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Ashleigh Mell and Vanessa Illanes are the business and life partners who’ll be co-leading our Spain: Madrid & The Camino de Santiago hike. The duo introduce themselves below.

Hola to you both! Can you please briefly introduce yourselves to our travelers?

Ashleigh—Hello! I was born and raised in the United States and spent most of my childhood in Florida. After I completed my Master’s Degree in Clinical Social Work at the University of South Florida, I decided to move to London to work as a social worker and do some traveling. What started out as a 6-month student/work program, turned into living and working in London for 10 years. I gained my British Citizenship in 2013. During my time in London, I traveled as much as I possibly could.

Vanessa—I was born in New York City, but grew up mostly on the West Coast in California, My family moved to Florida when I was 14 years old. My mother is Cuban and my father is Spanish. My first language is actually Gallego, the official language here in Galicia. My paternal grandparents use to care for me as a small baby in New York and this is the language they spoke.  

I spent almost every summer in Spain in the region of Galicia – the state in Spain where Santiago de Compostela is located.  My father is from a seaside town called Mera, located about a half hour from Santiago. After I finished my degree at the University of Jacksonville, I decided I wanted to move to Spain to work on the Camino de Santiago. I have been working on the Camino since 2006.

Enjoy fresh Galacian food every day along the Camino.
Ashley and Vanessa sharing a laugh during a picnic on the Camino.

Both of you were born and raised in the US before settling down in Spain. First, Vanessa, you have family in Spain and visited a lot during your childhood. What ultimately led you to make the permanent transition? As an American, what stood out to you as a child visiting Spain that felt special?

Vanessa—When I completed my degree and started working on the Camino, my plan (at that time) was not to live and work in Spain long term. I knew I did not see myself working a 9-5 job, 5 days a week. I needed something different than that and I thought I should explore some while I was young. I had always felt a pull to Galicia as it somehow felt magical for me but I wasn’t sure if that would wear off or if this was the place for me. The feeling didn’t and hasn’t worn off and I soon realized that I could share that magic and the Camino with others, as well as make a home for myself in Spain. I think what solidified it for me was being able to purchase a property on the Camino to call my home. 

Living in Spain, of course, comes with missing my family in the United States. I have uncles, aunts, and many cousins in Spain, but my parents and siblings all live in Florida. If I did not currently live in a world with such great technology, I would not be able to stay in Spain for so long. Also, the nature of the work, which is seasonal, allows Ashleigh and myself to spend a fair amount of time in the winter with our families.

It may sound silly, but the first thing that always stood out for me visiting Spain were the smells. I grew up living in warm places, California and Florida so smoke from a chimney wasn’t something I smelled a lot and it was one of the first things that made my siblings and I excited when we landed in Spain. As a child I always felt that my time in Spain was so special but could not understand why. Part of it, of course, was spending time with family that I didn’t see much the rest of the year, or running around the beach with my cousins then staying up late at the town fiesta. However, as an adult I realised that the experiences that made my time here special were not all personal, but also just part of life in Spain. This country does really value things that make for a slower paced life. Now that I live here, that slower pace can sometimes feel frustrating, but for the most part I appreciate it. The focus on food, family and taking time as a society to really enjoy those things is what really stands out for me.

Ashleigh hosting one of her famous Camino picnics.

Ashleigh, you don’t necessarily have the cultural/hereditary connection to Spain but you’ve decided to grow some roots here as well. What was it about Spain that drew you to it?

Ashleigh—Initially? Well, Vanessa…but, the reasons did become more than just her!

During the time I lived in the UK, I absolutely loved London and it provided me with everything I needed during those 10 years. However, I was feeling a need for a slower paced life. When Vanessa and I got together, I began to visit Galicia where she was living. My good friend and I also walked the Camino de Santiago. I began to realize the draw Vanessa had to the place. It felt authentic. The people were genuine and trusting. The scenery was overwhelming – from the countryside to the gorgeous sandy beaches.  It had it all and Galicia felt a bit like home with Vanessa. Me moving to Spain just became the natural progression in our relationship.

And of course, the Camino became a big reason. I have come to truly enjoy sharing the Camino with others. When I left my career in social work, I wanted to continue to feel like I could make a positive impact on other people. All of us are, of course, carrying our own hardships. When you walk the Camino and get away from the hustle bustle of everyday life, you often have time to ponder those things and let yourself really feel. I soon realized that I could continue making an impact whether that was helping someone find the solitude they needed on the trail to start a healing process, or by just ensuring they were able to unwind for a week and reconnect back to themselves.

As both life and business partners you’ll be our first official couple guiding a tour. Can you tell us how you met and how your individual skillsets compliment?

