The Grand Tour: Part 10 — Fires at Night

The Bonfires of San Xoån in A Coruña.

The Bonfires of San Xoån in A Coruña.

A Coruña, Spain — The Bonfires of San Xoån (or Hogueras de San Juan in Spanish) is a big deal — a really big deal.

Held every year on the night of June 23, it is one of the biggest festivals of the year. It coincides with the summer solstice, another example of a pagan festival being co-opted by the Christians as part of their efforts of conversion — think Christmas and Easter, both of which were existing pagan festivals that were later Christianized.

This year San Xoån, which nominally celebrates John the Baptist, drew an estimated 150,000 people to the beaches of A Coruña in Galicia, a region in the Northeast of Spain. Considering A Coruña’s population is approximately 250,000, one can get a sense of the popularity of the event.

A street vendor cooking sardines.

A street vendor cooking sardines.

Street vendors sell cooked sardines — a local delicacy — as well as various meats, from road-side grills. It is equivalent to Southeast Texas’ links sales or New York hot dog carts. The fish are prepared, like most seafood in this region, fairly simply. Just a quick grill in olive oil. The fish carries it’s own flavor so why hide it.

Staking out a spot on the beach.

Staking out a spot on the beach.

By early morning of June 23, people were already camped out on the beach to reserve their spots for the bonfires, with groups taking shifts to hold on to an area of the beach around 12-feet square. While there is a large ceremonial bonfire in the center of the beach, the main point is to build one’s own. The city supplies wood and people line up to get their free planks — as much as each individual can carry across their outstretched arms seems to be the general rule — and build their circular pyramids. Throughout the day we saw groups of young people carrying all manner of wood to the beach, from wooden pallets to old chairs and even the remnants of a large, ornate table.

Building a bonfire.

Building a bonfire.

Other groups take the bonfires a little more seriously, building two-story structures with hammer and nails. The atmosphere throughout the day is jovial and there is a palpable sense of anticipation.

The sun doesn’t set until around 10:30 p.m. at this time of the year, so, apart from a few early starters, the wooden tours stand dormant against the darkening sky.

SanXoanDuskFrom our vantage point overlooking the main bonfire, we watched the evening’s activities develop. Around 9 p.m. the main street by the beach was blocked off and gradually began to fill up with pedestrians. Many people reserve restaurant tables and spend the early evening with friends before setting off to watch the show.

The city supplies wood for the beach bonfires.

The city supplies wood for the beach bonfires.

As it got darker, flames began to pop up along the beach. By the time a small parade that began the official celebration made it’s way to the main bonfire tower, the beach was aglow with dots of orange, red and yellow of various sizes.

SanXoanParadeThe parade is led by the Meiga Mayor, the Queen Witch, the girl chosen to light the fire bonfire. The tradition of witches doesn’t carry the same negative connotation as it does in other cultures. The word meiga means magic, and witches can be both good and bad.

SanXoanFireworkAt midnight, a giant firework display lit up the night sky, and the Meiga Mayor ignites the tribute bonfire. Each year, a bonfire is built to celebrate a theme. This year’s theme focused on Pablo Picasso. He lived in Coruña from the ages of 10 to 14, and exhibited his first works here. He was also the subject of a show at the art museum earlier this year. The bonfire had giant paper maché figures of the artist from young boy to old man, with representations of his different styles along the way. To be featured on the bonfire is a high honor.SanXoanPicasso

To a chorus of cheers, Pablo went up in a blaze of glory, with more fireworks shooting out of the structure. By now the beach was a haze of smoke diffusing the bright flames of hundreds of fires. Even from our vantage point overlooking the beach one could feel the heat.

Once the bonfires waned slightly, the crowd started jumping the flames. It is tradition to jump over them three times for goSanXoanBurnod luck. A quick walk arSanXoanCloseound the throng was enough for us as the smoke was almost overwhelming. We were back by 2 a.m., but the party was still going strong.

SanXoanCleanupThe next morning, a crew of workers attacked the beach, removing debris and smoothing out the sand — aided by the seagulls eagerly picking up leftovers. All that was left when the dump trucks moved off, was a few scorch marks on the sand.

Even though it was a Wednesday morning, the city was virtually closed down with only a few weary stragglers making their way home from the beach — and the tourists, of course. We were the only ones who looked like we’d got any sleep.SanXoanPano


The Grand Tour: Part 9 — Stamp Your Feet

SEVILLE, Spain — While in Seville we ventured out for some Spanish theater. We know going in that we would not understand everything — or even anything — but we wanted to give it a shot.

