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Meeting a Pilgrim at The World’s End

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I have driven to the furthest point west on the Spanish coast, or so most people believe. Actually, Cabo Tourinan, 20km further north, claims that record.

Along the way, I see several walkers with large backpacks, wooden walking sticks and plastic capes shielding them and their belongings from the unpleasant weather. For most pilgrims, their Camino finishes at Santiago de Compostela, but many continue on to the coast and Cabo Finisterre (The World’s End).

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I feel like a fraud, driving up in my motorhome, and I respectfully watch as a small, bald, bespectacled man takes selfies in front of the ancient 15th century stone cross. He calls me over and asks if I can take a photo for him. I’m happy to oblige and congratulate him on the successful completion of his journey. Amazingly, I discover that Jin (an American Korean) has walked from St Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in only 34 days, a journey that takes most people at least 6 weeks. Although he freely admits to catching the bus from Santiago to Finisterre on account of the bad weather.

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We walk separately past the bar, the Parador and down to the lighthouse and simple symbolic concrete cross beyond. There is a large pile of ashes near the cross where pilgrims have burnt the clothes they wore during their trek. Other mementoes lie scattered around it: a lonely boot atop a rock, a fluorescent green compass and piles of scallop shells, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

I offer Jin a lift back to town but he declines, preferring to walk. I respect and admire his stamina, right to the very end. We take a selfie together and go our separate ways.

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Costa Da Morte – Coast of the Dead

There are many reasons that the Galician coastline between A Coruna and Muros is named for the dead.

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For a start, it is dotted with dolmens, ancient burial chambers, dating from almost 6000 years ago. Between Baio and Serramo there is a signposted “ruta de dolmens” and I start with the most well preserved specimen in the area, the Dolmen Dombate. It is housed in a glass-walled visitor centre which, according to the signs, is only open from Friday to Sunday. It is Thursday but the security guard seems happy for me to go inside and have a look, reminding me not to use the flash on my camera. The dolmen is unimpressive compared to the Tables des Marchands in Brittany and looks slightly fake. It can only be viewed from a distance, which is most disappointing as I had read that the interior has an engraving of a ship. I contemplate asking the guard if I can have a sneeky peek but he seems keen to leave and have his lunch. I try to find the Pedra Cuberta, a dolmen with a 6m long chamber, but the “ruta de dolmens” follows narrow farm roads with no place to park a car, let alone a motorhome!

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The next day brings me to the Axeitos Dolmen, which is situated in a park not far from the village of Olveira. The site is deserted and I approach the dolmen along a path lined with oak and pine trees. The wind is strong, causing me to be bombed with acorns and pine cones. It’s possible to get up close and personal with this example, I can even venture inside. If there were any carvings they have long been eroded by the elements and covered with green lichen. Earlier, I had come across a petroglyph, hidden behind a supermarket. At first it just looked like a pile of rocks, covered in leaves and lichen, but then I saw it, the faint outline of a circular pattern, and I was excited.

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2000 years later, Iron Age fortified settlements were built along the coast. I discover the ruins of the Barona Castro in the most spectacular setting, on a promontory jutting into the sea below the Barbanza Mountains. The signed footpath takes me through a pine forest and then out onto the granite slabs which form a treacherous road down to the settlement. However, as I leave the shelter of the forest, I am most literally blown away by the stormy winds. The rain stings my face and the ruins are almost obscured by the sea spray. I might be British and therefore used to such inclement weather, but I’m not suicidal. I opt to view the site from a safe distance. Besides, it has apparently been “touched up” for the tourists and reconstructed to better simulate the original features.

During the Middle Ages, fortresses and defences were built at some of the inland towns and villages. Mens has a fine example of an ivy-clad castle with a tiny Romanesque chapel, supposedly linked by an underground tunnel, and at Vimianzo, a 16th century castle has been turned into an art gallery and exhibition space for traditional crafts. Others have been transformed into expensive, luxury Paradors.

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It’s not hard to forget the dead in these parts. There are many 12th century churches and stone crosses, as well as the modern-day cemeteries. Even the 18th century horreos (granaries) are adorned with crosses. The coastal rocks have caused many shipwrecks over the years from Armada warships, fishing trawlers and large tankers. Also, many people have drowned while swimming in the treacherous waters.

