Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cruise Day #13, Vigo & Santiago de Compostela

Today was out last port of call: Vigo, Spain. For those of you who’ve followed the blog, you’ll have noticed that Libby and I have mostly opted travel independently in port. Today was the scheduled exception with an NCL arranged shore excursion to the legendary Santiago de Compostela (we paid $179/pp. before we left – current price is $189/pp. aboard the ship). We opted for the organized tour because there was relatively little information available about Galicia (this region of Spain), or Vigo specifically, either online or in printed travel guidebooks. Moreover, we knew that transportation connections from other parts of Spain to Santiago de Compostela are time consuming, making it less practicable to visit later over land. So, in relative terms, this seemed like decent value for money, especially since seeing Santiago was so important to us.

Unfortunately, Libby awoke this morning to an upset stomach. I’ll spare everyone the details but suffice it to say we weren’t able to depart with the tour early in the morning at nine o’clock. This was a huge disappointment to Libby (which bothered me) and obviously a waste of money (which bothered me less so, because #@$%^ happens and you can’t let it get you down). I could have obviously gone without her, but we don’t travel like that unless we had planned to do something separately. With us, it’s all for one, one for all. The sad part of it all was that Libby was more or less fine by 10 o’clock in the morning.

What to do?

Well, I’m never one to be deterred. Plus, we’re intrepid travelers. Moreover, the El Camino to Santiago de Compostela is a famed pilgrimage route, whereby millions of people have walked from all over to this destination—a destination only rivaled by Rome and Jerusalem in all of Christendom as a pilgrimage site. If they can manage that, I saw no reason why we couldn’t hold our own little El Camino and make our way to Santiago de Compostela on our own! And, that’s what we did!

I logged on to RENFE’s (the Spanish train system’s) web site and got the schedule for Vigo to Santiago. I found a 10:55 departure that arrived at 12:20, as well as a 2:36 departure that arrived back in Vigo at 4:07. We got off the ship and took a cab to the train station (5 euro and less than 10 minutes). We bought our roundtrip train tickets and jumped onto the 10:55 train (12 euro/pp). In Galicia, most locals do not speak English – so we weren’t sure that we had bought roundtrip tickets, but I knew enough to know that we had to “do something else” for the return. Fortunately, we could make ourselves well enough understood so that he knew to tell us to “go to the train office” in Santiago. Upon arrival, we immediately did that. I used the printed time schedule that I picked up to show the person at the train station the route and time we wanted for our return. She thought us a little crazy (as we’d just arrived and wanted to depart in a little more than 2 hours), but she gave us the required reservation (an extra 1 euro per person) for the rapido (express train) back to Vigo at 2:36. From here, we followed Rick Steves’s guidebook for walking to the cathedral – it’s about 10 minutes up hill. After making out way through modern Santiago, we arrived in the heart of the old town with narrow, picturesque streets. We turned a corner and suddenly before us stood Praza des Praterias, covered with pilgrims and sightseers alike, as well as the Cathedral itself. Wow! What a sight! And, we’d made it.

We made our way to all four plazas around the Cathedral and visited the interior as well, including the tomb of St. James. It’s really a magnificent structure. What’s more, Santiago de Compostela has a very unique almost mystical feel about it. You get the sense that you’re amongst a much higher percentage of the devoutly faithful than what you experience at other religious sights in Europe. There’s also a sense of joy and serenity that seems to emanate from many of those who’d just completed the lengthy and (I assume) arduous El Camino. Perhaps, I was more keenly aware of it, as we had our own unique journey to get there and thus a sense of accomplishment at having made it despite the difficulties.

Of course, getting there was only half the battle for us. So, we left the Cathedral by 2 o’clock. Ironically, we passed the NCL tour group while we were leaving! We reversed our route (train to Vigo, taxi to port) and were back on the ship by 4:30, an hour before “all aboard.” Mission accomplished!

In the end, I’m not at all upset that the organized shore excursion went sideways on us. In fact, I rather liked the adventure of doing it on our own with the added urgency of needing to be back on ship by a certain time.

Would I recommend that others go to Santiago de Compostela? Absolutely!

Would I recommend that others on a cruise do this port independently? Well, it’s not difficult but time is short and communication more difficult. If you’re an experienced traveler in Europe and/or you are fluent in Spanish, I know this is possible and you can save yourself a lot of money ($150-200/pp. versus about $20/pp.) by doing it independently. Thus, I’d give a cautious “go for it.” Just know the train times in advance and spend a little extra on taxi rides to save precious time.

Personally, I would not opt for the ship’s tour again and won’t be so quick to assume that limited information implies that it’s impracticable to explore a given port on one’s own. At our heart, Libby and I are independent travelers and that’s how we like it best. So, despite the wasted money, we accomplished our goal (visiting Santiago de Compostela) and did so without the included group lunch with strangers (which I detest) and lengthy bus ride (which I believe is more time consuming than the train ride). The tour guide would have provided little for us, as we already knew much about Santiago de Compostela. So, in that end, I think we came out ahead.


Derek said...

Yes - Santiago de Compostela is special. As you say more pilgrim than tourist.
I made it there once when I was a crewmember of a cargo ship unloading in Villagarcia and took the train. (the captain and chief mate took the wrong platform at the station to get back and ended up in La Corunna !!!!)
Fran has never been so we intend to take the train from Vigo in August.

Mom and Dad said...

Hey, Dinky! You know, only one such morning delay isn't too bad at all for a lengthy vacation. Paul, you are quite the intrepid pilgrim! Well-deserved kudos to you both.