitable (despite Ozil having a fairly soft penalty attempt saved). We’ll see, though, how they fare if they face a team that presses a little more diligently (such as Italy) or actually passes as well as they do (Spain). The coming quarterfinal could turn out to be a de facto final once all is said and done. Man of the match: Julian Draxler.

Belgium 4 Hungary 0

It looks like all the big tournament favourites finally decided to show up today. That was also what most have been waiting to see from the highly talented Belgians. This was a wild, exciting game with a final score that was pretty harsh on Hungary. They played fairly well, especially in the first half, but were still no match for Hazard and Co., especially once Hungary fell a goal down and had to open up a bit more (although they didn’t really have more opening up to do). Tremendous performance by Eden Hazard, among others. This must have been a little intimidating for Wales to watch, knowing they have to face that buzz-saw in the next round. Man of the match: Eden Hazard.

Off to the Quarters

Two more big names see themselves heading home, although realistically Spain is the only one of the two that should be surprising. Two more entertaining games, although the refereeing is getting harder and harder to swallow. Not the penalty calls, those have been right on the money, but patterns have emerged in the way they call fouls and the players have caught on and are taking advantage.

#
p<>{color:#000;background:#fff;}. They will not call a foul unless you fall down. Needless to say, everyone is now falling down.

#
p<>{color:#000;background:#fff;}. They may not call a foul if you take a dive, but they will definitely[_ *not*_] give you a card for diving. Needless to say, everyone is now diving.

#
p<>{color:#000;background:#fff;}. There will be no penalty calls against defenders dragging attackers around the box by their jerseys. However, if the attacker so much as brushes their hand against a defender the whistle blows.

#
p<>{color:#000;background:#fff;}. It is really easy to get your first yellow card of the tournament but virtually impossible to get your second.

#
p<>{color:#000;background:#fff;}. The goal-line official will not dare make an influential call about anything, ever.

Italy 2 Spain 0

A good performance from Italy in a game between two teams that have both been a little Jekyll and Hyde this tournament. Although I was unimpressed by Conte’s strategy for Italy in the final group game, I have to give him credit here. He recognized that although it is still necessary to defend deep against Spain’s touch passing, you can get away with sending everyone and the kitchen sink up on the counterattack because they don’t have the speed or wherewithal to counter themselves. As long as everybody commits to coming all the way back eventually, you know Spain will slow down enough to allow it. It made for an odd game to watch, but entertaining, and one that Italy definitely deserved to win. Man of the match: Graziano Pelle. Pressed hard all game, held play up well, and potted the insurance goal.

Iceland 2 England 1

The hysterical English announcer hilariously claimed this was the biggest upset in the history of the European championship, and that an Icelandic victory would be equivalent to “touching paradise”. Whether you consider this incredibly arrogant or just sadly delusional, at the very least it vastly overestimates the achievement of beating this England team. Sure, Iceland was rightfully thrilled, seeing as they’ve never made it this far before. But the fact is this was a game between two teams who both finished second place in their group with five points and a +1 goal difference. And don’t make the mistake of thinking this was all one-way traffic with Iceland defending for 90 minutes. They fell behind early, came back to tie it, then take the lead, then played it fairly even for the next 65 minutes, only falling into a dangerous shell for the final five minutes. Overall, they outworked and outplayed England and I think they should only be slight underdogs against France on Sunday. Man of the match: Ragnar Sigurdsson.

[] One Cinderella Down, One to Go

Iceland’s surprising run finally came to an end rather emphatically to France today, but raise your hand if you predicted a Portugal-Wales semi-final. What, no one? Bizarre. Wales is surprising because, you know, they’re Wales. And Portugal have yet to win a game in regulation time, with Ronaldo only having scored in one of their five matches, yet here they are.

Portugal 1 (5-3) Poland 1

Another so-so performance, another win for Portugal. Despite some shocking misses from Ronaldo (two airballs!!), and throughout all the traditional Portuguese diving and fake injuries, young Renato Sanches continued to impress. He is going to be something. It’s really nice to see a poor, struggling team like Bayern Munich finally find a player to look forward to. Speaking of Bayern Munich, their top striker, Lewandowski, finally got on the board. Not coincidentally, it happened when he finally received a decent pass from an actual teammate. Although I assure you, that teammate was not Arkadiusz Milik, the worst striker, actually the worst player, in my opinion, of the entire tournament. Besides all his usual terrible decisions, poor giveaways and inexplicably awful shots, late in the second half he had a glorious opportunity to slide the ball about ten feet ahead to Lewandowski for what would surely have been the winning goal. Obviously, though, Milik being Milik, he opted instead to shoot about 20 yards over the bar. I have to give him credit for sticking with his game plan, I guess. Overall, though, Portugal was at least equally deserving of the win, and since it still feels like they haven’t really played well yet, there is a chance they could finally put it all together and win this whole thing. Or maybe they’re just more lucky than good. I assume we’ll figure it out sooner or later. Man of the match: Pepe.

Wales 3 Belgium 1

The surprises just keep coming. Belgium is arguably the most talented team in Europe on an individual basis but they just rarely seem to mesh as a group. Give Wales credit, though, they never let up, making life uncomfortable for Hazard, Lukaku and De Bruyne all day long. And I was especially impressed by the way they kept pushing even after taking the lead and eventually finished the game off rather than crowding back into their own box and hoping for the best. Still, though, who could have predicted a 3-1 win for Wales with no goals or assists from Bale? Another huge game for Aaron Ramsey (2 more assists) but a cheap late yellow card for handball means he’ll miss the semi-final. Time will tell if they can overcome that loss. Man of the match: Aaron Ramsey.

Germany 1 (6-5) Italy 1

A big heavyweight battle that lived up to the billing. Both teams played well, both teams had chances, and both big-name keepers came up with important saves. Never less than in the shootout when six of the first ten shots shockingly stayed out of the net either through bad misses, narrowly hit posts or athletic saves. I was a little surprised Germany let it get to that point, but all tournament Italy did a great job of nullifying other team’s strengths and this game was no different. It still feels like Germany hasn’t quite hit their stride, and Muller has yet to score, but here they are in another semi-final. Man of the match: Manuel Neuer.

France 5 Iceland 2

Finally, an offensive explosion from the ultra-talented French. Maybe it was just the skill gap, or maybe fatigue finally caught up to the hard-working Icelanders, but either way this one looked a lot more like a result people had expecting to see all along. Still a hugely successful tourney for little Iceland, and suddenly renewed hope of winning it all for the hometown favourites. Many will consider the France-Germany semi-final to be the real championship game, although we’ve already seen there are no guarantees out there. Man of the match: Antoine Griezmann.

[] All Set for the Finals

For once there was no late drama, although that’s not to say the two semi-final games weren’t exciting. And now we’re down the final, winner take all.

