As I have written time and again, Galicia is my favorite place in Spain, a region I return to again and again. Part of it is homesickness. Galicia is the only region in the country which bears a passing resemblance to the Hudson Valley—green, hilly, forested. But part of it is due to Galicia’s unique delights: its simple and hearty food, its distinct local architecture and customs, its calm and quiet. And, best of all, a trip to Galicia is very easy on the wallet.
It was the summer of that fateful year, 2020. My brother had just left to return to America. Soon, the school year would begin, and I would go back to in-person teaching—though I could hardly imagine what it would be like after the trauma of the (still ongoing) pandemic. Wanting a last gasp of peace before what I assumed would be chaos, I took a train to my favorite city in Spain, A Coruña.
I had no ambition to do anything but relax. I walked for miles—through the dense streets of the old city, under the distinctive galerías (glass balconies), along the promenade (paseo maritímo) and past the aquarium. One evening, I sat amid the jagged rocks below the Tower of Hercules, a Roman lighthouse, and read a book as the waves crashed below me. Another evening I made my way to Monte de San Pedro and watched the sunset from the old naval guns overlooking the sea. For dinner, I had takeout Chinese food. It was absolutely splendid.
And I packed my running shoes. After the isolation and confinement of the lockdown, I craved the outdoors, and spent as much of my time under the sky as possible. I ran in the late afternoon, with the sun beginning to set. A cool breeze blew in from the ocean, seeming to propel me faster than I had ever gone before. The combination of wind and waves flowing all around me gave me the odd sensation of flying. This, of course, was followed by duck curry and spring rolls.
The only thing vaguely touristy that I did was to visit the Museum of Science and Technology. Considering the museum’s low entry fee and relative obscurity, it is an impressive institution. The halls were filled with beautiful examples of extinct apparatuses—calculating machines, steam locomotives, telegraphs, type-writers… By far the biggest installation is a cockpit of a Boeing 747, which you can walk inside. It must have been no easy task to transport. My only criticism of the museum is that they put the informational texts in three languages (English, Castillian, and Galego)—yet the texts are not repeated in those languages, but continue through them. That means to read the information completely you must be trilingual.
A Walk in the Woods
The coast of Galicia—like that around A Coruña—is gorgeous. But I had just finished a camino through the wooded interior of the countryside, and I was still craving the forest. So, one day, I decided to take a day trip to a more rural area.
Yet I had little idea where to go or how to get there. In search of a solution, I looked up the stops on the train that runs from A Coruña to Santiago de Compostela, and then I examined these stops on Google Maps to see if they looked like decent hiking spots. I eventually settled on a little stop called Cerceda-Meirama, which is remote from any major population center. The fast train had me there in no time.
I emerged onto an empty platform and immediately found myself in the countryside. Having absolutely no idea in what direction to go, I decided to try to walk a lap around a nearby lake. As often happens in Galicia, I passed by a few scattered houses and then was in the woods—or, at least, a grove of trees. (Unfortunately, the countryside of Galicia has been heavily logged and many areas are covered with young saplings, often eucalyptuses, deliberately planted to be farmed later.)
The narrow path took me alongside the Meirama Lake. This is not a natural lake, but was created to cover an industrial eyesore. For decades, not a lake but a lignite mine occupied this area, which only closed as recently as 2017. (Lignite is a type of coal.) Indeed, though at the time I assumed the surrounding trees were planted by loggers, they were actually put into place by the mining company as part of an environmental rehabilitation project that had previously denuded the area. An ominous concrete cylinder still sits, overlooking the lake, next to a featureless gray building.
I cannot honestly say that the path was particularly beautiful. Even so, in my nature-deprived state, I was enraptured by the intermittent calls of birds and even stopped to examine insects crawling along the dirt road. I walked along quite contently, making a circuit around the lake and trying to be mindful of my return time. (The fast train does not pass through this station so often, so I had until about four in the evening or I would be stranded for the night.) Eventually I decided that I had time to spare, and took a detour.
