I had originally wanted to drive all the way south to Coimbra, but our decision to include Valencia and the Dordogne forced me to shave a day from Portugal and the distances became impractical. As an alternative I chose to spend one night in Aveiro, also known as the Venice of Portugal due to its canals. It was less than an hour's drive from Porto so we arrived in the early afternoon and had plenty of time to explore. It was too early to check in to the Airbnb so we headed to the downtown area adjacent to the main canal. The area was busy and energetic with a strong vibe of domestic tourism, most of it likely originating from Porto and Lisbon. The buildings had an ornate, classical appearance and many had tiled facades, but without the antiquated patina we had become accustomed to in Porto.The most elaborate of the buildings is the Casa Major Pessoa, currently the home of an art museum and a tea house.
There happened to be a crafts fair going on at the waterside and we browsed the stalls, some of which had very high quality ceramics and entertaining toys. We also found a place to try the local specialty, ovos moles, which consists of egg yolk and sugar within a wafer casing. It was an interesting thing to try but none of us particularly cared for it.
Venice of Portugal may have been a stretch, considering there was really only one canal that passed through the town, but they made the most of it with pretty pedestrian bridges and colorful gondolas that seemed to be constantly crammed with tourists.
Our Airbnb was in a perfect location on the most picturesque square in the center of town.
We spent the early evening exploring the old town on either side of the canal. Most of the tourists and restaurants were clustered into a tiny area north of the canal, but some of the prettiest buildings and streets were on the nearly-deserted southern side. At the end of our walk we saw a building along the canal that seemed very busy. Inside we found a movie theater and a food court. It was definitely more fast food than food hall, but it was a great opportunity to feed the kids and we took advantage of it. Later we found some more interesting food for ourselves at a crowded restaurant in the old quarter.
In the morning we checked out the two markets in town. The fish market was totally dead for some reason and the produce market wasn't much better. We'd already explored every street in Aveiro the night before so we decided to head for the beach town of Costa Nova on the Atlantic coast. The tiny town occupies a segment of the strip of land between the ocean and a short intracoastal waterway called the Aveiro Lagoon. Costa Nova is famous for the brightly-striped "haystack" houses that face the lagoon side of the town.
We had much better luck with the fish market in Costa Nova. It was small but bustling and there was a large variety of fish and mollusks. Everyone's favorite was the wriggly eels and each kid got their chance to stick a finger into the slithery pile.
The produce market was likewise small but very local and authentic. We were relieved not to have missed out on a market experience as Friday is usually one of the better days.
Our seafood appetites had been whetted by the market and we hunted around for the most authentic restaurant we could find. The town was so small that all the restaurants were completely tourist-oriented. We found a place that was decent if overpriced, but not on a par with the best seafood we've had in Europe. We tried the fried eels, but they were so greasy and bony that we were barely able to finish our portion.
The logical place for a midday stop was Viseu, a mid-sized city inland city with a reputation for elegance and historic character. The old town turned out to be a great stroll through cobblestone pedestrian streets and atmospheric squares. Best of all we seemed to have left virtually all tourism behind us at the coast.
After an ice cream break we walked up to the top of the hill that the old town straddles. Here we found an expansive plaza which was flanked by two of Viseu's architectural treasures, the Igreja da Misericórdia (Church of Mercy) and the formidable cathedral. The church had a beautiful and unusual rococo facade, while the walls of the cathedral looked as solid and impenetrable as a fortress. The north side of the plaza was unobstructed and afforded views over the modern town and the countryside.
On the way back down the hill we walked along the narrow commercial alley Rua Direita which dates back to Roman times. Back at the car we saw some interesting Portuguese street art, a highly anatomic rendition of a heart constricted by a string.
It had been four and a half years since our previous visit to Portugal, and in a way we were completing a circle. Lisbon was where we had kicked off our first European road trip, the journey where we had learned how much we could see and accomplish even with two small children. Now we had three with us and even our youngest was older and more demanding than Cleo had been on that first trip. Could we have even imagined traveling the way we do now at the beginning of that first adventure in 2014? I doubt it.
Lisbon wasn't one of the highlights of that itinerary, which also included the great cities of Andalusia as well as much of Morocco. It's sometimes hard to explain why certain cities that are lauded by others fall flat for us. Paris, Vienna and Chicago are other examples. Lisbon had its charms but aside from the Alfama area we didn't find much that captivated us during our four day stay. Because of that experience we were able to keep our expectations for Porto in check even though the city looked like it had a lot to offer.
