Visit: 1st May 2016
Natalie and I arrived in our third and final Galician city, La Coruña, by coach from Lugo. I had chosen a hotel right at the northern tip of the city, on a peninsular close to its famous landmark, the so-called Tower of Hercules. After checking in we went straight out to see it in under the bright blue May Day sky.
It occurs to me that this building is probably one of the smallest World Heritage Sites in the world by footprint. It is not especially tall, but it stands out quite dramatically because of its position on a hill and the lack of any other buildings nearby.
The lighthouse is notable because it is very much a 1st century Roman building. From the outside it clearly looks much more recent than that, but that is because the Roman core has an eighteenth century façade. When the Romans left Spain following the decline of their empire the grand lighthouse fell into disrepair. Like many buildings of its time, it suffered at the hands of locals keen to use its quality stone as building materials for their own homes. But in 1788, following a humiliating raid on the city of La Coruña by Sir Francis Drake, the order was given for a renovation of the tower that would bring it up to date and make it useful as a defensive structure.
Above, top left and bottom left, are pictures of the Roman-era interior chambers and foundations, respectively. On the right is a diagram showing how the Roman core was subsequently encased by the military engineer Eustaquio Giannini with new exterior walls and an extension on top. Giannini went to remarkable lengths during his building work to keep as much of the Roman original as was practicable – an aim that was most unusual at the time.
Entry to the tower is pretty cheap, and the long climb gives a great view over the peninsular and the city of La Coruña beyond. The people of Galicia like to think of themselves as a Celtic people, and a mosaic that is visible from the top of the tower depicts the Celtic tribes with symbols and names in their local languages. If you look carefully you should be able to make out Cornwall, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, Manx and Galicia.
So why the name Tower of Hercules? The name comes from a legend originating in the thirteenth century, according to which there was a local giant named Gerión who threatened the whole region. Hercules came and fought with him and slew him, burying his head where the tower now stands. He then ordered the construction of the tower and founded the city of La Coruña.
As for the city, it seemed a nice enough place. The centre point is a public square with a fine town hall, above, with domes resembling Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence. After dining in the city on the Sunday night we returned there for a final few hours on Monday morning before catching a taxi to the city’s airport for a Vueling flight to Heathrow.
The Tower of Hercules doesn’t look much, and I was looking forward to it least of the three WHSs we took in during this trip. But it turned out to be my favourite, probably because of the impressive durability of what the Romans had built and the seamless integration of an ancient building into a much more modern fortification capable of helping to defend a city in an age of gunpowder and galleons.