The 2000 year old Tower of Hercules stands on a rocky, wind-swept promontory in Galicia on Spain’s northern Atlantic shore. Located a few miles from the historic port of A Coruña, it is the only lighthouse in the world of Roman origin still in use today.
There are 234 steps to the top of the Tower of Hercules and the climb is steep, but the spectacular views are worth the effort. On either side of the isthmus, the wild green Galician coast, with its jutting headlands and broad flooded estuaries (the Rías Altas of Burgo, Betanzos and Ferrol), loops and curls into the distance. To the east, cargo ships and fishing boats sail in and out of A Coruña’s giant natural harbour. Atlantic waves churn and froth against the shoreline below.
The Romans knew this region as Finis Terrae – it was the place where maps ended, the edge of the known world. For thousands of years people would have stood on this blustery headland, gazed out at the vast expanse of ocean, and wondered what, if anything, lay beyond.
Above the shore, gulls career and swirl in the buffeting winds. Cormorants and guillemots have made their nests in the nearby cliffs, and on calmer days you may spot a fisherman out on the rocks, casting for sea bass or bream. Just south of the tower, there’s a little crescent of sand – the beach of Las Lapas – which teems with sunbathers in the summer months. In spring, the headland is carpeted with wildflowers.
Julius Caesar first made landfall here in 61BC, lured by the region’s rich deposits of gold and tin. He established the Roman colony of Brigantium. The first stone of the lighthouse, which for the next 1000 years would be known by its Latin name, the Farum Brigantium, was laid a century or so later.
According to an inscription carved into one of the corner stones, the tower’s architect was a native of Aemenium (modern day Coimbra in Portugal) named Caius Servius Lupus. He dedicated the structure to Mars, the Roman god of war. It’s thought he may have modelled the design on the legendary Pharos of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
During the 1st century A.D., the lighthouse guided Roman ships as they travelled north during the conquest of Britain. After the fall of the Roman Empire it fell into disuse, but for many centuries it still served as a waypost for sailors, as they navigated the treacherous local waters known as the Costa do Morte (the Coast of Death).
The tower was used sporadically as a military lookout in times of war, but remained in a dilapidated state until 1789, when the military engineer Eustaquio Giannini began a period of much-needed restoration. Giannini remodelled the building in a neo-classical style, concealing the original Roman structure within a new outer layer of stone, and adding 21 metres to the original height of 34m.
There are a number of legends associated with the lighthouse. The most famous, and the one that inspired the tower’s name, takes the ancient Greek myth of Hercules and relocates one of his Twelve Labours to the coast of Galicia.
The story tells of how Hercules sleyed the wicked giant Geyron – a tyrant who had enslaved the city of Brigantium – and buried his severed head on a cliff near the ocean. He then built a tower on the burial site and founded a new city nearby, which he named Crunia (A Coruña). Scenes from this legend now adorn the tower’s bronze entrance door, the work of Galician sculptur Francisco Leiro.
Another legend was first described in a medieval Irish manuscript known as The Book of Invasions. It tells of how Breogán, an ancient Celtic king of Galicia, constructed a gigantic tower in order to spy far off lands that he might conquer. One day his son Íth climbed to the top and spotted a distant coastline. Together with his brother Mil, he set out on a voyage to claim the unknown country, and so it came to pass, we are told, that the Gaels first arrived on the shores of Ireland.
Today, a statue of Breogán stands a short distance from from the tower, one of several curious monuments dotted around the peninsula’s 47 hectare sculpture park.
Other works include a compass rose built from slate and granite, featuring emblems of the seven Celtic nations; an array of pre-historic looking menhirs (the work of Galician artist Manolo Paz); a giant steel conch which spins and hums in the wind; a cubist guitar by Pablo Serrano, and a number of sculptures relating to the Hercules and Geryon myth – all connected by a network of footpaths that criss-cross the promontory.
The Tower of Hercules has come to represent A Coruña in the same way as the Eiffel Tower represents Paris. Its image has appeared on the city’s coat of arms since 1448. During the waves of emigration to the Americas that took place at the start of the 20th century, its was the last thing many Galician emigrants saw of their homeland. Departing ships were known to slow as they passed, sounding their horns three times in a poignant ritual of farewell. A century later, in 2008, the tower was twinned with the Statue of Liberty in New York.
Here is the coat of arms of A Coruña, with the tower at its centre, as it once appeared on a 5 peseta stamp.
Four bright white flashes every twenty seconds: that is the tower’s unique light “signature”. Every active lighthouse in the world has one. The hypnotic, oddly comforting glow can be seen for 24 miles. Today most modern vessels are equipped with GPS, but should the instruments fail, the crew will do as they did in ancient times, and turn their gaze toward the eastern horizon.
At night the tower is illuminated with a waxy golden glow that emanates from its base. The walkway that leads to the entrance is embedded with lights. It is a beautiful sight in the darkness – like a votive candle placed on the farthest edge of the continent.
In 2009 the lighthouse was designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. This video features some wonderful footage of the tower, including shots of the original Roman foundation stones.
tower of hercules – LOCATION MAP