Flamenco3Fortunately, the first show we saw did not need translating. It was a performance that fused classical flamenco, modern dance and theater, titled “Poema Sinfonica,” choreographed by Annabel Veloso.

The set was sparse except for a music stand, grand piano, a harp and a cello, along with a small bleacher on which sat the small band of musicians.

flamenco1The male dancer, Angel Muñoz, dressed all in black, moved in obvious anguish between the instruments. It quickly became apparent that he was a composer who was struggling to find inspiration for his music.

His dancing at first was slow moving, punctuated by percussive bursts as his feet pounded to wooden stage at Sala Joaquin Turina theater.

As he slumped over the grand piano, Veloso entered,in a black and white dress, performing a sensual dance that was lithe and inspiring. When she left the stage, Muñoz next went to the harp. This time he was even more percussive. Veloso returned once more wearing an elaborate dress complete with the traditional shawl — the mantón — with a fringe so long that as she arched her back she resembled the strings of the harp.

flamenco4Each of the dances in the 70-minute show reflected a separate instrument, some with musical accompaniment alone, others with the stirring voice of Naike Ponce added to the mix.

As the composer’s inspiration was triggered, the dances became bigger and louder, his feet pounded the floor faster and faster. The final dance between Veloso and Muñoz, the moment when the symphony revealed itself, was a whirlwind of arms and legs and an incredible percussive beat that literally shook our bodies to the core. The ground and the seats were shaking as the two dancers kited the music and the dance to its height.

At the end, the audience let to its feet with applause and cheers. It was a visceral experience and left me shaking with excitement.

The next night we attended a couple of microtheater shows. They were held on the top floor of a bar/restaurant. Each of the five shows that ran almost simultaneously, were 15 to 20 minutes and performed in rooms with an audience of 20 that was right on top of the actors — at the frost show, one of the audience members was squeezed between the two actors.

The first show, whose title I did not write down, was about a woman who is supporting her gay Mexican roommate. She wants something in return, and while the pair banter back and forth, she beats an egg until it completely fluffy. She wants a baby or he has to get out. Even with the obvious language issues, it was pretty clear what was going on, and the pair were expressive and on point. It helped that Catalina, our host, was on hand to cover some of the nuances over drinks between shows.

The second play, “Selfie 666,” dealt with the self-absorption of the famous. The two characters were an actress whose car has broken down, and a strange woman in a blood-stained apron. The actress arrives to use the phone as her cell phone won’t work. She is oblivious to the obvious danger of her surroundings. The other woman has obviously photoshopped selfless of herself with celebrities from Vladimir Putin to Lionel Messi.

The play was not as tight as the other, and played more as farce and caricature, but it had some nice moments.

One extra piece of theater came on our last evening in Seville. After a pleasant time meeting new friends, we came across a street flamenco group. As it was past midnight, the group were no longer on stage as it makes too much noise, but that doesn’t mean they were ready to stop. The dancers welcomed all who wanted to join them with improvised dances and music. Laughter and merriment was the order of the day — or night.

More theater is on the way when we get to England, but this was a perfect glimpse into the art of Spanish culture.

The Grand Tour: Part 8 — The Pilgrim’s Progress


The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA, Galicia — El Camino de Santiago is probably the most famous European pilgrimage. People travel from all points across Europe — indeed, from across the world — to the cathedral in Santiago, Spain, to see the tomb of St. James.

Thousands take on the task of walking the real camino from St. John Pied de Pont, France, to Santiago, a total of 733 kilometers (455 miles), which can take four to six weeks on foot.

Legend has it that St. James (which translates to Santiago in Spanish) was the first to travel the camino as he traveled to Spain to spread the word of Christianity (northern Spain being the edge of the known world at that time — remember Fisterre?). When he returned home to Palestine in 44 A.D., he was immediately beheaded by Herod Agrippa. Before his body was thrown to the lions, his remains were rescued by two of his followers and returned to Galicia in a small boat, where they remained hidden for nearly 800 years.

In 813, a monk supposedly discovered the tomb and a local bishop proclaimed that it was indeed the body of St. James, and the whole pilgrim business was born.

Many historians believe that the “discovery” was a way for Spaniards to unite other European countries in their battle against the Moors. Either way, a trip to Santiago is not complete without walking to the cathedral (in our case it was about a mile from the parking garage to the front door, but it is all uphill so that’s got to count for something).

