Follow MV Northern Exposure on  Follow MV Northern Exposure on Twitter or  Instagram @NorthrnExpo

We'll post whenever the website changes.

Wednesday, May 23, 2011, in Sanxenxo, Spain

Hi all. Last week, we were in Portosin, Spain, and our note ended with our passage from France through the Bay of Biscay to Corcubion, Spain. I promised to bring you up to date this week. Today, we arrived in the resort town of Sanxenxo.

Corcubion nestles up to Cee, which sits at the head of a small ria in the Galicia region of Spain. A ria is a coastal inlet that is really a submerged, or “drowned”, river valley. The particular ria was settled long ago, with forts on both sides, because the ria itself provided excellent defensive protection for the towns at its head. The towns made up a necklace around the water, white houses with red roofs between the sea on one side and dark green mountains behind them. Today, the area supports fishing, tourism, and for some reason, a thriving “mushroom hunting” industry, according to the brochure. I didn’t know that mushrooms were so wily.

The town is appealing, though nondescript. There���s a big old church near the center of town, a few restaurants along the waterfront, and many well-used small fishing boats moored in the town’s harbor.

Art “forgot” to tell me before this trip that the area we’d just sailed is called the Costa da Morte. This sounds like an attractive place with palm trees and outdoor cafés, and it is. But Costa da Morte means Death Coast, and the death in question is from shipwrecks in the very terrain we’d just spent the last few days.

Having made it unscathed out of the treacherous Atlantic, we wanted to celebrate with platefuls of local seafood and cold beer. We took the dinghy ashore and learned that it was impossible to eat anything until 7:00 p.m. when the kitchen opened again. (In the Mediterranean, you can starve because nobody will feed you until 8:00, and in Spain, nobody local eats until 10:00.) Since we’d arrived at about 6:15, we walked the short distance to Corcubion’s sister city Cee. This is the larger of the two cities, with a supermarket and a lovely park at the head of the harbor. All in all, it didn’t take that long to explore the place.

Everyone slept well that night, and we left in the morning to continue down the coast. The distance was short, and the wind wasn’t anywhere near us, and we motored to Portosin, a good marina with ready access to larger places that we wanted to visit.

The marina didn’t answer our email or the telephone as we approached, but a marinero came by and helped us with our lines. Once we were docked, a neighboring sailor came by and let us know that we’d arrived on a holiday (a Tuesday), and the restaurant and the surrounding town would be shut up tight all day. Yeah, who’d want to go to a restaurant on a holiday, after all?

Even on a business day, there wasn’t much to Portosin. The “real” supermarket was a bus ride away (although apparently not the sort of bus that comes by every twenty minutes or so.) Vickie’s trip to the airport at Santiago de Compostela (an hour away) would require three buses in sequence, prompting us to arrange for a taxi instead. In the meantime, we had several days for visiting the area.

A walk around Portosin revealed that not everyone was home celebrating quietly. The beach at the head of the harbor was a replica of the one at Cee, with a park well attended by families. Several restaurants were open, as I wistfully noted, as I’d made lunch aboard for what seemed like the thousandth day in a row (it had been three.)

In the morning, we set off for a nearby town called Noia. A short bus ride away, Noia offered a medieval old town, local cuisine, but most importantly, there would be shops that sell mobile phone service. Getting mobile phone service, particularly Internet access, is the first thing we do when we arrive anywhere.

We arrived at the bus stop about five minutes before the bus was supposed to arrive, even though we’d been warned that the bus always came about twenty minutes after its scheduled time. Indeed, we were the only people waiting for the bus until about five minutes before the bus actually arrived. Apparently, there’s a silent agreement between bus and passenger: feel free to come late, but don’t make me wait here too long. You’d just better come late every single time.

The bus left us off in Noia and we found our way to the main part of town. Our walk took us to a large plaza that is bordered by an old Franciscan church and the Town Hall. Though the Town Hall is only about half a century old, they’ve incorporated the remains of the convent that was originally on the site. We looked for a tourist information center that should have been somewhere near there, but couldn’t find one. We learned later that it was indeed in that plaza, but the tiny log cabin that housed the tourist office was shut up tight. Even its little wooden shutters were closed against the tiny windows. It looked as though they were expecting the big bad wolf to come by.

