EUROPEAN TOUR 2006 PART I - PORTUGAL, SPAIN
Lisbon to Santiago de Compostelo
May 3 to May 7, 2006
Start 47,274 miles (75,639 km):
End 47,771 miles (76,433 km) cumulative
Click here to see a route map TEASERS
May 3 to May 6
Four cardboard boxes arrived in just slightly battered condition at the oversized luggage section of the new and modern Lisbon airport. In reality they should have had stamped on each side, "Contents, two bikes. Significant assembly required.” We had discovered just prior to our departure from LAX, the rules on carrying bikes on international flights have changed dramatically in recent years. Gone are the days of free international bike shipping. Gone even are the days of $45 shipping. It's now a whopping $80 per bike; that is unless you can get your bike into a 62 inch length+width+height box. Our bikes, having the S&S couplings, do just that but only after some major disassembly. It took us no less than 1 1/2 days to take them apart and then fit them into the correct size boxes. We did it, but these so-called airline transportable bikes never did turn out quite as easy to ship as we'd hoped.
The penny pinching with the airlines has become almost laughable. On our first leg from LA to Detroit, a snack box with a few bags of chips was available for a price, $3. You could get peanuts or trail snacks, $1. The Detroit/London leg was somewhat normal, free headsets for the movies, free beer and wine for dinner. But, the extreme in the el-cheapo airline experiences came when we boarded Monarch Airlines for our final London to Lisbon leg.
To be honest, we did get a great price on 2 one way tickets, a whole $133 which is pretty good no matter where you fly on what airlines. In fact, the taxes on the flight cost more than the flight itself. But, after that everything costs more. Take more than 20kg check-in bags and you pay per kg. Check in a bike, golf bag, skies, or anything else abnormally shaped or sized, you pay more. Reserve your seat in advance or request a seat with slightly more leg room, pay more. Want a meal, that'll cost you. Want a snack, coke, or even bottle of water, cough it up. It was so tempting to head to the back where the stewardesses hang out and ask how much it cost to use the toilet. You know that's coming next.
Fortunately, despite the cheapo airlines, we did manage to properly negotiate all connections on time and found ourselves landing in Lisbon even a few minutes early. One quick taxi ride to the Camping Lisboa and the dreaded, long flight was done at last. Time to sleep and then get ready to ride. Waking at the wee hour of 1 PM, we spent the rest of the afternoon of our first day in Portugal reassembling the disassembled bikes. It's whole lot easier putting them back together since we don't have to go through the puzzle problem of getting them into those boxes. Then it was off to the nearby IKEA superstore where we discovered a large cafeteria with what will probably prove to be some of the best food prices we'll find. And they have an all you can drink soda bar with all you can get ice. All of this is within a short walk of the campground. In fact, not only is there the huge IKEA but also a huge sporting goods store and a hipermercardo. Absolutely everything we could possible need was virtually right at our doorstep. This proved to be an ideal place to begin a 6 month bike tour.
But first, on to visit Lisbon and the treasures of Portugal first. Portugal is a country that has probably seen and done it all. It has a story taking it from rags to riches, empires to islands and back again. Considering the fact that the peninsula has been inhabited for fully 500,000 years, it's no wonder its history is so varied. In its very early days it was home to Celts, Greeks, Phoenicians, and Carthaginians all during overlapping periods. It wasn't until the Romans summarily defeated the Celt tribe of Lusitanians in 136 BC did the Portuguese side of the peninsula come under a single ruler. By 60 BC the future city of Lisbon had been established and named Olisipo.
Our first experience with Portugal was about 25 years ago and lasted an entire one single day. It was a couple years before we were married. We'd come to Europe over the Christmas holiday season for one of those 1 week whirlwind, stop in as many cities as you can squeeze in trips. On Christmas Eve we were in Madrid. On Christmas day we were in Lisbon. On December 26 we were headed back north.
Despite being such a fast and furious trip there are still many things about Lisbon that really stood out. First was the dramatic difference in the behavior of the people. We'd left the subways of Madrid late at night where people were singing and shouting in the echoing tunnels. In Lisbon we found a very sedate crowd calmly walking up and down the pedestrian mall window shopping along the way. The only excitement came from a few whoops in the crowd watching the finish line of a 10 km running race.
We also found Lisbon to be much cleaner, neater, and better built than Madrid. Madrid of the early 80s was just coming out of a many decades long episode of totalitarian, dictatorship government. The effects were obvious in the state of the city. Lisbon clearly looked far more prosperous.
