I came to A Coruña for one thing—the Torre de Hercules. Though it’s largely a restoration, parts of this ancient lighthouse date back to the 2nd Century when the Romans were here. I’ve since found the north coast has several sombre reminders of what civilisation can mean at both ends of the spectrum.
On leaving the hotel yesterday morning, I wandered out around the nearby foreshore, where the Atlantic collides with the northern coast of the peninsula. In the coastal park located there, an old Moorish cemetery was being refurbished. In the distance, the Torre de Hercules was visible through a deepening haze of smoke, drifting to the coast from communal burn heaps inland.
Nearby, was a monument consisting of numerous vertical stones that resembled a miniature Stonehenge. It wasn’t until I got closer to it that I realised its true significance. The monument is actually a memorial, built to commemorate the 50th anniversary of mind-numbing events here. During the Civil War, Franco’s troops executed people in the dunes and disposed of the bodies in the sea. The monument even contains a photograph, taken from a distance away, of a large number of troops massed almost on the very spot where the memorial has been constructed.
From there, I went to the Torre de Hercules, possibly the oldest remaining lighthouse in the world, given it dates back to the 2nd century. The entry is via the foundations, where the headspace even for a midget gets pretty tight, and numerous displays point out the remnants of various stages of redevelopment the tower has undergone (four key stages in all). Whilst there have been a lot of rebuilds and additions, in scaling the interior, it was easy to see the parts that are original (that is, nearly two millennia old). From the top, I could see clearly around the bay, including down to the killing field I’d visited earlier, and I reflected on what dramatic differences the march forward in civilisation on this peninsula has caused.
The Romans, of course, could hardly be accused of being a civilisation that lacked a level of bloodlust, but within a few hundred metres, I found myself comparing an enduring monument built by one; and another, a memorial to an era which seemed more focused on purging its population and thus wiping out its future.
I ultimately spent almost the full day in A Coruña, with the afternoon consumed at the Castelo de San Antón, an impressive naval fortress that has been converted into a museum. Among its numerous exhibits, there are decent displays of swords, knives and firearms from its history, as well as a large subterranean water tank. What impressed me most of all, were several displays of fine gold jewellery artifacts (mostly tiaras) that have been dated to 2500BC. Just knowing the age of them is mesmerising.
By the time I left A Coruña, it was too late to go to Lugo and its Roman walls. To try and get an early night for a change, I instead I headed directly to León. Also a city with Roman walls, I spent a considerable amount of time circling them in search of the hotel I’d booked. As I’ve mentioned already, the cities that are experiencing growth here do not build gradually, but rather, change from houses to high-rise apartments in a very short distance. In León, this change is far more abrupt, with the high-rise springing from the ground on the very edge of the city like a small forest of odd trees.
As it turned out, my hotel was in a barrio that was still being built, and in the morning I woke to the grumble of heavy machinery outside my window. When I checked my email in the morning, there was a (curiously prompt—especially given I’d only applied a few days earlier) response from a job prospect. I sent an email back, and as I was eating my breakfast (late, as usual), the phone rang. Within a few minutes I was booked in for an interview in Barcelona a few days from now.
It’s going to involve a significant detour to Barcelona, but the opportunity to visit this city one more time before going home is one I welcome, and as it’s the first encouraging lead I’ve had on the jobs front since leaving Madrid, is too good to turn down. After numerous disappointments and dead-ends, I’m trying my best to keep a level head going in, and being realistic about how much of an issue the work permit has become.
As something of a forewarning, the conveyor style toaster at the hotel dumped my two pieces of toast directly onto the elements. Within a few seconds, a healthy plume of smoke was gushing from the toaster, filling the dining area with an acidic odor. The cafeteria attendant emerged from the kitchen and promptly opened the windows “to try and prevent the smoke alarms from going off”. She smiled at me like I was an idiot, then called the receptionist downstairs and told them all about what I’d just done. I bowed my head and fled to my room, packed my gear, and got out of there.
I couldn’t resist the urge to check out León’s cathedral before leaving, and the initial “five minute” circumnavigation of the perimeter, which involved some illegal parking, somehow deteriorated to a good 20 minutes wandering around inside, marveling at the incredible stained glass windows, and the detailed wood carvings on the doors.
From León I pushed up to Burgos, where a much larger cathedral was waiting. Each city that has a large cathedral has something impressive about it, and I seem hopelessly addicted to exploring them. This one is by far the most gothic of all I’ve seen, however it was undergoing extensive restoration at the time I went through, so great big chunks of it were closed to the public. Maybe if I get back this way a decade from now, they’ll have finished the restoration and I’ll see it all, but at the moment, I can’t say it was worth the entry fee. The little statues on the pillars lining the nave are quite interesting, especially those of the martyrs who were beheaded (there’s something slightly comical about miniature stone statues holding their heads under one arm).
From Burgos I was to go up to Vitoria-Gasteiz and then on to Bilbao. In the dark, I couldn’t see the mountain range to my north, and as the road turned towards Miranda de Ebro, I passed signs for a small town called Pancorbo. A common feature of Spanish towns and cities is that they light their churches with orange floodlights. Usually, this simply means the church glows orange all night, but this little town has one of the most extraordinary canvasses on which to paint with light. Located at the entrance to a narrow, rocky pass through the mountain range, the lights of Pancorbo’s village church cast eerie shadows on the sheer, jagged rock faces that stand behind it like two giant hands, cradling the town, and able to crush it at any time. Needless to say, I had to stop in the town and pop off a bunch of shots—I just wish I’d had more time to be able to do more there (couldn’t find my way up to the church to get any at close range).
As per usual, it was late when I rolled into Bilbao, and a miserable drizzle had settled across the north coast. There wasn’t much to impress me here, it seemed dank and gloomy, and something of a depressing place to be. The hotel I’m staying in here is only a two star, but not too bad for the money (surprisingly comfortable beds—best sleep I’ve had in weeks), and it’s reasonably well located. I had the Guggenheim on the list of things to see whilst here, as well as a much more solemn reminder of the progress of mankind to our current state of civilisation.
When I first identified Bilbao as a place I wanted to visit, I was unaware of its proximity to Gernika, but as soon as I spotted it in my Lonely Planet guide, I decided I had to go there. I knew about Gernika long before I knew where it was, first hearing the name when in high school art classes, when I saw prints of the infamous Picasso painting (Guernica). I remember seeing a movie in my late teens, which had a few scenes dedicated to this tragic event, and from that, knew it had happened in Spain, but I still had no idea where in the country it was, nor the details of what happened there.
I arrived expecting memorials and ruins. Instead, I found a modern, rapidly growing city of almost totally new buildings. As such, this aspect of the city was under whelming, but only until I found out why. In the museum, located in the city centre, there is a little movie you sit through, and you experience the arrival of the German and Italian bombers from the perspective of a resident. From there, you see footage of the aftermath, among many other displays. It was here I realised there were no ruins because, with the exception of a handful of buildings, the city had been completely destroyed.
Hardest to digest of all, was that Franco had invited the Germans to try their morbid experiment (world’s first carpet bombing of civilians), in an attack on his own people. This piece of information was something I’d not been aware of previously (had always thought it was an unsanctioned attack by the Germans). Despite knowing he’d done some nasty things, this information, combined with the death squads memorial in A Coruña, brought it home to me just how much of a monster he was.
Finally, I’d come to a full appreciation of Picasso’s painting.