April 29, 2016: A Coruna & Santiago de Compostela, Spain
It was a beautiful morning as we arrived into A Coruna, Spain, our first stop in mainland Europe and our first visit ever to the Northern coast of Spain. While we have been fortunate to visit the Southern coast several times, including Barcelona, Malaga, Cadiz, Alhambra, and Seville, as well as make our way to the capital of Madrid, we welcomed another chance to visit one of our most favorite countries with a stop here and a day trip to Santiago de Compostela to visit the famous cathedral there.
Today was a “Do It Yourself” (DIY) tour day, and as we left the ship, it was a short 3 minute walk to a nearby bus stop, where we boarded the #23 bus to the train station. 1.30 Euro per person, 11 minutes, and 8 stops later, we walked another 5 minutes to the train station. A few minutes before 10am, With pre-purchased RENFE tickets in hand (11 Euros per person round trip), we boarded our immaculate train car, took our seats and enjoyed a 40 minute ride through the Spanish countryside to Santiago de Compostela, our destination for the day.
On the ride down to SdC, we took a regional train, which added 4 small stops and about 11 minutes to the trip, but the return was a direct express, reaching speeds of 160 kph (100 miles per hour). R had a blast watching cars, trucks, green hillsides, farms, and animals fly by as we traveled.
Upon reaching Santiago de Compostela, it was about a 15 minute walk from the station to the cathedral, consisting of a set of about 80 stairs from the train station to street level and a gradual uphill climb on sidewalks and beautiful, narrow, cobblestone streets to the square. It was pretty easy and everyone did fine. Along the way, we admired the city of Santiago de Compostela, the Praza de Galicia and its neat children’s pirate ship play area, and the narrow pedestrian only lanes leading up to the cathedral with its endless array of eateries.
Galacian (or galego) is the primary language spoken in northern Spain, with about 3 million speakers. While many words and phrases were “close enough” to generally understand, there were enough curve-balls to utilize the readily available menus and signs in Castillian, the primary Spanish language of the country.
Upon arriving at the Praza de Obradoiro (square of the stone cutters), we entered the enormous cobblestone square and were sandwiched between a huge palace (Palacio de Raxoi) and the 850+ year old cathedral. Surrounding us in the square were a mix of several groups of recently finished pilgrims (flanked by 12-15 small backpacks), tourists, and Spanish teens on field trip/holiday with their schools.
The pilgrims are here because they had recently completed a pilgrimage of up to 300+ miles of walking within Spain, and countless more from their origination point, with the goal of completing a retreat or time of spiritual reflection in the journey to reach the cathedral, considered by many to be the final resting place of St. James, one of the original 12 Apostles of Jesus. The journey (within Spain or continental Europe) is completed almost entirely on foot, and though jubilant upon completing the trek, many of the pilgrims upon reaching the cathedral are shedding tears, either from pure exhaustion, being overwhelmed upon the arrival at this incredible place, or from extensive foot injuries – we saw many blisters, sores, taped ankles, etc.
We arrived to the square around 11:30am, picked up an English language audio guide of the cathedral (3.50 Euro) with extensive commentary from pilgrims that have completed the journey and shared their experiences and many of the unique elements and history of the cathedral. The 50 minute audio tour was quite good, allowed us to wander around the inside of the cathedral, and allowed us to watch as the daily 12noon “Pilgrim’s Mass” was to begin.
It was a bit surprising to see the cathedral at capacity, but with a number of ushers and security personnel in place, it was very manageable and friendly for all. Visitors were permitted to walk along the perimeter of the cathedral, as long as no photography or video of the mass was being taken. This allowed for the audio guides to be used, while in the background, the Spanish language mass advanced with singing, readings, gospel, and homily for the pilgrims.
During this time, we were permitted to join a short line to walk up behind the great altar to the place where St. James remains where, and to venture into the lower crypt to see the gleaming silver and ornate resting place. As mass was still in progress, this was a recommended time to visit, as the lines grew substantially once the service concluded.
We finished up our tour just as mass let out, and we made our way back to the small basement level office to return the audio guides and pick up a drivers license left as collateral. From here, we headed back into the narrow pedestrian lanes of SdC and found a great spot for lunch along Rua de Reina, where we enjoyed an amazing (and huge) pork loin bocadillo (sandwich) and patatas, calamari, and chicken salad.
As it was early afternoon, we slowly made our way back to the train station with a nice 15 minute walk back (downhill this time!) to catch a 2:45pm train back to A Coruna. 28 quick minutes later, we grabbed a bus that dropped us off less than 3 minutes from the cruise terminal and we were back on board.
It was a great DIY tour day in A Coruna and Santiago de Compostela. With costs for the full day (bus, train, and audio guide at the cathedral) of less than $20 a person (lunch was additional), it was an enjoyable (and inexpensive!) day for all!