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Monday, May 30, 2011, in Vigo, Spain

Hi and Happy Memorial Day weekend to everyone. We’re in the outskirts of Vigo, almost at the coastal border between Spain and Portugal. Last week, we had just arrived at the marina in Sanxenxo.

The marina glistens with newness, and it’s an appropriate high-end accessory to the upscale resort of Sanxenxo. The shops along the docks don’t have internationally-known names, but the feel of it is less Coney Island and more Rodeo Drive. The public spaces in the town are adorned with modern and compelling sculptures. A Brobdingnagian metal sunbather lies supine in the sun-worship position atop the parking garage – a garage, for dockside visitors, so that the cars don’t heat up on beach days. There’s a sculpture built into the sea just far enough away for children to use it as an island to swim to and explore. The parks have places to climb and benches to sit. The beach is wide and pristine, a white scarf around the still blue water between Sanxenxo and distant mountains. A stone wall separates the pedestrians on the paved walkway from the pull of the sea. I’m almost never tempted to step on a beach, but this one was tugging at me. Art was suffering his own tugs; many of the young women try to avoid tan lines above the waist.

Luckily, there are lots of ways to stare at the sea without a beach day commitment. The first level of an unending ring of four-story hotels is a chain of bars, cafés, and restaurants. On our first day in town, we did a lot of eating, and then we found the Movistar mobile shop.

Yes, we’d already bought Internet service in Noia, and then bought voice service in Noia the next day. And yes, we’d already invested in some Wi-Fi time sold by the marina. But we both still had the uneasy sense that we didn’t yet understand the offers, so we visited Movistar one more time to learn again about our options.

The woman at the desk spoke as little English as I speak Spanish, that is to say, not a whole lot. We struggled with the various plans, just under a comfortable level of understanding. Then our sales rep did something brilliant: she shared her own computer’s Internet connection with us and opened the Google Translate page.

She’d type something in Spanish, and it would show up on the other side of the page in perfect English. Then we’d type a sentence of our choice, and magically Google would rearrange it into something she’d understand, no matter how complex. It’s an odd feeling to see your own words in grand sentences in a language you barely speak. You get this strange sense of accomplishment, as if you’d actually formed the sentence yourself. We were using the subjunctive and conditional conjugations. We were on fire.

In the end, we bought a Movistar service to augment our Wi-Fi and our existing Vodafone stick (yes, and yet another modem that we barely needed.) We got back to the boat, and Art set out to install it on our PCs. In short, he couldn’t get any PC to see that the stick modem was there. It took him late into the night and a great deal of help from our already-operational data connections, but he eventually got it to work. The next day, we went back to the shop and gorged ourselves on added gigabytes.

Sanxenxo doesn��������������t offer lots of museums, antiquities, or religious importance; it’s just a great resort. On our second day in town, we walked along the beach to the nearby beach town of Portonovo. This resort has a smaller beach and a more densely-developed beachfront, and it appears to be the affordable alternative to the place we were staying. Naturally, this would bode well for finding a lunch special, and the one we selected offered a large starter of octopus and a seaside table.

One of our days was devoted to a visit to nearby Pontevedra, the provincial capital of the region. There’s a legend that the town was founded by Teucer, an archer noted for his Trojan War feats. Cooler heads explain that the roots of the earliest settlement were Roman, leading to the Latin name from “old bridge”, a bridge that is still said to be standing. The town had its heyday in the 12th to 15th centuries, and many of the stone buildings constructed then still link together the many squares and streets of the old town.

Another point of contention is that the town launched an inquiry about ninety years ago to prove that Christopher Columbus is a hometown boy, though there’s nearly no doubt that he was born in Genoa. It’s fact, though, that his flagship Santa Maria was built in Pontevedra.

We followed – roughly – a map provided by the tourist information center, with a red line drawn for ambling around, and numbered stops for historically significant buildings, mostly churches and supporting structures. One of the churches, the Igrexa de San Francisco, is said to have been founded by Saint Francis of Assisi while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. We visited the compact museum, which chronicled human life in the area since Paleolithic times.

The interiors of churches were generally petite, but always crammed with artifacts and carvings, and gilded well beyond practicality and probably in violation of some Commandment about restraint. Well, there should be one.

Many of the buildings were in the “Plateresque” style, intricately carved stone in the manner of a drippy sand castle. Ordinary buildings were decorated with the heraldic shield of prominent families, with emblems that are no doubt important to historians, but look kind of like cave paintings to me. As always, we dined and snacked well, and walked ourselves to exhaustion before heading back to the boat.

