Actually it was the third, but the final stretch from Ribadeo to La Coruna was in many respects the most interesting. Attuned by now to the gentle clacking rhythm of Spain passing under our feet, the scenery and topography now relegated to occasional expressions of marvel, we could simply enjoy the passing countryside; to enjoy the privilege of watching Spain, mile by mile, passing by.
Spain is, of course, and ancient and resilient country; it has weathered storms far worse that the current economic crisis, and will weather this too. It is inconceivable that visitors to Iberia in, say, two hundred years will face a cultural and economic wasteland. No, the current mess is contemporary, and simply watching folks climbing on and off our succession of country trains, to watch their communities pass by and to imagine actually being a Galician or Cantabrian gave cause for optimism.
It is probably worth starting this story in Santander; home to a large and basically uninspiring city, it is home to one of the world’s largest banking conglomerates. The Santander group has its tentacles in every nook and cranny of the globe’s economy. Its headquarters, at least the substantial and economically sound looking building in Santander offers an image of substance, soundness and above all, judgement. We know, because we read the papers, that Europe’s banks have been having a rough time explaining their curiously immodest gambles of the past decade that are now coming home to roost. Every banking ration that banking-ration aficionados reveal offer optimism, yet watching Spain passing by, a different story unfolds.
It is a story of two worlds; fantastic developments unfinished and the stoicism of a people working to live a normal and uninflated life alongside. It is a picture of coffees that now cost an hour’s wages that used to be a staple of life; it is a story of people working for the past thirty post-Generalissimo decades and the past twenty Euro decades to keep their families, their lives and their cultures intact.
And by and large they seem to have succeeded, although it remains to see the price that average Spaniards will have to pay for the dreams of Santander bankers and their high-flying colleagues’ pursuits.
The ability to be a three-day expert is the province of a wanderer; I like the freedom it gives to make sweeping observations, and to offer wide opinions to anything that I might see. It is clear, however, that the financial world looks after itself – the Greek bail-out is not actually a bail out for the Greeks, but for the banks foolish enough to lend them such large amounts of money – and the Spanish bail-out, be it in one or ten years, will be a soft landing for the financial institutions who so recklessly lent money in sole pursuit of their own profit.
However, that was not all that we saw from the train. We saw laughter, communities, contemporary building that mirrored village-styles of millennia past. We saw resilience, landscapes that left us breathless, a life that continued with the rhythm of the seasons and the punctuation of the daily railway trains; we saw a life that I envied for its continuity, and above all a landscape that was whole; people, geography, buildings and a freedom from the massive infrastructural projects that punctuated the eastern part of the journey.
Our connection in Ferrol was tight, or so we thought; only twenty minutes to transfer to the periodic train that ran to La Corunna, the regional centre. As it turned out, twenty minutes were sufficient to buy tickets, read a newspaper, buy sandwiches and nearly strand Dick who was deputised to buy food, and nearly spent more of his retirement in Galicia that was originally planned. He did make the train.
And so to La Coruna. Home of the Spanish navy, and a good place to hide their Armada it is; a wild bay, miles across with deep, protected harbours, fine access to the sea and enough bars and restaurants to warm the sea-hardened cockles of any seaman’s heart.
I liked the place; again, based on a quick overnight stop and exploration for evening sustenance. It is, however, a place of some splendour; it is a city that has solidity, encompassing both a past and a future. It is a place of substance, not, perhaps, the most attractive tourist destination in Spain, but worth a couple of anyone’s days. It offers grand squares, grand private buildings redolent of the rough and tumble of nineteenth and twentieth century economic victories. It offers magnificent public buildings built with the confidence the is bred by success; grand streets, magnificent façades of buildings, if slightly down-at-heel, rim the harbour, and all around the feeling of security.
It is the security that comes with distance from Madrid and the Spanish mainstream; a unique climate that breeds stoicism and the knowledge that whatever happens to the country’s economy, life will inevitably continue; a very reassuring place.
I like Galicia.