But what truly remained in our memories was the castle on the hill. Since nothing was open on Christmas day we took to wandering. Eventually we wound up in the castle on the hill overlooking the city. In those days this was treated as little more than a small city park. The castle walls were tumbled and overgrown and there were small deer roaming about munching on the vegetation. We were so amazed that we could climb over the walls wherever we wished to go. There were no guards, no guardrails, and no signs saying "don't do this or that.” We both thought that was just the neatest city park/castle we'd ever seen and were so looking forward to doing that climbing about once again.
Oh how things have changed. Naturally in our first day wanderings we eventually found ourselves back at the entrance to the castle. Much to our dismay nothing is the same. The former park with its everyday place in the cityscape is now ringed with tourist shops and restaurants. There's a newly instituted entrance fee to the castle. The rambling walls are repaired and the vegetation removed. No longer is it just a simple city park for the inhabitants to enjoy. It's a regular tourist trap. They've ruined it. Disappointed by the changes in the castle, we chose not to enter and instead finished wandering around our walking tour of downtown. We'd spent the entire day just walking the streets, peering in the shop windows, riding the neat old trolleys, and people watching.
After spending 2 months in Brazil continually in search
for reasonable museums only to be disappointed again and again by these tiny
showpieces that take less than 1/2 hour to see, we were really looking forward
to the plethora of high quality gems to visit in Europe. European nations,
like the US, have turned museums into a passion. Nearly every town has a
museum of some sort and many are extremely high quality. Lisbon was no
exception. Our main dilemma was, with only one more day to be spent in the
city, which museum should we visit. The choice was tough, but the Museu
Calouste Gulbenkian won our attention. Gulbenkian was born to Armenian parents
in Istanbul. He struck it rich with Iraqi oil and hence began his amazing
collection of antiquities and art. During WWII many countries had their greedy
eyes on his money and collection, but he finally settled it in Portugal.
Central Portugal Coast
Lisbon to Porto
May 7 to May 15
Now that we were rested and somewhat in tune with the time zone change it was time to head on down the road. First, though, we had to get out of the campground and down to the road by the river. This was not as easy as it at first appeared. Upon exiting the campground we immediately headed straight for the most direct route. Unfortunately this turned out to be a highway on which bikes were prohibited. We headed another direction and hit another no bikes highway. Eventually we found ourselves wandering around an industrial park trying to chase after a local bus we'd spotted. The further along we went, the higher up we climbed and the further from the river we got. This wasn't working.
As luck would have it, a couple of Sunday bikers who happened to speak English came by. We hailed them and within a few minutes had good directions to the river. Following that plus another biker who passed us and we finally got to the river front. Now it was time to start northward.
Our plan had been to leave the city on Sunday. We figured that would be the day everyone would be in church and the roadways would be quiet. We hadn't counted on the fact that everybody who had a car would head out of town on this very coastal road. Traffic was heavy all day long and the road not particularly wide. With time spent on the sidewalks and short stops to let groups of cars pass, we slowly wended our way through the coastal resort towns of Estoril and Cascais. In Cascais we found a bike path which was absolute heaven. We could then finally enjoy a slow ride along the coast without fearing for our lives. Lisbon is located a fair distance up the mouth of the river. To head northward, we first headed west to the point, passing by two of Lisbon's 9 defensive forts and the lighthouse out on the point. We were in continual city environments until passing Cascais. At this point the bike path takes a nice turn to the north and passes through the Sintra-Cascais natural reserve. This reserve is intended to preserve some hill and coastal plant communities found between the cities of Cascais and Sintra. What we found was an environment that is so similar to the central California coast. We felt right at home.
One stop for the night near Cascais and we continued north to the town of Ericeira. An item on the Portugal "must see" list is the mountain town of Sintra, if you can call a village located only about 1200 ft above sea level a mountain town. What makes Sintra so special is that it was once the summer getaway for the Portuguese royalty. Of course this means that there is an appropriately opulent palace located there. In fact there are 2, but only one is known as the National Palace of Sintra. Having already left Lisbon without visiting this site, a stop in the town of Ericeira would provide the next best access point. Direct buses lead up to Sintra hourly.
It was a pleasant enough 50 minute ride back south to Sintra. The climbs didn't seem that extreme. We were amazed by the amount of small villages that covered the hillsides. This is certainly not the western U.S. where towns often have long unpopulated distances between them. We were dropped off at the bus/train station, which is an easy walk from town.
