Looking for the Tower of Hercules in all the Wrong Places

Declan and I set out from Santiago de Compostela to glimpse the largest city in Galicia, A Coruña. The city has a quarter-million residents, compared with just under 100,000 in the Galician capital of Santiago.

We walked through the Santiago market along with way, a fulltime market with meats, seafood, vegetables, fruit and lots more. The train station is a haul, and we got lost a couple of times, but the trip was a quick 30 minutes. Declan ordered our tickets in Spanish, and the seller commented that his Spanish was “perfecto.”

Declan wanted to see the expansive Plaza de Maria Pita, which backs up to the A Coruña waterfront and is the center of the compact old city. We took a bus to near the plaza and intended to walk to the Torres de Hércules, which we both saw signposted along the way.

Although attributed to the Roman god, the Tower of Hercules was built by Romans in the 1st century AD near the northern tip of the city. The signposts certainly weren’t meant for pedestrians, because we wound up walking in the total opposite direction for what seemed like days.

Once we got our bearings back (and took another bus), we arrived in the vicinity of the World Heritage listed tower but didn’t have a chance to look at it up close nor climb its tower because we had a home-bound train to catch.

Aimless Wandering in Pontevedra

Marilynn’s conference ended on Friday, so Saturday was her day to see Galicia. After a quick stop into the Cathedral de Santiago, we made for the train station to Pontevedra, the sixth-largest city in the region. Declan originally wanted me to rent a car and drive through a few towns and into Portugal, but we decided another train journey would be a safer bet.

With fewer people than in Santiago, Pontevedra proved much more walkable than A Coruña. It’s also off the beaten path, so we shared the narrow streets and numerous plazas of old town mainly with the locals. Wheeled transportation is popular for tots and adults alike, so we also shared the paths with little bicycles, big bicycles, electric bicycles, hoverboards and remote-controlled Mercedes and Range Rovers for the tykes.

We enjoyed a good lunch in a street-side café: scallops for me and seafood empanadas for Declan and Marilynn.

Declan wanted to see the original façade of Santiago de Compostela in the Museo de Pontevedra, but that part of the museum was closed for renovation. So we had to settle for modern Galician masterworks and pottery chards from early settlers to the area.

While wandering back toward the train station, we stopped into the Santuario da Virxe Peregrina, an 18th century church with Portuguese style. It was only one euro to climb up to the balcony and then further to the near the top of the chapel, so we did that. There wasn’t much of a view, but it did tick the tourist box for “something to climb.”

Cathedral Highlights Visit to Galician Capital City

At least the remains of Saint James are in a box, rather than on display in their naked, bony glory like Saint Teresa of Ávila.

Santiago de Compostela started as a pilgrimage site shortly after a tomb was discovered in the early 820s that reportedly held the remains of Saint James (Santiago) the Great, one of the 12 apostles.

A church was raised near the site that has undergone destruction, rebuilding, expansions and renovations over the intervening centuries. In fact, religious ceremonies here may have pre-dated Christianity.

As news of the remains spread, pilgrims began traveling to the city to pay their respects or seek atonement, leading to El Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that more than 240,000 people undertake each year. Pilgrims usually sport a scallop shell, the symbol of St. James, on their backpacks. They also carry a “passport” containing stamps for places where they’ve stopped along the way.

 

As long as a pilgrim has a spiritual motive for undertaking the pilgrimage, those traveling more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) on foot/horse or 200 kilometers (124 miles) by bike are rewarded in Santiago de Compostela with a certificate. There are dozens of established Camino routes from several European countries, but here’s a primer for the novice pilgrim on how to prepare and the more popular routes.

Declan is already plotting for when he can walk the Camino and who will accompany him. In preparation for our trip, he made us watch “The Way,” about a man who travels to Spain to recover the body of his estranged son who died walking the Camino and winds up walking it himself. It stars Martin Sheen and his real-life son Emilio Estevez, so even if you’re not interested in El Camino, you can spend a couple of hours reliving the Jeb Bartlett presidency.

The square in front of the Cathedral of Santiago is the gathering place for pilgrims, who stop to take pictures of themselves or groups they have been traveling with. Backpacks are everywhere, which is why they aren’t allowed in the cathedral. Fortunately, shops around the square have paid storage facilities.

Santiago de Compostela is the capital of the Galician region of Spain, an area with Celtic roots. That’s why Marilynn was at an Irish Studies conference here. And in Galicia, like in the Catalan and Basque regions (and Northern Ireland), there are vocal groups clamoring for autonomy.

Honkin’ big censer swings fast

The Cathedral de Compostela hosts special services for pilgrims twice a day. If you’re lucky, you will attend services on a day that the world’s largest censer (thurible) is swinging, belching thick clouds of white incense smoke. Called the Botafumeiro, the censer weighs 135 pounds when empty and nearly 220 pounds when full. Eight men are needed to set the giant thurible on its 90-second voyage, where it swings in 17 cycles and can reach speeds in excess of 40 miles an hour.