The central area of Porto is actually a twin city, with Porto on the north side of the Douro River and Vila Nova de Gaia on the south side. Most of the antiquated neighborhoods and tourist attractions are in Porto, but Gaia has the port wineries, the Cais de Gaia riverfront area, and the area's best beaches. Our Airbnb was in Gaia right underneath the Dom Luís I bridge that traverses the Douro and connects the centers of the two parts of the city. We encounter some kind of logistical difficulty arriving at Airbnb's in Europe about three out of every four times. Sometimes the location doesn't match up with our GPS or Google Maps, sometimes there's no number on the door, and sometimes local parking is simply impossible. In Gaia our GPS kept guiding us to the traffic circle at the lower level of the bridge and our Airbnb clearly wasn't there. Eventually we ignored the GPS and took the road that went to the upper level of the southern bank. Going back down on the other side we finally spotted the name of our street and soon located our building. There was no parking on the steep, winding street but our host helped me reverse into a terraced patio with just enough room for the car. The only problem was that the left and right wheels of the car had to be on two different narrow steps. I made it without scraping the undercarriage or slipping off a stair but I knew as soon as I turned off the ignition that I wouldn't be moving the car until we left Porto.
Our Airbnb had some of the most enthusiastic reviews I'd ever seen on the site and once we were inside it was clear why. The apartment was modern and artfully decorated, and the building was directly under the upper span of the bridge. We had awesome views of the bridge and the Douro River from the apartment, and we were just a minute's walk from the entrances to either of the two decks of the bridge.
Once we were settled we followed the street the rest of the way back down to the traffic circle we had just repeatedly visited when we were looking for the apartment. Now that we were on foot it was much easier to appreciate the awesome iron bridge, which was designed by a student of Gustave Eiffel and whose appearance is reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower. A unique feature of the bridge is that there is a lower deck that carries vehicular traffic between the river banks and an upper deck far above that carries the metro between the urban centers of each half of the city. Pedestrians can cross on either deck. Between the two decks is an enormous arch that at the time of the bridge's construction was the largest of its kind in the world. The banks of the Douro rise very steeply on either side so the city truly exists on two levels near the river. On the Gaia side there is a cable car to take pedestrians between the two levels and on the Porto side there is a funicular. Once we were on the Porto side we encountered a very energetic team of percussionists banging out tribal rhythms on an array of plastic containers to an enthusiastic crowd.
Most of the dinner action on the Porto bank appeared to be in the Cais da Ribeira area to the west of the bridge, but it was clearly a very touristy scene. We decided to try our luck to the east in hopes of finding more authentic local cuisine for our first night in Portugal. The foot traffic thinned out very quickly and we had to walk a lot further than we realized to reach our chosen restaurant. Once we arrived, we were informed of an hour wait for a table. We weren't excited to go back all the way we had come but then I noticed a wine cask propping the front door open. Could we use that as a table? The staff shrugged and brought over a couple of chairs. The meal proved to be rather undistinguished Portuguese tapas, but getting fed at all had been a minor victory. After dinner we crossed back to Gaia and walked east along the Cais de Gaia riverfront esplanade. The area was still quite busy with pedestrians and souvenir sellers, and of all things we passed by a Korean cultural show on an outdoor stage.
Eventually we reached Mercado Beira Rio, one of Porto's two food halls. We found some diverse international flavors to complement the heavy Portuguese dishes we'd consumed for dinner, but it wasn't one of the more inspiring food halls we'd visited in Europe. Although we hadn't explored far beyond the immediate environs of the bridge, we felt like we'd given ourselves a good introduction to Porto and went to sleep excited about our full city exploration we had planned for the next day.
Porto was our first sizable, walkable city since Bilbao. In the morning we walked up the road to the top of the southern bank of the Douro where there are amazing views over the Douro and the northern riverbank.
The viewpoint was just steps away from the entrance to the upper deck of the Dom Luis bridge. From the bridge the views were even more spectacular. It was fascinating to see the city spill down the steep banks on either side of the river where some of the busiest commercial activity was right at the water's edge. I had been impressed by the interaction of Bilbao with the Nervion, but I realized that we were seeing something here that was on a completely different level.
