Fiesta de Virgen del Carmen

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Our sailing decisions are dictated by the weather. So, when the weather outlook suggested poor southerly sailing conditions after July 15th, we considered lifting anchor and departing the Ria de Muros, and sailing farther south while we had the opportunity. But that would mean missing out on the Fiesta de Virgen del Carmen in Muros on July 16th. Not convinced that we had made the right decision, we decided to hang around for the festival and leave sailing south for another time.

On the morning of the 16th we motored from our anchorage in Ensenada de San Francisco to the marina at Muros. Spanish flags hung from the balconies along the waterfront and fishing and pleasure boats were dressed in a carnival of flags. A huge fun fair had been set up along the seafront, as well as two huge stages and stalls selling everything from candy floss to handbags.

We met my friend Katie, who was joining us from the UK for a few days, and we all settled in for a day of fiesta fun. Throughout the afternoon the town was a hive of activity. A group dressed in traditional Galician dress played Galician pipes and drums in the square in front of the town hall. Families strolled the streets, and the cafes were all doing roaring business. Children were dressed beautifully in their best clothes – cute outfits and shoes that remind me of the formal dress that our parents and grandparents wore. The police and local civilian police were out in force, directing traffic as cars squeezed into every available parking space no matter how unsuitable. Towards high water, in later afternoon, we saw one car parked on the slipway with waves washing around the wheels!

At 6.30pm the ceremony began at the Catholic Church, however we didn’t attend due to our inappropriate dress. At around the same time, brightly bedecked boats – yachts, speed boats, fishing vessels large and small, dredgers – moved out of the harbour and around to the beach on the other side of the marina, where they jostled for space. One cruising family we know even decided to join the melee in their dinghy!

Some of us were more appropriately dressed than others!

Some of us were more appropriately dressed than others!

Shortly after 7pm the procession of the Virgen del Carmen departed the church and made its way through the town to the beach, accompanied by a mournful brass band. The Virgen, resplendent in gold dress and crown, and carrying the Child, stood atop a coffin representing all the fishermen who have lost their lives at sea, and was carried on the shoulders of men dressed in crisp white shirts and walking slowly in precise step with each other. Hundreds and hundreds of people followed the procession, many dressed in their best. The procession was accompanied by a deafening cacophony of noise from fireworks and the town siren sounding continuously. The brass band struggled to be heard above it all. The siren and fireworks grew louder and more persistent the closer the procession got to the waterfront where the boats, overloaded with passengers, awaited the arrival of the Virgen.

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Once at the waterfront the Virgen was transferred into one large boat, the brass band climbed aboard another, and the procession continued across the water, with all the boats following the lead boat carrying the Virgen as it did a loop across the bay in front of the town before returning, more than half an hour later, to its place close to the beach. The Virgen was then returned to shore and once again, amid sirens, fireworks and the sound of the brass band, processed through the streets once more and returned to her place in the church. It was a rousing and moving experience that appealed to my anthropologist and Catholic sensibilities!

DSCI4087By 9pm the party was in full swing. We strolled along the waterfront and this time, having budgeted some money for the fun fair rides, the girls found amusement. Close to 11pm the first band appeared on stage – a fabulous ensemble of salsa dancers and singers – covering a mixture of Spanish and English songs, and we danced along. Later, after the rest of us had long gone to bed, Julian stayed out and was entertained by a Michael Jackson tribute act! At midnight we were treated to a spectacular fireworks display of a standard that I’ve rarely seen outside Japan.

Shortly after midnight all of us, except Julian, were ready for bed, partied out and senses overwhelmed! Julian came home at 3am, and the next day told us that children of Lily’s and Katie’s ages were still packing out the fun fair rides! My kids are such lightweights!!

We had missed our southerly sailing window, but it was worth it. We (and our guest, Katie) had enjoyed a most spectacular fiesta and a delightful slice of Catholic Spanish culture.

Beach Interlude

For a week we sat at anchor at the Ensenada de San Francisco, around the peninsula from the town of Muros. We had been there for two nights before going to the marina at Muros, and we were so enamoured by the place that we couldn’t wait to get back for a more extended stay.

