Monday, October 10, 2016

Fisterra, Muxía, and a Sunset at the End of the World

If you happen to find yourself in Santiago de Compostela and have run out of things to do, I’d recommend going on day trips to check out more of Galicia’s beautiful cities and natural wonders, from the “Glass City” of A Coruña and Roman-walled Lugo to the pristine beaches of the Cíes Islands and the natural hot springs of Ourense. You can reach some really exciting places on a one-hour train ride, but if you know how to drive stick shift, it’s best to rent a car and head out west to hug the coastline until you reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Muxía, Spain
Lighthouses at Muxía

The historic fishing villages of Noia and Muros will whet your appetite for Gothic architecture and seafood tapas, whereas coastal Carnota has kept an entire beach reserved just for you. Just around the corner, the Ézaro waterfall is the only point in mainland Europe where a river empties into the sea via a waterfall.

The cherry on top (the shrimp on the paella?) is without a doubt Fisterra, also called Finisterre, from the name the Romans used to describe this area, finis terrae—“Lands End.”

Fisterra: The true ending point for the Camino de Santiago

Fisterra, Spain
The shell marks the way
The Camino de Santiago proper ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the supposed remains of the Apostle St. James are buried. Medieval Christians would go on pilgrimage across northern Spain to reach the Christian world’s third-holiest site. Afterward, many would proceed on to Galicia’s Atlantic coast—which is, after all, only 89km (55 miles) from Santiago. In Roman times, you could find an ara solis or “altar to the sun” where the lighthouse stands today, so this rocky outcropping has likely had a spiritual pull on humans since time immemorial.

A handful of pilgrims today continue to make the extension from Santiago to Fisterra, motivated by a desire to collect more stamps in their pilgrim passport…or perhaps drawn by the inexplicable allure of the sea. Barely a tenth of all pilgrims who reach Santiago keep walking to Fisterra, so this lonely, three-day hike offers an introspective escape from the hordes on the camino francés. When I hiked this route three years ago, I enjoyed passing through thick, fragrant eucalyptus groves, over old, eroded ridges, and next to rural family farms and ranches.

Fisterra, Spain
The lighthouse
The 0,0 km marker is posted at a whitewashed granite lighthouse that towers over the cliffs below. It serves as a beacon for the fleet of fishing boats that moors here every day as well as for the dozens of pilgrims searching for the Way. Plodding wearily in between the throngs who have parachuted here on charter buses from Santiago, they’re overcome with joy, having finally reached their goal. Many have walked here on foot from the Pyrenees Mountains back in France—with the blisters to prove it.

Traditionally pilgrims would burn their stinky clothes and bathe in the ocean, and you can often find some sun-bleached t-shirts tied to crosses or tattered hiking boots with sentimental quotes plastered nearby. Whether they walked 3 or 30 days to get here (or rode on a 3-hour bus tour), everyone ends up hanging out on the cliffs to watch the sun pass beneath the horizon in the evening.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

All Roads Lead to Santiago de Compostela

The Camino de Santiago phenomenon has completely taken Spain by storm over the past decade or so. This pilgrimage route originated in the early Middle Ages, fell out of popularity, and only recently has enjoyed newfound popularity with modern-day pilgrims, who are drawn to the trek by religious devotion as much as they are by adventure.

The Camino or “Way of St. James” terminates in Spain’s green northwestern corner, in the rainy city of Santiago de Compostela—the purported burial place of the Apostle St. James. While the most popular route—the French Way—trickles across north-central Spain from the Pyrenees toward the Atlantic coast, there are also around a dozen or so other trails that thread routes across the diverse quilt that is modern Spain.

Some are brief, requiring less than a week on foot—the English Way, for example—while others recall the great overland trips from Roman times—like the Vía de la Plata that starts in Sevilla.

During the three years I spent working in Spain, I managed to pass through every single region in the country except one (Murcia), and in the process I stumbled upon countless segments of the various Caminos (plural) de Santiago that link such far-flung cities as Huesca, Figueres, and Granada with Santiago de Compostela. Read on for a retrospective photo post of nearly every yellow arrow or shell I came across during my travels in Spain.

Camino francés — The French Way

Camino de Santiago
The most popular route by far starts in the Pyrenees on the French side of the border in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and crosses the mountain range, entering into Spain via the region of Navarra. The first major city along the “French Way” is Pamplona, famous for the Running of the Stupid People Bulls every July.

Camino de Santiago
It continues on to Logroño, the capital of Spain’s most famous wine region and a hoppin’ center for pinchos (Basque-style tapas).

Camino de Santiago
Moving west, pilgrims stop at Burgos, the region where the Castilian language was born and the home of the country’s most dazzling Gothic cathedral.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Photo Post: Watching the Ézaro Waterfall Empty Into the Ocean

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
Ézaro waterfall
Northwest Spain continues to amaze me the more I learn about it. You’d think it’d be hard to top a region that happens to have coastal islands with pristine white-sands beaches, one of the most beautiful historic town centers in Europe, or the only city that is still completely enclosed by its original Roman walls. But Galicia’s got yet another stunning treasure: the only river in continental Europe that empties into the sea via a waterfall.

