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Galicia of the Celts

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Galicia of the Celts

Galicia, Spain

By Maureen Barry

The melancholy skirl of the bagpipes echoing down a misty glen made my spine tingle with a strong sense of deja-vu. For Celtic Galicia, isolated on the rim of Europe in the far north-western corner of Spain, has more than the climate and an abundance of names prefixed with ‘O’ in common with the west of Ireland. Verdant Galicia’s mountain ranges enclose narrow valleys where the streams jump with trout, chiselled rocky fingers or “rias” indent the coastline, while its people share a Gaelic intensity for their poetic national language and a folklore steeped in superstition and the supernatural.

The Celtic invaders of 1,000 BC must have felt immediately at home in this rain-swept green land facing the setting sun. The Moors left no mark on Galicia and for centuries the province developed out of the mainstream of Spanish life. The result, for the visitor used to seeing Spain through suntinted glasses, is a fascinating time-warp, a sense of stepping back into history.

The Galicians, or Gallegos, hemmed in by Portugal and with none of the Spanish lands of the Requistadores to expand into, were forced to turn inwards and divide their land up into smaller and smaller holdings. Today bright green vegetation covers every inch of cultivable land, enclosed by the granite fences each Gallego has erected round his little plot. The area has always been poor and as soon as the New World was opened up Gallegos left in droves for the Americas — there are said to be more Gallegos in Buenos Aires alone than in Galicia.

The melancholy skirl of the bagpipes echoing down a misty glen made my spine tingle with a strong sense of deja-vu. For Celtic Galicia, isolated on the rim of Europe in the far north-western corner of Spain, has more than the climate and an abundance of names prefixed with ‘O’ in common with the west of Ireland.

Yet the charm of Galicia lies in its idiosyncracy. After a scenic drive from Bilbao through the rugged grandeur of Asturias I suddenly found myself enfolded in the sweep of Galicia’s green valleys. On an upland road that wove around the landscape following the line of least resistance I was brought to a halt by a swaying flock of full-uddered cows, leisurely chivied by an old man with a sprig of wild flowers in his buttonhole. Galicia very evidently proceeds at its own pace and according to its own values. With exquisite courtesy Jose Manuel accompanied me to his hamlet’s only bar where I sampled crusty rye bread, cured beef (cecina) and beef chorizo, washed down with a jug of the local Albarino wine.

We passed Jose Manuel’s sturdy, self-sufficient farm, with its conical hayrick, its trellis of vines (producing excellent white wines similar to Portugal’s “green” wines, like Ribero, Albarino and Condado) and the small plot where he grew turnips, peppers, maize, peas, cabbage and Spain’s finest potatoes. Jose Manuel’s farm was grand enough to have a monumental granite granary or horreo set up on pillars, topped with a gabled roof and a cross. His sheltered garden boasted oranges, kiwi fruit, palm trees and blooming camellias, which have rioted here since their introduction from Japan. The hills around this little Eden were covered with chestnut, oak and furze forests, while nearer the sea pine and eucalyptus grew in lush profusion to the water’s edge.

Gallegos do not have the urban instinct of their fellow Spaniards and most of the population is spread out in some 30,000 villages of 100-200 people. Sprinkled here and there in prime positions are the showy bungalows of the Americanos, returned with bulging wallets from the New World. Many of the older houses along the coast have elaborate glassed-in balconies or gallerias, La Coruña is famous for them. A distinctive feature of the landscape are the forts or castros the Celts built in the most unlikely and inaccessible places, on mountain tops or with their backsides half into the sea, while the symbols they carved into rock have been adopted by the present day political radicals.

The Galician language has no Celtic roots, being more of a close relation to Portuguese, but it has fought a continuing battle for recognition. En Gallego por favor (in Galician please) implore the wall posters, while signposts in Castilian Spanish have been crossed out and the Galician version substituted. Now Galician is officially recognised, it is compulsory in schools and has its own newspapers and television programmes.

Driving from Jose Manuel’s farm through the province of Lugo I was never out of sight of water — lakes and springs feed rivers, brooks and streams which flow so fast that their curiously short names seem appropriate. Three letter words are enough Sil, Sor, Iso, Ull, Lor, Mao, Tea... all of them an angler’s paradise covering a thousand-kilometre network of bucolic trout streams.