The sharp rugged peaks on the western side of the bay stood out against the deep blue sky, and the golden beaches glittered in the sun. Each morning we took our time aboard Carina, enjoying leisurely breakfasts, reading, writing and doing maths with the girls, and attending to chores. Julian repaired the genoa furler and made sewing repairs to the sail itself. We thoroughly cleaned the boat, and over the course of the week I caught up on laundry. I hand-washed on deck and the clothes dried in a matter of hours in the scorching sun. I wrote at my leisure and the girls enjoyed some craft activities. Lily sewed a cushion from a kit she had been given as a birthday present and then sewed a handbag from some knitted scraps I had lying around; and together the girls made and wrote birthday cards for Grandad and his twin sister, Aunty Alison.

Busy sewing above....

Busy sewing above….

...and below deck.

…and below deck.

After lunches of salad, chorizo and crusty bread in the cool of the saloon, we headed to shore. On a few of the days, Julian rowed the girls to shore, and I chose to swim. After the heat of the boat the sea was too inviting to resist, so I slipped into the cooling water and swam the 300 or 400 metres to shore.

After mornings in the close confines of the boat, afternoons and evenings on the beach at Louro were sheer joy. The girls and I didn’t venture far from the dinghy – there was no reason to – while Julian went off on long exploratory walks.

From our dinghy base on the soft golden sand we swam in the warm azure water, built sandcastles and played on the rocks. It was such a safe and quiet beach that I was happy to let the girls play in the gently lapping water while I sat close by and read my book, or alternatively, for them to play on the sand or amongst the rocks while I swam lengths parallel to shore where I could keep an eye on them.

Not far from home!

Not far from home!

We met the same people on the beach every day – Spanish holiday-makers of all ages – who were friendly and kind. On our last day the girls befriended a family of three children. The nine year old, Sophia, spoke excellent English from attending an English academy two evenings a week, and the five children played together for hours.

We left the beach around 8.30 each evening and walked along the street to the supermarket to buy the next day’s provisions and to have cold beer (for the adults) and orange (for the kids). By 9.30 we were back on the boat, cooking a quick late supper and in bed by midnight.

Each new day was much the same as the one before. It was a lovely pleasant relaxing interlude amidst our generally shorter visits to places. I could have stayed another week, but the weather changed and we had other places we wanted to be.

Gallic heroism

We had been at anchor in the ria for a few days and the weather was mixed. On one side were the moored local fishing boats and beyond us three other yachts – a French family, a Dutch couple and two German men. As evening wore on the wind grew stronger and a steady rain fell. It was about 9pm and I was serving supper on the table in the saloon when something caught my eye through the port light. It was the mast of another yacht, weaving about precariously between us and the Dutch boat.

Nosiness getting the better of me, I stepped up into the cockpit and watched as the crew of this new boat dropped anchor under sail. This was no evening for sailing in the confined space of the back end of a ria, and I assumed their engine was not working. The next thing the yacht – flying a French flag and with five adults on board – drifted dangerously close to the Dutch boat, much to the surprise and consternation of the Dutch couple!

I went back down to the saloon to eat dinner. Lily, dinner quickly eaten, went into the cockpit. ‘There’s someone in the water’, she called down. We assumed she was playing a trick on us and we’d go up to take a look and Lily would say ‘haha, only joking’! But not this time. There really was someone in the water. The French boat had by now drifted past the Dutch boat, past the other boats, and towards the rocky shore, with two anchor chains hanging from the bow and one of the crew in the water. Like the crew of the other three yachts at anchor, we watched the action from our cockpit.

The crewman in the water bobbed up and down on the choppy sea. When one of the others handed him down a knife, he clenched it between his teeth and disappeared under the water! Fouled prop, we thought. Poor guy has no choice but to dive into the chilly choppy sea.

Moments later he was back on the boat, in black swimming shorts and a towel draped around his shoulders. Now that I could see more than just his bobbing head on the surface of the water I realised he looked remarkably like one of my senior colleagues at Exeter University and imagining my colleague engaged in such heroics made me laugh hard! By and by, water and black exhaust fumes began to pump from the exhaust pipe, and we knew the engine was working again.