Once over the bridge and on Porto's upper level we headed in the direction of the municipal market. On the way there we encountered the breathtaking Church of Saint Ildefonso. The visual impact of this small baroque church comes form the thousands of blue and white azulejo tiles that were added to the facade in 1932. The azulejo is a design feature that is emblematic of Portuguese architecture and some of the best displays are in Porto.
From the church we set off down the wildly congested pedestrian thoroughfare Rua da Santa Catarina. The street was reminiscent of the similarly-named Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux but even more crowded and frenetic. At the corner where we turned towards the market was another paragon of azulejo decoration, the Capela das Almas.
The Mercado do Bolhão was opened more than a hundred years ago and has acquired a reputation for being dilapidated and outdated, which would have been selling points for us as long as the stalls were laden with fresh and interesting produce and the energy level was high. Unfortunately Porto picked the year of our visit to finally initiate a long-awaited restoration of the building and the market was now relocated to the basement of a shopping center around a block away. As soon as we took the escalator downstairs I knew we were going to be disappointed. The produce and the vendors may have been the same, but the fluorescent lighting and modern display counters were more reminiscent of a supermarket than the loud, gritty markets we prefer to frequent.
One unique feature of the market that we hadn't seen before was the port kiosks. They were very generous with the pours to the point where we had to turn down the last glass we had paid for. Mei Ling's not a fan of sweet wine and I knew I was still going to have to carry the kids when they needed to nap.
There were a few restaurants in another area of the basement and we had a surprisingly good meal with a lot of fresh seafood. Spenser disappeared under the table for a few minutes and we realized too late that he had been scribbling on his chair with his crayons. The restaurant proprietor walked by and handed Spenser a damp washcloth with a stern look on his face, and Spenser painstakingly scrubbed off every mark he had made.
At the center of old Porto is the most recognizable landmark of the city. The Clérigos Tower is visible from practically anywhere in Porto thanks to its height and its placement at the summit of a hill. On the way there we walked through some of the most beautiful parts of the old town, stopping in at an amazing wine store whose proprietor watched our kids warily as they peered at the selections.
Clérigos Tower is the Baroque belltower of a long, narrow church that hardly anyone notices behind it. The tower looked very familiar although we'd never been to Porto before, which confused me until I realized it was almost identical to the belltower of the Zaragoza Cathedral. On the north side of the church was an exquisite little park overlying a subterranean shopping center, and on the south side there was a long row of charming, antiquated townhouses with colorful and contrasting facades.
There was a long line to enter the tower which I normally would have passed by without a second thought, but Porto was a particularly beautiful city that I wanted to see from above. We waited on the line for about half an hour only to find when we got inside that we wouldn't be allowed to ascend for another four hours after buying our tickets. As we left we informed the people on the lengthening line of that fact, a courtesy we wished someone had extended to us. Fortunately there are ways to see the view without buying tickets and waiting for hours.
As we slowly meandered westward through the city center there were many more treats for the eye. The twin churches of Igreja do Carmo and Igreja dos Carmelitas are separated by a very thin building that only exists to satisfy a technical requirement that the priests and nuns not be housed under the same roof. Igreja do Carmo has a much more elaborate Baroque facade and a breathtaking azulejo mural on the side.
By now I was carrying the kids on my back in shifts. We had foregone the strollers for more flexibility in moving around the city but that meant the most rigorous test of my aging physique I'd had since we started our travels. By the time we arrived at Jardins do Palácio de Cristal Ian had already finished his nap and I was carrying Spenser. Thus far I was holding up pretty well but it was hard to ignore the relentless pressure of the mei tai straps on my shoulders. The name of the park makes it almost impossible to pass up, although the Crystal Palace exhibition hall that gave the park its name was demolished in 1952. In its place stands an odd-looking domed stadium that locals have affectionately christened "the UFO". Fortunately the gardens remain in pristine condition, tumbling downward along the upper part of the northern bank of the Douro with views of the river and Gaia. I unloaded Spenser into Mei Ling's arms and she waited at the upper level while I explored the grounds with Cleo and Ian. Much to the kids' delight there were more peacocks than people in the elegant gardens.
