Tordesillas, Castile-León, Spain Friday, May 15, 2009
We set off from Caminha and crossed the River Minho into Spain at Valenca. Here we encountered yet another Spanish dialect, Gallego, which is similar to Portuguese. One thing we have learned about Spain is that Spanish
as we know it is only spoken in certain areas. We had come across Catalan and the Basque language, but have discovered that in Valencia and Galicia they have their own different forms of the language too, and probably in other regions we haven't been
to. A few years ago, road signs and public notices would have been in Castilian Spanish, but the regions are becoming keener to emphasise their unique characteristics, and most signs are now in the local dialect. If they're not, some partisan will
amend them with a can of spray paint!
Our destination, Santiago de Compostela, is the third most important place of Christian pilgrimage in the world, after Jerusalem and Rome. Legend has it that the apostle James (Sant Iago in Spanish) came to Galicia to spread the gospel. On his return to Judea he was killed by order of Herod Agrippa but his followers took his body back to Spain and buried it in a secret location. Early in the 9th century his grave was revealed to shepherds by a star (that sounds a bit familiar!) and soon a thriving cult had developed in the area, which became known as Santiago de Compostela ("field of stars".) In the Middle Ages pilgrims came from all over Europe, and churches, monasteries and hostels sprang up along the route they took. The pilgrims traditionally wore a cloak and felt hat and carried a staff with a gourd attached, for water. After they had seen the saint's tomb they went to the nearby coast and picked up a scallop shell ("coquille" in French, so sometimes also called a cockleshell) as proof they had been. Thousands of people still walk the Route of Saint James every year, kitted out in hiking boots and a backpack but still often carrying a staff. We even saw one man in who was doing it barefoot.
The wily old saint must have known we weren't true pilgrims because all sorts of things went wrong during our visit. There are three campsites in the town.
One of them is up a steep hill and we had been warned it was very difficult for caravans, especially large ones like ours, as not only was the approach difficult but the pitches were small. Another was said to have unreliable opening in low season. So
we headed for the third, which sounded good. When we reached it we were welcomed by a sign saying "Cerrado" - Closed. So we tried the unreliable one on the off chance, but that was also Cerrado. So there was nothing for it but to attempt
the tricky one (Camping As Cancelas.) Perhaps because we were expecting the worst, it turned out to be not too bad at all, and having arrived quite early in the day we were able to find a decent-sized pitch. We spent the rest of the day relaxing
and watching a constant stream of caravans and motor homes chugging their way up the hill and manoeuvring into tight spaces!
The saint was still exercising his displeasure the next day. First, the weather was unseasonably grey and cold. Second, when I went for a shower there was no hot water. We just missed a bus into town and had to walk (at least it was downhill all the way.) Because all the buildings are of granite, and the day was overcast, our first impression was of an impressive but grim town. Even the florid Baroque architecture had a sombre cast. The enormous square in front of the cathedral was crowded with tour groups. It was all a bit daunting so we went and had a coffee in a quaint little street nearby and, thus fortified, entered the cathedral. It was absolutely packed, as there is a Pilgrims' Mass every day, and it was in full swing. It was a glittering spectacle with a large choir and a vast group of clerics in front of the high altar, with a bishop presiding and another taking a back seat. It wasn't appropriate, or even possible, to examine the architecture, but we went down into the crypt and saw the ornate silver coffin containing the Apostle's bones. Then we joined a queue of people climbing the narrow steps behind the altar to touch the silver cloak of the statue of the saint. It's traditional to kiss it, but I settled for rubbing his cockleshell.
out of the cathedral we wandered the narrow, colonnaded streets which still have a very medieval feel. There are many other impressive and ornate churches, monasteries and palaces, all built in the local granite. We had a snack lunch in one of the many
hostels, and watched as a stream of backpacked pilgrims asked if there was a room vacant, only to be turned away. I hope they all found somewhere to rest their tired feet eventually.
We returned to the cathedral after mass was finished and looked round at our leisure. It's a mainly Romanesque structure with a Baroque façade added later, in front of the wonderful Door of Glory, a 12th century masterpiece by Maestro Mateo. Unfortunately this was covered in scaffolding for restoration! However we saw more of his work in the cathedral museum - the original choir which was destroyed to make way for the baroque taradiddle in the 18th century. We felt the whole cathedral would have been much more impressive and dignified if it had been left as it was in the 12th century.
Before catching the bus back to the campsite we bought a scallop shell on a string, plus a stick-on version that we can put on the caravan!