Things went bad very quickly. The path I took trailed off into the forest, and soon I was scrambling through brush. Twice I almost walked straight into a spiderweb with a large awaiting inhabitant. Somehow, to right myself, I had to walk up to an overpass and then along a small highway, before finding a path leading me in the correct direction. Even then, I was not (pardon the pun) out of the woods. The hour of my departure was nearing, and I was still quite lost, just hoping that the path I was on would lead me back to the train station.
Once again, however, the path led to a dead end in the forest. Luckily, by now I was at least close to civilization. Through the brush I could see what was obviously a field of crops. Desperate by now, I went for it—pushing through the thick vegetation and praying that there would be no shotgun-wielding farmer or attack dog waiting for me. Thankfully, not a soul was in sight, and I was able to make my way through the rows of wheat to the nearby road. I only had twenty minutes now before my train arrived. No choice but to run.
Tired and sore, wearing hiking boots, I jogged the remaining distance to the station (scaring off what I believe were two partridges in the process). I made it, sweaty and panting, with just a minute to spare. Sometimes relaxing is hard work.
The only vaguely touristy thing I did on this trip was to visit Pontevedra. I had been there once before, but it was under unfortunate circumstances. That time, I had parked the car in an underground parking lot (the center of the town is a pedestrian zone), and had scratched it badly against a concrete pillar. This put me in such a fretful state that I could even focus on the city.
But this time was different. I arrived on the early train from A Coruña, ready to do some sightseeing.
The name Pontevedra comes from Latin, and means “old bridge.” And there is, indeed, a rather old bridge in the city, the Burgo Bridge, built in the 12th century. It spans the River Lérez, the dominant water feature of the city, which sits nestled in a bend of the river, near the coast, among the surrounding hills. Pontevedra is not an especially large city, but it is an especially well-planned one. It was a pioneer in instituting a car-free zone in the center and is known for the high quality of life enjoyed by its denizens.
As in any good old Spanish city, there are lots of ornate churches to see. Chief among these is probably the Church of the Pilgrim Virgin. By European standards, it is not an especially old construction, dating back to about the signing of the American Constitution. It was made in order to venerate a rather odd statue of the Virgin Mary dressed as a pilgrim. This image was declared the patron saint of the Portuguese Way, a branch of the Camino de Santiago that passes up through Portugal and then Pontevedra on its way to Santiago de Compostela. Even if you are not a pilgrim, however, you must admit that it is a rather nice church.
The car-free center of Pontevedra is well-preserved and charming. There are tiny side-streets and grand plazas, historic convents and ornate façades, and of course lots of restaurants and cafés. As I strolled around, I came across a life-sized statue of Ramón del Valle-Inclan, an iconic Spanish writer who was born just outside the city. He is outfitted in his usual way: neat suit, thick-rimmed glasses, and a long flowing beard. A literary innovator and iconoclast, he now holds an honored place among the Spanish literary patheon, and is one of the many writers often assigned to suffering high school students.
One of the most interesting sites in the city are the ruins of the church of San Domingos. This is (or was) a lovely gothic structure that now stands without a roof or half of its walls. I have seen ruined churches before, but those have been ruined by some disaster, like an earthquake or a fire. In this case, the culprits are time and neglect. In 1836, during a liberal spasm in Spanish history, a huge amount of land was confiscated from the Catholic church through a law called, in Spanish, the desamortización. This Dominican convent was one of them. The monks had to find a new home and the building was used, in turn, as a women’s prison, hospice, and an infant school. But it fell into decay very quickly under civil ownership and now stands like a ghost in the old city.
I have said before, and will again, that it is often worthwhile to visit relatively obscure museums in Europe, as they can have collections that rival the most prestigious institutions in the United States. This is certainly true of Pontevedra’s Provincial Museum. Even the structure itself is impressive, comprising a complex of buildings which includes modern glass constructions and former mansions. Its collection is vast and varied, including archaeological remains, ornate silverware, religious sculptures, traditional costumes and oil paintings (including those by Goya and Sorolla). Best of all, it is free to visit.