We met one another in 2005, 6 months before I (Ashleigh) moved to London, through a mutual friend. I went off to travel the world using London as my base; while Vanessa reconnected with her love for Spain and the Camino. We always kept in touch. We finally became a couple in 2013 and in 2016, I moved to Spain.

We definitely have different, yet equally important, strengths! Vanessa is on top of the logistics in regards to the Camino. A lot goes on behind the scenes and she has the experience of managing those details from working so long on the Camino and knowing the path like the back of her hand. She also has the personal connection to the area and has built long-term friendships and relationships with the people in the hotels, bars and restaurants we use along the trail. Having this is immeasurable. I often joke and say all of our guides need a shirt with her face on it that says “We work for Vanessa!”  She can also captivate an audience. Vanessa is an amazing storyteller and is the best at sharing the fables and legends that are all along the Camino, especially in Galicia! 

I guess my social work side comes out and I pay more attention to the finer details of the day. For instance, planning a picnic is very important. You don’t want to be 20 minutes from a group of 15 people arriving at your picnic spot and you realize you don’t have forks! I am super organized and make sure we are well prepared for what we need for the day. I also like to think I am a bit more in tune to the unspoken needs of our clients. It is not that Vanessa does not have that skill, but she is often busier with overseeing the guides/trips, that I am able to provide that level of care to our pilgrims.

Inside TabernaNova along the Camino.
Inside TabernaNova, Ashleigh and Vanessa’s Camino tavern.

Beyond running tours along the Camino, you also co-own TabernaNova which our travellers will be visiting during our hike. Can you tell us a little bit about your restaurant/pub and what the original inspiration behind it was?

Vanessa first saw the property when she began walking the Camino in 2006. She fell in love with the building and slowly began to realise she wanted to ensure she could build a life on the Camino and in Galicia. She began what turned into an 8-year journey/wait to ascertain the property.

The bar is located in the very small hamlet called Tabernavella, 33kms from Santiago de Compostela. The name of the village means the “Old Tavern.” The tavern which dates to 1806, not only served as a bar to the locals, but also housed a small farm shop with rice, potatoes and milk. Following the death of the priest who originally opened the tavern, the house was passed on to his beloved niece. She later raised her family at the property and expanded the tavern to include a larger home and small farmhouse.

 About 40 years ago it was abandoned by the family and was in basic ruins. In 2014, the children of the niece decided to sell the property and wanted to do so to Vanessa. They knew she wanted to bring life back into the property and renovate it to be our home.

The old farmhouse is where the New Tavern was reconstructed, or what we call Bar TabernaNova.  The renovation project took place in 2017 and we got married on the lawn in August that year. We have a small apartment above the bar where we live. We want to someday renovate the family home for a larger home for ourselves.  The hope is to provide a warm, inviting space for pilgrims from around the world to relax, unwind and fill their bellies before their last stretch before reaching Santiago de Compostela. Tabernanova is a project totally built on our wildest dreams with a touch of pure love!

Ashleigh and Vanessa getting married in Galacia.
Ashleigh and Vanessa’s Galacian wedding.

How many times do you suspect you’ve respectively hiked the Camino? And what does this famous pilgrimage mean to you personally?

Ashleigh—I don’t think we have any idea how many times we have walked the Camino, especially the Last 100kms! If I had to guess, I would say I have walked the Last 100kms at least 20 times and I have walked the Every Inch of the Camino Frances (which is from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela) 3 times. I have also walked the Camino Portuguese a handful of times as well as the Camino Primitivo. However, I would say I am still a beginner compared to Vanessa and Kate (one of our close business partners). They would well be into the 100s! Vanessa has also walked the Camino del Norte numerous times as well as the English route.

Every time I walk the Camino, I discover something new. Even if I have walked the same stage over and over, I see something different or I feel something different each time I walk. It always provides me with what I need in that moment. That is what it means to me. The Camino always provides you with what you need –even if you don’t like it!  

And, I am always surprised at its beauty …and sometimes how challenging it can actually be. 

Vanessa enjoying a sunny stroll along the Camino.

Vanessa—I have no idea how many times I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago. In 2011 I tried to calculate how many times I had walked into Plaza Obradoiro (the plaza in front of the Cathedral in Santiago) as a pilgrim and lost track somewhere around 80. That might sound like a lot and sometimes people ask if I ever get tired of walking the Camino de Santiago, but the answer is no. Whenever I get a chance, I like to go explore stretches of the Camino that I haven’t walked yet and I even enjoy walking stages that I’ve walked 100 times. Each experience, whether on a new trail or a familiar one, will bring new interactions with pilgrims, the chance to notice something different along the trail, or just some quiet time to think.

