Celebrating Semana Santa in Galicia

Don Harris | May 2017

Dear Friends,
The last time I wrote, I shared with many of you the projected itinerary for the April trip to Galicia that I shared with my wife Ruth and another couple. Some of you wrote to me asking how our trip turned out. In a word, it was wonderful. It is so easy to immerse yourself in Spain independent of the planned tour operators who, of necessity, must treat their clients as sheep. 
We settled on a ten-day trip, starting in Richmond, Virginia, and ending in a grand finale at the ancient pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela. Ruth and I had a wonderful time for a total cost of about $3,000. (I am not in any way a travel agent, but I mention the cost to dispel the automatic reaction: “Oh I would love to go to Spain, but it will be too expensive.”)
Our expenses included a rental car, dining out and stays at splendid (but not expensive) hotels. One place we enjoyed was a rustic 500-year-old rural inn where we stayed for a day or two during Holy Week (Semana Santa). It was located on the outskirts of a fishing village bordering the Cantabrian Sea in northernmost Galicia.
We ended our trip by staying at the palatial Parador hotel in Santiago de Compostela. It was a virtual medieval palace adjacent to the towering cathedral designed and built for the pilgrims in the late 15th century by Queen Isabella. 
There are three aspects of the trip which I would like to address. First, traveling along the coast and the interior of Galicia. Second, staying for a few days in a small town where we became involved with the people, who are, after all, essentially the same as you and I. Third, participating in a major celebration which included people from all over Spain and beyond.

Upon arriving in Madrid, we promptly caught a feeder plane to Galicia. We did not want to be involved with big cities, as interesting as they are with their museums and monuments (and their expensive hotels).
After renting a car in our destination, Santiago, we drove about an hour to Cambados, a famous fishing village and a source for La Tienda’s seafood. The couple who traveled with us slipped across the street to a small café close to the water and started feasting on the famous local fresh mussels and scallops harvested just a few miles away, while Ruth and I were checking into the Parador, formerly an ancestral mansion built in the 17th century. (Paradors are historic hotels often based in converted monasteries, castles or palaces.)
The next morning, we were joined in Cambados by our friend Pablo, who took a few days off from his studies and work to show us his beloved Galicia. I originally met him on the internet a couple of years earlier when we exchanged photos on Flickr. (Visit our Flickr page and you can see over 3,000 pictures of Spain which Ruth and I have taken over the last 50 years. They are arranged by province). Pablo is a thoughtful young man and gifted photographer. Over the past few years, we have formed a bond of friendship based on our common interests as we began to exchange thoughts about Spain and life in general over the Internet.

That I could form such a relationship so easily is one of the most important and unusual aspects of Spanish culture. At the risk of making generalities, my experience is that the Spanish are a people who share a common life with all those whom they meet. From infancy, they are surrounded by relatives and neighbors. Children are not excluded from anything. Even if their parents are visiting friends at a local tapas bar or café at 10:00 pm, the children are likely to be there playing with other children. The Spaniards have no idea what the phrase “children are to be seen but not heard” means. They truly believe that, “it takes a village to raise a child.”  Of course, it does. The English idea of privacy is replaced by community. 

So, when Pablo and I began to get to know each other via email, and he heard we were returning to his native Galicia, he responded with spontaneous generosity. He drove his motorcycle a couple of hours from his home in the port of Vigo and spent the day and evening with us. A few days later he drove four hours and stayed overnight to share Semana Santa with us. One could say the entire experience of being with Pablo the Galician (Gallego) was one of inclusion and generosity.
This comes to my second point: the ease of being welcomed by the local people. We decided to visit a small town of about 15,000 on the coast of the Cantabrian Sea. Viveiros is not a village where a tourist would be conspicuous; rather it is a prospering town where we could more easily blend in. We chose a rural inn with beautiful grounds and a gracious host and manager named Sara. We asked Sara to recommend a good place to eat and she referred us to a café on the second floor of a side street in town. There we had a feast in this unpretentious restaurant. It was maybe the best meal of the trip. While we were finishing our dinner (we ate a little earlier than many) we saw Sara and her husband (the chef at our rural hotel) arriving for their meal.
Over the following days, the entire town was involved in the Holy Week processions. This was neither a tourist event, nor specifically a church one either, strange as it may sound. It was an all-hands celebration with hundreds of people participating - boys and girls included, as well as their parents and grandparents. For the occasion, there were bands from military and police contingents playing appropriately somber music. Of course, the pasos, life sized floats, came from the local parishes and were carried by brotherhoods of men from each church. A feeling of unity embraced the town. It would be hard not to be involved with the people who surrounded you each day.
This brings me to my third impression. The normal Spaniard’s attitude to his neighbor is “we are all in this together” rather than “I am the captain of my destiny” or “my home is my castle.” We finally ended the trip with people from all walks of life, and all countries of origin at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Many of them were pilgrims of the Camino de Santiago who had walked hundreds of miles across Spain from France. A lot of them were Spaniards, of all ages. And then there were others like us who were drawn to this spot for a variety of reasons. We could see many pilgrims, having reached their goal, stretching out resting in the sun on the vast Plaza Obradoiro.
That Easter morning, the 12th century cathedral was filled to capacity three times over. As we waited patiently for access to the church, we were among hundreds of people who were patient and respectful of one another. No cutting in line or shoving. I was using my walker in the dense crowd, and it has a little seat. From my left came a frail old lady and she looked up at me, pointing at the seat. Before I knew it, she had rested her weary bones there. I felt fully part of the community.
Was this the trip I imagined as I built my itinerary? Yes, and much more. With a little preparation, and maybe some suggestions from those who have been before, you can create a visit to Spain that you will treasure the rest of your life.
Tu amigo,