Thursday, November 1, 2007

Santiago de Compostela is the rainiest, grayest, most beautiful city I’ve ever seen

(Just arrived in Bilbao, so I’m only one city behind now!)

For all my bravado in Salamanca, I arrived in Santiago de Compostela a little sad and pensive. I’d had too much time on the bus to think and I dreaded what I might think about for the next couple of weeks. But from the moment I first started walking around the city, I felt happy. At the risk of sounding hokey, I felt at peace. Santiago is famous for being the destination of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago for over 1000 years, and even though I didn’t walk for three months to get here, it feels right to be in a city where I’m just another solitary traveler looking for something.

And the food! I dare Bilbao and San Sebastian to beat the food memories I’ve made here.

Galicia is another corner of Spain that isn’t quite Spanish. They speak galego (or “gallego” in Castilian), which looks like Portuguese and sounds like mushy Spanish. So “plaza” becomes “praza,” “iglesia” becomes “egrexia,” and “jardin” becomes “xardin.” It also has a strong Celtic heritage, which means you hear Riverdance music everywhere and junk souvenirs with Celtic symbols on them. Their traditions are peasant traditions of square-shaped men and women fishing and working hard on the land to grow the biggest cabbages I’ve ever seen, judging from what I saw at the Mercado de Abastos. Thus, their food is peasant food, my favorite kind.

My first taste of Santiago was a café con leche and a piece of tarta de Santiago, their famous cake made of almonds, at Hostal Girasol’s café, across the street from my own lovely little pensión, the Casa Felisa. Eating anything so deliciously nutty makes me think of my sister and even though I missed her more than ever, I was happy to be eating something that reminded me of her.

And then I moved on to lunch. Casa Manolo is tucked into a corner of Praza de Cervantes and is clearly in more guidebooks than Lonely Planet, as there were plenty of pilgrims in walking sandals and Gore-tex clothing eating there. But just because a place is popular with pilgrims is no reason to sneer at it.

For 8 euros, I was given my choice of an appetizer, an entrée, dessert, and bread. Wine was extra, but a “copa” for a 1,80 euros turned out to be a carafe with a good two glasses worth of the light, bright local white, albariño, that was a true pleasure to drink. I’d been curious about white asparagus ever since I saw it in jars at gourmet shops in Madrid, but the white asparagus I had with olive oil, mayonnaise, and boiled eggs was nothing particularly exciting.

The bread, though, was the best bread I’d had in Spain. It was my favorite kind of bread, a good brown, floury crust with a slightly tangy, tender crumb, not as tough of a levain but as flavorful. It didn’t need any butter or olive oil, it held up so well on its own.

I had a typical Galician dish for my entrée, merluza or hake cooked with paprika and olive oil. The boiled peas and carrots were very peasant in being tasteless, but I was so impressed by how good a white, firm fish could be. It was simple, very clean, and so so good. Even the boiled potatoes were good.

I wrote in my journal as I ate, “I am so happy! I am so happy!”


Lina said...

haha - galego sounds like the way Koreans would speak Spanish~!

Michael Warshauer said...

We ate at Casa Manolo in October, 2002. The food, IMO, was undistinguished, but (as in the famed Catskill hotel exchange), there was plenty of it.

We loved Santiago also. We stayed at the Hostal Alfonso, Rua Pombo, between the Alameda and the Casco Viejo.

AppleSister said...

I think I loved Casa Manolo more for the kindness of the waiter than anything else. Spanish people normally don't know what to do with solo travelers, but in the city of pilgrims, everyone was very nice.