Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Spain & Portugal - Day 10

The sky promised perfect weather for the day.....blue sunny sky, slightly warm air with a hint of chill. After 'freezing' for the past few days, couldn't wait to be embraced by this weather.

It was a pity that we didn't had time to really check out Leon....it would take us another one or two days (had a budget to watch....what to do?) or dine at the Chinese restaurant that we spotted last night while finding our hotel. Nevertheless, our quest to Santiago de Compostela - the ultimate destination of the Route of St James must push on. We had a lot of distances to cover today and with prior experience, we knew we would have to drop some of the pit-stops....just how many and which ones.

Our first pit-stop was Astorga, a small town that we fell in love instantly. The town seems locked in a time capsule with its cobbled streets and stone buildings.

Welcoming us was an ordinary looking chapel playing a charming rhapsody with its interesting set of bells.



From the chapel, climbing a steep slope brought us to the Plaza Mayor where the majestic looking City Hall greeted us.



The man and woman figurines take turns to hit on the bell situated at the top of the City Hall at the specific timings 

As we walked on for just 3 mins, we already had our targets locked.....a candy store and a cafe that serves yummy-looking paella, Spain's national dish. Yep, you are The one we're coming back for lunch. Our first paella....how exciting....can't wait till lunch time!

Our walk towards Astorga's famous landmark, Bishop Palace was peppered with many interesting shopping stops including a bakery that was bursting with the aroma of freshly baked bread (how could we resist!).

Another 5 mins of easy walking brought us to the fairy-tale castle, Bishop Palace, another of Gaudi's masterpiece. Bishop Palace was originally the official residence of the Archbishop of Astorga. After it was restored in 1956 from the damage during the civil war, Bishop Marcelo Gonzalez converted it into a museum (Museo de los Caminos) of religious art dedicated to the Way of Santiago.





Entrance to inner hall

Entrance to museum



Guardians and angels of the palace standing guard in the small garden. Beyond this stone wall, visitors are treated to a beautiful bird's eye view of the city of Astorga. 

Our visit to Astorga cannot be complete without a visit to the cathedral of Astorga, Cathedral of Santa Maria, which is located next to Bishop Palace.

Side view of cathedral from Bishop Palace

Front facade of cathedral

Impressive entrance with 3D stone carvings!



Main altar
It was the first 3D altar we ever saw! Its creativity and beauty was mind-blowing.


Yet another first (or at least for us).....an extremely rare presentation....the Crowning of Virgin Mary.





Another hall of the cathedral....love those pillars
So, let's measure them.....

Measuring the size of the pillar

and the height of the church door....3 times taller than me

Before making our way back to the Plaza Mayor for our maiden savour of Spanish paella.....we chanced upon a perfect spot to view the Bishop Palace and Cathedral of Santa Maria together. Looks as if we were in a fairy tale world!



We returned to our targeted cafe and had an early (by locals' standard) lunch of seafood paella. Being seafood lovers, we were extremely particular about the freshness of our seafood. Verdict - the paella was very flavourful and delicious. Oh, so satisfying.

We didn't forget the candy store. We stopped by and bought 2 blocks of lime chocolate. Marrying these two ingredients felt weird, yet it was this weirdness that attracted us to buy. After our first bite, we couldn't stop....it was amazingly addictive. We finished the two big blocks within 1 hr of our drive. If only we had tried it straight after buying.....the damage to our pocket would not be just 2 blocks but a dozen at least!

Our next pit-stop is a UNESCO Heritage site, Las Medulas Roman Mines in Ponferrada. It is an old working mine with reddish landscape. Finally, great weather to do some real nature walk.

Deep into the mountains on our way to the mine....see that red block of stone on the left?

Once we turned into the road that leads to the mine, even though we were a long distance away, we were already surrounded by mountains dressed in hue of red....very magical....felt like we were back in Death Valley, USA.




We reached the visitor parking area and reception but to our dismay, we were in the wrong timing / season. The office was closed and there wasn't a single soul after 15 mins of headless search. There are many long walking trails but with a tight schedule, hot weather, no signage and map, we weren't ready to risk. Unwilling to give up, we drove further into (actually, think we went beyond the 'No Entry' boundary) the mining compound and landed in a small, dusty and laid-back village with narrow sandy road. It looked like a village for miners and their family. Our hope of making inquiries with these residents disappear as fast as it rose. Apparently, from their facial expression, they were upset with our sudden intrusion. The town looked EXACTLY the same as those movies set in medieval times. We were eager to take some photos but their hostile stares tell us otherwise. Never mind, we still have another pit-stop, Lugo waiting for us.

As we drove on, it became clear that we had to forgo Lugo and its Roman Walls (a UNESCO Heritage site) that encircle the city centre. Having been to a ancient city and a medieval village, guess we weren't going to miss much skipping this 3rd/4th centuries AD built wall.

We reached the final stop of the St. James Route, Santiago de Compostela just 1/2 hours before sunset. To our surprise, this town has road signs (that weren't useful)! A sign could point you to one direction but when you reach, another sign, if any, could point you to a totally different direction for the same place! The bright light from the Shrine of St. James was visible the moment we reached the border of the town. Yet, it was so near yet so far. After 45 mins of wild goose chase, we were so exasperated that we ignored all the signs and just head towards the light. That works!

Once in the city center, another set of madness awaits us. The city center was jammed pack....it was rush hours. Ironically, it was this traffic jam that saved the day. The traffic jam gave us an opportunity to view the city without the walking, and it was this looking around that we recognised (from Google street map) the road and the parking area where our B&B is located. It was the first time we experience the usefulness of Google map and also the first time we parked on a pavement (it's an acceptable norm in Spain).....so cool.

All that madness earlier on couldn't stopped our bursting excitement to explore this holy city, not even the drizzle that's threatening to turn into a heavy downpour.

Busy street of Santiago de Compostela 

Walk all the way up this street brings us to the Shrine of St. James. It's closed (of course) but we couldn't wait till next day to admire its splendour. The dim lighting exults an air of 'romance' and closeness.

Night scene of the Shrine of St. James


There are numerous cafes serving seafood (given the city's closeness to the sea). Since we grew up in a country that loves eating seafood, definitely we couldn't miss the seafood here...also to celebrate reaching the high-point of our travel in Spain. Verdict - personally we felt it was overpriced and well, let's just say, we still love our seafood back home. Nevertheless, it was a great though short night out to end the day! Good night, St. James.
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