Portugal 2 Wales 0

Portugal finally picked up a regulation time victory in what was a fairly steady, if not spectacular, performance. Two opportunistic goals surrounded by a lot of short passing and careful defending was all they needed to take care of business against a Welsh team that struggled to create much without Aaron Ramsey. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Gareth Bale quite so determined, but the Portuguese were never going to let him beat them on his own. All in all, another gutsy effort from Wales but they just didn’t have enough skill or creativity once they fell behind. Now the question is whether Portugal can find another level when they take on the dangerous French. My guess is no, but they are playing solid defense and you can never count out Ronaldo finding a way to score, so who knows? Man of the match: Danilo. He made sure Bale never managed to get one-on-one against any of the Portuguese defenders.

France 2 Germany 0

Fascinating game. After a frantic start from the French the Germans took over and looked fully in control until Schweinsteiger’s foolish handball right before half-time. Even so, it seemed more like a blip than an insurmountable problem considering how well the Germans were moving the ball around. But when you have a game like this between two very good teams it usually comes down to mistakes, and the Germans made two (the handball, plus Kimmich and Neuer both being somewhat culpable on the second goal). Meanwhile the French played a pretty clean game. While Payet was practically invisible in this one (other than his comical damsel-in-distress routine after taking a softly headed ball off his face), some of France’s less-heralded workers quietly got the job done all day. Evra, Sagna and, in particular, Sissoko, all put in excellent defensive displays. In the end, though, it is hard to dispute Griezmann’s two goals and the way he gave the German defense trouble all game. Who knows what might have happened had Hummels not been suspended and Boateng not had to leave injured, but the French won’t care either way. Man of the match: Antoine Griezmann.

[] And Your Champions Are…

Congratulations to Portugal! I still don’t know how you did it, but no one can argue that you did. Greater praise has never been heaped on a European champion…

Portugal 1 France 0

Not the most exhilarating of games, but that was Portugal all tournament. They lost Ronaldo to injury after just 25 minutes, which I’m sure made them even more determined to stick with the conservative, disciplined style that got them to the final. The surprising part was that they were actually able to steal a goal before having it go to penalties. And from the little-used Eder, no less. France didn’t exactly dominate, but they did have the better chances throughout. But whenever they did manage to get a yard on the Portuguese defense, Rui Patricio was there to turn them away. One particularly good save on Giroud stood out as a game-saver, in my opinion. Deschamps made a couple curious substitutions that I’m sure will be scrutinized considering the end result – taking off Giroud just after his best chance of the game, and Payet just when he was starting to look dangerous. Man of the match: Rui Patricio.

[] Teams of the Tournament

Since I didn’t agree with all the official UEFA choices, plus felt several more players should get some recognition, here are both my first and second XI picks rom France 2016, using the same 4-2-3-1 formation UEFA did.

First XI

GK

Rui Patricio, Portugal – solid all tourney, spectacular when necessary.

Right Back

Thomas Meunier, Belgium – most people had never heard of this guy before the Euros, but not many will forget him after that display.

Left Back

Raphael Guerrero, Portugal – made some mistakes, but overall provided almost all of the little bit of offense Portugal generated from the back.

[* Centre-Back*]

Jerome Boateng, Germany – if he doesn’t get hurt partway through the semi-final with France who knows how it turns out?

Pepe, Portugal – I’ve never liked him, but as he gets older there is less drama and more simply excellent defense.

Defensive Midfield

Toni Kroos, Germany – not at his best, but still better than most.

Renato Sanches, Portugal – bringing this kid on in the second game was the turning point for Portugal. Their next big star.

Attacking Midfield

Dimitri Payet, France – faded as the tournament wore on, but spectacular in the group stages.

Aaron Ramsey, Wales – among the best in the world when in form and allowed to roam. Things might have been different had he been around for the semi-final.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal – he didn’t put up huge numbers, and missed his fair share of chances, but still scored and created some very important goals and constantly kept the opposition’s attention.

Striker

Antoine Griezmann, France – after a very slow start he ended up walking away with the Golden Boot and firmly proving himself MVP of the tournament.

Second XI

GK

Hannes Halldorsson, Iceland – he led the tournament in saves and kept his team in games numerous times.

[* Centre-Back*]

Ashley Williams, Wales – he doesn’t offer much going forward but was rock-solid in his own penalty area.

Ragnar Sigurdsson, Iceland – the entire Icelandic back line deserves credit, but he stood out for a few extra desperation blocks and tackles.

Right-Back

Joshua Kimmich, Germany – inconsistent, but at just 21 years of age he should star for Germany next time around.

Left-Back

Jonas Hector, Germany – he had a slow start but got better as the tournament went on.

Defensive Midfield

Moussa Sissoko, France – he surprised everyone by taking N’Golo Kante’s job defensively, then outplaying Paul Pogba offensively. He just made Newcastle a whole lot of money on the transfer market.

Aron Gunnarson, Iceland – he is a monster defensively, and his long throws created most of the team’s meagre offense.

Attacking Midfield

Mesut Ozil, Germany – he was his usual brilliant self, and just needed better finishing from the big names around him.

Eden Hazard, Belgium – typically he was invisible in some games, then unstoppable in others. Overall, though, their best player.

Ivan Perisic, Croatia – he seems like a real idiot, but still had a bigger impact than his more famous teammates.

Striker

Gareth Bale, Wales – probably the second-best player of the entire tournament, but he just happens to play the same position as the best.

Honourable Mention

Manuel Neuer, Germany

Hugo Lloris, France

Leonardo Bonucci, Italy

Laurent Koscielny, France

Arlind Ajeti, Albania

Bacary Sagna, France

Neil Taylor, Wales

Ricardo Rodriguez, Switzerland

Joe Allen, Wales

Gregor Krychowiak, Poland

Jacob Blaszcykowski, Poland

Ivan Rakitic, Croatia

Emanuele Giaccherini, Italy

Kevin de Bruyne, Belgium

Xherdan Shaqiri, Switzerland

Julian Draxler, Germany

Ricardo Quaresma, Portugal

Robbie Brady, Ireland

Olivier Giroud, France

Alvaro Morata, Spain

[]Wrap-Up

I think it’s safe to say the final result wasn’t what any of us expected, probably not even the shocked Portuguese themselves. It just goes to show that anything can happen from match to match and tournament to tournament. The team that makes the fewest mistakes will always have a chance to win, I just didn’t bank on that team including Pepe and Nani. All in all, though, quite an entertaining tourney, and an end result that should serve as an all-too painful reminder to the big nations that they need to step up their games in a big way before World Cup 2018 rolls around. Personally, I can’t wait…

Author’s Request

Reviews are the lifeblood of our industry, helping readers the world over find great books that suit their tastes, entertain them and occasionally cause a little half-boner. So if you enjoyed this book please take the time to write a review to help other readers discover it. I’m currently working on a reward system using ropes, pulleys and fridge magnets but at this point it is still in the developmental stage (I keep running out of healthy salamanders) but will do my best to acknowledge any favourable reviews in person with an enthusiastic and heartfelt slap on the ass.

