Our vacation starts in the middle of Basque country in San Sebastian, a 19th century aristocratic resort made famous by Queen Maria Cristina of Hapsburg. We will travel the Costa Verde, a verdant, lush, rugged area along the Atlantic coast of northern Spain, through the provinces of Cantabrico, Asturias and Galicia. It is one of the routes of the Camino de Santiago, a 1000-year-old pilgrimage to the Cathedral de Santiago de Campostela. Rather than walking, however, we will be taking the El Transcantabrico, a train equipped with dinning cars and sleeping cabins for about 28 passengers accompanied by 10 attendants. We will be dining both on the train and in the cities through which we pass. We will finish our journey by renting an auto and driving through the province of Galicia in northwestern Spain.
San Sebastian sits on the Atlantic Ocean about 30 miles south of the French border. The focal point of the city is the wide horseshoe-shaped beach anchored at each end by a small elevated hill; the eastern end has a statute of Christ looking down over the city and a public park containing a fortress; the western end hosts an amusement park. Running alongside the beach is a promenade of about one-mile in length, a white cast-iron railing accompanying the promenade, Victorian street lamps providing light in the evening at intervals along the promenade. Luxury high-rise apartments on the western end look out onto the beach and the Atlantic with Queen Maria Cristina’s Palacio de Miramar resting amongst the taller buildings. As you walk toward the eastern side, you pass our hotel, the Londres, reaching a small park where a carousel is spinning, children joyfully riding the wooden horses attached to it. By the carousel a vendor and smiling children float soap bubbles into the air. As you reach the end of the promenade, an aquarium meets you. This is where you can enter the old quarter of the city.
Paris-like San Sebastian is a delight, with wide boulevards in the new quarter reminiscent of Paris, narrow streets in the old quarter lined with restaurants and tapas bars, doors wide open to show the mélange of tapas sitting on the bar, crowds flowing into the street, people savoring their wine and food with friends. Our concierge recommends a restaurant in the old quarter, the Gandarios, which turns out to be quite good. On the first evening I have a flounder with an excellent lemony Albarino wine, rounding out our stay on the second night with a filet accompanied by a good red Rioja. Our train trip is to begin on the following day.
Our bus is to drive us to Bilboa to meet our train and partake in our first evening meal, taken in a refurbished 1930s art deco style dining car, walls covered with stained-glass pictures, floors covered in carpeting, and tables set with linen tablecloths and utensils. Service is excellent and the four course dinner is served with a red Rioja and a particularly good white wine. We also realize that we will have to adjust to the Spanish dinning habits, lunch at 2:00 PM and dinner at 9:00 PM, that becomes less of an inconvenience as we travel on. I suppose that with all the wine we imbibe we hardly notice the time.
After our first, of what will become our daily breakfast on board, we are to visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, a Frank Gehry designed building, a multi-sided titanium-covered, modern building resembling a giant multi-winged bird flapping its wings in flight. Entering the interior, one is overwhelmed by a cavernous atrium with different shapes–cones, cubes and cylinders–extending into and seemingly hanging in the huge, open space. Featured in the museum at the time are the works of Jeff Koons, an artist whose multi-layered ideas seem to be an advanced concept of pop art, using commonly found material to construct his figures. One does not have to agree with his ideas to enjoy the creativity and beauty of his enchanting figures.
Monday finds us coaching through the mountain gorges of Pecos de Europa in Cantabrico province to the Monastery of St. Toribio de Liebana , a 9th century Cistercian monastery of Romanesque design resting in a green valley surrounded by low lying mountains, altered and restored over the years to its present form but essentially completed in the 12th century. The simple, small stone church has attracted pilgrims for centuries, often diverting them from the Camino de Santiago, to pay homage to the small piece of the crucifixion cross that was brought to the monastery. The relic now rests encased on a gold-covered cross.
