I love northern Spain – it’s rugged and wild, with big skies and it makes my heart soar. In the summer it has sunshine, warm seas and doesn’t get oppressively hot and humid. That, along with some pretty fantastic cuisine is why the Spanish like to holiday there. I decided to make like a local, avoid the July heat of Valencia (where I’m currently living) and continue my exploration of the North coast of Spain.
There’s a tiny, old, very slow railway, called La FEVE that runs all the way along the North coast of Spain. Last summer I took this train from Bilbao (near the border to France) to Llanes, a tiny village roughly half-way along the coast of Spain. This summer my plan was to finish the route, and make it to the end of the line. On my agenda were Atlantic beaches and art, and it turns out North West Spain has this in spades. And even better not many people seem to know about it .. here’s what I found.
First Stop: Oviedo
Oviedo is a small inland city and the capital of the Asturias region. It has a beautiful historic centre, with plenty of old buildings with elaborate facades and is set within the emerald green mountains of Asturias. It seems to be a city of statues – they are everywhere, I’m not sure I’ve ever noticed such a density of statues in a city. From works by Salvador Dalí and Fernando Botero to a giant bottom – Culis Monumentalibus, several metres high in the middle of a street. Yes, really!
And the most celebrated statue of them all, La Regenta – The Regent’s Wife, in prime position in front of the Cathedral. She is a famous character from the novel La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas (often known by his pen-name Clarín). I’ve added it to my Spanish reading list, apparently it is Spain’s version of Madame Bovary. Here she is in all her glory:
Apart from discovering Oviedo was a city of statues, I also discovered the local artist Aurelio Suárez (b. 1910-2003). A lovely selection of his works are on display in the Museum of Fine Arts in Oviedo. I was captivated by the colours, the variety of materials and abstract titles. I could see he had developed his own way of seeing the world and I’d love to know more about his life. Why for example was this how he saw ‘hope’ in 1946? I’ll be digging through this website which documents much of his work, and life when I have a spare moment!
Onwards to RIBADEO
Then it was time for my first leg of the train journey, a sprightly 4 hour chug along the Asturian coast to Ribadeo, a little fishing village. I love travelling this way, the train is tiny and it slowly makes its away along the coast stopping at lots of little villages. I love the feeling of time and distance passing and the peacefulness of the route. But slow is the key word, you could drive to Ribadeo in 1.5 hours, or get a bus in 2 hours. All started well: retro signs at the station, a suitably dinky looking train and good snacks for the journey. In this case a Galician version of a cheese scone!
The Cathedral Beach
I stayed in the lovely weather-beaten fishing village of Ribadeo. It has wonderful exposed headlands with crashing Atlantic waves, as well as sheltered coves with sandy beaches, perfect (and safe) for swimming. But the big draw nearby, is a certain beach which regulary appears in ‘best beach ever’ type lists. And it turns out for good reason.
Ribadeo to Ferrol
The last chunk of the La Feve trainline. I didn’t really know anything about Ferrol, except that it is the end of the line. It’s not really on an obvious tourist route and as a result I don’t think it gets a lot of visitors, which suited me just fine! It turns out it has beautiful art-deco buildings, a lovely marina, great little restaurants with fresh seafood and a wonderful relaxed and authentic feel. They’re not trying to put on any kind of contrived show for the tourists. Its just a lovely small city where the locals know how to enjoy life.
I didn’t quite make it to visit the neighbourhood of Canido where there is a street art project based on Velázquez’s famous painting Las Meninas . There are with over 200 interpretations of his Meninas figures throughout the neighbourhood, some of which also feature AR animation too. I was totally fascinated by the idea, but when your lovely host invites you to visit her favourite beach, you have to say yes! So Canido is firmly on my to visit list. But the beach was worth it. A giant sandy sweep of beach, set in a considerable cove, sheltered by forested hills. More rugged, wild coast, with just a spattering of locals on a sunny Saturday evening.
Next Stop – A CoruñA
No train, but a quick bus journey south to this grand old city jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. I plan a lot of my travel around Art, so I knew as soon as I arrived on Sunday morning, I needed to head directly to Picasso’s childhood home, as it has limited opening hours. And boy am I glad I did.
Picasso lived in this first floor apartment from 1891 to 1895 and the local council have recently purchased and furnished it as it would have been at the time. Picasso would have been 10 years old when his family came to A Coruña and it was fascinating to learn about his intense artistic education, even at such an early age.
His father was a teacher at the local school of fine arts and a keen painter himself – particularly it seems of birds. An easel and small studio space were setup just off the family living room and Picasso’s father clearly passed on his lifetime of artistic practice to his son. There is a huge canvas of birds painted by his father, which Picasso tried desperately to acquire later in his life. There are stories that Picasso’s father suffered from arthritis and as a child Picasso was often to asked to finish off the fiddily birds’ feet in his father’s paintings. Legend says that in later life Picasso chose to draw his birds without feet as he was sick of painting them as a child.
