Inside the Santiago de Compostela cathedral, los gigantes (giant statues) patiently await their next religious procession through the city streets.
Story and Images by Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
On my 60th birthday, a Spanish friend gave me a collection of poems by Rosalia de Castro, Galicia’s most celebrated poetess. Her lines speak of marvellous things: the Coast of Death, her longing for the placid rias of her homeland, castles, female heroines, acts of bravery, witches and much more. I had always associated Galicia, Spain’s northwest province, with the Camino de Santiago, the world’s longest pilgrimage route. However, Rosalia gave me hints that there was much more to see. I decided to go on my own and explore for two weeks.
Of course, being neither a pilgrim nor a teenage backpacker, I did so in a reasonably comfortable and safe way but without forfeiting a spirit of discovery and adventure. I didn’t want to follow a pre-set itinerary but rather let myself be surprised by what I would find and choose my next destination accordingly. My eyesight isn’t what it once was, so I decided to use public transport rather than hiring a car.
I flew into Santiago de Compostela, simply because the city has the best flight connections with the rest of the world. As it was close to the 25th of July, which is the name day of Santiago (St James) the Apostle, the town was brimming with pilgrims, all headed for the cathedral. You can’t miss the way there because bronze shells are set into the pavement, guiding tired pilgrims to this final destination. I drifted along with them and, looking up, I glimpsed the first of my “Marias”, a theme that became a strong thread throughout my trip.
Rosalia de Castro portrait.
A laminated poster of the two Marias.
I was looking at laminated photographs, displayed on the entrance of a kiosk selling stamps, cigarettes and souvenirs. The picture of two eccentric-looking women caught my attention. The caption read: Las Marias – Santiago de Compostela 1964. Who were they? The owner of the shop said they were two local seamstresses who suffered great hardship and poverty during the rule of Franco.
Determined to pull themselves out of misery, the seamstresses started to design their own clothes and to model them every day at 2 pm on a walk along the Alameda. Not only that, they also wanted to lighten the mood of post-war Spain, flirting with the students and giving fashion advice to young girls. Thus they became live entertainment and the darlings of an entire town. Poems were dedicated to them and a statue was erected in their honor in the park.
Train and coach connections out of Santiago are excellent, so my next stop heading south/west was Padrón, the final home of Rosalia de Castro, the poetess whose verses had triggered the trip. Her house and gardens are now a museum and here, I found her celebrated camellias, the signature flower of Galicia, in blooming abundance. I was the only visitor so the guide/curator was happy to chat and to suggest I keep going in the same direction to Vigo, a big port town on the Atlantic coast.
Camillias are a signature flower of Galicia, mentioned in books there since the XIX century.
“Don’t miss the oysters on La Piedra,” she said, “and a boat ride to Isla de Cies. You’ll find the world’s most beautiful beach there.” Oysters …. beach? I didn’t need to hear any more and hopped the next train to Vigo. The oysters were indeed delicious, bought fresh and shucked at stalls, then carried to rickety tables where you could order your drink and indulge.
Isla de Cies in the Atlantic is a fabulous nature reserves, richly wooded, criss-crossed by hiking paths helpfully color coded according to difficulty, featuring the recommended breathtaking beach. The island is reached by boat from Vigo. After a day out combining some exercise with sunbathing, I decided that more history was in order.
The town of Bayona, very close to the border with Portugal provided that history. Anchored in the port is the replica of the Pinta, one of the three caravels that Columbus sailed across the Atlantic on his first voyage to the New World in 1492. Climbing aboard, I encountered Captain Pinzon, members of his crew, their supplies and all the treasures they had brought back from the New World, Indians, parrots and gold included. Great fun!
Author visits Maria de Afueras statue at Bayona.
Walking back towards the mighty Castillo Monte Real, I noticed a huge statue of the Virgin Mary perched high on a hill, overlooking Bayona. My next Maria! I took a taxi to get there. The statue, Maria de Afueras, is hewn from solid rock, only the face is added. A steep and somewhat slippery stone spiral staircase in the interior of the statue leads visitors upward. You alight next to the Virgin’s eye and step into a boat she holds in her outstretched hand. Don’t venture up if you are claustrophobic or overweight. The staircase is really narrow and you could get stuck, but otherwise the view is worth the effort.
