10.05.2013 - 13.05.2013 23 °C
Continuing my attempt at conquering the majority of Spain, I found myself last weekend in Galicia, which is the region directly north of Portugal in the Northwest corner of the country. As is a fairly common theme in Spain, there is a different language spoken there, this time a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese, called Gallego. Of course everyone who grows up there speaks it, but its prevalence is not so ubiquitous as catalán is in Catalunya, and for the most part Spanish is the most common language. Anyway, I took an early flight out of Barcelona on Friday and into Santiago de Compostela, the major city in the region. Upon landing, I was stunned with how similar the countryside is to New England. I haven't been searching around Spain for the Vermont equvalent, but greener than green rolling countryside and a brisk morning made me realize that I miss home a little bit!
Interestingly enough, my flight into Santiago was almost empty, while the flight out was full. And I assume that this is generally the case. The reason for this is that Santiago de Compostela is home to La Catedral de Santiago (literally the cathedral of Saint James) as is the end point to the world-famous Camino de Santiago. Pilgrims (since the early middle ages) have been coming from all over the world to start in a variety of locations around Spain and France and walk hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of kilometers to arrive at this church, which is apparently the burial place of the remains of the apostle James. The church is absolutely gigantic and occupies the entire center of the city. Each façade is stylized differently, but the Façade de Obradoiro is the most famous, and actually appears on the back of the 1,2 and 5 cent Euro coins that get made in Spain.
The inside of the church is no less stunning. As is normal for Romanesque cathedrals, the floor plan is shaped like a cross, with the altar at the center. In such an important church, I wasn't too surprised to learn that they hold three masses per day. The one at noon, however, is a bit special, as it is specifically for the pilgrims. I happened by just after noon, and was greeted by a rather strange sight: hundreds of people dressed for a hike, backpacks, boots, hiking poles and all, packing the gigantic cathedral for a mass that for many, represents a culmination of many days of blisters and exhaustion. The stectrum of involvement in the service ranged from seriously attentive to the mass (which was in Spanish) to seriously attentive to their camera and documenting the moment. And I cannot blame the people documenting the events, as there is something very special about the ceremony that happens in few other churches around the world. Catholics will already know that part of the mass is the swinging of the 'thurimble.' For those now confused, a thurimble is an ornate metallic lamp-looking object that a priest wields during the mass. It is usually attached to a chain and burning incense on the inside in place of a candle causes the smoke and smell to waft over the gathered congregation. The reason for the hype about the thurimble in Santiago, which is called the Botafumiero, or 'smoke expeller' in Gallego, is its size. It weighs about 180 lbs and is about 4.5 feet tall, and gets attached to the ceiling of the cathedral almost directly over the altar. Then, eight men, the tiraboleiros, pull on the rope to which the thurimble is attached, causing it to swing rapidly (think a playground swing) releasing incense in a thick cloud over the attendees. I was in awe at the beginning, which turned to fascination and a bit of fear when I saw how fast it was moving (if you get hit, it will really ruin your day!) and back to awe as I realize that these guys had done this before. At its height, the botafumeiro reaches over 60 feet high, and the distance of the arc is triple that. It was quite the amazing thing to behold! It is also extremely effective at removing the stink of the plethora of backpackers that pack the cathedral each day, perhaps this is why it is so large! (It's tough to see in the photo, but it's the silver thing on the right connected to the rope coming from the top of the photo!)
Another thing about Galicia is the weather. And the food. But really they go hand in hand, because (at least I am told) that the weather in Galicia is really poor for 3/4 of the year (hey sounds like Rochester!). But as a result, they take a lot of pride in their food, and have some of the best of it in Spain, especially in terms of seafood. One of the dishes that can be found all over Spain is called Galician Octupus, so I jumped at the chance to try it in its native territory. I had already tried Pulpo Gallego (pulpo is octupus) outside, and I was not prepared for the profound difference between the real stuff and the fake stuff. Inevery experience up to that point, octopus has been chewy and tough, but with lots of good taste. So when I threw the first mouthful in and it absolutely melted away in my mouth, I had a revelation (albeit perhaps an unfortunate one, since I won't be happy with Pulpo Gallego outside of Galicia again). It was absolutely on another level. And the food adventures began in earnest.
In fact, one of my most favorite parts of the city was the market on the outskirts of town. Each city in Spain has a marketplace, in which most days of the week you can stock up on your fresh meat and fish and produce. In Santiago it was quite extensive, occupying several long buildings. Unfortunately on this miraculously sunny Friday afternoon most of the owners were out and about and not tending their stalls. One thing that I really love about Spain is how close you are to the origin of your food (especially meat). In the US we are incredibly sheltered from where our meat comes from and how it gets there. When you are walking around the stalls and there are chickens partially defeathered and butchers are carving into legs of beef it is abundantly clear. And in Galicia, you can see the octopus ready to go into the pot!