I still haven’t figured out what the Camino means to me personally. Santiago and more broadly Galicia is closely tied to my childhood and family so that is special. There’s no doubt that the walking trail started as a Catholic pilgrimage and that’s a fact that’s not lost on me as someone who was raised in the Catholic church. It always amazes me how European cities were formed around the church for better or worse, how life really revolved around it, and how you can still see that today even if just in the architectural layout of a town or city.

That being said, when people ask why I love the Camino so much or what it means to me, I guess the simple answer is that it can mean anything and everything to anyone. To me that is amazing.  There is something spiritual about walking on the same path that millions of people have walked for a thousand years. Each one of those souls was on the trail for their own reason and had a unique experience but there is a camaraderie that connects us all in the common goal of reaching Santiago. What we sometimes don’t realize is that what happens along the way is what makes the journey special.

Our tour follows the final 100km of the Camino de Santiago in Galicia. Can you tell us a bit about the region and why so many people annually visit?

If we had to describe Galicia to someone who has never been here, we would say it looks like Ireland, but with Spanish speakers!  The countryside is stunning with green rolling hills spotted with cattle, small farming villages and the smell of local fires warming the homes. However, you have this wonderful contrast of enchanting Eucalyptus forests that you can smell when the wind blows.  When most people think of Spain, they think of the South with beaches and dry, hot weather. Galicia is the opposite to this – lush and green. 

The local people are still very traditional in their lifestyle and culture.  There is a deep routed belief in family and community. It is almost like time traveling back 30 years to a much more simple and authentic way of living. There are also Celtic ties that influence the culture which can make for a mystical feel. I think visitors fall in love with this and the spirituality you feel when walking through the small rural villages and cobbled streets of Santiago de Compostela.

Aside from a few blisters, what can our travelers look forward to seeing/experiencing along the Camino?

Authentic Spanish Culture—through the people, the food and traditions. Besides the beautiful landscape and peaceful countryside to walk through, walkers will experience the genuine people of Galicia—their kindness, their feisty spirits and their love for their country and region.

Historically, Galicia was a Pagan culture and these traditions and customs still play out today in Galicia through their locally produced liquors, to the reading of an ancient “spell” that dates back to Celtic times. Not to mention, their pride in the food from the region. From their warm, hearty pork broth soup with local greens; an unpasteurized cow’s cheese formed into the shape of a women’s breast (the first sign of the equal rights movement here in Galicia fighting against a prudish priest); all the fresh fish and shellfish the Atlantic has to offer; to a traditional almond cake that pilgrims a thousand years ago carried with them as they walked the Camino—Galicians have it all. Their cuisine is diverse, locally sourced and made with such care. Don’t worry, we will get to try all of these as we go!

Furthermore, our pilgrims will experience walking with people from all over the world. On the Camino, you have the option to walk silently or you have the opportunity to meet/talk with other pilgrims you meet. If you open yourself up to others, you are forever changed by people’s stories, background and motivation to walk the Camino. Often these can result in lifelong bonds after completing what many people think is a life changing experience on the Camino. It is so much more than just walking! It really is hard to put into words.

Our Camino hike begins and ends in Madrid.

This tour begins and ends in magnificent Madrid. Ashleigh, seeing as you’ll be guiding this first leg solo, what makes the country’s capital so special/unique? 

Madrid is one of the largest European cities, normally falling behind London and Berlin. So, it is heavily populated, and with many amazing small streets filled with colorful store fronts. Madrid is this bustling city with many things to do and see, but it is also so spacious and green that when I am wandering around, I often forget that I am in a large metropolitan area. It stands out to me against other European cities for this reason.

Madrid holds so much history for the Spanish people, and like most capitals, it is home to diversity. Even with the mix of cultures, Madrid is great at accepting and reflecting the many people who flock to the city, but also strongly representing Spanish culture and way of life. For me, this is why it is so special.  

Do you have any insider tips for Madrid? For example a favourite cafe, restaurant or bar…

Ah. This is a difficult question! For me, my favorite place to be in Madrid, is El Retiro Park and the nearby Botanical Gardens. Not only is the greenery well-manicured and stunning, but the buildings hold so much history and stature. I have been in many cities and parks around Europe, and this one just has an awe about it, that makes you want to stay.

I do love visiting the gay neighborhood of Chueca as it holds a small square with bars/cafes around it with outside seating. It is slightly off the main roads, so you can enjoy chatting and gossiping with friends, or meeting new people! I would say it is a place one may feel like they belong in the LGBTQ community.  Spain was one of the first countries to pass gay marriage and was ahead of its time when it comes to LGBTQ rights. I have never not felt totally accepted by the Spanish people or Gallegos.

