day 10 :
monday, 4 june
It was hard to leave the Hotel Posada del Valle this morning – we imagine that if we ever decide to run a B&B someday, it would be a lot like this place. Of course, it's easy to say that when you're a guest enjoying the views, the quiet atmosphere, the delicious meals, and walks through the meadows. Actually running the hotel and farm looked like much more than a full-time job, which partially explains why the hotel is closed for the winter months each year.
After getting our car loaded up and avoiding a rooster that kept following us everywhere we went, including almost getting into our car with us, we let our GPS guide us to a lighthouse on the north coast. This drive was the most challenging for our GPS, which kept losing track of us along the mountainous roads. It was entertaining to hear the GPS say "turn right, now" several times while there was a thousand foot drop-off to the right of our car. Ignoring these quirks, it proved to be a benefit on our trip (especially when predicting how long it would take to get somewhere), as long as you know when to ignore the spurious commands.
We stopped briefly at the lighthouse, which itself was unimpressive, but the coastline was interesting to see. The overcast and hazy weather of Asturias gave way to perfectly clear blue skies and warm weather as we entered into the region of Galicia. The hillsides were filled with wildflowers and bright yellow scrub, which made for a beautiful drive in the sunshine. There was a lot of construction going on along this route, and occasionally we'd see someone waving a bright red flag up and down on the side of the road so that people would slow down. However, when we got close to these flaggers, we saw that they were actually dummies dressed up in construction worker outfits, with a mechanically-driven arm. I guess that's one way to save money and not have to hire flaggers!
We reached Santiago de Compostela in early afternoon, and after a few challenging twists and turns through narrow old cobblestone streets we found our hotel, Altaïr Hotel. We asked about where we could park our car, and the receptionist showed us how to find a nearby parking garage, apologizing that we'd have to pay an expensive rate of seven Euros per day. We must have been sticker-shocked, because this seemed quite reasonable to us after having paid two times that in San Sebastián. We were quite happy with our hotel choice – the modern décor fit in nicely with the original stone walls in the building, it was reasonably priced, and was very quiet despite being near the middle of the city.
Our hotel receptionist recommended an excellent tapas bar just a block from the hotel, called La Bodeguilla de San Roque. Later, when we looked through some notes we had gathered online before the trip, we realized that we had a number of recommendations for this place, but had no idea that it was so close to where we were staying. We didn't arrive until nearly 3PM, but fortunately for us it was open later than most places for lunch. Now, Eric had come to Galicia intent on trying the two specialty dishes of the region: pulpo (octopus), and pimentón de padrón (peppers from the nearby town of Padrón). We've had versions of these dishes elsewhere, in Spain and the U.S., but wanted to see how those compared with their home region. For this lunch we only ordered the peppers, and they were as good as we hoped they would be: still slightly sizzling from being cooked in hot oil, with large granules of salt sprinkled over top. As we glanced around the bar, we saw that every table had ordered a plate of rustic bread rubbed with tomato pulp, so we did likewise. The dish was simple and flavorful, much like pan amb tomaquet from the Catalan region of Spain. Dawn made a good choice in trying the sidra they had on tap – this cider was slightly sweet and sparkling, which she preferred over the more bitter Asturian cider we had tried. We finished the meal with a couple of cafés con leche, and felt energized to take a walk around the city.
Santiago de Compostela was filled with three kinds of people: students, pilgrims, and tourists. The Universidade de Santiago de Compostela was founded in 1495, and is one of the oldest universities in the world. Tens of thousands of students attend school here, and we saw many hanging out and talking at the various cafes all over town. What draws the most people to the city, however, is the massive cathedral that is the destination for over a hundred-thousand pilgrims and countless tourists each year. Santiago, or Sant' Iago, means St. James, and the story goes that the bones of the Apostle St. James the Great were found here in 835, so a shrine was built in honor. Over time, word of the shrine spread, and in the mid-10th century pilgrims began visiting from far away – walking from beyond the Pyrenees, for months. This famous pilgrimage route has come to be known as el Camino de Santiago, and for Catholics, Santiago is second only to Rome as a pilgrimage center. Standing in the expansive plaza before the cathedral, we watched as pilgrims with backpacks and walking sticks came through a large archway, some with tears streaming down their faces at the sight of the cathedral. The intensity of emotion around us was palpable.
After enjoying the beautiful early evening weather in the plaza, we walked to Toñi Vicente for dinner, and had what must be our most unusual dining experience. It wasn't that the food was strange – we've had plenty of that – it was the experience. Toñi Vicente is a rather nice restaurant (1 Michelin star), and it was a Monday night, so that might explain why we ended up being only one of two tables in the restaurant this evening. But there was an undercurrent of feeling we sensed from the wait staff, a subtle message that they simply didn't want us there. They weren't outright rude – they were simply curt and impersonal. The large dining room and lack of patrons didn't help the matter anyway. The menus also added to the strange atmosphere; we were given one Spanish and one English menu, and the English menu had numerous corrections penciled in – words crossed out, missing letters added with a caret, and so on. We don't know if the wait staff had corrected the menu, or if some bored English-speaking diner had pulled out their pencil on a previous evening and decided to help out future guests. But, we persevered through our tasting menus, and really enjoyed the food. Each dish was an interesting take on a single ingredient, usually proving to be quite good. We had chipirones (squid) in one course. None of the many variations of squid Eric has had before really appealed to him, but tonight's dish was in a whole different league: perfectly cooked, without a hint of chewiness, and a wonderful sauce to accompany it. At one point, Eric pointed out an unusual wall-hanging sculpture to Dawn – a series of contorted faces protruded from the material, looking pained, trying to scream and free themselves from the wall. Before we could comment, a waiter came over and smiled, seeing that we were looking at the sculpture. He pointed and said in broken English, "That – is all of the waiters here who wanted to work someplace else," and walked off. It's safe to say that his comment summed up things pretty well, and reaffirmed our negative vibe feeling! How utterly strange.