But seriously, how many ten year olds in the US would be able to correlate the breast of chicken they pick up out of fridge in the grocery store with the bird tittering around the farm? It is a shame that we have forgotten these sorts of things and just let companies dictate our feelings toward meat. In these moments, there is a part of me that sees the value in being vegetarian, if only to make a statement about our ignorance about the origins of our food. And then I remember how much I love a good steak or a turkey dinner. Sorry! But I will not soon forget the image of the rabbits, eyeballs and all, chilling (literally) in the refridgerators to be bought and brought home. And of course this applies to all the cities I have visited in Spain, not just Santiago, but it was an interesting thought that I just recently put my finger on. Excuse the tangent. One really cool feature of the market in Galicia was a restaurant just inside the doors that had an interesting offer. For a couple of euros, the chef will take your fresh-bought meat and vegetables and cook them for you right there, before serving you in the restaurant. Talk about fresh! If the marketplace had been more open and perhaps with a friend I would have tried out this service, but things were wrapping up, so I moved on. What a cool idea, though!
Also in Santiago that day, and the following weekend, was a festival in a nearby park. With small amusement rides and cotton candy stands and a ferris wheel, it presented a really strange juxtaposition of the new, gaudy, plastic, loud, and smelly of the makeshift amusement park with the old, sturdy, worn feeling from the old city that I had just walked through.
In the end, I had planned on spending a whole day in Santiago, since it is not a large city, and found it to be plenty, almost too much. I had the wonderful opportunity to find a tree in a park and read a little bit before having a proper siesta in preparation for my train to Ourense!
Ourense, Spain is not on everyone's list of places to visit in the country. It is a little city of 100,000 inland from the coast of Santiago with not a lot of draw. It is a beautiful city, though.
However, I was a special case: I have a connection there. An American girl that I met in Sevilla (remember Rebecca?) way back in the fall lives there teaching English, and she promised to show me around her city if I got the chance to make it there. Of course I find cities so much enjoyable when you have someone to show you the best spots, so I had to try to take her up before she leaves at the end of this month. We planned that I would arrive on Friday and hang around til Sunday evening. Lucky for me, she and her roommates were entertaining some guests that evening (did I mention her favorite hobby is cooking? Sure, I'll taste the soup!) so I came at the perfect moment for an American classic. Homemade tomato soup with grilled tuna and cheese sandwiches for the dipping. Awesome dinner I hadn't even realized I was missing! As per usual in Spain, the dinner wasn't over until after midnight, at which point we started making plans for the weekend.
On the spur of the moment, Rebecca and I decided to join her other roommate and some friends for an excursion to Isla Cíes the next day. Unsure of the logistics, we just bought a return ferry trip at 1:30 am and went to bed ready to catch the 9 am bus to the port, located in the city of Vigo, an hour and a half drive away! For those who have traveled with me before I have this problem with being on time for things. And by on time, I mean early. The earlier the better. I am always way too early to the airport for flights, and get antsy if it's going to be tight. So a bus scheduled to get into Vigo at 10:30 for a ferry at 11 followed by a ferry from the island at 5:30 followed by a bus back at 6:25 (a 45 minute ferry ride) made it a stressful trip. Especially given that everything in Spain runs late! Except the only saving grace was that when I say everything, I mean everything-- buses and ferries alike. So we were right on time for all engagements woohoo!
Anyway, let me actually describe the trip. Rebecca and I hopped on the bus for the trip to Vigo, and arrived at the port to an absolutely gorgeous spring day. If I had a Euro-nickle for every time someone opined how lucky I was to have a sunny weekend in Galicia I would be a rich man. Apparently I got lucky, but honestly at the end of the day the burned tops of my feet could have done with a little cloud cover. Like seemingly every coastal town in Spain, Vigo is tucked away in a nook of mountains that leads down to the water. I was focused on making a ferry on the way in to the city so I missed good opportunities to take pictures from the bus, but you'll have to take my word that the city is beautiful. In fact, our taxi driver on the way to the ferry explained that he actually splits his time between Vigo and somewhere in Mexico (can't remember the name): summers in Vigo, winters in Mexico. As he put it, the summers in Vigo are the best in the world. He seemed like a pretty well-traveled guy, so I'll have to take his word, and this day certainly didn't disappoint.
We finally made it to the ferry and trundled aboard all of us. The vast majority of people aboard the ferry were young adults, and as we got under way, the speakers started blaring dance music and the people got on their feet, several beers were produced (at 11am, no thanks!) and a dance party commenced with the passage of the ferry. In semi-related news, once we disbarked, the dance party people disappeared to parts of the island unknown and we didn't see them for the rest of the day!
The scenery around the port and out to the island reminded me lots of the Carribean. Crystal blue waters (not the temperature of the water, though, it was like an ice bath after practice), and islands rising sharply out of the water with extremely white, fine-grained sand beaches greeted us at the end of the ferry ride. Isla Cíes is actually a natural reserve, so trash and walking on the island is closely watched. We had been given trash bags for the transport of our trash off the island, and the paths around it were paved and fenced. We had all intentions to explore the island but noone in the group could find much motivation to do anything except take in those rays that the locals had been missing for the past six months. We did, however, purchase a set of 'Palas'or paddles with a ball to knock around between us. Because those who know me also know that I have a hard time sitting still on a towel all day.
