In my last post, M1626 – Captivating Cádiz, I described the penultimate port call on this cruise, to Cádiz in the south-west of Spain. After leaving Cádiz we spent a day at sea sailing north up the coast of Portugal and Spain, and early the next day we sailed into the final call not just for this cruise but also for this year, A Coruña, perhaps more commonly known in this country by it’s former name La Coruña.
Sailing north we had lost that lovely warm intense sunshine that we had enjoyed in our previous ports – there was a fresher feel to the air, and the threat of isolated heavy showers. I had chosen to do the longest tour available in this port, to visit the historic pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela. The ship was setting sail mid afternoon for home so there would not be time to explore the port on my own afterwards, but as I have visited A Coruña twice before so this was not a problem.
Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the autonomous community of Galicia in the north west of Spain, some 74km south-west of A Coruña. It’s cathedral holds the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great, and has therefore been the destination for pilgrims since the 9th century. According to legend the remains of St. James were brought to Galicia for burial. In these legends the light of a bright star guided a shepherd to the burial site in Santiago de Compostela in 813. News of this reached King Alfonso II via a bishop, who ordered a cathedral be built on the spot where remains of St. James were said to have been found. The pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in the cathedral is known as the Way of St. James in English and as the Camino de Santiago in Spanish. Over 100,000 pilgrims travel to the city each year from points all over Europe and other parts of the world. Surrounding the cathedral are many narrow winding streets full of historic buildings.
Leaving the port our coach took us directly along dual carriageways to the city of Santiago de Compostela. As we left the port it began to rain, and I could see a large rainbow from the coach as we drove along. Fortunately by the time we reached Santiago de Compostela the rain had all but stopped, as the coach could only stop at a coach station some distance from the historic centre. Even as we left the coach we could see the historic buildings in the distance:
Our local guide was a young lady who spoke very good English and who was very knowledgeable about the cathedral and the city. She explained how the scallop shell was the symbol used by the pilgrims, and we saw the shells everywhere – on souvenir stalls, set into the pavements to guide the way, and carved on the walls of the cathedral:
Our guide led us to the Praza do Obradoiro, the main square to the west of the cathedral. Unfortunately the Obradoiro façade of the cathedral is undergoing restoration, and was partially obscured by scaffolding:
However on the northern side of the square the carvings on the Hostal dos Reis Católicoso, a luxury hotel, were picked out by the low late autumn sun:
Our guide led us on a clockwise tour around the outside of the cathedral, pausing frequently to point out and explain features of both the cathedral and of other historic buildings we passed – for example that the windows of the Mosteiro de San Paio de Antealtares, the monastery opposite the eastern façade of the cathedral, were barred to stop the youngest daughters of large families sent there for financial reasons from escaping or falling to their death:
On the eastern façade is the Puerta Santa, or Holy Door, originally built in the early 17th century. Our guide explained how this door is only opened in jubilee years, which are those in which 25th July – St. James’ Day – falls on a Sunday. The door is opened after the Archbishop ceremonially knocks on the shut door with a silver hammer. We were very fortunate as this year is a jubilee year, and the door was open for us to use later:
On both the eastern and southern façades there were many carvings that really caught the eye, including St. James with his two disciples Theodore and Athanasius below:
Opposite the southern façade is the Praza das Praterías, and on the south side of this square is what looks to be a lovely historic building. However our guide pointed out that if you walk around the corner you see that this building is only very narrow, it was built simply to improve the look of the square:
At this point we were given free time, during which we could enter the cathedral to view it’s interior. We then had a choice, we could meet up for refreshments at the Hostal dos Reis Católicoso, or have any extra half hour of free time – predictably I chose the latter as I can take refreshments anytime but had this once chance to view the city.
I headed back to the Puerta Santa to take the rare opportunity to enter the cathedral that way, only to find that a mass was underway. There was people everywhere, and most of the cathedral was roped off, so I decided to leave the cathedral for a while and make a quick tour of the old city area surrounding it.
Here I found a much smaller church with an open door so ducked inside and quickly took these pictures of it’s impressive interior – as I was leaving a group of well dressed people were entering so I am not sure if I was supposed to be there:
At this point a heavy shower passed over, so I took the chance to visit a couple of shops and bought some gifts and souvenirs. My inbuilt sense of direction brought be around in a circle back to the cathedral, and on entering again by the Holy Door I was relieved to find that the mass was over and that nearly all the people had gone. There was just about time to scoot around the inside taking photographs, including passing the altar in the crypt bearing the silver coffer containing the relics of St. James and his two disciples:
Elsewhere in the cathedral St. James is depicted in this sculpture of him riding his horse:
Once of the most famous features of the cathedral is the botafumeiro, or censer. The earliest references to the botafumeiro date back to the 12th century, it is believed that the smell of the burning intense helped to perfume the air against the perspiration of the toiling pilgrims. The current botafumeiro dates back to 1851, and with a height of 1.6m and weighing 80kg it is the largest censer in the world. On great occasions eight men known as tiraboleiros swing the botafumeiro on it’s great thick rope back and forth across the aisles of the transept:
Leaving the cathedral by the north door I made my way around to the meeting point outside the Hostal dos Reis Católicoso. However I arrived about 5 minutes early, so popped to the edge of the square to grab a photograph of the Church of San Fructuoso and the quaint street running alongside it:
On the way back to the coach we passed the Convento de San Francisco, a Franciscan monastery founded in the early thirteenth century, and the nearby Monumento A San Francesco d’Assisi:
It took around an hour to drive back to A Coruña and our waiting ship, just in time to board before we sadly set sail for home. As we sailed out there were some good views of the characteristic glazed window balconies of the port, called galerías; of the Histórico Castillo de San Antón castle; and of the Roman Tower of Hercules, a lighthouse which has been in continuous operation since around the 2nd century AD:
The final call on this cruise had been a memorable one, visiting the last of the trio of iconic Spanish buildings I had booked to visit during the cruise. We were sadly setting sail for Southampton and home, which we reached very early in the morning two days later.
Postscript: As I mentioned earlier, this port call was also the last call I will be making in 2016. This has been an astonishing year for me, for the first time enjoying five cruises in one calendar year, venturing as far away as Argentina and Greenland. After a few sums I came up with the following statistics for this year:
nights at sea: 120
distance travelled: 31,049 nautical miles
ports visited: 44 (4 of them twice)
countries visited: 17
continents visited: 4
These totals are going to be hard to beat, but with the cruises I have already booked up for next year I should be able to beat at least some of them! So although this is farewell for 2016, rest assured I intend to be back posting on this blog next year as I continue to explore the world by cruise ship.