Pilgrims and Pulpo

Trip Start Jan 15, 2010
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Trip End Nov 09, 2010


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Flag of Spain  , Galicia,
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

We had an easy train ride from Porto to Santiago and then dumped our bags and headed to the main attraction --the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. As we approached the old town where the famous Cathedral sits, we started to see a number of hunched over, unshaven, haggard looking backpackers with walking sticks and giant scallop shells (the size of a bread plate) either hanging around their necks , attached to their backpacks or dangling from their walking sticks. We had no idea that these people had just probably walked something like 500 miles from France to Santiago de Compostela on “El Camino de Santiago”. At first, we thought we had just come across a group of crazy old dudes who had clearly stretched themselves beyond their limits in some attempt to either check something off their bucket list, or speed up the process of kicking it. But then we entered the cathedral square and there were a fair number of others- this time we saw a mix of people, young and old, male and female, with the shells around their necks. We wandered into one of the many gift shops and, upon seeing tons of trinkets with haggard looking, barefoot characters with walking sticks and key chains galore with shells on them, asked a bunch of questions. There are always pilgrims that do the trek to Santiago, but this year there are hordes of them because it is a “Holy Year”. Not being a Catholic, I didn’t know about these things, but apparently every day has a Saint associated with it. Every person gets 2 days to celebrate each year - their birthday, and their Saint day. So, Santiago, or Saint James, has his namesake day on July 25. During the years in which July 25th falls on a Sunday, that is a Holy Year, and the pilgrims come out in droves. While there are many different roads to take to get to Santiago, the pilgrimage roads are well marked (later, in a town near La Coruna, we would see a yellow shell on the sidewalk that indicated the path), and apparently, there are hostels all along the way where pilgrims can stay for free. You can walk some or all of the “Camino”, but the most popular begins in France, goes along the northern third of Spain, all the way to Santiago de Compostela. I’ve added it to my bucket list to do with my mom for sure!

The cathedral is the main attraction for most visitors, but I would go there just for the seafood and old town even if there were no famous cathedral! Wandering through the old town, I couldn’t help but imagine life in medieval times. All the buildings made of stone, and the narrow, cobbled stone streets--when I closed my eyes I could visualize the shopkeepers with their best goods on display in the window beckoning passersby to come in and buy their wares. The food shops are probably not so different today-cured pigs legs hanging from the ceilings, and fresh, often still kicking seafood sitting in the windows. It is probably mostly the artisans who are gone and replaced with tchotchkey shops of crap made in China. Not that shopping is a focal point of this trip, but generally when I go to a place I like to buy things that can only be bought there--handcrafted items that lend some clue to days past. Obviously that is harder and harder these days, and every town we’ve been in has shops with wooden carvings and jewelry from Africa, colorful fabrics from South America and perhaps some local artists work, but borrowed styles from the “international” world. It seems that this erodes the cultural identity of a place to some extent, and it makes me a little sad. I imagine this could be a reason that, at least in Spain, in several of the regions they have maintained their local dialects in addition to Spanish (Gallego in Galicia, Catalan in Barcelona). For example, the street signs were in Gallego (local dialect of Galicia) and the maps were in Spanish, which made it a bit challenging at times to navigate our way around, but the town is so small it is hard to get lost!!

Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I hate touristy places (and most other tourists, too!). I know, we are, by definition, tourists on this journey, but if I can help it, I try to find places to eat that don’t have translated menus. The food is always better if the locals go there, and I’m sure they want to stay away from tourists, too! This has worked very well so far, because I speak Spanish, and also the best places to eat have the food sitting on ice waiting for you to pick what you want, or, in the case of tapas, you can see them, so even if I don’t know the word in Spanish, we can point to it! We found a wonderful place to eat (and the best wine so far in my opinion!). The tapas are typically lined up on the bar, so you ask for a plate and serve yourself. I suspect Americans would never go for this as the food is sitting out in the smoke filled bar…and I must confess in my obsession with hand sanitizer and food expiration dates, I paused for a moment…but everything is fresh and delicious and, I figured I lived through South America and whatever didn’t kill me there has made me stronger. So, you may wonder, if everyone is grabbing food off the bar, how do they know what to charge you? They have a very simple system. There are different sized toothpicks in each one, so you simply show the barman your toothpicks at the end of the night and he charges you accordingly. The tapas from the bar are usually slices of bread with different combinations of stuff on top. Cured, thinly sliced ham (proscuitto-like) with brie; crab or shrimp salad; a single mussel with a pico de gallo like salsa, etc. You can also order a “racion” of something on the menu. We chose “pulpo a feira” (which is in Gallego- in Spanish it is “pulpo al gallego“ or “pulpo the Galician way“) and is octopus which is boiled and seasoned with sea salt and olive oil and served with the most delicious bread that is unlike any other bread you have ever had! In fact, we ate pulpo every day while in the Galicia region of Spain, and I was reticent to leave the region and give up my daily dose!
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shamalama on

Keep going.....your writing is so visual!!!

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