If you did not enjoy it, well, then I admire the fact you were still able to make it this far. It is just that sort of grim determination and stoic suffering that epitomized the gruff weather-beaten settlers and dubiously creative accountants upon which North America is built.

Bonus Excerpt

From Random Acts of Travel: Featuring Trepidation, Hammocks and Spitting

Apparently the Word “Indian” Still Flies Down Here So Get Your Fill

The taxi ride from the Trivandrum airport was in one of those ubiquitous and awesome old white Ambassadors, and resulted in more serious concern for our lives than full contact table tennis at Alan Alda’s sixty-fifth birthday party. It was a wild blur of palm trees, swerving, honking, banana stands, narrowly avoided oncoming traffic, cell phone signs, the smell of onions, far too much time spent on the wrong side of the road and men walking along the shoulder wearing some type of skirt-like contraption with the bottom tucked up and out like a large linen penis, faded and frayed as though it had been scrubbed far too vigorously, probably using unhealthy amounts of bleach. Although we really needn’t have worried, what with all the precautionary honking going on. Also, as an added safety measure we occasionally closed our eyes.

Then, next thing you know, we were settled in a rickety little hut way up on the South Cliff in Varkala with great views, one comfortable chair and more wildlife scuffling loudly around the bamboo walls than either of us remembered requesting. Within hours we had seen cockroaches, centipedes, an unnervingly large snake, some overly curious crows, thousands of ants and one gigantic, heart-stopping spider that, by comparison, instantly banished those legions of large Guatemalan arachnids to “cute and perky” status. Somewhat impulsively, I took a bold swing at it with my trusty “Flip Flop of Death” but he/she/Your Majesty was far too quick, suddenly reappearing three feet away before we even heard the slap of rubber sole on dry, crumbling bamboo (normally the chilling sound of mortality). Which I suppose was just as well since, in hindsight, the two most likely results of that hasty offensive were either having the sandal slapped out of my hand dismissively, which of course would be embarrassing, or actually angering it and ending up pinned to the wall by the front of my shirt being forced to play a rough game of “Why are you hitting yourself?”, in all likelihood ending with me either crying or peeing myself. So, as I said, just as well.

Although the actual beaches of Varkala are somewhat average (as average as hot sand in January fronted by gorgeous blue water and warm rolling waves can reasonably be called), the big highlights are actually the stunning cliffs looming over the beaches. From nearly anywhere along the many kilometres of cliff top walking paths you can enjoy dramatic views out over the ocean and down onto the legions of white, ant-like creatures far below. From certain vantage points it can feel like you’re sitting in nosebleed seats at a “Leather Skin” game (just a little creation I’ve been working on that involves practically nude people competing at sleeping, sweating and quietly developing melanoma. New moles are like a touchdown). All of the hotels, restaurants and shops are located along the cliffs as well, jumbled together haphazardly like drunken frat boys wrestling at a sausage party, or a large plate of mixed vegetables. We still really liked it, though, finding it sort of a middle ground between some of the untouched stretches of overly quiet sand found in places like Indonesia, Belize or Nicaragua and the teeming pockets of humanity one often finds in Mexico, Thailand or Hawaii. I can only imagine, though, what it must look like to someone who loved it ten or fifteen years ago. Seeing the rampant development and crowded sea side would have to be sadder than a snowman with a rotting carrot penis, or being David Schwimmer’s agent. The views, though, the views! I literally had to restrain myself from overdoing it on the cliff top photos, since it seems that around every corner is a scene just begging to be captured digitally forever, much like Sofia Vergara’s cleavage, but at some point you just have to say enough is enough. Which is really more like Pam Anderson’s cleavage.

We truly loved our time in Varkala even though, when all was said and done, we hardly spent any actual time on the beach. We usually started our days with a leisurely breakfast on the roof of the hotel gazing out upon Life in a Fishing Village, watching wiry little guys climb thirty to forty metres up branchless palm trees with nothing but a short piece of rope and a machete, long lines of men hauling fishing nets in tug o’ war style from hundreds of metres out to sea as all the while majestic crows squawk, tussle and drop shining globs of white feces on hot tin roofs. So, really, it was little surprise that we ended up extending our time there indefinitely (we were waiting for just the right moment to break it to Goa) deciding that there was nothing a fifteen hour train ride away that we couldn’t already get in Varkala – great scenery, an easy going vibe (“sossegado”, they call it), a good variety of beaches, tons of food options, a plentiful range of hotels and tourists who, as a group, have undoubtedly the worst posture and strangest breasts to be found anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Maybe the reason for this abnormal demographic of turtlebacks and cone breasts is Varkala’s fame as an Ayuverdic Healing Centre (to the best of my knowledge Ayurveda is the practice of healing through excessive body waxing while casually flicking extremities with your finger). Or maybe they come for the yoga, which is everywhere, manifesting itself in a seemingly endless number of yoga teachers, groups, retreats and comfortable, yet suitably Indian-esque, garb. Morning and sunset are by far the most popular times, when everywhere you look are duly focused people with self-satisfied smiles, colourful rubber mats and sweat stains on their inner thighs reminiscent of an early bird flea market.

Now for our:

Big List of Indian Firsts!

Head Wobble

While checking out some tiny cabins isolated on a bluff overlooking the beach. The ancient – and presumably tanked – manager was able to give us a confusing and pointless tour of the grounds despite his head waving around at the end of his skinny little neck like he had lost seven vertebrae on his way to victory in an inane smile contest and had simply reattached his cranium with a length of wiry brown string, superglue and some used tissue.

Swim

Short and refreshing. Quite warm, not so salty, rough enough to get your attention. Hey, now that I think about it that is almost exactly what my Craigslist personal ad says…

Indian Man in Skinny Jeans

This wasn’t actually on the list to start with but for all future visitors to India….it should be. I did a cartoonish double take (whaaa???) when I realized that those awful ill-fitting tapered jeans, designed to look so trendily repulsive when wrapped around the meaty thighs and drooping asses of Europeans and those kids who think simply carrying a skateboard around is cool enough, take on a whole new meaning when draped loosely over an Indian man’s hairy narrow femurs. Think MC Hammer, only in denim. U can’t touch this, indeed.

Along that same line…

Stared at by Male Gawkers on the Beach

Less than fifty steps onto the sand, our meagre beach attire suddenly turning heads, eyes widening in surprise, then admiration, then leering, murmurs of “have a look at those legs”, “I bet you could barely get your hand around those calves” and “do you think he dyes the hair that colour?” Laynni wavers between relief and indignation by pursing her lips.

Spicy Food Causes Nose to Run

Night three, me, and that most typical of spicy Indian dishes – penne arrabiata. Bring on the curry!

Rickshaw Ride

These noisy, gaudy three-wheeled contraptions can be found all over the world now, but when it comes to rickshaws, and traveller’s diarrhea, the magic all started in India. Our very first journey in one took us across town to our hotel. So? you ask. I agree.