From here we had a long walk back to the Dom Luis bridge and it was finally Cleo's turn to nap on my back. The break at the gardens had relieved my shoulders enough to put up with the heaviest weight of the day. The descent to Cais da Ribeira took us past a view point from which we had still another perspective of Porto's jumbled yet enchanting cityscape. The steep streets we descended to the riverside old town were lined with classical, colorful Portuguese townhouses and busy cafes.
Once down at the Douro we decided to take the water taxi to Cais de Gaia, which the kids loved and gave us a unique view of the arch of the Dom Luis bridge. From here we took the Teleférico de Gaia cable car back up to Jardim do Morro close to where we had begun the day.
We hadn't gone all the way up to the garden in the morning but I was glad we had a second chance to see it in the afternoon. If anything the views of Porto were even better than they had been from the walkway below, and the small garden was quite beautifully landscaped. It seemed like a favorite place for locals and tourists alike to stretch out and watch the sunset.
This had been our most rewarding city walk of the trip, and probably the best since Budapest two years earlier. I wasn't expecting Porto to be the most interesting stop of the entire journey, but there was no question in our minds after just one day that it is possibly the most underrated city in all of Europe. We used our last evening in Porto to visit the other food hall in town, Mercado de Bom Sucesso. Rather than move the car from our precious and precarious parking spot we caught an Uber from the traffic circle in front of the bridge. Bom Sucesso was fairly far from the river in the residential area of Boavista. The long drive through relatively featureless modern neighborhoods was a reminder that most of the time what we see in the touristic center of major European cities is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true expanse of the metropolis. Even out here we were still relatively close to the center of the conurbation of Porto and its suburbs, which has a population of almost two million.
Mercado de Bom Sucesso was a big improvement over Mercado Beira Rio from the previous night and well worth the trip out of the center. The food hall was spacious and the individual stalls were much more like miniature restaurants than food trucks. We complemented our seafood and jamón with grilled meat from a sit-down steakhouse on the upper level. After the dinner it was easy to get another Uber back to the Airbnb.
Downtown Porto is about four miles inland from the mouth of the Douro and the west coast of Portugal and there are several interesting suburbs closer to the shoreline. In the morning we packed up and drove to Foz do Douro, an affluent coastal neighborhood with its own daily market. When we arrived at the market the area was so quiet we thought we were in the wrong location until we found the entrance. The market was very modern and looked more like it belonged in Scandinavia or San Francisco than it did in Portugal. There were barely a handful of customers and most of the vendors were just beginning to open their stalls. Fortunately one restaurant was already open for lunch and we took the edge off our hunger with sandwiches and bean stew.
We were still eager to try one of the grilled fish restaurants that the area was famous for. People at the market told us we would find them a few blocks away at the beach but when we drove down there we didn't see anything at all. In fact, the oceanside promenade was practically deserted and the neighborhood was fairly commercial and unattractive. Later I realized that we should have driven further north to the town of Matosinhos which is famous for seafood restaurants. Fortunately our strikeout in Foz do Douro didn't matter because we ended up getting exactly what we were looking for in Afurada, a fishing village just west of Gaia on the southern bank of the Douro. We had no trouble at all locating the sidewalk seafood barbecues in this colorful residential neighborhood with cobblestone streets. We picked the busiest place and soon were washing down the grilled seafood we had craved with cold Portuguese beer. The coup de grace was a crème brûlée that was caramelized at the table with a hot iron from the barbecue. It was the perfect ending to an amazing city experience that had surpassed all expectations. I would never have imagined that in an itinerary that included Valencia, Bordeaux, and Bilbao that Porto would prove to be the most impressive and memorable city that we encountered.
Lugo has the appearance of a generic Spanish mid-sized city until one suddenly arrives at the dense, undulating walls that surround the old town. For those particularly interested in Roman remnants, Lugo is the only existing city in the world completely surrounded by intact Roman walls. Within the walls, the vehicles and casual commercial activity of the town give way to the quietness of cobblestone streets and antiquated buildings. Despite its beauty the old town was almost eerily empty on a sunny August afternoon. We had truly arrived at Spanish tourism's outer reaches.
In the old town the most interesting building is the structurally intricate cathedral, which defies attempts to photograph it it one frame. The 12th century edifice incorporates numerous different architectural styles and appears radically different from every angle it is viewed at. Around the central square Praza Major are several other beautiful buildings. The town hall is reminiscent of the one in A Coruña on a smaller scale. The Círculo de las Artes cultural center also stands out for its green hue and elegant design touches.
