Marv and Carole Feldman are back with an adventure that took them from Florida to South Carolina to Spain and back!
Having extensively traveled in Spain over the years, and having previously journeyed to neighboring northern Portugal, this time we set our sights on rugged Galicia in the northwest corner of Spain, an area new to us.
After driving from our home in Jacksonville, FL to Charleston, SC, we checked into the Inns of Charleston on Charleston AFB for a good night’s rest. Next day, without any competition (42 seats offered with 12 takers), we were selected for that afternoon’s USAF C-17 flight to Rota.
Our eight hour flight to Spain from Charleston to Rota Naval Station (about two hours by bus south of Seville) brought us there in mid-morning. Leaving our luggage at the Navy Gateway Inn, we headed to the police station for the required “stamping in” to Spain. After enjoying a wonderful cup of coffee, we crossed the street to a local travel agency to arrange our initial Spanish travel. Now exhausted, we returned to the Naval Base for well-needed rest. Incidentally, the price of the room at the Rota Navy Gateway Inn was $84/night – quite expensive when compared with the $60 we had paid the previous night at the Inns of Charleston!
The following morning, we were up early and headed by bus to Seville Airport and, in just over an hour, a Vueling Airlines flight took us to A Coruna (Gallego language)/La Coruna (Castilian Spanish), a thriving city near Spain’s northwest tip. Our first impressions of A Coruna, from our over-the-water descent, to the lush green scenery (due to the abundant rain), the unique Gallego architecture, dinner at a tiny waterside eatery, to our “room with a view” overlooking the beach, were very positive and justified our decision to explore this seldom-visited region of Spain.
We were not the first to discover this magnificent corner of Spain! The Romans who came and settled this beautiful seaside region thousands of years ago built the oldest continuing operational lighthouse (yes, it still functions today) in the world. We climbed all 235 steps to the top of the Tower of Hercules, together with many other tourists, and were rewarded with wonderful views of the city, its ports and sweeping beaches. The only downside of being here then in A Coruna was that there were three cruise ships in port that day which brought thousands of tourists there to flood its sites, bars and cafes. Like Barcelona, Ketchikan, etc., the cruise industry has had a powerful impact on this previously untouched northwest corner of Spain.
Exploring A Coruna, with its unique Galician “galeries” (glass-fronted balconies) on buildings, the magnificent Plaza de Maria Pita (named after the heroine who helped repulse Drake’s British attempt to occupy the town in 1589), and charming Old Town with its Synagogue Street (hinting of the Jews who once lived here) made for a delight. And, to our surprise, our hotel was just steps from Picasso’s House and Museum. Here, from age 9-13, he lived with his family from 1891-95 near the art school where he studied, initially under the guidance of his father (a teacher at the school). At his first exhibition as a 13 year old, a local newspaper proclaimed he would have “days of glory and a brilliant future”.
After a three night stay in A Coruna, we left this gem of a city, heading south on a 1.5 hour fast train to Vigo to continue exploring this special part of Spain – wonderful things happen when we “look just around the corner”. Fortunately, our very comfortable Vigo hotel was just a stone’s throw from the train station and well-located for our stay here.
A city bus on a circular route gave us a good introduction and overall view of Vigo. And the steep hills (like San Francisco) would give our hearts and legs a rigorous workout!
Top of our list was the tiny medieval Casco Vello (Old Town), on a steep hill (yes, more climbing), with its jumble of narrow cobblestone lanes named Basketmakers’ Street, Hatmakers’ Street, etc. We had this area virtually to ourselves as the city was void of conspicuous tourists during our stay. In Old Town, on a surprisingly warm and sunny day (it is often overcast and chilly in Vigo), we enjoyed a delicious al fresco lunch of local specialties on a flower-filled restaurant terrace, with a sweeping panorama of the busy port below. Our day came to a delightful and relaxing conclusion at a bar, with creative complimentary tapas, as Marvin downed a local brew.
Galicia’s Jewish Past
Our trusty (old but still useful) Lonely Planet guidebook convinced us to spend an extra day in Vigo to explore one of the best Jewish heritage sites in all Europe – the little town of Ribadavia. From Vigo, we took a marvelous early morning 1.5 hour trip by local train, past rolling hills and rushing rivers, through vineyards and thick, green wooded forests to Ribadavia. The only tourists in town, it appeared, we headed up hill for a fascinating excursion there.
While Ribadavia is famous as the center of the Ribeiro white wine industry of Galicia, our focus was its Jewish history. Some say this was the home of thousands of Jews in the Middle Ages. They prospered here until their Expulsion in 1492 and the Inquisition which burned Jews alive from then until 1834. Here in Ribadavia’s Jewish Quarter, we found streets (e.g. Jerusalem Street), a building which might have been the synagogue and a fabulous bakery with traditional Sephardic cookies, including one in the shape of a Star of David (we munched on a sample of these on our return train trip!).
In Ribadavia’s main square was the excellent Jewish Information Centre of Galicia whose museum displays shared the story of Jewish history in the region with us. The Jewish Quarter here is one of the best preserved historical Jewish sites in Spain. For further information, go to Red de Juderias | Caminos de Sefarad (in Spanish) and click on “Ribadavia”.
