Quick peek of the Cathedral (with scaffolding)

Monday, May 15th (continued)

… and by 1 we were on the road to Santiago de Compostela.

The drive was over three hours, but the roads were good and all in all it was a pleasant couple of hours.  Not so the entry into Santiago – a maze of pedestrian only streets, narrow and forbidding.  Telephone calls to the hotel didn’t improve the situation much; the person trying to help us had no idea where we were.  After three calls we made it, accompanied by another car we found along the way, the driver also lost and looking for the hotel, and a police escort!

Our hotel is called Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, one of the oldest hotels in the world.  It was established about 500 years ago to house pilgrims to the shrine to St. James at Compostella.  It has undergone some dramatic changes in those years, from hospital and orphanage to, finally, a luxury hotel.

The front of our hotel, Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos

Once arrived, decompressed, and rested, we went out to look around.  The hotel is located on one of the four sides of a huge square called Praza do Obradoiro. (Notice anything about that name?  Look a little like Portuguese? It is Galician, or Gallego,

Cathedral facade with scaffolding. Like the blue?

another of the languages of Spain!) The façade of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela is on an adjacent side.  Imagine our disappointment to find the façade covered with scaffolding. Then, try to imagine the disappointment of people who actually walked here to see it! (you can go to the website to see pictures of the places we couldn’t see.

The plaza is bordered on the other two sides by the Pazo de Raxoi (government) and the Colegio de San Xerome (university).  So, if the hotel represented the doctors and the bourgeoise, and the cathedral the clerics, you can see that the square symbolically represents all of the “powers.”  It is immense.  It is a fitting and magnificent ending to a long pilgrimage.

During our museum tour, we got to go out and take aerial photos of the Praza do Obradoiro.

Thanks to a recommendation from the hotel staff (much friendlier in person than over the phone) we found and reserved a place for dinner in a restaurant called Don Quixote. (We are trying to eat dinner earlier and get to bed earlier, without having to sleep on a full stomach…to no avail.)

Picture of what the cathedral facade looks like.

We then walked back up to the cathedral and popped inside, wanting to see what we could before dinner.  Another disappointment awaited inside – the Portal de la Gloria is also off bounds due to restoration work. And as if it weren’t enough, the area above the baldacchino is also covered with scaffolding!  We cannot win for losing!

The putti I did not like. They don’t look so bad in the picture…

Though the cathedral is immense, it left me feeling pretty cold.  The decoration of the high altar is ugly in the extreme.  A Rococo-ish vibe means there are enormous exotic looking putti holding up the clouds, their painted skin reminding one of Cupie dolls and their facial expressions vacuous in the extreme.  The garishness – the over the top use of gold – looks so tacky!

The bones of the cathedral are good. The building was begun in the Romanesque period, and finished in the Gothic, so underneath all the subsequent “decoration” a strong and elegant building remains.

One of the doors to the cathedral…makes you wonder what our reaction might have been to the Porta de la Gloria…

At every entrance and exit from the church there are beggars, as there are in the streets around the massive structure.  I hope they find the generous among the throngs of pilgrims.

And throngs of pilgrims there are, though I am sure that come July and August, what we are seeing now in May will be deemed but a trickle.  We have been seeing pilgrims since our very first day in Burgos. The route we are following in chunky, little Snowball crosses and stops in many of the same places as do the different pilgrimage routes from France and Italy that converge and diverge as they cross northern Spain.  In a almost unbelievable coincidence, we met pilgrims we know from Puerto Rico in the breakfast room of the hotel!

The tuna in Santiago de Compostela

Back to the events at hand, we had a nice quiet, and delicious dinner at Don Quijote with a wonderful waiter who kept us smiling with his little jokes and tricks.  All great fun for the three of us!

Santiago de Compostela street at dusk. We would see the white houses with natural stone trim all over Spain and Portugal.

After dinner, we were back in Praza do Obradoiro. It wasn’t dark yet, but the sounds of a tuna, a student band, were coming from the portico under the Pazo de Raxoi and we were drawn to the merriment.  They played well and the crowd enjoyed it.

With a sudden look backward, I realized the “blue hour” was upon us, so Gerry and I left the singing and swaying, and went out into the plaza to photograph the evening.

