Asturias and Santiago

Saturday 21st March 2009, Candas, Asturias
Okay, stop sniggering. Yes, we have returned to the campsite of Modestine's famed misdemeanour when she locked us out in the teeth of a winter's gale wearing little more than our night clothes. For some reason, surely not sadistic, it is the one event of our travels you all seemed to enjoy most! Read it again here. So far she has behaved impeccably this time but we have a spare key and are taking no chances! The most delightful thing was being remembered when we returned. They speak French here and chuckled with us at the memory of the weather and the way they'd helped us lever a way back inside Modestine!

Yesterday we drove the 100 kilometres to Oviedo. On the way a passing vehicle managed to fling up a sharp stone which has made a short crack and several chips on Modestine's windscreen. Fortunately they're low down and don't affect our vision. In the suburbs of the city we asked an unsuspecting lady in the street the way to the nearest Feve railway station so we could take the train into the centre. Bless her, she gave us a huge tirade of instructions which between us we fathomed out correctly. It turned out to be next door to IKEA. In the interest of international menu checking we decided to lunch there first. Here we found the only concession IKEA has made in any country we have tested to date. While the menu remains identical, the restaurant doesn't open until 1pm, to neatly coincide with when everywhere else shuts, allowing customers to lunch on meatballs all afternoon! Anxious to see Oviedo and the famed art gallery we decided not to wait.

At the cute little narrow-gauge railway station covered in graffiti, both political and crude, everything except the train driver was automated. He arrived several minutes late. Never mind, we would run to the art gallery from Oviedo central station and still have thirty minutes to drink in the Picassos, the El Grecos and the Salvador Dalis. Our guide book assured us it was open until 2.30pm.

Not even stopping to photograph manhole covers we hurried towards the spire of the cathedral. Nearby we eventually found the museum but it now closed 30 minutes earlier, leaving us just three minutes to see round! Goodbye culture! Sorry El Greco! Furthermore, the cathedral, all the other museums and all the churches also closed until 5pm! Spanish customs take getting used to. By the time we get ourselves on the road and reach anywhere it's usually gone midday and Spain closes down every afternoon. By evening, when things open up again, we need to be finding our next campsite, almost always some way outside any town.

Oviedo though is a very nice city indeed and there was more than enough to see exploring the old centre, browsing the main street of smart shops, using the library's internet and strolling through the beautiful park in the centre, flanked on all sides by attractive Art Nouveau buildings with decoratively tiled or rounded façades. The streets were wide and clean, decorated with modern statues that were frequently amusing. There were also several monuments dating from the Franco era in heavy fascist style that is so very similar to that of the Nazis.

Camara Santa beside the cathedral, Oviedo

Cathedral, Oviedo

Modern statues, Oviedo

Cheerful and very large Virgin and Child, Oviedo

City centre park, Oviedo

Pleasant Art Nouveau buildings, Oviedo

Town Hall or Ayuntiamento, Oviedo

In the courtyard of the rather austere building of the University Museum we accidentally gate-crashed a degree ceremony. Most people looked very smart and were wandering around with wine and tapas. Nobody seemed to notice us so we had the chance to see a real slice of Spanish life and to see inside the University building, the columns and walls of its courtyard pockmarked by shrapnel, evidence of the heavy involvement of Oviedo during the Spanish Civil War. Oviedo became the capital of Asturias for a while after Cangas de Onis, so there are several early churches as well as the beautiful flamboyant gothic Cathedral in warm honey-coloured stone.

Students at the university, Oviedo

Tapas in the courtyard, Oviedo

If there had been a campsite in the town we'd have stayed far longer. There was so much to see but time was pressing. So around 5pm we took the Feve train back to Modestine and IKEA where the lunchtime meatball bonanza was still in full swing. We decided to have an early supper to save cooking later. We can now add a little Swedish flag, stuck into every meal, to the growing pile pinned up in Modestine, each marked with the country in which we've eaten meatballs and jam!

Supper in IKEA, Oviedo

The nearest campsite we knew to be open was here at Candas, on the coast just west of Gijon which we visited on our last visit here. Having arrived and settled Modestine we walked down into this delightful town, well away from the tourist hotspots – it is not even mentioned in either of our guidebooks. There was just half an hour before closing time to browse the Museo d'Anton with its fascinating collection of superb bronzes created by a highly talented local man who died at a very young age during the Spanish Civil War. A couple of stunning examples of his work can be seen here.

