La Guardia, Pontevedra is most beautiful viewed from the tiny mountain, Santa Tecla, that rises on the southern side of the small town. From the very top of the humble 1,000 ft peak looking to the West, towards home, the ocean spreads beyond the natural curve of the earth, past the horizon, buffeting and shaping the thousands of rocks that line the perilous coast. On the South side of the mountain, carving a nearly perfect line to the East, snakes the Miño river, separating Portugal on the South from Spain to the North. My favorite vista from the Santa Tecla is where the Miño river and Atlantic Ocean meet, battling each day with frothy waves against each other as the Ocean fills, then drains, the base of the Miño with salt water. Planted perfectly in the path of this billion-gallon war, exactly where the most northwestern point of Portugal’s border meets Spain, is a small island owned by Portugal with a dilapidated castle sitting among sea-sharpened rocks. The castle served as a prison years ago, but is now abandoned and left to fend for itself against the rugged elements that once protected it from invasions.
Time and nature are not the only thing to have shaped the surrounding area. The road climbing the mountain from the town is shaped like an S on the side facing La Guardia. The road slowly climbs past the invasive Eucalyptus trees that have taken over most of the forests in the province of Galicia, until a small ancient wall, half natural outcropping rock, the other clearly human made, becomes visible on motorists’ right-hand side. As the road climbs and the contents within the wall become visible, the ancient Roman ruins; stables, a church and a jail that sit proudly farther up the road, on the peak of the mountain, seem to lose some of their timelessness. Looking down into the Celtic settlement encased in the ancient wall, rediscovered and dug up 97 years ago, and looking out into the vibrantly green countryside sprinkled with castles, ancient, now purposeless walls, and old watchtowers dotting the coast, it’s easy to forget your in Spain. In fact, Galicia, the province where my mother’s side of my family originates, is often compared to Ireland. It is believed that the Celtic populations that inhabited parts of Northern Europe also navigated their way to “La España Verde” or the “Green Spain,” in the sixth century, landing and creating small tribes that were separated into two societies; The men that foughtand the women and children that gathered food. Once settled in the Iberian Peninsula, now occupied mostly by Spain, but also containing the countries of Portugal and Andorra, as well as a small section of Southern France, and the English city of Gibraltar in the South of Spain, the Celtic people began intermixing with the Iberians, the first known inhabitants of the land (Ugarte 21-22).
The Northwestern section of Spain is separated from the rest of Spain by La Sierra de Guadarrama, a mountain range extending laterally under Salamanca past Madrid, causing the wind, clouds and storms from the North to become trapped. Where the Southern half of Spain is relatively tropical and even arid, Galicia maintains temperatures that are kept moderate by the currents coming from the ocean. The constant rainfall that batters this unique landscape also allows the vast amount of vegetation to survive where in other regions of Spain it would perish. The shades of green reflect off of the ocean, giving the water a dark and ominous hue.
Taking the old coastal highway North from La Guardia towards the city of Vigo provides a feast for the eyes. Mossy bell towers of thousand-year old churches rise majestically above the surrounding houses, most characterized by the typical dark red, rounded tiles adorning their roofs. Wild horses can, on rare moments, be seen trekking across the boulder-strewn mountains, while the untamed European wild boars stay hidden from site, feeding on the remains of weekend picnics and wild berries. As the road winds along the meandering coast, several islands become visible. These are called Las Islas Cíes. Usually obscured by dense layers of fog, the islands crop out of the water, rock and tough-rooted vegetation battling for independence from the cold currents swirling at their bases. As the islands appear, the road enters the city of Baiona, the destination of the smallest of Christopher Columbus’ vessels, la Niña, some 500 years ago as it returned from the New World. In the port, among yachts and fishing boats sits the modern reincarnation of la Niña, small and distinctly old-fashioned, with telephone pole sized masts supporting it’s unused sails. The ship sits dignified among it’s modern iterations, quietly bumping the dock as it shifts from the waves under it’s dark brown hull, filled with tourists and diagrams instead of rats, cargo and weary sailors.
As the highway continues North into Vigo, it veers away from the ocean and scenic countryside gives way to large-scale shopping centers and heavy traffic. Soon shopping centers give way to a line of car dealerships, Chrysler, Mercedes and BMW motorcycles, as Vigo comes into view. Towering apartment complexes and large businesses share space with ancient statues. Asphalt replaces roads that were once traveled by horse, and entering the first roundabout in the city, a towering bronze homage to Spain’s most historically significant mode of transportation rises out of the ground in a spiraling motion, one frothy-mouthed beast chomping at the bit, chasing another, and another and another, until the top horse sits at least 30 ft above traffic, eyes forever glazed open, wide in panic as it surveys the modern city.