The yacht, however, was still drifting dangerously close to the rocky shore and our swimming hero appeared to be the only one eager to do anything about it, while the rest of the crew stood around looking dazed. For the boat to get away from the rocks, the two anchors needed to be hauled in, but it appeared that the anchor windlass was not working and our hero could not pull them in by hand. Next thing we knew, our hero had dived off the bow and disappeared down the anchor chain. Whether his actions saved the day or not, we don’t know, but a few minutes later he was swimming alongside and once again climbing aboard astern.

One anchor was hauled in and that freed the boat enough to get forward momentum away from the rocks. It was only a matter of minutes before the yacht had anchored successfully and the crew had all disappeared below decks.

The next morning, as we prepared to depart, we saw the skipper in the dinghy, repeatedly failing to start the outboard motor. After ten or fifteen minutes, he called up to the crew and someone brought him a jerry can of petrol. Oops! But, despite putting fuel in the tank, the outboard still wouldn’t start, and Julian and I imagined our hero once again diving into the sea, clenching the dinghy painter between his teeth, and swimming to shore, hauling the dinghy behind him. And we imagined his heroic return with a dinghy full of coffee and croissants for his famished crewmates. Alas, our fantasies were not to be fulfilled. With the useless outboard still attached, the five climbed into the little dinghy and our hero paddled them, canoe-style, to shore, like a latter day Merriweather Lewis!

You see, this is why I hate looking like a fool when undertaking boat manoeuvres. There are always people like me around, smugly sitting in their cockpits, glasses of gin and tonic in hand, guffawing at my poor seamanship.

Wonderful Galicia

We have been in Galicia since the 21st of June. Prior to this, I had only spent limited time in Spain. In 2006, I went on a road trip with Julian and some of his friends in a U around the Iberian Peninsula, starting in Santiago de Compostella, south through Portugal, attending a friend’s wedding in Jerez, and then on through the Sierra Nevada to Valencia. It was a wonderful trip that gave us a great taste for all things Spanish (and I mean ‘taste’ in the most literal sense!). A year later I was back in Valencia for a conference at the aquarium, but spent more time hanging out with Inuit and other Canadians. And I’ve had a couple of resort holidays in the Spanish-owned Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa.

A street in Muros

A street in Muros

All told, I have precious little experience of Spain, and so it is a new and wonderful place to me. So far, we are all finding the experience rewarding! As an anthropologist, I know I shouldn’t be too hasty to make any pronouncements about a place. As I experience and learn more over the coming weeks and months I know my impressions will change or, at the very least, become more meaningful. But here are my initial impressions from the past few weeks:
1. Old people lead healthy lives! During our first few days on the beach in Ria de Viveiro I watched people walking up and down, up and down the more-than mile long beach. They were adults of all ages, but predominantly people over 70. Wearing only swimming trunks or bikinis, couples, groups of five or six men or women, mixed groups, strolled along the beach all afternoon long, exercising in the sunshine, which in itself is great. But they were also talking – couples and groups of friends, talking and laughing as they strolled along. If you’re doing that when you’re 70 or 80 years old, then you’re doing something right. Since then I’ve observed many older people enjoying life, walking, talking, sitting in the sun outside their homes and engaging with the world at it goes by.

Old people strolling the beach in Ria de Viveiro

Old people strolling the beach in Ria de Viveiro

2. Grow food not grass! I’ve seen a profusion of food growing in gardens big and small. Potatoes, onions, lettuces, sweet corn, and peach, pear, apple, and lemon trees. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of growing one’s own food – it’s great for the planet, it’s great for your health, and it’s great for the little mini-ecosystem of your back yard. In Japan and in the Fens of the United Kingdom (and no doubt elsewhere), people put excess produce outside their gates with an honesty box. I haven’t seen this yet in Spain, but I have seen old men and women, sitting in the shade of awnings in town squares, with small selections of produce for sale, that I can only imagine comes from their own gardens.
3. It’s cheap 1! Man, food is inexpensive here! For Julian and me, one of our favourite meals to cook is paella, but the ingredients are so expensive in the UK that it’s a rate treat. Here in Spain the mussels, fish, wine, chorizo, rice and other ingredients are dirt cheap! Even the saffron is less expensive. Of course they are all local ingredients, but even so we are astounded at how cheap the food is. The foods that we consider luxuries back in the UK are a third or a quarter of the price here. Our shopping basket overflows with olive oil, olives, chorizo, a smorgasbord of fruit and vegetables, cheeses and wine. We are in gastronomic heaven.
4. It’s cheap 2! While we spend most of our time at anchor, we occasionally spend a night in a marina, to fill our water tank, get speedy internet access and take advantage of hot showers! Marinas too, are inexpensive, working out at about 25-30% cheaper than in the UK, but with free electricity and Wifi included. And in places on our itinerary to visit over the coming weeks and months, they appear to be even less expensive.