Much of Sintra seems to be built on hillsides. Houses appear almost as though they were precariously balanced on small ledges no bigger than their foundations. The old part of town has the usual narrow, winding cobblestone streets most of which are either ascending or descending steeply from the main road. Where there are no houses, there are trees, lots of trees. This looks like a very lush place, which is surprising for southern Portugal. Sandwiched within the plants and precariously perched buildings are the gems of the town. There's the old train station, now used primarily as a stop for tourists coming up from Lisbon. Its walls, both inside and out, are covered in frescos of fabulous Portuguese "azulejos" (tiles). Probably every tourist who gets off the train stops to take a photo. There's the Town Hall, a building that really looks like a small fairy tale castle. It's surprising to learn that it actually has such a mundane function. Up on the hills are several huge mansions that are clearly former palaces of the rich and influential that followed the royalty wherever they went.
Then there was the palace. The most notable features of this structure are the two huge white cones extending far into the sky out of the roof. These actually are the huge chimneys of the equally gigantic kitchen. The palace itself has a long, expansive history. It stands on grounds originally held by Moorish constructions. Over the many generations of royal habitation, multiple expansions and renovations have taken place. Rooms that were once bedchambers later became salons with fountains in the center. Gardens were added, the kitchens expanded, doors put in or taken out. In the end it has wound up being a maze of rooms attached in what seems a rather haphazard manner.
Perhaps the most spectacular aspect of the palace is the old azulejos (tiles). Persians originally introduced ceramic tiles to Portugal. Some of these very early tiles can be found on the walls of the palace. They have an interesting method of construction. Looking closely you can see a pattern of walls or barriers set to create the pattern. What these barriers are made of we have no idea. It looks like the colored ceramic material was placed within these barriers and then the entire tile placed in the oven to bake. The colored material melts, fills the pattern, and then cools in place. There are plastic Christmas tree decoration kits that use the same concept available today. The technique is not nearly as precise or detailed as the later Majolica method of painting on a white base coat and then baking. But, when an entire wall is covered with these old tiles, the effect is stunning.
Other, later 17th century tiles appear to have had the colored ceramic material pressed into molds, usually of leaves. Then the white ceramic background is placed on top and the whole thing placed in the oven to bake. Again, a whole wall covered with leaf and vine covered tiles is quite a spectacle.
There are many other sites to visit at Sintra, each with a correspondingly rather high cost. If you were to try to visit each one in a single day you could easily rack up a $50 cost for 2 people. So we just restricted our visit to the one palace and then a wander of the streets. Someday, perhaps in a couple years, we hope to return to do a more proper job of seeing Lisbon and Sintra.
For now, however, our objective is to ride bikes. So the next morning we mounted our trusty steel steeds and continued cruising northward. Around Lisbon there are a series of low mountains that reach to the ocean. In places the mountains are cut deep gorges that extend to the sea. Of course to follow the coast, the road has to go up and down each one of these gorges. Further north, north of the steep climb out of Nazare, the road flattens out and the riding becomes almost a breeze
The central coast is literally lined with resort town after resort town. There are huge condominium complexes that sprawl ever outward from the original small fishing communities. In some cases you have to look hard to find that original fishing town. In July and August we hear that these places are absolutely jammed with tourists and summer vacationers. In May they are virtually ghost towns. We pedal past building after building all shuttered tight. It's great in May. We just absolutely dread what it'll be like in summer. Perhaps at that time we'll head inland away from the beach.
Not too much further up the coast our path took us right by the town of Obidos. Since there is always the probability we will never get back to this region, we decided to stop in for a bit. Obidos is a pretty, fully walled city filled with little white houses each having painted shutters. There are a couple of picturesque churches inside and even a very castle looking structure at the end of the wall. Interestingly, the entire town sits on one side of a long, narrow ridge. The wall snakes along the lower side of the town and then climbs to the top of the ridge where it proceeds to march along its entire length. The other side of the ridge is now covered with a walking park, no houses. At one time this side of the ridge bordered the ocean. Today due to silting the ocean is a long ways off.
Obidos has always been a pretty town. It's so nice that one of the kings made a present of it for his queen for their wedding. Lonely Planet says that that started a tradition maintained for hundreds of years. A tradition of giving your bride-to-be a town for a wedding present or a tradition of this town being the property of the queen we were not sure. Today it seems as though the tourists own the city, as that's who rules the streets. But if you decide to climb the steep steps to the top of the walls, not only will you get the best views, but you'll also get away from a good chunk of the bus tour groups. It was a stop well worth the making.
