Celtic Spain

as I mentioned in a previous post, there is a strong Celtic vein running through Galicia — climatologically and culturally. the mountains upon which O Cebreiro sits are the first significant vertical obstacle that Atlantic weather systems encounter on their eastward journey, resulting in frequent rain and fog that leave the fields and flora the kind of lush green that reminds you why there are so many different ways to say green in Gaelic languages. the land is hilly and broken up into a patchwork of farms with much more space for grazing animals than in the more eastern provinces. the terrain at the heart of Galicia is hilly, though not quite mountainous necessarily, though mountains divide it from the rest of Spain, contributing somewhat to its isolation. the region is also crossed by numerous rivers, fed by the regular precipitation, winding through dense Atlantic rainforests. similar to Ireland, the ragged coastline is marked with archipelagos, firth-like inlets and high cliffs.

as with my experience in Ireland, the rain came most every day but not in torrential way. throughout our time in Galicia, there was really only one day where it rained persistently and all our rain gear was essential; the rest of the time it drizzled for a bit, or started out fogging in the morning and cleared up relatively quickly. the average rainfall in Santiago in June (one of the driest months and when we visited) is 57mm, while Galway in June sees an average of 72mm. in May, they both have virtually the same of average number of rainfall days and their temperature trends, even, are relatively close though the highs in Galway remain somewhere between 4 and 6 degrees Centigrade cooler.

emigration and economic problems have affected both Galicia and Ireland profoundly; while I’ve read extensively on the Irish diaspora, I had no idea the extent to which the problem might affect another region, or how it might manifest, until I witnessed it in Galicia. as with so many of the small towns we travel through on the Camino, denuded of younger inhabitants, few opportunities beyond life of getting by as a farmer exist in the small communities of Galicia; with the economic crisis Spain currently faces, there are few opportunities even in the cities for young people (though Citroën has a factory for electric cars in Vigo). the lack of opportunities has prompted young men in particular emigrate elsewhere in Spain and to Latin America; this problem is hardly new, however — Fidel Castro’s parents were both of Galician extraction. because of this migration (and a fertility rate of just over one child per Galician woman), the population of Galicia has grown slower than the rest of Spain. moreover, this problem is exacerbated by a gender imbalance favoring women that stems from the tendency of men to migrate. once I read of the nearly two-to-one gender disparity, I noticed it everywhere; women run everything, from bars to stores to farms. the first pub we ate at in Galicia featured a full staff of women and the number of visitor-men significantly outnumbered the number of local-men in the pub.

 not unlike Ireland, the native Galician language (Galega) has faced attempts at suppression by the nearby dominant language (Spanish). for four centuries, Spanish was the only official language in Galicia; eventually it fell out of daily use in urban areas but now it is the primary language of instruction. efforts to bring it back into popular usage among Galicians seem to have met with more success than in Ireland; the 2001 census found that 99 percent of Galicians understood Galega, 91 percent could speak it, 68 percent could read it, and 57 percent could write it — the latter two percentages up significantly from a decade earlier (the Franco regime forbid the teaching of Galego). it just barely makes it onto the list of 150 most-spoken languages in the world.

one last similarity is the music; apart from the festival performance we saw in Belorado, we didn’t hear or witness much live music in Spain. granted, we weren’t ones for going out late — much less late for Spain — given our propensity for awaking silly early to get walking before the worst of the heat (and to ensure securing beds on the nights we stayed in the albergues). but in Galicia, we saw more traditional dress and heard a tiny bit more traditional music. as with other Celtic peoples, the traditional music of Galicia features bagpipes called gaita. maybe it’s just through the hazy lens of passed time, but I recall the music featuring the gaita as not unlike what I heard in Ireland, though certainly with its own flavor. as we came down towards the plaza in front of the Catedral in Santiago, a young busker was playing gaita under the final archway, sending the familiar yet distinct music echoing out into the plaza. it was spectacularly atmospheric and I cannot think of a more appropriate way to reach our long-sought destination.


entering the last autonomous region of the Camino!

