Posted by: martinworster | July 23, 2008

123. SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, GALICIA, SPAIN

Sitting in the medieval stone plaza as I overlooked the baroque facade of Santiago’s Cathedral I breathed a deep sigh of relief. Not a Starbucks in sight. No one inanely telling me to ‘have a great day’ with fake smile. A cityscape that had been the same for eons prior and was likely to remain the same for many centuries more.  I was no longer in the USA. Viva Espana.

Galicia was always a part of Spain I’d wanted to visit. I’ve been to most parts of the Iberian peninsular (Extremadura is still on the list, so is Jerez, Paloma, Cordoba, Almeria, the Castillion Plain etc) so wanted to see this legendary green part just above Portugal with Celtic influences. Upon driving around the terrain a few things struck me. It is very green, it appeared very affluent with large houses dotting the roadsides all well maintained. Galicia reminded me of many other parts of the world. Switzerland for being so well kept and orderly. Wales with all the isolated valleys leading to the sea. Cornwall (I know it’s not a country) for the gorgeous rugged coastline. France for the atmosphere in the towns, baguettes in the breadshops and men in berets. It’s a million miles from the Kiss Me Quick Costa’s most of the British get to see and so much better for it.

It also seemed very friendly. You’d ask for directions and locals would enter into conversation and even offer to lead you to your destination. So different from my experiences of living in Catalonia for two years. Franco’s regime was very recent and, particularly for Catalans who suffered perhaps the worst persecution, it seems to have left open psychological wounds manifesting in suspician and hostility to outsiders. I don’t think Galicians suffered so much at the hands of Franco – he was from Ferrol in Galicia.

We drove around the coast. First it was the Rias Baixes – lots of gorgeous estuaries and river mouths leading down to the pristine sea. Densely  populated with fishing villages, ports and quays. White sand beaches with crystal clear sea looking very much like the Carribean. Galicia faces out to the open Atlantic so it’s a great surf spot but alas there wasn’t much of a swell on but you could see the potential.

A lot of the towns are famed for their well preserved medieval stone quarters; Pontevedra, Coruna, Orense and of course Santiago where we were staying. Walking around Santiago you were taken back to centuries earlier, I imagined faceless cloaked figures skulking in door ways, up to intrigue and no good as part of some medieval plot. The old stone quarter is gorgeous with little plazas dotted with fountains and cafes, the large cathedral with it’s World Herigage baroque facade and countless other architecural beauties. And of course, how can you talk about Santiago withouth mentioning the famous pilgrimage which involves walking from the base of the Pyrenees to the town and further to the coast on certain routes. Worn Peligriones are all around the town, nursing acheing feet and hand carved walking sticks. I believe it is the second most famous Christian pilgrimmage in the world behind Lourdes.

On day three we ventured into Portugal on a two hour drive to Braga just north of the Druro valley. It had been many years since my previous vist to Portugal on our frequent family Algarve trips in the 80s. Again this part of the country is very different. Lush green valleys, slightly run down, old towns with Romanesque churches, vines in every garden. Braga is a university town. Lonely Planet described it as ‘the Rome of Portugal’ which I thought was stretching it a bit, but it is absolutely gorgeous and worth a visit. A lovely Cathedral, lots of other interesting architectural nuggets, so many beautiful old town homes run down and in need of restoration. Could this be the new Provence? Swarthes of invading upper middle class English growing organic produce and pricing the locals out of the property market.

This region of Spain has it all. If you like seafood it’s your mecca. Great beaches, old towns, mesmerising scenery, friendly, cheap and close by thanks to Ryanair. I hope the ‘Year In Provence’ masses stay away. On our third night there it was the final of the European championships and Spain outclassed Germany. I watched it in a local bar but was struck by the restraint after the Spanish victory. In England it would have been vomitting, fights and debauchery. Here there were cheers and lots of beeping of car horns but that was about it, perhaps of a symbol of the restrained but stylish aura of the region.

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