The plaza itself is a shady respite within the old town with beautiful landscaping and numerous benches on which to take a breather from sightseeing.
Before leaving Lugo we stopped at an immaculate gourmet food store to peruse local specialties and pick up a snack for the kids.
As it goes quite often on our trips, our arrival in Santiago de Compostela was complicated by a difference of opinion between Google Maps and Airbnb regarding the location of our apartment. Eventually our host arrived to guide us to the correct door and I located the nearest parking garage. Street parking near the center of Santiago de Compostela is inconceivable. It was clear that we had rejoined the international tourism circuit that we had left a week earlier in San Sebastian. Santiago is the capital of Galicia and the final stop of all the St . James pilgrimage pathways, as the city's cathedral was built upon the reputed site of St. James' burial. The night was drizzly and chilly enough to require layered clothing. We set off through the narrow streets of the old town to dinner at Abastos 2.0, a popular seafood tapas adjacent to the covered market. We had just enough time to order and consume one of everything on the menu before the rain drove us away from our al fresco dinner and back to our Airbnb.
Tuesday morning we were eager to wash away the market failure we'd experienced in A Coruña. The name of Santiago's market, Mercado de Abastos, was a good omen. The market by the same name in Oaxaca, Mexico is possibly the most spectacular market we've ever visited outside of China. Santiago's version takes place inside and outside a collection of long granite hallways, each one dedicated to a different specialty. The market was bustling with both locals and tourists and there was no shortage of small restaurants where freshly caught seafood was being served. We passed a pleasant hour running back and forth between different restaurants placing orders and trying to remember where we still had to collect food from.
We returned to the center of the old town and found it had become quite crowded. The current of people in the narrow streets finally brought us to the square where the amazing Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was located. There were probably over a thousand people in the square, many of them walkers of the Camino waiting to be let into the cathedral for the final step of their pilgrimage.
Once we had seen the market and the cathedral there was really no reason to dawdle longer in Santiago de Compostela. It was a pleasant and vibrant city well-deserving of its tourist patronage, but quite compact and devoid of attractions outside the old center. I had chosen two cities to stop in on the way to Porto. The first was Pontevedra, a mid-sized city on the southern bank of the river Lérez. The attraction here was a typical Galician city that would be almost free of tourists, yet still offer some interesting sights.
The absence of street parking anywhere near the center forced us to walk some distance in order to reach Pontevedra's highlights. This proved to be somewhat of a blessing as the outer parts of the old town were quite atmospheric in their own right. We indulged in our favorite activity of choosing the narrowest street available at every fork, surprising ourselves when the route suddenly opened into a new charming square.
Pontevedra's scenic center is the Praza da Ferrería, a wide open space surrounded by cafes. In the squares and alleys around Praza da Ferrería are majestic churches, parks, and some Gothic ruins.
There was no shortage of majestic churches in Pontevedra. The magnificent Basilica of Santa María la Mayor is the essence of Gothic architecture both in its design and its placement in desolate splendor atop a rocky hill at the edge of the old town. I was thankful to be seeing the sinister-appearing church in broad daylight as even the gathering grey clouds overhead were starting to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.
Tui is a well-preserved medieval village on the northern side of the Minho, the river that forms the northern border between Portugal and Spain. We parked the car in the designated area for visitors and ascended through the nearly-deserted flagstone alleys and stone staircases to the town cathedral. At the highest point of the town we had partial views of the river and some Portuguese houses on its southern side.
On the way back down to the car we passed the Portuguese-styled Capela de San Telmo and stopped at a juice bar for refreshments. A few minutes later we were waving goodbye to Spain for the second time on this road trip.
By just about any metric Galicia is the most remote region of Spain. It occupies pretty much all the land between the northern border of Portugal and the Atlantic Ocean and is far from the peninsular connection to continental Europe. Like most of Spain, Galician culture represents an intermingling of the original Celtic people who colonized the Iberian peninsula and the Romans who conquered them in the second century B.C. The region was further molded in subsequent centuries by occupations by Germanic tribes, Visigoths, and Moors. The local language, Gallego, bears so many similarities to Portuguese that many linguists question whether it is a Spanish or a Portuguese dialect. Aside from all these unique features, Galicia is the most oceanic of all of Spain's regions and has a cuisine dominated by shellfish and mollusks. Galicia's remoteness, mysteriousness, and reputation for delicious seafood have drawn me to the region ever since I became seriously interested in traveling and I was very excited to finally have the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity.
