We disembarked in A Coruña around noon and decided to kill the two hours until lunch wandering around the old part of the city. A couple of expositions caught our eye, so we meandered through a lovely building with an exhibition celebrating the Day of the Woman (it was Monday) and an aptly temporary structure detailing the history and cultural influence of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route from France to Santiago de Compostela. Apparently the Camino was a huge economical and cultural factor thorough the Middle Ages in Spain; Romanesque and Gothic architecture were brought to Spain via its pathways, along with the money of millions of devout Europeans. We also found the Museum of Fine Arts of A Coruña, with an incredibly varied collection spanning centuries of Spanish art history.
After getting seriously lost due to major confusion regarding the scale of our map, we found the vegetarian restaurant we looked for and enjoyed a pleasant lunch ending with the best flan I’ve yet had. Usually flan, to me, is depressingly bland, but this one had a better texture than usual and a lovely orange flavor.
We leisurely strolled the boardwalk on the way back to the train station, where we caught a commuter-type train to Santiago de Compostela.
As soon as we lugged our bags up the stairs and peered out over Santiago de Compostela, we knew we were going to love it. The first store on the corner was a “Teletortilla”, which is perhaps the most hilarious cultural mix-up I’ve yet seen: a company obviously copying “Telepizza”, a Spanish home delivery pizza company inspired in the American companies, but rather than the Americanized-Italian foodstuff, this store delivered tortillas, Spain’s most widespread food: no matter where you go, the place will have this thick potato omelet on the menu.
Santiago is a lot better designed than A Coruña, although it sprouted far before urban planners – the first church of Santiago was built around the 9th century. It is a small, compact town with a dense center of narrow streets, but we managed to find our hostel without a single wrong turn. The albergue was awesome – very small, with capacity for about 16 people, purple sheets, and a well-equipped kitchen. My friend had been sent some Annie’s boxed macaroni and cheese, which we absolutely had to make for a taste of home. I added my own touch by attempting to recreate Deerfield’s classic mac and cheese accompaniment, stewed tomatoes. A couple juicy tomato-cutting squirts, a pinch of salt, and a spoonful of vinegar later, I had achieved success: a thick tomato sauce that tasted just like Deerfield’s!!! It was, in a word, a glorious meal.
But we didn’t just stay in the hostel and cook. The narrow stone streets begged to be wandered and meander we did! We even found an artisan chocolate shop, which we could have resisted had it not been for the dark-chocolate filled and covered figs in the window. The classic Galician architectural element is stone. The climate is humid, which translates into lots of green – vegetarian which we dearly miss being in the desert that Zaragoza is. Another student who had travelled there described Galicia as looking as though it had been underwater; we concurred. The city had a feeling of old that nowhere else in Spain has yet matched. Galicia stayed out of the reach of the Arabs, so its Celtic-influenced culture has marched on relatively uninterrupted for centuries. The result: bagpipe music wafting through the streets, a rich cuisine (unfortunately for me, based in seafood), their own language (the aforementioned Gallego), and big cultural pride.
We determined, however, that this pride is well-deserved. In our humble opinions, the gallego accent when speaking Castilian was the prettiest we’ve heard, and the language itself sounded beautiful when we heard it. Everyone we met was incredibly friendly and helpful, and our random conversation count went through the roof.
Also, Santiago boasts one of the best cathedrals in Spain, certainly the perfect Romanesque example. Although I prefer Gothic cathedrals with their huge windows and airy ambiance, I had to appreciate the Catedral de Santiago. We had thoroughly analyzed the main entryway, the Pórtico de la Gloria, in our art class; unfortunately, it was undergoing restoration and we could only see the bottom of the supports and, just barely, the statue of Saint James (Sant Yago, or Santiago). However, this year is very special to make up for it: it is an Año Jacobeo, in which the Saint Day of James/Yago falls on a Sunday! The daily festivities include the opening of one of the alternate cathedral doors that only opens during Jacobeo years, an especially enthusiastic influx of pilgrims, and the use of the botafumeiro at the end of almost every mass.
The botafumeiro is a humongous censer (incense ball), originally used to purify the cathedral’s air from the smell of the pilgrims who, exhausted, dirty, and penniless, would sleep, eat, and temporarily live inside the cathedral at the end of their long walk. We decided to stay through an entire mass just to see it. A simple pulley system enables a group of clergy to tug a rope and launch the botafumeiro into the air, swinging it from one end of the transept to the other. We were convinced that the metal container – filled with burning incense – was either going to crash against the ceiling or fall into the crowd, but it safely scented the church and gently swung back to its origin. Also, the statistics were against us: our art teacher told us that the botafumeiro has only one recorded accident, in which no one was hurt – the incense container went flying out a window. The original one was also stolen by the French during the War of Independence from 1808 to 1814…in case it ever comes up in Trivial Pursuit or something!
After mass, we decided to make ourselves some lunch. Breakfast – sunflower seed butter French toast with strawberries – had set a high standard, but we definitely reached it with grilled-tetilla-cheese sandwiches (tetilla means “breast”, and the typical Galician cheese gets its name from its unmistakable shape), homemade tomato soup (really just a variation on the stewed tomatoes from the night anterior), and dessert purchased from a Gallegan bakery filled with jars of little round cookies.
We passed the rest of the afternoon in the Galicia Modern Art Museum (a bit disappointing overall, but some good artwork), the Museum of the Pueblo Gallego (or, in Gallego, o Museo do Pobo Galego) which was interesting and set in a spectacular building, and exploring a park above the museums. This was no average Spanish park: more like a university quad, it was actually a tree-spotted field of grass open for lying upon! With true Whitman style we loafed and admired the sky, and also delighted in seeing the first person going barefoot we’d seen in 6 months. I successfully surveyed a few people for my history project (apparently grassy fields are better surveying ground than train cafeterias) before we decided to have a tapa dinner.
Tapas didn’t appear before we reached another irresistible establishment, though: a candy and nuts store called “Pecados de Compostela”, or “Sins of Compostela”. Bright colors and rows of candy called to us, although we opted for pistachios, corn nuts, and pumpkin seeds. We also discovered a Seoane exhibit in a Caixa exposition hall.
After passing a couple of relaxing hours in a comfortable Gallegan nighttime hot chocolate place, with stone walls decorated with wooden masks and ceramic tiles, we turned in, sad that we had just one more day in Santiago but excited to spend it well.