Vigo slowly disappears as the highway curves around mountain after mountain. Many of these natural barriers have made travel difficult, and rather than dipping roads through valley after valley, engineers have created hundreds of bridges over the centuries bounding them together in an economical, level fashion. Dozens of ancient bridges sit in ruins while modern ones are built alongside to sustain the ever-increasing weight of motor vehicle traffic. The temperature slowly lowers and the elevation increases as the highway approaches Santiago de Compostela, the capitol city of Galicia.
As I entered Santiago in January of 2010 I witnessed my first Spanish snow storm. About an inch of snow covered the curving roads, enough to send tiny Volkswagen Golfs, giant Mercedes sedans, and even some four-wheel-drive vehicles across lanes of traffic, into ditches or other motorists. Few drivers on the road that day had much practice driving on snow. As we approached the bustling city, we passed an enormous hill. People of all ages had converged on the hilltop, riding down on sleds Macgyvered out of anything flat and smooth. The top of the Cathedral was visible in the snowy distance as we approached the campus where I was to be given my orientation, although visiting the supposed resting place of St. James had always bored me as a small child.
On the long ride from Chicago to London, I had spent hours revolving my limited photo-album of memories from Santiago around my brain. The main streets of the historic district of Santiago were blended together. Classic stone streets, built nearly a millennium ago to accommodate the growing number of inhabitants and pilgrims visiting what sacred remains were left of Saint James, were constantly packed with people shopping, going out for coffee or just taking a stroll . I could clearly recall a small dog, dressed in a frilly costume, posing with a local bum in the Cathedrals main plaza as tourists, sympathetic more towards the hapless mutt than his drunk owner, would drop handfuls of change into the cardboard tip box. “La Alameda” was probably what I remembered most clearly though. Fit snug between the modern section of Santiago, “la zona nueva,” and the historical section, “la zona vieja,” La Alameda is the most well known park in Santiago. Shaped like an oval, the park overlooks the campus tennis and soccer courts on one end and enters into the old section at the other end. The colors of La Alameda had attracted me as a child, as well as the swans and roosters living in a tiny pond in the park.
As I entered the University of Santiago de Compostela’s campus, I began to remember certain distinguishable features of the campus, The building where we would be having classes was the same building where I had waited with my parents for several different sets of Loras and Clarke students studying in Santiago as they finished their first day of classes. One summer my parent’s students had managed to steal me away for a few hours. We walked the same routes that I would take thirteen years later with my own group of friends. We visited the swans, throwing chunks of bread into the water, as well as the candy shops a little farther up the road. I finally was delivered back to my worried parents, much later than I was supposed to be gone, bouncing off the walls from a day of eating sugar and drinking pop.
After orientation and meeting the family that I would be living with, I explored a little bit of the city. I could remember the some vague details of Santiago, but I was lost without my map. Even reading the map was difficult because the new section of town is set on a giant hill which distorted the roads on the map and made it nearly impossible to go from one end to the next without getting lost. The old section seemed familiar to me as I wandered through the crowds, but as I moved farther away from La Alameda everything began looking the same. Regardless of this, I often tried to walk the old section of Santiago without a map. I thought that if I relied on my previous knowledge for directions I would recall how to get around, but I quickly realized that I was lost as soon as I veered from the main roads.
The cathedral is without a doubt the centerpiece of Santiago´s ancient and stunning historic section. The history of the cathedral, one of the most famous in the world, dates back to 814 when a hermit, Pelayo, discovered the abandoned tomb of Saint James after following strange lights in the night sky. Shortly after, a church was built around the body of Saint James. The cathedral was built about two-hundred years later, and took about seventy-five years to construct. As the religious significance of the cathedral became more renowned throughout Europe, pilgrimages from Amsterdam, Turkey, and most famously, France, began to form common routes, all converging in front of the cathedral. In order to cope with the strong smell of so many travelers, “el botafumeiro” was created. Basically a giant incense burner, the botafumeiro swings on a long rope when released, moving back and forth across the cathedrals deep ceiling. At least one time in its history, the rope snapped, sending the massive, smoking hot metal object flying through the air into the wall of the cathedral. Behind the altar rests an ancient statue of Saint James, which pilgrims gently kiss on the head as they arrive or depart Santiago for good fortune. One of the most famous pilgrimage routes departing Santiago is eighty-eight kilometers, about fifty-five miles. It weaves through the Galician countryside until it reaches the town of Fisterra.
