-the world as I see it
Last weekend, my friends and I went on a road trip to Galicia – the most occidental autonomous province of Spain which lies just above Portugal. The plan was to spend a day in Santiago Compostela and the next day in A Coruña and Vigo. We hadn’t heard much about A Coruña previously and that’s why we had estimated that we would take not more than three hours to go around the city, but we couldn’t have been more wrong.
With a coast fronting the Atlantic Ocean – the sandy beaches and the foam-hemmed water stretching miles beyond, A Coruña had me transfixed. My love for coastal places stems from the fact that I have lived in a seaside town for a major chunk of my life. A Coruña is a modern city that has its fair share of historic structures, among which the Tower of Hercules is particularly famous. This tower dates back to the second century A.D.,which makes it the oldest existing and most importantly, still functional lighthouse. Due to its strategic location, A Coruña was the locus of several important maritime routes and developed as a prominent port in that part of Europe really early on. Over centuries, the lighthouse has guided innumerable ships and has literally been a beacon of hope to many voyagers lost at sea. The tower of Hercules probably has a lot of interesting stories to tell, but I am more interested in the stories behind its origin.
OF LEGENDS AND FANTASIES
The most popular story is associated with ..no prizes for guessing -HERCULES (surprise, surprise!). King Alfonso X’s book, ‘Estoria de España’ narrates that Hercules was on a mission to kill Geryon, a fantastical beast with three heads and three bodies fused together at the waist. Geryon had a herd of oxen that Hercules was tasked with obtaining. Hercules killed Geryon and built a tower over his remains. He then founded a city in the vicinity which he named after Crunna, one of the inhabitants he fell in love with. After Hercules’ death, his nephew, Espan (or Hispan) succeeded the throne. Espan is said to have built an observation tower atop the column constructed by Hercules. He installed a mirror inside, which allowed him to see really far out, serving as a warning device for incoming enemy ships.
Another one of the stories comes out of the ‘Book of Invasions’, a compilation of Irish legends. According to this story, the ruler of the Celts in Galicia, Lord Breogan founded the city called ‘Brigantium’ and built the Breogan Tower overlooking the vast ocean stretch. One day, Breogan’s son Ith, caught sight of land in the distance and made up his mind to reach the shores of what we now know as Ireland. He was killed there and his body was sent back to Brigantium. All the while that he was gone, a flame was seen at the top of the tower, so that it would guide him home.
There is yet another story, written even before the above-mentioned legends which tells of how a monk by the name of Trezenzonio made his way to Galicia, which then was just a deserted and bare place, save for the Farum Brecantium tower. He climbs the tower and finds a powerful mirror that shows him the presence of an island in the distance. The Greco-Roman legend and the Celtic tale seem to have borrowed elements from this story, with the mirror and the island appearing in the respective stories.
TRUTH BE TOLD
Legends and myths aside, the construction of the actual tower is attributed to the Romans, who built it in honour of Mars, the God of war. The original architect of the tower is named in the plaque seen at the base of the lighthouse. When first built, the tower was a bit different than what it looks like now as it has been through several repairs and restorations and some of its components have been retrofitted or even reconstructed altogether.
The original Roman structure was called the Farum Brigantium and it was quite a colossal feat of engineering for its time. The square-based structure made of ashlar masonry was composed of granite stones with opus caementicium (Roman concrete) as mortar. Each floor had a vaulted system with four chambers. The high-vaulted ceilings and the system of load bearing walls that ran all along the height of the structure resulted in a strong structure with an optimum use of stone. The tower was well designed even from a seismic point of view as it survived the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that severely affected a lot of other buildings in A Coruña.
THEN AND NOW
The lighthouse has lived through many different empires and has also suffered periods of disuse and destruction. A major restoration project carried out in the 1700s is responsible for much of what we see of the tower today. The lighthouse was renamed to the ‘Tower of Hercules’ somewhere in the 19th or 20th Century. The structure was incorporated into the UNESCO World Heritage Monuments in 2009.
In the 1990’s an excavation revealed the remains of the foundation dating back to the Roman era, which you can see as you enter the tower. Visitors aren’t permitted to enter the topmost portion of the tower where the beacon is, but all the other levels are accessible for a fee of 3 euros. Do not miss the opportunity to go on to the viewing terrace. Had it not been too windy, I might just have stayed there for the whole day!