Cabo Ortegal and the Estaca de Bares
15.07.2010 20 °C
Just when it seemed it couldn't rain any harder - it did - forcing me to slow to under 30 mph, the wipers on full speed having little effect on the torrents of water pouring down the windscreen. The motorway from Santiago de Compostela to Ribeira was almost devoid of traffic and this was just as well as I couldn't see more than about 10 yards in front. As my first time in 3 years driving a left hand drive car, this was, shall I say, challenging! Driving an unfamiliar car with a dashboard full of meaningless flashing lights and strange cryptic symbols is one thing, but sitting where the passenger normally does, is taking things too far and I'd nearly opened the door several times trying to change gear.
That had been 4 days back and inclement weather had been the order of the week with heavy bursts of rain gusting in from the Atlantic while near Cape Finisterre, I'd seen a telegraph pole actually pulled from the ground by the wind. It seemed that the rain in Spain fell mainly on Galicia along with the hailstones, hurricanes and just about everything else.
Today though was different. The wind had gone and the rainclouds had been replaced by an almost cloudless blue sky. The ocean sparkled serenely as if relaxing after the week's vigorous activity and the October Sun shone warmly as Jacqui and I walked down to the old church of San Andres de Teixido. The chapel is an ancient pilgrimage site for Galicians and it is said that Pilgrims were coming here before the Camino de santiago, or Way of St James, was established to Santiago de Compostela. As a journey's end it would be hard to equal - the dappled white stone building is set in a small traditional village clinging to a sheltered hillside. Just beyond the church one comes to a wall by an equally ancient looking palm tree, beyond which the slopes drop away to the blue Atlantic. One could not imagine a more peaceful spot. To the rest of Spain, it would seem that the whole of Galicia is off the beaten path, yet this coast seemed remote even by Galician standards.
We'd arrived here from nearby Cedeira with its charming sea front and harbour area, along narrow winding roads leading through woods and over clifftops before a steep descent to the village. This, we now negotiated in the opposite direction before turning left to continue on the minor road. I'd mastered driving the hire car now, though some of the symbols were still a mystery and we headed uphill through deep green forests before stopping at a clearing where a short path led to a viewing table.
There's an ever present scent of eucalyptus in the woods here and the tall spindly trees can be seen in amongst the more familiar pines - I wondered whether people grew up immune to colds? The viewing revealed the ocean a long way below and the coastline we'd just come along. Ahead the ground rose higher still towards a mountain top - the end of the Sierra de Capaleda across which our way led.
We soon left the trees behind as the road climbed across a vast open landscape populated here and there by wild horses and on one side - always a contentious issue - a windfarm. My only issue with windfarms is one of numbers. The wind turbines themselves are actually quite graceful structures - I can think of far worse things to build out here. It's when you have a line of the things taking up half the horizon or row upon row of them that they're never going to blend in with anything. The small developments of perhaps half a dozen turbines I don't think look too bad though it would still look better without them - it's the larger ones that can make a real mess of the landscape. This one here could have done with being a bit smaller but it certainly didn't ruin the view. What's the answer I hear you ask. The answer is simple and can be summed up by the following 3 words - consume less energy!
Wild horses grazed beneath the whirring turbines and the view over the endless lines of hills was barely blemished. We had stopped at the road's summit and walked over to the wall on the crest of the hill, the highest point for miles. That view was just about to get a whole lot better for on the wall's far side were the highest sea cliffs in Europe.
Beyond the wall was a vast open space filled only by the wide blue sea 2100 feet below and the paler blue of the sky. The slope wasn't quite vertical but fell away in a series of steep crags to the waves which crashed without a sound far below. The whole coastline was now visible back way beyond Cedeira and on over Cabo Ortegal to where a distant headland snaked out into the sea - our destination for the day - Punta de la Estaca de Bares, the northern tip of Spain.
We had our lunch sat by the wall in the warm sunshine and just enjoyed the fabulous views and sense of space. I bet it was a bit wild up here in the recent storms though - not the best of places to be blown off!
Onwards again and the road now led incessantly downwards back to the stillness of the woods and the medicinal scent of eucalyptus before heading down again to the coast by the little fishing village of Pedra where it was almost hot for the first time. We rounded an estuary, these are known here as 'rias' and are a common feature of the coastline of this part of Spain before going through the first town of any size, Ortiguera. After Ortiguera it was back into a rural landscape which seemed even more sparsely populated than the Cape Finisterre region. The scenery was timeless. All the houses we passed had the curious raised grain stores known as horreos and it now seemed normal to see people working in the fields with scythes and horses instead of modern machinery. It was hard to believe we were in the same country as those rows of hideous concrete hotels and packed beaches the holiday programmes always show when they talk about Spain.
Once again we left the main road and continued, now through dense woodland, towards Vila de Bares, finally arriving at the lighthouse at Punta de la Estaca de Bares, the northernmost point of Spain. Bares incidently is pronounced 'barez' and does not signify, as its spelling might suggest, the presence of a nudist beach.
From here, a path led in 10 minutes to where the headland narrowed to little more than a sharp ridge leading out to sea. We followed the path as far as was safe to go - beyond here was only a row of rocky pinnacles and then just the crashing waves of Biscay. An exposed spot indeed but calm and quiet today. Some way offshore - perhaps 200 metres or so - could be seen line after line of seabirds. They flew westwards along the coast seemingly oblivious to the local gull population milling around closer to shore, as a busy motorway would pass by a village. We learned that they were part of a huge seasonal migration of thousands of birds, mainly but not exclusively gannets, and we wondered whether some of them had come from the Farne Islands which we'd visited that June. The birds have often begun their journey in northern Britain and they spend the winter anywhere between the sheltered rias close to where we were staying and the coast of North Africa.
The Sun was getting lower in the sky as we turned and headed back for the long journey back to our hotel in Ribeira. Today had been one of the highlights of our trip to Galicia in north western Spain, mainly on account of the sudden improvement in the weather. There's only so much you can do in horizontal rain!
Pete Buckley October 2006