It was a spectacular day surrounded by new friends and old friends and awesome scenery. One interesting thing did happen near the end, however. As we were packing up our things, I noticed a large sailboat in the makeshift harbor moving a bit more than it should. Sure enough, it became clear that the anchor had come loose, and the boat was drifting toward another of the boats. I watched in helpless (no chance was I braving the aforementioned icebath to swim to help) horror as it clunked angrily into another yacht. Luckily the owner of the second yacht was aboard and came out to nudge the offending boat away, and I expected him to climb aboard to try to attach the anchor again. But remember, this is Spain, and I watched unbelieving as he simply held away the other boat until it had drifted past before climbing back below decks on his own boat. Thankfully, there was another attentive fellow with a dingy, who came out and reattached the anchor of the flailing ship. But really, how could someone just let an unmoored boat drift past at the peril of itself and the other boats anchored around?! Crazy. After 20 minutes of figuring out the best course of action, the boat was finally reanchored more or less in its original spot. I am presuming that they owners of the boat were out exploring the island, what a nasty surprise it would have been to return and find your boat gone!
After a very relaxing day, in which I only forgot to apply sunscreen to the tops of my feet and my lower back (relatively successful), we boarded the ferry back for stressful ride number two. Luckily, we made it to the bus station right on time, and walked onto the bus back to Ourense.
Periodically in Ourense, I am told, they have pinchos (tapas, basically) festivals, in which all of the local restaurants put together a special pincho dish to serve to the public. After three pinchos, a person is allowed to cast a vote for their favorite pincho, and at the end the votes are counted and the winning restaurant is rewarded. The reward for us as consumers is a variety of unbelievable pinchos scattered through the old part of the city, and I was lucky enough to arrive in the middle of one of these festivals. Unfortunately, we only managed to leave the flat at 10 pm in search of pinchos, and since places were really crowded we only got to try two pinchos: one a big fried potato ball filled with Spanish sausage, and the other an octopus dish sautéed with peppers and onions. Both were out of this world. Afterward, I stayed out a bit to experience the Ourense nightlife, which felt very much like the nightlife in Barcelona, only confined to about three blocks in the city center. We called it a (Spanish) early night at about 3 am and headed to bed happily exhausted after a long, sun- and food-filled day.
If there is a calling card for Ourense, it is the hot springs beside the river that runs through the city. Some are free, others have been turned into spas. Rebecca, her roommate Tara and I decided to try one of the paid ones the next day, since Rebecca hadn't been there yet either. We knew that with various sunburned parts it might be uncomfortable, but we were not prepared for how uncomfortable the tops of our feet would be. Rebecca and I tried our best to float around with our feet above the water for a bit, but the resulting ab workout was just too much, and we succumbed to a few minutes of pain before adjusting, and the remaining time wasn't too bad.
We weren't allowed to bring cameras into the spa, so I will have to describe it to the best of my ability. The pools were split into two groups, and the idea is to follow a certain pool progression of either relaxation or agressive rejuvenation. As we didn't have a ton of time, we kind of hopped between whichever pool seemed like the most fun. Some were inside the building itself, others were in seemingly natural pools outside under cabanas, other had pretty vicious water jets to massage sore muscles, others were piping hot, or cool, and (of course) each had a special mineral or salt designed to aid you on your journey of rejuvenation. Honestly my favorite part of these hot springs is that they aren't chlorinated, so the rest was just icing on the cake! Although our visit was a bit frenetic, I did find the whole experience quite relaxing, but in an extremely different atmosphere to those in Budapest... And wow, look at who is becoming a thermal spring connoiseur!!! So if your travels are taking you through Ourense, Spain, check out the thermal springs!
After the springs, we made the trek back on foot, as the goofy little road-train that brought us on the fifteen minute ride out to the springs was full on the ride back. Upon arrival in the flat, I only had a few hours left in Ourense, so dinner of vegetable tortilla was the topper to a great weekend in Ourense!
There is one last notable thing on the weekend; that is the hostel situation in Santiago. After hopping on the evening train back to Santiago in order to catch my morning flight back to Barcelona, I arrived at the hostel at 11 pm. Along the aforementioned Pilgramage path, there are a network of hostels for the backpackers to stay in, but these are unlike any hostels I have ever seen. Since the people are walking all day every day, experiencing the city's nightlife is not high on the list of patrons, and sure enough, when I arrived, the reception desk had closed at 10 and a note with my name was pasted outside had a number to call. During the phone conversation I was given the keycode to the hostel door and told which bed in which room was mine. The sheets and pillowcase were already there with a small placard bearing my name. Unfortunately everything was wrapped in plastic and my entire dorm of 10 was already asleep, so I felt terrible tearing open my present to get at the sheets inside. All for six hours of sleep before my flight! But these types of people are understanding, and besides that I got my due when one of them began sawin it off like a buzzsaw about fifteen minutes later. Ah hostels.
An uneventful trip to the airport in the morning saw me back in Barcelona around 11 am to make it to work just a little late, finishing another great weekend filled with friends and adventures!
Hey look at that, I think I'm finally caught back up! Let's see how long I can keep on my roll! Take care, and talk to you soon!