Monday, April 19, 2010

Coastal tour of the Iberian Peninsula

View of the snow capped Picos de Europa

San Vicente de la Barquera

My tour of the Iberian coastline began in the faithful city of Madrid, with Marga and her red Peugot station wagon. I had left Peru about two weeks before, and spent my first days in the old world with one foot in Lima and the other in a plastic cast recovering from my injury. This basically meant hobbling around Madrid, visiting past friends, meeting with the US Embassy folk, and finishing with things in the new world. A side trip to Granada for the weekend, and another to Guadalajara and Siguenza spiced the routine up a bit, but I was fairly happy to simply experience a colder climate for a week or two. I had arrived into a beautiful Spanish spring, which was a nice retreat from the 10 months of continuous summer that I had accumulated thus far. I’ve recently realized that my time going to school in Maine has really affected me, because I’ve learned to love the seasons and to miss the seasonal change when it’s not there. Granted the Maine winter is a bit too extreme for me, but I see an intermediate out there in the coastal valleys of northern California. But let’s get back to the Iberian coastline.

Oh yes. To the snow and the sea.

Margarita and I left Madrid in the early morning of Thursday of Semana Santa, aka April 1st. We packed the car the night before and it was reminiscent of how it looked when we went north to then go south and swim across the Strait of Gibraltar. This time, our destination was the beaches of Cantabria, and we were looking for a few days of coastal greenery, good food, and a relaxing time together. The weather report was one of those slightly cloudy with a chance of rain forecasts that give you no certainty except that you’re going to worry about it raining, but after months of living in bone dry Lima, any drop of rainfall would have felt heavenly.

Marga in Santander

It never really rained, and we enjoyed four days of partly cloudy weather with bursts of glorious sunshine, exploring Cantabria and each day swimming in the frigid yet refreshing waters of a different beach. We spent one day at San Vicente de la Barquera, a beach town towards the west of Cantabria, famous for its beauty and good surf. The Picos de Europa, a small mountain range, jet from the coastal plain and jaunt the background with snow capped peaks, meaning that you are swimming at the beach in San Vicente with these mountains in the near distance. awesome beach in Galicia

The small towns, nestled between blinding green pastures, were beautiful, and the scenery reminded me of an Ireland that I’ve never visited. My images of Spain were those of a much drier landscape, of the central plateau or of Andalusia, but northern Spain is a different place. It is verdant and full of grazing cows and sheep. There are small hamlets overlooking steep ocean cliffs that dot the rolling hills, and old men and women working the land. There is also a lot of money out there, something that is easily noticeable by the Mercedes that are parked outside these hamlets, or by the nice suits and dresses that the country folk wear to simply go for a morning stroll. It is even easier to notice this wealth in Santander, the capital of the Cantabria province. Santander is a beautiful city surrounded by water; the open ocean on its northern end and a long bay on its eastern and southern edges. The streets are impeccable, bordered by old eight story majestic buildings that have glamorous glass balconies from the ground floor to the top. When the afternoon light shines parallel to this fa├žade, the buildings light up as if there were awakening and now ready to go to the gala.

Jumping into the frigid waters of a river in Galicia

Most everybody dresses very elegantly in Santander, the men in nice ironed pants with a vest and a jacket, the women in all types of skirt or dress combinations. And the majority of cars that roll the streets are of the BMW, Mercedes, Volvo, Peugot type, and most were made in the last 5 years. I asked a friend where all of this wealth came from, and he explained something about the banks in Cantabria being favored by Franco…I’m highly unclear on this matter, but this is just to say that there is an explanation out there.

Elegant Santander

Marga left for Madrid on the evening of Sunday the 4th. I was supposed to meet up with Carlos and his crew to continue the tour of the Iberian coastline, but they got stuck waiting for boards and other equipment in France, and I was instead picked up by the father of one of the swimmers on their lifesaving team. Totally random, but I spent two nights in his home, going to work with him at a fitness club, where I was able to swim and use wireless internet until I had no more interneting to do, and I continued to explore Santander. By the time the crew showed up, I was on top of my game and ready to go.

Playing cards in some random town...taking advantage of their street lights.