North of Obidos it seemed that the environment was getting more and more humid. The coastal community began to look more like southern Oregon rather than central California. There were huge, windswept beaches with lots and lots of golden sand. Portugal has taken protection of their dunes and beaches very seriously. To get anywhere near the water you usually have to walk on elevated wooden walkways. They don't want anyone walking on the dunes themselves. Sometimes it seems these walkways extend for km after km along our route. Portugal has also been quite a surprise as far as the number of bike paths is concerned. Near Cascais we were on several km of paved bike path. North of Nazare we found ourselves on over 20 km of bike path. There were several other instances where we'd find long stretches of paved bike paths leading into towns, to the beach, or just going along the roads through their national forests. It appears that biking has become quite the popular sport.
Northward we rode along ever flatter and flatter terrain past one dead tourist beach town after another passing by 700 year old pine forests along the way. This forest, north of Nazare, was planted by one of the Portuguese kings mainly as a way to replenish wood supplies for the large Portuguese fleet of ships sent out on exploration and trade missions. It looks like the iron boat was invented none too soon to save some of these woods. In any event, some of these old woods remain today. Although those are some pretty small 700 year old trees if they actually are that old. We did find they made for excellent wild camping.
The Portuguese are known for being in love with tiles especially the brightly majolica tiles. They seem to want to cover every stationary thing in tiles. Street signs are tiled. Houses often have one or more sides covered in tiles. Those that don't have an entire wall of tiles will usually have at least one rectangular tile display on the outside. Churches are tiled. Train stations are tiles. Tiles, tiles, tiles everywhere. Yet you don't get tired of seeing them. Even some of the more modern ones can be quite nice.
May 16, 17
After about nine days of some really good riding we arrived in Porto. We actually got there a day earlier than planned. We find that riding kilometers seems so short compared to miles. It's just so easy to knock of 50 or 60 km whereas the same number in miles leaves you dead tired. At this rate we'll be up to the Spanish border in no time. But, first a visit to Porto.
After dropping the tent and gear at the nice Orbitur Madalan campground about 12 km south of Porto, we headed into Portugal's second city for a look around. The first thing we noticed was that everything seemed to be under construction. Along the river there were two separate projects on each side to extend and improve the pedestrian/bike ways. In the city center the old stone block roads were dug up for laying cables and then being rebuilt. You could hear the continual chip, chip, chip sound as craftsmen knocked pieces off individual stone cubes and then hammered the resulting block into place. It takes a huge amount of hand labor to produce those quaint cobblestone roads. But they do seem to last for centuries.
Porto lends its name to the country "Portugal" and has been a very important city throughout the history of the country. It was originally a Lusitanian settlement essentially located on both sides of the Rio Duoro, which eventually merged to form the single city. In 1095, British-born Henri of Burgundy inherited the city. From here his son launched his reconquest to win Portugal's independence. Henry the Navigator, the man most responsible for Portugal's maritime success, was born here. And it was here that citizens regularly rebel against leaders, both native and foreign, to gain what they want. Porto's most memorable contribution to historical lore is the creation of its most famous product, port wine.
Port is a type of wine that is specifically designated as wine produced from grapes grown in the Rio Duoro valley. In the higher country to the east, the hills block the rainfall resulting in a very dry valley. Summers are hot and dry. Winters are cold and severe. The combination makes for a perfect environment for growing these particular grapes.
Port became particularly popular with the English back in the mid18th century. During those times due to various wars with France, the Brits turned to Portugal to get their supply of tipple. They came to the valley and set up several wine exporting shops at the mouth of the river. One problem they had, however, was that the wine did not travel well. Despite being bottled, the wine continued to ferment and go off taste during the long trip up north. So to stabilize it, they mixed in about 1/4 percent pure grape alcohol. This stopped the fermentation by killing the various bacteria and helped to hold the wine's flavor. Soon the Brits grew to like this unique taste and the wine known as Port from the Porto region of Portugal was born.
Of course one of the things you must do when in Porto is take a tour of one of the vintner's lodges and do some free tasting. Most of the wineries sport English names since they were originally started by the Brits. But today only Taylor's is still owned and operated by descendants of their original British family. In addition, Lonely Planet recommended them as having the best and still free tour and tasting, so we opted for them.
