A Coruña and the aquarium at the end of the world

a-coruna-cemiterio-municipal-san-amaroI think we were at the drugstore when I first told my co-traveler about my plans to include a daytrip to A Coruña in our Santigo de Compostela itinerary. “What’s there to see,” she asked, and I answered with a monologue about the world’s oldest functioning Roman lighthouse. She paused.

“Let’s go,” she said.
“Are you… into lighthouses all of a sudden?”
“Lee Min Ho was there on shoot for The Legend of the Blue Sea.”

She meant a Korean drama about a man who cons a literal mermaid, but no matter–if Lee Min Ho was to be my connection, I’d take it.

Fast forward a couple of months and it’s September 14. The sun’s rising at 8h13 over Santiago de Compostela and we’re shivering on the platform, waiting for our train to A Coruña. The trip takes next to no time and it’s still cold out when we disembark, at the northernmost point we’ve ever visited in the Iberian peninsula. The wind’s formidable and I’m certainly not dressed to match it, in my flimsy shirt and old lady church skirt. Even I am skeptical: this better be worth it.

We begin, as always, in the cemetery. The Cemiterio Municipal de San Amaro was welcomed into the Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe in 2012, and its history will be familiar to those who know their Portuguese burial laws. (But listen, I’m not telling you Galicia = Portugal.) Though it’d been used as a burial ground since 1781, San Amaro only became a proper cemetery in 1812, when burial in churches and churchyards was deemed definitely illegal.

It was later extended, in 1867, to create a separate British cemetery, and again in 1882 and 1901 to include a civil cemetery. From 1944 to 1982, it even housed the remains of sixteen Nazi soldiers, in a mausoleum that’s since been walled in. (If this is something you’d like to read about, I can provide sources in Spanish and Galician. Get your WWII history fix now, because it’s all Romans and Celts and fish from this point on.)

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The moment I saw the Torre de Hercules, I addressed a formal apology to the entirety of Galicia for ever doubting my decision to visit. It’s beautiful. This lighthouse, on this beautiful rocky shore, is the closest thing to a postcard I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes. Thought to have been modeled after the lighthouse of Alexandria, it’s been in constant use since the 2nd century (though the current outer shell is a 18th century restoration), making it, you guessed it, the world’s oldest functioning lighthouse .

Amusingly, the cornerstone even attributes the design to architect Gaius Sevius Lupus, previously known to me for his work in the cryptoportico in Aeminium, aka present-day Coimbra, aka my birthplace. #represent

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But there’s more to A Coruña than its Roman presence. An 11th century Irish legend tells of one King Breogán who, having spotted the greenest of lands from the top of this very tower, sent his people on a sailing expedition to populate it. (You don’t need to be told that greenest of lands was Ireland, but I’m telling you anyway.) In order to celebrate this mythical origin story, the city of A Coruña has placed a massive, tiled compass rose at the foot of the tower. Seen at its best from mid-climb, its eight partitions seek to represent the six Celtic nations, the treacherous Costa da Morte (i.e. Death Coast, referring to the Galician shore that’s seen so many shipwrecks over the centuries), and finally Galicia itself.

Clockwise, then, beginning with the skull, we can easily identify Éire (which is Ireland, obviously), Alba (Scotland), Mannin (the Isle of Man), Cymru (Wales), Kernow (Cornwall), Breizh (Brittany), and Galicia.

a-coruna-portrait-rafaela-ferrazIt’s some climb, by the way, to the top of the tower and then back down. My knees hurt. I would have collapsed for a nap right there on the tiled compass, but such is the beauty of partnered touristing–my co-traveler and I had a pocket knife and potato chips and a Galician empanada in our backpacks, and we’d rest only when we’d found a suitable picnic spot.

(Pictured: me, ignoring the suitable picnic spot in favor of ogling the beach below, the blissfully deserted Praia das Lapas.)

Sometime during the morning, the weather had taken a dramatic turn towards sun-drenched, so the old lady in the church skirt whose knees hurt (i.e. me, your host, Rafaela Ferraz, an adventurous young adult) even managed to get a tan in the forty-something minutes we spent lazing about on a park bench. How’s that for multitasking?

After lunch, we rounded the bay to take on a different kind of attraction. No more dead Galicians, dead Romans, or dead Celts. The time had come to engage with the real MVPs of A Coruña: a bunch of fish.

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Welcome to Aquarium Finisterrae, a great place for people like me to come to terms with the reality of their mediocre photo skills. (My memory card bears witness to my disgrace.) Opened in 1999, this aquarium-cum-science-museum aims to educate visitors on the particularities of Galician marine ecosystems. Its main attraction, in my humble opinion, is the Nautilus room, fashioned after the descriptions of Captain Nemo’s study in 20.000 Leagues Under The Sea. The hallway leading up to the room is lined in steel plates, the stairwell packed full of book covers and movie posters representing the many incarnations of Jules Verne’s 19th century novel. Below, an underwater observation room, forty-eight windows between us and seven hundred or so peaceful fish–and a sand shark named Gastón.

We explored the room with that kind of awestruck silence usually reserved for churches and fine art museums. It managed to be both inviting and intimidating, what with the plush Chesterfield sofas and the antique mirrors and the distorted reflection of a shark coming up behind us just when we were beginning to feel too comfortable. To say we spent a memorable hour in that room would be an understatement. (I think, towards the end, I was just sitting cross-legged on an ottoman and philosophizing.)

And then we went to check out the seals.

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The afternoon was drawing to a close when we finally left the Aquarium, but we felt suitably energized. We made our way down the gorgeous promenade, all the way down to Praia do Orzán and then into the older parts of the city, straight to Praza de María Pita–named after a local heroine, known for her role in the defense of the city against the English in 1589.

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Just around the corner, we made our final stop at Avenida da Mariña. I didn’t know this going in, but it seems A Coruña is often known as the city of crystal, due to its glassed-in facades overlooking the harbor. These date back to the 18th century, when glass panes became ubiquitous due to their use in Spanish galleons. Their appeal in construction was simple: the glassed-in balconies provided an added layer of insulation to the buildings while taking full advantage of the south-facing exposure. By 1875, these crystal balconies (these galerías, let’s learn) were so common they were deemed ridiculous by a municipal architect–but it seems they would outlive his scorn and his person both, and resist to this day.

I’m siding with the galleries, to be honest. I’m siding with A Coruña in general, because it was completely worth the detour from Santiago de Compostela, even if it meant we didn’t get to spend as much time as we would’ve liked in either city. It’s cool though–now we have an excuse to go back.


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If you liked this post, there’s more to read in the Travel tag and the travel Writing page. Also, please let me show you this cool bird I couldn’t fit in the post. Look at that. So cool.

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