Once again, the December puente was coming around: a long weekend, the first one of the school year. I was exhausted from the last few months of Global Classrooms. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and cheap—somewhere that was not much of a tourist destination and did not have much to see. Thus, after some false starts, I settled on Ourense, one of the most overlooked cities in Galicia.
Galicia has become my favorite corner of Spain. The people are friendly, the landscape is beautiful, the tourists are scanty, the food is delicious, and the cost is low. My plan was, in essence, to go to Ourense with my girlfriend and—apart from stuffing my face with the harty local cuisine—to do as little as possible. In one major respect my plan failed. After eating dozens of unwashed grapes (long story), I got food poisoning during our excursion to Santiago de Compostela, which made eating difficult.
I also failed in my attempt to pick a city without anything to see. Spain is so dense with history that it pervades even its remotest corners. You can’t walk a mile without tripping over a ruin. And, of course, Ourense is not remote; it is the third-largest city in the region, larger than Santiago de Compostela; and its history stretches back to Roman times. This was a fortunate mistake for someone with a travel blog.
As I soon discovered upon leaving our Airbnb, Ourense has maintained an impressive medieval center. The streets are narrow and meandering; and the buildings are appropriately grey and granite, with arcades running underneath. We soon passed by the Igrexa de la Santísima Trindade, or the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is an impressive, almost castle-like gothic church with an enclosed courtyard. In minutes we were in the Plaza Mayor, which had been decorated for Christmas with a giant tree-shaped light.
Right next to the plaza is the city’s cathedral, its most important historic site. From the outside it has none of the towering grandeur of the cathedral in Santiago. Indeed, the cathedral presents a heavy, fortified look, like the above-mentioned church. The inside is far more attractive. Apart from the impressive gothic nave and the beautiful central lantern, letting in light from eight sides, the cathedral is full of splendid decoration. The main altar, which sides under the octagonal lantern, is an explosion of flamboyant gothic, somewhat reminiscent of the enormous altar in Seville. In the center is a panel depicting St. Martin of Tours, to whom the cathedral is dedicated.
By far the most arresting chapel is the Capilla del Santo Cristo. One moves from the stark simplicity of gothic to the extravagant flourish of the Baroque. As befitting that era’s horror of empty space, every inch of the chapel is covered in decoration—shadowy paintings surrounded by delicately carved and gilded wood. In the center a realistic Christ with long flowing hair hangs from the cross. The chapel also contains the Renaissance choir stalls which once stood in the main nave. The final effect is one of extravagance. I am not sure that it is beautiful, but it is certainly impressive.
Yet the most famous work of art in the cathedral is the Pórtico del Paraíso. This is an elaborately carved tripartite doorway, which once served as the main entrance to the cathedral (but has since been engulfed by the growing cathedral). It was designed by students of the legendary Master Matteo, who is responsible for the more famous Pórtico da Gloria in Santiago. According to the audio guide the two cities, Ourense and Santiago, had something of a rivalry; and this doorway was an attempt to keep up with the neighboring city. Having seen both doorways, I can confidently say that Matteo’s is the superior. Even so, the Pórtico del Paraíso is an extremely fine piece of sculpture, which has been well preserved (or restored). The pigments of the paint still shine invitingly, filling the entire ensemble with a joyful glow.
I should not neglect to mention the cathedral museum, which is included in the ticket. There relics, treasures, paintings, altars, sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts on display, as well as a few Roman ruins unearthed during excavations and repairs.
Two large churches stand quite near the cathedral. One is the Igrexa de Santa Eufemia, a monumental Baroque church with a concave façade. The other is the Igrexa de Santa María Nai, another fine Baroque church which now stands, it is believed, on the foundation of the original cathedral. However, I mention these churches, not for their beauty, but because I always find it amusing that large churches are placed so close to each other, within a five minute walk of the city’s cathedral. Being a church artisan was a good career in those days; the demand was endless.
After ascending a staircase up to the hill overlooking the cathedral, I came to my favorite part of the city: the Cemetery of San Francisco. This cemetery goes back to the gothic period, and maintains many beautiful tombs and mausoleums. As usual, I felt a deep sense of calm as I walked through the cemetery, a repose from the temporary and trivial concerns that usual occupy my attention. (Rebe, on the other hand, found it creepy.) The hill also provided an excellent view of the city, the cathedral, and the countryside beyond.
The cemetery used to be attached to an eponymous monastery, which has long since been confiscated and shut down. (For two centuries it was used as a nursery.) However, some artwork from the monastery is on display in a free gallery. And right next-door is the old cloister, the Claustro de San Francisco—now detached and homeless. This is without a doubt one of the great sights in Ourense: the cloister is decorated in the finest gothic fashion, a delicate and harmonious space that transmits the meditative peace of monastic life.