The highlights of a self-guided tour include viewing the ornate casket containing the remains of St. James in the crypt. It also includes a trip behind the high altar, where you can hug the huge statue of St. James that dominates the scene. From a pew in front of the altar, you can see arms grasping the sides of the statue from behind, 50 feet above you.

A large-scale renovation project is currently under way at the Cathedral de Compostela, with much cleaning and updating evident between where scaffolding has been erected and where it has been previously. It has quite a shine for such an ancient building.

Around the cathedral, you will find a confusingly arranged set of streets with ever-changing names that can quickly confuse veteran travelers. But that’s OK, because you will find tapas bars galore at every turn, all the better to have a drink and a nibble as you plan your next steps.

Visit Ávila for the Walls, Get the Finger for Free

Maybe St. Teresa of Ávila can heal with the fungus sprouting from her dismembered finger. Admittedly, my dismembered finger would probably be sprouting funk, too, 500 years after it was cut off. But I likely won’t be a Catholic saint by then.

Ávila, about two hours northwest of Madrid by train, is known for its imposing fortress walls and as the birthplace of St. Teresa. As with all things vacation, I don’t ask too many questions about where we go, so I didn’t know what to expect from our visit to the Museo de Saint Teresa, built on the site of her birthplace home. I certainly didn’t expect to see St. Teresa’s dismembered ring finger in the gift shop—with decorative ring still on bony finger. You couldn’t take pictures, but you can see it here.

The museum was crypt-like, with long brick- and stone-lined passages punctuated with curved archways. There you can learn more about her life, including how she formed the Discalced (barefoot) Carmelite order, and see many of her writings. All the interpretation was in Spanish, so I could only look at the artifacts. I especially enjoyed the collection of holy water fonts. Teresa, who lived between 1511-1582, was a firm believer in the power of holy water.

You can pay two Euro to visit her birthplace, but the gift shop (and her finger) are free to visit. We’ve glimpsed other body parts and reliquary at museums in Florence and Coimbra (Portugal), but never so naked (or furry). Seriously, I wonder whether the white tufts growing from the top of the finger belonging to the patron saint of headaches could be used to treat diseases, much like the mold that Alexander Fleming discovered led to penicillin.

All I could think of was what a gruesome souvenir. And I was glad it was her ring finger and not her middle one. I don’t like the idea of a saint flipping me off from across the centuries.

Fine example of walled city

Ávila is a fine example of a walled city, which encompasses 77 acres, eight (or nine) gates and more than 80 semi-circular towers. The walls were begun in the 12th century and are integral to the city in more ways than one—a portion of the imposing Gothic Cathedral of Ávila doubles as part of the wall.

We visited during the day, but at night the wall is illuminated, giving what some refer to as a fairytale effect. You can walk along parts of the tower, which we did amid the raindrops. Surprisingly, admission to walk the walls is free until 4 p.m.—at least during this part of the year.

We also glimpsed many large nests on the tops of buildings and on electrical poles that likely were home to white storks and their babies. We’re not ornithologists, but that’s certainly what the birds resembled.

Our initial itinerary was more ambitious, but the rains from Madrid followed us to Ávila, putting a literal damper on our plans. Declan wanted to visit Los Cuatro Postes (the Four Posts), the place on the road to Salamanca where a 7-year-old Teresa and her brother, who wanted to be martyred by the Moors, were stopped by an uncle. The area is renowned for its impressive views, especially at night.

Declan had to settle for a postcard of Los Cuatro Postes that he bought in the gift shop of St. Teresa’s museum. The postcard was 35 cents, but seeing her furry, 500-year-old finger didn’t cost a cent.

Rain Greets First Full Day in Spain

The rain in Spain falls mainly on … my feet.

Our first half-day in Madrid proved gorgeous, with coolish temperatures and sunshine that lasted well past 7. We walked way too long in search for the perfect tapas bar, so we settled for a good-enough one and then a second where the waiter didn’t appreciate sharing. Isn’t that what tapas is all about?

He grudgingly allowed us to order one set meal for Declan that we intended to share (along with drinks for everyone), then proceeded to remove all the silverware save one setting and replaced the generous portion of bread with a stingy one. Tipping is optional in Spain, and I had fully intended to leave nothing to the surly bastard despite being an otherwise generous tipper. But Marilynn was the only one with euros, and she left what I thought was an obscene tip based upon the (lack of) service we received.

Largest palace in Europe

During our first night in Madrid, the skies opened. It was still raining a fair bit when we set out for the Palacio Real de Madrid, the largest royal palace in Europe at 1.45 million square feet. The rulers decamped for smaller digs in the ‘burbs long ago, but the palace is still used for royal ceremonies and the like.

