From Santiago de Compostela to the Channel
Trip Start Feb 10, 2008
45Trip End May 13, 2009
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Most people will have heard of Santiago de Compostela because it is the end-point of the famous "El Camino" (known in English as the Way of St James), the most popular pilgrimage route in Europe. Santiago de Compostela is considered the third most holy town within Roman Catholicism (after Jerusalem and Rome).
My first night I wander the streets, as is my wont, and go into what looks like a delicatessen, but it continues on past the counter into a tiny bar, about 1.5 metres wide and 5 metres long. As usual it's packed but I find a tiny spot in front of the bar and order a mixed plate of cheeses and cured meats and work my way through their selection of wines
The next morning, after my breakfast of hot chocolate and churros I visit the Mercado de Abasto, the local market. It's only a week to Christmas and it's interesting to see what's available - pig seems very popular, all the different parts including whole pig's head, conical smoked cheeses, and a fantastic variety of fish and shellfish. I am delighted to see Percebes (stalked barnacle) - I once saw a TV program many years ago about men in some part of Spain who collected this funny looking shellfish off the rocks with waves breaking over them, and it intrigued me - as soon as I see the Percebes I know it's them. They are made up of a flexible trunk (about 1-2cm long and the thickness of a little finger), which attaches to the rock, with a claw on the end
I take a day trip to the west coast to Fisterra (Spanish Finisterre "end of the earth") and try and find Percebes on a restaurant menu, but no luck so I lunch at O Tearrón restaurant - razor clams (navajas), Lubina (bass) gallego style, with roasted red peppers and pepper infused oil; dessert of soft fresh cheese topped with a layer of chocolate, and an espresso (good for Spain), and Amaretto di Saronno (my first in several years).
Fisterra is a beautiful, remote and lightly inhabited peninsula that is one of the westernmost points of land in Spain (Cabo da Roca in Portugal, which I visited the previous week is the most western piece of land in Continental Europe).
As I walk to the lighthouse for a view I pass a sign that says 0.00 kms, ie the endpoint of the Camino. Just past the lighthouse I saw a man burning clothes on the cliff so asked him what that was about – he explained the actual end of the pilgrimage was here in Fisterra and the tradition was to burn your old clothes as symbol of starting anew. He had walked 1,300 kms from Lourdes to Santiago, and on to Fisterra (extra 4 days) in 45 days. He told me he felt renewed.
Apparently this promontory was a Celtic place of sun worship and a Christian saint, San Guillermo also lived here in a small hermitage - nearby, sterile couples would copulate on one specific stone to try to conceive, following a Celtic rite of fertility. Unfortunately, as far as I could make out there were no sterile women for me to try it out with so I had to miss out on that experience.
Another thing that piqued my curiosity was the statue of a St Jacob's Pilgrim, almost identical to one I had seen in Speyer in the German Palatinate district (about 2,000 kms away) in November - apparently this pilgrim-path (one of many) extends more than three thousand kms from St Jabik in northern Holland
At the risk of boring you with my new-found erudition on the subject ... when in Speyer I learned from my friend Orazio that Speyer was on one of the old historical routes for the Camino (known in German as Jakobsweg). At the time I didn't put 2 +2 together, ie St Jakob=St James=Santiago.
It's actually pretty straightforward - how it became James/Jacob is that it started as Yaakov in Hebrew, which became Iacovos in Greek, Iacobus in Latin, Jakob in German, Jacques in French, and Iago in Galician, therefore Sant (Saint) Iago.
Just to complete the picture Latin Iacobus became Giacobo in Italian, which sprouted a variant Giacomo (Jaime in Spanish), which ended up being James in English.
Besides all that St James/Jacob/Iago is the patron saint of Spain and his symbol is the scallop/cockle shell, explaining why they are called Coquilles St Jacques in French.
There are various stories about St James, including one that after Jesus’ death, he walked until he came to Fisterra (ie as far as he could go without falling off the edge of the world), to spread the gospel. In the end his bones were believed to have been miraculously brought back to Galicia and in the eleventh century the cathedral was built over his grave in Santiago de la Compostela
Ok, enough with the erudition and back to Percebes - that night I went to a number of restaurants to try and find them, without any luck until I eventually found Casa Camilo, where I had Caldo Gallego (similar to Caldo Verde in Portugal), boiled Percebes, an empanada (pastry like Sicilian schiacciata) of bacalao and sultanas – only place outside Italy I’ve eaten a dish of fish with dried fruit; tarta de Santiago (a dry crumbly almond tart) – a lady at the next table called the waiter over (a small kindly man with a bow tie) and suggested he pour a liqueur over it, which he did. The Percebes were served simply boiled and you gently pull off the claw (making sure you don't squirt water all over yourself) and eat the meat inside - it's not a delicacy like prawn or crab but satifying nonetheless.
