Visiting Celtic Galicia: An Itinerary

Don Harris | March 2017

Springtime is here and I am planning another Spanish adventure! I will be flying to beautiful Galicia in northwestern Spain with my wife Ruth. I would like to share our day-by-day itinerary with you in case you want to plan a visit, or just want to daydream about a trip to a distant land.

As an introduction, I could not describe it any better than my friend Pablo from Galicia did in a recent email. Here is an edited version of his note: 

"Galicia will surprise you. This special part of Spain defies the typical image of olive trees, sunshine, bullfights and flamenco. As you will see, the northern third of Spain is a very different experience. The great thing is that Galicia is not flooded with tourism like the Mediterranean areas.

Galicia is a green and fertile land. We are the main producers of pork and beef, milk, potatoes, and peppers, etc. As an anecdote, I can tell you that I'm 38 and remember being a child and feeding the cows and pigs of my grandparents, and still today I usually help in the grape harvest or harvesting wood for winter in the house of my girlfriend's family. Galicia is the place of Spain where you can eat best. No comparison possible with other places, we're at another level!

Galicia is surrounded by the ocean and is the capital of fishing in Spain. Vigo is the biggest fishing harbor of the world (really). We live in Vigo, biggest city of Galicia with 300.000 people, and even now, behind the buildings of a big avenue you can still find a few little houses where people grow vegetables or raise chickens. Here, life revolves around the sea. 

Galicia has Celtic roots, the traditional musical instrument is the bagpipe, as it is in Scotland or Ireland. Due to traditional difficult communications with the rest of the Iberian Peninsula, it was only lightly touched by the Moorish invasion and was one of the first territories liberated in the 770 years long Reconquista. There are Roman and Celtic ruins everywhere, some of them, bridges or lighthouses still in use (take a look at the Torre de Hércules in A Coruña).

Traditionally we're the rainiest part of Spain. We have a hundred words in Galician for describing the different types of rain, similar to the inuits with the snow. There is a joke here (don't be scared, its exaggerated): "It rained for forty days and nights, and they called it the Great Flood. Here we just call it: summer.”

Of course we share a lot with rest of Spain, but our mindset is a bit different. Compared with northern Europeans, in Latin countries (Italia, Greece, Spain, Portugal), we tend to be too loud. Don't worry, we're not angry, we're just this way. I hope this differences can enrich your vision of whole Spain." - Pablo

I would like to walk you through our planned itinerary as an example of how you can visit Spain independently, with no need for tours or tourists. All you need to do is pick up a rental car at the airport (which you have signed up for back in the States), pick a section of Spain you would especially like to visit, and you are on the way. My wife Ruth and I decided to go to Galicia with two friends, leaving on 6 April and returning the day after Easter. Of course we plan to meet up with Pablo and Rosana for a couple of days.

Our Itinerary
Thursday & Friday, April 6 & 7 - Fly to Spain
We plan to fly from Boston on Spain-based Iberia Airlines (codeshare with American) leaving at 6:25 PM and arriving in Madrid the next morning at 6:25 AM. We like Iberia because the staff on the plane are typically Spanish and are therefore very warm and friendly.

Friday, April 7 - Parador in Cambados 
When we arrive in Madrid we will linger in the Barajas airport for a couple of hours where we will drink glasses of freshly squeezed Valencian orange juice, and then catch another Iberia flight a little after noon. In just about 90 minutes we will arrive at the magical pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela.

While at the airport, we will pick up our rental car (diesel is most economical) and head for the Parador in Cambados. (We decided to stay at Parador hotels, government-restored palaces and castles for the most part. They are beautifully decorated with handmade fabrics and furniture recalling a chivalrous age, yet they cost the equivalent of a garden variety motel in the States.)

The sheltered port of Cambados on the Atlantic coast is dotted with commercial fishing boats with local fishermen hauling in the day’s catch. This village is where most of La Tienda’s gourmet seafood is caught and canned, much of it from the rias, or fjords which feed into the bay. I like the little cockles (berberechos) which are particularly plentiful this time of year. 

By the time we arrive at the hotel we will be ready for a good siesta following the long flight. Two or three hours later we will be refreshed enough to stroll around the town and sample some seafood tapas, maybe a little pulpo a la gallega (octopus with smoked paprika).

Saturday, April 8 - Parador de Baiona
After a restful night we will enjoy a sumptuous buffet breakfast featuring local cheeses, thin slices of Jamón Serrano and Ibérico, tortilla española, many pastries or fresh rolls -- and the ever present fresh jugo de naranja. Around 10:00 AM we will be on our way to the amazing town of Baiona, where Atlantic waves lap on the shore of a medieval settlement. The Parador there is astonishing with its grand staircase accenting the promontory on which it is located. After hiking by the crashing sea we will drive inland to Montfort de Lemos.

Sunday, April 9 - Dia de Ramos/Palm Sunday/Monforte de Lemos
This is a peaceful region of steep valleys covered with spectacular vineyards whose grapes produce delicious wines. The Ribiero Sacra artisan wines are big and aromatic, a favorite of ours. We will be staying at the parador which is composed of the keep, San Vicente do Pino Monastery and the palace of the counts of Lemos, which houses the Parador de Monforte. 

The monastery dates back to the ninth century, although the current structure was built in the seventeenth century in the neoclassical style. The town dates back into the mists of history. Before the Romans conquered the peninsula it was inhabited by Visigoths and Celts. There is evidence of Paleolithic people living here in the Bronze Age, from 600-900 BC! In town there is a small museum of sacred art, and a gallery of exquisite Sargadelos porcelain which ceased production a couple of years ago.

