Galicia – A Glimpse of Green Spain
Most people were talking what sounds to the untrained ear like a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish – the harder, rawer edges of Castilian rounded off by the smooth, musical tones of Portuguese. This is galego, the language of the Galicians – a direct descendant of the language used by many thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Iberian trovadores to sing their cántigas, or lyric poems, of love, desire and death.
– Giles Tremlett –
To the north of Portugal in the northwestern corner of Spain, there lies a region called Galicia. Although part of Spain, it can just as well be a separate country. It is different from the rest of Spain in many ways, but particularly for the fact that most people speak gallego, a distinct separate language, in addition to castellano, and its weather. It is a place often drenched in rain, where winter storms lash the rugged coast with unabated fury, where thick mist regularly blanket the landscape, and a summer day can easily be cold and grey. In this lush, green land, myth, legend and superstition often intertwine with fact to create a culture and a history in which a belief in witches still lingers, where saints are revered, and the Catholic heart beats strong. It is also the place where my Spanish family reside, holds a special place in my heart, and is the picture of Spain that comes to mind, when I think of that country.
It is a place where cows graze, wolves still roam the mountains, and eucalyptus trees scent the air. Tiny hamlets and small towns, surrounded by handkerchief size parcels of land, dot the countryside. Stone houses rise proudly from the land, or crumble with neglect, whilst many still have their own hórreo, or store for storing grain or potatoes, perched atop stone stilts. Rural life continues in ways in which time seems to stand still, despite technological advancements. People still have time to wander over to exchange gossip with their neighbours, fierce dogs on chains bark warnings to passersby, while old men continue to walk with their sheep as they graze, and women in house coats still work beside their menfolk in the fields.
Galicians are mostly short in stature, suspicious of outsiders, and hard-working, but despite their best efforts, the land has often in the past failed to feed its people, which led to mass immigration. Mostly to South America, but also to other parts of Europe. It is therefore ironic that Europe’s richest man, and the wealthiest retailer in the world is a son of Galicia. Amancio Ortega, a self-made man, still lives in Á Coruña, which is also where the headquarters of his manufacturing and retail company, Inditex, can be found. Not many people know his name, but mention Zara, Massimo Dutti, Stradivarius, or Bershka, and eyes light up with recognition. Economic migrants often return to their place of birth when they retire, and during the summer months the markets in small towns burst with life and conversation, as Galicians return to family homes, and strengthen the ties that bind them to their roots.
On a bright, sunny day, it is hard to imagine the winter storms whipping up ferocious waves, battering the coastline that twists and curls as it meets the Atlantic Ocean, and folds in onto itself. The Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death, littered with shipwrecks, is squeezed in between the Rias Altes to the north, where it spills into the Bay of Biscay, and the Rias Baixas to the south, bordering Portugal. It is these upper and lower fjord-like estuaries that give this part of Spain its distinct coastline. It is at Cabo Fisterra, meaning “end of the world”, where the Romans thought the sun was extinguished every night, and beyond which monsters dwelled.
The Rias Baixas, calmer, warmer and drier than their more northern counterpart, according to local legend, are the traces left by God’s fingers, formed as he rested in Galicia after creating the world. It is, at first glance, an unlikely place for vineyards, but the five distinct sub-regions that make up the area, produce excellent white wines, mostly from Albariño grapes. It is also a good place to escape to for sunshine and warmth, when the rest of Galicia hunker under a low sky.
For those who love archaeology, myths and legends, one doesn’t have to look far to stumble across dolmens, castros and petroglyphs in this part of Spain. Dolmens, stone burial structures dating from the Neolithic Age, and comprising of enormous slabs of stone that were covered by domes of earth, are regularly unearthed, and are mostly solitary and single structures. Castros, on the other hand, are often more impressive places to visit. Derived from the Latin word castrum, which means ‘hill fort’, castros are the remains of fortified settlements that date back to the Iron Age. The structures are almost always circular, and it is said that around 3000 dot the Galician landscape, garnering support for claims of a strong Celtic heritage. A claim that is often supported by the haunting music that flows from the gaita, or bagpipes, transporting one to a different time and place, and contrasting sharply with what one usually expects Spanish music to sound like. The claims of having Celtic roots is often disputed through the lack of historical evidence, but it lends an added depth to the mystical and magical nature of this land, so often shrouded in misty tendrils that reach back in time.
Famous or notorious Galicians:
- The most bloodthisty pirate of any age, Benito de Soto (1805-1830), is said to have hailed from Galicia.
- Ángel Castro y Argiz, father of Fidel and Raul Castro.
- Francisco Franco, the dictator, who ruled Spain from 1936 until his death in 1975 was born in Ferrol, and ironically banned the use of the local language, galego, during his dictatorship.
PLACES WORTH VISITING:
Wineries in the O Rosal area, bordering Portugal:
- Adega Quinta de Couselo – It is quaint and beautiful, and the wine is superb.
- Terras Gauda – They offer a very interesting wine tour, which includes a wine tasting.
- Museo Man de Camelle – Manfred Gnädinger called the small town of Camelle home from 1962 until his death in 2002, shortly after the Prestige oil disaster, which drenched his beloved ocean and sculpture garden in oil. In true Galician fashion some believe that he died from a broken heart. Living a simple life on the rocks facing the Atlantic ocean, he only ever wore a loincloth, despite the ferocious storms raging during the winter months. His tiny house provided only the necessary shelter, but it was from there that he set out to transform his environment by building an imaginative sculpture garden from rocks. Ghostlike figures and shapes the mighty ocean waves have smashed, when the winter storms howled. Helped along by vandals, it is in a sad state these days, but the museum in town dedicated to Man is a beautiful shrine to his work and life.
- Castro de Santa Tegra (Santa Tecla) is located on Mount Santa Tegra in A Guarda, and has sweeping views over the Atlantic Ocean, the Rio Miño, and Portugal.
- Castro de Baroña, outside the very pretty fishing village of Porto do Son, is located in a spectacular setting.
- Today, most people associate Galicia as the destination for the many pilgrims making their way to their end destination at the Cathedral of St James in Santiago de Compostela, but there are a myriad other walking paths and routes criss-crossing the landscape, much more beautiful than many stretches of the Camino Santiago de Compostela. The Way of the Lighthouses or Camino dos Faros is a great alternative and a fantastic way to explore the rugged coastline of the Costa da Morte, or Coast of Death.
- Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through A Country’s Hidden Past by Giles Tremlett (The chapter entitled Celts and Coffins focuses on Galicia.)
Visited: August/September 2016