Despite my fascination with Galicia I had never heard of As Catedrais Beach before I did my advance research for the trip. It was clear it would be a shame to travel all the way to Galicia and miss this unique natural phenomenon. Before going it is important to be aware only 5000 people per day are allowed to visit the beach and permission can be obtained up to thirty days in advance. Much of the beach including the cathedral arch rock formations that give the beach its name can only be accessed during low tide. Advance authorization and tide times are available here.
When I planned our visit, I pictured our family strolling along the windy, rocky coast of Galicia passing through the stone arches in a tableau of solitary beauty. As happens quite often with travel, the reality turned out to be quite different. We arrived at a very congested parking area and it took a half hour to get through the queues of cars and wedge ourselves into a narrow space between two RV's. The views from the boardwalk to the west of the beach were quite pretty, but once we arrived at the entrance to the beach we realized that 5000 people is actually a very large number especially if they all show up at the same time of the day.
Once we got down to the sand I didn't know which direction to go to see the cathedral arches. We walked several minutes in each direction and couldn't find anything, and then started asking people none of whom seemed to have any clue what I was talking about. I had to clamber all the way back up the stairs to the person checking tickets to learn that the arches are all the way at the far eastern end of the beach. Once the kids were on the beach all they wanted to do was play in the sand and they couldn't understand why I kept making us walk further and further down the shoreline.
The walk to the arches ended up being a half kilometer hike requiring traversal of large rocks and navigation of several pools. The obstacles hadn't deterred several hundred other beachgoers who were busily filling their Instagram pages with cathedral arch selfies. Besides the arches there were several interesting caves and crevasses in the rock. It was quite a beautiful place even if it wasn't the idyllic, romantic natural tableau I had envisioned.
By the time we had changed the kids and shaken off the sand we were already exhausted. It was just late afternoon but we'd already toured old Oviedo, explored Cudillero, and hiked the whole length of Cathedral Beach. Nevertheless I was reluctant to give up my last stop on the day's itinerary. Mondoñedo is a small town on the inland route to A Coruña that has a reputation of being especially pretty and typical of Galician culture. When we arrived on Sunday evening there were very few people in the streets but a surprising amount of traffic on the main thoroughfare. There was an impressive cathedral for such a small town and some lonely, atmospheric streets. The obligatory stop in Mondoñedo is at O Rei das Tartas to buy the eponymous tart made from pumpkin jam, chopped almonds, and candied fruit.
Thanks to the stop in Mondoñedo we got into A Coruña very late. Despite a dark staircase with peeling paint and remarkably large spiders on the walls, the Airbnb was quite pleasant on the inside. Hardly any restaurants seemed to be open on Sunday night and we ended up at a Chinese place downtown. I was a little disappointed to begin our experience of Galician cuisine with generic Chinese food but given the hour and lack of options we had to prioritize sustenance over cultural exploration.
Thanks to our late arrival we only had the morning to see A Coruña. Our first stop was the municipal market to see the amazing tableau of seafood I had been anticipating from the beginning of the trip. What we found was ... nothing. The market was open but the seafood counters were completely empty and abandoned on Monday morning. No one goes fishing on Sundays. A few butcher and produce stalls were open but it was such a shadow of what we had hoped for that we immediately retreated to the car and headed for the old town.
A Coruña is an oddly shaped city that resembles a polyp sticking out into the Atlantic at the northwestern corner of Spain. On the northern side of the stalk of the polyp is the beach and on the sheltered southern side is the port. Between the two lies the old town with most of A Coruña's tourist attractions. The main exception is the Tower of Hercules, a restored Roman lighthouse at the northern end of the peninsula.
An architectural touch that A Coruña is known for is the enclosed balconies that cover the facades of the townhouses that line the port area. These galerias were designed to protect the balconies from the cold Atlantic winds and quickly became popular in the modernist period of the late 19th century.
