It’s Thursday…. For the first time for several days I have the chance to sit and compose my thoughts. We are staying with John and Hilary Finnis at their rented house in Pontedeume – a place which looks inaccessibly small on the map but which of course springs into meaningful life when you’ve been here for a while.
The estuary is one of many which bite into the massif of granite and other hard rocks all along this coast… a little to the north are the highest cliffs of southern Europe, which we hope to see if the weather looks a bit more promising. When we arrived it was a satisfying 28 degrees, but has now sunk into autumnal mists and mellow whatnot at about 19 or 20. The rivers which have carved their way out of the mountains – more or less parallel – each come down through broad, V-shaped valleys clothed with forests which are being relentlessly invaded by eucalyptus. These trees, still being planted in smallish plots on the hillsides, present large bright blueish leaves at first but then as the trees spire upwards the leaves change shape into their usual dull grey/green lances, the bark falls off into strips, and the cohorts of plants spread out into the wild spaces. Officially the authorities are trying to remove them, but the farmers plant them because they grow so fast and present a useful cashcrop opportunity. We have also seen marvellous pampas grass plants growing wild, along the motorway verges for example, where they are proportionate and pleasing.
The rivers seem flat, sluggish, almost, and tidal quite far inland because presumably the sea level has risen or the land has sunk. The result is that each settlement looks down onto or has grown out of the navigable reaches, and climbs up the hills behind itself, but only small boats bob around at most of the quays, leaving the big fishing boats to the ports and harbours nearer to the ocean. Getting from one village to another means getting over the considerable headlands, with winding roads through the trees. Pontedeume – the bridge on the River Eume – is thus an ancient place but still fairly small as there is not much room for it to expand – and it has all the robust charm and integrity of a small market town, overlooking its marshy river, and with old fishing warehouses now converted into hostels for the pilgrims.
The Saturday market was fun – with octopus being stewed in large copper baths, Africans selling handbags from blankets spread out on the pavement, and all sorts of fish, fruits, vegetables, carvings, knives etc etc on sale, with a determined but joyous tone to the whole affair. We bought figs, photographed the fish, and I managed to convince the fag-smoking florist to let me take his photo after we spent a few moments in wonderful childish pantomime with him hiding behind some large fronds so as to prevent me doing his portrait.
I am taking masses of pictures – far too many of course, but it’s more or less free as a hobby and I keep on wanting to capture the moment….possible research for future writing, or reference, or illustrations for this blog when I figure out how to load the pix up under massive time constraints.
We went to Santiago de Compostella – combining our rubbernecking visit with a taxi service to take John’s daughter Katy to an interview at one of the language schools in the city. She has decided to move here from England, and teaching English is the obvious first way for her to earn her keep. Santiago is an old, old hustler – been attracting tourists/pilgrims since the 11th century or earlier. The main story is that the apostle James sailed to these parts in a stone boat, and once his tomb was discovered a few hundred years later, the king of the day set up a shrine for him, and the rest followed. The town is (presumably deliberately) pretty much black and white, so it has a kind of quiet, pensive feel to it. There are arcades of staunch stone pillars of every shape and design along many of the streets, and there are just masses and masses of churches and monasteries all over the place. The cathedral is flanked by two big squares at the back and front, and the main one at the front is not tainted by anything as wicked as a café, although you can sit and admire the bell-tower at the back and have a coffee at the same time. There is also a gift-shop in the square at the back, very good indeed, manned by Mr Bean.
The steep lanes give you loads of choice as to which kind of tapas you want , and depending on your pocket you can buy any kind of souvenir or memento from a humble scallopshell through to a huge silver (plata = sterlin’ silver) replica of various church ornament. Of these, by far the most interesting is a colossal incense-burner. The real thing hangs in the crossing of the cathedral, and weighs one and a half hundredweight. During Holy Years (?) every day, and otherwise on Holy Days, a squadron of monks turns out and grab hold of the rope which tethers this thing safely up in the air. They have a method of swinging it like a huge pendulum across and above the heads of the congregation. Judging by the photographs, smoke issues out of it as from a damp bonfire. The purpose must have been to overcome the smell of the crowd, I should think, as much as anything liturgical. One guidebook says they’ve been doing this - swinging the censer – since 300 years before the discovery of the science and physics of pendula. Now, the height at which this thing swings is not very far above the heads of the worshippers, and it travels an immense distance back and forth – some say along the nave, some say it goes north-south across the transepts…. I have not seen it done, so I do not know. Anyway, there have been at least two occasions when it has crashed into the head of a pilgrim – taking the poor sod out in a puff of smoke, you might say… but a very holy death and very terrible. When you see how narrow the nave and transept are, and how the organ pipes squirt out high above from both sides making the trajectory of the botafumeiro a matter of very fine precision considering it’s suspended on a rope about 150 feet long, the whole thing is pretty miraculous. I wish I had seen it going.
We have trundled about – to Mugardos and to Malpica – both very interesting little ports – and eaten in numerous small bars and restos… The timescales are so odd to an English person – nothing starts much before about 10 or 11, the morning goes on till 2, lunch starts about 3 or 4, all shops shut from 2 – 5, and the main evening meal starts about 8 or 9. Our hosts are enthusiasts for the lifestyle and we are doing our best to fit in.
We have been taken to the choicest bars for drinks – including the local style of hot chocolate – which comes so thick that you can reputedly stand your spoon up in it. Very nice, and I’m sure it would go down well at home… It’s made in a fairly ordinary-looking domestic-sized stirring kettle job, working a bit like an ice-cream maker, with glass sides and a tap at the bottom to draw off the thick liquor. This thing is never turned off, keeping the chocolate at the right temperature and consistency. Yum.
For my birthday on Tuesday, John arranged for one of the local bands to come and serenade us in a café down the road. Nine men in their 40s, 50s and 60s turned up, some with guitars or mandolos (?), and gave us an hour of wonderful harmonised singing, mostly songs from Mexico or South America… romantic, haunting, atmospheric and beautifully controlled. We were all sitting on a terrace facing the beach-park, with the darkness around us, and no-one much about. A couple came to sit nearby to listen. The barman closed the doors – he wanted to watch the football on telly and make a phone call. The wine-glasses gleamed on the table. A large brown Labrador bitch came to play and was chased away. The men sang and sang. It was magic. The rain started to splosh down around the edges of the awning, and everyone scuffled their chairs more towards the middle. Then it was time to go home… we had kisses goodbye, and thank-yous, and see-you-next-year hugs. So now I am 65. A good way to celebrate.