Since this is Palm Sunday, the first day of Holy Week, we hope to see the beginning of the Semana Santa processions that occur throughout traditional Spain. Usually a brotherhood will together carry a heavy mahogany paso, or platform, on which are life sized sculptures depicting one of the Stations of the Cross, events during the last days of Jesus’s life on earth. A penitential brotherhood in robes carries their paso on their shoulders, often for several miles into the night. The arduous journey may involve nearly 50 young men with their fathers, uncles, friends. Since the mahogany paso likely weighs more than a ton there are frequent stops. During the rest of the year the pasos reside in the various parishes in town until the appropriate time next year.

Monday, April 10 - Parador Corias in Asturias
We will continue along the heavily forested hills and valleys of indescribable beauty to the province of Asturias, the only area in Spain which was not conquered by the Moors (Berbers and Arabs). We will spend the night at the 11th century Benedictine monastery/Parador of Corias a couple of miles out of town from Cangas del Narcea.

About 24 km beyond is Xedré (also spelled Gedrez), and there we will find a perfectly preserved Romanesque church of Santa María in a tiny village deep in the jagged Picos de Europa. Nearby is Xinestosu, a remote village where shepherds are making their sheep’s milk cheese and wrap each round in esparto grass. The strong cheese is only available in this one little town. Whether we can get some will somewhat depend upon the weather, as the dramatic Picos de Europa Mountains are steep and treacherous.

Tuesday, April 11 - Torre de los Condes de Andreada Parador 
Next we return to inland Galicia. Some pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago may be familiar where we are next staying: the Torre de los Condes de Andreada which has been made into a cosy medieval Parador. It is a nice place to stop and unwind.

Wednesday-Saturday, April 12-15 - Viveiros, Pazo da Trave
The next four days we hope to share in the lenten devotion of the local fishermen in the small fishing town of Viveiros, located in the far northwest corner of Spain where the Cantabrian Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. The area is called the Sea of Death because of the many ships that have wrecked in the stormy waters (including some of the Spanish Armada as it sailed to an untimely end while planning to defeat the English fleet). 

If we are fortunate we hope to hang out with some of the handful of men who risk their lives harvesting percebes (goose barnacles) in the angry surf. The barnacles tenaciously cling to the rocks where they are constantly pounded upon by the turgid Atlantic surf. The young men either lower themselves by line, rappelling across the granite cliffs, or approach by a small skiff in order to chisel off some of these creatures. 

Each year some of the courageous men are swept out to sea or smashed against the rocks. Generation after generation commits themselves to this perilous way of life. I almost feel guilty when I sample these treats, since I can only enjoy due to the bravery of these men. Percebes are cleaned and boiled in seawater. They taste very “oceany,” somewhat like mussels or “steamer” clams from the North Shore of Massachusetts Bay.

The main goal of our trip is to witness the processions of Semana Santa in the small town of Viveiros. We have visited Spain for perhaps eight different Holy Week observations and found this Spanish devotion truly meaningful. The various towns and sections of the country follow the same format, but the expression of their piety differs greatly. 

Over at Cuenca scores of young men are rhythmically drumming their snare drums. It is almost hypnotic as it echoes off of the stone walls and cobblestone streets. During the day, Cuenca sponsors an international celebration of medieval music, performed by people from all over Europe. It made for a very full day. Down south in Andalucía the processions are more outwardly emotional. The stately walled city of Avila, the home of Santa Teresa, is only two hours drive west of Madrid. But I digress. 

We selected Viveiros this time since their Semana Santa was awarded an international designation. Several of the sculptures carried on the pasos are centuries old, but it is “catch as catch can.” One year I identified a walled medieval village in Castile that was so remote that we found hardly anyone was left living there. We had to look elsewhere for a celebration of Semana Santa. On the other hand we have discovered a couple of villages which were jewels of authenticity.

To lay our heads, we selected Pazo da Traves, a rustic fifteenth century stone lodge situated on the outskirts of Viveiro. described it as “a stone house dated from the fifteenth century, about three miles from the routes of the various processions.” The town even has volunteer guides who will help us find the best location to observe the processions, which are usually at night. During the day we can explore the rocky shoreline. 

The hotel is located in a charming valley bathed in tranquility amid large country houses. There is a large garden with trees and vegetation indigenous to Galicia, an authentic traditional Galician grain store and a chapel, all surrounded by forest belonging to the hotel. 

Easter Sunday, April 16 - Hospital de los Reyes Católicos. Santiago de Compostela
All week long are dramatic processions in Santiago, but there are significant crowds, many of them tourists, rather than the faithful whom you might find in a small town. However, Easter (Pascua) in one of the most celebrated pilgrimage spots in all of the world is not to be missed. The vast Romanesque cathedral holds thousands from all over the world, and I will feel a sense of cameraderia with my fellow Christians as we celebrate Easter together.

One of the most memorable events which occurs during designated holy days is when eight acolytes, tiraboleros, add frankincense into a bed of glowing coals within a giant silver thurible. The incense pot (weighing 125 pounds) is called a botafumeiro and through pulling on a block and tackle it produces a huge arc of billowing incense smoke. The pendulum gains speed traveling across the transept of this huge church filled with pilgrims until every corner is filled with clouds of the sweet aroma of frankincense.

As if that would not be enough, we will spend our last night in a Parador del los Reyes Catolicos which Queen Isabella built in 1494 to accommodate weary pilgrims. They were lucky pilgrims to have stayed in such a magnificent building. This is the ultimate parador and the climax of our trip.

Easter Monday, April 17 - Williamsburg Virginia
Fly Iberia from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid to Boston. (Legal Seafood Clam chowder is healing before trip home to Richmond and Williamsburg.) 

¡Feliz Pascua! Y buen viaje