Our next port was Vigo, but we were ahead of schedule. We’d arranged for some repairs, and were awaiting some shipments, but in both cases, we weren’t supposed to arrive for several days. We took the opportunity to sail away from Sanxenxo to an anchorage just shy of Vigo, across the ria just off of a nondescript town called Cangas.

We arrived at mid-day and decided to spend the afternoon aboard, looking across to the nearby beach. For the past week or so, we’d been trying to master the biorhythms of Spain and the Mediterranean, a late lunch and a later dinner, embracing the nothingness of the siesta hours between about 2:00 and about 6:00 in the afternoon.

As far as we could see, the siesta is a sort of a black hole (in the sense that being home in the bosom of your family is a black hole.) I say this because life appears to stop about a half hour after the siesta begins. The shops are closed. The supermarket is closed. The restaurants are still open. You’d imagine that people while away the afternoon over lunch and drinks until it’s time to return to work. In our experience so far, the restaurants do fill up for the first half hour or so of the siesta time. (Being Americans, we’re quite finished with lunch before the real populace comes in, even if we’ve delayed our meal to as late as 1:30.) By three in the afternoon, we’re walking around in the shopping areas. The restaurants are open, but quiet. We’re almost the only people walking around outdoors. Where is everyone else? At home sleeping? Having dalliances?

So on our first day at Cangas, we hadn’t come into town, and now the town would be closed up. Instead, we were reading in the cockpit and simply enjoying the spring weather. This meditative state, pondering the sunbathers on the beach, led Art to ponder an unanswered question of the universe. If you’re on vacation at the beach, is it necessary for you to take a siesta and leave for a while in the middle of the day? (The answer is apparently “no”.)

The next morning, we visited the town by dinghy. Cangas is less visited than the places we’d been so far, and admittedly, it’s got less curb appeal. Still, there’s a tiny old town and a beautifully over-decorated church. It was Friday, the day of the outdoor market, and the kiosks stretched a mile along the waterfront. We walked the length of it, glancing at dozens of vendors selling essentially the same goods, fruit, pastry, clothes, household goods. You could fill your pantry and your bedroom closets without leaving the waterfront. It seemed as though all of the elderly ladies had obtained their plaid draggable carts at the same place – maybe at this outdoor market.

Cangas appeared to have a disproportionate number of “for rent” signs in commercial spaces, as we walked through the inland streets. The tourist information office was closed, in apparent defiance of the hours posted on the locked door. But we were, as usual, charmed by the people who worked in the cafés and shops. The marina hospitably provided space for us to tie up our dinghy. The waitress patiently explained all of our choices on the menu del dia (the prix fixe menu of the day). One of the advantages of ordering the menu del dia is that it forces you to choose among dishes you might not yet have tasted. One of these, on this particular menu, was called “chinchos”. We asked about it in broken Spanish and learned that it was some sort of fish (in retrospect, probably some kind of shellfish.) I looked in my BlackBerry’s little Spanish app for the word’s translation. “Bedbugs”. I got the anchovies instead. Art ordered something else.

One thing that I have discovered; I have developed a paralyzing fear of falling into the water when I’m climbing in and out of the dinghy. This might seem absurd to you. It isn’t. It’s a very rational concern. Yes, I can swim. No, the water’s not freezing anymore, like it was in Northern Europe. My fear has to do with the many electronic devices swinging from my shoulders. The camera. My BlackBerry. The Kindle that houses my tourist guidebook and my recreational reading. I suppose that all of these things are replaceable (and I did have to replace a BlackBerry once), but that process requires money and patience. Thus, I’ve become afraid of submersion. I’ve had a certain fear for my whole life, and now it has happened. I have become the Wicked Witch of the West. I might melt.

From time to time, you have to devote some time to the boat, and our time had come. The freezer hadn’t really gotten cold enough all season; the VHF radio in the cockpit wasn’t working, and the watermaker had sprung a leak. We needed to stop and find help. The place we’d stop was across the ria at Vigo.

A Swedish man who was a friend of Hallberg-Rassy had been recommended to us, and we’d kept up an email dialogue for weeks. Henrik arrived to say hello on the first day we got settled in the marina, a Saturday. He’d just returned from Mexico City on a business venture, and we got to know each other a bit and arranged for work to begin on Monday.

“What are you doing tomorrow?” he asked. We looked at each other. There’s almost never anything going on for the whole day on Sunday, and this marina was in a quiet suburb of Vigo.

“I like to go paragliding, and tomorrow is an opportunity for me to have a day off. Would you like to watch?”

Wouldn’t we? So in the morning, Henrik picked us up at the boat, and we headed off toward Vigo and further.

