By Mafalda Possolo
The British Historical Society took to the road once more recently, this time for a six-day excursion to Galicia, the north-western province of Spain. The countryside there is very much like the Minho and the language, ‘gallego’, also has similarities to Portuguese. Fjord-like inlets, the Rias Altas and Rias Baixas – the source of the best seafood in Europe – shape the coastline of this province.
Leaving Lisbon in the early dawn, after picking up the Estoril-based members, we stopped for an excellent lunch at the Oporto Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club, where we were received and made welcome by Mr Terry Weineck. Continuing north and now joined by four members from Porto, we soon reached the frontier at Valença and sped on to Coruña and the hotel where we would spend the five nights of the tour.
On the first day, we explored Coruña, an interesting town with very characteristic architecture. The majority of the houses in the old part of the town, which is a peninsula, have glassed-in balconies to protect them from the rain and damp and the winter gales frequent in this part of the world. We drove along the sea front, which follows the coast all along the peninsula, and stopped to admire the Tower of Hercules. This famous 300ft high lighthouse dates back to Roman times and is supposed to be the world’s oldest working lighthouse.
British Historical Society members were greatly interested in the visit to the tomb of General Sir John Moore, killed at the 1809 battle of Elviña, close to Coruña, during the Peninsular war. It is a very impressive monument due to its simplicity, standing in the centre of an enclosed garden. We also visited the church of St Mary and the very handsome Maria Pita square.
The following day, we drove some 90kms eastward to see Lugo, the only Spanish town to remain completely enclosed within superb Roman walls. These are 10 to 15 metres high with 85 circular towers along a circuit of almost three kms. We visited the Romanesque Cathedral dedicated to St Froilan, the city’s patron saint.
On our way back to Coruña, we stopped first at Santa Eulalia de Bóveda, where a mysterious holy place was discovered fairly recently, dating back to the fourth century. Its original use is still unknown; perhaps it was a place of worship of some Roman divinity linked with water and possibly a nymph cult – the latter was very popular in Galicia.
We also stopped at the truly enormous former Cistercian monastery of Santa Maria de Sobrado, now staffed by 20 Benedictine monks. This was, and still is, a halting place for pilgrims on their way to Compostela.
I began by calling this trip a ‘pilgrimage’ to Santiago de Compostela and, although the members were not pilgrims in the true sense of the word, I feel justified as our Thursday visit there was certainly the highlight of our week.This being a Holy Year (the last one was 11 years ago), the saint’s day, July 25, fell on a Sunday and the town was unusually crowded with pilgrims. Most of them had come on foot or by bicycle, following one of the various ancient routes to Santiago, which was, together with Rome and Jerusalem, one of the greatest goals of pilgrims in medieval Europe.
The town, built in warm, golden granite, is a network of streets that are too narrow for traffic and is lined with buildings whose upper storeys are supported by rounded pillars from the arched arcades beneath, under which the inhabitants can stroll on rainy days.
It has the typical layout of a walled medieval city, built around the cathedral. The walls remained intact until the 19th century and over 40 churches, convents, monasteries and hospitals were enclosed in this small area.
The cathedral is the shrine to St James the Elder, a brother of John the Evangelist and one of the first apostles of Christ. The evangelisation of Iberia is attributed to him. He was beheaded by order of King Herod in 44 AD. It is impossible to describe the cathedral without going into too much detail. However, I would like to mention the wonderful door, the Pórtico da Glória, one of the great triumphs of medieval art and the work of Master Mateo.
On our last day, we drove to Cape Finisterre and the Costa da Morte, so-called because of the numerous shipwrecks that have taken place in this area. The landscape and climate here are much harsher than further south. This stretch of the coast is known as the end of the world and there is a lonely lighthouse perched high above the headland at Finisterre.
A wonderful farewell dinner was held at a restaurant in Coruña, during which members thanked Patricia and Millie for all their work in organising such a delightful and enjoyable trip. As we left, the weather broke and a huge rainbow arched over Coruña. The rain fell steadily during the first part of our drive south, perhaps echoing our sadness at leaving Galicia.