There’s something about Galicia that stirs the soul, and invites exploration. Needless to say, I chewed up a lot of time exploring what has to date been the most impressive day of touring. Whilst there’s still a long way to go, I doubt anything will cap today.
Twenty-four hours ago I rolled out of the hills into Ourense after a morning in Zamora exploring the old fortress part of the town, and then the afternoon at the Parque Natural de Sanabria, an impressive mountain lake surrounded by national park, close to the Portuguese border.
Zamora is a pretty town, and the old fortress ruins are impressive enough, though not as complete as Segovia. Disappointingly, the Castillo part was closed for refurbishment, hidden away behind a massive rusty iron door and stonewalls topped with parapets, with only frustratingly enigmatic glimpses of the interior available from across the channel/moat. The old Cathedral—despite having parts dating back almost a millennia—didn’t hold a candle to what I’d seen in Salamanca and Segovia the day before, and it’s impressiveness really only stemmed from its age. Also nearby in the old city, was the home of El Cid, a key figure in the Christian re-conquest of the peninsula.
The colour of the autumn trees enroute to the lake have begun to fade a little in Galicia by this time, blown away by the late summer hurricane that crashed ashore in the weeks following my arrival. The rivers are relatively full and the ground soft underfoot as a result of the subsequent floods that all but washed the region into the Atlantic in the turbulent change from verano to otoño, but a week of relatively dry sunny weather has it feeling like home in the late autumn.
Although I’m only two days into this final trek, I’ve been lucky in my travels through here. Clear skies and mild weather makes visiting the natural areas of the country far more enticing than they might otherwise be. Had I visited a few weeks earlier, I doubt the lake would’ve been accessible, as the road winds in from the highway, dipping and peaking through small valleys and gorges, skirting sleepy hamlets and through densely wooded banks.
The lake emerged softly off the right shoulder of the road, flickering through the scrubby growth for a short while before bursting free of the vegetation. A number of small rustic holiday shacks line the road and I can imagine anyone wanting a piece of cool quiet in the interior would have no trouble finding it here. The road emerged into a small cove where there was parking and some very basic tourist facilities that only seem to operate in Summer. I rolled the shit-roen down into a park where it stalled just shy of its destination. There was a small beach on the cove and a cluster of houses close to the water. The area available to the public was fairly small, but it included a jetty and the beach, and I wandered out to the edge of the water and felt a bit disoriented as to where the sky ended and the water started.
The bank opposite seemed to rise almost sheer from the water for several hundred feet before curving away into the highlands. A number of small, isolated villas and haciendas were visible clinging to the edge of the cliffs, and I found myself wondering how the hell people got up there. The sun was sinking towards the horizon, and the high mountains that surrounded the lake blocked it out on the western flank, casting long shadows across the lake surface. The Northern flank of the lake seemed to be the most rugged, and it was from there that the boom of guns thudded across the water. Whatever they were hunting, it was getting away—because the gunshots became more numerous and erratic as time went on. I could imagine them hunting the way I play golf.
I’d have loved to spend a full afternoon, perhaps even a day here, but as with yesterday, I found myself only halfway to my destination with a fading sun threatening to leave me navigating in the dark. Despite my best efforts, I arrived in Ourense in the dark, and slunk my way into the city centre. I’m told the city is a beautiful place, nestled in the valleys amongst rambling hills, though I never really got to see much of it. The city centre seemed much the same as other cities I’ve seen in Spain—chaotic, with lots of high-rise apartments and traffic.
Eventually, I got directions to the hotel. This time, I was staying in some four-star luxury, thanks to the offers on destinia. I’d turned my nose up at Eurostars as being too expensive when istockalypse came to Barcelona, but I guess when you have the difference of staying for a night rather than several days, the cost doesn’t seem quite so prohibitive. I parked the car and unpacked my things. It was good to have a big comfortable bed. By now it didn’t seem wrong to sit down for dinner at 11pm, and oddly, the cafeteria was still serving. As I settled into my room for the night, fireworks went off in the distance. Someone was celebrating something somewhere. I was drifting into la-la land.
When I woke this morning the city was hemmed in by fog, and I realised night driving isn’t the worst driving condition to navigate in after all. I had two primary destinations today, before making the push north to Santiago de Compostela and then, A Coruña. An old monastery, and Gargantas del Sil, a large canyon system, both in the hills nearby had top billing before I left the area. Looking at the map, it would probably have been a challenge getting there on a clear day, but I decided to at least give it a go.
