Spain in a glass
Join Australian-born photojournalists John Cokley and Pip Hanrick on their adventures in Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Singapore. Including "A Mapas of Tapas" and "Foot Photos on the Run" (March 29), and others already published.
The trick in going to the Coast of Death is the way back ... as Spain is about to discover:
At the Fisterra lighthouse on the “Coast of Death”, north-western Spain, lovers leave lockets clinging to an ageing radio antenna metres from the cliff’s edge and buffeted by the gales coming off the north Atlantic Ocean.
It’s as far as they can go and it screams a message of undying love and commitment in the face of intimidating odds.
Other Spaniards are more wary, posting warning signs “never go down to the cliff” … although that’s what we all must do on this infernal day in April one year ago.
There’s even a crucifix and … could that be a tombstone or a shrine? … to remind us.
The aptly named End of the Earth (Fisterra, or sometimes Cape Finisterre) is one of the most westerly tourist attractions in Spain but it’s not quite the “end”. That honour belongs a little further north, at Cape Touriñán.
Nevertheless, westward ho. To get there, we climb on board our Big Blue Lázara tour bus in Santiago de Compostela, with Giovanna the youthful and raven-haired multilingual guide and maybe 50 other travellers, and head 21km west to the picture-postcard medieval town of Ponte Maceira, complete with rushing river – the Tambre – the eponymous stone bridge and a water wheel at the mill.
Forty minutes further west we spy pilgrims trekking on the Camino de Santiago. They’re coming up from Santiago de Compostela generally from the south and crossing our path near Vimianzo. It’s about 10am and they must be in the mood for a cuppa – or maybe a copa (wine)? – and our driver politely stops and waits while they struggle north-west towards the finish line, where – in Christian folklore – the Virgin Mary sailed up to visit St James.
About a half-hours drive brings us to Muxía and our first glimpse this trip of the wild Atlantic. This town, with its bleak church perched on weathered rocks facing the ocean, is surely a reminder of the unforgiving nature of the coast.
There also on the hill is the mournful memorial to the 2002 oil spill and wreck of the tanker Prestige. The sculpture is called “The Wound” and was created by Burgos-born artist Alberto Bañuelos-Fournier. It weighs about 400 tonnes and stands 11 metres tall.
South another half-hour to Fisterra and we climb down to the cliff’s edge, past the lighthouse, past the lovers’ lockets, to the crucifix and another memorial, all the while to the wailing skirl of a Galician bagpiper who is busking for Euros.
Time for lunch and even though it’s cold and raining we find a cosy and welcoming bolthole, the O Pierao, right on the waterfront facing the fish market and the trawlers.
Indeed, it seems the fried pulpo (octopus) €14 – served drenched in oil and on a customary wooden platter – has been hauled straight from the water it’s that fresh so naturally we declare it “the best in Spain”. Like good Australians we also devour calamares con patatas (calamari and potatoes) €11, with four glasses of tinto (local red wine) €2 each and some bread for €1.
The way back to Santiago de Compostela takes us past the impressive Xallas River falls, which locals tell us is the only waterfall in Europe that directly meets the sea.
But Giovanna has hinted that she is keeping something special for last and it involves mysterious-looking granite structures we have seen along the roads most of the day.
They’re called hórreo and for a moment we think they’re ossuaries, or places for the bones of the dead … but they’re just granaries which farmers long ago built to keep harvested supplies out of the weather.
She takes us to the hórreo in the town of Carnota and explains that this one is so long – at nearly 35 metres, perhaps the longest in the region, no, the world! – because of a competition with a neighbouring town. Apparently size really matters when you’re building your hórreo and that’s why the people of the other town nearby maintain that they have the bigger one … the biggest one, in fact.
But even though your hórreo is not an ossuary, the Spanish delight in being never far from death. Built modestly, unobtrusively beside the hórreo is a circular stone structure with a gently sloping tiled roof atop which stands a cross.
It’s called a Pombal (dovecote), is about 2 metres tall, built also of curved granite blocks, and there is a series of holes under the eves of the roof … big enough, explains Giovanna, for the pigeons that live there to get in.
But as the farmer strews corn on the floor inside, the holes are not big enough for the greedy and eventually fattened pigeons to escape. OMG, there’s a Sunday roast, ripe for the picking.
A little tired and perhaps, after that, a mite chastened, we return to Santiago de Compostela to dine at the Parador and pray there’s no pigeon on the menu.
Australian-born photojournalists John Cokley and Pip Hanrick toured Spain, Portugal, Denmark and Singapore and some of their collected notes, advice, new stories and original images will appear here, our Shop Your Way to Success brand and in other travel publications (see links as they're published). Contact John and Pip by email through their publisher, Small Batch Books.