Galicia, Soul of Spain

Don Harris | August 2011

My wife Ruth and I have visited virtually every nook and cranny of Spain over the last 45 years, and many times our friends ask me what our favorite part of Spain is. Sunny Andalucía, noble Toledo or Galicia with its hearty fishermen braving the turbulent Atlantic Ocean – which is my favorite? It would be like asking me, which is my favorite son? I cannot answer that question because I love them all. In a different sense, I love all the parts of Spain. 

One region which has a special place in my heart is Galicia, which in many ways embodies the soul of Spain. It is often overlooked by the impatient tourist since its northwest location is inconvenient for those who want to rocket through Spain in three or four days! Along with the lush pastures and formidable mountains that it shares with neighboring Asturias, its roots trace back to the Celtic people, the same people who also populated the British Isles. There is little to no Moorish or Mediterranean influence here. In their villages, people speak Gallego, their unique language or dialect that has evolved over centuries.

I call Galicia the soul of Spain because when we visit its major city, Santiago de Compostela, we rub shoulders with pilgrims who are completing their arduous walk along the Camino de Santiago. They are from all of Spain, and are accompanied by fellow pilgrims from all over the world. 

Their destination is the 12th century cathedral that holds the earthly remains of Santiago – St. James, brother of Jesus, the patron saint of Spain (and whose scallop shell is central to our logo). I find it a profound experience every time I enter her walls. I do not presume to know the hearts of the others who arrive there. Most of them are on a spiritual journey of some sort, if not specifically with a Christian focus, they probably share the same personal goal of seeking inner peace through a quiet personal journey.

At various times, Ruth and I have lingered in the villages along the Camino with their monasteries and refugios, which for over 1,000 years have served humble people from all walks of life passing through. (One of our sons walked the entire route one summer.) For many years we have enjoyed leisure time in the amazing city of Santiago de Compostela: such a mixture of young and old, university students and seekers, and people who are there to immerse themselves in the ambiance of the country and especially the cuisine. 

There is no place in Spain where one can find fresher fish and seafood. For those who are unable to linger in this magical place, there is a famous Galician canning tradition where fishermen painstakingly put in tins the most precious treasures from the sea so you can take a little of Galicia home with you. You can tuck in your suitcase tins of tiny clams called berberechos, sea urchins, and perhaps the most special of all, percebes - little barnacle type creatures which are chipped off rocks by men who brave the pounding surf of the Costa del Muerte, the site of many shipwrecks through the centuries. 

Galicia is about the only place you can sample percebes the day they are harvested. Other less exotic favorites of mine are scallops prepared as Coquille San Jacques (French for Santiago), or a bowl full of steaming mussels fresh from the nearby Atlantic Ocean. Sometimes I just like to make a snack of just a loaf of the local bread, Pan Gallego.

One of the most enjoyable times Ruth and I have had in Galicia is the time we left Santiago for a week and meandered by car along the rugged coastline and tranquil rias (fjords) to drop into the many little fishing villages. Even though it was February, the weather was mild and the landscape was dotted with acacia trees in full bloom. It was extra special for me because I remember, as a little boy, going to the huge flower show in Boston in January, and being overwhelmed by rooms full of transplanted acacia trees with their fragrant boughs of yellow blossoms. They were imported to assure those of us at the show that the gloomy winter days we were enduring would be over and springtime would be coming soon.

On our way back from the northern shore we drove through the interior of Galicia, which is lush and green with rolling hills dotted with cows. Some compare the terrain to Ireland. Most memorable was the town of Lugo named after the Celtic god of light which was conquered by the Romans in 13 BC. It is encircled by a 1700-year-old Roman wall with 71 towers. 

We always stop at the municipal market to get the pulse of the city. The Lugo market was a cornucopia of fresh vegetables and greens, and shellfish so fresh some of them were still crawling around. Close to the cheese lady who had a wonderful collection of fresh tetilla and other local cheeses was the baker who was offering what I think is the greatest bread in the world, Pan Gallego - crusty, sturdy and full of ‘nooks and crannies.’

But most of all I remember how personable and warm were the people serving us standing behind the stalls. It was not the same kind of effusive greeting we experienced from the people of Mediterranean descent whom you would encounter in Andalucía. Their welcome in Galicia is typically Celtic, drawn from a society that has bagpipes and wooden shoes, and whose traditional dances are similar to those in Ireland or Brittany. In fact, several of the members of the popular Riverdance group are natives of Galicia.

Other favorite parts of Spain? Where do I begin? I could tell you about the rugged Pyrenees and Picos de Europa where remote valleys contain monasteries with precious frescos. Then I could recount our family living among the bowers of bougainvillea and oranges near the sherry bodegas of Andalucía with its rich blend of Christian and Moorish culture. I cannot think of a more cordial group of people. 

Or I could recount my impressions of the majestic city of Toledo, an astonishing amalgam of medieval cultures. Santa Maria la Blanca, formerly a synagogue, is a Christian church built by Muslim architects. Nowhere in the world is my favorite painter, El Greco, more present than in Toledo. Within the 13th century cathedral is an intimate window into the mystical painter’s soul: his portraits of the 12 apostles - lined up along the high walls of the sacristy! 

But this is for another day as I have a lifetime of rich memories of Spain. But none is more vivid than Galicia, the earthy region of fishermen and host to pilgrims from around the world. I never tire of returning.

Su amigo,