After a few false starts, I found myself driving down a winding back road that had barely room for two cars to pass each other. In the thick fog, 40km/hour was about the fastest you could go and still feel safe, which was just as well, because with the hilly terrain, the shitroen wasn’t going any faster anyway. I was beginning to think the fog would never clear and I may as well turn around and head on to the next destination when it got suddenly brighter, and within a hundred metres, I was out of the fog. Driving across the ridge of one of the higher peaks, I was now looking out across the top of the fog, with only the peaks of hills protruding from the cloud. At this altitude the sky was clear and blue, and I guessed that if the weather here behaved the same as back home, then the fog would clear eventually to reveal a brilliant day. The monastery and canyons were back on.
Once I’d crossed the ridge, the road headed down again—back into the fog, and back to feeling disoriented. The further in I went, the lesser the road became, first the edges became a bit shabby, then one of the lanes disappeared. On the side of the road was a little hut that said “tourist information”. Talk about prophetic moments. I bullied the shitroen to a stop, and walked inside. A young woman sat inside, rugged up against the damp and cold, and she was happy to have someone arrive and break the boredom in what had to that point, been quite a dull day.
I was at the intersection that would lead me to the monastery, she told me, and that if I continued straight on, then that would take me to Gargantas del Sil, but in this weather, my chances of seeing much at all were pretty remote. The monastery at least, was worth a shot, as it was something you engage with at close range. Back in the car, I turned towards the road to the monastery, stalled, swore, and started the car again. In little time at all I found myself on a track that felt like someone’s driveway, snaking through the middle of a tiny village of no more than a couple of dozen homes.
I’d barely got to the other side of the village when the road turned abruptly left and ended in a cemetery and car park. There in front of me loomed the monastery and church, grey and dreary in the mist. From photos I saw at the tourist information booth, I knew there was a fantastic view of the river valley on the other side, provided it was clear, though for me, my view was going to be restricted to the walls and the nearest roofline.
A large portion of the monastery has now been refurbished into a four-star hotel. It seems that despite the usage changing, it’s always been a building that houses privilege in some form. The oldest part (refurbished but not in use) dates from the tenth century, and it’s not difficult to pick it. The structure is simpler, more humble, though it’s not without substantial decoration of gargoyles carved from stone. In the central courtyard, the fog was visible flooding over the rooftop into the yard, and it all became just a little bit spooky.
I envisaged what it would be like being a monk here during the early years of the place, and how even in the modern age it seemed to be isolated. In the middle ages, I expect you’d have no choice but to be pensive, as there’d be bugger all else available for you to do.
After lurking about the public area of the monastery and the church for a short while, I decided to make a start towards Santiago. Shortly after the car had broken free from the fog again, I had to stop. It seemed the fog was lifting, and I knew I couldn’t keep going without at least trying to locate the canyons. So I turned the car around, stalled, swore, stalled again, ground the gears a little, swore, cheered that the Germans had overrun the French twice in one century (probably because the French vehicles gave up the ghost so quickly), and finally rolled the car down the hill, back into the clouds.
Not far beyond the tourist booth and monastery turn off, the road deteriorated quickly. The fog pressed so close to the road that only a few trees were visible before everything disappeared into nothing. Waterfalls cascaded down from the hillsides to the right, swept under the road and leapt out into the endless fog on the left. It felt like I was driving on the edge of the world, and that if I missed a turn I would plunge into a bottomless abyss. In little gullies, the decaying ruins of stone houses and sheds squatted beneath thick stands of trees, where the forest had overrun abandoned farms over time, swallowing up all signs of habitation.
I found myself on a road that seesawed and zigzagged as it drew me ever deeper into the mountain range, and the options for turning around and retracing my steps became fewer. As I reached another 180-degree turn, I found the fog cleared just enough to show I’d entered the canyons, and gave me enough of a hint of the canyon below me to rekindle my interest. Spreading out beneath me was a large, long lake, with steep walls of uninterrupted forest and a mirror surface. I’d seen promotions for catamaran tours of the canyon at the tourist information booth, and in seeing a catamaran docked assumed it must be waiting for some passengers.
I tried my best to keep to the 40km/h speed limit for the descent, but my eagerness to get to the water’s edge was too great. In truth, the only thing that slowed my descent were a couple of photo opportunities on the way down—one of a small farm, including a tiny shack, which seemed to be holding on to the valley wall for dear life; the other was shooting back up the valley along the length of the lake. Being the off-season, the catamaran only did two tours per day, and I was smack in the middle of them. I fired off another bunch of photos from the water’s edge, and decided that with a long drive ahead of me I had yet to start, I couldn’t afford the wait, and so had to press on.