It was an interesting, although very short tour. The grapes are actually still crushed and processed up at the vineyards, so there's no crushing machinery to go see. In fact, their vintage grapes are still crushed by foot and you don't even get to see the old vat in which they do their little grape dance. The bottling is done at one site in town that is common to all the wineries. To survive financially, they have to pool their resources and bottle at one combined plant. So you only see the old oak casks in which the various wines are aged. The ruby, vintage wines are held in the huge oak casks so that they have less exposure to oxygen. The tawny or brownish colored wines are held n the smaller casks so they can get more oxygen.
Particularly interesting is the method of indicating the amount of wine held in each cask. When the Brits took over they found that the Portugal wineries were using a form of Arabic symbols to indicate amount of wine. First, there is an X marked on the casks. The X indicates 550 pipes of wine or the amount one oxen cart can carry. At the top of the X is a number, 5 for instance. This indicates the number of baskets a woman can carry, 15 pipes. Finally a number to the left, 1 for example, represents the number of 2 pipe pitchers any man worth his salt should drink in a day. So if you have an X with a 5 on top and 1 to the right you've got 550 + 5*15 + 1*2 = 627 pipes. We're not sure what a pipe is but it may be somewhat close to a liter.
The best part was, of course, the tasting. We've never had a port wine before. It's surprisingly smooth in flavor, but very strong. It stays on your tongue a long, long time after you've swallowed. It's not a wine to be taken lightly, that's for certain. They seem recommend the whites chilled as an aperitif sometimes mixed with tonic water. The ruby or vintages are taken at room temperature with a light dessert such as dark chocolate. The rubies age well and are known to be at their best even 50 or more years after bottling. Imagine if you want to keep port for aging you'd have to have one mighty big wine cellar, ah a luxury for the rich and famous.
Most the rest of our time in Porto was spent wandering. We traipsed up and down the super narrow corridors and alleys of the ribeira (riverside). Some spots looked like places you don't want to be in at night. We checked out the cathedral do Se, a huge imposing structure on the hill overlooking the river, as well as climbed the Torre dos Clerigos to get a good overall city view. Then it was down to the river shore to check out the modern versions of the Rabelo boats. These used to be used to ship the wines in large casks down the river from the vineyards upstream. Today they sit alongside the dock for advertising only. Larger versions have been made to ferry tourists up and down the river for a short 50 minute river tour.
We rode every mode of transportation available in the city using our 1 day-ride-everything-pass. There was one stop on the new and very nice metro, several trips on the buses, and a ride on all 3 of the trolley lines. The only thing we missed was the train.
Our final stop for our 2 day Porto visit was at the Photographic exhibition housed in the former courthouse/jail. The building is of monstrous proportions and was once the holding place for some of Portugal's more famous criminals or political problems. Today the small exhibit of photos isn't all that large. But on the top floor is an amazing display of cameras. Hundreds of cameras ranging from the old gigantic daguerreotype to miniature wrist watch versions. There were a bunch of funky ones such as one made to look like a Pepsi can, one like an airplane, and others that looked like radios. They even had several of the ones that produced the old 3D photos. It was very impressive.
North Portugal Coast
Porto to Spanish Border
May 18 to 21
Porto as a town has such a nice laid back feel to it. Public transportation is great and it appears to be undergoing a lot of major face lifting. But after a couple of days we needed to move on. Sometime we hope to get back.
The road on northward of Porto continues to sometimes hug the coastline and occasionally pushes inland to climb over a few small hills. We pass through a few larger cities than before, Viana do Castelo for one. And we occasionally find ourselves on some fairly major highways. We noticed two dramatic differences in this region. First it seems that every small road off the main highway is cobblestone. Quaint to drive on but they feel like they're knocking your teeth loose when riding. Also, the environment is a lot wetter. No longer does it seem so similar to California. The ferns in the under-story and the bushes and lush trees look a bit more like the Oregon coast. So it's no wonder we got our first dousing of rain in these more northwestern climes.
Two days of nice riding with the wind at our backs found us rolling into the border town of Caminho. Directly across the river lies Spain, just a short ferry ride away. But we decided to stop in Caminho for the night rather than push on. Little did we suspect that a one night stop would turn into 3.
Stormy weather rolled in for 2 days of overcast and on/off showers. Sometimes it was a real downpour. With our tent nicely set up, everything inside good and dry, and the bikes covered, we figured it'd be foolish to push on in the wet weather especially considering we really didn't have a fixed schedule.
So on our first rain day we headed into Caminho to see what was there. It's a pretty small town having not much more than a small fort that originally guarded the mouth of the river from Spanish and pirate marauders. It has a small old town section with a nice plaza and fountain. But we'd quickly find we'd be twiddling our thumbs looking for things to keep us busy. So we looked at transportation options.
