Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Friday, September 4, 2015

To the North: Santiago de Compostela and Porto

Rockin'out with my friend Jenny...then on to Santiago!

As if we hadn’t traveled enough, I insisted on going to northern Spain for a week at the end of August.  Everyone knows that summer is the best time to be there since it’s rainy and cold most other times, and even so during the summer.  This time we targeted Santiago de Compostela, home of the well-known Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

Stormy city
Hanging out with the gallegas

Surprise, surprise, it was drizzling and cold when we arrived, but still nice enough in our little attic we’d rented.  Maria, our host, gave us multiple great restaurant recommendations, and once the drizzle stopped we headed out into the old city.  Gorgeous!  And the best was the pulpo a la gallega, octopus Galician-style!

One of the many pilgrims

Tentacled treats

Santiago de Compostela is named for San Iago, or St. James, who preached in Hispania before returning to the Holy Land.  There he was martyred, but his disciples managed to sneak out his body and transport it back to Galicia in a stone ship.  They petitioned the queen to bury his body in Galicia, but the queen tried to sabatoge them by sending them to a dragon (who exploded on seeing the cross) and giving them wild bulls to gore them to death (who became tame on seeing the cross).  So St. James was buried in Galicia.

St. James arriving and being buried in Galicia

His remains were discovered in the 9th century by a hermit, who was led to the site by a bright light, hence the name Compostela, from the latin Campus Stellae, “field of stars.”  St. James miraculously appeared during the 15th-century Christian battle against the Moors, disguised as a white knight, and helped the Christians to victory.

Onward Christian soldier

Nowadays over 100,000 pilgrims a year travel from many different points to reach the impressive, gilded cathedral at the heart of Santiago’s old town.  The botafumeiro is swung only rarely, but every Sunday during St. James years, where the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday that year. 

The chalice or botafumeiro is swung by 8 monks tugging on ropes
Click here and here to watch the swinging of the botafumeiro; the first link is the WHOLE thing!

We watched several documentaries on the pilgrimage, el Camino de Santiago.  Todd, Tia, and Sasha declared their complete lack of interest in even trying it, while I ran out and bought shell bracelets for my friends, determined to talk them into walking at least 5 days this coming Spring!

Click here to see a movie of one Australian charmer's story, a good way to see if you would want to do this...okay, maybe not 34 days' worth...

Door to our attic staircase
From Santiago de Compostela we diverted east to the walled town of Lugo.  It is one of the few European towns with a Roman wall still completely intact. 

Around and around we go!

We walked it twice, once in the soft Galician evening (after a day full of sun), and again the next morning.  Lugo was full of delicious yogurt and interesting odes to its Roman past.

Modern-day chariot

Taking in the Roman history and frozen yogurt

From Lugo we went to Porto in northern Portugal.   We headed south, following our (un)trusty GPS, which usually leads us in bizarre paths to our destination.  True to form, we ended up on tiny roads zig-zagging through the Peneda-Gerês National Park on our way to Braga.

Gorgeously gloomy

It was raining in Braga, so we cut our visit short after admiring its wonderful fountain displays and headed into Porto.

Beautiful Braga

In Porto we found kittens in our hotel!  Tia and Sasha had a ball playing with them, and it only whetted their appetite for kittens, which we’d promised once we’d finished traveling for the summer.

Here kitty kitty kitty

We also feasted on the famous Francesingha, a densely compacted sandwich of sorts made of steak, linguiça, ham, cheese, topped by a fried egg and slathered in special sauce.  Yum!  At least I thought so; the others were not so impressed.


Porto is the home of port wine, much like El Puerto, Jerez, and Sanlúcar are the home of sherry.  The Douro river runs from the upcountry, where the grapes are grown, and down through Porto, where the bodegas line its banks.  

Sandeman (visible in center) is our favorite

This ready-made transportation system and the delightful flavor of its grapes has made (and kept) Porto famous since the 13th century.  In fact, Porto, the Roman city Portus Cale, provided the name “Portugal” to its country.  The British mistakenly call it “Oporto,” as the city is one of Portugal’s main ports, and “O” means “the” in Portuguese.  Hence, o porto = el Puerto = the port.

Vivacious Porto hillside old town on a rare sunny day

We walked the high bridge and stopped to watch young daredevils jump from the lower bridge into the fast-moving Douro.  We wandered the steep city streets from cathedral to riverbank and back up to our hotel. 

They only jumped from the LOWER bridge!!  

The following day we visited the famous Lello bookstore, a model for J.K. Rowling, who lived in Porto for two years.  Apparently she modeled parts of Hogwarts based on the library’s interior.  This fame has certainly helped the bookstore, which has a line and special 3-euro tickets JUST to get into the place!

Harriet Potter

Hogwarts wannabees

Todd had mentioned some mysterious islands off the Galician coast, so I included them as our final stop.  The Islas Cies are billed as the “Spanish Caribbean,” and so they are, albeit with still-very-cold North Atlantic waters.   

Okay, these waters are NOT the Caribbean!
We lucked out with the weather, lounging on the sunny white sand beach and diving in (briefly!) to turquoise waters while the mainland and out to sea were engulfed in fog. 

High beauty

Fun in the sun

You can only reach the Islas Cies via boat, and the number of visitors is capped at 2000.   We hiked the trails and enjoyed our picnic, then hopped the boat back to the mainland and back to Santiago. 

As pretty as any Caribbean island

Were we done traveling yet?  Oh no, my friends Angeline and Mati had to dream up a group trip to Mallorca.  An offer we just couldn’t resist…and I’m glad we didn’t resist…see the next blog…


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