The Road to Santiago.

October 9, 2004

Picos de Europa

Cóbreces to San Vicente de la Barquera

It was a warm and sunny day as I left Cóbreces. It was not long before the road curved and I got a good view of los Picos de Europa (the Peaks of Europe). It’s a cordilla (mountain range) which runs east to west along the coast of Cantabria, the Asturias, and Galicia. The mountains are awesome in the correct sense of awe inspiring. Inspiring and yet intimidating, especially when you realize that eventually they must be crossed. But I’ll cross that mountain when the time comes.

The wind began to pick up. Wind tends to slow me down. It’s like constantly pushing on a door. So, after two hours of walking, I stopped at a small hostal to get a café con leche; the couple were very friendly to me. The woman told me about her hijo (son), who works in Nueva York, and her hija (daughter). who married an American and lives in California.

Then I noticed the man getting a little impatient. He explained that they were on their way to collect castañas (chestnuts) which would come down in the wind. It was then that I realized that the bar wasn’t really open. They had opened it just for me — another example of Spanish hospitality.


The walk for the next hour and a half was pleasant, with a view of the sea and the rocky shore to my right, and los Picos de Europa to my left. Then I saw the sandy beach of las Comillas, a seaside resort. The name is interesting because in Spanish comillas means quotation marks. However, I don’t think that the name has any etymological significance.

The beach is small compared to others on the Cantabrian coastline, but it’s very popular. Around the turn of the twentieth century, it was popular with the royal family. But I think that attraction had more to do with the fact that a cousin of King Alfonso XII — Marquis de Comillas — lived there and they could sponge off him for a while. It’s not easy being a king.

El Capricho

But to me the most interesting thing about Comillas is a very unusual house designed by a most unusual architect — Antonio Gaudí. The house is so unusual it’s called el Capricho de Gaudí (the caprice of Gaudí). (Nowadays, caprice is a word we do not often see in American English, even though we often use the adjective, capricious. I think those who use the word capricious are really supercilious and quite officious.) So, let’s translate capricho as “whim.”

However, a whim this house is not. In fact, the theme is quite obvious. The sunflower is a plant that turns its flower toward the sun, following it in its daily passage. It’s known in Spanish as el girasol (from the Greek “gyro,” meaning to turn and the Latin “sol,” meaning sun). Thus, the sunflower is a common symbol in Spanish art — a symbol for optimism. (In some parts of Spain you can see acres of them all looking in the same direction — toward the sun.)

In front of the house (which was built in the late 19th century and has been a restaurant in recent years) is a tower that resembles the stem of a plant topped with some developing flower bud. All over the walls and the tower are brown, yellow, and green tiles of sunflower heads or leaves. The overall affect is quite striking. Perhaps the capricho is the effect on the observer.

Capricho tiles

Most people know Gaudí by a work that he never finished: La Sagrada Familia, a cathedral in Barcelona. But I know him from two works on el Camino Frances:  la Casa de Botines in Leon (For photos, see Road to Santiago 2002, October 31) and el Palacio de Obispo in Astorga (Road to Santiago 2002, November 2).

I prefer el Palacio as an example of his genius — he maintained the basic tenets of Gothic architecture but added a fluidity and beauty that contemporary buildings often lack. The Church didn’t appreciate his genius because he was so “whimsical.” After the bishop died (he was a friend of Gaudi’s.), the building was closed for several decades. Eventually, they saw the error of their ways and now the building is open as a museum for the public to enjoy.

Estuary of la Rabias

Rather than eat in Comillas, I had a special place in mind — a place I had been to before and which has remained in my memory. It is a century-old restaurant, but that is not what makes it special for me. It’s situated on the edge of the river Rabia and overlooks a large estuary which is a wildlife reserve. I was able to eat lunch in the restaurant while enjoying a view of the waterfowl — great flocks of various ducks, geese and swans.

After lunch, I took the long route to San Vicente de la Barquera, along an area which is one of my favorites in Spain:  el Cabo de Oyambre (Cape Oyambre). The climb up was a little steep but it didn’t matter because it just gave me that many more reasons to stop and enjoy the view.

San Vicente de la Barquera

As I came down the other side of the Cape I saw San Vicente just a couple of miles away and picked up the pace. On the edge of the road, I saw a sign for la Escuela de Surf (Surfing School) which immediately initiated a series of Beach Boys tunes in my mind. Soon I saw the students in the surf, each in turn trying to catch a wave. It wasn’t California, but the waves were better than those of Massachusetts waters.

As soon as the road neared the beach, I climbed down to the beautiful sand of San Vicente’s outer beach. The sand was so clean — cleaner even than the beaches of Plum Island, my home. I strolled the last two miles on the firm, damp sand.

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