In addition to the rain, it also was pouring tourists, even 15 minutes after the palace opened. We dodged and weaved among the mostly Asian tourists during the entirety of the visit. Fortunately, photos aren’t allowed inside the palace or we’d probably still be there, waiting for someone to finish taking a selfie while blocking the view of 50 other people.

Like any Big House opulent enough to charge admission, the palace is filled with bling, gilt, tapestries and Masterworks. Ho-hum, four Goyas in an antechamber. Yawn, four Stradivarius instruments (two violins, a viola and a violincello) in another. Huge tapestries and elaborate ceiling frescoes can be found in just about every room.

Personally, I enjoyed seeing the rare stringed instruments, which apparently could fetch $15 million apiece if sold. The throne room was quite impressive, with four lions guarding the steps leading to the his and hers thrones and the four ornate clocks positioned around the room.

Looking down

While others were looking at the walls and ceilings, however, I was looking at the floors. I don’t think any two of the ones on the tour were alike. I liked the wooden floors best, many with intricate patterns of different wood species. But the tile floors also proved delightful, with swoops and swirls of complementary colors joined in interesting patterns.

So, my advice for visiting the Palacio Real de Madrid is come for the bling, stay for the flooring. And hope it’s not raining—the liquid kind or the touristy kind.

Spanish and Cuban Influences in Tampa Bay Area

Making our way from “Waitee Longee” Springs, Declan said he wanted to see the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

We are traveling to Spain next month for an Irish conference, and Declan has immersed himself in all things Spain. Not only has he had Spanish language lessons in school since he was a kindergartner, he has been planning and plotting this adventure since we bought our tickets in December.

Although Salvador Dali is known the world over for his surrealistic paintings, the Spaniard also sculpted and made experimental films, among other creative pursuits. And, of course, he also was a flamboyant self-promoter, mustache waxed and curled into a big ol’ smiley face. Thinking about it, Dali was a walking emoji before they existed.

I had been to the former location of the Dali Museum a couple of times, leaving both times impressed by the depth and breadth of the man’s work. My favorite has always been the hologram of ‘70s rocker Alice Cooper that Dali did when both where at their artistic apexes. I only saw the hologram on my first visit, leading me to believe it was on loan.

Are you a stoner?

You can read about the hologram at Civilized, which apparently is a pro-pot website. Top-notch reporter that I am, I figured this out when the promoted items after the story

Hologramincluded a search box for cannabis dispensaries and a QA box that asked, “Are You a Stoner?” And apparently you can buy a photo at Walmart!

We enjoyed our visit to the new museum, but I think the ceilings aren’t as high, which limits the full effect of his insanely large masterworks. Although we put three hours’ worth of quarters into the parking meter, we were on our way after 75 minutes or so.

Best Cuban in Tampa

The day’s highlight undoubtedly was wrapping my lips around the best Cuban sandwich in Tampa, which you can find on the edge of Ybor City at Brocato’s Sandwich Shop. Real Cuban bread makes all the difference between an OK Cuban sandwich and the taste sensation that is Brocato’s.

The shop is located in a too-small cinderblock building that fills to overflowing every weekday lunch with people of all types, colors, sizes and professions. Like the Village People, if the band was co-ed. You’ll see a couple of guys in suits and ties waiting in line behind cops, construction workers, moms and “tourists” like us.

But the line moves fast, and you can glimpse seven decades of memorabilia while you wait. Sandwiches include chips you select from large, gray garbage cans on rollers on one end of the building, as well as a drink (including beer!). There is limited seating inside, which is too cozy for me, so we always sit under the covered awning out front.

In addition to a Cuban, get yourself a devil crab, which locals say is the best in the area. Unfortunately, I can’t eat them anymore after developing an extreme intolerance to onions several years. But when dining with a group, I’ll still order one, break off a smallish piece, dose it with a dash of Tabasco, pop it in my mouth and savor the creamy crab goodness before passing the rest over to everyone else. Because you don’t want the deviled crab—or anything else from Brocato’s, for that matter—to go to waste.

And if my stomach complains, it’s a small price to pay.

Weeki Wachee: Once-in-a-Lifetime Means Never Again

Visiting the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For Declan and me, it means we never have to visit there again during our lifetimes.

Yes, there are mermaids that suck in air through hoses like they’re in a hookah bar (just picture that for a moment), and a big tank and lots of bubbles. Ultimately, however, it’s a big ol’ piece of cheese wrapped in an interminable wait.

Vintage Florida

I’ll admit it. Visiting the springs was entirely my idea. As a native of central Florida, I’d heard about the springs from the time I was a wee lad. It’s part of old Florida, a throwback before the glitz and glamour of Mickey and Universal forever changed the tourism landscape.