The church entrance is particularly attractive, consisting of three arches protruding from the door that they frame, each projecting farther our from the arch below it and culminating in a pillar sitting on a high base. The interior is simple but pleasant, having one small altar with two side naves, vaulted ceilings and a capacity of perhaps 100 people. The small adjoining cloister has a loggia circling it, rooms opening onto a walkway and a fountain in the center of the garden. Rose and hydrangea bushes are planted alongside the paths through the garden. The church, cloister and the landscape in which they reside impart a very noticeable sense of quiet calm to onlookers, especially on a day of clear, blue skies like we encountered.
The journey continues to Altimira the next day, hosting the 1879 discovery of cave paintings dating from 20,000 BC. The original cave is closed to the public, but an exact replica has been built nearby. Inside the museum, paintings of bison, deer, and especially goats cover the walls and ceiling. The artist(s) first scratched an outline onto the surface, sometimes using the natural bulges in the rock to impart a sense of movement to the figure, then outlines the figure in charcoal, and finally paints the figure with natural pigments of ochre, red and brown mixed with animal fat.
A few miles away is the small town of Santillana del Mar ((St. Juliana), also a pilgrimage city, which holds the relics of St. Juliana. Santillana’s well-preserved cobblestoned streets retain their medieval flavor. Houses with original 14th, 15th and 16th century facades and attractive second floor wrought-iron and wooden balcony railings, pleasing features that we will notice in subsequent cities, border the streets that lead to the Colegiata, the 13th century Romanesque style St. Juliana Church, exterior and interior plain in appearance except for the gold-plated triptych altarpiece holding pictures of the life of St. Juliana. A small cloister adjacent to the church had a loggia encircling the perimeter of a garden, pretty columns with artistic capitals expressing alternating images of intricate Arabic designs and ordinary and religious Christian life of what was at one time a place of quiet contemplation.
The Pecos de Europa, in the interior of Asturias province, apart from being a very pleasant and unexpected surprise, reminds one of a little Switzerland, impressive grey, jagged, steep and treeless mountaintops, rising to as much as 8,200 feet, evergreens on the lower portion and lush valleys at the base interchanging their prominence as you motor pass them. Scattered throughout the mountains, small houses, surrounded by fenced-in areas for livestock, lie in the valleys, useable only during the warm months because snow would isolate the owners during winter. We stop at a small lake amongst the mountains to taste a local cider that our guide recommends–it tastes awful–but the site is gorgeous, the valley unfolded before us like a green blanket, offering a perfectly bucolic and serene image, only enhanced by the random jingling of cowbells that can be heard over a low rise and complemented by the cloudless blue sky. When the cows finally appear, they head for the lake. In the distance we can hear more cowbells, first glimpsing the cows at the crest of a rise, then losing sight of them as they dip below it, only to reappear.
In the afternoon we lunch at the one star Michelin restaurant, El Corral del Indiana, in Arriondas, Asturias, featuring a roasted and glazed lamb terrine for the entrée with lots of local Spanish white and red wine.
After breakfast the following day we travel to Aviles to view the ultra-modern Oscar Niemeyer designed cultural center which lies alone by the river and is credited with bringing a new sense of life to the city. Niemeyer, the architect of Brasilia, Brazil has created a starkly modernistic white conference building and a separate restaurant, both sitting on a vast, open, white-blocked pavement. The center is a curvilinear design contrasting with the two story conical restaurant located some distance from it. The starkness of the site is eerily disconcerting to me, evoking a sense of unease and loneliness. As I stand viewing the site, a lone roller-skater passes me suddenly into the vacant open space and fades just as suddenly into the distance, leaving the space silent and empty again. I think of the 1962 movie, “L’Eclisse,” an Antonioni film of two modern Romans unable to connect emotionally and, hence, a metaphor for the broader modern world. One scene has the male protagonist standing alone for some time on a suburban street corner surrounded by buildings, all of white facade, the street devoid of any activity and eerily silent when suddenly a bicyclist enters the scene and slowly exits without any notice of the protagonist, leaving the scene empty and silent again. The following morning we travel to Ribadeo and visit Cathedrals beach, an attractive rocky outcrop, lunching on board the train.