Now it was time to cross the river Miño, which runs through the center of the city. The most convenient walking bridge is the iconic Ponte Vella, or old bridge. The origins of this bridge go back to Roman times, though little remains but some foundation stones from that epoch. The current form of the bridge is medieval. It is an elegant construction, resting on a series of arches that stretches 208 meters (almost 700 feet) from end to end, and rises 33 meters (100 feet) over the water. The bridge has proven so important in the history of Ourense that it is featured on the city’s coat of arms.
Yet this is not the only attractive bridge in Ourense. Also lovely is the Ponte do Milenio, a strikingly modern construction distinguished by the floating metal outline of a ship, which hangs suspended from the two slanted support beams. This is actually a walkway, on which you can dip down below the main section of the bridge to get closer to the water, or ascend to the top for a view of the river valley. Normally I am not very keen on modern design; but I was very much taken by this bridge, which combines functionality with an unconventional use, while maintaining an attractive overall form.
I have come all this way but I have yet to mention the greatest attraction in Ourense: the thermal baths. Ourense is highly geothermically active; thus the city is filled with steaming pools of water, many of which are free to visit. I admit that I am unclear on the science of this heating; though since Ourense is not volcanically active, I suppose that the water gets heated by the decay of radioactive elements deep underground. The water, however, is perfectly safe; and it reaches the surface at pleasant temperatures—warm, but not dangerous. This, by the way, is why the bath-loving Romans came to Ourense.
Most of the baths are situated outside of the city center, alongside the river Miño. However, one important bath sits right in the heart of Ourense: As Burgas. This bath has been used since Roman times, and it was believed to have both religious and curative properties. The baths were maintained into the Christian epoch, in part because it provided a welcome comfort to weary pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. Also, according to what I can find, the heat was harnessed by artisans and bakers (though I can’t imagine how).
However, I felt uncomfortable at the prospect of taking a bath right in the center of the city, with pedestrians passing by on every side. So, we headed toward the river to visit the baths of A Chavasqueira. The walk there led us across the Ponte Vella to a path alongside the Miño. The place seems designed as a peaceful escape. There are no crowds and no cars, just the quiet murmuring of the river. Still, I felt apprehensive. I had never been to a thermal bath, and I did not much like the idea of sharing a hot tub with strangers. But, I have a blog to write, and this means I have to experience the typical attractions.
A Chavasqueira, like the other thermal baths, is public and completely free. The baths consisted of four medium sized, shallow pools, rimmed with stone; and each bath is a different temperature. When we arrived, at mid-day, they were moderately full. Now, when it comes to public nudity, Spain is relatively conservative as far as European countries go; you will never encounter naked sunbathers on a stroll around Madrid’s Retiro Park, for example, as you might while exploring Berlin’s Tiergarten. However, they are still less conservative than prudish Americans. It is acceptable for women to be topless; and most people change with a towel rather than retreating to the public bathrooms, as I did. My natural timidity immediately flared up: I felt uncomfortable.
Still, I had come this far, and could not turn back now. Before going into the baths, it is customary to rinse off with the nearby shower. Seldom do I feel more pathetic and exposed than when I am being doused with cold water out in the open. This done, I lowered myself into the least populated pool. The water was quite warm but not scalding. Nearby an older bald man with a potbelly was determinately soaking, his face a serene grimace. I waited to be suffused with the blissful calm of hot mineral water, but felt… quite normal. In fact, I felt a strange combination of anxiety and boredom. The heat made my heart beat more quickly, and I felt my veins flood with adrenaline. What was I doing here? I could be taking a nice hot shower in the comfort and privacy of my own home.
Meanwhile, Rebe was splashing around quite contentedly, seeming to be properly relaxed. I tried to relax, to wait, to adjust. But I felt silly. What was I supposed to be doing, just sitting in water? After ten minutes I gave up, got out, and changed back into my clothes. Rebe wanted to stay longer, so I took a walk further down the Miño. Now, this was relaxing: solitude, cool air, movement, and nature. After thirty minutes I felt properly calmed after enduring the trauma of the hot springs.
After this all-to-typical failure to enjoy myself, I tried the hot springs again on the following day, and had a moderately better experience. Still, I admit that I do not see the appeal and do not find it especially relaxing. Clearly, I am not made for spa life.
But do not let my experience dissuade you. The vast majority of human beings seem to love thermal baths. And, in any case, Ourense is a charming city. Despite my food poisoning, I even managed to stuff myself with delicious Galician food. That is a successful vacation.