Back to Vigo
As we get a bit older, we look for relaxing opportunities in our travels. Always enjoying trips on the water, we spent our last day in Vigo by taking a catamaran ferry across Vigo “Bay” to the tiny town of Cangas where we had a delicious lunch and strolled along the waterfront before the trip back.
In less than 15 minutes by fast train from Vigo, we were in Pontevedra (namesake of Jacksonville’s Ponte Vedra). Once Galicia’s largest city and the place where the Santa Maria (Columbus’ flagship) was built, delightful Pontevedra of today is more tranquil and, with several buildings of historical interest, the perfect place for a short stay. With more than a dozen attractive colonnaded small plazas in its old quarter (where we had a hard time selecting where to eat and drink – so many choices!) and decent weather, our stay was exactly what we needed before heading by train to the more tourist-centric Santiago de Compostela.
Santiago de Compostela
What a contrast from the quiet beaches, cafes, and vineyards of the four other Galician cities we visited to the frantic crowds of Santiago de Compostela. Immediately upon our arrival, this felt like Disneyland as, no doubt, it is the most visited city in all Galicia. Throngs of tour groups, individual tourists, pilgrims, trekkers, bicyclists and others from all over the world, crowded its narrow streets and lined up at its churches, bars and cafes.
And so, inside the Cathedral, we also joined the hordes and descended below ground to glimpse the ornate silver tomb of (what we were told was) the Apostle St. James, after whom the city is named. For over a thousand years, faithful pilgrims have made the nearly 500 mile trek on the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) across northern Spain, to come in reverence.
The Cathedral and its surrounding museums were our (and others’) focus. Unfortunately, the grand Portico of Glory (at the front of the Cathedral) has been shrouded and covered with scaffolding as the Cathedral undergoes major renovations. Nevertheless, we continued into the massive Cathedral, marveling at its grandeur, visiting the Cathedral Museums (“home” to Royal Tombs, a magnificent old library, priceless Flemish and Spanish tapestries and other religious treasures). Afterwards, a guide explained the history of the site as we toured the Cathedral roof, giving us spectacular, panoramic views of the city.
We were exhausted and were tempted to join many exhausted pilgrims, lying in the sun on the cobblestones of the vast Praza do Obradoiro (Workers’ Plaza) in front of the Cathedral. Instead, we ate a delicious lunch before retiring to our nearby comfortable posada (traditional Spanish inn), a haven of calm and tranquility, to rest for siesta.
Our last day in this city was unstructured and relaxing. Avoiding the packed streets on which we had previously found ourselves, we ventured further afield, randomly discovering delightful plazas, leafy parks, quiet lanes and hidden narrow alleys, and doing a bit of window shopping – quite tempting. A fountain here and a sculpture there, a street juggler here and a Galician bagpiper there, viewed from a cafe terrace, were delightful pleasures. And we even found a tiny bit of the old Jewish quarter of Santiago de Compostela’s Ruela Xerusalen (Jerusalem Alley).
In the “it’s a small world” category, we bumped into and had coffee with the young lady who had been our guide at the Picasso House and Museum in A Coruna, over a week before.
Now time to say adios to this lovely corner of Spain. We boarded a high-speed train for the pleasant journey back, and head south. After one night in Madrid, it was on to Seville by another high-speed train. A few hours after arriving at Seville’s Santa Justa train station, we were on the bus from Seville to Rota. Upon arrival at Rota Naval Station at around 6.30 PM, luck was with us as we discovered there was a flight scheduled with 2 AM show-time. Since we had traveled all day, we chose to “splurge” and took a room at the Navy Gateway Inn which allowed us time for a quick dinner, brief nap and freshen-up on base. We were the last two passengers to be selected for the flight and were off (at 6 AM) on a USAF C-17 back to Charleston AFB. There, we picked up our car and, despite our fatigue, drove home to Florida, so concluding our latest marvelous Spanish odyssey.
Once home, unpacked and recovering from jet lag, we looked at Galicia as a fond memory. This seldom-traveled-to northwest corner of Spain had been on our “must visit” list for years and we are delighted to have had the experience. It is vastly different from the rest of Spain:
* Different language (Gallego, which is a far older language than Castilian Spanish). Galician culture is related to that of the Celts, hence the bagpipes whose haunting sounds we often heard throughout the region.
* Different foods – not surprising that this coastal region is very big on seafood, especially octopus (pulpo) and shellfish. On the other hand, the fresh-from-the-sea fish we tasted was delicious.
* Different topography – while most of Spain is dry and brown (especially now), this rain-drenched and windswept region is lush green with verdant misty mountains, rushing torrents, and dense forests. Fog drifting in from the sea in the morning turns into sunny afternoons. And its beaches and bays are stunning as well.
* Heavily influenced by the Catholic church – there was an abundance of closed churches in other regions of Spain. On the contrary, here were huge crowds in Galicia’s churches and cathedrals, especially the thousands of pilgrims we encountered who made the famous Camino de Santiago walk (for hundreds of miles), following in the footsteps of St. James the Apostle.
While we did not see it all, we did enjoy five very different Galician cities, getting an in-depth local experience. We hope that you, too, enjoyed traveling with us vicariously.
We will be happy to answer any questions and, if you would like to view our slideshow of this trip, we can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy traveling!
Col. Marv Feldman, USAF (ret) and Carole Feldman