Cudillero—Santiago de Compostela day 1

Sunday 23 June 2013

Today was the second leg of our road trip across the northern coast of Spain. Our aim was to drive from our base at Castañedo near Cudillero to the airport at Santiago de Compostela near Sigüeiro. So, for the last time, we pulled onto the “skyway” that soared above our valley and we headed west along the A-8 through Asturias. The driving conditions were a lot better than the first leg of our journey, so we were certain to reach our destination well ahead of the 7 p.m. deadline. We had a car; we had a few hours to kill, and we were bound to get hungry sooner or later. So where was the best place to pull in for lunch?

We ruled out A Coruña because I was reluctant to drive into a large city. So Susie opted for Betanzos which is a short distance to the east; it is significantly smaller, and it also has an “old city” with interesting attractions. So after we had driven about 200 kilometres through Asturias and into the province of Galicia, with its more gentle topography, we pulled off the highway and descended into Betanzos. We passed through what looked like a modern business district, and kept driving until the streets grew narrower and the buildings looked more ramshackle—a sure sign that one is approaching the older quarters of a town. At length we reached a small river. I spied what might have been a legal parking space, pulled in, and did a quick reconnoître on foot (this strategy had served us well in Llanes on the first leg of our road trip). I found a small café by the river which advertised a typical local dish that Susan was keen to sample. This did not satisfy Susie’s curiosity, however, so we found a more convincing parking space nearby and set off on foot into the old quarter.

We were at a disadvantage in that we had no map, only the GPS from the car. It was the middle of the day; it was hot, and everything was shut. We found only one sign of life: a couple who ran a café were preparing a barbecue for later in the afternoon. They told us that there might be something to eat “in about an hour” and they added something about it being the Feast of San Juan. We undertook to return, but thought it prudent to see if we could find something open, because if one hour should turn into two—as it often does in Spain—then we might be in danger of missing our 7 p.m. deadline at Santiago.

And so we began to wander. We wandered past an impressive medieval church, and into what looked like the main town square. It was uncanny how quiet and deserted the place was. At length, we chance upon a café just off the main square. The waitress was unable to provide lunch, but would a cold beer and some tapas do? Gratefully, we sat in the shade of a huge tree next to a church and enjoyed a variety of tapas that was new to us: chick peas stewed in something that looked like pork. We were to surmise later that it was probably tripe. It tasted fantastic.

After the edge was taken of our thirst and hunger, the church bells rang, a vast portal opened behind us, and the townsfolk flooded out in their Sunday best clothes. One minute we were in a ghost town; the next we were in the midst of a fiesta where babies were kissed and beers were ordered from waitresses who were run off their feet, and a young girl in her first holy communion finery was fussed over and the bells rang and the breeze whipped up from nowhere to fan the heat that had settled over the old city of Betanzos. Susie’s patience had again been vindicated: an ill-timed foray into an unknown city with no useful map had suddenly turned into a glorious opportunity to observe people enjoying their social spaces and their special feast day.

We wandered back down the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town past the first café we had encountered. The barbecue was still being prepared, so we decided to walk back down to the riverside café I had first noted. We ordered what purported to be tapas, but the size of the portions defeated us yet again: there was no way we could finish the raciones, which included a delicious potato omelette that was said to be a speciality of the town.

We walked up and down the river after lunch to try and work off some of the calories, and then drove the final 50 kilometres to the airport outside Santiago de Compostela. The driving was easy, so Susan was able to doze in the passenger seat. There was a fuel station conveniently located on the outskirts of the airport, and the woman at the counter in the Europcar office was from the UK, so the handover was unusually seamless. I was almost sad to leave the lovely Renault behind. It went like the clappers.

We caught a bus from the Airport to a Plaza in Santiago de Compostela that was adjacent to the old city. It was relatively difficult to locate the hospederia for two reasons. The first was that we were, yet again, wending our way through a city which had been shaped over many different centuries by different civilisations, and the layout was accordingly anarchic. The second reason was that we could not quite believe our eyes when we first beheld the hospederia. It was a grand, imposing monastery with vast doors that towered over the plaza laid out in front of it. Could this really be our accommodation?

We passed through an entrance on the left wing of the building and we were plunged into a cool, reverberating environment of previous centuries. We settled into a small, Spartan room on the fourth floor that had a lovely view over the rooftops. The afternoon sun streamed in. There was no WiFi in the rooms, no doubt because the signal would not pass through walls of stone that were in places at least four feet thick; so we repaired to a common room where the mobile devices of modern pilgrims of a dozen different nationalities competed for a weak signal. We were hoping to receive a message from our daughter, Ruby, who would be meeting us in Santiago and sharing our room for the three nights that we were staying there. Alas, there was no message.

It had been a while since we had enjoyed warm, sunny weather, so we retraced our steps to a café that we had spied on the way to the hospederia. It was situated at the top of a set of stone stairs in the plaza Quintana de los Muertos. As the shadows of the neighbouring cathedral gradually enveloped the café, we joined a slow migration of bodies to a stone bench that ran alongside an ancient convent. One of the walls caught the very last sun of the day. Having warmed up during the afternoon, the wall was returning its captured heat to the weary travellers and pilgrims who lined up along it to bask like sleepy lizards under window pots with geraniums that seemed to absorb the energy of the fading light and turn it into glowing, vermillion polka-dots.

When the last of the sun had left the wall, we returned to the hospederia and mooched around the common area. At 10 p.m. I walked the bus station just outside the old city, and as I approached the doors, I spied Ruby wandering out with that disoriented gaze that travellers have when they are trying first to gain their bearings in a new location. She was not expecting to find me there, so the reunion was marked by both joy and surprise.

Ruby was hungry, so we went to restaurant in one of the narrow streets surrounding the hospederia. We ordered several dishes including one that consisted of the best grilled squid I have ever tasted. After catching up on each other’s adventures since our last re-union in the Netherlands, we all fell in to bed in the small hours of the morning, grateful to be re-united and thoroughly wined and dined.

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