Met our first “Apu”

We rented an umbrella from him on the beach, offhandedly suggested we may be interested in renting a boogie board at some vaguely indeterminate point in the future we casually referred to as “later” and next thing you know we found ourselves being tenaciously urged and cajoled to choose colours, set appointment times, engage in blood oaths to not deal with other boogie board pushers, eventually making intimate dinner plans and, I believe, promising to hold the foreskin at his youngest son’s circumcision. And to be steady about it, too.

Washed Underwear for the First Time (Day Fourteen)

I carry six pairs. But, as I so patiently explained to Laynni, some days I only wear swimming trunks, so…

How Do They Live Like This?” Moment

Based on both my research and a real, live search, to the best of my knowledge the Super Bowl was not televised in Varkala. Maybe not in India. Not live at 5 am, not delayed to a more reasonable hour, not as part of a sports blooper clip like we do with Japanese game shows. Epiphany moment right there. It is a hardship like this that really makes a person realize how privileged we are in North America, where millions and millions of people sit blithely around on their sectional furniture eating chips and dip (made with real trans fats), watching their giant screen TVs, taking for granted HD so vivid that they can tell at a glance exactly how much bigger the tight end’s left testicle is than his right, drinking beer that comes in a reasonably sized bottle with no shrimp pesticide, all at a pleasant time in the early evening, not at some ungodly hour normally reserved for perverts, degenerates and dairy farmers. For ninety-nine percent of those carefree drunks it won’t ever even cross their mind to think about the poor traveller, lazily wasting his life in India, complaining about too much sun and Thai fried rice that wasn’t quite spicy enough, and how he might be suffering, powerlessly staring at his netbook screen waiting for ESPN Gamecast to update, making do with the most rudimentary of descriptions (“TD GB – 15 yd pass / Rogers to Jennings”) only to realize the internet has cut out again and he is going to have to start over and (shudder) sit through the entire trailer for Gulliver’s Travels again. These, my friends, are the truly forsaken. Where’s that portly Sally Field now?

First Indian Penis Spotting

Not surprisingly this one was all Laynni (she has such an eye for detail, that one). Well, her and just a small portion of the old umbrella hawker on the beach caught attempting to surreptitiously adjust his lungi, or maybe he was just trying to give the old sock puppet a quick bit of air. Either way, while the sighting may have been accidental, I found the suggestive winking fairly inappropriate. Although it’s possible he didn’t even see her doing it.

On a completely unrelated topic, honest, it appears that over time we have developed a new favourite past time – people watching. Not sexually, like your old lamaze instructor, or even suspiciously, like the eighty-four year old Walmart greeter when he sees you walking out with nothing but a travel-sized tube of toothpaste. More just observing, you know? Sometimes with a beer in hand, though not always, especially in Kerala where alcohol is generally frowned upon and very few places are licensed so even though they will serve it you usually have to keep the bottle hidden underneath the table. Nobody seems to mind, though, as long as you don’t overdo it. Like slow dancing at family reunions. Anyway, there are few things better than being comfortably ensconced in a lounge chair in the front row of a cliff-side restaurant, watching people from all walks of life stroll by, the sun glinting off the ocean as you sip beer from a coffee mug while listening to the Backstreet Boys threaten to “sex you up”.

More Spiders

Different hotel, same hairy nemesis. Not, not Robin Williams, not this time. Spiders! Again! Even bigger than the first time. Well, truth be told there had been many, many spiders since that first rudely exotic introduction to southern India back on day one but all smaller, and most now dead (it was early in the trip for me to have reached the level of Stern Faced Efficient Killing Machine). Long story short, it was about five inches across (from toe to hairy toe, so to speak) with a body the size of a golf ball. We had chased it around earlier in the day but lost it, really hoping it had gone out the door but deep down knowing it was still around… somewhere… lurking. Like Jack Black after the Teen Choice Awards. Then at around 11:30 pm, in our darkened room, while we slept on obliviously, he must have been making his way across the ceiling, or maybe the top of the curtain, possibly struggling from some glancing blunt force trauma picked up earlier in the day at the hands of a dusty blue Puma, when suddenly he lost his grip, or maybe let go, we’ll never know for sure, plummeting eight feet to land with a noticeable thump and bounce, legs now tangled slightly in a long mane of brunette hair, before disengaging itself to lay inertly on the pillow. Meanwhile, its now alarmed pillow buddy struggled to her feet in search of a light, apparently in shock and trying not to wake her husband who still slept soundly a couple feet away. But then there was light! And her worst fears were confirmed! And death, wild shoe-throwing death, rampaged among the sheets, and innocence was lost forever.

Next up: a spot of sarong shopping. I bought my first, and only, two sarongs back in Bali over ten years before ever setting foot in India. One was like my attachment to clean underwear – long gone – but the other was still in use, although definitely looking worse for wear – threadbare, torn and with little bits of debris picked up from hundreds of questionable guesthouse sheets all over the world. The big question, though – how to find a sarong masculine enough to match my rugged, virile, kicking-rocks-down-the-road persona? I hate shopping and definitely never look forward to long, drawn out searches, but it needed to be just the right sarong, something in a coal black or security guard blue, and ideally patterned with something sufficiently male like maybe a bunch of swords, or some fierce rhinoceroses, or maybe just a lot of penises. Something manly like that. Well, rest easy, one and all, the quest has been successfully completed. And how. Picture, if you will, a bright lilac background, interspersed with patches of faded mauve, lavishly decorated with an abundant collection of blocky white sea turtles with dreadfully misshapen heads and extraordinarily muscular legs, a disarming combination that skillfully serves to emphasize the cartoonish design and, therefore, enhance the overall irony of the piece. And the little tassels on the end tickle my neck when I sleep.

The food in Varkala was also quite good, that wonderful sort of place where a person almost never needs to actually resort to eating Indian food (I had a system where I alternated between Thai and Italian), although Laynni inexplicably chose to spurn this auspicious omen and took to trying at least one Indian dish per day. Show off. Anyway, one thing we found interesting, besides the shapes of people’s breasts, was that unlike most other places in the world where finding an actual vegetarian restaurant generally involves a lengthy search and a terrifying parking lot in a dodgy part of town, in Varkala almost everything comes sans carne (English, French and Spanish all in one sentence, how far I’ve come) and it’s the tiny list of meat options that is usually hidden away in a small section on the back page of the menu. Not surprisingly, while in Argentina we didn’t notice a whole lot of Hindus scarfing down eight pounds of assorted muscle and entrails at 11 pm like everyone else. Probably wouldn’t find as many in the cardiology ward either.