In 1892 Picasso started to attend the local school of fine art and one of my favourite things was seeing some of his very early studies. Perfectly normal pencil sketches of local scenes such as a boat where he is figuring out perspective, local countryside etc. A normal student learning, nothing out of the ordinairy, but clearly living and growing-up in an environment intensely focused on art.
Where it gets interesting is considering the darker side of life he was exposed to at a young age. His sister, Conchita, was ill with diptheria and eventually died in this apartment (it is for this reason the family leaves A Coruña in 1895). He is taken to visit various workhouses and hospitals, and sees people experiencing great suffering in their lives. These excursions are with his father’s friend a local councillor, while his sister is terribly ill at home. At this time there would have been no electricity and the family home would have been lit by oil lamps at night. The wonderful high ceilings were mostly to allow the fumes and smoke to rise above head height. So in his early life there was a lot of darkness, both literal and metaphorical. This is reflected in some of his paintings considered his earliest masterpieces, which have some pretty dark themes. So all in all a brilliant little musuem to visit if you’d like to get a deeper understanding of Picasso’s life and work.
Taking some time off from cultural activities, I spent the rest of the day pottering around the wonderful old town, eating some excellent tapas and taking an evening dip in the sea at the marvellous city beach. The next day I was back on the culture and made a wonderful discovery. For me great travel isn’t just about great food and scenery – it’s also discovering new art and culture. So I was thrilled to learn about the life of Emilía Pardo Bazán a pioneering Spanish writer.
She was born in 1851 in A Coruña and is considered to be one of the most important writers in Spanish literature. She had a liberal spirit and was an outspoken feminist, but also religious too . She was brought up in an affluent family and it is this home you can visit today in A Coruña. Her father supported women’s education, which was rare at the time. She was not allowed to attend university as it was outlawed for all women in Spain at the time. But she did read widely in the family library, from Don Quijote and classic Spanish literature, to ancient classics such as The Iliad, as well as the Bible. She learnt French and travelled widely in Spain and Europe, becoming friends with the novelist Victor Hugo in Paris. She married at just 16 years old, so her European travel was largely as a married couple, but one that clearly valued being part of the intellectual scene. She had her first son, aged 24 in 1876 and it is around this time she seems to start writing in earnest.
Her first work was a book of poems dedicated to her young son and then her first novel followed in 1879. However her fame for being a pioneering writer, a rebellious spirit and intellectual springs from two key works. Firstly a series of essays entitled the “Palpitant Question” an analysis of ideas of Realism, Naturalism and the ideas of Emile Zola in literature. I don’t have enough of a background in literature theory to comment much more on this, but it apparently was highly polemical at the time. I can however understand why her novel “The Tribune”, apparently the first ‘naturalist’ novel in Spain was so groundbreaking. Essentially it was written from the point of view of a women, and not only a woman, a working-class woman. Given women were forbidden to study at University and the working classes were largely semi-literate at best, I can see how reading a novel written by a woman, with the protagonist a working-class woman would have been ground-breaking. Throughout her life she openly criticised the narrow, domestic education women could expect in Spain. She was the first woman to be appointed at several universities and cultural institutions, but famously was never allowed to join the Spanish Royal Academy, despite multiple applications throughout her lifetime, because she was a woman. She lived until 1921.
There is an ancient Roman lighthouse, that stands guard over the city of A Coruña. It was built at the end of the 1st Century, so almost 2000 years old, which is just mindboggling, and still in use! In fact it is the only Roman lighthouse still in use today apparently. It’s free to visit on a Monday and at 55 metres high, must have some incredible views. I say ‘must’ because it is also so popular in summer months that it’s advisable to arrive early, particularly on free Mondays. I most definitely did not arrive early, as I had ambled slowly around the dramatic headland and spent a long time watching the huge waves crashing into the rocks below the lighthouse. I can however wax lyrical about surrounding coastline and sculpture park.
I had walked the long way round the headland to reach the lighthouse, stopping along the way to admire the views. I watched the swell rising and falling in one little cove, with a lone fishing boat marking the movement of the heaving ocean and for the first time in my life I felt sea-sick while on solid land. A most bizarre sensation. I watched a brave (or mad) local older lady wearing a bright spotty swimsuit, venture in for a paddle and a few tentative strokes of breaststroke. I marvelled at the waves, how they rise, swell, lift, pull-back, teeter, crash, shatter, disperes, melt away in white foam. On the horizon I could see some statues, big hefts of rock, just visible in the distant, like a tiny Stonehenge perhaps. I was just drawn to them, walking on around the path. Deep blue ocean all around, buffeted by the wind. Or more than buffeted, whatever the next step up is. That one where you consider whether you really should walk on the outside of the path, or slightly more inland. Where you consider what on earth this place must be like in November.
But I persisted and what I’d spied from afar were the bewitching ‘Menhires’ installed in 1994 by Manolo Paz. They stand steadfast with the waves crashing around the exposed headland and wind coarsing through them. It is impossible not to be intrigued by them, to walk around them, look through them, consider where you are and where they are. It doesn’t feel like a spot for stillness, yet still they are as everthing else moves around them. And as I finally walked on, I kept looking back, watching others drawn towards them, exploring.