The 19th century Napoleonic Wars bought foreign soldiers to the region and battles resulted in many casualties, including Scottish General John Moore, who was killed by a cannonball during the battle of Elvina on 14th January 1809. He is remembered by a memorial in the San Carlos gardens in A Coruna.

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Finally, the 21st century brought an environmental threat to the coast and death to much of the marine and bird life as well as major disruption to the fishing industry, the main economic lifeline of the region. On the 19th November 2002, the “Prestige”, a Greek oil tanker, broke up off the Spanish coast and spilt 63,000 tons of oil. Even today we fill the seas with rubbish that won’t decompose. A short walk along the beach at Boiro found it littered with plastic disposable lighters, shoes, a comb, plastic bottles, bottle tops and a dead seagull, all washed up after the recent storm.

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The Tower of Hercules

The Tower of Hercules is the oldest working lighthouse in the world. Built by the Romans in the 2nd century, it has been protecting ships from the rocky shoreline around A Coruna for thousands of years.

It doesn’t look much like a Roman construction but that is because of the 18th century surrounding walls, which have served to protect it, and the modern electrical beam which can be seen from 32 miles away. Originally, the light would have been produced by a huge oil lamp projected onto a parabolic mirror. The fuel would have been transported up to the top of the tower by an external ramp, which is still represented in the more recent exterior stonework.

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The original architect of the tower, Caius Sevius Lupus from Aeminium, Lusitania (now Coimbra in Portugal) dedicated his work to the God Mars. So why is it known as the Tower of Hercules? It was actually King Alfonso X who connected the ancient myths of Hercules with the city of A Coruna in the 13th century. According to the legend, Hercules defeated the giant Geryon and buried his severed head, declaring that a tower should be built above it and a city established. He named the city Crunia, after a local woman who lived in the area and with whom he had fallen in love. His nephew, Hispan, then completed the tower and topped it with a light that would never be extinguished.

It’s 242 steps to the top of the tower and although the Roman lighthouse was 21m shorter it would still have been quite a climb to keep the lamp burning. Unfortunately, the view today is less than spectacular so I decide to stay at ground level and admire the unusual sculptures in the surrounding park.

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Maria Pita – Heroine of A Coruna

The largest square in A Coruna is surrounded by busy cafes and bars, protected by arched porticoes, and overlooked by the monumental town hall. In the centre stands a statue of its namesake, Maria Pita who, up until 1589, was an insignificant wife of a butcher.

A few years before she became the heroine of the city, King Philip II of Spain decided to try and force England to revert to its Catholic faith. Queen Elizabeth I had recently beheaded Mary Queen of Scots, who Philip had hoped would claim the English throne, and in retaliation, Philip decided to assemble the largest fleet of warships in Spanish history with the main objective of invading England. However, Francis Drake heard about this plan and launched a counter-attack, sailing into Cadiz in 1587 and burning the parked fleet. Undeterred, a Spanish Armada of 130 ships set sail from A Coruna in July 1588 with 10,000 sailors and 19,000 soldiers on board. Following a fierce battle in the English Channel, the defeated Spanish had to circumnavigate the British Isles in order to return home to Spain. When they finally limped back into port they had lost half their ships and most of their soldiers.

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However, for Drake the fight was not yet over and he sailed 30 ships into A Coruna one night in 1589. Maria Pita spotted the fleet and raised the alarm, enabling the local citizens to resist the attack. She also, supposedly, captured Drakes flag and soon became the symbol of heroism in the city. Who says “girl power” is a 21st century invention?

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Dinosaurs and Doc Martin

The Asturian coastline between Gijon and Ribadesella is known as the Dinosaur Coast. Not unlike the Jurassic Coast in the south of England, it is an area rich in fossils and footprints. I begin my search for dinosaurs at the Jurassic Museum, hidden in the pine forest above the town of Colunga. Soon I am surrounded by a stegosaurus, brachiosaurus and T-Rex, but this is no Spielberg movie and I seem to be the only living thing around except for the enthusiastic young man at the entrance desk. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I don’t really want to be inside a museum so I ask for information about walks in the area and am presented with a ‘field guide’ to the dinosaur coast with the suggestion that I visit the largest dinosaur footprint at neighbouring La Griega Beach.