After spending a few hours in the museum, I made my way to the nearest Pulpería I could find. As its name would suggest, this is a kind of restaurant that specializes in octopus. I gorged myself on tentacles and pimientos de padrón (small green peppers), and chased it down with a pitcher of the local wine—typically young and fruity. For some reason, it is customary to drink the wine out of a little ceramic bowl, which reminds me very much of the vessels used to drink saki (called sakazuki).
The meal ended, I contemplated trying to do more visiting. But, somehow, I had lost the motivation. Instead, my legs took me on a meandering walk out of the city and, following the river, towards the ocean. I walked until the city receded into the less dense outskirts, and kept going until I came across a small beach at the mouth of the river. A small boat—more of a dingy—had been hauled up on the sand, looking somehow pathetic next to the water. Smokestacks split the sky on the opposite bank. A helicopter came into view, flying low over the river. Though I was surrounded on all sides by evidence of human life, I was the only person in view, and I had the illogical feeling that I had reached the edge of the world.
This romantic feeling was dispelled when I checked the time and realized that, once again, I had to hurry in order to make my train back to A Coruña. I arrived that night, and celebrated with a final dinner at the takeout Chinese restaurant. It had been an excellent stay in Galicia.
Santiago de Compostela
One year later. It was the All Saints’ Day holiday, in late October, 2021. I had no plan whatsoever, except to relax and to look for some foliage. (Madrid is quite bereft of colorful leaves in autumn, as a result of, well, not having many trees.) I bought a cheap train ticket to Santiago de Compostela, the regional capital, and booked the cheapest Airbnb I could find. My hosts were not thrilled when I arrived at nearly midnight. But at least I was back in Galicia.
My first day was uneventful. It was the day before Halloween, overcast and foggy. I decided that I wanted to take a hike. Santiago de Compostela has some attractive city parks—the two principal ones being the Parque de San Domingos de Bonaval and the Parque da Alameda—but these are rather small. Seeking wider fields to wander, I walked to the edge of town, to the Parque Forestal de Monte Pedroso. This is a large park—well, more of a young forest than a park. The land had obviously been clear cut not too long ago. Virtually all of the trees were young saplings, planted in neat rows on the hilly landscape, doubtless to be themselves harvested at some future date. (Galicia, though beautiful, has mutilated many of its own landscapes.)
Paths led in and out of clearings in the forest, climbing and falling through the misty trees. The fog was so thick that I would have been completely disoriented if not for the AllTrails app on my phone. It was perfect for Halloween, but not ideal for pretty foliage or beautiful views. At the very least, the hike allowed me to work up an appetite for my visit to El Mesón Do Pulpo, one of Galicia’s many fine pulperías, or octopus restaurants.
I must have been in a very suggestible mood, for I allowed the waiter to talk me into buying a plate of octopus followed by a whole steak, washed down with a pitcher of the fruity local wine. It was an excessive amount of food—and absolutely delicious. You can imagine that the rest of that day was not particularly productive. The only thing I managed to do was to have another excessive meal, this time dinner at a Korean restaurant called NuMaru. I am glad I did, since it was perhaps the best Korean food I ever tasted, better than any restaurant I have visited in Madrid (which one would think is more cosmopolitan and diverse than the provincial Santiago). Clearly, then, my first full day in Galicia was a success.
As an afterthought, I wanted to mention the strange architectural installment (sculpture?) I found on the edge of town, on my way to the forest. The thing consists of a kind of arched hallway, constructed of massive pieces of granite. This monstrous monument was built in honor of the Sociedade Xeral de Autores e Editores, which translates to the General Society of Authors and Editors, a private organization that aims to protect intellectual property of those who write and publish music, books, and plays. This sounds noble enough, but it sometimes boils down to publishing companies trying to wring money out of musicians and acting companies—most of which never gets to the artists or writers themselves. Once, the organization charged €96 to a high school theater company who wanted to do a play by Federico García Lorca, who died in 1936. This happened in 2010.
In any case, my next day in Galicia was far, far more eventful.