No matter. My mission was to get us to the indoor fish market that boasted the best churros in town. Churros are Spain’s equivalent of funnel cake or the fried dough that you see at county fairs, basically a paste of white flour, sweetened with sugar, and deep-fried in oil. The resulting product is dipped in a hot chocolate beverage that is essentially melted candy bars. Spaniards eat this for breakfast. But when we thought “wow, how could anyone think of this for the first meal of the day?” we all remembered Dunkin’ Donuts and Krispy Kreme. We did manage to find the market and the notable churros, but none of us could drink the entirety of the chocolate drink/sauce.

The proprietor of the churros stand was friendly and hospitable and spoke excellent English. He’d lived in the US for about ten years. Besides helping me ascertain the proper procedure for dipping and slurping, he sent over a bonus order of churros when a new batch had just come up. I asked him if he knew where the Movistar (mobile service) shop might be, and he puzzled over my question for several moments. In the end, he took us by the hand and walked us there. When the line at the Movistar boutique was too long, he ushered us a few more blocks to the Orange office. There he waited in line on our behalf, hoping to act as interpreter for our transaction. We’d never asked him to do any of this, and we were overwhelmed by his generosity. After many minutes in line, it became obvious to him that he couldn’t spare any more time away from his churros kiosk, and he left us. But we remained stunned at the efforts that he made for people he’d never met and would never see again;

On our own, we visited three shops and found three mobile phone offers for Internet service, all of which were completely different from what we’d seen online, and all of which were virtually identical offers. All required us to buy a modem that we already have on the boat. We nearly bought from Orange, but the device that we don’t need wasn’t in stock, so we couldn’t buy it, even though we didn’t want it. We settled on Vodafone, mostly because the woman at the desk could speak a bit of English.

All of these shops lined the narrow streets of the old town, and we paused to reflect on the 1434 San Martino church, with carved Apostles forming a border around the door as if they were decorating a lunch box. Granite buildings around the plaza have largely been covered with stucco, but some of the medieval stone is still visible on them. We dawdled in the old town, stopped for a light lunch of tapas on our way back to the bus station, and came back to Portosin.

From Portosin, it’s about an hour by bus to the city of Santiago de Compostela. This city is likely the third major center for Christian pilgrimage, after Rome and Jerusalem. The name relates to the apostle James, whose remains were discovered by a shepherd in 813. More than 100,000 pilgrims travel to the site each year, and indeed, the day we were there, the place was quite well attended.

It took us two buses to get there, but our trip was easy. The route called the Way of St. James starts from various points in Europe (Paris is one, for example) and could involve hundreds of miles of travel. The route from Portugal climbs over hills. People come by foot (often with walking sticks that have a special symbolism), by bicycle, even by donkey. The backpacks they carry are adorned with the shell of a scallop (more symbolism.) There’s an office where you can register if your trip was above a certain length and you’ve documented your travel at hostels along the way. The trip can serve as penance for sins. In Flanders, one prisoner each year can be freed after completing the pilgrimage on foot (laden with a heavy backpack and accompanied by a guard.) I assume that the guard earns some penance as well.

During our visit, we saw many pairs of pilgrims, bedecked with scallop-enhanced backpacks, tapping their walking sticks in their stride. It was like August in Europe, except these backpackers weren’t fresh-faced college grads texting each other. They were middle-aged regular folk in hiking gear, and it’s anyone’s guess what terrain they’d already covered.

Our first stop in town was the grand cathedral, a granite construction begun in 1075 and consecrated in 1128. It’s a fine example of Romanesque architecture, and the exterior is glorious, festooned with towers and gables, and accessed with multiple staircases. But the interior takes your breath away.

We walked in at about noon, and a mass was in progress. The enormous interior is carved and gilded and ornamented. The altar is a compelling sight of gold and light. There were no seats available for us at noon on an off-season Thursday.

The botafumiero is an enormous incense-burner at the front of the cathedral. It’s the largest one in the world. During certain holy days, it’s filled with incense and swung, filling the building with incense. Though incense has spiritual significance, there’s no doubt that the original intention of the incense ritual was to disguise the odor of thousands of pilgrims who’d walked the Way.