We left for the Galicia province of Spain, which is the piece of land that sticks out from the northwestern edge of the Iberian Peninsula. To me, Galicia is the northern California of Spain. It rains all the time and the forest extends itself to the water’s edge. The place is orientated around fishing, farming, and small industry, and while reminiscent of Cantabria, it is much more humble and welcoming. When speaking Spanish, the Galician accent is a joyous and friendly melody that easily sticks to you, and Carlos, who had lived for a year in the capital of Galicia, A Coruna, immediately began to talk like a Gallego as soon as we met up with his Galician friends. They also speak a different language in Galicia, called Gallego, which is basically a hybrid of Portuguese and Spanish. It is one of the four official languages of Spain’s linguistic anomaly, alongside Spanish, Euskara, and Catalan. When speaking in Gallego, I can usually understand the idea of what’s being said, although I didn’t encounter the language as much as I had expected.

A Coruna, very elegant as well, but more down to earth than Santander

We spent four days in and around A Coruna, surfing at different beaches, all of which were peacefully rural. We also had an awesome night on the town that ended at 2pm the following day. It was a combination of the beaches, the people, and the great weather that we had during our stay, but I can honestly say that of all places in Spain, Galicia is my favorite.

Fishing boat in A Coruna

We traveled in the awesome vehicle of El Club Alcarreno de Salvamento y Socorrismo, a nine passenger van that has sand and food particles accumulated from years of use. The thing is awesome. With a life of its own, the van is like a Marry Poppins bag that can hold just about everything. And it did for us, including five people, at least 8 surf boards, a bicycle, rescue cans, ores, food for an army, clothing, wetsuits, buckets, and probably a number of other things that I either never saw or that I’ve forgotten. In any case, the van is amazing, especially because it is has giant photos of lifesaving competitions covering its outside. There are the people with rescue boards ready to hop into the surfline, swimmers diving to the bottom of a pool in search of a plastic mannequins, and runners jumping forward for flags on the sand. And all of this on a moving vehicle, and I have forgotten to mention that we were towing a 15 foot trailer stacked full of surf skis and rescue boards. This is all to say that alongside the labyrinth inside, people were at a loss when they saw us pass by. One of my favorite parts of the trip was watching the reactions of bystanders as we drove through the streets. There were the typical jaw drops, faces of disgust, the excited thumbs up, and the funniest of all, the quick glance followed by a straight head as if they had never seen us.

Oh yes. Our van, our trailer, and the Portugal

Well, from Galicia, we continued our trip in this thing all the way down the coast of Portugal, then back into Spain and to the Strait of Gibraltar. It was a quick trip, but the little I saw of Portugal was amazing. We spent one night camping on the plateau of a seaside cliff 200km south of Lisbon. The plateau was full of low Mediterranean shrubs that were all in bloom; purple, yellow and pink flowers. It wasn’t a desert environment, but there is a brilliance of desert flowers that I saw in this vegetation. I believe it is a product of growing in very sands soils, which can’t be easy.

Awesome flowers on the cliff dunes of Portugal

The crew was composed of Carlos and his friends, but in the typical Spanish way, we become close in no time at all. Jose Miguel is Carlos’s cousin, he is a man in limbo between Spain and a new life he is about to begin in Edinburg. Danny is one of Carlos’s surfing buddies from A Coruna and is a super laid back biologist. Rodrigo, aka El Pequeno, is somebody that I met in France way back in August, and is probably one of the funniest people I have ever met. When they left me in Tarifa to cross the Strait of Gibraltar towards Morocco with my bag, an 11 foot rescue board and my surfboard, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a group of longtime friends. It was an awesome chill trip that I would repeat at any moment in time. Basically, I had a badass time.

The crew. Max, Jose Miguel, Dani, Carlos, Rodrigo

There were two gradual changes that I noticed as we traveled down the Atlantic coast from Galicia to Andalusia. The first was the language continuum, which began in Galicia as a mix of Spanish and Portuguese, otherwise known as Gallego, and also included a melodious Spanish accent. This changed into Portuguese in Portugal, which sounds like Spanish being sung in French, with the ends of most words cut short by a tapered note. As we stepped into Andalusia, the Spanish language took over with a quick accent that was like Portuguese on speed without the music; the ends of the words were all cut short and the people spoke faster than you can even imagine is possible. The water temperature also changed as we traveled south, from me going for a quick 5 minute dip in Galicia (12 C), to a 10 minute bath in Peniche north of Lisbon (14 C), to a 20 minute swim 200km south of Lisbon (16 C). Now, I’m writing from Morocco and swimming in the ocean without time limits due to the cold (19 C).


  1. Thank you Max Dean Goldstein! I just read your post. Certainly, you had amazing time there. You enjoyed a lot there. We just came back from Spain trip. It was great experience there.
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