Travelogue: Western Europe escapade (Part 2 of 3)

After merely 4 days of non-stop road trip that was unambiguously physically arduous while gradually declining our vitality (not to mention thinning our wallets), our group’s committed enthusiasm to further explore what this side of western Europe has in store for us indubitably kept us agile and on our high spirits.

October 5 & 6, from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela (Spain)

After a couple of days walking, getting off and on the bus, pulling and pushing huge suitcases and constantly unpacking and packing them were more than enough to debilitate even the most robust traveler  but no amount of fatigue, languor, or listlessness could thwart the resolute focus and unwavering wanderlust raging acutely within us.

And so, as early as 8:00 in the morning we’re already on the road again towards north…this time Santiago de Compostela-bound, one of the top pilgrimage destinations like Rome and Jerusalem, even way back during the Middle Ages.

We were amused by the vast landscapes of verdant hills, sloppy mountain ranges, and stunning countryside, sleepy yet beguiling villages, and quaint towns along the way. We passed by Santarem, one of the last Moorish bastions in Portugal; Coimbra, a riverfront city in Central Portugal and home to a UNESCO-listed 13th century old University of Coimbra; and the gorgeous city of Porto, a coastal city known for its vibrant riverfront and home to the world-renown Porto wine.

It was in a roadside cafeteria in Porto (Portugal) where we had our initial stop-over to relieve and pep up. Noticeably, no matter how simple or big the cafeterias were along the rest areas, they serve the best snacks and meals or it must be just because we were actually starving so everything came delectable and appetizing.

Back on the bus, we crossed the 19th century International Bridge and the Minho River, the longest river in Galicia, Spain (340 kilometers) and the natural border between Portugal and Spain…and had our timepieces adjusted by an hour advance.

How we marveled at Tui’s breathtaking scenery. A far-flung town in Galicia (Spain) in the province of Pontevedra, Tui, located on the left bank of the Minho River facing the Portuguese town of Valencia, is the last 100-kilometer spot to the Camino de Santiago making it a popular starting point for pilgrims on foot or bike. Also, we passed along Padron, famous for its green pepper and the old town of Pontevedra with its cobbled streets that seemingly wanted us to explore.

The enthralling region of Galicia in the northwest of the Iberian Peninsula greeted our sight with much relief after a two-hour travel and had a full stop at Vigo, a two-thousand-year-old modern and populated Galician city with incomparable beaches and where avant-garde architecture always blends with the sea and its seafarers.

At Aromas Restaurant and Bar, a modest but engaging eatery located at #9 Rua da Laxe, we feasted on fresh mussels, squids, and three kinds of meat…all prepared and cooked to perfection by its amiable owner Carmen Suarez Gonzales. Our hearty meal was capped with a slice of tiramisu and a cup of house blend Spanish coffee.

We went hunting for rare but reasonably priced souvenir items around nearby shops and stalls… and even dared to explore the ladder street behind the main thoroughfare for some exceptional finds only to find out that we were the only ones late for boarding.

It took us another 90 kilometers (56 miles) or approximately an hour and twenty minutes to finally reach Santiago de Compostela, the capital of northwest Spain’s Galicia region and known as the culminating point of pilgrims and burial site of the Biblical apostle St. James, the Great.

After checking in at the Gran Hotel Santiago de Compostela (along Avenida Mestre Mateo) and a brief respite, our tourist guide, Lucia, gave us an extensive tour of the famous cathedral and its historic vicinity. With the immense influx of tourists and pilgrims souvenir shops, eateries, bars, and hotels unsurprisingly will thrive in the area.

Despite the Baroque façade (the Obradoiro Façade), the present cathedral is predominantly Romanesque. Made of granite, it is flanked by huge towers and embellished with statues of St. James depicting him not only as a fisherman, a saint and gospel preacher but more as a pilgrim with staff, broad hat, and a scallop shell badge. The main altar of the almost thousand-year-old cathedral is an impressive blend of Gothic simplicity and 18th century Churrigueresque exuberance.

The Holy Mass in the Cathedral is highlighted by the swinging of the giant incense burner (Botafumeiro) which hang from the center nave of the altar and manually operated by at least 6 people, usually sacristans. Myth had it that the mega-sized incense burner came into being after a huge crowd of pilgrims packed the church and created an abhorrently obnoxious odor from their body sweat and unwashed clothes after weeks of travelling on foot…thus, the idea of creating a gigantic incense burner to exterminate the fetid odor and detestable stench.

Hundreds and thousands of St. James’ devotees annually participate in the Camino, a pilgrimage to the shrine with the most popular route is the Camino Frances which starts from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela that normally takes about 30 to 35 days on foot. One has to cover at least 23 to 27 kilometers (14 – 16 miles) a day to be able to finish on time.

Those who have successfully completed the travel are handed a certificate called “Compostela.”

We had the opportunity to experience such during our second day in Santiago. Our guide for the day, Maria, took us up to the Monte de Gozo, or simply Mount of Joy, a pilgrimage penultimate destination site atop a hill overlooking the city and the Cathedral’s three spires.

It took us more than 3 hours to cover the 5-kilometer walk down to the city. Although tired and gasping for breath with panting pulses yet we couldn’t complain. The distance we walked was nothing compared with those who came all the way from France relentlessly sauntering and strolling on foot for weeks with backpacks and walking sticks or staffs.

Saturday, October 7 Burgos, the historic capital of old Castile

It was already Fall but the lush vegetation along the country side and mountain slopes remain as verdant and effervescent as mid-Spring…seemingly uninfluenced by the season’s change while an endless row of rugged terrain support the valley’s base giving the scenery a more vivid contrast. A bifurcated highway directed us to another grueling 7-hour travel from Santiago to Burgos, a provincial capital in Spain’s autonomous community of Castile and Leon.

Our group arrived in Burgos at 3:42 PM (Spain Time) after giving us time to rest twice…that was after every two hours. We were billeted at H.Q. La Galeria (Carretara Burgos –Aguilar, Km 4), our new residence for two days.

As usual, a brief rest was all that it took for us to be invigorated then raring to take the road again. Carlotta, our new tour guide, brought us to the Basilica and oriented us about the Plaza Mejor and the Ayudamiento establishments around the area.

Outstanding for its elegance and harmony of its architecture, the 13th century Cathedral-Basilica is one of the finest examples of Spanish Gothic arts. The Cathedral of St. Mary, which official name is Santa Iglesia Cathedral Basilica Metropolitana de Santa Maria de Burgos, was the only Spanish cathedral designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The cathedrals of Salamanca, Santiago de Compostela, Avila, Cordova, Toledo, and Cuenca are also UNESCO World Heritage Sites but they were recognized together with the historic districts (where) they were located in but the Burgos Cathedral was accredited independent of its surroundings.

Aside from the numerous priceless century-old relics and images the Cathedral, which was constructed in 1221 and was completed in 1567, boasts of an impressively large, picturesque-style choir stalls intricately carved in walnut which can hold 400 singers, the tomb of Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (popularly known as El Cid, a Castilian nobleman and 11th century military leader in Medieval Spain) and his wife, Jimena, 16 chapels, and a capilla mayor dominated by a 16th century altar piece.

Dinner was served at 7:30 and we retired early afterwards in preparation for the next day’s arduous expedition — to Lourdes in France.

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