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Santiago de Compostela and an Intro to Green Spain

See the previous stage of our trip here (Madrid)

Although it requires an early departure, there is a high speed train between Madrid and Santiago de Compostela that cuts down the travel time considerably. It was fast and comfortable. Sadly, our luck with perfect weather ran out, and we arrived on a decidedly rainy day. Our Airbnb just south of Old Town was ideal for cozying in. We completed our grocery shopping and did just that, but not before lunch at O Tamboril -- a rice-centric restaurant specializing in paella and similar dishes. It was here we were introduced to the "Senyoret" variant of paella. According to legend, a gentleman (or a Senyoret) wanted paella without getting his fingers dirty with shells, tails, heads, etc. Thus this version of paella was born, in which only fish flesh is cooked in the rice. Still every bit as tasty!

The skies emptied themselves overnight so that our next morning was overcast, but dry. Mass was still underway in the cathedral, so we headed to the Museum of the Pilgrimage. Reviews and pictures don't do the museum justice, as it is an excellent and particularly well-curated space. Visitors are sure to walk away with a much more complete understanding of the pilgrimage route and its history, including how much of a political move the Route was in stopping Muslim domination across the top of Spain. We returned to the cathedral, finding it largely empty and quiet. It is every bit as impressive and fascinating as you've likely read, and I doubt there's much my own words could add. It is simply a place that evokes history, tradition, and reverence in beautiful combinations. Afterwards, we headed to a less prominent gem of the city -- the Cafe Casino. Built in 1866, it is easy to see how this became the favorite haunt of aristocrats and intellectuals. The large space is filled with sumptuous wood carvings and thickly upholstered chairs. Whether enjoying an espresso or a glass of wine, the room is filled with elegant taste and refinement. (FYI, it is part of the European Historic Cafes Association -- a group I did not know existed; but one's whose membership page I have definitely bookmarked for future reference). Our plan had been to continue in the afternoon with a local daytrip; however, the weather was still variable, and the next day promised better, so we opted for a leisurely lunch instead.

A word about our dining strategy in Spain. Because we opt for apartment rentals, we take advantage of full kitchens, buying groceries, and cooking dinners in. A small package of protein, some fresh veg, and an inexpensive bottle of wine can make for terrific two-person dinners, usually for less than Eur 15 total. Thus, we tend to go higher end for lunches, which coincidentally still have a lower price tag than dinners out. There's another benefit in Spain -- more control over dinner times. As much as we love Spain, we'll never get on board with 10:00 p.m. + dinner times. By cooking in, we can meet the Spaniards halfway; maybe 8:30 p.m.! Anyway, for lunch on this day we picked the understated La Tacita (Rua do Horreo 31), which specializes in Galician cuisine. It was a great way to sample regional specialties like broiled scallops in the shell and Caldo Gallego, a kale and white bean stew flavored with ham. We called it a day with that, hoping tomorrow's packed agenda could be well-timed with a day of sunshine.

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The next day we did indeed enjoy beautiful weather, and thus doubled up on our day trips. We found them to be very different -- particularly in comparison to each other: Ourense and Pontevedra. Ourense was first and it contained an amazing array of A+ sites. (Do yourself a favor and take one of the many city buses outside the train station that whisk you up the city's steep hills.) The Cathedral was first and foremost, including the Pórtico do Paraíso. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it is very similar to Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela’s Pórtico da Gloria, In fact, those who worked in Santiago on the more famous entrance later went on to Ourense, and the Door of Paradise is a stunning piece of art in the exact same style. True confession -- we didn't visit the famous Portico da Gloria during our trip to Santiago's Cathedral the day before. It is within the Cathedral Museum, and there were approximately 5,000 middle school students ahead of us (o.k., maybe 100, but way too many for the tiny space). Plus we learned that photography of any kind is forbidden of the Pórtico da Gloria, a pet peeve of mine. By contrast, Ourense's Pórtico do Paraíso can be photographed, and we had it to ourselves in blissful and reflective silence. Also in Ourense's cathedral is a chapel built around a 1330 crucifix, said to have been found by fisherman. It is adorned with natural hair that legend claims grows and requires a regular barber. Legends aside, it is a magnificent space. At the top of the hill in Ourense, is another fantastic medieval treasure, St. Francis’ Cloister. Built in the mid-1330s, the cloister is a riot of columns decorated with plant, animal, and human capitals. Bridging romanesque and gothic, each capital is different, and provides an architectural equivalent to a bestiary and the grotesques one often sees in illuminated manuscripts. Lunch was at Restaurante Gastro-Bar Sanmiguel, a spot that I suspect will one day make it into a Michelin Guide. The food was outstanding, including some of the best scallops of my life. The beef cheek dish was so tender it fell apart at the first touch a fork. Deliciousness all around!