When the idea of a spring break trip to Orlando surfaced, I made Weeki Wachee Springs a stopover before visiting my sister in Tampa.

Maybe the blinders of adulthood clouded my vision of the springs, because many people certainly seemed to enjoy their outings. But there wasn’t enough to do at the park, with long times either in line or waiting to get in a line. They have a crack marketing staff, though, because we heeded the website warnings that the park would be closed once capacity was reached, prompting us to arrive shortly after opening time.

But there were only three mermaid shows the entire day, and the first one didn’t start until 11. So, what to do for two hours? The boat ride through the springs filled quickly to overflowing, so we took in the wildlife show, instead. It was your basic turtle, snake and gator show, with cheesy humor throughout.

Waiting is the hardest part

And then we waited. Declan spent five minutes on playground equipment that was about eight years too young for him while I made a business call. We had already made a complete circuit of the grounds and had no desire to swim at Buccaneer Bay, half of which wasn’t operating on the day we visited.

 

We were among the first in line for the mermaid show. Lines open 30 minutes before the show and fill quickly. Once ushered into the theater, we sat around and enjoyed the black-and-white archival footage of mermaids frolicking, and the show was introduced by concert footage of Jimmy Buffett performing “Fins,” complete with lip-synching mermaids.

The show was “The Little Mermaid,” so we all know the story. Ariel, while celebrating the mer-equivalent of a quinceanera, gets to go topside, where she saves a drowning sailor boy. To woo him, Ariel strikes a deal with an evil witch who takes her voice in exchange for getting legs. Fighting ensues and love triumphs over evil.

To their credit, the performers were graceful. Personally, I’d be thrashing and gasping for air instead of calmly lip-synching or performing that far underwater.

However, cheese rules this performance, and likely any other performance at the springs. Despite their grace, the performers essentially were taking air hits off a hose like the one you find at the gas station to put air in your tires. It’s a mental picture that’s hard to move past, like watching a junkie jonesing for a fix.

The witch looked like she has long strips of cloth like you’d see at the carwash in her hair. And when Ariel’s friends joined her birthday celebration, the costumed turtle was just too much. Declan and I were crying by the time it surfaced to the stage and started “dancing.”

The audio track included many voices singing a song. I failed to mention that live fish swim around the tank, and while the song was playing, a feeding fish passed by our viewing portal, mouth opening and closing as if it was singing along. We drew stares as we laughed uncontrollably.

After the show, Declan really wanted to take a boat ride, so we waited another 40 minutes (at least) for a 30-minute boat ride that didn’t reveal much in the way of wildlife.

Fortunately, the Italian restaurant where we had lunch offered sangria, the better to wash the taste of what we now call Waitee Longee out of my mouth.

Feuding, Fighting and Other Effing in Game of Thrones

I’ve never seen “Game of Thrones” nor read the popular books, but I know it’s hot stuff in Northern Ireland, where a good bit of the series is filmed. From Belfast, you can take “Game of Thrones” bus tours to various filming sights, combining that (or not) with other Causeway Coast attractions such as the Giant’s Causeway, Old Bushmills Distillery and the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge.

Game2
So apparently in “Game of Thrones,” there’s fighting …

So despite my ignorance, I felt compelled to glimpse the Northern Ireland Games of Thrones’ Tapestry while at the Ulster Museum earlier this week. You can see it for yourself through March 4, 2018 at the Ulster Museum. But for those not planning a visit to Belfast while it gets dark by 5 p.m. this time of year, you can see it here.

Game3
… and feuding …

From what I can gather from the tapestry, the show entails lots of fighting, feuding and other “f” words I’d rather not write out. Below, you’ll find pertinent information about the tapestry, quoted from the museum, along with my commentary.

The tapestry is “a 77-metre long, medieval-style wall-hanging that brings to life the events, locations and story of the most popular television series of all time.” What? No M*A*S*H?

Game5
… and effing (is that two dudes?) Hard to tell …

Recalling the island’s textile manufacturing past, “the tapestry has been hand-woven and hand-embroidered using linen sources from one of the last surviving linen mills in the area. Much of the tapestry contains the same linen that is used to create the costumes and sets for the series.

“Each key scene and character in the tapestry is hand-drawn by artists and illustrators. Then, the drawings are brought to life (or death, as a quick viewing revealed) by hand-weaving experts using a state-of-the-art Jacquard loom, ready for hand-embroiders who meticulously embellish the finer details – from King Joffrey’s golden crown to Daenerys’ shimmering white and silver hair.”

Game4
… and blood, lots of blood coming out of dudes.

And blood. Lots of blood. And dudes on fire. And blood coming out of dudes.

Despite having no idea what was going on, it was cool to look at. And it smelled like a feed sack, minus the feed.