Anyway, time rolled on in Varkala with us up to a whole lot of not much, with the occasional bout of very little, interspersed with a pinch of almost nothing every now and again. Sure, we went to the beach a few times, went for some walks here and there, played some cards, watched some shows, wrangled the odd herd of cattle, walked the restaurant circuit counterclockwise one day, and sent a postcard of an old Hindu woman with her boob sticking out to Ellen DeGeneres, but for the most part we just took it easy. Then I went and got sick. Yeah, so much for “I suppose we’ve just been lucky, but we’ve never really had any stomach problems on any of our trips”. Never mind that I was following a strict diet of fried eggs for breakfast (universal) and a free-flowing mix of Thai and Italian food for all other meals. Delhi Belly, they call it. Even though we were still almost three thousand kilometres away from Delhi. Or Traveller’s Diarrhea, to use the medical term. Why they had to focus the name so much on that one small part of the ailment I’m not sure, but I suppose it’s for the same reason a headline will read “Will Ferrell Murders Prostitute!!”, instead of “Will Ferrell Gets Free BJ!!”. Nevertheless, in addition to the so bluntly stated symptom built right into the name, I spent several wonderful days laid out in a tense fetal position anxiously battling fever, chills, headaches and debilitating stomach pains. The bright side was those days were already surprisingly free so we didn’t even have to shift anything around in our day timers. The down side, feeling just so…so…common. The Lonely Planet claims that between thirty and seventy percent of visitors to India end up with TD (I’m currently working on a detailed point by point comparison between the affliction and the goofy but likeable underdog Canadian chartered bank – they aren’t as different as you might think) in the first two weeks. Setting aside the absurd vagueness of that numerical range, it hurts to be so much like everybody else. So predictable. So transparent. So shaved head/neck tattoo combo.

How was the beach?”

In Varkala this is used exactly the way people in Canada might say “How’s it going?”, “How are you?” or “How’s it hangin’?” (if you were born in the mid-70’s and still work at a gas station). In other words, as a meaningless greeting that is less abrupt and empty than “Hi” but still safer and more generic than “What’s new with you?”, “How’re the kids?” or “Did you know we can see the outline of your clitoris ring through those shorts?” The first few times we made the mistake of explaining that we hadn’t, in fact, just come from the beach but had actually just been walking north of the village, and that we stopped for lunch at this place with a view, and that Laynni had a Greek salad and asked for no onions but, of course, it came with onions anyway, wouldn’t you know it? Eventually we realized, though, thanks to the blank looks and people literally walking away as we talked, that this was actually a rhetorical question based solely on the fact that going to the beach is the most popular activity in Varkala and that they no more want to hear the details of our day than you want to know about how the woman working at the lottery ticket booth hasn’t been sleeping too well, on account of the neighbour’s dog, and how once she’s awake she can’t stop thinking about how her ex is three months behind on the child support, and is it normal for a seven year old kid to collect cat ears and keep them pinned to a piece of plywood sorted by colour, age and how much of a fight it put up?

Lifeguards

There are a surprising number of lifeguards down on the main area of Papanasam Beach, although we’ve found their specific duties somewhat difficult to pinpoint. Automatically one would assume their main task would be to keep people from drowning. However, based on visual surveillance we suspect their mission statement may not actually be so straightforward. First of all, they don’t wear swimming gear but rather crisp, heavy baby blue tunics with very uncomfortable looking dark blue short shorts. Secondly, the only time we saw one of them get within ten feet of the water he suddenly realized his error and went scampering away from the incoming ankle high wave like a Greek from body wax. Thirdly, any time they resorted to blowing frantically on their desperate little whistles we were unable to identify any particular water related dilemma taking place. It was always the same – “tweet”, “tweet”, “tweeeeet!” eventually getting the attention of everyone on the beach and in the water who then alternated between looking at the whistle blower and looking all around in a confused manner trying to determine what the hell they were whistling at exactly. The answer to that, we have decided, is actually far less likely to have anything to do with safe swimming than with warning groups of Indian males that they have spent just about enough time staring at the blonde with her top undone and the very becoming thong, and that they will almost certainly not be allowed to finish working on the impromptu sand hill they recently decided to build at the foot of her towel. Not a bad gig, if you can get it, chasing off horny gawkers while being paid to search out the most likely victims of gawking yourself, although we never did figure out why they usually chose to sit two and three to a single plastic lawn chair, squeezed between the spindly legs of the guy behind them while locking in a third friend between their own sweating thighs like they were about to tackle the Matterhorn at Disneyland, or were posing for a Skinny Men in Uniform spread for Hindi Skin magazine.

Power Cuts

They happen a lot, and there is no way to tell if the power will be out for seconds, minutes or hours. Since we only saw approximately three clouds in all our time in Varkala we feel we can comfortably rule out thunderstorms. And I doubt that many of the four second long power cuts are caused by reckless taxi drivers demolishing a power pole with their sluggish Ambassadors. When it comes right down to it, though, my guess is that it’s probably as simple as fifty million people all plugging in their moustache trimmers at the same time.

Bonus Excerpt

From Behind the Albergue Door: Inspiration Agony Adventure on the Camino de Santiago

Buen Camino!

Buen Camino” is a Spanish expression that translates literally to “good road”, and figuratively to “have a good walk”. More importantly, it serves as the unofficial motto of pilgrims hiking any of the various Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. This catchy little phrase will almost certainly be the two most common words an erstwhile pilgrim can expect to hear in any given day and can be used in any number of different contexts by Camino pilgrims, conveying an equally diverse array of meanings. Depending on context and intonation it can be any of the following:

A casual greeting – ‘Buen Camino’ with a smile and nod.

A friendly farewell – ‘Buen Camino’ while waving and turning to go.

An expression of heartfelt desire to see a fellow pilgrim experience good luck – ‘Buen Camino’ said somewhat uncertainly with a slightly worried look.

As a polite way of getting rid of an especially dull walking companion – ‘Well, um, Buen Camino then’ said rather sheepishly while you suddenly quicken your pace and rush off as they are relieving themselves by the side of the trail.

As proof that you do, in fact, speak some Spanish – ‘Buen Camino, y, uh, thank you’.

As an expression of frustration – ‘Dios mio! Buen Camino mi culo! Puta!’ while angrily staring at a newly formed blister.

To cover up the fact you don’t actually remember the name of the girl who was sharing your bunk when you woke up – ‘Buenos dias…uh….amiga. Buen Camino!’ smiling broadly, slowly backing out of the room and carefully avoiding any sudden movements.

Just to name a few. I have even heard of it being used as a way to transition between two very different topics when unable to come up with a suitable segue. Buen Camino!

My wife, Laynni, and I tackled the Camino Frances in October of 2012, hiking roughly 800 kilometres from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic coast of Spain. There are numerous routes to Santiago, all of which are described as Caminos de Santiago. These famous pilgrimage routes have theoretically been in existence since the 1st Century when the remains of the apostle St. James were shipped to Iberia (modern day Spain) to be interred in Santiago de Compostela, presumably because this was an area he had spent a considerable amount of time spreading the word of God. Or maybe because he had always been a big fan of tapas. Opinions vary. In any case, by the 8th Century (the time of the first recorded visits) the pilgrimage to Santiago to visit them old bones had become one of the most popular in the Christian world with “peregrinos” (the Spanish word for pilgrims) from all over Europe braving the physical, mental and culinary hardships of this arduous journey on foot in hopes of reducing their time in purgatory. Of course, some were simply looking to lose weight and the purgatory business was just an added bonus. Either way, this expedition eventually became one of the most popular ways for Christians to prove their devoutness and physical superiority, and has remained such for over 1,200 years now. In many cases, virtually unchanged. Some of the bread, in particular.