We finally arrive in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia province and termination point of the camino after visiting several other cities. Our hotel, the Paradore Reyes Catolicos, is a beautifully appointed luxury hotel, a main feature of which is the individual courtyards within the building. The original hospital was founded by Ferdinand and Isabel in 1499. The Cathedral is adjacent to the hotel and dates from the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. It is an impressive building in size, anchoring one side of an equally impressive plaza. To me, however, it lacks any visual appeal. It is certainly not simple in design; it is an overwhelming conglomeration of columns and pilasters, a tall spire anchoring each side of an almost equally large front entrance facade, balconies placed below the spires. Statutes appear to be everywhere, sitting atop many of the columns and arches scattered across the facade and on the railings of the balconies, giving the building a very unbecoming appearance of an overstuffed Victorian room gone awry. The interior is equally overwhelming and outlandish. The large gilded altar is covered by a gigantic gilded baldachin, a statute of St. James beneath which pilgrims can touch and kiss by mounting the stairs behind the altar. St. James’ relics can be viewed in a crypt lying beneath the altar.
One wonders at the appropriateness of completing a camino, a journey that is for most pilgrims a simple, spiritual experience , only to be greeted by a cathedral that is so large, extravagant and out of proportion to the quiet emotions likely to be engendered by the journey. Would not a simple but elegantly beautiful church better enhance those emotions? Is a prayer said in a small village church, for example, worth any less to the Almighty than a prayer said in this huge cathedral?
The following day we leave Santiago in a rented car headed south about 60 or 70 miles to an area along the Rias de Viga, one of a series of large bay-like inlets that meets the Atlantic ocean in the southern part of Galicia. Our hotel is the Paradore de Baiona in the small town of Baiona, ensconced along the rock-strewn Atlantic coast near the Portuguese border. This is a major fishing area of Spain.
Our hotel sits atop a hill overlooking the city on the Montreal peninsular and our suite looks out onto the Atlantic, where waves are crashing over a boulder-strewn beach, spraying a white watery mist into the windy air. Seagulls are floating on the wind, some bobbing up and down like a cork in water, others sitting momentarily on the wind like a statute. As one looks farther along the horseshoe curved shore, it curves around to the next beach. The hotel is a converted manor house, surrounded by a 1.8 mile wall below which is a 1.2 mile walk circling the hill, affording excellent views over the ocean.
City center has a marina where a replica of Columbus’ Pinta, which entered this harbor on its return trip from the Americas, is moored, available as a tourist attraction and quite interesting to visit. In the evening we dine on monk fish and salmon in a white sauce, white asparagus and Galician tomato soup, similar to Tuscan bean soup, accompanied by a white albarino wine. This area, Rias Baixas, is where the albarino grape grows to produce a medium bodied, lemony, fruity wine, a fact which we take advantage of.
Driving south along the coast toward the Portuguese border provides a scenic 25 mile trip to the city of Guardia, the shore boulder-strewn its entire length, waves stirred up by a very active wind, creating a foaming spray as it confronts the boulders, the sky an intermittent gray and off-white, the roads desolate of vehicles. Along the way we stop at the little town of Oia to visit a former Cistercian monastery, the living quarters apparently abandoned, located on the beach with a church seemingly still in use, a single bell tower over the front entrance. The smell of fish and seaweed scents the air as we linger by the church; some men, probably fishermen, are lounging across the way by fishing boats. Back at the hotel, after losing our way on the return and taking a circuitous and unexpected route over the mountains, we take a leisurely walk along the path by the water below the fortress wall in the breezy but now sunlit day.
The following day we drive to Monforte in the mountains of Galicia to the Paradore de Montforte, a converted Benedictine monastery located on a hill overlooking the city and surrounding countryside for miles. This is the end of our journey.