The streets of the little town were busy with the evening paseo. A group of youngsters were singing religious spiritual music as they wandered the streets and all the bars and restaurants were fast filling with families and smoke. The EU wide smoking ban has no effect here. Far from being fined for allowing smoking on the premises, a simple notice on the door announces that it is a pub that allows smoking! As almost everywhere has such a notice it's difficult to find anywhere that the far side of the room is still visible. This doesn't worry the Asturians. They come out for an evening of drinks with their children, their parents and their grandparents. The bar we selected last night was fantastic. The room was crowded, smoky and noisy with a complete cross-section of the community. There were dozens of children playing together and wandering around the tables, there were elderly men in berets, youngsters in groups, and middle aged couples frequently taking mum and dad our for the evening. Everyone was drinking the local cider, sold in 70 cl bottles and served at the table by one or other of the half dozen frantic waiters. It is poured from a great height into a large glass so that it froths and fizzes. Only a small quantity is served each time the waiter passes by. If you finish before he comes round you wait for him to pour it for you. He is so skilled, it is an act of showmanship. He looks the other way, sometimes pouring it behind his back. He never misses the glass and the quantity poured is always exactly the same. Meanwhile, another waiter passes around with large platters of tapas for customers to help themselves. Last night it was roast potatoes in garlic mayonnaise and fish and tomato empanadas.

How to pour Asturian cider, Candas

By the time we returned to Modestine we were too weary to do more than go straight to sleep. This morning we are now off into town again as we've discovered there is free wifi in the library here until lunch time.

It's been another good day. We got so much work done in the library that by the time we were politely pushed out when it closed for the weekend at 2pm, it was too late to move on from the campsite. So we returned to Modestine for a late lunch in the sunshine overlooking the brisk waves crashing over the rocks in the bay beside us. We also managed to dry a pile of laundry so we are fit to be seen for another few days.

View of Candas from our campsite pitch

Later we returned to town to discover the bustling market we'd seen earlier had finished and apart from groups of elderly people sitting around chatting and laughing in sunny corners, the streets were deserted. In the tourist information centre the charming assistant gave us a complete list of all the campsites in Asturias, which will be really helpful. She apologised for her poor command of English but assured us it was considerably better than our Spanish! Such charming honesty! At her suggestion we followed a footpath up onto the cliffs to a headland with a lighthouse designed by Gustav Eiffel. He seems to have undertaken a number of engineering projects around Northern Spain and Portugal.

View from the lighthouse, Candas

The sky has been the exact colour of my Windows XP computer screen all day but the wind has been freezing, especially out of the sunshine. Soon we were numb with cold and turned back towards the town. Here we discovered the church of St. Felix. Apparently it has the largest number of pilgrims in Asturias after Covadonga. Originally it housed a miraculous crucifix bearing a figure of Christ, rescued from the Irish Sea by Spanish fishermen in the mid 15th century. It was destroyed during the Civil War but has been replaced by a replica. The original building itself was also destroyed during the Civil War but rebuilt in neo-romanesque style. Fortunately the original altar was saved, thanks in part to the efforts of the local bronze sculpture hero Anton, killed by the fascists in 1937.

Reredos and copy of the miraculous figure of Christ in the church of St. Felix, Candas

On our way back through the town we joined some of the local residents, who had emerged onto the streets again in their crowds, at one of the cafeterias where everyone was enjoying sticky cakes oozing with artificial cream. Ian chose the stickiest one in the shop to have with his coffee and announced in astonishment, bordering on disappointment, that it was nowhere near as horrible as he'd expected! I stuck with a café solo.
And so we have returned for a snug evening in Modestine, sheltered from the freezing wind but lulled by the pleasant sound of the waves breaking on the rocks while across the harbour Eiffel's lighthouse is flashing it warning out to sea in the darkness.

Tuesday 24th March 2009, Santiago de Compostella, Galicia
Over the past few days we have been making our way along the coast into Galicia which is as deserted and devoid of campsites as it was when we last passed this way in the depths of winter. Although we are only a month later in the year this time the weather is totally different and we had expected to find more campsites open along our way. Our books indicate several that should be open but none are, and on Sunday night we were reduced to sleeping in a side road just off the seafront near A Coruña.

On leaving Candas we explored the headland of La Peña, the most northerly point of Spain. It is a beautiful area of moorland and gorse right to the very edge of the steep clifftops with a few rocky islands off shore. The lighthouse is also home to an interpretation centre explaining the geology, bird and plant life and of course the marine ecology. Whaling used to take place along this coast and we discovered that giant squids are not just a myth, but actually are a favoured delicacy for whales - their indigestible beaks have been found in their stomachs. These squids are the largest invertebrates on earth and seem pretty capable of defending themselves against the whales.

Headland of La Peña, Galicia

Headland of La Peña, Galicia

Whale and giant squid locked in mortal combat, La Peña, Galicia

The day developed into a long and gruelling drive. It did however have a special significance for Modestine. During the afternoon she clocked up 100,000 miles! Almost 70,000 of these have been done with us, mainly along the roads of mainland Europe! Our carbon footprint may be larger than we'd like but we are consoled that it has been spread over six years.

Modestine reaches 100000 miles, somewhere in Galicia

Around late afternoon we began to get anxious as we'd seen not a single campsite anywhere. We were eventually told the nearest site was at Santiago over 100 kilometres away. Already it was dusk and anyway it was in the wrong direction. Unfortunately none of the villages even seemed to have hotels open and eventually we gave up looking, parked as inconspicuously as possible, sorted out an easy supper and spent the evening very pleasantly in a beachfront bar, using their loos before returning to Modestine for the night where we slept surprisingly well. Maybe we are just cowards, but we don't like sleeping by the roadside and in Spain it is not allowed anyway. Strangely though, it is in Spain we have most frequently been reduced to sleeping "wild" as their sites are so poorly organised and documented.

