Susan had two conferences in Europe, Latvia and Portugal, with 12 days between them. Rather than return to the USA and then back, we decided to spend the time in Spain together, starting with visit Santiago de Compostela and a bit of Galicia – a part of Spain that we weren’t familiar with. .
In 711 CE, Spain was invaded by the Moors. Due to the disarray and fragmented leadership amongst the ruling Visigoths, the Moors quickly seized control of most of the Iberian Peninsula, except for a tiny sliver in the northwest. It was from this sliver that over 700 years later, that forces grew to overcome the occupation. By 1492, the last of the Moorish rule were erased. Of course, that’s a grossly simplified account, laden with intrigue, double crossing, military battles and incursions, and endless layers of history that we are still trying to untangle.
Because of the absence of the Moors, Northwestern Spain (Galicia and Asturias), look noticeably different than the rest of Spain. The language is different – people speak Gallego, which seems to be mostly a mix of Portuguese and Spanish. The food is different, as is the architecture. And due to the heavy rainfall, it is very green, in contrast to the arid plains of other parts of Spain.
Santiago de Compostela is the endpoint of one of the most important religious pilgrimages in Europe. There are five popular pilgrimage routes coming from all over Europe, and they all converge on Plaza de Obradoiro in front of the main Cathedral of Santiago. For centuries, every minute of every day, weary pilgrims have arrived at the Cathedral. Many pilgrims continue on to Finisterre, the ‘end of the earth.’
We did not make the pilgrimage; opting to save our feet and fly to Santiago. We began our trip to by arriving on different flights, Susan from Riga via Barcelona and Phil from the US via Madrid. Both of us had razor-thin connections, going through airports that were known to have delays. But, miraculously – perhaps because we were en route to such a holy site – we both made our connections.
Santiago de Compostela is comprised of two parts: the old city and the new city. The old city is somewhat car-free (except a few taxis and delivery trucks). The new city isn’t very new – there are few modern buildings. There are remnants of the former city walls, but a ring road marks where the walls would have been and is the limit for car traffic. We spent almost all of our time in the old city, wandering the medieval streets. Since Santiago is the epicenter of religious pilgrimages, there are many churches, convents, and monasteries. While some of these have been converted to other uses (the former royal hospital is now an elegant Parador) most remain consecrated. The style and décor were mostly gothic and baroque, with some renaissance elements. The use of gold, common in other parts of Spain, was limited. Although the ‘End of the World’ was close, by law, the colonies could trade only with Seville, so Compostela never had the riches of Andalucia.
Santiago is known for its seafood. Pulpo (grilled octopus in garlic and olive oil) is on most menus, and is fantastic. One evening we stopped at Bar Coruna, which had good reviews for its seafood. A casual place, we were in heaven when the food came. Susan had the best scallops of her life; Phil had excellent prawns. The local albariño wine was the perfect accompaniment, and with the euro/dollar nearly on par, the meal was under $35 for the two of us. If you go to Santiago, stop at Bar Coruna! We also went to the market, which includes a building with casual restaurants, for pulpo and some of the local cheese.
We spent one day with a rental car exploring the Costa de Morte. We explored Roman bridges, waterfalls, small coastal towns, and saw dozens of hórreos, medieval stone grain storage buildings on stilts. We went all the way to Finestre, the end of the world, in the middle of a rainstorm, with the waves whipping in the wind. It made us think about the navigators who left these shores without navigation equipment and the many who were dashed on the rocky shore over the centuries.
One of our favorite activities in Spain is an early evening stop for a drink and tapas. Santiago has many small squares with outdoor tables, and it was lovely to enjoy a glass of wine surrounded by the medieval streets.
After 4 days in Santiago we took a short flight to Madrid.
With our many trips to Spain, we’ve become quite familiar with Madrid. We typically stay in Lavapies, relatively near Atocha train station. Every neighborhood in Madrid is quite different; some are very upscale, others not so much. Some have a large student contingent. Lavapies has a little of everything, and very few tourists. It’s walking distance to the city center, and feels very safe. It also has excellent transportation, and for Susan, many places that serve “vermut en grifo” (vermouth on tap)
We went to two special exhibitions while in Madrid; both were excellent. The first was “Hijas del Nilo” (Daughters of the Nile), an impressively well-curated multimedia exhibition documenting the role of women in ancient Egypt. The collection of artifacts, videos, and the overall presentation was superb. The second special event was “Paseos Musicales del Botánico” (Musical Walks Through the Botanical Gardens). Three groups of musicians each performed a movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in a different setting in the gardens at dusk. The first group was all brass, the second was string, the third was wind. The arrangements were amazing, and each performance was brilliant.
We spent our time walking in areas that were new to us, including exploring the Retiro, the large park that was once part of the King’s private estate, from end-to-end. We searched for murals, statues, and interesting architecture.
We took a day trip to the city of Ávila, about 90 minutes away from Madrid. Avila is a world heritage site, being the best-preserved walled city in Europe. The walls protect a medieval city of cobbled streets, interesting churches, and a wonderfully tranquil atmosphere. Avila was an important site in the Jewish Kabbalah, the home of Moses de León, the author of the Zohar. The city’s patron saint, St. Theresa, was a 1st generation converso. We strolled the walkway on top of the city walls. The views of the cathedral, the Plaza del Mercado Grande and the countryside around the city were well worth the walk. The cathedral, which is said to be Spain’s first Gothic cathedral, was originally fortified and is attached to the city walls.
After Susan left for her second conference in Portugal, Phil went to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, which features a wide range of periods, mostly to see their later works. He also tried, once again, and without success, to correct the phone number on his Spanish ID card. Chalk one up for Spanish bureaucracy.