The Sierra de Ancares in Lugo is an area of outstanding natural beauty. Gorse, heather and cranberry cover the open areas and ancient forests of oak, hazel and holly grow higher up. In the villages of the Sierra you can see primitive “pallozas” — round stone houses with thatched roofs where family life still revolves around the fireplace in the centre of the room. Wolf, roe deer and wild boar roam these mountains and in the spring the capercaillie, king of the forest, screams his mating call. Regular folk festivals are traditional in the villages, when the Gallegos, rigged out in national costume, dance the “muneira” and the “pandeira” to the music of the “gaita” or bagpipes, timbrel and castanets. Semi-wild horses live in the mountains between Baiona and A Guarda and their periodic round-up and branding gives another excuse for a round of lively fiestas.

It has been said that the littoral of Galicia has everything: miles and miles of the spectacular, the beautiful, the rugged, the fascinating and the unexpected. The Cantabrian beaches of the north are enormous and popular, while farther south near Fisterra are the less accessible, violent and beautiful beaches for brave bathers. Between Xallas and the Miño the land and sea intertwine in perfect symbiosis; the coast becomes softer and sandier. The vast beach at A Lanzada is a favourite with local Catholic matrons, as a dip in the water is supposed to cure sterility.

But wherever one finds oneself in Galicia all roads lead to Santiago. Santiago de Compostela of the emotive name exploded onto the tourist map as long ago as the eleventh century. The legend began in the year 812 when a monk discovered the lost bones of St James in a field in western Galicia, guided there by the light of a star. Thus Campus Stellae - the Latin for “field of the star” - and the title Santiago de Compostela. St James’ bones were all the rage and the pilgrimage to Santiago became one of the great acts of faith of the Middle Ages. At the peak of its popularity in the fourteenth century over haIf a million pilgrims a year — Chaucer’s Wife of Bath was one of them — made the perilous journey to the shrine, to claim indulgences from Purgatory and the right to wear the scallop shell emblem of the saint. If the road to Santiago was the first mass travel destination, then the first tour guide, Codex Calixtinus, was written in 1130 by a French monk, Amery de Picaud, offering the pilgrims advice on where not to drink the water, where to find a decent bed for the night and how to avoid muggers.

Today’s pilgrims shouldn’t encounter such problems, for Calicians are renowned for their hospitality and refined cuisine, in fact la cocina gallega is generally conceded to be the best in Spain. After viewing the baroque splendours of Santiago’s cathedral, what better place to unwind than in the Hotel de los Reyes Catolicos next door, a former hostel for pilgrims and now converted into a state-owned Parador of the most shameless luxury. The food, in the arched subterranean restaurant, is exquisite. Galician shellfish is considered to be the best in Europe: lobster, cockles, mussels, shrimp, oysters, crab, octopus, barnacles and ugly creatures you cannot name, plus hake, bream, turbot, lamprey, eel, sardines and scallops feature on every menu and are especially good in the seafood cafes that line Santiago’s medieval side streets.


Get up early in the morning so as not to miss the fresh fish auction in the “Muro” market in La Coruña, one of the most important places in the world for direct sales. Seafood farming has become a major industry in Galicia with live turbot and lobster arriving as far afield as Japan in less than 24 hours. Everywhere in Galicia eating is a pleasure. Would you like to comment on this article, or contribute an article or review of your own? Get in touch below

In the family restaurants and marisqueiros in the towns and villages of the hinterland you will find food cooked with love. Specialities are empañadas, a sturdy pie of bread dough with a variety of savoury filling, caldo Gallego, a broth of turnip greens, turnips and white beans, or a hearty winter dish, lacon con grelas (pork shoulder with greens, sausages and potatoes). Cheeses to try are the semi-hard Cebrero and the smoked San Simon, or the soft Tetilla and Ulloa for immediate consumption. Irresistible for dessert is the tarta de almendras (almond tart) topped off in proper fashion with a glass of Galician firewater, orujo, burned with lemon peel and sugar to become the famous “queimada”.

Nothing in Galicia is cultivated with such loving care as the grape vine. The Galicians themselves believe their most characterful wine comes from Condado de Salvatierra and El Rosal, bordering the River Miño and the Portuguese frontier. There is general agreement that the most outstanding of all Galician wine is the white Albarino from the Val de Salnes, introduced from the Rhine by Benedictine monks from Cluny during the twelfth century. Probably the best way for the visitor to sample the little-known wines of Galicia is while lingering over a platter of glorious seafood, relax, sip and savour, relying on the expertise of the restaurateur who will have bought direct from a favourite grower. Buen provecho!
 

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