Our writer Holly Daffurn visited Galicia, Spain. With wild unspoiled beaches, rugged landscapes, divine cuisine and myths and legends aplenty, Galicia offers an intriguing and characterful under-the-radar travel destination…
I like to think of each new travel destination as a character. Every new place that I visit has its own personality that consists of so much more than the basic physical attributes. Some places are brimming with myths, legends, stories and tales. Galicia is one of these places. During my time there, I fell in love with the idyllic beaches, soaring clifftops, verdant landscapes and lush pastures. All of which form the perfect backdrop for all manner of theatrical stories and yarn spinning.
The rich culture, fierce creativity and strong traditions that have made Galicia the place it is today are also behind the rich culture of story. The stories that I learned on my visit to the region and its capital Santiago de Compostela gave me a glimpse of this beautiful and intriguing place and really helped it to come to life in my eyes…
Santiago de Compostela
To fully embrace the culture of the area, you can take part in one of the traditions that Franco Street is renowned for. This quaint street runs alongside the prestigious University of Santiago de Compostela, which was founded by the Alonso III de Fonseca the archbishop of Santiago de Compostela. Not only is the university one of the oldest universities in the world of continuous operation, but it is also known for a special graduation ceremony.
Franco Street is home to around 30 unique bars and at the end of their studies, the students will visit each of them in turn, getting a stamp in each bar in the hope of having a drink in all 30. This celebratory tradition is known as the Paris-Dakar rally after the famous French motor race that is known for off the road endurance and rough terrain.
Although we didn’t quite make it to 30 bars (!) we spent a leisurely afternoon enjoying tapas, people-watching and soaking up the atmosphere in this laid back part of Santiago de Compostela.
The Legend of St James
It’s hard to travel far in Santiago de Compostela without hearing about St James. The belief that the Saint’s remains were buried here lies at the very heart of the city and has led to the substantial growth of the area.
The legend talks of a stone boat that the disciples used to bring St.James’ remains to Galicia. It was thought that the area held a special spiritual attraction. In the 9th century, a bishop was told about a magical rain of stars that fell on a specific spot in the forest. On investigation, he was led to the precise spot where St James’ remains lay. This is why the city was called San-tiago (Saint James) de (of) compo-stela (field-star).
As soon as I heard this story, the little star references that occur frequently in the architecture of the area really started to make sense. I started seeing them everywhere in Santiago. It adds a whole new slant to exploring this majestic city and means you really look at the architecture and appreciate the beauty of it.
The place where the sun dies
Before America was discovered, Santiago was believed to be the edge of the world. It is only 87km from the ocean, and it was an impressive thought that the sunset so close to where they lived. This added to the mystery and wonder of the area. In my time there, I realised that Santiago is very much like a theatre. Former monasteries have now become museums or hotels with a very interesting history. There are many beautiful facades – like the one on the building in silversmith square – but they are literally facades.
Many of the buildings are completely empty like sets at the theatre. The sense of culture and tradition of the area is still very strong, there is still an important element of religious intent but it has faded substantially over recent years. Santiago is not only associated with being the place that the sun went to die, but the whole city has been built on the concept of death.
From the discovery of Saint James’ remains all of the tradition and architecture grew up around them. Nowadays the city is full of vibrancy and vitality, but the link to death is still reflected in street theatre, statues and stories.
The ritual of the incense
Santiago cathedral is renowned for its incense burning ceremony. Every Friday at 7.30pm the cathedral is full of people waiting to take part in the special incense mass. The incense burner (bota fumero) is so vast that it takes 7 men to swing it around the grand cathedral. It gathers speed until it is moving at 70 km per hour, filling the ancient building with clouds of heady incense. We were lucky enough to be present for this ceremony and it was breathtaking in its integrity.
The official story of why the incense is used is because it is spiritually cleansing and lifts prayers up to the heavens. This causes emotions to run high during each incense ceremony. In reality, the incense was much needed in the middle ages when hygiene standards were low and the mass of gathered people caused an unbearable stench.
From this necessary air cleansing practice, the story of the great powers of incense evolved until it had become an established part of the religious calendar. I’d thoroughly recommend dropping in for the incense mass if you get the chance!
Galicia and the shell
In Galicia the shell is a very well-used symbol. It is linked to Venus, fertility and femininity and this association has developed, leading to its link with pilgrims. Pilgrimage is seen as a form of rebirth, it is highly symbolic as it marks a brand new beginning.
The pilgrims are given shells when they first arrive in Santiago de Compostela, these symbolise the start of new life and they use the shells to drink water from. Even though Santiago is a non-coastal city, the link to emerging into your new life is strong and the shell symbolism remains to this day. You can buy seashells from street stalls in Santiago, the shell emblem also features on jewellery, souvenirs and gifts in the area.
We found so many seashell references during our time in Galicia, from the seashell adorned chapel at La Toja to those used to symbolise pilgrimage and even the focus on seafood during mealtimes.
The Padrón Pepper Ladies
Enter any good tapas bar and you’ll find padrón peppers on the menu. They were part of the first meal we ate in Galicia and the story behind them completely captivated me.
These small peppers were initially imported from America, yet when they grew in Galician soil they were much smaller than their American counterparts. The Galicians were disappointed until they tasted them and discovered that even when they were picked from the same plant, some of the peppers were mild and others were very hot and spicy.
