The home of Christendom’s third most sacred city is also rife with black magic & superstition, as The Editor discovers on a journey to Galicia. Drinking a queimada for luck he visits Santiago, Cathedrals Beach and tries the local cuisine…
A bit like the Basque Country, Galicia is one of those Spanish regions that feels distinctly different to the rest of this Iberian nation. The Galician people have their own language, their own cuisine, and their own distinctive culture and traditions that are very different to those in the south. Forget bullfighting and flamenco, this is the land of bagpipes and flaming brews.
Forget bullfighting and flamenco, this is the land of bagpipes and flaming brews.
The latter of these are officially known as queimadas, a fiery punch made with Galician brandy, fruits, coffee beans, lemon peel and spices. After the concoction is mixed, traditionally in a clay pot or even hollow pumpkin, it is set on fire and a master of ceremonies recants a centuries-old spell over the brew, invoking “the Forces of air, earth, sea and fire” to protect the community from evil. This druidic practice is believed to have been passed down from the Galicians’ Celtic ancestors in the 11th century, and has endured through the ages – initially from superstition, but perhaps now more by tradition – and people today will still drink the queimada so that “witches will flee, straddling their brooms”.
The ritual of the queimada is far from the only superstition alive and well in Galicia. Everywhere you turn in Santiago de Compostela you’ll see souvenir shops selling grotesque dolls of meigas and bruxas… that is to say white and black witches, who cast their spells for light and dark purposes respectively; whilst every farmhouse you’ll pass walking in the green Galician countryside has triangular stones placed on their slate roofs to ward off evil.
The supernatural and the divine are often interlinked, and so it is in Galicia. The holy pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago was actually appropriated by the Catholic church from a pagan pilgrimage to (what they believed was) the end of the world. Long before King Alfonso II took a hike from Asturias to pay homage to the relics of the Apostle St. James, pagan pilgrims would journey across northern Spain to complete a born-again ritual. They would finish at Finisterre (which literally means “the end of the world”), burn their dirty clothes, and witness the sun sink into the infinite sea off La Costa de Morta (the Coast of Death). This journey symbolised the pilgrim’s death and rebirth.
The holy pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago was actually appropriated by the Catholic church from a pagan pilgrimage to (what they believed was) the end of the world.
Indeed whilst today’s Catholic pilgrimage officially finishes at the splendid Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are entombed in the cathedral, many Christians past and present still carry on to Finisterre to see the ocean that marks, if not the end of the world, the end of Europe at least.
Whether it is the mysteries of nature and the elements, or the mysticism of a Christian God, many travellers have sought and found meaning in Galicia. And for those that haven’t, there’s always the pulpo de Gallego…
Highlights of Galicia
A run down of some of the most interesting things to see and do that I discovered on my travels in this part of North Spain, including a look at the aforementioned Galician-style fried octopus and other gastronomical treats…
Hiking The Camino
There are many routes of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, but one thing they all have in common is that they all end here in Galicia, in the regional capital of Santiago de Compostela, Christiandom’s third most sacred city. I myself hiked select parts of the Northern Way on a trip across all four regions of North Spain, including a section in Galicia that took me from the small town of Lourenza, with its Monastery of San Salvador, to Mondoñedo (more on that town in a bit). The walk took me through forest, farmland and towns and along the way I saw grazing cows, the sacred white Galician horse, the classic regional granaries (thin rectangular constructions on 3m high stone stilts), chicken coups, barking dogs and kittens slinking for cover at the sight of humans. The air was ripe with the smells of hay, peppermint and manure and thick with birdsong whilst butterflies flitted in hedgerows. At one point a group of serious young pilgrims passed us, and I asked one, Milda from Lithuania, why she wanted to do the Camino. “Why not? I finished my studies and I wanted to find the answer to life. But now after 600km I don’t know the answer… but I’m good. [Hiking the Camino] is not the answer, but it’s just a good feeling. It’s good to walk here, it’s beautiful.” And then she was gone in a blur of Nordic walking sticks.
Playa de las Catedrales
Even the landscapes are holy in Galicia, and “Cathedrals Beach” is an unmissable stop off for beach-loving travellers, even if these days you need a permit to visit during the summer months (hint: you can apply for one here. It’s free). This 1.4km Blue flag beach is famous for its arching stone formations and that have been created by millennia of erosion, and remind one a little of the flying buttresses common in Gothic churches – hence the name of the beach. Walking around on these fine sands early in the morning, or taking photos from up on the grassy clifftops was a real treat. We visited at high tide, which meant we avoided the crowds, but at low tide more of the rock formations and caves are revealed, so you might prefer to time your visit for then.
