Arlene Harris returns to stunning Santiago de Compostela in Spain

Almost 30 years years after visiting Santiago de Compostela as a teenager Arlene Harris returned with her family to see if this corner of Spain was as special as she remembered.

When I was 14 years old, I went on my first relatively-solo adventure — flying from Shannon to London Heathrow, changing planes (and terminals) and catching a flight to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain.

Admittedly, I was accompanied through the UK airport by a kindly Aer Lingus steward (much to my teenage disgust) but I was travelling on my own to stay with a Spanish family in Galicia where I would spend two months.

From start to finish the experience was quite literally life-changing. I went out as a gauche young girl from rural Ireland and returned as a confident teenager with darker skin, sun-bleached hair and the ability to speak Spanish like a native Gallegan.

I had made new friends, developed a stronger sense of self-esteem, tried different foods and realised the world was so much bigger than my little nucleus.

But I also discovered that the opposite is true and our culture and heritage is not so different from the rest of the world.

In Galicia the locals often refer to themselves as ‘the Irish who couldn’t swim’ because they believe our traditions are so similar that we must be cut from the same cloth. 

Arlene Harris returns to stunning Santiago de Compostela in Spain

And as well as the verdant valleys and changeable weather of the region, their national dish is spare ribs and cabbage, their folk music is akin to our own and even some of the words in Gallegan seem like derivatives of Gaelic.

It made me feel at home at the same time as enjoying being in a totally different world.

As time passed, my newly-acquired Euro-look faded as did much of much of the lingo but almost 30 years later, I still had a deep affection for that corner of Spain.

So having reminisced about it for three decades I decided to return with my own children to see if it still held the same appeal or whether my memories were blinded by nostalgia.

After a short flight, we landed in Santiago and I was disappointed not to be bombarded with a deluge of memories. However, there was a man with a Holiday Taxi hat holding a placard with my name on it so that was some compensation.

We had booked a taxi to take us to our apartment some 40 minutes away as we wouldn’t need a hire car for 14 days because our apart/hotel was chosen for its proximity to a beach and amenities whilst being far away from the main tourist trail.

For the first couple of days, we didn’t venture too far from the poolside, but with a restless nature running through the family, it wasn’t long before we were itching to explore. So with a bus timetable to hand, we headed off for our first foray into the nearest town —A Coruna.

Arlene Harris returns to stunning Santiago de Compostela in Spain

But I hadn’t realised how big the city was or how rusty my once-fluent Spanish had become.

A fellow-passenger informed us that the bus didn’t go to the centre as we had previously thought and we should get off at the first stop. 

But he neglected to tell us that we would have to catch another bus to the old town as it would take at least 45 minutes on foot.

Unaware, we trundled on, checking our map at regular intervals but street-after-street of offices and shops brought us no closer to the heart of the city. 

The kids were bored and tired so we made several pit-stops but before we reached the centre, everyone was exhausted so we decided to head home and recharge for another day.

None of the city taxis could accommodate five passengers so there was nothing for it but to embark on another long dusty walk back to the original bus stop where we faced an hour’s wait — suffice to say, it wasn’t the most successful outing.

So for the next few days we decided to explore our immediate locality and after doubting our decision not to hire a car, my faith was restored. 

It was amazing what we discovered on foot —it was indeed as green as Ireland and we uncovered forests of eucalyptus trees, overgrown laneways leading to bluebell-filled woods, hidden coves and wonderful little bars and restaurants seemingly known only to locals.

We were on our own personal Camino and with mornings spent by the pool and afternoons given over to exploring, we were rewarded with a wonderful insight into this relatively undiscovered area of Spain.

Although still nowhere near as fluent as my teenage years, the cobwebs were gradually dusted off my Spanish and I soon had the confidence to converse with everyone. So we decided to visit Santiago and see what had changed since my last visit.

Ninety minutes after leaving home, we were standing outside the famous cathedral in the city centre. Now for the first time, I felt a really strong sense of nostalgia. 

I remembered the summer evenings walking down the tree-lined street with a gang of Spanish teenagers, stopping off for a cool drink or when the sun went down; a cup of sweet, syrupy hot chocolate.

Shaken out of my reverie by the sound of pipes playing, I followed my family to where a traditional Gallegan piper was busking. 

He informed us of the link between Irish and Galician music and his desire to visit a fleadh where he could play alongside his Celtic brethren as once again our similarities were highlighted.

We had only factored in a day for sightseeing in Santiago but after exploring the centre we had enough time for a delicious array of tapas.