Santiago de Compostela is filled with medieval buildings that no doubt originated for religious purposes – convents, abbeys, or support of pilgrims, such as hospitals and hostels. Everywhere you turn, there’s a carved portico that you could examine for some time. The large building next to the cathedral was once a hostel, founded by Isabel and Fernando in 1492, and now a hotel. Let’s hope that it has showers.

The streets in the old town were barely the width of an automobile, and traffic was non-existent anywhere for much of our day. The day was happily interrupted several times for breaks for lunch or coffee, and we walked the length and breadth of the place several times before we were certain we’d seen it all. Aside one of the small alley-streets, a man sat on a bicycle that was specially rigged for knife sharpening. He’d visit the many restaurants, take their knives, and hone them on belts powered by his pedaling. A waiter nearby explained to us that this man used to have a motorcycle for this purpose, but the economy forced him to sell it and use a bike instead. So there he was, coordinating his feverish pedaling to the sharp knife held against the belt, to the sound of screeching metal.

This was Vickie’s last night with us, so we had a celebratory dinner at the marina’s restaurant. The captain awarded Vickie with best crew member (she’d won by a landslide) and I earned Miss Congeniality, which proves that my husband doesn’t know me at all.

The next day was devoted to laundry, cleaning, and sorting out whatever food was left in the galley. We left the next morning on our own, for the first time in the season, and headed along the coast southward. The winds were quiet, but we sailed anyway. The favorable current brought our speed up to an amble, and as the day progressed, the winds increased. Under such comfortable conditions, and heading towards an anchorage, there wasn’t any reason to rush.

Upon the recommendation of a cruising guide, we anchored off of a town called Combarro. It didn’t look unusual from our vantage point on the water, but the article said that it was a charming fishing village.

The day we’d earmarked for a visit was a Sunday, a safe day to be in a quiet place, as all of the bustling places would be closed anyway. Once ashore, we followed a trail of pedestrians up a hill into the old town. The buildings were a mix of old and less old, and the old ones were solid granite structures, adorned with shutters and balconies and bright blooms of bougainvillea and roses and chrysanthemums. It was about noon.

The line of strolling visitors found its way to San Roques church, a medieval jewelry box of granite, filled to its capacity of dozens. The patron saint is the protector against illness and harm, a consolation to the participants in a fishing economy based in the mighty Bay of Biscay. Every pew was filled. We’d found ourselves there on a holiday, the Fiesta de Santa Rita. We stood in the back of the church and watched as they removed a large sculpted figure from a perch and fixed it to a staff. This, we presumed, is the lovely Saint Rita, dressed in black, and sporting a bunting from her shoulder, festooned with euro bills.

Outdoors, children and some adults were dressed in traditional garb, white shirts under black jumpers, topped off with brimmed black hats. Some carried a gaita (bagpipes) and others the bombo (big drum). We didn’t expect to see bagpipes in Spain, but apparently the music derives from Celtic roots. One bagpipe player frequently checked the BlackBerry she’d tucked into her old-fashioned bodice.

Then a procession left the church, carrying Santa Rita up town streets, around fountains, back to the church, and down other streets. The church emptied, and we found ourselves swept up in the crowd, following Santa Rita through the town. Behind Santa Rita, the waiting local performers in traditional garb played their instruments. We got in line behind the townspeople (many of whom were wearing purple) and marched along through the tiny streets. Many of the houses were as old as the church, and have been lovingly restored by their owners and adorned with flowering plants. Some of the houses have the original first floor and a slightly more modern second floor built above it.

After we’d ringed the old town, all of these performers took their places on the small courtyard outside the church. Dancers performed to the somber sound of the bagpipes and the beat of the drum, while the dancers offstage kept the beat with tambourines.

By the time we got to lunch, it was about two in the afternoon, or early by Spanish standards. We found a fixed menu in our price range, and sat on a terrace bordered by low tide on the water on one side, bright purple bougainvillea on another, and Formula One racing (a Sunday staple in Europe) on the wall behind us.

Our first course was a plate of tiny fish, the size of salamanders, battered and fried to a crisp. You eat the whole thing at once, from head to tail. The first one is the hardest. The second course was rabbit stew, with a cute bunny drawing on the chalk menu. Spaniards apparently do not practice as much denial as Americans require about where their food originates.

Today, after a brief motor through the ria, we docked at the marina in Sanxenxo. We’ll be here for a few days, and then continue onward.

Love, Karen (and Art)