Local fare

Local fare

5. Would you like a squid with your beer, sir?! To our Irish and British sensibilities, the foods in Spain are exotic and wonderful and sometimes highly amusing. I wanted to do some writing after the girls had gone to bed recently, so Julian popped out for a beer. He came home with a big grin on his face (possibly caused by the beer) to tell me about his experience. He ordered a beer and was given the smallest beer he’d ever seen in his life. Then the barman came around and asked him if he’d like a squid with it!! He was tickled pink by the idea of having a squid with his beer! In every bar, staff walk around with trays of tapas – bread with chorizo, tortilla, etc –to offer to the customers. In Julian’s case the other night, it was a deep-fried baby squid!
6. Small-scale fishing: I mentioned in a previous blog post how the clusters of fishermen reminded me of the west coast of Hudson Bay in summertime. Off the coast of every little town we anchor amongst small local boats, owned by local fishermen. These men go out alone or in pairs, and appear to quite often meet up with others at sea, clustering together and engaging in very small scale fishing. There are larger commercial fishing boats too, but the small scale subsistence fishermen predominate.
7. Less work, more play! The working day is very different to what we are accustomed to and it has taken some adjusting to. But we have embraced it now, and our sleeping, eating and shopping patterns have changed. Shops and businesses open for a few hours every morning and then close around noon or 1pm. They don’t re-open until 5.30 in the evening, and remain open until 9.30 or 10pm. It feels strange to us to go to the butcher or the greengrocer at 9 o’clock at night! Restaurants and cafes don’t get going until after 9.30, and people of all ages eat late into the night.
8. I was going to write about shellfish, but it deserves a blog post all of its own!

Yes, indeed, we are enjoying life in Spain. People are generous and kind, and (usually) patient with our inability to speak more than a few Spanish words. We are enjoying the endless sunshine and the golden sandy beaches at every anchorage. Life is good!

Guapa

DSCI3961I asked the man at the marina office in Muros what the Spanish word ‘guapa’ means. He laughed, knowing why I asked! He looked at Katie and said, ‘Beautiful’. Since arriving in Spain I hear this word every day as I walk down the street, in shops, in cafes, on country roads. It’s usually spoken by old women who simultaneously tickle Katie or Lily on the tummy, or pinch their cheeks or stroke their hair. Every time they went into the shop in Corme, the shop keeper gave them sweets; the man in the office at Club Nautico de Camariñas gave them each a chocolate bar; an old man in Corme gave them a huge bag of ripe juicy plums from his orchard! At a community feast in Covas, the girls went away to play with some local children. Next thing I saw Katie hand-in-hand with an old woman, who took her to her family’s table to show her off! Guapa, guapa, mas guapa. People laugh and smile and treat them with kindness. I don’t understand much of what they are saying, but the feeling goes beyond language.

My girls certainly stand out, with their blond hair and blue eyes. Not many locals have that combination. But it’s more than that. I’ve noticed a general acceptance and inclusion and joy in having children around. Late at night children are out and about in cafes and restaurants with their parents and extended family members. We encounter children everywhere, but not once have I heard a sharp word being spoken to a child or heard a child cry (except for tiny babies, of course). There is a lot I could learn about patience and tolerance from the way Spanish people treat and interact with their own and other children.

Meanwhile, if Lily and Katie can attract the attention of more small-holders, we might get some more delicious fruit and vegetables for the table!!