If you were to find yourself spending time in a small out of the way town in the US, you'd most certainly be stuck. Chances are highly unlikely that you'd find a bus, train, or anything else to get you elsewhere. In Europe, and most of the rest of the world for that matter, you can still count on finding public transportation options even in some of the smallest towns. Although the frequency of run times probably has been reduced significantly in recent years, at least it's still there. That's not good for those of us without cars.
Looking at the train schedule we found that within about 1/2 hour we could head back to the town of Viana do Castelo. We'd ridden through the day before without making a stop to look around. So this was an ideal opportunity to rectify that.
Viana shows evidence of settlement way back to the 4th century. But its main claim to prosperity came in the 16th century when its sailors brought in wealth by fishing for cod off the Newfoundland shores. By the 17th century it was Portugal's main port. But by the time gold and sugar started rolling in from Brazil Porto had become Viana's main rival and quickly overtook it. Today it remains a deep sea fishing center along with doing a fairly brisk tourist business.
Viana proved to be a very pleasant town. It's clean, neat and has a lot of formerly well off mansions. There are a few museums. One new one on traditional dress of the region was just having its opening. There's also a museum aboard an old hospital boat. The boat was used to provide emergency service to the cod fishing fleet when it went out to sea off of Newfoundland. There are a few tourist trinket shops, a couple of old churches, the old town hall, and lots of narrow winding streets to wander. This is mostly what we did to bide our time. The next day proved to be even worse than the first. So once again we looked at travel options. This time we headed for new trails, the town of Valenca. Located about 28 km west of Caminha, Valenca is particularly well known for its large impressive fort, that and shopping for towels and linen. The earliest fortifications were built under Don Alfonso III's reign in the 13th century. But the bulk of the structure dates from the 16th. It's actually 2 forts built on a high rise over the Rio Minho that are connected by a single bridge. Each fort consists of a series of nested bulwarks, bastions, and walls making for one formidable hill to surmount. In fact, the fort was able to withstand various Spanish assaults even into the 19th century. It is a huge, grandiose wall structure that surrounds and protects opulent Manuelian houses.
In a strange twist of fate Spanish tourists invade the fort today. They come bearing cash and credit cards with the main purpose of buying towels, sheets, blankets, bedspreads, some clothes, and all sorts of textile goods. The narrow streets within the old fortress are lined with linen shops. So much so it has obtained the rather undignified nickname of the "shopping fortress". If you can avoid being tempted into spending your entire time shopping, there are some hidden treasures to be found just by wandering the old streets. Such as the old Roman mile marker that used to dress the road from Braga to Astorga. It now sits in a small plaza just in front of the Igreja de Santo Estevio. Carved on the top of this circular column in much abbreviated signage is an acknowledgement that this stone was placed under the reign of Cladius Agustus Cesar, one of the more famous Roman leaders. It even has the word, Braga, still quite legible. Seeing first century artifacts is really something.
Southeast Corner of Spain
Spanish border to Santiago de Compostela
May 22 to May 25
Two days of rain and the sun finally decided to come out. We were hopeful that this was winter's final gasp and warm, sunny days would soon follow. At least the day we left Caminha the sun was making a show in between occasional showers. It was a reasonably good day and it was time to get moving once again. So we loaded up our slightly damp camping gear, headed for the five minute ferry crossing, and began our next adventure into Spain.
The first thing we noticed was that the Spanish coast of the province of Galicia is far more rugged than what we'd been riding through. The mountains seem to come right to the sea. At several locations it is serrated by these long bays that would be called Fiords in some places. Here they're called Rias. To stay along the coast you must continually go east then west to follow the jagged coastline. But every km is worth the effort. It's a gorgeous road.
Once across the Rio Minho we rambled along this coastal road up to the town of Baiona. Baiona is a fantastically picturesque village. It's got a pretty harbor above which bristles with the masts of a small recreational sailing fleet. Above the harbor is a very fortress looking wall that encircles a point. The wall is supposed to be over 3 km in length. Of course the road following the bay is lined with tourist shops and trendy restaurants. Baiona's biggest claim to fame has nothing to with Spain at all. On March 1, 1643 the citizens of the town were surprised to see the small ship, La Pinta, appear over the horizon. It was to this port that Cristoher Columbus returned with the astounding news that he'd sailed east to find the West Indies. It wouldn't be until sometime later that the Europeans would figure out that they'd actually found an entirely new world.