From Santiago I drove towards the northern coast heading for the seaside town of Cedeira, where I had lunch at Restaurante Brisa comprising Pimentos Asados (roasted peppers) and vieras ó Albariño (scallops cooked in Albariño white wine), accompanied naturally enough with a couple of glasses of Albariño.
The coastline north of here (almost the northernmost point in Spain) is spectacular and has the highest sea cliffs in Europe (at least according to the Spanish although Iceland and Portugal also claim this) - the highest point on the road was 628 metres
Along the way I stopped at the Sanctuary of San Andrés (Saint Andrew) de Teixido, a beautiful little church, gorgeously sited overlooking the Atlantic. There is a saying in Spanish:
A San Andrés de Teixido vai de morto o que non vai de vivo.
(Anyone who does not visit San Andrés de Teixido when he is alive must visit after he is dead).
The story goes that St Andrew was depressed because pilgrims flocked from all over the world to the shrine of his fellow apostle at Santiago de Compostela, as if he were a less faithful disciple and less caring about the well-being of mankind. Jesus promised him that no one would enter heaven unless they had visited his shrine at least once, alive or dead - in case you don't make it before you die, a member of your family can do it for you after your death.
I hope you appreciate I'm doing my good deed for the day in giving you this information, after all I wouldn't want you to miss out, seeing as I've been :).
So, on to Asturias ...
I first heard about Asturias when a group by that name played at the Port Fairy Folk Festival many years ago – their music was wild and full of energy and excitement, so I filed it away in my memory as some place I should visit one day – and here I am
I’m hungry by now (and looking for a bit of vice :) so I go wandering the streets and find a sidreria (ciderhouse) – it's packed to the rafters, nowhere to sit but I manage to shoulder my way to the the bar and take my position. The place is wonderfully atmospheric - the bare floors are sodden, as are the waiters and there's a strong smell of fermenting cider in the air. I look around - the only sort of drink I can see is large green bottles of cider so I order one. The barman brings it over, removes the cork, holds it at arm's length over his head and aims it at a long narrow glass which he holds below his groin, filling it roughly to around a quarter to a third full, then puts the bottle in front of me with the cork on top. I take a couple of sips, then go to top up my glass but he comes straight over and takes the bottle out of my hand - I have committed a faux pas - the custom here is to skoll the drink - the barmen are watching all the time as to who needs a refill, and do it for you, in their inimatable style. I order some bar food - revuelto de caviar de oricios (scrambled caviar of some vegetable?) and pastel de cabracho (slab of pate of fish?), and work my way through 2 bottles of the house cider brewed on site, while watching the human spectacle. The waiters are all sodden and thin - even though they are expert at pouring the cider more than a metre into a glass they can't help splashing some on to the floor, some sprays back over their clothes, and even their hair, so by the end of the night their hair is wet and bedraggled from the cider shampoo
I am woken in the morning about 10am (slightly hungover) by Pavarotti singing “O Come all ye Faithful” (in Italian) at high volume, coming from a speaker suspended on the wall in the alley outside about 3 metres from my ear – it's the first time I’ve heard a Christmas carol since arriving in Europe - then I heard “Silent Night” sung in Spanish.
So after this enjoyable interlude in a small "town of vice" I drive along the Cantabrian coast to big, modern, funky Bilbao. I don't have much time here so quickly go to the Guggenheim museum. Although the outside is made up of flowing shapes and forms the inside is fairly conventional, with large airy exhibition spaces. The current exhibitions are: Richard Serra – The Matter of Time, huge rusted sheets of steel in spiral and other formations; and Cy Twombly, a US artist who worked from 1950s to 1990s (still alive, much of his work done in Rome).
Dinner – grilled slices of foie gras with grilled slices of eggplant, hongos (type of mushroom) on bed of chickpea puree; bacalao with leek sauce, crispy fried spinach and almond flakes; Basque dessert.