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
On the boardwalk
The Xallas River pours down the glossy hillside of Mt. Pindo, having trickled out of a dam that’s been generating hydroelectric power since the ‘60s. When friends both Galician and expat alike raved to me about the Ézaro Waterfall—pronounced “EH-thah-row” [ˈe.θa.ɾo]—I always imagined a river rushing over something like the White Cliffs of Dover before dramatically crashing into the ocean. The real thing is a lot more subdued, as the river merely rolls down an eroded hillside into a tiny estuary before it reaches the open seas. But knowing that there’s nothing like this anywhere else in Europe makes the Ézaro a special place indeed.

Ézaro Waterfall, Spain
Flowers above the falls
This waterfall is just a hop, skip, and a jump from the popular pilgrimage site of Fisterra (“the End of the World” on the Camino de Santiago), so it’s understandably mobbed by tourists daytripping from Santiago de Compostela in charter buses on their way to see the cliff-bound lighthouse. To escape the crowds, it’s best to drive up, up, and away from the parking lot to the miradoiro or lookout point within eyeshot of the dam. The lookout point gives you some perspective on the whole lay of the land as Galicia’s rugged granite terrain gives way to the infinite Atlantic Ocean.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Photo Post: Deserted Beaches & Fresh Seafood in Carnota, Spain

Carnota, Spain
Mar de Lira beach
It’s not every day you come across a deserted beach that literally stretches for miles beneath a deep blue sky. Yet that’s exactly what happened to me one warm, sunny Saturday in April while exploring the far western reaches of Galicia in northwest Spain.

Carnota, Spain
Gorse-covered hillside
The town of Carnota (really just a collection of rural houses and small family farms) stretches across a flat tract of Galicia’s Atlantic coastline, tucked away in a bend of the Ría de Corcubión—one of many inlets of the sea that extend like fingers into the mainland. Five of these estuaries trickle down the region’s western coast, where steep hillsides contrast with white-sands beaches and where the economy depends on both fishing and white wine production.

Carnota, Spain
Longest hórreo in Galicia
But Carnota’s got more than just stunning, vast beaches and pretty rural scenery. This little coastal town is also home to one of the region’s longest hórreos or stone corncrib used to store corn and other crops after the harvest—a common sight across the region, but never as long as the one here. Called an hórreo comunal, this “communal granary” served multiple families when it was built in the late 1700s and is one of those “curiosities” you often find in rural Galicia.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Muros & Noia, Spain: Two Charming Galician Fishing Villages

Many folks visit Santiago de Compostela because they’re drawn to the medieval mystique of the Camino de Santiago, which ends in the city. A popular daytrip from Santiago involves heading out west to the tiny coastal town of Fisterra, the “Lands End” of Galicia, which many pilgrims consider the true ending point of this pilgrimage that runs across northern Spain. A mighty lighthouse guards craggy cliffs, what the Romans considered to be finis terrae, the ends of the earth.

Noia, Spain
Outside Noia
Sadly, many people hop on charter buses that make express runs between Santiago and the Atlantic coast, completely bypassing the intervening countryside. It’s a real shame because there’s so much to see and do in between those two points, from charming fishing villages to secluded beaches and even waterfalls.

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to spend some time on the blog sharing with y’all the best places to see on your way from Santiago to the End of the World. Today, let’s visit our first two stops: Muros and Noia.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

5 City Parks to Picnic At in Santiago de Compostela, Spain

I fell in love with the northwest Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela for several reasons when I lived there for two years, not least the glorious granite old town and delicious tradition of free tapas. One big reason I renewed to teach English in the area for a second year—despite two consecutive winter months of endless rain—was the city’s attractive system of public parks. There’s just so many different places you can go to hang out with friends, people-watch, and enjoy a slice of empanada or some fresh local strawberries.

1) The Alameda

Parque da Alameda, Santiago de Compostela, Spain
An abuelo goes on paseo
Santiago’s grandest and oldest city park might seem like an odd place to lay out a picnic blanket; after all, who wants to sit down in the way of all those joggers and fur-coat-wearing old ladies? Yes, most of the park is one big promenade that offers impressive views of the old town and a lovely curated garden. But there’s a small parcel on the far eastern side of the Alameda near a busy intersection with a flat, grassy lawn that’s the perfect spot for people-watching, guitar-playing, and doing handstands. It’s right in front of a high school so it definitely attracts a younger crowd, but every time the sun is out you’ll find folks here basking in the sunshine.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Betanzos, Spain: My New Favorite Galician Village

As I headed back home to Santiago de Compostela after spending Good Friday 2015 in Ferrol, I took a cross between a pitstop and a daytrip in the coastal village of Betanzos, one of the hidden treasures of northwest Spain. Santiago will always be first in my heart, but Betanzos quickly won me over as my new favorite village in Galicia.

Betanzos, Spain
Old homes with galerías

Welcoming locals

Betanzos, Spain
In the old town
The single-car diesel clunker I rode to Betanzos on dropped me off at what was more a clearing in the woods than a proper train station. Seeing a backpack-clad boy scrutinizing his phone’s Google Maps app, a dad who had picked up his daughter there offered to drive me in to the old town and save me a hike. In retrospect it probably wasn’t the safest decision to hop into a complete stranger’s car (sorry Mom!) but I trusted my gut and hopped in.

My leap of faith paid off, as these two kind betanceiros dropped me off in the central plaza and were fun to chat with for a couple of minutes as we circled around what were once the old town walls. In short, a lovely introduction to a lovely town.
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