Columbus believed until the day he died that he'd really found a new route to India. Too bad. Because of him the poor natives of the New World wound up stuck with the name Indians and despite current efforts to change that, it'll probably stay stuck for good.
Later that afternoon we plowed our way through the busy city of Vigo. Our guide book claimed the population was supposed to be just over 200,000 but we later learned that the entire metropolitan area, which includes 3 separate cities, actually has over 300,000. This is not our favorite size city to ride through. Despite lots of cars and trucks, we slowly made our way along the coast keeping as close to the shores as possible. A couple of French tourists had advised us that if we stuck to the coastal road and looked for the tourist information booth we'd find the ferry just behind. And we did, after a few detours. A half hour wait and we were soon floating our way across the ria to the much, much smaller and quieter town of Cangas.
Our first day in Spain was quite mixed. The ride up the coast as far as Baiona was pleasant and quiet. Then traffic hit with a vengeance. We got good directions from a guard as to where to buy our ferry tickets, but the lady at the ticket counter tried to over charge us. We found our way out of Cangas and had a nice chat with an English couple at the Carrefour. But the fellow at the Cangas camping seemed rather brusque and the camping itself was a bit of a dive. We weren't entirely sure what to think of Galician Spain at this point.
Fortunately things improved dramatically. The ride around the peninsulas bordering each ria was filled with spectacular scenery punctuated with the occasional old looking church perched out on an exposed point. We found great lunch spots usually with equally great views and some really neat Pozos, palaces. The old stone granaries stuck up on meter high stone posts, of the old stone communal clothes washing basins, or the typical stone cross stuck up on a 10 ft high stone post were just of few of the more unique features of this Galicia region.
People also became much more animated and friendly. As we wound our way through one town looking for the route to Pontevedra one old fellow stopped to give us directions. He'd spent time in the U.S. and spoke some descent English. Upon hearing we were Americans he promptly declared that we were the first American bike tourists he'd ever met. He'd seen plenty of European ones, but never American.
In another town we stopped to ask an old man where there was a supermercado. He told us that there were supermarkets around, but he didn't know where. He kept explaining that that's a woman's job, to go grocery shopping. So we guess he'd never been in one. He seemed really sorry he couldn't help, but he did find a lady to ask who gave us directions. He sure has an interesting, if not antiquated, point of view.
Spinning around one more peninsula with stops to admire the scenery and watch people digging for clams, muscles, and other shell fish, it was time to journey inland for bit. The city of Santiago de Compostela is located about 20 km northeast from the end of the ria that stops at the town of Padron. It's on a nearly direct line of a shortcut between the west coast of Spain and the north coast. This, in addition to its importance as a historical city and major tourist destination, it makes it an ideal side trip from our coastal ride. Although it is a bit of climb going from sea level to that 280 m. height.
Santiago de Compostela has been a major tourist destination since way back in the 1200s. Actually, it's been a pilgrim destination. Legend has it that in 44 AD following St. John’s decapitation, his followers transported his body to what is today the site of Santiago for burial. Or at least they say they came to the site that is now Padron and went 17 km inland for burial. The location of his remains was long forgotten until 894 AD when some bishop happened across his bones. The archbishop of Spain promptly declared that these were, in fact, the remains of St. John and a holy site grew forthwith.
However, it is worth noting that this politically convenient location of St. John's remains just happened to occur at a time when the Christians needed a big morale boost to oust the Moors and the location just happened to be within the very small region of the Iberian Peninsula held by Christians. You don't suppose there was a little exaggeration, hmmm?
With the sudden rediscovery of the saint's bones, the place known as Santiago de Compostela soon became a local hot spot for the very religious. Taking on a pilgrim to Spain became a big attraction in the 1200s especially for the well-to-do. To meet the demand and to give the dead saint a respectable resting place, several subsequent new cathedrals were built gradually replacing the very simple and small crypt and then each other eventually resulting in the enormous cathedral of today. It can probably seat over 500 people and does so nearly every day at noon when the traditional Pilgrims mass is held. Interestingly, this huge church underwent so many remodels covering so many centuries that parts of it are in styles that were in fashion ages apart. It has some Gothic, Baroque, and Romanesque name a few.
In its first heyday, Santiago de Compostela was the most important pilgrimage site of the Catholic Church. The very early pilgrims were usually set upon the specific mission of reaching the site. Their travel journals speak mainly of directions and places to find food and water. However, by the 1200s the pilgrimage was usually undertaken by the well-off who tended to consider reaching Santiago more part of an overall adventure and not just a single goal in itself. By the 1400s and 1500s the pilgrimage had fallen into disfavor and those following the route became far and few.
