Galicia: Where the Soul Finds Salvation
Graeme Bell is a full-time overlander and author currently traveling the planet with his wife Luisa and their two children, Keelan and Jessica. The Bell family joined up with Kensington Tours in Galica, Spain, and filed this story from the road.
Those of you who enjoy a good, long and tortuous hike would have heard of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Essentially all roads in Spain once lead to Santiago de Compostela. Initially, the pagan Celts made the pilgrimage to Galicia, seeking to travel to “the end of the world” and the Fisterra peninsula, the Milky Way guiding the pilgrims to the coast where the sun terminated, taking the souls of the dead with it before reanimating in the east the following day. Galicia eventually became a Christian stronghold even as the Moors established the Caliphate of Cordoba on the Iberian Peninsula. It rains too often in the mountainous, and the Moors preferred the warmth of the sun.
My family and I were driving our Land Rover camper across southern France en route to Spain and ultimately Africa and, to kill time on the long, dull roads, I listened to a podcast titled “The Celtic Genocide (Hardcore Histories 60 – Dan Carlin).” At the time, I did not realize that we were heading to a significant Celtic location. In the next week, we were to learn not only of Julius Ceaser’s exploits in Europe in his battle to decimate and control the Celts, Franks, Gauls, and Germans, but also how later the Roman Catholic Church was to expropriate a pilgrimage and a small ancient city.
It was when the Catholic Church became interested in the region the story starts to spice up. I am a cynical person, particularly where superstition is involved, and I like to look past the obvious to find the story behind the story, so please forgive me for not sticking to the traditional narrative. (It must be noted that we had a private guide, Marian, who was born and educated in Santiago de Compostela and who had a huge breadth of knowledge which was illuminating, breathing life into the ancient marble and statues. Marian provided the background, and I came to my own conclusions).
The story goes that the beheaded remains of Saint James (Santiago) of the Field of Stars (de Compostela) were found by a hermit who was guided by mysterious lights. The local bishop, Theodemar of Iria, declared the remains to be those of the saint. Cue the construction of a legend and a city which not only held the remains of the saint but offered something far more valuable and enticing – the town eventually became a portal to heaven, and you could earn your place in Catholic nirvana either by the sweat of pilgrimage or a lifetime of service as either a priest or a nun or with cold hard cash. (Yes, in Santiago you can buy your way into heaven.) Like a pilgrim, you had to walk a minimum of 62 miles (100 kilometers) to the city where you would light a candle and confess your sins to a beleaguered priest. The wealthy needed only to be buried within the Cathedral de Santiago and they could achieve that by either purchasing an apartment in the Pazo de Raxoi (built in the 1800s and now the town hall), by undertaking the expense of maintaining one of the various chapels within the cathedral, or by offering extravagant gifts or offerings to the church. The donations of the wealthy provided the cathedral with exquisite works of art and the finances to rebuild and modify the temple through the centuries, a task which was performed with much care for the renovation but with little concern for the history of the cathedral – much of the former art, statues, and masonry were discarded. Interestingly, despite the city’s importance to the Catholic Church, only two Popes have ever visited in an official capacity: Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.
Our tour of the historic city center took six short hours and we retreated to the San Francisco Monumento hotel for a much-needed dinner after listening to a very loud punk-rock band blast mysterious, almond-cake-selling nuns. (Almonds were traditionally used as legal tender by the pilgrims as no almonds grew in the area.) The hotel itself was once a monastery and has been tastefully renovated into a modern, contemporary hotel located a stone’s throw from the historic cathedral and which serves an excellent breakfast to fuel a day of exploring. We planned to wake early but, for some reason, we slept so soundly that we rose late. A pity; I wanted to lie there among the crisp white sheets and ponder the expertly crafted wooden ceiling while listening to the city come to life before wolfing down two cups of excellent coffee, a bacon-and-egg sandwich, and a sweet fruit salad.
Instead of a long slow morning, we bundled Marian into the Land Rover, and she directed us west, up over a mountain towards the Costa de Morte, the end of the earth and the villages of Muro and Fisterra. We learned that there are three things specific to Galicia which were particularly significant: the stone crosses (cruceiros), granaries (horreos), and manor houses (pazos).