Ria de Muros – a little bit of heaven

It feels like a long time has passed since I last wrote about our travels. We’ve been to quite a few places in a short space of time, but have been without Internet access in most of them.

In Corme we enjoyed a long walk through a rural landscape very different to any we’ve walked in since our journey began. Just a short distance inland the air grew heavy and oppressive, and the plants, birds and insects were new to us. As the children played at a woodland playground behind a stretch of protected sand dunes we encountered our first lizard – a little lime green fellow basking in the sun on a kerb.

Katie on the beach at Corme

Katie on the beach at Corme

We had fun on the beach at Corme, swimming in the crystal clear water, and one evening we had a barbecue on a huge beach that we had all to ourselves. But we were constantly looking to the sky during our stay at Corme, willing the dark clouds to stay away. Alas, they never complied, and all those wet sandy clothes from days on the beach caused me no small amount of annoyance.

Most of our last twenty-four hours in Corme were bumpy and misty, until the wind changed suddenly, shortly before dawn, and all was calm and clear again.

We had a delightful sail from Corme to Ria de Camariñas, 20 miles farther along the Costa del Morte – the Coast of Death(!) – and spent the night in the Club Nautico de Camariñas – the most inexpensive marina we’ve been to…ever! Arriving into Camariñas the genoa (the large sail at the front of the boat) refused to furl and Julian had to drop it and quickly stow it in the fore cabin (Lily and Katie’s bedroom). A pin had come out of the roller furler, causing the furling mechanism to jam. Our genoa at present is folded and stuffed into the aft heads.

The Club Nautico had that same international feel as Falmouth. It was small and intimate, with yachts from the US, Australia, the UK and, of course, the Dutch and French yachts that are ubiquitous along this coast. With the genoa out of action, we considered staying in Camariñas for a few days. It was cheap, with access to fresh water, electricity, and free Wifi, and the club’s cafe/bar was only 20 metres from our boat! But the forecast suggested that if we didn’t leave the next day then we would be in for an uncomfortable few days with the wind hitting us on the pontoon or at anchor. So, despite the advantages offered by Camariñas, we spent less than 18 hours there, and were once again out on the water.

The last town on the Coast of Death!

The last town on the Coast of Death!

There was no wind anyway on the next leg of our journey, so genoa or no genoa, there was no sailing to be had. We motored for six hours in dead calm, past Fisterra – the most westerly point of mainland Europe – and were, for the first time since departing Plymouth, not on a south westerly course. We were past the Costa del Morte and into the Ria de Muros.

The Ria de Muros is heavenly. The mountains are rugged, the beaches are long, golden and sandy, the water is aquamarine, and the sky is the bluest blue. Picturesque ancient towns and villages are nestled amongst the hills. These collections of white-walled, orange-roofed buildings look pretty from a distance, and once amongst them, they are warrens of narrow cobbled streets, with fountained plazas and ancient stone churches.

The beach at Louro

The beach at Louro

We spent our first two nights at anchor off the beach in Louro, the first very touristy town we have come to. On our first morning we rowed to shore. The girls and I spent the day on the beach, never going more than 20 metres from our dinghy, with its supplies of food, water and sunscreen. We built sandcastles and swam in the warm sea. Lily really got to grips with swimming without any buoyancy aids for the first time. The water was warm enough for her to want to stay in for a long time, and she swam her little heart out. Each time she’d say ‘Just one more try’, and I had to tell her she could keep at it for as long as she wanted. By the time Julian returned from a few hours of exploring the nearby town of Muros she was swimming a few metres (assisted by the incoming waves) and keen to show Dad her new-found skills.

We lifted anchor this morning and motored the couple of miles around the corner to Muros. The marina is lovely, with the office and facilities situated in an old house. I’m currently sitting in a large cool living room with lots of comfy sofas. The showers are beyond luxurious, there’s a shaded garden, and even a coffee machine in the kitchen. For live aboard cruisers – as many of the sailors around here are – this is luxury indeed.

Muros

Muros

Tomorrow we will explore the town some more, as I carry on with getting laundry done. My priority at this marina is getting all the bedding washed. We’re all in sleeping bags tonight, as our duvets, sheets and pillowcases are all in various stages of being washed and dried!!