Similar to Fatima there are very few people about as I walk around Lourdes. I get a map of the Sanctuary, walk past a series of modern white marble sculptures depicting the Stations of the Cross, cross the river and come across a sign for baths in Holy Water. I am attracted to this but when I go in to investigate I see that it's a more complicated procedure than I thought (there are priests asking what I want to heal and you are expected to recite prayers, etc) and as I don't have much time I have to skip it but manage to visit the Grotto where St Bernadette saw the apparitions of Mary, and the two basilicas, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception above, and the Basilica of the Rosary built into the rock below it.
I leave Lourdes in the sunny early afternoon, and drive north to Cahors where there is an incredibly thick dark fog. Police were breath-testing everyone at the entrance to the town (fortunately I hadn’t drunk anything ... yet) and the nice policeman gives me a free breath test kit, which he told me to put in the glovebox, and wishes me a happy Christmas
Less than 100 metres up the road I stop at a big wine store, partake of their wine tasting, and buy a couple of bottles of the heavy, high-alcohol “black wine” made locally (you would think the breath-test would have been set up near the wine shop, but I guess the police thought that would have negatively affected the shop's business). Apparently this is the most popular area in France for English people to buy property and I pick up a copy of the local English-language magazine for the ex-pats.
I push on to Gourdon, right in the centre of the area where geese and ducks are fattened up for foie gras. I arrive late at night and do a couple of circuits of the town trying to find accomodation and an open restaurant. Finally I eat at the Boulevard – panfried foie gras and served with 3 types of caramelized onion & a glass of a sweet white wine; maigret de canard (duck breast) – outside crusted but centre rare, with sauce of fruits rouge (much too sweet), with a glass of Bergerac red (very good); a plate of 3 cheeses; and a digestive with a name that sounded like Bourianou, made of apple & walnuts, which also was very good.
The next morning was freezing – frost everywhere until nearly midday. I buy a whole de-veined foie gras (600 grams) and the lady puts it in a foil bag and says it will keep for a 8-10 hours. I won’t get to London until the next evening, and I'm worried about it going off, so I drive for a few hours without any heating, my body shivering and my fingers numb.
Besides farms full of ducks and goose being fattened up for foie gras this area is full of grottoes and caverns that have seen human activity for over 35,000 years. The most famous are the cave paintings of Lascaux but this has been closed since the early 1960s to prevent their further deterioration from the body heat and breath of visitors
So I go to the Grotte de Font-de-Gaume nearby - it was first used by Stone Age people about 25,000 BC when bison, reindeer and mammoths roamed around here. You can only go with a guide and a maximum of 200 people a day are allowed in. At this time of year it looks for a little while that I will have a personally escorted tour but a family of 4 arrives and we enter the cave through a narrow opening above a wooded valley, then move through a narrow twisting passage until the guide shines her torch on a bison. It is a stunning artistic accomplishment - imagine trying to paint in a narrow pitch-dark cave, with rough irregular walls and primitive stone-age lighting, painting tools and materials. The artist has used the shape of the walls to give a 3D effect, for example on the shoulders and haunches of the animals. We go deeper into the cave and there are paintings of a horse, more bison, and a reindeer.
I then go to the La Madeleine troglodyte village, a prehistoric village, where the inhabitants modified the caves in the cliffs above the Vézère River to provide defence, sleeping quarters, workshops, storage, and an assembly area. It was part of a chain of villages built along the river which traded with each other. In medieval times the area was re-inhabited and a church was built there. I would have loved to stay in this area a few days as there is so much to see but had to move on.
I am very worried about my fresh foie gras so at the next town I stop at a bar and manage to explain that I need some ice to preserve it until I get to London tomorrow, otherwise it will go off, and the barman, appalled at the thought of spoiled foie gras scoops ice into a plastic bag for me, with which I fill the foil bag. I drive the rest of the day without stopping, except for petrol (about 700kms), and arrive that evening in Arras in northern France – site of a major battle in WW2 and also the name of one of the best Australian sparkling wines (from Tasmania) – I’m not sure of the link between the two.
The next day is the 24th December and there's a Christmas market in the Place des Héros, so I buy a dozen fat oysters, 3 cheeses, a baguette, and a fresh black truffle, put them in the boot (packed in ice that the nice oysterman gave me) and drive to Calais, from where I cross the channel to England.