Monday, September 26, 2011

Over Hills and Mountains to Santiago de Compostela

Christendom had three primary pilgrimage sites in the middle ages; Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Hiking the numerous trails to the latter has become a challenging and inspirational journey for the modern pilgrim. You can call me lazy, but this modern girl made the trek by auto through Asturias and Galicia Spain.
After exiting from the main highway, I was following the directions carefully. They clearly read to turn right at the pig. A Pig! Although I should not have been surprised, I most certainly was when a very handsome pig presented itself before my eyes. He was perched upon a pedestal at a fork in the road and he became my landmark for arriving and departing from Caldevilla. This is a small village in Asturias where you will find the home of Luis and Maria Louisa, who were the gracious hosts for my introduction to this part of northern Spain. Asturias is also known as the Costa Verde, or green coast, due to the abundance of mountain valleys and lush woodlands. The region is speckled with towns and villages well known for their distinctive red tiled roofs. Asturias has a rich history, but the locals are most proud of the fact that this was the only region to hold out against the invading Moors in 718.
Caldevilla is a typical Asturian village composed of about 35 families living in homes and on streets without any names.
Throughout the village and the entire region can be found horrios. These are small structures supported by four columns that were designed to hold grain. On close inspection, the columns are tapered upward upon which sits a large circular stone disk. This clever design prevented rodents from entering the grain and these charming little buildings are found throughout Asturias.
Following the long drive to reach Caldevilla, it seemed natural to stretch my legs and take a walking tour of the village. It did not take long to meet most of the residents and within 24 hours I felt like part of the community. This familiarity translated into invitations and participation in the local festival called Dia de Asturias held every year on the 8th of September. Part of this festival in Caldevilla includes a procession of their statute of the Virgin Mary dating from the 14th century (exhibited only on this one day each year). The festival includes traditional bagpipers performing, people sporting period costumes, a tree of circular bread (called roma) that is later auctioned off to the highest bidder and go-cart races down the narrow winding streets. The participants in this racing event range from small children to those of advanced ages. The festival concludes with music and dancing till dawn.
Caldevilla is not only welcoming but it is also a wonderful base to explore the neighboring towns.
First on my list was Ribadesella known for its neolithic cave paintings. At the edge of the town is Cueva de Tito Bustillo, where there are a series of interconnecting caves with paintings dating from 25,000 to 12,000 BCA. The guided tour is in Spanish, but there is ample information to be found on the internet in English to review prior to your visit in order to optimize your experience. (That is if you do not speak Spanish. Also, please note that reservations are mandatory and best made at least two months in advance. If you can schedule your visit on a Wednesday it is free.)
The local beverage is cider. Their variety is very light, on the dry side and reminded me somewhat of beer but was much better. In Ribadesella I had no problem finding a server who poured the cider into our glasses. He did this by holding the jug high above his head in one hand while pouring the cider into a glass in the opposite hand held as low as possible. The servers tend to be good performers and usually pretend that they are not watching as they accomplish this entertaining feat!
In addition to cider and caves, Ribadesella is one of the more beautiful towns nestled on the River Sella. You can find excellent chocolate shops, restaurants, local goods and lovely winding streets.
After Ribadesella, I spent the day exploring Gijon located on the coast. It is one of Spain's largest ports and there is documentation of occupation from the 12th century. The Campo Valdes Baño Romanos (Roman Baths) dating from the 1st century were discovered in 1903 but only partially excavated. Further excavation continued between 1990 and 1994 and are now open to the public. The archaeologic remains of these baths are housed in a museum to the right of the Plaza Mayor.
If you are lucky you may find a bagpiper band in traditional costume performing in the Plaza Mayor or elsewhere in the town. Gijon is another favorite and well worth spending at least a day of exploration. Of particular interest is the Parque del Cerro de Santa Catalina which features the sculpture of Elogio del Horizont, which is the symbol of the city. In Gijon, as in most Spanish cities, there are numerous beautiful balconies and outstanding architectural details.