And the patches make the goodbye harder still

Back in the spring of 1996 I bought a pair of khaki green shorts from Gap in Fukuoka, Japan. With the exception of 2010, when I was heavily pregnant, I’ve worn them every summer since. They’ve even seen a few days wear during brief Arctic summers in Arviat, Nunavut.

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They were dark green eighteen years ago. Now they’re faded to grey, threadbare and falling to pieces. But I can’t bear to let them go. Other items of clothing have come and gone in those eighteen years, but none have been as comfortable or carry so many memories as those faded old shorts.

They remind me of so many good times, and I know every day I put them on is going to be a good day. They remind me of hiking Mt. Aso and other volcanoes in Kyushu, southern Japan, with Linda, Fiona, Sarah, Sara, Brian, Stefan, Patricia and others; of climbing 3,333 steps to a temple in Fukuoka-ken with Lisa; of summer holidays with my great friend Takako and her wonderful family; and of summer Japanese barbecues.

These shorts remind me of a holiday in Hawai’i with Liliane, and of returning to Maui a few years later to volunteer on a humpback whale research project, with long days spent in the open ocean in a small boat, surrounded by giant humpback whales.

They remind me of arctic char fishing in Arviat with Crystal and of Honda/ATV rides out to Nuvuk to chat to other fishermen and women and see if there were any polar bears about.

They remind me of summer Sunday trips to Croke Park with Daddy and my uncle Tom for the Gaelic football, and of long summer days at home in Ballygibbon, keeping Daddy company as he went about his gardening chores.

They remind me of camping trips with Julian – in Ireland, Scotland, England, Spain, Italy, Germany and Austria; of long hikes and pub lunches; and of exploring the countryside of Cambridgeshire and Devon with Lily and Katie.

I’m wearing them as I write this.

I don’t think they’ll see another summer. They are threadbare and beyond repair. But I cherish them for their memories and I will be sad to say goodbye to them when the time comes. As Cat Stevens sang ‘And the patches make the goodbyes harder still’.

La Coruña to Ria Corme y Lage

Julian likened our passage from La Coruña to Laxe to a cross between riding a rodeo bull and being on a roller coaster in a wind tunnel while having buckets of sea water thrown in your face at random intervals. Suffice to say, it was not a pleasant trip.

We made an early start from La Coruña, as gusts of 25 knots were forecast for the late evening and into the night. The wind would be in our faces for much of the day, but the 35 mile passage shouldn’t take too long and we imagined ourselves arriving in Laxe in Ria de Corme y Lage in mid afternoon.

The beautiful coast at the mouth of Ria Corme y Lage

The beautiful coast at the Cabo Roncudo

The first couple of hours were pleasant enough. We sailed along at 4 or 5 knots, knowing that once we rounded Isla Sisargas we would have the wind on our nose, and we’d motor the rest of the way. But a couple of miles from Sisargas the wind rose, the waves began to grow choppier, and we lost speed. We motored from then on. For the next six or so hours, we crawled along at sometimes only 2 knots, the wind whipping up to 35 knot gusts at times, sea water lashing us and the motion of the boat making us feel queasy. The strong winds had come much earlier and much stronger than forecast. Every time I looked at the chart plotter and at my watch we were three hours from our destination. Sisargas and a lighthouse beyond it took forever to pass – we seemed to be alongside that lighthouse forever.

We finally reached the sheltered harbour of Laxe just as the rain started to fall, and Julian and I got soaked as we manoeuvred to anchor. Lily, insisting she sit with us in the cockpit through it all, also got very wet. Smart Katie slept through the worst of it.

Carina suffered a little too. Lily and Katie’s room – the fore cabin – was soaking wet from a combination of excessive waves breaking over the starboard port hole and also into the anchor locker. Our first day in Laxe was spent drying the fore cabin out, taking advantage of the hot and windy spells that were annoyingly interspersed with rain.

Lily in the wild!

Lily in the wild!