IMG_5718Regardless of one’s religious affiliations, no trip to Europe can be made without visiting cathedrals. I believe it is required at port of entry but I may be wrong. They are always big, gaudy and shiny (lots of gold) and pretty impressive structures. The cathedral in Santiago is no exception. It is impressive in scale and ornamentation. The facade is currently being renovated, but they have cleverly placed life-size photos over the scaffolding to show how it would look if one could actually see it. I found that quite impressive in itself.

FullSizeRenderA giant botafumeiro (censer) hangs about the congregation. A particularly overwrought gold one hangs above the gold-laden altar — which, by the way,has some of the largest angels I have ever seen. The censer is not used as much any more, but the incense-filled container used to be swung across the assembled throng to purify them — and also to cover the stench of the great unwashed masses who had just walked 455 miles. I have to say, there were quite a few moments when I wished it was still in use.

The pilgrims line up next to the small door where they climb the stairs to place their hands on the gold and jewel-encrusted statue of St. James and say a prayer. Below that, down some narrow stairs, lies the tomb itself, deep behind glass. The upstairs room is ostentatious and opulent. The downstairs tomb — for which there is no line, by the way — is unadorned and unassuming. I’m sure that says something about true piety, but I’ll let you make up your mind about that.

St. James tomb.

St. James tomb.

The pilgrims wear a sort of uniform — floppy hat, a long staff or two, and some sort of elaborate knee brace. Ramona pointed out that a great many of the people around the cathedral were limping. I suppose walking hundreds of miles for more than a month will do that to you.

I thought about that when I got a piece of grit in my sandal. I had to sit in one of the many sidewalk cafe’s with a glass of wine to recover. It’s a hard life.

The fact that many of them continue on to Fisterre amazes me. Despite my kidding, there is something impressive about taking the time to attempt the trip. I hope they find what they are looking for.

The Grand Tour — Part 7: The End of the World

1470366_695244543934430_7497319062478639515_nFISTERRA, Galicia — Back in the late 1970s, I remember Elvis Costello’s first album, “My Aim is True,” which I bought as soon as it came out. One of my favorite tracks was “Waiting for the End of the World,” which is a perennial whistling favorite.

I don’t have to wait any longer, as I have seen the end of the world and it is magnificent. Fisterra (in Galician or finisterre in Spanish) literally means the end of the earth. It is not unique to have a “land’s end” — there is a Finnisterra in France and a Land’s End in England, and this one shares with its namesakes the breathtaking beauty to be found standing high on a rock looking across the Atlantic Ocean to… well, to what? To nothingness, maybe?

A stone cross at Fisterre where [pilgrims leave a rock they have carries on theor pilgrimage. It symbolizes shedding the weight of the burdens they carry.

A stone cross at Fisterre where [pilgrims leave a rock they have carries on theor pilgrimage. It symbolizes shedding the weight of the burdens they carry.

The ancient Celts who conquered Galicia eons ago believed that west across the vast sea was an island called the “Land of Youth,” where no one ever dies and happiness was a guarantee. These beliefs were connected to the sun’s disappearance into darkness every day.

The discovery of St. James’ tomb in Santiago de Compostela, some 86 kilometers away, attracted pilgrims to Galicia, many of whom continue to Cap de Fisterre.It is well worth the visit, although when one can drive up to within a few hundred yards, I fail to see the  appeal of dragging oneself up the long steep 5-kilometer hill. But I am just there for the view and not on some quest for enlightenment — I suppose to each his own.

Bagpiper at the end of the earth. Photo by Ramona Young

Bagpiper at the end of the earth. Photo by Ramona Young

However, there is an amazing feeling when one stands on the edge of the world and stares into the aquatic void. One is buffeted by the wind and the sound of the ocean is fantastic. True to the aforementioned Celtic influence, a lone bagpiper played and the sounds echoed around the corner to the rocks.

Even though the end of the world was populated by several dozen tourists and pilgrims, it was possible, when looking out to sea, to feel completely alone.

My partner, Ramona, said that it must have taken great courage to look out across that endless vista and say, “I think I’ll sail that and see where it ends up.” It does take a special kind of person. My bravery consists of standing on the edge of a rock expecting the wind to blow me into the sea. That’s brave enough for me.

A metal scu;pture of a boot overlooks the ocean at Fisterre, symbolic of the end of the pilgrims' camino.

A metal scu;pture of a boot overlooks the ocean at Fisterre, symbolic of the end of the pilgrims’ camino.