Not far from Gijon is the monastery of San Salvador de Valdedios. This is an active monastery that includes an auberge for those making the trek to Santiago de Compostela by foot. Pilgrims are welcome to spend the night leaving a donation that they can afford. The monks are gracious, welcoming and helpful. The church is magnificent with its beautifully maintained gold alter. Try to be there for vespers so as to hear the monk’s chanting; a truly moving experience regardless of one's faith.
The next day’s explorations were pre Romanesque; San Miguel de Lillo and Santa Maria del Naranco. These two sanctuaries are located in the vicinity of the capital, Oviedo, on the slopes of Mont Naranco and are traced back to the reign of Ramiré. San Miguel de Lillo was always a church, while Santa Maria del Naranco was first a royal residence that was converted into a church between 905 and 1065. Both are considered prized Asturian architecture from this period and are now UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
People are continuously arriving with hopes of viewing the interior of these buildings. However, it is not surprising that only a specified number of people are allowed to enter at a time and then only with a guide. The tours are not well structured and it was only by chance that I was able to connect with a guide to see the interior. My guide was a colorful, flamboyant Spaniard complete with a jaunty scarf of multiple colors wrapped artfully around his neck. Shortly after he began his talk in the second chapel, he looked at his watch and promptly announced that it was time for his lunch and ended the tour. He ushered us out quickly and locked up. So much for the groups of tourists patiently waiting.
Oviedo is a large city and at first it was a bit overwhelming. However, Oviedo has a wealth of historical buildings and is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in northern Spain. It is the country’s oldest Christian city that was founded in the 8th century. The star sites are the Catedral de San Salvador, Iglesia de San Tirso and Museo de Bellas Artes.
Alas, it was time to leave the inviting accommodations of Luis and Maria Louisa and drive to the small town of Salas. Luis and Maria Louisa have a charming cottage for rent next to their 17th century restored home; see notes for more information.
Salas is indeed small, but it has an inviting and pristine hotel within a castle directly in the center of town. The hotel includes a fine restaurant. It also has clean well appointed rooms at a reasonable price. Salas is unfortunately known for being the birthplace of one of the main instigators of the Inquisition, Marquis de Valdes-Salas. (He is also the founder of the university in Oviedo, which is considered Spain’s finest University.) Despite this historical background it proved to be a pleasant village to pass several days exploring the coastal towns as Cudillero, Aviles and Luarca. The coast is rugged, wind swept and beautiful. Best of all, it is not overrun with tourists. The seaside restaurants feature freshly caught fish. (The hotel was Castillo de Valdes Salas Hotel and Restaurant, Plaza De La Campa S/N 33860 Salas.)
Throughout this northern part of Spain, chocolate is well loved. Excellent quality chocolate is a common find and the Spanish adore real hot chocolate served with plates of churros or deep fried batter sticks. In addition to chocolate, the Spanish love coffee and good coffee is found in all bars, cafes and restaurants.
One of the most popular dishes in Asturias is fabada, which is a tasty and satisfying dish made from Asturian beans with local sausages and ham or bacon. The best known cheeses in this region are cabrales and taramundi. Queso manchego is my personal favorite made from sheep’s milk. Another specialty is honey with the unique flavors from the nectar of heather and chestnuts. I should, of course, mention the wine! In Asturias the wine can be a bit acidic and table wine is often served with soda that is mixed with the wine. Don’t put your noses up since this proved to be very refreshing. I looked forward to a glass to quench my thirst in the heat of the afternoons. In Galicia I sampled many fine red wines but the white wines were truly outstanding!
After Salas, I spent several nights in the quaint mountain village of Pola de Allande. If you want to get away from it all this is it! The town is nestled in a valley surrounded by high mountains and it is a major stop for the mountain route of pilgrims on their pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Despite the smallness of the town, the hotel was excellent and very fairly priced. It was full of antiques and classic old world touches. An added plus was that it had the best restaurant in the area. (Nueva Allandesa, C/Donato Fernández, 3, 33880 Pola de Allande, telephone 985 807 027) From Pola you can explored the mountains and hidden towns sprinkled throughout the region. You are still close enough to the coast to spend a day but be wary of the fog that makes traveling in the mountains treacherous. From Pola I spent a lovely day on the coast in Navia. Unfortunately, the trip there and back to Pola was very difficult and dangerous due to the dense fog.