We stayed in Laxe for two nights. Julian and Lily explored the town and walked to the lighthouse, but Katie and I only ventured as far as the beach. On the second night the wind shifted round to the north and we moved across the ria to Corme for shelter. We’ve been here now for a couple of nights, catching up on chores and having fun on the beach.

Katie found a lighthouse!

Katie found a lighthouse!

Corme is not the prettiest town we’ve visited. It’s quite run down, but it has lovely beaches, clear turquoise water, and quiet walks through wild countryside that remind me of the west of Ireland.

We’ll stay here for a couple more days before heading a little bit more south.

Lovely La Coruña

We slipped out of Ria de Viveiro early on Thursday morning, while the girls still slept. The dolphin accompanied us for a few hundred metres until it abandoned us for a fishing vessel returning from a night at sea. Fickle dolphin!

We sailed west, feasting our eyes on the Spanish coastline for the first time, as our arrival in Spain had been before dawn and in light fog. The coast is lush and verdant, with small towns dotted along, and wind farms peeking out between the hills in the distance. We passed clusters of small boats, each with one or two fishermen, and I was reminded of summertime in Arviat, hanging around, waiting for beluga whales to arrive.

We rounded Cabo Ortegal and were back on our summer southerly course again. After twelve hours of sailing we arrived in La Coruña, the largest city in Galicia, with a population of 250,000. We have been here for the past two nights, and are having a wonderful time.

La Coruña is home to Torre de Hercules, the oldest still-functioning lighthouse in the world. Built by the Romans in the first century AD, it still lights up the night sky to warn sailors of the dangerous rocky shore. Myths about the lighthouse link it to both Hercules and to the Irish Tuatha de Danann.

Torre de Hercules

Torre de Hercules

Torre de Hercules is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the paths leading to it are lined with modern artworks. Underneath the lighthouse, we walked through the archaeological works that reveal layers of history from the Romans onwards, and then we climbed the lighthouse to the top (Of course we did! Did any of you imagine that we wouldn’t!). Wow, what views from the top, of the city, across the bays that surround the city, and far out into the Atlantic. From below we could see and hear a lone piper on the Galician pipes (yet another Celtic link), and looked down on a huge tiled compass rose on the ground, bearing the names and symbols of the seven Celtic nations.

DSCI3858Yesterday evening we walked through the old town, savouring the Friday evening atmosphere. Lily and Katie had never been out in a city after dark before, and they were agog at the twinkling lights. We were surprised to see so many children out with their parents and extended families, walking the streets or sitting in restaurants, at midnight. So different to a Friday night town or city centre in Ireland or the UK.

We strolled through the huge and beautiful Plaza de Maria Pita, and learned about the city’s heroine for whom the plaza is named. She defended the city walls from Sir Francis Drake’s men, when the English attempted to sack the city in 1589. Evidence abounds of a prominence of heroines in the city – statues of women are ubiquitous and one of the legends surrounding the city is that is was named by Hercules for the woman he loved, La Cruna.

Plaza de Maria Pita

Plaza de Maria Pita

Off the Plaza, we feasted our eyes on restaurants and cafes offering incredible arrays of food. I was particularly taken by El Rey de Jamon – the King of Ham! The ceiling of his restaurant was obscured by hundreds of hams hanging down. But by far the most common food comes from the sea – octopus, squid, lobsters, crabs, razor clams, mussels, and myriad other creatures whose names I don’t know. Shop and restaurant windows are filled with them, and inside and outside, diners fill themselves on a mind-boggling selection. The girls enjoyed watching the live lobsters and crabs in the window of the little restaurant where we stopped for some squid and tortilla and a bottle of the house red.

Local fare

Local fare

La Coruña is a beautiful city. There is so much to see and do, and we haven’t even ventured outside of our little corner of it yet. We have found the people so friendly and helpful…and kindly helping correct our woeful attempts at Spanish! Time to go explore some more now!

Ria Viveiro

Could anything be more idyllic than anchoring in a quiet bay, 200 metres from a golden sandy beach that stretches in a semi-circle around the bay, and between the beach and lush green mountains that rise behind, a pretty Spanish town? We are in Galicia, north western Spain, in Ria de Viveiro. This whole coastline is dotted with rias, old drowned rivers with spectacular hills and mountains rising all around. We hope to explore a few of these rias in the coming weeks and months.