We woke early and moved on before our presence was noticed. In no time we were being swept along the main route into the city of A Coruña along with all the early morning commuters. A Coruña has a population of more than 250,000. It has one of the major sea ports of Spain and is built a headland with only one way in and one way out. It is not the place to take a camping car! We had no idea how far we were from the centre but pulled off and parked near the hospital. Luck was with us and we found a bus right into the old part of the city some six kilometres further on. For once we were so early most places hadn't yet opened. We found a pleasant café for breakfast before exploring this delightful granite citadel with its several mediaeval churches, its historic portside waterfront of tall houses with built-in glass fronted balconies and its massive main square flanked by the majestic town hall and numerous cafes.

General view of A Coruña

Town Hall, A Coruña

Glass fronted balconies, A Coruña

It was from A Coruña that the Spanish Armada sailed for England in 1588, and it was here that Francis Drake came to launch a surprise attack on the Spanish fleet in 1589. The attack was stalled by Maria Pita who seized the standard and raised the alarm. She is still honoured as a heroine of Spain and there is a statue of her in the centre of the square while below burns a permanent flame of remembrance.

Statue of Maria Pita with an eternal flame, A Coruña

We are slowly coming to terms with Spanish history but it all seems very complex. Spain, France and Britain have all been friends and foes with each other at different times. While Spain and Britain were deadly enemies during the 16th century, they were allies against the French during the Peninsula Wars of the 19th century. (All that watching of Sean Bean in "Sharpe's Men" is finally coming in useful!) At the top of the old city we discovered a memorial garden within an old bastion where the tomb of the English general Sir John Moore is placed. It is respected and revered by the Spanish. He died here at the battle of Elviña in 1809 fighting against the French. He and his men had retreated to A Coruña having suffered heavy losses in the battle. The plaque with words of the poem by Charles Wolfe, describing the burial of the general in dead of night is placed in the gardens. We also found a military museum in the citadel which further explained some of the complexities of Spanish military history, including the military junta led by Franco that culminated in the Spanish Civil War. His face gazed disdainfully down at us from a portrait in the museum.

Tomb of General Sir John Moore, A Coruña

Military museum, A Coruña

The neck of land separating the old city from the mainland is quite narrow. On one side is the port while on the other there are lovely sandy beaches, high-rise flats and holiday accommodation. Having investigated this area we returned to the modern part of the city to explore its wide avenida and many smart shopping streets. Here we discovered the house where, in his early teens, the artist Pablo Picasso set up a hand written magazine called La Coruna, and held his first art exhibition.

Port of A Coruña

Sandy beach in the heart of A Coruña

Pablo Picasso, A Coruña

One of the very lovely things about A Coruña is the use of granite. We have noticed before how the furthest western points of Europe are rather similar, isolated areas of moorland, cliffs and sea, where the buildings are constructed on and with granite. Whether it is Land's End in England, Finisterre in France or Fisterra in Spain, the local building material is the same. In A Coruña we found the dressing of the stones and the church carvings to be quite lovely. Because it is such a hard stone the gargoyles on the roofs and the figures around the doors and lintels or on the tombs and calvarias, are as clear as they were six or seven hundred years ago. Together the three areas form part of a Celtic arc across western Europe with similar customs, megaliths, legends, music and architectural styles.

Granite carving at the monastery of Santa Barbara, A Coruña

Painted granite statue of Santiago, A Coruña

Carved doorway to the church of Santiago, A Coruña

Side entrance to Santiago, A Coruña

Back of the church of Santiago, A Coruña

We left the town with reluctance around 5pm for the drive to Santiago, the nearest campsite we knew to be open. We had not intended visiting here again so soon but there was no choice really. The site was a lot warmer than on our last visit and there are far more people here, mainly from Germany, Holland and England. It's quite a pleasant site but rather expensive as we pay exactly the same as the huge, multi-axel motorhomes that cruise down the motorways and then use lots of campsite electricity to run their hot water, heating or air conditioning.

Just a picture, A Coruña

This morning we took the bus down into Santiago and have spent a very pleasant day exploring some of the places we missed on our last visit. The sun has been bright all day but there is an icy breeze. We don't need to write anything here as we described the Santiago experience last time. Please see our entry for Wednesday 22nd February 2005 in that blog. Below are a few additional photos.

College of St. Jerome, Santiago de Compostelle

Hotel of the Catholic Kings, now a Parador, Santiago de Compostelle

Side door to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelle

Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelle

Back view of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostelle

Reliquary of Santiago de Compostelle

Away from the immediate surroundings of the cathedral we found a pleasant and inexpensive place for lunch. It was delicious, starting with vegetable empanadas and continuing with turkey and roast potatoes. Ian finished with a Spanish version of cheesecake while I had coffee. Included was a bottle of red wine. Total bill 16 euros for two. Even with today's dreadful exchange rate that's still good value.