Interview by Nancy Todd
Regina and I met Elyn Aviva and Gary White at the TBEX (Travel Blogger’s Exchange) Conference in Girona and immediately were taken by the paths they have traveled. They live life with passion, depth and clarity. They are a fascinating and diverse couple to be with and we look forward to continue hearing about their life journeys.
We moved to Spain as an American retired expat couple in 2009. We settled in the small, dusty, northern meseta town of Sahagún (León) because Elyn lived there in 1982-1983 while she was doing fieldwork for her PhD in cultural anthropology on the Camino de Santiago. And we lived there together in 1997-1998. So this time, when we decided to move to Spain more-or-less permanently, we went back to Sahagún, where we had friends and connections. But after a year, it was time to move on.
We had visited Girona during a trip around northern Catalonia, and we had been favorably impressed. Girona had everything we thought we wanted: it’s a fascinating town, complete with an Apple computer store, a small English-speaking community and cultural scene, organic grocery stores, numerous good restaurants, excellent transportation connections—vital for us as travel writers—and the historic Barri Vell. We rented an apartment for a month to see if the reality was as good as the fantasy, and within a week we were looking seriously for a long-term rental. We’ve been here three years now and really love our lifestyle.
2. Sacred places are important in your life and writing. What sacred places have you written about/traveled to in Spain?
Oh my! Too many to mention. We’ve written two Powerful Places Guidebooks on Spain—Powerful Places on the Caminos de Santiago and Powerful Places in Catalonia. The first includes a number of sacred sites on the various pilgrimage roads that lead to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. They are places easier to reach by car than on foot, including: San Baudelio de Berlanga (Soria), Santa Cristina de Lena (Asturias), the Dolmen de Cubillejo and the Visigothic Santa María de Lara outside of Quintanilla de las Viñas (Burgos).
The second guidebook describes a select number of powerful places in northern Catalonia, including the Barri Vell in Girona, Montserrat, Sant Pere de Rodes on Cap de Creus, the Dolmen d’en Daina, the Beech Forest in La Garrotxa. The gorgeous Cathedral de León, O Cebreiro, Montserrat, the church with a dolmen in the crypt in Cangas de Onis. The list could go on. We are always finding more powerful places to visit. Read our books or follow our blog for details!
3. You (Elyn) hiked El Camino in 1982 before it had become popular. What were the main highlights regarding your walk?
Elyn: Some 30 years ago, I walked the Camino Francés, the main Camino de Santiago that stretches 800 kms from the Pyrenees to Santiago. In those days, few pilgrims traveled the road. The route was poorly marked, and there were no organized hostels, refugios or albergues. It was quite an adventure, a journey into the unknown! My companion and I had to ask for shelter in isolated villages, and were often told, “Go sleep in the fields!” Sometimes in the tiny mountain towns, there was nowhere to buy food, and we had to knock on doors and ask someone to sell us bread, or make us a sandwich—if they would.
Because we had only a schematic map and there were few yellow arrows pointing the way, we got lost often. This made for a very metaphorical pilgrimage, filled with wrong directions, detours, and help coming when most needed. In those days, pilgrims were still an unusual occurrence on the Camino, so people interacted with us in a much more personal way: offering us a drink, leading us out of town on the “right” route, or asking us to say a prayer, light a candle, or embrace the statue of the Apostle in the cathedral in Santiago for them. These experiences formed the basis for my book, Following the Milky Way: A Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (2nd edition). Considered a classic, it was the first contemporary travel narrative by an American about walking the Camino and describes the Camino the way it was in 1982.
4. Tell us about your blogs, books, and art that you are involved in.
We have had a publishing company, Pilgrims Process Inc., for a number of years and have published over 40 books by various authors, including books by Elyn on pilgrimage and quest. The website is www.Pilgrimsprocess.com. Our slogan is, “Books for People Who Think.”
Three years ago, we started publishing the Powerful Places Guidebooks series, a collection of focused guidebooks for people who want to experience a place, not merely visit it. The website is http://www.pilgrimsprocess.com/. So far, we have published Powerful Places on the Caminos de Santiago, in Scotland, in Ireland, in Brittany, in Catalonia, and in Wales. The books provide detailed maps, lots of graphics, background information, and suggestions for turning your journey into transformational travel. You can also find Powerful Places Guidebooks on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/PowerfulPlaces?ref=ts.
Recently we started the blog, www.PowerfulPlaces.info, and we publish a related monthly newsletter. The purpose of the blog is to share our enthusiasm for sacred sites and to provide a forum for exchange of experiences and ideas. We’re always looking for guest bloggers to widen the coverage and expand the expertise. Maybe you, the reader of this interview, will be interested in writing for us. If so, contact us at the blog.
Gary is also producing podcasts about experiencing powerful places, transformative travel, books, and ex-pat life. The links are on PowerfulPlaces.info, or you can go to the Youtube link, http://www.youtube.com/user/tchbth?feature=mhee.
Elyn is also a fiber artist. She creates transformational fiber figures and, more recently, wet felting. She is enthralled with the alchemical process of turning loose fluffy wool fibers into dense but malleable material. She makes sculpted wet-felted vessels and silk-and-wool (nuno-felted) wearable art pieces. They can be seen on her website, www.fiberalchemy.com.
5. What is there about Spain that you are passionate about?
Gary: The life. The food. The history.
Elyn: The life style. The people. The cultural, historical, and culinary richness. The natural beauty. The numerous pilgrimage trails.
6. Where would you recommend people travel in Spain, your favorite places?
Elyn: I would recommend traveling all or parts of the Caminos de Santiago, of which there are many: the Camino Francés, the Northern Route, the Camí de Sant Jaume in Catalonia, to name a few. If possible, make the journey on foot, although some of the routes can be approximated by bicycle or by car. It’s a fantastic way to experience the people, architecture, food, wine, landscape, history, culture—you name it—of Spain, and it is travel with a focus and goal. Some specific places are Suso at San Millán de la Cogolla (La Rioja), San Juan de la Peña (Huesca), Sant Pere de Rodes in Cap de Creus, San Andrés de Teixido (Galicia), and of course—Barcelona and Girona.
Gary: I have so many favorite places. Costa Brava, La Garrotxa, Granada, Toledo, San Baudelio de Berlanga (Soria), Monasterio de Lleyre (Navarra), Montserrat (Catalonia), Val de Hecho (Huesca), Hermita de San Bartolo in Cañón del Río Lobos (Soria), Cabo Finisterre (Galicia)…. We talk about many of these in our guidebooks.