This created an interesting culture and nowadays it is tradition amongst young Galician that whoever gets the first hot padrón has to foot the bill. If you want to buy these special peppers outside of a bar or restaurant, you can pick them up from the market. You’ll find old women sat in front of the barrel, picking the peppers out by hand.
With nimble fingers, she will quickly pick out the specific number of peppers that you request and you can even ask for a certain number of hot ones too. Only these ladies are able to identify which peppers are hot and which ones are mild, to everyone else, there is no way of telling them apart.
Galicians are very proud of their fresh seafood and we were offered the local delicacy of clams at almost every meal. Historically, many of the men in the area were fishermen and would spend a lot of time out at sea.
The women were left to take care of the house and the children. It was common for them to collect clams from the beach to feed the family.
They were easy to come by and completely free. Nowadays they are considered a delicacy and are part of the area’s famed seafood. In the past, they were associated with poverty and skinniness – clams have very few calories in them!
The Legend of the Holy Company
We were lucky enough to be enjoying full sunshine while exploring the Isla de Ons where we first heard a chilling ghost story. The Holy Company (Santa Compaña) are the lost souls of Galicia. They are thought to walk the area at night with white hoods and covered faces.
If they offer you a candle, it is a sign that you are about to die. Some say that you can’t see them but the smell of melting wax floats on the air, others say you only see their candle flames flickering in the darkness.
More pragmatic types will tell you that these are the fireflies that frequent the islands. However, many elderly Galicians still believe in the legend. It is thought that the Holy Company circle the Galician islands three times before returning to the hell hole where they emerged from.
The granaries on the islands all feature crucifixes as a form of protection. There are also crosses at each crossroad and it is thought that you are safe from the Holy Company is you stay there when they pass.
The beauty of the islands is captivating, but this story really brought the place to life in my eyes and meant I was aware of every granary and crossroads that we passed.
We spent a tranquil morning enjoying the sea views at Playa de A Lanzada in Sanxenxo. There is an ancient pagan ritual that encouraged women to wade into the wild waves until nine waves hit her belly,
she should then “lie on the stone” (a euphemism for sex) with her partner and it was believed that the couple would soon be blessed with a child. The stone is no longer visible, as it has been covered over with a church.
The quaint Chapel of Nosa Señora de Lanzada overlooks the most striking coastal scenery. There are many examples of pagan rituals becoming religious places, as the Catholic church is keen to be rid of superstition. However, there is still an element of ritual in the church as people throw down three coins for good luck.
Nowadays, it wouldn’t be easy to get to the waves at this point but the area is very pretty and an impressive example of the rugged landscapes and wildflowers of the area. It’s the perfect place to take or stroll or simply sit and contemplate as the wild wind whips your hair and the waves tear at the rounded rocks below you.
Muros: street names, American influence and fisherman gothic
At first glance, the sleepy fishing village of Muros looked serene and unassuming, but after a little exploration, I was delighted to discover that it is brimming with intriguing stories too. Each of the street names reflects something about the area in the most poetic way. Loneliness Street is narrow and dark, whereas the Street of Suffering has endless steps. It’s a lot of fun to seek out the street signs and consider how they all got their names.
The houses in the area are also very Art Deco and American in style. Many Galicians immigrated to Argentina, they brought back wealth and a new sense of style which they proudly displayed in their houses. Galicians were known in Argentina as being extremely hard working. Back home they would fish, grow their own vegetables and make their own clothes. They were incredibly self-sufficient.
Unfortunately, they also got a reputation for being stupid as they only spoke Galician. Jokes about the people of Galicia are still popular in Argentina to this day! We were able to pick up padrón pepper seeds in Muros, which means I can carry on the Galician tradition of growing your own vegetables back home.
The fisherman’s influence is so strong in Muros that even the church is “fisherman gothic.” What instantly struck me is how the ceiling is built like the hull of a boat. For further proof that this impressive building was built by fisherman, we discovered a fish symbol that has been carved into the roof.
There is also an eerie-looking Jesus statue complete with human hair and moveable arms so that it can go from its crucified stance to being packed into a glass coffin for processions. This intriguing figure is a further reminder of the theatricality of the culture.
The more you look, the more story you can uncover in this quirky church, with another highlight being the stone snake that curls around the holy water as a symbol of good conquering evil.
House and boats
Around the area, you’ll notice the most beautiful colourful houses. This is because it is traditional to paint your house the same colour as your boat.
As fishing is such an important industry here, it makes sense that there are no two houses the same colour.
Even though it looks striking, the real reason behind the array of colours is more likely to be that it makes more economic sense to use one durable paint colour and get the most out of it.
The hardy sort of paint that protects the boats from the wild ocean would be perfect for coastal houses too. I found that these colourful boats and houses added a real sense of personality to the landscape and brightened up the harbour.
Playa de Rodas is known as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and we enjoyed exploring the warm, soft sand. In the 1900s (before the tourism of the 1940s and beyond), mother fishermen would leave their children to play in the shallow waters around Playa de Rodas. This area is known as Children’s Lake. To this day, fish lay their eggs in the safe, calm waters of the lake, thereby continuing this tradition.
Galicia is so rich with story, superstition and tradition that it is an absolute joy to explore. It’s just a short flight from London before you are immediately transported to a place of real beauty, majesty and mystery. Galicia will peak your imagination and all the stories really help to bring this rich culture to life.