View of Covas from Carina

View of Covas from Carina

A lone common dolphin makes the bay his home, swimming lazily around the four or five boats at anchor, swimming close to the dinghies as they make their way to shore, curiously investigating swimmers in the water. The girls and I saw what Julian didn’t while he was in the water the other day cleaning the hull. The dolphin silently came close to Julian who, when I told him, swam to the dinghy like he was Ian Thorpe! Silly man!

Julian cleaning the hull at anchor

Julian cleaning the hull at anchor

A short dinghy ride to shore and we are on a spectacular beach of soft golden sand. There are no waves, just calm warm waters – perfect for the girls to practice their swimming, and for Julian and me to take turns enjoying longer leisurely lone swims. As soon as we reach shore the girls insist on stripping off and running around naked, splashing in the water and playing in the sand, so full of joy and freedom. Lily’s swimming is improving, although she gets frustrated. Katie still refuses to kick her legs!

The beach is littered with tiny pink and purple shells and bleached oyster shells, which the girls have been gathering – some to bring home, some to make shell gardens or other beach decorations.

The girls with their shell garden on the beach

The girls with their shell garden on the beach

There are three separate towns in this ria all within short walking distance of each other and we have visited two. Covas has been celebrating the Fiesta de San Juan since we arrived five days ago, with loud canon fire at seemingly random times of the day, live music on a stage facing the water, a fun fair and street food. The fun fair is extremely pricy; at 3 euros per child per ride we would be out of pocket in half an hour. It’s difficult to explain this to two little girls whose eyes are popping out of their heads from the bright lights and beckoning rides. Thankfully, there are playgrounds aplenty and they soon forget the more costly distractions.

Sardines and potatoes cooked on an open fire, at the community feast in Covas de San Juan

Sardines and potatoes cooked on an open fire, at the community feast in Covas de San Juan

Away from the sea front, the roads quickly run up into the hills, with gardens displaying enviable plots of sweet corn, potatoes, and onions and trees bearing lemons, pears, apples and, occasionally, olives. In some gardens there are pigs, goats, sheep and chickens, and I’m reminded of Chris Stewart’s wonderfully comic memoir, Driving Over Lemons, about moving from the UK to a small-holding in Andalucia. The old houses bear the most amazing roof slates – large, randomly shaped slates that gradually decrease in size from the apex to the bottom of the roof. The architecture in general is delightful and exotic to our eyes. On our first evening in Covas we enjoyed a plate of fried whole baby squid. Lily devoured hers, but Katie refused to try. True to form, she stuck to the chips/fries.

Across the river is the ancient town of Viveiro, with streets so narrow that I imagine one could lean out a window and shake hands with one’s neighbour across the street. This beautiful town is dotted with 12th, 13th and 14th Century Catholic architecture – churches and convents still in use today. Iglesia de Santa Maria del Campo, Convento de las Concepcionistas and Iglesia de Santiago-San Francisco are decorated with the distinctive Spanish Catholic iconography of scarily life-like statues of Jesus suffering or crucified, Mary in black, crying and looking pained.

Iglesia de Santa Maria del Campo

Iglesia de Santa Maria del Campo

The churches are dark and beautiful and very creepy. Irish Catholicism looks lightweight compared to this! All of this imagery required a lot of explanation and the girls had endless questions that pushed Julian and I on our Christian doctrine, knowledge of saints, and on how to explain these things to young children. We have now established that ‘naughtly people killed Jesus’ which made ‘Mary sad’ and we’ve been talking more generally about the Romans. I showed them a confessional and Lily was wide-eyed as I explained Confession and told her that from when I was only a little older than she is now, I had to do that every few weeks.

Cloister of Iglesia de Santiago-San Fransisco

Cloister of Iglesia de Santiago-San Francisco

We will soon move on from here, west and then south, to explore more rias, visit the world’s oldest still functioning lighthouse near La Coruña (built by the Romans), and, hopefully, enjoy more wonders of this wonderful country.

Narrow streets of ancient Viveiro

Narrow streets of ancient Viveiro