Pilgrim’s Progress

The drive from San Sebastian to Santiago de Compostela wasn’t as arduous and rainy as I feared, but it was still a long day (Ray thinks I’m being exceptionally generous). We visited the Museum of the Altamira Cave. The cave has prehistoric paintings on the ceiling which were discovered in the late 19th century. They became quite popular, attracting several hundred thousand visitors a year by the 1970s. Signs of deterioration started to appear, and the cave was closed while they did a study of how many people could visit each year. The result of the study was basically that they should keep the cave closed. So they built a large museum next to it, with a replica of the cave paintings. Not having seen the originals, if the replica was true to them, they were quite well-done, and the originals must have been very impressive. An area of perhaps 300 square feet was covered mostly with pictures of deer, with red coloring.

Their business will drop off over time. It’s one thing to hang a replica on your wall, but the sense of wonder is missing when tempera is daubed on fiberglass (except for Hot Dog Man, of course). We missed Altamira, just as we missed Three Gorges and the temple at Abu Simbal and Iguacu Falls and Hetch Hetchy and the Glass Palace and the lighthouse and the library at Alexandria and all the lost canyons and forests of Gondwanaland.

You do what you can. Furthermore, the new features of the globe are Grand Theft Auto and mountains of smoldering truck tires, and I don’t go to them, either. 1000 Websites you must visit before you die. Or, before lunch, if you click fast.

A friend of ours in San Francisco suggested a place to have lunch in Asturias, which we scheduled as the next stop on the drive. The conflicting to nonexistent directions on the Internet led us to a one horse village above Arriondas where an old man directed us back to town. Ray was ready to give up but I was persistent in finding Casa Marcial. I made him ask a lady at a gas station where it was. It wasn’t in the town where one of the maps said it was. Nothing was. The 10 La Selgar isn’t a street, it’s a town, not in the GPS or anywhere else. Anyway, once you take the right turn out of Arriondas (third right actually) it is signposted.

Boy, is it good. It’s also at 43.41846 North 5.19296 West, for those of you who are anywhere nearby ever.

As usual we were the first there, though they filled up shortly. Of most interest: a middle aged man in a tie who read a newspaper through his entire meal. Fine, so he’s a regular. But I heard him ask where the rest rooms were. What the hell? Who searches out an unfamiliar place with a Michelin star, we later determined, and eats lunch by himself reading a newspaper? They had on the menu the big fat white beans that El Bulli was referring to with their fake one. Given enough time we will get all the jokes.

We decided to cut back to the main road on a little white road on the map (blue roads are freeways, red roads are two-lane roads between cities with lots of trucks, yellow roads are little two-lane roads in the country, and white roads are basically narrow yellow roads). The GPS told us there was a road from where we were which went directly to this white road: after some searching, we found it behind the restaurant. It had some really nice views of the Asturias hills.

And then the drive west along the coast. Every idea to avoid truck traffic resulted in worse roads. Well, not bad roads, just curvy and long. I don’t mind driving all these hours on little roads through little towns as long as there isn’t a lot of traffic, which ultimately there wasn’t, but I still felt like having a glass of wine when we pulled in to our hostel, Pazo Cibran. The maps to Pazo Cibran on the website proved sufficient after all. They had signs.

Breakfast is glorious at Pazo Cibran and the ladies who run it are sweeter than the cakes they serve. They start out with sweetened clotted cream and fresh squeezed Orange Juice, then cheese, ham, melon, and membrillo, then cheese crepes, French Toast, and pound cake. I’m not sure why everyone here isn’t fat, if this is traditional breakfast food. It must only be the tourists who eat.

Yesterday we walked the first 22 stations of a 23 station Santiago Turismo walking tour with an audio guide which we shared. The last 5 stations were in the rain and the battery in the MP3 player rented at the tourist office gave out at #22, which was the tourist restaurant street. None of restaurants in the street were in the Michelin Guide, which Dave had taken a picture of after lunch at Casa Marcial. So when we were done, we headed out on a fork and star hunt. Of the closest to the car, parked at Praza Galicia: closed; unoriginal; an exact duplicate of the previous down to font and dish but absolutely packed; full because of a tour group; one table available at 2145; and Toñi Vicente.

Toñi had three forks and a star in the Michelin 2007 guide. When we entered the vestibule close to 9 PM with our wet raincoats, the waiter was tossing a wet towel high against the wall. He explained he was trying to catch a fly. He took our raincoats and seated us. The room was elegantly decorated with modern art and a gracefully curved ceiling and we were the only people in it. We ordered, got our foam and our foie and our Albariño and our fish and our petit-fours, paid our 150 Euros, and the whole time we were there, not a single other party showed up. The waiter explained first that Spanish people didn’t start eating until 10 or 10:30; and later that it was Saint Anthony’s Day and everyone ate at home. Didn’t seem to affect the customer base at the other restaurants.

We felt bad for them. They have three forks and a star and the full place only has two forks and a star. The food was good! Not as sparkling with creativity as the lunch in Asturias, true, and I think Potato Foam is trying just a bit hard to make foam out of something that isn’t meant to be foam, and the apple fritter might have been batter on the inside but I presume that was intentional. The tuile the size of a dosa is a great rendition and coquille st jacques (all redesigned and with a different name) and the lamb loin with quinoa couscous were all proper, though Ray wouldn’t have put so much butter in the quinoa (I really am tired of oils after so many weeks on Via Michelin). But what was going on with the customer base anyway? Go figure fickle crowds, or random variation. Anyway, unique dining experiences are as alike as two peas in a pod. McDonald’s would get a Michelin star if only they would precede the delivery of each Happy Meal by gravely placing before you a square ceramic dish atop which lay a tiny fried McNuggety thing, a small square jellied thing, and a spoon with a looped handle filled with liquid nitrogen based meringue detritus.

The Rough Trade Guide says that Santiago is meant to be viewed in the rain, when the facades gleam in the moisture and light. No. Maybe if you and your weather god pals at Getty Images order up one of those days where it rains until 6 P.M. and then the clouds dissipate in the West but remain dark and ominous for the cathedral square backgrounds (or the equivalent in the morning); but the aesthetic experience of rain is that of being wet. And, the entire city having an Ansel Adams number of between 6 and a half forks and 6 and three quarters forks, from the crypts to the dreary sky.

An advertiser would appreciate Santiago de Compostela. The whole town is tied together by the scallop shell logo and the staff and the Benedictine guy who tears his cloak in half and it clicks.

Santiago de Compostela is the end of a long route taken by Christian pilgrims since the 12th century. Even today, as long as you walk the last 100 km or cycle the last 200 km, you’ll get a certificate and a scallop shell. Since it’s been a tourist destination all that time, it does not feel as ruined by tourism as would a town that used to be a nice little beach village until 1965. (The ruination can be felt even if you weren’t there before.) Disneyland in 2700 A.D. may have become a location of some interest. There is something that gets you when you drift past a souvenir shop selling pewter scallop shells and souvenir thimbles, and you realize that the identical commerce has been going on at that exact spot for 5 centuries. It’s not the same when the activity being commemorated on the thimble is Human Sacrifice or Pure Wilderness. But the proper commemoration of ceramic thimble sales is a ceramic thimble.

Our WiFi break in a little cafe during the two hours in the afternoon when the museums are closed has come to an end, so we’ll venture back out into the frequent rain showers and dash off to the museums. And then tomorrow on to Portugal.