As for the trail itself, the route we took, and by far the most popular, was the Camino Frances, which can start at any of a number of locations in France but ultimately will pass through the tiny border town of St. Jean Pied de Port. From there it is roughly 800 kilometres of historic cities, quaint villages and wildly varying scenery to Santiago de Compostela. Here in the 21st Century the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage is experiencing another massive resurgence. German comedian Hape Kerkeling hiked the Camino in 2001 and then released a book about his experience in 2006 that led to a large spike in German interest. Today you will be hard pressed to find a German pilgrim who has not read Kerkeling’s book, or the equally popular Guide to Sounding Angry When You Speak German. Also, in 2010 Emelio Estevez released his movie, The Way, starring his father, Martin Sheen, even including a small role for himself. The movie’s popularity has since led to a large influx of North American pilgrims, especially people who had nothing better to do in high school than spend an inordinate amount of time watching Estevez shoot people and laugh maniacally in 1988’s Young Guns. He doesn’t do as much killing in this one but you’ll be happy to know he still looks like he’d be right at home wearing a varsity jacket and eventually confronting Judd Nelson.

Wherever you choose to start your Camino, the first step is to acquire a pocket-sized passport referred to as a “credencial”, either in advance or from the Pilgrim’s Office in the town you start out from. This booklet is used to collect stamps at albergues, hotels, restaurants and bars along the way and it serves as an official record of your pilgrimage. You must have a credencial to stay in the albergues. Each location has its own unique stamp depicting something descriptive – usually the name, along with a symbol of some sort, and occasionally some added creativity such as a photo of a winking harlot or a self-congratulatory story about how the owner passed his driving test on the first try. It is also customary to purchase a palm-sized scallop shell and attach it to your backpack to denote your status as a pilgrim. A long time symbol of the Camino de Santiago and an emblem used in countless different variations along the Way, there are a number of theories regarding the exact origins behind the shell. For some it is a metaphor, with the many grooves signifying the many different pilgrimage routes that all come together to share a single destination point. Another, rather confusing, story alleges that the remains of St. James were shipped to Iberia on a magical crewless ship while a wedding was taking place on the shore, spooking the groom’s horse and causing it to dive into the ocean with him still clinging to its back, which apparently caused quite a stir as one might imagine, only for both man and horse to emerge from the ocean some time later mysteriously no worse for wear. It is suspected that the bride then called the wedding off, deciding against marrying someone who wasn’t smart enough to jump off a horse before it dove into the ocean, and the general consensus seemed to be that she dodged a real bullet there. Yet another legend claims that the ship carrying the remains, just a regular ship this time, was destroyed in a storm and the body lost at sea, only to show up later on the Galician shore completely intact but covered in scallop shells and, some claim, with a fistful of bar receipts and a tattoo of a butterfly on the small of his back.

Other enduring motifs of the modern-day Camino are the omnipresent yellow arrows serving as informal directional markers. These arrows can take the form of anything from large solid signs to rough paintings decorating weathered rocks and fences to haphazard graffiti found sporadically on sidewalks, walls and lamp posts throughout bustling cities. Regardless of size, shape or precise shade of yellow, these frequent reminders form a rigid pilgrimage guide and ominous warning of all the myriad dangers that can befall a careless wayward pilgrim – from adding unnecessary kilometres to your already full hiking schedule to losing touch with fellow pilgrims to missing second breakfast to accidentally laying eyes on a mosque. By the end of the first week you’ll be seeing yellow arrows in your dreams, and not just pointing the way to the all-male sauna the way you normally imagine them.

The final physical representation of the Camino, besides your irreparably damaged feet, is the “compostela”, an official certificate of accomplishment presented to weary hikers at the Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago upon completion of the route. In order to qualify your credencial must have stamps proving that you travelled no less than the final 100 kilometres for walkers, or 200 kilometres for bikers and those arriving by pogo stick. There are many benefits to earning a compostela, including priority enlistment at Catholic schools in the greater Santiago area and thirty seconds alone to do anything you want with the strangely lifelike statue of St. James inside the Cathedral, although previously the big draw was a reduction of your time in purgatory. Few Catholics actually believe this anymore, considering it more likely to simply engender God’s goodwill toward you and puts you in the good books so to speak. Which could come in pretty handy if you’re trying to get bumped up from purgatory to the pearly gates and you’re competing against one of those women who always did all the baking for her kids’ school fundraisers, or if it turns out that kidney you bought on the black market wasn’t voluntarily donated after all but was actually stolen from a Korean man who passed out at a blackjack table.

Pilgrim’s Mass

One of the main religious traditions of the Camino is the Pilgrim’s Mass. These are held every day at noon in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and at various times, usually in the evening, in other cathedrals along the way. In Santiago, newly arrived pilgrims have their countries of origin and the starting point of their pilgrimage announced at the Mass. It used to be a given that each Pilgrim’s Mass include the “Hymn to Santiago” in coordination with the Botafumeiro, a metal container filled with burning incense and spewing smoke as it was swung from one side of the cathedral to the other in spectacular fashion. But apparently that tradition has been discontinued. Unless, of course, you’ve got around $600 you’re willing to part with, or maybe a used ’92 Nissan Sentra in fair condition to trade. Or you can get lucky enough to have your arrival coincide with someone else having already paid for the privilege. Another sad change that has occurred recently is the ban on touching the pillar at the cathedral entrance. Century after century, hundreds of thousands of weary and relieved pilgrims have entered the cathedral and placed their hand on the pillar just inside the main door – in relief, exhaustion, faith or because people just can’t seem to stop themselves from touching things. Over time all these filthy hands touching the exact same spot eventually wore a handprint right into the stone, a real and tangible reminder of all those that have gone before, sharing a similar path of hardship, faith and emotional discovery. And now they have it roped off so you can’t touch it because, what, you’re going to very, very slowly make it more of a hand print? Or maybe they were just in the process of coming up with a way to charge money for it because, let’s face it, nothing is more traditional than finding innovative ways to separate tourists from their cash.

At the masses in other towns the priest usually says a prayer for the pilgrims and, if you watch very closely, sometimes winks lasciviously at you. The Pilgrim’s Mass in Roncesvalles is a particularly good one to attend since, for most, that is their first night actually on the Camino de Santiago, and because Roncesvalles isn’t really a town but just a pair of albergues so the service is made up entirely of peregrinos. Many see it as an appropriate introduction to the pilgrimage, a great way to bond with fellow pilgrims and a convenient opportunity to scope out the female talent.