What is a Ria?
The word, ria, originally comes from the Galician language, referring to a natural phenomenon found all along that Atlantic province’s coastline. Nineteen Galician rias form three main groups: Rias Altas (Upper Rias), Rias Medias (Middle Rias) and Rias Bajas (Lower Rias). Almost always estuaries, a ria is a landform often referred to as “a drowned river valley”. It happens where sea levels rise relative to the land or where the land sinks adjacent to the sea. When this happens, valleys previously at sea level become submerged. Galicia’s Fragas do Eume ria is pictured right.
With so much sea and water around me, Rosalia’s reference to the Coast of Death came back and I made my way to Cap Finisterre. That required a return train trip to Santiago and from there a seven-hour coach ride northwest. I booked myself into the Hotel Anchora and was greeted by another Maria. She was the daughter of the owner, a lady full of local knowledge, ghost stories and tales about the terrible ship wrecks that gave the wild coast its name. She showed me the way to the lighthouse of Cap Finisterre and for the next hour I became a pilgrim as the Cap is the real end of the Camino de Santiago. At the foot of the bronze boot, it is a fairly recent tradition that pilgrims are supposed to burn clothes and boots worn during their pilgrimage. This symbolizes the start of a new life.
Pilgrim bronze boot at Cap Finisterre is about a 90 km walk from Santiago de Compostela.
My time was running out, but I wanted to see La Coruña and the Tower of Hercules, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the oldest lighthouse in the world still in operation. It took me an entire day to get there, changing buses and coaches frequently, but I made it. On my way to the Tower of Hercules, I crossed the Plaza Maria Pita and found the statue of my last Maria of Galicia. This sword and flag waving lady caused Sir Francis Drake and his British commander, General Norris, to abandon the siege of La Coruña in 1589 by wrenching the English flag out of the hand of the General’s brother just as he tried to climb over the city’s last defence wall. Thanks to our heroine, he failed. Swinging the flag over her head, she revived the spirits of her discouraged countrymen to turn the tide of victory.
On my Galicia exploration without any pre-conceived mission to do so, the theme clearly became the “Marias”. Next time I might follow another of Rosalia de Castro’s poetic passions ….. medieval festivals, castles, Rias Bajas and Rias Altas, or simply food and wine!
Maria Pita statue at La Coruña.
For Galicia information:
www.galiciaguide.com/Galicia-facts.html and www.guidegecko.com/guide-to-galicia/d,4871.
See map of Galicia to follow our author’s adventures.
Transportation: Spanish train company, RENFE, provides destination information, time tables and connections in English. There are several coach companies in Spain, but the biggest and best known is ALSA.
The final goal of Spain’s famous Camino de Santiago is the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela, located in the province of Galicia, so why not check out our five article collection of diverse walking experiences on this perennially-compelling pilgrimage route enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of international visitors annually:
All the Way, two senior women complete 750 km in 32 days, walking independently and staying in hostels.
The Rhythms of the Camino, thoughts and personal encounters while walking the Camino FIVE times.
The Camino in a Small Group Walking Tour, nine days from Leon to Santiago de Compostela.
Pilgrim Passports and Scallop Shells, meaningful symbols of the Camino.
Personal Expectations vs Reality, a septagenerian pilgrim shares his experience.
At Galiwonders.com we are local experts in all the best travel elements of Spain’s Galicia region. We offer tailor-made holidays for individuals and groups in Rías Baixas, Ribeira Sacra, Costa da Morte, the Lighthouse Trail, wine tours, Glamping, thermal spring waters… and of course the Camino de Santiago! Galiwonders.com.
Born in Germany, Inka Piegsa-Quischotte is an ex-attorney turned travel writer, novelist and photographer. She has lived and worked in the UK, Switzerland, Spain, the U.S. and South Africa, now dividing her time between Istanbul and Miami when not off exploring interesting destinations. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her travel blog: http://thesinglewomantraveler.blogspot.com, with tips, tricks and general advice for single women travelers beyond the backpacker age.