Besides, I know where it ends up — I live there. I made my own trip from England and found my contentment across the wide ocean. It’s not exactly the “Land of Youth,” but it’ll do for me.

Next up: More about the pilgrims.

The Grand Tour: Part 6 — The legend of Pedra da Serpe

CORME-Porto, Spain — The Pedra da Serpe, or Serpent Rock, is located on the outskirts of Corme, on the road to Gondomil. It should be noted that the towns on Galicia’s Costa da Morte are closely bunched, often with barely enough time to get the car into fifth gear before having to slow down for another village.

The Serpent Rock. A winged rock is carved into the rock below the cross. The point is the iontersection between Celtic and Christian traditions.

The Serpent Rock. A winged rock is carved into the rock below the cross. The point is the iontersection between Celtic and Christian traditions.

Located at a crossroads on top of a hill, the Serpent Rock legend goes back for millennia. Some date it as prehistoric, others that it is Roman, or others that is represents a Pagan cult that pre-dates Chrstianity. It is certainly evidence of the Celtic influence, who used snakes in their symbols.

The Roman historian R. Festo Avieno, in the 4th century, wrote that the original inhabitants of the area, the Oestrimnios, were driven out by a plague of snakes — probably referring to a conquest by the Celts.

Here’s where the legend takes on a Christian theme. The infestation was so bad that no one could live there until San Adrian, presumably inspired by God, stamped his foot or hit the ground with his staff — legends are fluid after all — causing all the snakes to flee and slither under the rock on the hill. One of the snakes turned into stone, hence the winged snake figure carved in the rock.

A cross was erected and the church of San Adrian is adjacent to the crossroads.

The story echoes St. Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, with both legends presumably referring the Christianization of the Celts.

Seems like these poor old Celtic snakes can’t catch a break.

The Grand Tour: Part 5 — Styles of Seville

IMG_5222SEVILLE, Spain — “You are so lucky with the weather.”

We must have heard that a 100 times during our time in Seville. We had been warned that temperatures would be in the 90s at this time of the year, and as Seville is a “walking town,” we were warned. As it turned out, an unseasonably cool front kept the temperatures around 80 degrees, the absolutely perfect temperature to explore this old city.

I am glad it is a walking town, because the minimal driving I had to do — getting in and getting out — proved to be a challenge. Every street is one way, probably due to the fact that the winding streets were not technically wide enough for a car! OK, slight exaggeration, but only slight.

A view of one of the narrow streets of Seville

A view of one of the narrow streets of Seville

The narrow streets and alleyways are a real delight. The town has a strong Moorish influence and one can imagine the twists and turns filled with market stalls. The multiple cafés have outdoor seating and for the people watcher, it is a perfect place to enjoy a tinto verano or another cool beverage and relax.

A late night flamenco party on the streets of Seville.

A late night flamenco party on the streets of Seville.

One small warning about Seville, and Spain in general. They take the concept of siesta seriously. Even in a city like Seville, finding a café with an open kitchen between 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. requires some detective work and not a little luck — or before 11 a.m. The main meal of the day is usually around 2 p.m., followed by a siesta where a lot of shops close down. But come the evening, the city bursts into life again, it not being unusual to be wandering around and enjoying the sights well after midnight.

Arabic custom dicated that the utside walls of a house should not be ostentatious, so most signs of wealth are hidden with the walls. However, the number of millstones embedded in the foundation wall of a building were a subtle way of letting passers by know how many mills were owned. This house, with 18 millstones, must have belonged to an ancient Bill Gates. Photo by Ramona Young.

Arabic custom dicated that the utside walls of a house should not be ostentatious, so most signs of wealth are hidden with the walls. However, the number of millstones embedded in the foundation wall of a building were a subtle way of letting passers by know how many mills were owned. This house, with 18 millstones, must have belonged to an ancient Bill Gates. Photo by Ramona Young.

If one is following not-Latin food schedules, this can be a little disconcerting, but it doesn’t take long to get into the swing of it. Thinking about it, after hitting plays or rehearsals or art openings around Southeast Texas, supper at 9 or 10 p.m. isn’t really that unusual anyway.

The skies, we were told, were not as blue as normal, but they were plenty blue enough for me, although when the sun did decide to really shine brightly, the city was bathed in an orange glow as the light reflected off the buildings.

These Roman columns sit away from any fanfare in the garden of a house in Seville.

These Roman columns sit away from any fanfare in the garden of a house in Seville.