We stopped at the beach in Vigo, where two would-be campers were asleep at 10:30 in the morning. “This is the nightclub district. These people probably didn’t want to go home after the club. You go to the clubs between five and ten.” Henrik said.

“That seems a little early. People don’t even eat dinner here until ten o’clock,” Art ventured.

“Five in the morning. After dinner, you go to the bar. Then you go to the clubs, which don’t even open until five in the morning.” Thus the people we saw had probably just arrived for a nap. These aren’t backpackers trying to squeeze a year of partying into a month-long summer fling. This is a lifestyle. It makes Carrie Bradshaw look like she’s from a retirement community.

Henrik kept in contact with his paragliding instructor, because this venture takes some planning. If you’re starting at the top of a mountain, you need two instructors, one at the top of the hill where you take off, and another at the bottom to guide you down. Under some circumstances, you can take off and land at the same place. For now, it seemed, we needed to do some reconnaissance to report the weather.

Henrik drove us up a mountain, which is apparently a national park. The road wound upward, past a herd of sheep, another group of what would best be described as free-range horses, and some cattle. We’d stop at the side of the road, and Henrik would get out of the car. He’d toss bits of vegetation into the air, watch where they went, and report by phone to his instructor. We kept driving higher, finally off the main road and up a narrow sand road that had barely enough room for one car. Henrik pulled over at a spot that appeared to me to be the edge of a cliff (it wasn’t, but I suddenly didn’t want to leave the car, and I tightened my seat belt, even though we were parked.) Henrik felt the wind around him and reported in obediently.

Whatever advice we got led Henrik to take us to a house he has that overlooks the ocean, where we had coffee, looked at the sea, and waited for the wind to shift. Just next to the back yard, there’s a barn and a lower yard that don’t appear to belong to any particular nearby house, and in that yard lives a small horse. He comes out of the barn and strolls across the yard. The height difference of the yards means that the horse is about one horse height lower than Henrik’s yard. So the horse likes to eat the crabgrass at his eye level, in the yard of Henrik’s house.

Henrik frequently pats the horse’s head, which the horse seems to like. Horses aren’t that demonstrative about their feelings. When I came around to patting the horse’s head, the horse developed a strong attraction to my feet, which he would lick in between weed nibbles. We had a little routine. I’d pat his face, he’d look down and discover my toes, he’d lick my toes, I’d pull back, and he’d get startled. Then we’d begin the whole thing again.

Two cars pulled up, and there was a conversation about the wind and other logistics, and then three cars drove off, including us, to a park overlooking the sea. This was a good spot for paragliding, because of the sea on one side and a mountain on the other. This sport (or method of suicide, depending on how you look at it) depends on the direction of the wind and some variations in temperature that provide lift to this giant airfoil of a sail. When the sun warms up the land, some places get warmer than others, and this creates a “thermal”, which rises through the air. Paragliding involves the use of these thermals for lift. Unlike sailing in a boat, in the right paragliding conditions, it’s possible to sail (or fly) in any direction, including right into the wind.

The equipment for paragliding is all contained in a giant backpack that weighs about fifty pounds. Inside the backpack are a sail and many slender lines, which are spread out on the ground. The pilot wears a harness, and much of the backpack remains, as a sort of airbag; in case of a hard landing, you lean back as if it’s a lounge chair. There’s also a parachute, just in case (did I mention that I would never do this?)

While we did have the chance to watch an experienced flyer test the winds, fly the sail, and become airborne, briefly, alas, the weather simply never became amenable for gliding. They postulated that the afternoon winds might be stronger and from a better direction. At one point, we took a break and headed out to lunch as a group.

On our way back to try the winds again, we stopped at Mount Trega, which is on the river that divides Spain from Portugal. On a vista overlooking the water are some 2100 year old Celtic ruins called "castros". These round stone huts, dozens of them in a seemingly random game-board arrangement, were discovered and excavated in 1913. They’re believed to represent a settlement of up to 5,000. Henrik had hoped that we’d get a great view south to Portugal when we reached the top of the mountain, but we were inside of a cloud and could barely make out the souvenir stand across the road. There wasn’t any good news for him when we returned to the paragliding launch pad; the weather was getting worse, cloud cover was keeping the thermal forces at bay, and the wind was getting weaker, not stronger. Henrik never did sail, and neither did anyone else. Especially me.

We did get to meet more of his friends, a couple with a fourteen-month-old baby. They live near a beach along the coast on the way back to Vigo. They liked the idea of having a conversation in English, and we were happy to oblige. I hoped that we weren’t the least multi-lingual people in the group, but I confess I’m not sure. The baby probably speaks Galician.

Have a very happy holiday. We miss you all.

Love, Karen (and Art)