A tour of La Coruña, in search of Corunna 1808

map from The Spanish Patriot

Between the second and third drafts of The Spanish Patriot, I traveled to its main setting, Corunna (A Coruña in Gallego, La Coruña in Castilian), in the region of Galicia, on Spain’s northwestern edge. Whenever possible, I like to go to the places I write about, especially to get a sense of the place. Here, it was the roar of the surf, the sound of the wind, the easing of my skin because of the humidity, and the steepness of the hills that I’d missed in all my reading about the town. Of course, it’s a modern city today, rather industrial, and far larger than it was in 1808, but I did find traces of what it might have felt like in the early 19th century.

Most obvious, remnants of the old Roman walls and other fortifications still shore up some of the blocks in Old Town. Here’s a bird’s eye view of Corunna in 1808, thanks to the diorama makers at the military museum in Old Town.

all photos by me; click to see bigger
all photos by me; click to see bigger

The town is on an unusual spit of land: a peninsula, its neck pinched between the cove of Orzán and the port of La Coruña. Old Town is at the southern tip, ringed by a stone wall; above it and into the neck is the “modern” part of town, including the fish market, with stretches of walls as well. Some of the walls were built by the Romans, who marauded through starting in the 2nd century BCE; they erected the Farum Brigantium (lighthouse, now called the Tower of Hercules) at the northern tip around then. The lighthouse, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still works.

Walking from the fish market to Old Town is uphill; walking from either through the expanse of farmland on the way to the Tower of Hercules also is uphill. Doña Sofia would have lived in Old Town; the Wakefields print shop and the hotel Sam Kerr stayed at would be in the middle part, closer to Old Town than the neck.

Here’s the view from a southern part of the wall, the view Mr. Kerr would have seen in the scene where they walk the walls. The “castle” fortification in the center jutting into the water, is now connected to land by a road; in 1808 it was on an island, as seen on the diorama. Kerr remarks on all the British transports and ships in the harbor, a few of which you also can see on the diorama.
Santiago-600The Church of Saint James (Iglesia de Santiago), which Doña Sofia and Louisa Wakefield attend in the story, is part of one of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage routes (the shortest one, as Santiago is only a 30-min train ride away). Above the entry is a relief of Saint James; the rose window lets in a surprising amount of light. The church is still active; the people in the photo had just taken part in a christening.

Wakefields-460Here’s one of the houses I patterned the Wakefields’ printshop on, on the left. The main floor would be the shop, two stories high so they had more light for the printery. The top, with the banked windows, would be the living space. The narrow streets were common then, and still prominent in the old areas now.

SofiaDR-600This is how I imagined the dining room in Doña Sofia’s house. It’s actually a room in the castle fortification, now a museum; her house would not have had walls with window wells quite so thick.

WallofWindows-800There’s not much period about the street facing the port of La Coruña, but it does show one aspect mentioned by visitors in the 19th century: banks of tall, gleaming windows. One of the city’s nicknames is A Cidade de Cristal, The Glass City. Of course, none of the buildings was as high as these, but throughout the city you still see this style of built-out banks of glass.

In the time of my story, few buildings were heated. To keep comfortable Galicians used their tall windows and shutters, throwing them wide during sunlight hours to heat up the rooms and closing them at dusk, which kept the space warm for a few hours. This style persists: The apartment I rented for the two weeks I stayed in April was on a top floor and had no heat, so when I did not come home in time to roll down the blinds to keep the warm in I’d have to spend the evening snuggling up to the portable electric heater.

CorunnaBeachClouds.960---CoBecause the port is so built out now, I used Riazor beach, on the Orzán side, for the beach embarkation scene in the story. The surfers are a new feature. You can see more shining glass, and the clouds accumulating for one of La Coruña’s quickly passing bursts of rain. No one carries umbrellas here; like in Vancouver the rain quickly mists and is gone, until next time.

SecretBeach-900Here’s the “secret beach,” beside the lighthouse, where Louisa is returning from in Chapter Two and where the Swift’s rowboat lands later in the story. This photo was taken on the same day as the one of Riazor beach — the weather changes that fast.

Pedstreet-1200But what about the food? Good local wines and lots of seafood, much of it live or fresh-caught and on display in eateries along the pedestrian streets. One crab seemed to grab at me through the glass as I passed, and I jumped!

Octopus (pulpo) is big, cooked in oil and paprika and served in portions so big I could eat only half. I took the rest home and added spinach for the next day’s meal. Potatoes seemed to be the only vegetable unless you really looked, at least in the places I tried. I did try making a pulpo dish from scratch, since you can get it at the grocery store, too; not too tough but the local restaurants do it way better.

CorunnaPulpo.480 CorunnaPulpoLeftovers.480CorunnaPulpoBefore.480Other highlights are the statue of Maria Pita in the Old Town’s main square and the military memorial park, as well as the Galician language and music; saving those for posts of their own. Stay tuned!

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2 Replies to “A tour of La Coruña, in search of Corunna 1808”

  1. I visited friends in Galicia back in the 70’s. Loved the place, the people and the food. Was taken out to a tavern where after a late dinner (how DO they digest?), the entire table started singing folk songs like that was the most natural thing to do in a restaurant (maybe it’s the vigorous vocalizations that help them digest, come to think of it). .

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