having never studied much Spanish history while at school (much less monarchical history), the intensity to which people associate with their ancestral kingdom surprised me. natives of Navarra descend from a very different narrative than natives from Castilla or natives of León or natives of Galicia. unlike the more central (and easily-conquerable) regions of Spain, Galicia has an independent streak not unlike that of Catalonia or the Basque country. (a fact mentioned in an article I read today in the Economist about the recent vote in Catalonia in support of independence from Spain.)

the area has been inhabited since the Copper Age by a culture characterized by a “surprising capacity for construction and architecture” and a cult of the dead. migration from the Castillian plain into Galicia during the Bronze age boosted mining interests and swelled the population. their successors, Gallaeci, were of Celtic extraction, lived in fortified villages, and form the basis for the region’s modern inhabitants. founded by the Suebic king Hermeric in 409 C.E., the kingdom of Galicia adopted Catholicism and minted its own currency as early as 449. in 585 the Visigoths annexed the kingdom and reigned (though didn’t much control) for just over a century before Galicia regained its liberty and amicably joined with the adjacent kingdoms for a period.

traditional Galician stew and hearty bread

though it became an independent kingdom briefly in the 10th century as a result of succession fights in Castilla, those same fights destabilized the region and Galicia subsequently fell under the control of a series of external monarchs. beginning in the 14th century, the distant kings began devolving more powers on local authorities (knights, counts bishops, etc.) and increasing after Galicians backed Joanna La Beltraneja in her successful bid against Isabela I of Castilla. towards the end of the 15th century, however, the language began a slow decline that led to the Séculos Escuros (Dark Centuries) when the written Galician language nearly disappeared. another fact some of you might find interesting — in the 1380s, John of Gaunt claimed the crown of Castilla on behalf of his wife, sailed to Spain to battle the French as part of the Hundred Years War, and dragged Galicia into his succession fight.

amazing dessert of local crumbly cheese
drenched in honey and the famous
Santiago almond tart

not surprisingly, Galicia found itself in the cross-hairs of various belligerent parties of the 19th century. the people allied themselves with the British in the Peninsular War and suffered consequences as a result when the French took control of the region for six months (you can “read more” about how they evicted the French from Santiago de Compostela in Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe’s Rifles, which I was encouraged to read before setting out on the Camino.) the kingdom was dissolved permanently with the unification of Spain under one crown in 1833; a century later, in conjunction with the establishment of the Second Republic of Spain, Galicians voted in favor of a path to autonomy within a federalized Spanish state though the Spanish Civil war preempted implementation. because the initial military coup proved successful in Galicia, the region was spared the worst of the fighting that occurred during the war, though they certainly didn’t go unpunished or un-repressed. (fact I did not know: Franco was from Ferrol, northeast of Santiago but in the same province of A Coruña)

while Galicia has been profoundly affected by the economic and housing crises affecting the rest of Spain in the last decade, the region still retains its distinct, unique character. but more about that later.

O Cebreiro

our arrival in O Cebreiro presaged much for the duration of our Camino and gave us an early glimpse of how distinct Galician culture would prove. the town sits astride a pass some 1,239 meters up that divides León and Galicia; it was immediately evident, looking down the western slope, to see how much differently the weather would be as we crossed through Galicia and finally entered Santiago. while the sun shone brightly as we entered town a thunderstorm swept through during our typical mid-afternoon nap, leaving the air significantly cooler and the cobblestones slick as we made our way from the room in our casa rural back to the pub from whence we’d retrieved our key.

a Roman way station guarded the pass into Galicia during their rule over Spain, but evidence points to even earlier habitation and settlement. the village is known for a large selection of well-preserved palloza structures — circular buildings with conical, thatched roofs that share similarities to the round houses of Iron Age Britain, as well as with those found virtually wherever archaeologists have uncovered Celtic settlements (e.g. Ireland, Brittany, Scotland, Morocco and, at least in fiction, the Gaul of Asterix fame). Galician culture shares much with Celtic traditions of Ireland as is evident throughout O’Cebreiro, and anyone who’s visited both can attest to the similarities in climate. some of the earliest people to inhabit Galicia were of Celtic descent and known as Gallaeci and had according to Roman records, had a particularly warlike spirit that repulsed the more pervasive efforts of the Romans to assimilate them into Roman culture.