West of Asturias is Galicia in the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula. The original inhabitants are thought to be of Celtic origin. This region of Spain is where you find my final destination city, Santiago de Compostela. The landscape varies here from dense pine forests to rugged stretches of coastline. Seafood is fresh and delicious and you can feast on calamari, sardines, prawns and bacalao.
From Pola, Lugo was the next destination and proved to be another of my favorite cities. The ancient Roman walls of Lugo are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and they are exceptional.
Lugo is the largest of Galicia's provincial capitals with the name also being Celtic in derivation. The city was walled in by the Romans and is the only city with an intact wall from this period that dates back to more than two thousand years. The top of the wall is broad and it meanders more than two kilometers in length. The wall is perfect for an early morning jog, stroll or power walk. As a bonus, the wall is lit at night and offers romantic views. Lugo is very easy to explore by foot. There are many good quality shoe stores and clothing stores. You will also enjoy the local tapas bars and many fine restaurants.
Speaking of tapas, this is the usual evening dinner in Spain. Restaurants are only open in the afternoon in Asturias and Galicia and they offer an excellent menu ranging from 8 to 16 euros. This includes a first course, main course, wine or water, bread and pastry or coffee. Some restaurants actually offer wine and water! Be warned, many of these restaurants are closed in the evening and if they are open they only offer tapas. So, my advise is to eat that great lunch, take the siesta and then head out for wine and tapas in the evening. In fact, in much of Asturias the tapas are free if you order a glass of wine which is usually about 2 euros. What a bargain!
The tourist office for Lugo is located in Plaza de Campo. At the tourist office is a museum called Centromere de Interpretacion da Muralla offering an excellent history of the wall presented in English and Spanish. I highly recommend this as a starting point for exploring this amazing city. Of special note are the cathedral and numerous churches within the old city walls. Short excursions include Santa Eulalia de Boveda, Roman Thermal Baths and A Ponte Romana in Braga.
After the delightful stay in Lugo, I was apprehensive that Santiago de Compostela may prove to be a let down but this was not at all the case.
The city is primarily off limits to cars. The roads are narrow and winding, with well cared for picturesque buildings. There are imposing historical monuments and churches throughout the city. The grand cathedral of Santiago is as ‘kitschy’ as it gets and I mean this in a positive way. It is without doubt a towering beacon that has welcomed pilgrims for centuries and continues to be an imposing welcoming structure. Although the exterior has been remodeled a number of times, the core of the interior is original dating from the 11th to the 13th centuries. All and all, ‘pomp and circumstance’ is the most descriptive phrase for the magnificence and splendor within this cathedral. On the interior, I suggest checking out the wood angel carvings which were particularly fascinating for me. On the exterior, the twin Baroque towers soaring over the Praza do Obradoiro is a site to behold.
As you can imagine, there are pilgrims from many countries speaking many languages, a veritable Tower of Babel. Although there are many young men and woman making the trek, I was surprised to see a significant number of seniors laden with backpacks and walking sticks. There are the ubiquitous touristy shops. Aside from a few areas devoted to the tourists and backpackers, exploring the city is a lovely experience with excellent restaurants and shops featuring modern fashion and artisan specialties of Galicia as lace, cheese, wine and pottery.
A final note concerning intriguing Santiago is the historic city market called the Mercado Abastos at the east end of the city and within the medieval city walls. It is a must see. The market consists of ten hallways within long stone buildings as well as surrounding these buildings. The fish market is incredible. The largest European fishing fleet is located in Vigo which is only about 100 kilometers south of Santiago de Compostela. The result is an abundance and variety of seafood that I have never seen in one location. It is also an ideal place to buy spices, local cheeses or honey to take home.
So, I am finally at the end of my journey replete with many fine memories. A special thanks is extended to Nazira and Daniel Delvat for kindly including me on this adventure. It took Daniel four years to complete the entire arduous pilgrimage route and this was his final year. It was truly delightful to follow his path while accompanying his wife, Nazira, to meet him in Santiago de Compostela.
Luis and Maria Louisa offer a small cottage that can sleep up to 6 that is both child and pet friendly. The cottage has a small kitchen and consists of two floors. You can contact Luis at

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