The gateway to Galicia, situated on the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, is known locally by its Galician name: A Coruna. Built on an ancient Celtic hill fort, much of this compact Spanish city is manageable on foot. Brimming with history, tradition and splendid architecture, it features a wealth of open spaces, parks and pristine beaches. Residents take pride in their Celtic heritage, and cherish the survival of Galego, their language.
The miradores (glass-fronted balconies) of the tall apartment buildings overlooking the harbor in the Avenida de la Marina are distinctive features of this handsome yet gritty place. Residents can admire the views while helping to protect against the strong winds that sweep in from the Atlantic Ocean. This led to the town being called the Crystal City.
Flourishing San Carlos Garden, which sits atop the old San Carlos fort, is located just inland from the cruise ship pier. Sir John Moore is buried there. He was the British general who led the British and Spanish troops against Napoleon's army in the 1809 Battle of Corunna and died in the fighting. The garden makes a good starting point for a stroll around, the Ciudad Vieja, or old town. This quarter, all spires and cobbled lanes, contains remains of the Roman wall that once protected it. Besides a flurry of look-at-me churches, there is an impressive collection of galleries, clusters of restaurants, tapas bars and quirky shops that spill into the winding alleyways. A Coruna also has museums for all tastes, so whether your bag is art, clocks or archeology, you will find one to suit you.
The Town Hall is in pedestrian-only Mar?a Pita Square, which owes its name to the feisty heroine of the same name. From the nearby port of El Ferrol, the Spanish Armada sailed to invade Britain, but only half of the galleons returned. Later, Sir Francis Drake led a retaliatory invasion, but it was repelled in 1589 by the citizens of A Coruna led by Maria Pita. The square is enclosed on three sides by buildings and arcades.
The name of the cruise dock - Transatlantic Quay -- reflects its location on the northwestern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. A Coruna is the closest European port to New York. A five-minute walk takes you from the port to the city center. Bus stops sit close to the cruise terminal, and you can reach Torre de Hercules (see Don't Miss section) by the No. 3 or No. 5 bus. You'll get tourist information and maps from the tourist office just outside the cruise terminal gates, where you'll also see taxis. Agree the fare before setting off.
A marina is just in front of the cruise terminal, and there is a shop and caf?. Being so close to town, there is no need to hang around the port.
As in most cities these days, it pays to be alert and aware of your surroundings. A good idea is to take your ship's daily newspaper with you so that you have the emergency numbers on hand if you should need them. Leave expensive items in the safe in your cabin.
By Car: If you want to travel further afield, you can rent from Avis (Plaza de Vigo; 981 121201) and Europcar (Avda, Artejo 21; 981 143536).
By Bus: There are 22 bus routes that cover most of A Coruna for around 1.45 euros.
By Bike: Rent a bike from Eco-Logica, which is near the Domus museum at the end of Orzan beach. The town has a lot of hills. Prices from around 6 euros per hour. (Calle Cantabrico 2; 981 904 040)
By Tram: A tram starts at the Playa de Riazor and goes around the city, following the coastline and finishing at the harbor. It makes several stops, including the Tower of Hercules lighthouse, the Domus museum and Castle of San Anton. The fare is 1 euro per ride.
Note: Most of A Coruna can be covered on foot.
The currency is the euro. A few ATMs are dotted around town. Otherwise, look for the word "Cambio" (Exchange). For conversion rates, visit www.xe.com or www.oanda.com.
Two official languages are spoken, Spanish and Galician, but many people speak very good English.
Seafood lovers are in their element in A Coruna. Freshly caught fish and shellfish are abundant, and prices won't mangle your wallet. You'll find everything from boiled octopus and stuffed squid to shrimps (usually fried in garlic), scallops, mussels, crayfish, eels, choquitos or chipirones (different kinds of small squid served in its own ink) and grilled sardines -- which are best enjoyed with local red wine.
Speaking of wine, local wines have no "denominations of origin" (well-known growing areas), but Galicia produces excellent white and red wines that are often drunk from white china bowls and accompanied by platters of seafood. Specialties include fish stews with baked potatoes or sausage and bacon stew with potatoes, beans, turnips and cabbage. Empanadas, patties filled with pork, eels or lampreys, make a filling snack.
If you prefer weak coffee, look for cafe Americano on menus; coffee with milk is "con leche," strong black coffee that comes in a tiny cup is "solo." If beer is more your thing, Estrella Galicia is A Coruna's signature beer.
Pablo Gallego: This is a classy, midpriced restaurant with cozy atmosphere. It serves creative Galician cuisine with a seafood emphasis. Choices range from simple anchovy dishes and monkfish medallions to grilled octopus with piperrada (stewed peppers) and tuna with sun-dried tomato pesto. (Calle Capitan Troncoso 4; 981 208 888; open 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. to midnight Monday to Saturday)
Taberna Da Penela: Try the octopus, caldo gallego (a potato and vegetable soup with added chunks of meat or sausage) or tortilla de Betanzos (a potato omelette). (Plaza de Maria Pita 9; 981 201969; open 1:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. to midnight Tuesday to Sunday)
Restaurante Casa Vasca:
This is a friendly inexpensive restaurant serving delicious meals and homey puddings. Chocolate mousse, rice pudding or cheesecake with raspberry, anyone? (Calle del Capitan Troncoso; 981 223459; open 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. to midnight)
Plenty of authentic gift items will catch your interest, from Spanish shawls, Galician lace goods and leather ware to articles made from Toledo steel, Lladro porcelain and wickerwork.