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May 16th, Tuesday

Tuesday morning we had breakfast in the hotel, a big buffet, with everything the international patrons of the hotel might want.  One look out into the plaza though, convinced us that trying to see the cathedral in those crowds was probably not a great idea.  However, as luck would have it, there is a self-guided tour of our hotel (former hospital, etc.) We picked up the guide and walked  through the maze of four courtyards to see the transformation of the building over the centuries as well as glean important information about the city.

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Near noon, we finally ventured outside to try to find a restaurant for lunch. Walking the streets, we found the market, and near the market were two restaurants that were highly rated, one a Michelin Bib Gourmand, called A Tafona.  We had lunch there. The tasting menu was awesome (see the slideshow of pictures).  Yes, the portions were small, and yes, the food was fussy (lots of ingredients put together in odd ways) but the result was simply divine!  Good food, a decent bottle of wine, a little hot sun – you know us by now…it was time for a nap!

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After our nap, and still full from lunch, we wanted to take a slower look at the cathedral without all the crowds.  We decided to take a guided tour via the cathedral museum because it included the cloisters, something I wanted to see but which are not accessible except through the tour.  We would also get to see some reconstructions of the earliest parts of the building, the treasury, the tapestry collection and (our bonus!) the incense burner swinging ritual.

The museum was quite interesting.  On the guided tour you don’t really have time to look at everything at your leisure.  You have to take the guide’s sense of what is interesting and important, and hopefully that coincides with yours.  Had our tour been at a different time of day, ie. earlier, we may have had time to explore the museum on our own.  But, ours was the last tour of the day, and coincided with the incense burner.

Gerry knew what this was, but I did not.  As a result, I cannot tell you how to plan to to see it – I don’t know if it is part of every mass, or just some of the masses.  If you detect a attitude of “lucky us” and think it is misplaced, at least you know why! Don’t be like me – find out in advance.

The swinging incense burner

A big “thing” is made of no tourist visits allowed during mass, so though the museum tour exits into the cathedral, supposedly tourists could not be admitted during the mass.  We had to stand inconspicuously in the doorway of the museum exit and when the faithful rose and went to the altar rail for communion we could sneak into position.  The incense burner swing, the botafumeiro, happened at the end of the mass…Our guide was listening to the “swingers” on her walkie-talkie so she could time us perfectly.

So, imagine my surprise, when the minute the incense burner swing ritual started, every person in the church (all those pious individuals there for the mass) whipped out their cameras and cellphones and started filming it!

Tourists to the end!

I was impressed by the botafumeiro though. It swings so high it takes your breath away and the smoke does create a mystical atmosphere.  There is grandiose Baroque organ music to accompany the swinging…Yes, it is something to see, even if you have to sit through mass to see it.

From here we went back to hotel to drop off our stuff (map, cameras, guidebook) then walked back over to the public market, now closed, to Abastos 2.0 for a tapas dinner – all fresh fish and shellfish, not one single veggie!

Gerry enjoying a beer at Abastos 2.0

May 17, Wednesday

Gerry was a little anxious this morning about getting out of Santiago de Compostela in the car – no doubt remembering the odyssey of two days earlier trying to get in.  As soon as we were packed and checked out, we engaged Snowball for the next stage of the trip.  The weather was awful.  It was the first nasty day we have had on the trip, totally overcast and gray, with rain as well.  Our plan had been to drive into and see the Rias Baixas.

I was pretty excited about this because of all the bottles of Rias Baixas wines we manage to consume at home in PR.  Earlier I explained what a ria is (like a fiord), so what is Rias BaixasRias Baxias is a DOC, yes, the name coming from the geological topography of the region of southwestern Gallicia.  Here, there are several large and scenic rias, located in the lower part of the province, hence baixas (or bajas).  There are also Rias Altas, located on the north coast.

However, the weather wasn’t conducive to scenic ria-side driving.  As an alternative, we decided that maybe going up high into the mountains, the weather would clear and we would get a great view of the whole area.  That was not to be.   From Santiago de Compostella we took the superhighway down to Padrón, and then got off and headed toward Ribeira, on the north side of the Ria de Arousa.  Leaving the main road, we drove up and up, looking for the Mirador de La Curota.

We could barely see a thing on the drive up to the Mirador de la Curota.

