Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Santiago de Compostela

A good way to ruin a nice city is to try driving in it at rush hour, which is just what I had to do in Santiago. Between having a small inadequate map and hitting rush hour, I spent over an hour driving around congested Santiago trying to find the train station, which I had assumed, as had the rental car clerk, would be well signposted, but not so.

Once the car was returned (an adorable 2-door Citroen that got incredible mileage), I was able to hoof around Santiago and see the main sites, which were about the only part of Santiago I had not yet seen from the car. The cathedral sits on an impressive, massive Praza (the Galicians say Praza instead of Plaza) de Obradoiro where all “caminos” to Santiago converge. It was virtually empty on the February evening when I was there, but I could imagine it filled with throngs of all sorts of pilgrims in the warmer months. It was sort of thrilling to think of the thousands of pilgrims for centuries who have landed on that square.

I found a health food store and bought some fruit for my train journey back east and wandered around the city until it neared my 10:00pm train departure time.

The overnight train from Santiago to Madrid was possibly one of my most uncomfortable nights I have ever spent. I think the car I was in came out of some dead train-car storage facility by some mean-spirited train personnel. The seats were not designed to recline, nor did they have movable armrests so I was stuck with a hard-edged metal arm rest in the middle of the two seats so even though I was lucky enough not to have anyone sitting next to me I could not curl up and lay cross ways on the seats without metal objects jabbing me at every turn. This as a head’s up to travelers – it may be worth springing for the extra 50 euros for the berth if you are making that journey.

Galicia's magnificence

It was spring in Galicia and people were out with their hoes, spades, pitchforks and carts tilling the deep dark rich soil that has supported them for millennia. Horreos, ancient stone structures used for storing the harvest – corn, potatoes, and more- dot every village. Galicia is truly spectacular – somewhat of a well-kept secret which is probably its saving grace. It is easy to gasp at every turn in the road, as the coast is stunning, and the hillsides pastoral.Fortunately, the laws around development are strict in this region of Spain, particularly in Carnotta which boasts a 7 km long white sand beach, the longest in Galicia.

The land is full of ancient history and Celtic myths. The northwest has some lesser traveled routes to and from Santiago de Compostela. One of these is to Finisterre (Fisterra in Galician) which means lands end, and it sits on a peninsula at the end of that part of Spain, with the Atlantic Ocean crashing around the rocks at the bottom of the mountain. This was my pilgrimage, not Santiago. The beach as you approach Fisterra seems like heaven, and must have certainly seemed so to any pilgrims making their way through the spiny gorse and forest paths. Turquoise green water and white sand stretching for two kilometers, it is littered with shells, many of which are like the shell symbol that marks the way to Santiago.

Another leg of the camino is between Fisterra and Muxia, also breathtaking. And for me quite literally as Muxia is not immune to a common ill I have found in Spain – one or two signs for an invisible tourist information office. So I headed off in the direction of the hill with the rocks and churches, but the route I ended up on was a real cliffhanger – truly – the path, marked with little painted white arrows, pointed up along a string of cement-glued stones to the rock face to be used as hand and foot holders. The day I was there the wind was blowing a gale and as I was trying to scale the cliff I kept having different newspaper headlines flashing in my mind, “middle aged woman blows off rocks.” “Middle aged woman tumbles to death at sanctuary.” Between the wind and the vertical pitch I was working hard and I kept thinking, “Can this really be the only way up here?” Of course it is NOT. I was on the thrill seeking, youthful pilgrim route. Once at the top with the boulders and a single stone cross, I found the new stone-lined gentle descent down toward the Sanctuario de Barca and the crashing sea. From there a lovely promenade follows the bay line back to the parking and village.

Between the spectacular ocean and the windmills lining every ridge, Galicia seems like a green traveler's delight.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Heading West

I much prefer the train to the bus and the little, narrow-gauge train I am on, chugs along, designed as a local route to haul workers and minerals. It is a wonderful way to see the countryside as the train often goes through areas with no roads. My feet are happy for the rest of the many hours long ride as they are sore and one has a blister the size of my thumb from hours pounding the pavement scouting out the health food stores and sites of my destinations.
The woman at the Bilbao Post office thought I was a pilgrim on the road to Santiago as I was donned with my double-pack look, one on the front and the other on my back. I let her believe this as I am on my way to Santiago and it will take me two days to reach it, and then will do my own walking pilgrimage at the end of the world, in Fisterra. In her brief kindness I caught a glimpse of the camaraderie, solidarity (a word the Spaniards love and use a lot), and compassion that camino travelers encounter all the time.

The train I am on follows various camino routes. This is mountainous terrain (I am told that Spain is second only to Switzerland in most mountainous country in Europe) and I am most grateful to not be on a bus, which even if you are not prone to car-sickness, can make you woozy as they twist and turn around the sometimes hairpin curves of the mountain roads.
The train snakes its way through the Picos de Europa mountains, farmland, forests, with tiny glimpses of the ocean. Makes you feel as though you could be walking or biking through the bucolic setting.

So I am on the regional FEVE trains making my way from Bilbao west to Santander, through the regions of Cantabrias and Asturias, referred to as the "green" coast because it is so lush, with my final destination in the region of Galicia in northwestern most Spain.


I loved Bilbao. I have heard many reports touting San Sebastian over Bilbao but I beg to differ. I found Bilbao to be vibrant and so easy to get around. The RENFE train station is right at the heart of it. There is a simple metro, a sleek new tram, and buses. Sites are within walking distance as are multiple health food stores and restaurants. Everyone I encountered was friendly. The city felt very hip, international and lively.

After a day trip to Gernika and some northern beaches, I returned to Bilbao, hungry and happy to think that El Cort Ingles was open until 9:00pm. As I was making my way the avenue I just crossed became instantly filled with police car sirens and a veritable army of riot police jumped out and lined the street complete with masks and shields. I had no idea what was going on but realized it was best if I took another route (duh!) Fortunately this was my second day in Bilbao so I actually had some idea of where I was going. I turned and up another street saw the hovering SWAT helicopters ready to assist. Obviously I made it in and out of the Department store, but not without some minor incidence as the protestors were chanting in one of the doorways I was trying to exit through. A few blocks away, all you could hear was the occasional siren and chanting. The next day in the paper it showed dumpsters on fire and overturned cars, and someone kicking a bus (seemed fruitless) – and it was about the more extreme Basque political parties being denied participation in the upcoming elections.

Did I mention the Guggenheim museum? Not to be believed as you will see from the photograph.


I am not sure I ever wrote about Sevilla as I shortened my trip there due to pouring rain. The day and a half I did spend in Sevilla was a delight. The sunny, bright day I arrived, every square and plaza was filled with joyous Spaniards partaking in their afternoon lunches and cervezas. The cathedral is massive and the Real Alcazar (Royal Palace) was spectacular. With extensive gardens and some Moorish architecture to rival the Alhambra, I would put the Real Alcazar at the top of any Sevilla must-see list. Sevilla has its own version of cheap bicycle renting called Sevici and the tourist office offers free wifi Monday through Friday. A city filled with youth and vibrance, and a hot spot for Flamenco, not to mention health food stores and and an open airy feeling, Sevilla makes for great touring.