Well, it’s Father’s Day, and while the kids and I have sent our private greetings to our important dads I thought it was worth noting here. Any more holidays and this blog will turn into a living calendar, which isn’t very interesting. So, time for a flashback to Galicia…
We woke up to rolling gray clouds and wind, happy to be warm and dry in our hotel in Finsterra. On an old plastic tricycle Rory Nora took turns careening down the path in front of the hotel, making a ninety degree turn halfway down that more times than not spilled them off into the grass, screaming with pleasure. Good thing they had a chance to get some energy out; we had in store for us one of the most draining car days in the history of the automobile. We were off to explore the Costa da Morte, the Coast of Death, the backcorners of Galicia, already the backwater of Spain, which is, you might say, the backwater of western Europe. None of the three maps I had showed enough detail to make sense of the small tracks branching off from the unlined road we found ourselves on. We drove in circles, popping out to follow a cove around, but then to lose the road to the tip of the cape only to find ourselves facing a t-intersection, both ends of which led to towns we’d already driven through.
Do you like my use of the royal We? It was all my fault I didn’t know where I was going. If they’re no help navigating at least they don’t criticize, either. Rory and Nora had no idea we were driving in concentric circles all over the northeastern corner of Spain. They sat happily doodling in their books, listening to a Harry Potter audiobook on the iPod, trying to ignore my wild muttering. We passed some pink signs that promised the “Route of the Dolmens,” so off we went, chasing down stones marked on my Tourist Map of the Costa de Morte as islands in blue, nowhere near roads. We drove down the secondary roads, to terciary roads, then on gravel tracks, tracking down these Galician cousins to Stonehenge and the mighty standing stones of the north. Over dinners and around cafe tables I’ve been telling the kids stories from the Outlander series, by Diana Galbaldon, which center around travelling through time by passing through standing stones. This has really peaked Rory and Nora’s interest, and willingness, to drive for ages in mist and rain to look for old rocks.
We finally chased down what had to be the final track to the “Dolmen de Pedra Cuberta,” or the dolmen of the covered stone. We turned off the gravel road through a valley, surrounded by small plots of cleared land running up the sides of the hills. A path, barely wide enough for a car, bumped along, weeds and rocks scraping under the car, puddles from days of rain obscuring the tire ruts. Finall, after maybe 300 yards, my faith in the quasi-all wheel driveness of the Green Eel found its end, and we stopped. On foot! I cried, and, glad to be out of the car, Rory and Nora tromped on, pushing through tall wet grasses and quickly learning to avoid a low but violently prickly weed. Even I was beginning to have a hard time seeing this adventure as, well, fun, as the path dribbled away to almost nothing. I noted that the couple of farmers working in the valley sure were doing a lot of yelling. Gradually I noticed that some of it seemed to be directed to our side of the hill. Twenty feet on I thought, Gosh, it seems like he might even be yelling at us. So, there we stood, on a hill in the rain, trying to decipher screamed Spanish on the wind. I tried hollering back, “Are you talking to us?” which made the tiny little figure in the distance more animated. Were we walking on landmines? Was this hollow ground? Was this place protected by a fierce little band of Galician farmers, all wearing navy wool sweaters and funny black hats and wielding hoes, some rural Knights Templar? If so, why lure tourists here with the funny pink signs? Finally I made out that all the action was at the beginning of the path, back where we came from. I screamed my thanks, and we headed down, past the parked car, all the way to where we first turned off the road. There they were, huddled together against time. I will say that, though obviously less grand than the more celebrated stones circles that I’ve visited in Britain and Brittany, these guys really had their pull. They are so much a part of nature, not small but almost invisible at first, but definately placed,very on-purpose. Rory and Nora had a go at time-travel (too far from Beltane, thank goodness), and we toyed with the idea of a Covered Stone Family Picnic, but Rory said it felt disrespectful, so we slogged our way back to the Green Eel, tore down the wet path in reverse and slid out of there, back on the trail of pink signs and ancient connections.
We found one more grouping, without the help of the Farmers’ Local, and were foiled twice by tracks turned into lakes. By the time we crossed the main road I had had enough of small scale sightseeing and was ready to get on up the road. We finally fed onto a highway and got caught up in something like rush hour in A Coruna just before 4pm. Maybe a mad rush in the rain to get back to work from siesta? Not very traditional, surely. We made it through the city and, at last, into the part of Galicia known as the Rias Altas, the High Rivers, where the highest cliffs in Europe stand above the crashing Atlantic, where massive rivers carve the land into fingers reaching out to sea. I had been looking forward to this for a long, long time. I thought we’d stand at lookouts, cooing happily, then tuck into a rural hotel and have a nice big fishy dinner. We headed up, off the main road again, only to find that the weather was getting uglier and uglier. Little streams began to run parallel to the road. Once or twice they crossed the road to fall away down the opposite shoulder. Our road was climbing up to mount those massive cliffs, and I started to get a little uneasy. Twice we drove through enough water to make me nervous, nothing dangerous, but a couple of inches that had me creeping along. Near the top our way was blocked by a couple of work trucks cleraing a tree that had blocked the road. I asked one of the men if they road was closed. No, it was open. I asked if it was dangerous. Yes, it was. I asked did it get better from here? No, worse. We turned around. We drove the long way around, only to find that in the closest town to the cape whole stretches of the main road were under water. One of the tiny little cars, the kind they have here that runs on a moped engine and only merits a tiny little moped-size license plate, was stuck, quickly becoming stranded. It was then I gave up on traipsing around the cape. In this weather we’d be more likely to be blown over the edge or go down the maginificent cliffs in a mudslide. No, in this mild hurricane we’d just keep driving.
We found haven just south of Viveiro in a beautiful 15th century manor house-turned-hotel. The next morning the road we had driven through was on the front page of the regional newspaper; it had worsened through the evening until it was a river running through the town. I saved a clipping. We spent two nights at the Pazo del Trave, and although I hate to have missed the views from the Rias Altas I did enjoy the quiet and the rest I found there, and now I have a great excuse for bringing Brandon back!
We spent a couple of nights there, hiding out from the rain and making good use of the wifi to plan our next few moves. We drove five hours along the coast, out of Galicia and into Asturias. We spent a great afternoon a the Museum of the Altamira. The caves of Altamira were inhabited more than 18,000 years ago, and folks lived in them off and on for thousands of years until a landslide blocked the entrance about 4000 years ago. When the caves were reiscovered in the late 1800’s, th first scientists to go in bevlieved the paintings they saw there to be a hoax. The colors were too vivid; the perspective and execution, too avanced to be authentic. Further study proved these paintings to be genuine paleolithic art, justabout as good as it gets (or as good as we’ve found so far!) THe cave itself is closed to the public, but a “Neocave” was built in the museum, all the bumps and crags of the cave, faithfully rendered, with none of the damp and chill of the real thing. We had visited the Pileta Cave in Andaluscia, with much simpler paintings from abouthe same time frame. While the paintings were less elaborate I loved the experience of climbing up to the cave entrance, then following the slick rock path down past the stalagmites and stalactites dripping with water, watching the shadows throw by the gas lanterns. I found it really easy to imagine sheltering my family through the long cold ice age winters there. The Neocave, on the other hand, was pretty slick. The rest of the museum was amazing and answered lots of questions we had about life 15,000 ago. We spent four happy hours there, then headed back into the pouring rain.
Our next stop was Santillana del Mar, a medieval town so well preserved that our usually reserved Lonely Planet guidebook gushes on and on, claiming it looks like a movie set. Well, it would have to be a movie involoving lots of animals lined up two by two…