We planned to spend the next day quietly, making the most of the free wifi in the camp to plan our next couple of stops and book our ferry back to England. Our run of bad luck continued - first I spilled a mug of hot coffee all over myself and the caravan upholstery, necessitating an unscheduled bout of washing, then John had a nightmare trip to find a supermarket. So over to him now to continue the story:-
I usually pride myself on my sense of direction, but this time the saint must have intervened. There is a "commercial centre" about two miles from the campsite, clearly marked on the map. Off I set, turning left at the main road, down the hill, taking the right fork and doubling back on the side street where it should have been. Not a sign of it. I drove round several streets before realising that I had passed the one I thought I should have taken, so drove round in a large circle to attack it again. This time I took the turning and drove along a road that became narrower and narrower, with no sign of a shop never mind a commercial centre. Eventually the street came out onto a small square full of parked cars, with "no entry" signs all around. The only way out was the way I had come in, and there was no room to turn. So it was a 300-yard reversal back down the narrow street to find somewhere to turn. I eventually found my way onto the main road again and driving further down the hill I spotted what looked to be a commercial centre on a street on the other side of the road, but with no way to get across. A mile further down the hill was the motorway, so onto the motorway, off at the next junction, back along the motorway, back off it, up the hill, turn right and there is the centre with a huge underground car park. Having gone through the usual contortions to get the ticket by leaning through the passenger window, I found a place to park and ascended to the centre, a vast mall nearly as big as Meadowhall. I knew there was a supermarket there, but was it signposted? Could I understand the plans on view? I eventually found it on a sort of lower level mezzanine. The aisles were narrow, the customers were slow, and the selection was poor. When I came out I could not for the life of me remember the way I had come in. I ended up on the right floor but at the wrong end of the car park. When I eventually found the car and had unloaded I could not find a trolley rack and had to go back to the other end. I was not going to abandon it and lose my 50 cents! Then I had to pay for the car park and had no change. Visa will be overjoyed at my €1.60 charge! Then the contortions of putting the ticket in the machine at the passenger window again. I finally got home two hours later. Those of you who know how short my fuse can be at times can imagine the state I was in.
That afternoon we were sitting "gibbering" when a French car and caravan came into the pitch next to us. She was guiding him in speaking English, and when they had parked I looked over and he looked vaguely familiar. He looked at me and asked where we were from. I replied York, and he said "didn't you use to work for Yorkshire Bank?" It was Geoff Jordan and his wife Linda. Geoff had been manager at Banbury when I was manager of Kidderminster, and although we had never been in the same circle of friends our paths had crossed many times and we had attended various functions together. It is probably 20 years since we last met. Geoff had left the bank a year before me and he and Linda now own a guest house in the French Alps.
To add to
the list of coincidences it turned out that Linda had worked in Hull University Library just before Lesley did, and that their present UK base is a flat in Tunbridge Wells, which is where I was born and where I still have family. What a small world.
We had a very pleasant couple of hours reminiscing over a bottle of wine, which made up for the terrible start to the day.
We had decided to move on the next day, continuing the road North, but not before the Saint wreaked his revenge yet again. Something I had eaten disagreed with me and I was up twice in the night. Nevertheless we set off towards La Coruna, or A Coruna as it is correctly known in Gallego, then towards the Costa Verde. In my mind I was convinced we had to go past Ferrol, so I ignored Jane Tomtom and went my own way. Turns out she was right and we took an unnecessary trip right round the Rias Altas instead of cutting the corner off, adding 80 miles and two hours to the journey. Fortunately it was a very pretty run, as the road hugged the coast past deep inlets and sandy beaches.
We eventually arrived at Camping Los Cantiles at Luarca, on the Costa Verde. It's a lovely campsite, set on the cliff top by an attractive little port very reminiscent of a Cornish or Welsh fishing village. A river winds down a deep ravine to a harbour, with the village hugging the hills either side. There are a lot of very fine buildings and cafes but a distinct lack of supermarkets! Sadly our enjoyment of this pretty spot was ruined by the weather. It rained and it rained and it rained. The campsite was grass, so our feet got wetter and wetter. The awning was springing leaks. There was no enjoyment of the cliff top walks or the drive in the hills in the hinterland, and there was no city with churches or museums to provide a distraction. The forecast was unchanged for the next week, so after 3 nights we decided to change our plans and head back inland to where the weather was supposed to be better.
The trip south took us over the Cordilera Cantabrica, a range of mountains along the northern coast of Spain, rising to 1500m where we crossed it and to 1600m in the Picos de Europa at the eastern end. They were still snow-capped and very impressive. We also passed the city of Leon, once the seat of the Castilian kings. I understand they are now in the US recording songs. (Groan!) We are now back in the warm sun 200 miles inland, at a small town called Tordesillas in an area steeped with history. More of that in the next blog. However, we have discovered that contrary to popular belief, the rain in Spain falls mainly on the coast.