The stone crosses can be found at crossroads, churches, and cemeteries and are built to obtain forgiveness for sins, protect travelers and would protect Galicians and pilgrims from the procession of the dead – the bedtime story which scared the wits out of little Galician kids. The grain stores are synonymous with the agricultural heritage of the region, and the stone manor houses were the refuge of Galician nobility. All three of these structures are built of stone, and you will be hard pressed to find any structure which is not made of stone. Along with the scallop shell (which is symbolic because of its structural perfection and role in the story of Saint James), it is these structures which you will eventually associate with Galicia. Tireless Marian regaled us with tales of ancient Galicia intermingled with stories of her family, helping us to realize that, unlike much of historic Europe, Galician culture a is living, breathing continuation of its incredible past. The fishermen fish, the churches serve, the pilgrims keep on coming, and the river Xallas ends its pilgrimage west as the only European waterfall that flows directly into the sea.
Our day tour ended at the lighthouse where countless pilgrims ended their journeys and where they would burn a memento, a private sacrifice which accompanied the setting sun and terminated their quest for salvation and forgiveness. For modern pilgrims, the journey may end there. But for ancient pilgrims, this point was merely the end of the beginning. (The ancients could not catch a taxi, then a bus, then an airplane and still had to travel back to their homes, usually on foot and often very, very far away.)
Driving back to the hotel, we discussed the following day’s activities with Marian. The itinerary suggested we would like we drive a 250-mile (400-kilometer) round trip to Ribeira Sacra where we would visit monasteries, a winery or two, and explore the region. I had been reading about the city of A Coruna and suggested to Marian that perhaps we could visit that city instead. I suppose that may be one of the greatest benefits of having a private guide – not only should they be of the highest caliber but they are also flexible and will accommodate the client as opposed to having to accommodate a group. It was decided that we would visit the city (where Marian lived with her family) and would get a glimpse of modern and ancient Galicia existing side-by-side.
The day started and ended at the Torres de Hercules (the Tower of Hercules), the oldest operational Roman lighthouse in Europe. Constructed in the 2nd century and renovated in 1792, it looks like it was built in 1952, so thoroughly has the stone withstood the elements. Again Marian was strapped into the front seat of our vehicle and guided us around the city. By now she had become part of the family and knew that we enjoyed a tasty picnic much more than a sit-down lunch and had brought Galician bread, cheese, and meat for us to enjoy while we sat on a warm rock atop the Punta Mexillosa hill with views of the city below. The old town itself is built on a thin sliver of land with beaches facing the ocean and a port within the bay. Picasso attended school here, and it seemed to me that this was a city which genuinely valued its children as schools occupied the very best coastal real estate. It was a public holiday, and the beach (which is converted into a wall of sand to protect the city from winter storms and massive waves) was littered with the bronze bodies of sun worshipers. I felt like I was walking the Dizengoff promenade in Tel Aviv, the sun beating down. Having a local as a guide guarantees that you will visit not only the most significant buildings, plazas, monuments, and statues, but you will also find the best ice cream or street food in town, and the vendor will treat you like family because your friend’s family have been loyal customers for years. And if it is shopping you are after your guide can take you to the best stores in the district, you know, those stores which cater for the local population and charge local prices.
Marian guided us towards Santa Cruz, across the bay from A Coruna and one of the wealthiest areas in Spain. Imagine our surprise to see a 26-foot-tall (eight-meter) statue of Che Guevara standing guard over the entrance to the district. The story goes that mayor Angel Garcia Seonae of Oleiros de Santa Cruz was once a friend of Fidel Castro (who was himself Galician) and had secretly built the statue under wraps at night using $170 000 of public funds. When local politicians and residents protested, the mayor responded tersely, “If it were a statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary there would not be a single protest round here. God damn them.”
Standing later studying the statue of women facing the sea awaiting their menfolk to return from working in South America, Marian sang the beautiful song by Rosalia de Castro, (Adios Rios, Adios Fontes) which stirred our emotions. Once again, Marian had brought the past into the present, and we felt an affinity for the people of A Coruna, for Galicia, and for the city in which we stood. Galicia has a soul, and I believed we had glimpsed why this land had promised salvation to so many for so many years.
Before we hugged Marian and said genuinely heartfelt goodbyes we were surprised to be invited to her home district where we were treated to local paella, excellent crumbed calamari rings, and a large, cold draught of Estrella Galicia – a beer so delicious, fresh and smooth that we returned to the Tower of Hercules feeling refreshed, relaxed, enlightened, and ready for a good nights sleep in our Land Rover camper.
Thank you to Marian Coruna, Kensington Tours, and Spain On Top for the incredible experience!
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