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The beach is quiet for such a sunny Saturday but it is October and the campsite closed two weeks ago. A wooden footbridge takes me across the estuary to a well-marked footpath which winds through the pine trees and undulates along the cliff top. Steps lead down to the beach and the huge dinosaur footprint preserved in a limestone slab. It’s actually a lot easier to see than I imagined and I try to conjure up the image of the massive creature that left its mark 200 million years ago.

From La Griega Beach I can see the small fishing village of Lastres, clinging to the cliff side. Once an important whaling centre, it is now more well-known for being the location of the Spanish TV series “Dr Mateo”, better known to the English as “Doc Martin”. (In fact, Doc Martin also has versions in France, Germany, Holland and Greece).

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Although Lastres boasts steep, narrow, cobbled streets, it is not quite as picturesque as Port Isaac in Cornwall, but its new-found fame may encourage the locals to spruce it up a bit. The tourist office provides a themed map with a route passing all the main locations from the TV series. Dr Mateo’s house is really quite grand – apparently he’s just as grumpy as Doc Martin and also has a phobia of blood. I only wonder if the sarcastic humour of the English version translates into Spanish!

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Pelayo – The Last King of the Visigoths

Although my planned route is to follow the coasts of Spain and Portugal, I am easily tempted inland. The lure of the Picos de Europa National Park takes me into the mountains to the pilgrimage site of Covadonga. It’s such a popular place that the road up the valley is lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and overflow car parks but October is a quiet time of the year and I am able to wind my way to the very top and park in front of the grand museum building.

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The dominating feature of Covadonga is the Neo-Romanesque 19th century basilica, built on the site of the ancient battle between the Asturians and the Moors in 722. Legend suggests that Pelayo and his 300 followers were outnumbered 1000 to 1, but they defended their land and kept their freedom.

The basilica is impressive from the outside but rather plain and boring on the inside. Below it sits the huge grey Gran Hotel Pelayo with its overpriced restaurant catering for the coachloads of pensionistas. Beyond the hotel, through a long carved tunnel created in 1901, is a small cave (actually, more of an overhang) where Pelayo and his wife are entombed. Water cascades from below it, into a deep pool where the waters are said to have magical properties ensuring that you will marry. I didn’t bother to test that theory!

12km below Covadonga is the town of Cangas de Onis, which Pelayo established as the first capital of Asturias, but the site was inhabited at least 4000 years before that, given the bronze-age dolmen housed in the crypt of the Santa Cruz chapel. The chapel was founded in 733, though the present building on the site dates from a much later period.

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Nearby, the Sella River and Guena River meet, the former being spanned by a high-arched 13th century mediaeval bridge – strangely referred to as the Puente Romano (Roman Bridge). The main street offers souvenir shops selling brightly-coloured T-shirts with humorous slogans and expensive delicatessens providing local cheese made from three milks (cows, goats and sheep) and DIY kits for making the Asturian speciality of Fabada – a slow-cooked, bean stew with ham, black sausage and chorizo. Sadly, I’ve missed the local cheese festival, which was held last weekend, but in a few days they are holding the honey festival, yet another local delicacy.

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Brittany Ferries – All About Art

The crossing from Portsmouth to Santander is more like a cruise than the normal cross channel ferry.

For a start, I have a very nice cabin with ensuite shower room, desk and comfy single bed. It’s located towards the rear of the ship, but along the central axis and relatively low so that when the ship starts to rock in the breezy Bay of Biscay conditions, there is little sway to be felt while I sleep.

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The communal areas of the ship are varied. There’s a plush expensive restaurant with adjoining piano bar at the stern or for the more frugal passengers, like myself, there is a self-service restaurant and café at the bow. Two cinemas offer the latest blockbusters or there is live entertainment in the bar; singers, magicians and an afternoon general knowledge quiz. There is even a small spa where you can get a massage or manicure to help you ease into that relaxed holiday mood.

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However, Brittany Ferries have an even more unique way to pass the time during the 24 hour ferry crossing on the Pont Aven. Dotted about the ship are pieces of art, each with a story to tell and passengers can view the art while listening to information about it from a download. A map guides me to the 21 art installations while two English guides whisper in my ear via my MP3 player.

The artwork varies from brightly coloured modernist paintings to blown glass sculptures and Quimper earthenware which seems a dangerous choice given the motion of the ship in the strong winds. My favourites are the tiled mosaics around the top deck pool which feature traditional Breton musicians and the watercolours lining the corridors of the Commodore Suites which depict the building of the ship.