Next we headed to Pontevedra, riding through a beautiful countryside. Already in mid-March the Galician landscape of hills, rocky cliffs, and rivers was lush and verdant. This stretch of "Green Spain" is such a contrast to the rest of Spain, and completely different from the deserts of Don Quixote or the country's famed sunny beaches. In fact, much of the Northern Camino de Santiago is through this landscape resembling Ireland or Oregon.

When we arrived in Pontevedra it immediately struck us as less picturesque than Ourense; however, we were here to see the Provincial Museum of Pontevedra, described as one of the best regional museums in Spain. And, indeed, the overview of Galician artistic heritage is astounding -- comprehensive, well-curated, and terrifically displayed. But it was too much for first-time visitors to the region. We simply didn't know enough about Galician history or culture to appreciate the art beyond an aesthetic level, which meant it was a long day and a long journey only to enjoy some beautiful paintings. It was a good lesson about knowing one's limits for what will and will not resonate.

Alas, the rains returned (it is "Green Spain" for a reason!), so we spent our final day in Santiago de Compostela with a less ambitious agenda. We took on a thorough exploration of the Mercado de Abastos, in Old Town. This place it huge...the market isn't just one hall, but several halls running parallel to each other, plus stalls and shops around the parameter. The choices seem endless. If that doesn't suffice, we also discovered Victoria down by our Airbnb outside Old Town. A local fixture since 1929, Victoria provides upmarket groceries and homemade Galician specialties, including a large selection of homemade empanadas and baked goods.

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You may have noticed I haven't talked much about those on the pilgrimage. The truth is, we didn't see many. In fact, during the whole visit we spotted only a handful of "recognizable" pilgrims with their backpacks and scallop shells. For some reason, I imaged a sea of such folks. Another surprise was the relative upscale nature of Santiago de Compostela. Sure, there were plenty of t-shirt shops and one cheeky burrito joint claimed it was the end of the Camino; however, places like Cafe Casino and Victoria cater to a decidedly higher-end local crowd of Galicians that I wasn't expecting to find, but was thrilled to discover. Most importantly, my takeaway was the sense of history. Religious or non-religious, it is impossible to visit Santiago de Compostela and not be aware of the millions who have tred the final steps of The Way before you.

Our trip along the Camino continues here...

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The truth is, we didn't see many. In fact, during the whole visit we spotted only a handful of "recognizable" pilgrims with their backpacks and scallop shells.

We saw three exhausted looking pilgrims (young men looked to be in their 20s) in Salamanca yesterday - scallop shells, hiking poles and backpacks. Having seen how hilly the Camino is near Hervas on our way by bus to Salamanca we were not surprised how exhausted they looked.

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I think Galicia has the most underrated regional cuisine of Spain, just the sheer quality of local ingredients is outstanding even within Spain. I might go even further in saying it tops the Basque cuisine, which is over hyped in my opinion.

It was here we were introduced to the "Senyoret" variant of paella.

Yes this is one of my favourite Paella variants, along with Arroz negro (with squid ink). Senyoret means "little gentleman" in the Valencian and Catalan languages, "Señorito" in Castellano, and is a byword word for Snob. So it is the "Snob's Paella" cause he does not want to get his hands dirty peeling the shellfish lol!

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March isn’t a huge pilgrimage time since it’s still very cold up in the mountains. Return to Santiago in May or September and pilgrims are everywhere. Back in late May 2017 (driving) we stopped in O’Ceibro on the Camino and it was only 32 degrees mid day.

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Yep, last May when I got to Santiago, over 4000 pilgrims a day were getting their Compostela. 420,000 people got one of those last year.
March is a dead zone, because many albergues don't open until April, and for those who want to start in SJPDP, the Napolean Route does not open until 1 April, and even then my close because of bad weather. (yes, you can be blown off of the mountains or suffer hyperthermia or get lost in a white-out)