One interesting thing about Seville is it’s use of “recycling,” as our host Catalina Castillón puts it. Over the centuries, the city has absorbed Roman, Arabic and European influences in its architecture. One sees old buildings incorporate old Roman columns, so that the city is a mishmash of styles. Not just in adjacent buildings, but within the buildings themselves.

It is not unusual to see a house that is European in style with an Arabic stone wall propping up one side. One wall we saw literally had two walls overlapping. Far from being hard on the eye, this gives the city a unique charm and style.


The Seta. Photo by Ramona Young.

One controversial building is the Seta, a giant modern structure dubbed “The Mushroom” by the locals. It is a beautifully organic, flowing white structure that looms over a square in the old part of the city. I understand that some who embrace Seville’s architectural history might find such modernism jarring, but surely, in this city, built on an evolution of styles and influences, there is room for “The Mushroom.”

The Seta at night.

The Seta at night.

In 200 years, visitors to Seville will probably find a futuristic construction where a guide will proudly tell tourists that it was built using part the Seta as a foundation, with a few Roman columns and Arabic walls thrown in for good measure.

The Grand Tour: Part 4 — The natives Are Friendly

One of our favorite places to hang out when we are not on the road is Charlot. The cafe’s food is good, the ambience is good and, most importantly, they have WiFi.

Another selling point is Sabela Corral Álvarez.


Sabela is our waitress almost every day. She always has an encouraging word when I stumble through my Spanish. She is learning English, and between she, Ramona and I, we manage to not only communicate, but also to learn from each other. Admittedly, there are a lot of blank looks and laughter as we do it, but she is always friendly and gracious.

Sabela studies pedagogy in Santiago when she is not home for the summer.

Sabela and Anna

Sabela and Anna

Yesterday, she asked if we would like her to drive us around the outskirts of Corme to see some of the sights? Of course, we took her up on her generous offer. At 6 p.m. this evening, we met at Charlot. She had invited her friend along, Ana Alvarellos Figueroa, who is studying to be a teacher — who has the added bonus of speaking pretty good English.

FullSizeRender(2)We paid a visit to the lighthouse, a place we had visited on our first day in Galicia. This time the wind was a manageable gusty — as opposed to the gale force winds that threatened to cast us off the cliffs the first time. While Ramona clambered over the rocky cliff in search of the perfect photo, I took a couple and interviewed the girls (such is mentality of a journalist). It was an interesting give and take. The girls tend to take the sights for granted, and acknowledged that sometimes it takes outsiders to remind us of the beauty that surrounds us.

There are three crosses close to the lighthouse that have been erected by family and loved ones of people killed working there.

The girls told me that the percebes (barnacles), which we love to eat, are collected mostly by women. It is dangerous work and consists of running between waves to peel the barnacles from the rocks. Often, they work in pairs with ropes connecting each other so one can pull the other. That is why, the girls said, the percebes are so expensive, although a plate runs 20 euros, which by U.S. standards is not expensive at all.

The Serpent Rock, near Corme-Aldea, commemorates St. Adrian driving the snakes out of the region. The image om the right diagrams the winged snake that led the way.

The Serpent Rock, near Corme-Aldea, commemorates St. Adrian driving the snakes out of the region. The image om the right diagrams the winged snake that led the way.

From there it was off to Corme-Aldea — little Corme— to see the serpent or snake rock. Legend has it that the area was overrun with snakes and St. Adrian struck the ground with his staff and the plague of snakes left, led by a winged serpent. The rock sits atop a hill, underneath a large stone cross, with overlooking a valley.

By the way, it is fascinating to see the small towns here. As one drives, one leaves a small town, only to enter another one just a kilometer away. Yet each is is its own entity.

The church of St. Adrian in Corme-Aldea.

The church of St. Adrian in Corme-Aldea.

That these two young women would give up a couple of hours of their time to drive a couple of Americanos around says much about the generosity of the people we have encountered in this beautiful town, far from the urban tourist spots.

We spent most of the day on an aimless drive to find purple flowers among ferns that we passed last week on our way to Seville. We had no idea where they were or where we were going. Apart from a few, “Oh my god, I don’t really think this is a road at all,” and “How the hell do we turn around on this one-lane road on a 20-degree hill,” we captured the spirit of true explorers — stopping on the side of the road to wander off down a dirt path just because the view was fantastic.

This is our vacation — having the time to find things. We will never be ones to sit on a beach or at a camp site — we are far too urban for that. But give us six hours, a GPS to find our way home, and a few Euros for lunch, and just turn us loose.