Of course, for every devout Catholic looking to barter down their time in spiritual limbo there is another pilgrim for whom the Camino does not hold any particular religious significance. Many, like us, aren’t even Catholic. And although religion is obviously the most common cause of temporary insanity, there are actually dozens of reasons an otherwise sane person might suddenly decide to upend his or her life and commit to hike most of the way across Spain with only two pair of underwear. Unfortunately, all too often non-Catholic hikers find themselves insecure about their motives and how they will be accepted by the more pious and faithful. But they shouldn’t be, for the Camino welcomes one and all, then punishes them equally.

Despite the enormity of the undertaking – physically, emotionally and on your soon to be virtually unrecognizable toes – people of all ages and walks of life are now embarking on their own Santiago pilgrimages. And their reasons are as varied as the pilgrims themselves. As I’ve mentioned, for some it is a religious demonstration of faith. Others relish the opportunity to reflect on the direction of their life, while some see it as a rigorous (though generally unsuccessful) weight loss regimen. Maybe it seems like an enjoyably active way to visit Northern Spain, or merely a handy way to lay low until that whole pornographic slipper scandal blows over back home. Whatever their reasons, most pilgrims hiking the Camino have an incredible capacity to acknowledge and respect each individual’s personal motivation and quickly form bonds of friendship, camaraderie and mutual pain. And even when they don’t agree upon a common purpose most still find it beneficial to remain polite to anybody they might end up sharing a toilet with.

But can it still be called a “pilgrimage”? Well, that all depends on the individual. Clearly it can when done for the traditionally religious purposes. For others, though, it can still become one, often when they least expect it. It can be a new outlook on life resulting from intense physical exertion, or a long overdue opportunity for isolation and introspection, maybe a change in perspective that leads to personal epiphany, or a renewed faith in human nature, a newly discovered camaraderie of shared purpose, or simply a re-prioritizing of morals and values when it comes to how dirty you’re willing to let your socks get. In any case, in my humble opinion, the only requirement for it to be considered a pilgrimage is for it to feel like a pilgrimage to you. Which is also exactly how I feel about purebred German Shepherds.

Maybe the most important advice I can pass along from an emotional and motivational standpoint is to remember that things are always changing along the Camino. People, food, weather, health, moods, perspectives, aching body parts. Most people, even though they’ve heard and read about the difficulty and blisters and snorers and all that, still show up with an 80’s montage view of what the Camino will be like. Then they are completely blindsided when they realize how difficult and uncomfortable things can become, and are entirely unprepared to deal with the extreme swings in patience, enthusiasm and confidence that pilgrims routinely experience over the course of a single day, let alone five weeks. I know of people who were on the verge of quitting and heading home one day and talking about returning to hike the Camino Norte the next. The key is to roll with the punches and do your best to never get too high, too low, or too crazily hopped up on sugar and caffeine.

A famous animated spy once said “I have an El Camino”, to which his stepfather responded, “Oh, so you’re all set. That will hold way more Hispanics and lawn mowers.” Unfortunately, even though that is funny as hell, it doesn’t really apply here. But another famous person once said, “Even if you fall on your face you’re still moving forward”, and that describes the Camino de Santiago to a tee. Although you had better get up pretty soon or else this thing is going to take you forever. Of course, I also like the one that says, “Expect problems and eat them for breakfast”. Mainly because we didn’t have a lot of luck with breakfast on the Camino, and that would have kind of killed two birds with one stone.

Trail Overview

One of the most intriguing things about the Camino Frances is the impressive variety of terrain and scenery hardy pilgrims will encounter along the way. Of course, a certain amount of diversity is to be expected on a trail that starts in one country, ends in another, crosses two mountain ranges and one of the most famously harsh stretches of dry prairie in all of Europe, but the constant shifting from forest path to medieval village to rocky hillside is fascinating, not to mention very helpful in staving off the suffocating boredom for at least an hour or two each day.

We hiked the most common, but by no means only, route starting in St. Jean Pied de Port just over the border in Southern France. Other more daring, or foolish, pilgrims started at a variety of locations in France, a few of them even coming from as far as Paris. Others we met started all the way back in Switzerland in early summer. Obviously, those people were wrong to do so, and really had no right to make the rest of us look bad like that. And even though we are only qualified to describe a mere 800 kilometres we still feel that our hike was pretty cool and I still fully intend to use it to abruptly change topics whenever someone gets a little too interested in my spotty employment history.

So, as I have now made abundantly clear, we started out in St. Jean Pied de Port. And, as I will no doubt allude to numerous times throughout the remainder of this book, our first day tackling 1,200 metres of elevation gain up and over the Pyrenees before descending steeply into the tiny hamlet of Roncesvalles was probably the single most difficult leg of the entire hike. All the lush green farms dotting the rolling hills was like something off the box of a Fisher Price farm set, ages six to ten. The gloomy fog that rolled in at the top created a haunting atmosphere and bonds of uneasiness among exhausted and uncertain pilgrims for whom finally reaching Roncesvalles was like discovering a verdant oasis in a barren desert. An oasis of stone run by German retirees with beds covered in plastic, but an oasis nonetheless.

From there to Pamplona was a refreshing mix of idyllic pastures, sparse woods, recently tilled fields and one messy magnesite mine all leading to one of the most famous cities on the Camino. Pamplona’s beauty, history and penchant for pinxtos and beer all preceded it by word of mouth and guidebook description alike. Then there were more fallow fields slowly climbing through descending fog to the wildly panoramic viewpoint at Alto de Perdón. The slowly spinning wind turbines and expansive views delight the senses while the metal cut-outs of pilgrims desperately bucking the prevailing winds speak to the idiotic chuckler in all of us.

Ancient Roman roads then lead us over rolling hills, across medieval stone bridges, through thigh-high stands of scrub brush and past stacks of recently harvested bales which make a great place to stop for lunch, especially if you yearn to spend the next two days picking straw out of your socks, backpack and, inexplicably, underwear. Around a week into the hike we see our first real change in the tone of the Camino. Coming out of Logroño pilgrims pass through a wild and partially manicured park before climbing through the first of many bountiful fields of grapevines and their rapidly ripening cargo. Unfortunately, this is also where you will get your first taste of, as the John Brierley guidebook describes them, the “soulless sendas”. These are purpose-built pathways that run immediately adjacent to major roads and highways, presumably to simplify the route, remove any needless meandering and guarantee that if you hadn’t started struggling with bouts of boredom yet, well, there was certainly going to be no denying it now. And don’t bother passing the time with interesting conversation about things like quick-drying socks and mysteriously disappearing leg hair, because all you’ll hear are the sounds of passing traffic, and maybe that clicking noise in your right knee. Your iPod awaits your imminent attention.

This soon passes, however, as you head back to wooded hills and wide logging roads dramatically hemmed in by thick stands of pines (for the time being, at least), which slowly emerge into scenic pastures where you will suddenly face a number of route choices for the first time, but don’t let it stress you, since they all seem to culminate in huge herds of sheep and their typically furtive shepherds.