A holy town on the Northern Route to Santiago, Mondoñedo‘s principal attraction is its Cathedral, which was recently declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In larger towns and cities such a church normally lives under the shadows of towering skyscrapers, but in little old Mondoñedo the cathedral’s size versus the adjacent buildings is a reminder of how impressive such churches must have been when first constructed – this one was consecrated in 1248. Continuing the Galician theme of combining the sacred with the superstitious, Mondoñedo also has it’s very own Merlin “museum”. Staffed by one rather eccentric gentlemen it houses a random collection of second hand books, busts, miniatures, key rings, clogs and collectibles, which may or may not have something to do with the legendary magician.
Sobrado dos Monxes
Whilst the Sobrado abbey is still a functioning community, indeed one that welcomes pilgrims from the Camino into its albergue on a daily basis, the abbey’s vast adjoining church is empty and disused – but tourists can still enter. In fact seeing the interior of this vast place of worship stripped of all finery made it somehow seem grander and more spectacular than most churches in my eyes. The vaulted ceilings, immense pillars and ornate stonemasonry were laid bare to be admired in their relatively barren magnificence, whilst the moss and grasses that were growing out of the nooks and crannies of domes and windows gave the church a “remnants of a lost civilisation” aura. Epic stuff, and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Santiago de Compostela
All roads lead to Rome, but all Caminos lead to Santiago de Compostela. This city grew up around the shrine of St. Jame’s relics and indeed the name of the city literally means St. James of the Field of Stars, as it was said that stars appeared in the sky above the ground where a shepherd discovered the remains of the Apostle. It is a beautiful and serene town full of picturesque squares, church spires and parks as well as plenty of great restaurants, bars and traditional shops selling everything from Galician cakes to jewellery made out of jet stone (mined in neighbouring Asturias). Priests frequently pass by in jacket and clerical collar, old women amble past in tinted sunglasses and students make their way to lectures books in hand, or gather on cafe terraces for coffee. The only negative thing I can say about this charming city is that the sound of that infernal instrument, the bagpipes, is never far away. A torturous legacy of Galician’s celtic origins.
Cathedral of Santiago
Santiago’s Cathedral needs a special mention. Completed in 1211, like most such churches it was reformed and added to several times so that it’s architectural style is a mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque. Each of its four facades are impressive, but especially that one that looks over Praza do Obradoiro square, the place pilgrims come to do collect their certificate and contemplate the magnitude of their journey. Every day at noon and 7:30pm the cathedral hosts a special pilgrims’ mass, attended by religious (and non-religious) travellers, during which the humungous silver Botamufeiro – the largest censer in the world – is swung on ropes over the congregation, dispensing holy incense. You can also visit of course the crypt where St. James is buried, or hug his statue by the altar. One of the most exciting things you can do though is take a guided tour up onto the roof of the cathedral. Here you can get amazing views over the city.
Pazo de Oca
Referred to as the “The Galician Versailles”, this manor house owes its appearance to 18th century refurbishment in the Baroque style, a refurbishment which also included the landscaping of its expansive gardens. I visited the latter and with their water features, hedgerows, flowers, sculptures and ceramics they make a great half day trip from nearby Santiago de Compostela. I particularly liked the duel ponds, representing heaven and hell… one with white swans and one with black swans. Guided tours of the palace can also be arranged for groups. More info here.
It’s impossible to write a travel piece on Galicia without mentioning the region’s sensational cuisine. It might just be my favourite in Europe, starting with the seafood which is often fished in the region’s famous rias, dramatic estuaries where your future supper can suck up the nutrients of both fresh and salt water, making them extra tasty when they arrive on your plate. If you’ve spent any time in Spain already then you’ll have already come across pulpo de Gallego (known locally as pulpo à feira), which is fresh octopus prepared Galician style simply with olive oil, salt and paprika – when you’ve got such great ingredients at your disposal why complicate things? But it’s not just the seafood that’s succulent in these parts, Galicia was once known as the land where cows outnumbered people, and cattle breeding is still big business. Most of these cattle roam free and graze on organic crops perhaps explaining why the steak here is so good. Aside from both seafood and meat, great vegetables (pimientos del Padron are from here!), beans, bread, some decent beers and crisp delicious wines, such as Albarino, Ribeira and Mencia, all combine to offer something close to gastronomical nirvana. If you’re looking for some restaurant recommendations then I ate fantastic meals at A Tafona de Peregrino and Casa Marcelo (amazing modern Galician cuisine) in Santiago de Compostela, and Restaurante Montero just outside Mondoñedo. Bo proveito!
Duncan travelled to Galicia as part of the #InGreenSpain blogtrip across the four regions of North Spain, with the support of The Galician Tourist Office, Spain Tourism and The Travel Mob. All opinions expressed are his own.