That is until the 1980s. With a global renewed interest in adventure travel, the pilgrimage to Santiago was rediscovered as a unique travel experience. Once again people began to flock to the route either on foot or by bicycle. They pick up a log book at the beginning of the selected route, buy a clam shell which is a symbol that they are pilgrims, and proceed to make their way to Santiago. As before, for most it's not religious reasons that draw them to this journey. It's purely the adventure.
Over the centuries pilgrims have taken many different routes to reach Santiago and have come from all over the world. But today the route has been pretty much fixed to three or four specific ones. The one that we sort of followed comes up from Porto in Portugal taking an inland road through Pontevedra to arrive in Santiago from the south. Another more northern route tracks along the north shore of Spain until somewhere just north of Santiago and then heads directly south. The most commonly used route starts in Bordeaux France, crosses the Pyrenees at about their center, and then makes a long swing to the south before coming into Santiago from the east. Whatever route you take, you must check in at certain places along the way to have your log book stamped proving you did the whole trail.
We had chosen not to follow the southern pilgrim's route specifically because it did not follow the coast. Along its inland route we could not see that there were very many campgrounds. Hotels are way too expensive and hostels are not particularly attractive. So we decided not to bother with all the credentials. However, in the true sense of a pilgrim we really did qualify. We rode the last 200 km on bikes. It just happens we took a different road.
We parked our tent and bikes at the very nice and shady Las Cancelas campground just 2 km out of the main city center. From there it was an easy walk into town, a walk that just happened to coincide with the final steps of the main pilgrim's route, the Camino Frances as it's called. It was quite amusing to see. Every morning there's a continual stream of walkers hurrying to finish those last few km. At night the stream continues. They come in all ages and wear all sorts of hiking gear. Some carry way to much gear. Some have just a day pack. Some, those who are clearly van supported, carry nothing but a walking stick. But every one carries their shell, proudly displayed somewhere attached to their person or gear. They all march into town for a visit to the pilgrim's reception office where their names are duly recorded and they're presented with a completion certificate.
Most pilgrims stay around long enough to attend the special noon mass. During the pilgrim's mass the head priest gives a long sermon that goes on about how the pilgrimage is an original Christian custom that those who've completed it now share with those who came long before. He also reads a list of how many came from where. You don't get your individual name read. That would take far too long. After the mass they all head out for lunch, a toast of wine, and go home. The next morning the whole rather unique process starts all over again.
Because Santiago de Compostela has been such an important Christian site for so many centuries, many a church, monastery, and other building of suitable quality and decoration has been erected. So a simple wander through the narrow streets of the old town makes for a worthwhile afternoon. However, there are also a few museums worthy of attention.
One such museum is the Museu do Pobo Galicia (museum of the Galicia people). This is a very well put together ethnographic museum on just the people of the Galicia region, which in some respects is almost like a different country from the rest of Spain. It begins with a very good section on fishing complete with real and replica boats, discussions on the different types of fishing, and several pieces of equipment. It then proceeds on to a display about the normal daily and annual life of the Galician people, at least what appears to have been normal up until around the 1950s, 60s or so. It has all sorts of farm equipment, apple cider making equipment, and a great discussion on the methods of construction and typical houses of the various regions. It even shows all the different types of those raised granaries. Unfortunately most signs are in Spanish only. Had they been in English we would have easily spent a full day in just this one museum. And all this is free.
Another museum worth visiting is the one about the pilgrimages. This begins with an overall discussion of the concept of the pilgrimage. It then goes on to talk about the history and other facts related to just the Camino Santiago. In this particular case there were a lot of English handouts, so it was a very interesting museum to visit. Again, it was free.
The one museum we opted to pay for was the one associated with the cathedral. This one has the usual religious art as well as some archeological finds from excavations made during the most recent renovations. Of particular interest are the displays on the gradual changing and growth of the huge building itself. It's interesting to see how this monument was modified over its many hundred years of existence. It's no wonder it has wound up being a mix of styles that were fashionable during times so far apart. We spent the afternoon in this museum and could easily have used another hour to really do it justice. But, closing time was 5:30 PM sharp.
As far as places steeped history and loaded with awesome old architecture, Santiago has got to be the best for the Galician region. So it was well worth an extra day's visit. Yet the time to press onwards does come eventually. Next objective, the northern coast.
APPENDIX A – ROUTE Portugal
APPENDIX B – CAMPSITES
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.