It was here the similarities between our countries ended — because at €1.30 a portion, we were able to sample several delicacies of the area (octopus, baby squid, braised pork, langoustine, sardines, stuffed pepper, spicy potatoes and goat’s cheese with tomato chutney) and including drinks had change from €20 — as far as value-for-money went, Galicia was in a different league.

Buoyed up by our visit to this beautiful city, we decided to return to A Coruna — there had to be more to it than an industrial port and endless streets with shops and office buildings.

And we were right. On our last day, we ventured into the city again and this time stayed on the bus which stopped at the station — so while our helpful fellow passenger had been right in saying it wasn’t the city centre, it was considerably closer than where we had got off before.

Within 10 minutes of the station, we located the old centre — a maze of cobbled streets, artisan shops and aromatic cafes. First stop was breakfast for five which included freshly squeezed orange juice, huge pastries and fresh coffee — the bill was €11 in total. Heaven.

After perusing the little boutiques and marvelling at the architecture we decided to head to the seafront and walk the promenade which is a few miles around the headland. The sun was high in the sky, the water glistening and the view across the ocean was breathtaking.

We stopped at the Tower of Hercules which stands proud on the cliff-top jutting out into the Atlantic and also the aquarium before continuing along the seafront in search of somewhere to feed our perpetually-hungry children.

Once sated, we headed back to the old town where the boys bought ridiculously cheap souvenirs before we caught the bus home. It had been a glorious day, our impression of A Coruna had been completely altered and each of us vowed to return in the future.

By the end of the fortnight, I had not only rekindled my love of Galicia but witnessed my family succumbing to its charms.

It took almost 30 years for me to return to the area which made such a strong impression on my teenage self, but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that it won’t be as long until my next visit.

GETTING THERE

Fly to Santiago de Compostela from Dublin from €49.99, www.aerlingus.com  

· Take the hassle out of driving and arrange a taxi for arrival. 

Prices vary depending on distance. www.holidaytaxis.com 

Stay in a hotel or apartment from €49 per room per night — www.sercotelhoteles.es 

More info: www. turgalicia.es 

WHAT TO SEE:

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. This is an absolute must . The final destination for countless pilgrims and also the heart of the old city of Santiago de Compostela, it is arguably the most famous landmark of the region — www.galiciaguide.com 

Tower of Hercules. Situated along the lovely coastal path adjacent to the old city of A Coruna, this is a great place to blow away the cobwebs. 

The less energetic visitor can simply wander around the base of the tower as the view is pretty spectacular even from this level. www.torredeherculesacoruna.com 

Santa Cruz Castle. Santa Cruz is a lovely little seaside village and the castle is situated on an island which is reached by a bridge from the shore. 

There is a museum with lots of artefacts to keep the adults interested and plenty of cannons and lookout points for children. There are also nice grounds around the museum and castle ruins, making it a lovely place for an afternoon picnic. www.ceida.org/ castelo-santa-cruz

Shopping:

Marineda City. This is a shopping mall with a difference, as well as stores selling everything under the sun, it also boasts an array of restaurants, gardens and even an ice-rink. www.marinedacity.com 

Corte Ingles: Anyone who has ever been to any Spanish town will be aware of this department store with everything from high-end labels to basic provisions. www.corteingles.com 

Bimba and Lola. Spain is famous for leather and this shop is the place to go for bags, shoes and lots of other gift ideas whether you decide to reward yourself or not, is up to you. www.bimbaylola.com 

Mercado de Abastos de Santiago. Anyone wanting an authentic shopping experience, should make sure to head to this market. It is an Aladdin’s cave of fresh food, spices, handicrafts and much more. www.mercadodeabastosdesantiago.com 

Food:

La Bodeguilla de Santa Cristina. This is a great place in the A Coruna suburb for a nice bottle of wine and a few tasty tapas in a smart but relaxed environment.

Away from the bustle of the city, there is a lot of choice and the waiting staff were all very friendly. it also helps that the prices are reasonable too. www.vinogusto.com 

Abastos 20 –When in Santiago de Compostela, this is a great tapas bar. The food is fantastic, the ambience upbeat and while it can be a bit noisy, it is a great place to bring the family. www.abastosdouspuntocero.es 

Marisqueria Rios. Galicia is famous for its fish and seafood and this restaurant in A Coruna is great to try out the daily catch. It is a lovely venue for a special meal, particularly if you manage to get one of the tables outside. www.riasdegalicia.com 


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