Thursday, October 30, 2014

Colorful Coruña, Spain’s “Glass City”

I’ll be honest: I’m not the biggest fan of A Coruña, Galicia’s second-largest city and the major metropolis along the region’s north Atlantic coast. Its residents have a reputation of being pijo (snobby), the city is sprawling and confusingly-laid out, and much of Coruña has all that Big City character Madrid is known for…without the charm.

A Coruña, Spain
Town hall, seen from Avenida Puerta de Aires
But there’s something attractive about Coruña that I just can’t shake. Compared with Santiago and the rest of inland Galicia, A Coruña is bright and colorful. While I love the simple granite, whitewashed houses with green doors that are oh-so-typical here in Santiago, it can get a little repetitive when all the houses look the same. In most Galician coastal towns, however, people paint their homes a variety of colors, and A Coruña is no different. Here you can find red, pink, orange, and blue homes, and the town hall has pretty red roofs to boot.

A Coruña, Spain
Hydrangeas in the Castle of San Antón
While Coruña may not be my favorite city in Galicia, it’s got a lot going for it and is a pleasant place to make a daytrip to from Santiago.

Galerías

A Coruña, Spain
Galerías
All across the northern coast of Spain it’s common to find houses with galerías, or glassed-in balconies that let the sunlight in and keep the rain (and humidity) out—an important feature in this green but rainy part of the country. Interestingly, galerías were first used in shipbuilding Ferrol, where they initially adorned the sterns of the great Spanish galleons. They eventually migrated to the back porches of local houses, finally drifting southwest from Ferrol down to A Coruña.

A Coruña, Spain
Galerías
Coruña’s Avenida da Marina is where the turn-of-the-century bourgeoisie took galerías to their reflective, exuberant extreme. Wall-to-wall (and almost sea level-to-roof) windows cover every possible square foot of balcony on these houses that line the heart of the city: Praza de María Pita and Rúa Rego de Auga. Their main entrances open north to that street and square, but their primary balconies face south (where the sun stays for most of the day), so to maximize sunlight, glass spans the whole width of each house. It doesn’t hurt that these are beachfront properties, either!

Modernista architecture

A Coruña, Spain
Town hall
Something that I can’t get enough of is Coruña’s fine collection of Art Nouveau-style homes and buildings. Don’t get me wrong—I love getting to soak up over-the-top Baroque façades and moody, primitive Romanesque churches in and around Santiago—but it’s always a nice change of pace to see something different around town.

A Coruña, Spain
Apartment block
Architecture nerd that I am, I enjoy taking in these grand, turn-of-the-century residences scattered around the older districts of Coruña. In contrast to the uninspiring movements that revived the Classical, Gothic, and other historical styles in the 19th century, Art Nouveau (modernista in Spanish) architects pioneered a new way of design, one that rejected the austere façades and sharp geometric forms of Neoclassicism in favor of free-flowing forms derived from nature that seemed to make the houses come alive, forms full of movement and flourish.

Recent industrial advancements made huge window panes and wildly-shaped iron gratings possible. And the focus on the natural world meant parabolic curves and other scary words from algebra influenced the shape of rooms and balconies. Most of all, the pretty façades seem to drip with gloppy, vibrant life.

That Big City life

A Coruña, Spain
World’s first Zara store
Galicia isn’t known for being a very urbanized region; a large part of the population lives outside major towns and cities in any of the thousands of aldeas or tiny hamlets scattered across the countryside. Home to one of the most important ports on the north Galician coast, Coruña exploded in size during the ‘60s and ‘70s as countless Galicians gravitated here, fleeing the now-mechanized fields to find work. Because of this, A Coruña is now the second-biggest city in the region, and the seventeenth-largest in Spain. Unfortunately, most of the growth happened at the end of dictator Francisco Franco’s rule, when ugly apartment blocks sprouted up to accommodate the huge influx of people, so a lot of the city isn’t particularly pretty (the Modernista homes and the old town notwithstanding).

A Coruña, Spain
Orzán Beach
Something interesting about Coruña (and her counterpart to the south, Vigo), is that the native Galician language is hardly spoken here; because of this you’re more likely to hear the city called “La Coruña” instead of its official Galician form. Galego has historically been stigmatized as a rural dialect, how the “country bumpkins” speak out in the hills, and that stigma endures today despite the normalization of the language after Franco’s death.

Tower of Hercules

A Coruña, Spain
The lighthouse
One of Galicia’s three World Heritage Sites can be found on the far northern peninsula of A Coruña: the Torre de Hércules. Constructed by the Romans in the 2nd century CE, it holds the honor of being the world’s oldest (and only) Roman lighthouse still in use today. It was first built as the Farum Brigantium (“Farum” meaning “Lighthouse” and “Brigantium” the name for the original port settlement) but fizzled out after the Viking attacks of the Middle Ages. However, by the Renaissance A Coruña had become a bustling city and the lighthouse was back in the game.

A Coruña, Spain
The Atlantic Ocean with Celtic compass rose
Between 1788 and 1806, the lighthouse was completely restored and given a shiny new façade in the prevailing Neoclassical style—so what we see today from the outside is not what it would have looked like in Roman times. But when you go up inside the tower to visit, you still get to marvel at Roman engineering: heavy masonry blocks that have endured nearly two millennia of invasions and earthquakes and interior arches that buttressed the lighthouse from collapse. From the very top you can take in views of Coruña spreading out to the south, and of the Atlantic Ocean, infinite and blue.

Getting around

Like I said above, A Coruña is huge, and unless you have a car it’s sometimes difficult to get around. The Tower of Hercules, for example, is an hour’s walk from the train station! Thankfully if you’re arriving in town by bus or train, bus #11 will take you where you need to go. It links the lighthouse with the bus and train stations, plus it also goes south into the industrial park where IKEA is. And if you ever get lost, the Coruña bus system is all plugged in to Google Maps.

Ever been to Coruña? Do you prefer the Big City life or things more laid back in smaller towns? Comment below!

For more pictures, check out my albums on Flickr here and here.
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