Further along the lake, I realised it was actually a large dam. I passed some decrepit buildings, and then the road wavered a little and snaked through the foundations of a large structure. I couldn’t resist the urge to stop. Whilst the wall, and the hydroelectric plant had been completed here, it seemed that the last phase of the project was never fully realised. The reinforced concrete frames stood stark and skeletal amongst the green of the surrounding forest, and a huge funicular (abandoned and decaying) ran from the dam wall on the valley floor, to high up the valley wall above the road. Much of this part of the structure was being reclaimed by the forest, with thick tufts of vegetation growing up out of the buildings, and moss on the rails. In places, the concrete steps had decayed to such an extent they crumbled to the touch like wet chalk.
Given the age of the structure it was undoubtedly from an era of modernisation heralded by Franco and his cronies, but never finished. Now, it has been left to decay in a hidden valley.
From the dam, I continued to follow the road as it ambled along the valley wall. On the opposite side of the valley, I noticed a train line, and I vowed I’d be coming back this way once I’d settled into a job, and I’d be taking a ride along there. Before long, I was back in Ourense, and rather than risk getting tied down for several hours finding a park, somewhere to have lunch, and then getting back out again, I decided to go on to Santiago de Compostela.
This is the terminus for the famous Camino de Santiago, and I can understand why it’s so popular. The country through here is lush, rolling terrain, dotted with the quaint medieval villages one imagines have been here for centuries. Unfortunately, my adventures during the morning meant I didn’t arrive until it was bordering evening, and I only had time to get some end-of-magic-hour shots of the exterior. By the time I actually made it inside the cathedral itself, there was no daylight left at all.
As this part of the world is sinking into winter, I got a clearer picture of why the exterior of the cathedral (and indeed the interior) seemed so mildewy. It’s a wet part of the world, and given the lack of daylight in winter, it’s not surprising then, that huge mossy growths have broken out on the stonework. Despite the elaborate decoration, the exterior of the cathedral was somewhat dreary and depressing, and the dark interior did little to appease that.
Numerous elaborate paintings on the ceilings (I don’t think there was a single bit of ceiling that didn’t have paint on it), and lavish gold decorations in the central nave and the chapels on the outer perimeter (and, well, pretty much everywhere you looked). It made me realise how long people have been suffering, and donating, in this place. Said to be the final resting place of Saint James, there is a small chapel and sarcophagus (I’m assuming this is supposed to be the official grave site) beneath the altar, which has a regular flow of people moving through it.
Off the perimeter of the main cathedral, are several large chapels, all of them humbling, and lining the nave are numerous confessionals. These are not the private booths I’d grown used to back home, but rather, the priest sits facing out into the congregation, with a place for confessors to kneel in front. When a priest is taking confessions, a bright fluorescent light shines down on him from the top of the box and on seeing these; I couldn’t help but think of the late-night burger vendors that I’ve seen in a variety of places.
In what must have at one point been an attached monastery, there is a museum (as well as another, smaller one below the entrance to the cathedral), which includes an impressive library of books several centuries old (but with no photos permitted, I couldn’t get any pics of these), and a number of other displays, including a collection of coins from pilgrims around the world. The veranda of the cloister doubles as a graveyard for the wealthy, wicked and a handful of the humble. Over the centuries since the cathedral was established, the tombstones have progressively been worn away. Some of the stones had burial dates from the middle ages, and others were probably even older, though it was impossible to tell—all readable information had been worn away from centuries of people treading the stonework.
On leaving the cathedral, I did a lap of the exterior, popped off some night exposures of the cathedral and surrounding buildings, and emptied my change into the hat of a busker. As I’ve since found out, the buskers had changed their shifts whilst I was in the cathedral (I ended up giving my money to someone playing Andean music—still a good investment in my view), and the Galician busker who’d played throughout most of my visit had left not long before I emerged. Galician folk instruments retain an identifiable bond with their Celtic origins, but the bagpipes especially were haunting. With a softer, mellower tone than those of the British Isles, the sounds echoed through the stone chambers of the cathedral throughout my visit.
From Santiago, I started heading to A Coruña. On arriving, I got to the hotel as quickly as I could, and once again found myself eating an overpriced meal in the hotel restaurant (at least it was half decent). The hotel stands right on the beachfront, and provided you get the right room (I kinda did), you have an uninterrupted view of the Atlantic, and the Torre de Hercules.
Tomorrow, that lighthouse is first on the agenda.