By Al Manlangit
Dawn was breaking when the overnight train from Paris slowly crept into the old station of Irun, the first Spanish town across the border from France. I had been dreaming about going Spain for quite some time and the chance came after we finished visiting the Louvre and the rest of the City of Lights. And now we’re here, I thought, in the land of señoritas, bullfights and tapas.
Our first stop was Bilbao in the northern Basque region. From Irun, we took the bus, plopped our bags in our hotel room and headed for the Guggenhein Museum. Designed by American architect Frank Gehry, the building is tops on any tourist’s list due to its cutting-edge design, unusual shape and interesting combination of titanium and limestone cladding. It looks like a gigantic ship stranded on the banks of the Rio Nervion which bisects the city. Guarding the entrance is a huge 14-meter tall metal mesh dog sculpture covered with innumerable plants and flowers. We spent the whole morning looking at modern art and strolling around the riverside terrace. The rest of the day found us in the old part of the city strolling on cobblestone streets and visiting a couple of churches. The city, which flourished as an industrial hub, has a certain grittiness due to the numerous factories and steel mills, although recent redevelopment has broken up the monotone of urban sprawl.
The next day, we headed west for the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. Surprisingly, there are no direct train or bus connections to that part of the country so we rented a car to drive the 600 or so kilometers. Sure it was a long drive but the route was beautiful with mountains on your left and the Atlantic ocean on the right. We made a detour to Picos de Europa – Spain’s famous National Park – a 3,000 meter high mountain range just 15 kilometers inland from the sea. The heart-stopping zigzag road through towering gorges was a great thrill to drive through and the quaint towns along the way where we stopped for lunch and bought their local version of mouth-watering chicharon will surely take you back to the time of the Crusades. This was, after all, the place where the re-conquest of Spain by the Christians over the Moors began.
El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St James) is a pilgrimage route that stretches 500kms. from the French Pyrenees to Santiago. Since the Middle Ages, people walked this way to pay homage to the relics of Saint James to have their sins forgiven. The trek takes about a month but since we didn’t have the luxury of time, we drove part of the route from Picos all the way to Santiago arriving well past midnight at the Casa that we booked.
Some twelve hundred years ago, a monk followed a field of stars to this small Galician town and declared that he found the lost remains of St. James, thus calling the place Santiago de Compostela (campo de estrellas). The majestic cathedral with its twin Baroque towers that stands there today serves as the beacon for pilgrims who come yearly from all over the world. It faces the huge Praza do Obradoiro where people converge to find the tile with the scallop shell that symbolizes the pilgrimage. After spending the rest of the day exploring the narrow streets and squares filled with an ensemble of historic buildings dating back to the 12th century, we settled down for a satisfying dinner of seafood. Santiago’s restaurants look like mini aquariums, proudly displaying all kinds of edible life from the sea: dazzling varieties of fish, clams, scallops, shrimps, oysters and even octopus.