By William Markiewicz
Those strange Celts represented hegemon among peoples; empire with neither defined frontiers nor unified structure, sophisticated art at the ornamental and ritual level, haunting music and storytelling traditions because writing never developed, nor did plastic art or architecture because no cities were built; fierce warriors trying to scare the enemy with screams and painted faces, fearlessly exposing their unprotected nudity to danger ... The Romans called them barbarians and after conquering, considered them among the most valuaed Roman citizens. The British repeated this with other Celts -- the Scots. Their legends and stories from antiquity have been irremediably lost so we haven't learned as much about Celts as about Egyptians, Greeks or Romans. As music was what most attracted me to the Celts, I wasn't in a hurry to visit Celtic Spain or 'green Spain' as the Spanish advertise Galicia. Galicia attracted my attention when, recently, for all sorts of reasons, I began to take an interest in the sea; I defined my theoretical paradise as a sea country, not too hot -- which excludes the exotic beaches; not too rainy -- which excludes those situated in the north; where pleasures for senses and spirit are at hand so wine and tradition will be part of the scenery. My eye immediately spotted it geographically on the map as Galicia. I'll try to recollect my impressions. A brief journey was planned, a side trip on the way to other destinations, and not a writing venture. Those things are not always predictable.
I travelled mostly by car for several days along the curving western shore. The traveller's first impression is of a country of comfort and prosperity. Almost no sign of old or neglected houses, the landscape could be any residential area in the West. The Gallegos in the past were mostly poor. Traditionally great travelers, emigrants and sailors, hardy pioneers in the New Worlds, they often came back to the Old Country after making their fortune. That's how they reshaped the character of their landscape, brushing away any romantic nostalgia and signs of past poverty. Certain cultural artifacts remain though like those curious horizontal stony enclosures surmounted by Celtic crosses, storage places for agricultural goods. I was not deceived by the climate, really cool between June and July. Still, the Gallegos have a paradoxical attachment to decorative subtropical plants which survive because the winter is mild. Palm trees are quite popular, and many busy city streets are bordered with long lines of orange trees, full of ripe fruit at the time of my visit. The countryside is covered in eucalyptus groves, probably for industrial purposes.
The inviting comfortable aspect disappears when we reach 'la costa de la muerte' -- The Coast of Death -- because of the wild rocky fiords and fierce waves that make sea travel extremely dangerous. But the dramatic landscape is a feast for artists' eyes; small cities' buildings tower like fortresses above cliffs that drop into the sea. Often a harbour will be on one side of a cliff and a beach on the other side, cut off from each other by the rock and the city atop it. If the point is accessible by foot, both can be seen at once. The effect is striking. Summertime tourism is abundant but its character is regional. Foreign tourists come to Spain mostly for sun and heat so the locals haven't developed ambitious tourist facilities. In several places I found hostels, no hotels, and pubs with 'empanadas,' no restaurants. Visitors came to pass the day, parked their cars facing the sea and sat inside eating their sandwiches. Along with the lowbrow tourists, many punks hang around the shores and narrow streets. Still, business seems to be thriving; Street vendors, many Africans among them, display their wares directly on the ground. So, no wealth but no poverty either. Along the beach there are frequent religious processions honoring local saints, accompanied by bagpipers. In the pubs, families and friends gather, one of them may even play bagpipes along with the conversation. One could feel he was in Scotland, weather and decor accentuating the impression.
Toward the south, where the shores are smoother and more navigable, foreign visitors begin to appear, but they are different from the usual tourists in Spain; they are mostly upper class English yachtpersons on their way south -- going as far as African shores -- stopping off for Galician gourmet plates and Spanish wine. Native Galician wine exists, black as ink, thin bodied, served in white porcelain cups; a pleasant easy drink, but try to stand up afterwards!
I only passed through Santiago de Compostella, and could feel the charge that emanates there, accumulation of centuries. The city is one of the world's great sites for the beautiful collective and individual ritual of pilgrimage; meditation done with feet.Back to the index of the Vagabond