Drunk as could be at four a.m. with my friend Jon was as good of a time as ever to decide to skip classes the following day and instead embark on an epic hike spanning the next three days. I went home and sloppily packed my bags. We met only a couple hours later at the cathedral and performed the ritual of kissing the statue of Saint James. Afterwards we began our trip, slowly leaving Santiago out of view. Two things became obvious very quickly. I had only brought one pair of socks, which were only ankle high and were already giving me blisters in my boots, and it seemed that every house in the country had at least two enormous barking dogs in the front yard. We traveled about twenty torturous kilometers that day to the town of Negreira, where I purchased a couple pairs of socks and some new underwear, which I later realized I had also forgot to pack. We left early the next morning from the small hostel and quickly were confronted with a giant dog sticking out of a hole in somebody’s fence. We slowly walked around him until he started growling and barking, at which time we both took off running at full speed down the path. The dog calmly laid back down in it’s yard, content with the results of his prank.
The second night we arrived at Maroñas, another small Spanish town. We slept well that night, briefly forgetting the blisters on our feet. We left early that morning, beginning the longest segment of walking, about thirty kilometers. The number itself was intimidating as we set out. We began ascending a small mountain, and as we reached the top we looked out towards our destination, the town of Cee, and only saw more small mountains. About halfway through our journey we were still climbing mountains and descending into picturesque mountain valleys. One grueling mountaintop, filled with sheep and dogs and an ancient old shepherd who began beating his dogs with his walking stick as soon as they began barking at us, slowly meandered through a forest of pine trees. At the end of the forest was a pasture, and looking out into space, between two far out mountain tops, was a patch of blue. We questioned our eyesight as we got closer, finally deciding that it was indeed the ocean. We got into Cee hours later with feet too sore to carry our weight anymore. We were given directions to a small hostel, and found a charming little restaurant. The owner quickly led us to our separate rooms upstairs and ordered that we come back downstairs to eat as soon as we were settled. We were treated to hot soup, fresh fish, fries, wine and dessert. The next day we set out on the final stretch of our journey, walking up and down more mountains, following the coastline to our destination.
Fisterra translated from Galician to English literally means the end of the earth. Early settlers believed Fisterra to be the farthest Western point in the world, and as it came into view from the tops of the mountains, it was clear why. Fisterra sits at the end of a small peninsula, and on a map sticks out into the ocean farther than any other point. We arrived tired, disheveled and in varying states of pain to the small church looking out across the rocky coastline and into the ocean. A small fire pit was smoking as tourists burned their dirty clothes in the traditional fashion. We got a bus back to Santiago, taking an hour instead of three days, and slept in our clean beds with our respective families.
One of the biggest changes for me when I arrived to Santiago was the walking. Without my trusty Pontiac Sunfire, I found myself walking everywhere. My families apartment was located about a ten to twenty minute walk from every important point in the city, meaning I would walk for a total of at least an hour every day. I began distinguishing landmarks, like everyone does when they are new to Santiago, early on. Within a month I was comfortable with the old section of Santiago, but still found myself getting lost. Getting lost became a game for my friends, Regina and Jon, and I. We would walk for hours without maps, often finding a bar when we grew thirsty, then asking for directions back as night would fall. We did this until we became familiar with every tiny street and alley in Santiago. As we learned our way around town, our professors connected the bustling old section of town with history.
The cathedral is located in the center of the old section of town. Roads emanate from it like veins do from a heart, growing wider as they approach the plazas surrounding it, and growing smaller as they reach the borders where a giant wall once stood, protecting the sacred contents of the cathedral like a ribcage. Outside of the historic section of Santiago, people scurry from place to place, avoiding Galicia´s notoriously sudden rain showers, but in the tiny plazas of old town life moves slower. People sit and enjoy coffee, working on their laptops. The university’s original building is located next to the cathedral, and here the intertwining of new and old becomes most contrasted.
As I began to know the ins and outs of Santiago, I stopped relying on my previous recollections of the city. The tiny sections of the city that I had known slowly began to connect in my mind the way the connected in reality, with small roads, tiny bars and pizza restaurants. I also began to truly appreciate history place in the city. I would walk the same roads traveled by pilgrims one thousand years ago, entering buildings that once served as stables, now turned into bars. The cathedral, once a place where I would spend hours bored out of mind as my parents explained it’s significance to study abroad students, became a source of fascination for me. Sitting in La Alameda, drinking small wine boxes with my friends, we would stare at the rising towers of the cathedral, envisioning the past as well as we could. Free of adult supervision besides our temporary families and the professors, we wandered through the ancient streets, making them our own.
La Guardia had always been like a home to me when I stayed there during summers. I have known my way around the small ocean town since I was a small child, and as I would visit every year, I would notice the subtle changes just as my grandparents would notice the year’s change in me. Santiago, on the other hand, had always been different. I had never really appreciated the ancient city until I lived there for five months. It was difficult for me to imagine the amount of history and character packed around the remains of Saint James before I became a part of it. As I breathed the rain-drenched Santiago air and memorized its tiny, winding streets, it began to seem more like home. As I became a part of Santiago, it also became a part of me.