And nearby you can find many other sculptures too. From the jaunty – a smiling victorious Hercules in the Argonaut’s Ship ( by Gonzalo Viana). To the surprising – an ornately decorated Moorish cemetery, called the ‘House of Words’ with texts in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Gaelic and Spanish, commemorating the Muslim fighters who died during the Spanish civil war. To the stark – Monument to the Executed (by Isaac Díaz Pardo) – towering stone arches remembering those killed by firing squad during Franco’s dictatorship. A stone tablet names those known to have been executed on this headland.
I just about managed to drag myself away from the Atlantic Coast and head inland to my final destination, Santiago De Compostela. Unlike most people, I hadn’t walked any of the famous pilgrimage route to arrive there. Free of blisters, walking boots and a deep sun-baked walker’s tan, I felt a bit of a fraud! Never has a wheely suitcase felt so wheely, particularly when staying in a former medieval monastery. But the building was incredible, the views amazing and it was in my budget (aka cheap).
I did however feel like I should know a bit more about this pilgrimage malarkey, so I took myself off to the Museum of Pilgrimage & Santiago. And it actually it was pretty good. It starts off with some context of the many different pilgrimages which are undertaken around the world and have done so through history. Then it explains more about the story of St James (Sant Iago), one of Jesus’ apostles, whose remains were thought to be discovered in the 8th century at nearby Finisterra. Finisterra, literally means end (finis) of the earth (terra) and it was thought that having preached in Galicia and the Iberian Peninsula, his disciples brought him here as his final resting place. From there a shrine was established and later the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. It is fascinating studying the maps of the many different routes radiating out across all of Europe and considering the millions of pilgrims who must have walked the Camino de Santiago over the centuries.
Given Santiago de Compostela wasn’t on my itinerary for religious or cultural reasons, more for logistical reasons, I found some unexpected hidden gems. At the Fundación Banco, I saw a brilliant temporary exhibition of the Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamín’s work. And more locally I discovered the life and work of Eugenio Granell (1912 -2001), an artist, musician and writer who grew up in Santiago de Compostela. There is a permanent museum that houses an exhibition of his works, a recreation of his studio and also shows temporary exhibitions too.
Eugenio Granell is often though of as the last Spanish surrealist painter, but he didn’t start out life as an artist. He was actually a violinist and went to Madrid at the age of 16 to train at the Royal School of Music. There he became increasingly politicised and made friends with many other artists and writers. He joined the Left Opposition Party and later in 1935 the Marxist party. As Civil War broke out in Spain, he fought on the Republican side. Curiously he also fought alongside George Orwell, who travelled from the UK to support and fight for the cause too. At the end of the war in 1939, Granell was forced into exile, not returning to Spain until 1985.
He fled to France and from there with his wife managed to board a ship with thousands of other Spanish and Jewish refugeees, sailing to Chile. Mid-journey they learnt that Chile was no longer accepting Spanish refugees, so diverted to the Dominican Republic. They arrived in 1940 and Granell and his wife became an important part of the artistic community. He played violin for the Symphonic Orchestra and it was here he first started to paint. He had a watershed moment meeting the surrealist writer André Breton in 1941 and from there on, committed to surrealism in his work. Later in 1947 he moved to Guatemala, living there and again becoming part of the artistic community before leaving to avoid further persecution as the Guatemalan Revolution was starting in 1950. His time in Guatemala was very productive and it was during this period he was invited by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp to take part in a group exhibition in Paris. From Guatemala, he moved to Puerto Rico and from there later to New York, in 1965, where later he and his family were to become citizens. In each location he became immersed in the artistic community, yet maintained connections to the international art movements. It is a joy to see his bright vibrant, surrealist canvases drenched in colour from the Caribbean and shaped by his exile experience.
And that pretty much rounds off my wonderful week, art-tripping along the Atlantic coast. Although I just about found time to pop down to the little village of Muros, for a last dip in the sea and laze on the beach!
Weather: I was there in late July. I wore shorts and a vest top most days, with a light jumper to hand for mornings and evenings. It may rain, but in my experience it will be a passing shower. Lots of people had a light-weight waterproof to hand, but that’s not really my thing. I’d take this type of summer wardrobe for June – September trips.
Transport: I travelled by La Feve train along the North Coast, you can find the timetables here. You buy tickets on the day in CASH ONLY, NOT in advance or online. Note if you need luggage lockers in Oviedo, there are NONE at the train station, these are only available at the bus station, c.5 minute walk away.
I travelled from Ferrol to A Coruña by bus, 1.5 to 2 hours, from memory, again ticket on day from bus station. Excellent luggage lockers in A Coruña bus station.
I travelled from A Coruña to Santiago De Compostela by train. There are frequent services, which vary from 40mins to 1 hours. There is also regular bus service between the two cities.
Visiting Praia de las Catedrales: You must book a FREE ticket in advance in July and August, do so here.
Galleries and Musuems: for more info on these, look at my Art Places map, which has all the Google Map listings. Check opening times carefully, many places shut in the afternoons, and open again from 4pm, as well as Sundays, Mondays, and sometimes even Tuesdays too!