The centerpiece of the old town is Praza de María Pita, a large open square fronted by A Coruña's enormous town hall. In the smaller streets around the square we found a good seafood restaurant to assuage the pain of having missed the covered market. Afterwards we viewed the ornate Iglesia de San Jorge in its baroque splendor.
Before leaving A Coruña we drove to the Tower of Hercules. This structure is often described as a Roman lighthouse and the oldest operational lighthouse in the world, but it has been rebuilt several times and the current structure is only a couple of hundred years old. The tower is so pristine now it looks like it could have been constructed yesterday, and it certainly has little in common with other Roman remnants in Europe and the Middle East. Towards the shoreline is an enormous blue mosaic compass that represents the different directions of the world in which the Celtic peoples have migrated. It was amazing to watch the kids playing on this isolated spot at the edge of one of the most treacherous shorelines in the Atlantic.
We hadn't rushed ourselves in A Coruña and now we were facing a stark choice. We could either spend the afternoon visiting fishing villages in the jagged coastal area around A Coruña, or we could venture back inland to the walled city of Lugo. In the end the thought of Lugo's perfectly preserved Roman walls was too much to resist. We jumped back in the car and set a course southeast.
Within a few minutes of leaving Bilbao we were already out of Basque Country. Cantabria is a mountainous region on the Atlantic coast that few international travelers have heard of, let alone visited. Our inclusion of Valencia and the Dordogne into this trip meant we didn't have time to spend even one night in Cantabria, but we had most of the day to explore at least the coastal highlights of the region. Our first stop was Santander, the largest city and regional capital. Given that it was Saturday our first priority was to locate and explore the covered market, an important part of our travel experience that had been somewhat lacking on this road trip. Fortunately Mercado de la Esperanza proved to be the best market we encountered on the Spanish section of this trip and was eclipsed overall only by the beauty in Biarritz.
The two-level market was humming with activity when we arrived. Outside the main building were a number of produce stalls covered by canopies. Staircases led downward to the seafood market on the lower level which was filled with determined shoppers circling counters laden with innumerable varieties of fresh, gleaming fish and shellfish.
On the upper level we found more produce as well as beautiful delicatessens and a couple of snack bars. It was way too early to find anything substantial to eat but we were able to get enough into our stomachs to tide us over until lunch time.
After striking out in every Spanish city since Valencia, we'd finally struck market gold in Santander. However, we weren't finished with the city yet. I was excited to check out Santander's answer to Azkuna Zentroa, the Centro Botín. The cantilevered exterior of this futuristic cultural center proved to be even more striking than its Bilbao counterpart. The outside of the building is surrounded by a maze of observation decks on multiple levels, eventually leading to the roof with views of the town and the Bay of Santander.
It was a short walk through the Jardines de Pereda to downtown Santander. We spent a half hour walking among attractive modern townhouses mingled with a few remnants of the medieval old town, which had been largely destroyed by fire in 1941.
The best seafood restaurants seemed to be clustered in the Barrio Pesquero next to the fishing port south of downtown. We drove to the area and weren't disappointed. Marisqueria Casa Jose had pretty much everything we'd seen in the market on their extensive menu and we ate our heart's fill of all our favorite shellfish and fish stew. We were now a little behind schedule but it had been well worth it to make the most of a great Spanish coastal town.
A half hour west of Santander is the preserved medieval village of Santillana del Mar. Despite its name the town is set well back from the shoreline. By the time we arrived I was the only conscious occupant of our car and Mei Ling wasn't excited about waking up so I decided to go out exploring on my own. Our GPS had taken us to the back end of the village and car entry was strictly prohibited, so I parked at the side of the road as close as I could and set off down the cobblestone road that led into town. Once I entered I realized there wasn't very much to see. The old churches and houses were atmospheric enough but nothing we hadn't already seen on a grander scale in Cuenca and Aragon. Once I arrived at the center of town it was clear that every single person walking in the street was a visitor and that every single business in town catered to tourism. There may have been a native population there, but if they weren't in the tourism business they were keeping well out of sight. I took some photos to show Mei Ling and went back to the car. There would be much better places ahead to spend our time.