We made the drive, holding out hope, but the fog was thick and the wind vicious.  We could barely see 10 feet in front of us, much less the famed (Michelin 3 Star) panorama.

The actual view (or lack thereof!) from the Mirador de la Curota

But the trip was not a complete loss.  Up at the top there is a restaurant and bar, Bar A Curota (tel. 690 375 426).  It was empty when we came in…who else was fool enough to come all that way for cold, nasty weather?  Inside the welcome was warm and cheerful!  We met the proprietor, Marcos, and spent some time learning about his little slice of the world.  I hope that if you visit this region, you will go out of your way to drive up to the top and meet Marcos and sample his food and drinks.  If you’re hiking, you can leave your car in his parking lot, and if you’re there out of season, a simple phone call is all you need for him to cater your visit anyway!

Marcos has a Facebook page, and everyday he posts a picture of his view. I couldn’t find it, but I did find this one…This shows you what we missed!

Despite this friendly end to a wild goose chase, we gave up on the weather and drove straight to Vigo, our final stop in Spain.

Vigo is on the south side of the Ria de Vigo, said to be the most beautiful of the four rias bajas (Please forgive me if I switch back and forth between the Galician spelling and the Spanish spelling.)

Our hotel in Vigo was the Gran Hotel Nagari.

Our room was ready, so we dropped off the car and the luggage went to have lunch.  We found a fish place “just around the corner” from our hotel, facing the water.  Food was hearty and good, waiter was friendly.  Much more I cannot remember!  How my memories all seem to flow into one another … I am guessing here but I think it is safe to say we took a nap after lunch!

Vigo port

Vigo port

I do know (and have the pictures to prove it) that the weather improved greatly  by late afternoon when we were again mobile. The sun was shining and we made a big circuit around Vigo taking in the waterfront, the view of the port, the old city and the new city.

We had dinner in the hotel restaurant – a mixed bag of experiences.  After the staff ignoring us for a good 30 minutes (not even water!), we stood up to leave and lo and behold if they don’t rush over to see what the matter was! Never an apology, just an “oh, you are mistaken” said in a kindly voice when we explained that were  leaving (translate= pissed off) because we hadn’t been paid attention to.  We did finally get water, bread, wine and food.  Their apology came in the form of an after-dinner drink on the house.  It wasn’t all bad.  One thing that did stand out was that rather than an olive oil tasting,  we had a salt tasting.   The bread and olive oil were served with two different sea salts – both very exotic in color and provenance – but still tasting just like salt!

May 18th, Thursday

This was the day we were scheduled to fly to Lisbon, so we spent the morning packing and getting ready.  Rather than twiddle our thumbs for two hours, we decided to get Snowball and drive around.  Vigo is not much of a tourist town from what we could see going on around us, but it was still disconcerting to ask the people in the hotel and the gas station for directions to a place only to have them tell you they have never heard of it. That was the case with looking for the Mirador la Madroa. Instead, they told us to go see a mirador called  La Guia, but they couldn’t give us directions to that either.  After following Google’s directions, and finding ourselves in some strange neighborhood, I asked a mail carrier who gave us correct directions!

This is the Ermita de la Guia.



The temptation not to follow them was strong with my Google Map addicted spouse, but I prevailed upon him just to follow the brown signs to the ermita and voilá we got to see the view, as well as the park with its little chapel. (Ermita de la Guia)

The chapel is visible from most places from where you can see a panorama of Vigo and the sea.  It is located at the top of a low mountain, the spire of the chapel clearly visible above the trees.


The view from the Ermita in Vigo

Emboldened by the success of finding this mirador, we decided to go look for La Madroa. And it turns out that (can you believe it?) it is located in the Madroa Forest Park.  From here, we were way up over the city and had views of Vigo and the sea, even the little hermitage site we had visited not 20 minutes earlier. If you wish to go and find it, follow the signs for the zoo. It is close to the airport and right at the entrance to the zoo.

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Our flight from Vigo was basically uneventful except for the landing in Lisbon, when the windy conditions on the ground had us tossing around in the air and shaking even when on the ground.  As per the plan, we were met by a representative of Uniworld and conveyed to our hotel, The Intercontinental Lisboa, by a private driver.

From here, it is all Portugal.  I hope you’ll keep reading!

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