in recent years O’Cebreiro has become something of a tourist destination; in addition to the well-preserved pallozas, there’s a museum dedicated to the ethnographic heritage of the region with traditional tools on display. the village is also known for a miracle involving the Holy Grail that reputedly took place in the local church. as my cultural guidebook puts it, in the 14th century the “Grail”, an incredulous priest, and a snowstorm resulted in a miracle; basically, when a local peasant arrived in the midst of a snowstorm to hear mass and the priest berated him for his foolhardiness, the wine and bread he was holding turned into actual flesh and blood. in 1487, Pope Innocent VIII certified the veracity of the miracle and this, in addition to an 1486 visit visit by the Catholic monarchs as they made their way to Santiago de Compostela, did wonders for the prosperity of the village. (the royals donated two “large gold nuggets” and asked the Pope to transfer a degree of authority and autonomy church officials closer to the village and, presumably, more aware of the needs of the inhabitants and peregrinos.)

success of the village in the modern era, as well as many notable improvements to the Camino for peregrinos who traverse it today, stems largely from the work of one parish priest, Elías Valiña Sampedro. he wrote two books on the Camino (and introduced the concept of placing explanatory text on one page with a map facing) and is credited for implementing the ubiquitous (and ever reassuring) yellow arrows to mark the path. he also played a role in collecting and preserving artifacts of rural Galician culture as can now be seen in the museum. he’s memorialized with a bust in the square beside the church; we stopped for a look when we realized we couldn’t go look around the church as interrupting mass wouldn’t go over well.

Astorga — convergence of roads

at the outset of the Camino, our stay in Astorga was one of the things to which I was most excited: I’d found a five-star spa/hotel to help soothe what I anticipated might prove dastardly aches and pains. unfortunately, shifting our itinerary to take a day of rest in León meant arriving in Astorga on a Monday — the only day the spa didn’t operate. could have been a tragedy if the bed hadn’t proven so fantastically, magically comfortable. and they gave us bathrobes and slippers to use, as one might expect a spa/hotel might do. it makes me smile just thinking about it.

not only did the day of rest in León give us a boost of energy kicking off the day to Astorga, the fabulous breakfast and knowledge we had a comfortable room booked for the night made the hike that much more tolerable. we arrived with time and energy to spare and got a good look around town before burrowing into the bed for a(nother) good night’s sleep.

foremost, Astorga is a crossroads; two major Camino routes converge here — the Camino Frances, the Via de la Plata from the south — as well as the Calzada Romana from Rome and other major trade routes. it’s strategic importance dates from the Asturians (a Celtic people) that pre-dated settlement by the Romans. preserved Roman baths and a museum explaining the city’s heritage stood between the first albergue and our hotel — one of the first things you see as you enter the city on top of the hill. the city walls are (in part) of Roman construction. during Roman times, the city functioned largely to protect the roads, especially the one that headed to precious metal mines in the surrounding mountains. (our map noted several mine ruins — all of which seemed way too far off the Camino on day 22 to even consider venturing towards for investigation.)

because of the converging roads, nearby mines, and proximity to Santiago, Astorga became important for early Christianity in the Iberian peninsula; one of the first three bishoprics of Spain was established here before the 3rd century and the title of the officeholder is one of the oldest religious titles in Europe. rumor contends that both St. Paul and Santiago preached in Astorga at some point.

after the re-conquest, Ordoño I fortified the city and emphasized it as a Christian stronghold; it remained un-raided during the 10th century wars to the east consequently became the de facto capital of León. the following centuries saw Camino-driven prosperity and trade. the city declined somewhat with the tapering off of peregrinos but continued prosper because of its location; in addition to all manner of other goods and treasures it acted as the royal drove road for livestock going virtually anywhere in the Iberian peninsula. no wonder it’s thrived so long — it had way more than the presence and demands of peregrinos to keep it humming.