Close to the western edge of the Cantabrian coast, the fishing town of San Vicente de la Barquera enjoys a reputation as one of the more picturesque seaside towns in the area. We drove across the estuary via a scenic causeway but found little within the town that would seem to justify a stop. It seemed the town was probably much more scenic when viewed from a boat in the estuary with the Picos de Europa mountains in the background. There were surely decent seafood restaurants around as well but we had just finished gorging ourselves. Instead we passed through the town and paused on the northern bank of the Ría Brazo Mayor to take some photos of the medieval castle and church on the hill that rose behind the town.
And just like that we were out of Cantabria. We would be spending a little more time in Asturias, the next coastal region on the way to Galicia. Much like Cantabria, Asturias consists of a coastal strip with beaches and fishing towns as well as a mountainous inland with picturesque villages and ski resorts. The only two cities of substantial size are close together in the center of the province, Gijón on the coast and the capital Oviedo fifteen miles inland. We were staying in a modern apartment complex a good distance from the center of Oviedo, where there was no ambiance whatsoever but convenient parking right outside the front door. Since we would be pressed for time the next day, we decided our best opportunity to see Gijón would be to have dinner there that evening.
Gijón proved to be a good choice as there was an arts festival going on in the old town by the seaside and the streets and cafes were filled with people. It seemed that every table was covered with glasses of sidra, the traditional fermented cider of Asturias. It was so crowded that our attempts to find a table in a restaurant were repeatedly rebuffed. We resorted to Tripadvisor which came through with a very authentic Asturian restaurant just a couple of blocks from the pandemonium which was practically empty when we walked in. We were served hearty traditional food including some flaming sausages that fascinated the boys.
As usual for northern Spain our apartment lacked air conditioning but fortunately it was much less humid than it had been in Bilbao. We tossed the kids in the tub to remove several layers of grime that had accumulated over the last couple of days of heavy traveling.
In the morning we did our walking tour of Oviedo's old town. The entire neighborhood was unusually bright and well-maintained, almost as though the old quarter had been recently restored in anticipation of some major cultural event. Nevertheless the foot traffic was quite low on Sunday morning and on some streets it felt like we had the area completely to ourselves. The focal point of the old quarter was the Oviedo Cathedral, whose tall Gothic belltower could be seen at the end of almost every street in the area. We also passed the covered market which was of course closed.
Also in the heart of Oviedo is the Parque San Francisco, adjacent to the old quarter. This large and well-manicured green space boasts majestically tall trees, shady paths, bronze statues, and of course playgrounds. On the way into the park we came across a parade whose participants were wearing traditional Asturian costumes.
Across from the park is a bronze statue of Woody Allen which has stood in the middle of the street since 2003. The actor has been a long-time champion of Oviedo and was awarded the Prince of Asturias award the year before the statue was unveiled.
We had now been wandering around Oviedo long enough for the more touristy restaurants to begin opening for lunch. I had hoped to be back on the road at this point, but we decided it was better to eat now rather than risk being too late for lunch at our next destination. We browsed through the old town for a restaurant and eventually found one in an immaculate little courtyard with pastel townhouses, a polished flagstone floor, and a bronze statue of a woman and her donkey.
We were now well behind schedule but Oviedo had been worth it. We were lucky the market hadn't been open, or we might have had to scrap our next stop entirely. That would have been unfortunate because the fishing village of Cudillero proved to be another highlight of Asturias. The tiny village is protected from the forces of the Atlantic by a long seawall which forms a port. Within the port numerous small fishing boats and dinghies are anchored. The village rises up a hill from behind a large boat ramp, but most of the action is concentrated at the lowest level around the main road through town.
The village was obviously geared for tourism, but the vibe felt more like local Spaniards who were getting away for the weekend by car than international package tourists such as I'd seen in Santillana del Mar. Our chosen seafood restaurant felt very authentic as well, with succulent broiled zamburiñas and navajas. An industrial-appearing pump on the bar dispensed sidra into personal bottles and we had our first taste of the Asturian standard. I could see that sidra would have to be an acquired taste. The overall impression was musty or even fetid, and far from refreshing. Nevertheless it was a complex and savory flavor and I could see myself growing to like it over time.
I was a little stressed out once we returned to the car because we were behind schedule for Cathedral Beach, our first stop in Galicia. I had to apply for permits to visit the beach a month in advance and if we arrived too late for low tide we'd lose our one chance to see the famous stone arches that give the beach its name. Of course there was nothing we could do except get back on the road and hope for the best. The gods of travel would make the final decision on how our day would end.