After that is Burgos which, being approximately one-third of the way to Santiago, is a popular choice as a first (or next) rest day due to its size, wide choice of accommodation and the outstanding churro stand located just a stone’s throw from its famous cathedral. It is also a great place to mentally prepare for the next stage, the dreaded Meseta. Known in pilgrimage circles by any number of derogatory terms – Land of Eternal Flatness, Spirit Killer, The Hill-Less Wonder, Heat and Dirt Incorporated, Perfect Place to See How Far You Can Shoot an Olive With a Slingshot – this roughly one week stretch of featureless farmland and towns that become visible hours before you actually arrive has a well-earned reputation both for destroying morale and for dust that makes your clothes appear as dull and lifeless as pre-Pert Plus hair. This is a place where single lonely trees providing the only shade for hours in either direction make such obvious lunch stops that queues form around them. A place where you’ll suffer kilometre after kilometre of bladder pain waiting for even a shred of cover to urinate in peace. A place where the highest point for miles around, and by far the most attractive target for lightning, is the top of your head. A harsh, unforgiving place, much like the steppes of Mongolia, or Wal-Mart after midnight.

Madeline’s Take

We met Madeline in the early days of the Camino and quickly became good friends. The three of us walked together on and off the rest of the way, sharing the good, the bad and the ugly right to the bittersweet end. She wrote a thoroughly amusing blog throughout the Camino and I have taken the liberty of poaching some of her stories for your enjoyment. In return, I have provided her with a coupon for one nice warm hug, to be cashed in at her leisure (not valid on public holidays or during prime time Oprah Winfrey specials).

The middle part of the Camino is called the Meseta. It’s long and flat, and in the summer unbelievably hot. Everyone talks about it being the most challenging part of the hike because even though it is flat it can be quite boring and so it is considered psychologically demanding. While I was in the Meseta, though, I didn’t think it was so bad. I thought it was kind of a lot of hype. I thought more than once that these hardships must not apply to us fall folk because it is so much cooler this time of year.

Having come out on the other side of the Meseta and begun the hike to Galicia, I am realizing I was dead wrong. The hiking these days is a completely different animal then the Meseta. If the Meseta was an animal it would be the fat, banal cat your neighbor had. Completely calm. Nothing special to look at. Couldn’t get a reaction out of it if you tried. You spend time wondering how it got fat when it doesn’t seem to move at all. Even to get food. But you soon grow bored of thinking anything about the cat and eventually stop thinking of it completely even though it is still in your presence. Just lying there. Always lying there.

Then after Leon you meet the most amazing German Shepherd. Tireless. Energetic. Happy. Playful. Something you actually enjoy spending time with. It makes a big difference in how the time passes. It’s like I have a permanent companion that makes everything more enjoyable.

So things are looking up.

As the full effect of the Meseta begins to wane both into and then out of Leon, another popular rest stop and an excellent city in which to shop for super-glue, the terrain finally starts becoming more and more varied, even if that variety mostly involves stubby little bushes and fields covered in manure instead of just plain old fields. Then ever so gradually the hills start to grow, the ferns appear with more frequency, as do the rocks, until finally you reach Cruz de Ferro, at 1,500 metres the high point of the trek. This enormous pile of rocks with a giant iron cross sticking out the top is traditionally where shattered and dispirited pilgrims leave, in addition to random unwanted items, some particularly meaningful rock that they have been carrying, I suppose, since the start and, wha-paw!, new lease on life. Or so I understand it. I kind of forgot about bringing a rock, or just couldn’t be bothered to add even a few extra ounces to my backpack, I can’t remember which any more, and it seemed a little stupid to just move one from the path to the pile at the last minute like that. So I remained shattered and dispirited, and slowly trudged on.

From there it was a long and uncomfortable traipse downhill on loose shale and scattered rocks into the valley around Molinaseca and a transition into some serious wine country. Acre upon acre of grapevines as far as the eye can see, all sagging under the weight of their fruity burdens and dazzling in the multi-coloured splendour of autumn. Not sure what it would look like in the summer, although I’m pretty sure you’d be sweating more as you looked at it. Then hills, and more hills, and chestnut plantations, and soaring freeways looming far above tranquil rural scenes straight off the cover of Tiny Spanish Villages magazine. All gradually leading you upward toward the bleak windy ridge featuring O Cebreiro and its vaunted views of valleys on three sides, and a rather grim cemetery on the other.

After that it’s all downhill, both literally in terms of elevation, and figuratively in terms of trading picturesque views from high mountain passes for ineffectual stone fences, disdainful sheep, occasional forests and eventually satellite towns. Not that the scenery is no longer lovely or verdant or serene or any other overly effeminate adjective you can think of, it’s just not as good as before. And by now you’re so close to Santiago you can practically smell it, although don’t be fooled, that is almost certainly just a passing Spaniard, but the point is you will now be finding it harder to concentrate, and living in the moment will finish a distant second to wistful daydreaming about fast food restaurants, ritually burning underwear and long noisy shits in private hotel bathrooms.

In summary, the scenery and terrain of the Camino Frances is impressively varied, extraordinary in spots, highly mundane in others, and generally always agriculturally themed. It does not compare to more spectacular mountain treks such as those in Nepal, Chile or the Rocky Mountains. It lacks the sheer drops and ferocious dolphins of Hawaii, the Wonder of the World payoff of the Inca Trail and there is nary an African to be found, but what the Camino may lack in extraordinary views or Mediterranean sunsets it makes up for in cultural diversity, historical participation and a truly unsurpassed feeling of community. In my experience, this is the only place in the world you can achieve such easy friendships and relaxed camaraderie without committing to a three-year contract with the Vodafone family of mobile networks or joining the Bearded Collie Friends group on Linked In.

About the Author

Dean Johnston was born in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, a part of the country as flat and featureless as a cheese pizza hidden under the cushions of your love seat. His first book, Random Acts of Travel: Featuring Trepidation, Hammocks and Spitting, despite being a wildly erratic collection of stories, anecdotes and advice, turned out to be a runaway sensation among members of his parents’ household. The second time around, with Behind the Albergue Door: Inspiration Agony Adventure on the Camino de Santiago, he wanted to write something more focused and relevant, a goal he feels he achieved simply by avoiding any references to lesbian grandmothers. He feels very strongly about limiting animal testing whenever the subjects complain, and never eats carrots unless they are literally the only choice.

He also owns a bike and several pillows. His pet peeves are television commercials for other television shows and getting stung by things. He hates onions yet loves onion rings. Head colds make him sombre, but resolved to concentrate on no longer having a head cold. He plans to continue travelling the world and writing whatever pops into his head. He likes turtles.

You can read about all his ongoing travels at Routinely Nomadic, and he would be happy to field any questions you may have unless, of course, they are about the way he’s parting his hair these days. It’s become something of a touchy subject.


France 2016: A Game by Game Diary

  • ISBN: 9780993640070
  • Author: Dean Johnston
  • Published: 2016-08-05 23:20:17
  • Words: 18005
France 2016: A Game by Game Diary France 2016: A Game by Game Diary