Vanessa and I also love heading to the area called Malasana. It is now considered a retro-cool area and is near the university so it is filled with inspiring youth and their energy which is just hard not to feed off!  This area is the location of the La Movida Madrilena, the countercultural movement that took place in Madrid during the transition following Franco’s death in 1975. This movement began a new era in Spanish culture and allowed freedom of expression which included people feeling free to “come out.”  

Honestly, Madrid offers such varied activities, it provides something for any type of person who visits the city. Or something for whatever mood you may be in that day!

Ashleigh and Vanessa share wine with a group of hikers.

The Spanish are internationally known for their passion and ‘zest for life’. How or why do you think the Spanish are known for this alluring trait?

If any culture embodied the saying “I will sleep when I am dead,” it is the Spaniards! This is seen in their daily living routines. Eating and drinking times are very much protected and are considered a social activity. Lunch is the biggest meal of the day and can often last 2-3 hours (this will not happen while walking the Camino! We makes sure you can fill your bellies and get moving again!). During these eating times is when people socialize—talk, laugh and create relationships.

This is very much protected in the working hours here in Spain. Siesta is still very much a tradition. Between 2-5, most shops are closed besides restaurants (and some tourist destinations). This is the time to eat, rest and regroup for the latter part of the day. Due to this rest during mid-day, Spaniards will stay up very late enjoying themselves and unwinding. Dinner is not often until 9 or 10  PM (again, not on the Camino!). If you walk out into the main plaza in any town in Spain in the evening, you will see the older people chatting on park benches, children playing in the streets and young adults drinking and eating nearby, keeping an eye on the children.

We think this work/life balance is healthy and keeps your mind/body fresh and working well! Spaniards love to chat, laugh and enjoy the moment. They definitely have mastered the art of mindfulness.

Vanessa, seeing as you have the strongest connection to the country, what aspect of Spanish culture or history do you love to share with travellers visiting for the first time?

I love sharing Spanish food. Whether it’s tapas in Pamplona or a bowl of Caldo Gallego (Galician soup) along the trail, food here is never just food. It is an experience and it is always made with care.

Tetilla cheese. Aka 'little tit' cheese.
Tetilla Cheese—Galacia’s famous nipple cheese.

Have either of you hosted an all-women’s/lesbian hike along the Camino before? Can you tell us about it? And if not, why are you looking forward to having this experience with a group of like-minded female trekkers?

We have hosted many all-women’s groups, normally these are yoga groups who come to walk the Camino and implement their yoga practice along the Way. These groups have been up to 21 women that have come to take a break from their busy lives, reconnect with themselves, disengage from unnecessary stress in the modern world, and basically take time for themselves.

We have wanted to do a more specific walk for the LGBTQ community for some time. This walk means a lot to us as not only do we get to share the beauty of the Camino and Galicia with more people, but we get to share that with like-minded women. The Camino is historically a religious pilgrimage; however, this is not the only reason people walk the Camino. All of our pilgrims who come to walk with us do so for some many reasons whether it be for sport, a focus on reconnecting with themselves, a fun walk with friends or family, or simply to see Spain in a different way than normal city-hopping. Religion is often the last reason our pilgrims come to walk.

The Camino is very inclusive and accepting. This is one of the many reasons we love it so much. When you have so much diversity through the people walking from around the world with one goal in mind (literally the goal to reaching Santiago), you can feel the unity on the trail. The Camino is a challenge in the sense that the walking distances are a fair amount. Your focus as a pilgrim is to eat, rest, take care of your feet/body, have water, address any emotional health needs, or whatever you need to finish your walking stage. These needs take you back to what we think of as primal care needs. Every person is the same and because of this, our differences are not so prominent, internalized prejudices aren’t so loud and people come together and find this common ground.

Anything I might have missed that you wanted to share? Maybe a funny or inspiring anecdote you might have from past Camino experiences?

So many! We have been inspired by people in wheelchairs being lifted over muddy spots on the Camino by fellow pilgrims who they have never met before. Within our own groups of walkers, we have seen bonds form so strong that after a week they walk into Santiago singing, crying and holding hands. I think it is probably best to leave some of those stories to reveal when we are walking and living in our own shared story of the Camino de Santiago!

Click here to learn more about our all-women’s Camino de Santiago hike.

The photo of Madrid was purchased on Shutterstock. All other photos courtesy of Andaspain, Ashleigh Mell and Vanessa Illanes.

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