A Whirlwind Tour
I awoke early, having set an alarm. The previous day, my Airbnb host invited me on an outing to see his native village. “It is one of the most beautiful villages in Galicia,” he said. The other guest at the Airbnb was going, too. Not having any real plans, I accepted.
The next day, after breakfast, I was ready to go.
“Alright, I’m ready,” the host said.
“And the other guest?”
“Something came up.”
Unphased, I followed my good host and got into the passenger seat of his car. It soon emerged that my host was not simply a man fond of his pueblo. He was a professional researcher and extremely knowledgeable about his native region. As he drove, he rattled off a constant string of information about the area, and I soon realized that, rather than a simple trip to a town, he had an entire itinerary planned out.
Our first stop was the church of Santa Maria de Adina. The church itself is large and attractive but otherwise not remarkable. But buried in the surrounding graveyard is Camilo José Cela, a writer who was born in this town and who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1989. I have not read any of his work (it does not seem to be especially popular now), but I was glad to pay my respects to a writer.
Nearby was the town of Padrón, our next stop. This town will be familiar to lovers of Spanish food, for being the home of the famous pimientos de Padrón—delicious small green peppers that are fried in olive oil and served with rock salt. But my host wanted to show me the Parroquial Church. Again, like many local Spanish churches, it was large and attractive but not memorably so. What sets the church apart is the “pedrón.” This is a sort of large stone that is given pride of place in the church. According to legend, the ship that divinely transported Saint James’ body from Jerusalem to Spain was finally moored to this stone.
The truth is actually more interesting than the legend, as the letters clearly visible on the stone were actually inscribed by the Romans to honor the god Neptune. It reads: “To Neptune: the Orieses (?) put up this stone at their expense.” It seems odd that a pagan monument would hold pride of place in a church. But many pagan rites and rituals were taken over by the Christians. (Christmas is December 25, not because we know when Jesus was born, but because it allowed the holiday to replace the pagan celebration of the winter solstice.) According to this website, the stone was used even before the Romans as a place to tie up their ships.
The tour continued. My host then took me to a very small village called Bustelo, in order to show me a fine example of a Galician cruceiro. This is a distinctly Galician artifact, consisting of a large stone cross standing atop a pillar, often with a small carving of Jesus or the Virgin as adornment. According to my guide, since only the properly baptized were allowed to be buried in the church graveyard, babies who died at or near birth were often prohibited from this sacred ground. Despondent mothers thus would bury their babies at the base of this cruceiro, being another kind of religious burying ground. (If you’re curious, this website contains an image and the location of every cruceiro in Galicia. They are quite beautiful, in my opinion.)
Our next stop was another distinctive monument of Galicia: the hórreo (yes, it sounds like the American cookie). This is small building that was used to store food, primarily grain, before refrigerators became common. They are elevated to keep out vermin, and normally have slits in the walls to keep the food dry. Nowadays they sit unused, a charming and constant reminder that one is in Galicia. My guide had an encyclopedic knowledge of hórreos as well as cruceiros, and he took me to see one of the largest ever built, called the hórreo do traba. It is huge: five or six times the length of a normal hórreo. I have no idea why it was built so large.
Next we visited the lovely seaside town of Noia where, mercifully, we had some coffee. But our break was brief: I was whisked off to the church of Santa María a Nova, which now houses a museum of antique gravestones. These are notable for their decoration (though they are often faded by time and weather), which normally feature the deceased person’s profession. I must admit, however, that I did not understand much of what I saw.
No matter, we had pressing business, and within moments I was back in the car on my way to the next destination. This was probably my favorite thing I saw that day, but I admit I was on guard when my host pulled over by the side of a road and told me to start walking into the forest. My misgiving aside, it was a thoroughly lovely example of a lush Galician forest, with moss-covered trees all around, and the Traba river gurgling nearby. Soon we had arrived at our destination, the abandoned village of Xei. Though the ruins appear absolutely ancient, this village was not abandoned so long ago (less than a century, I think). According to this website, the town was depopulated because its economy relied on the water-powered mills, which became obsolete with the adoption of electricity. In any case, I think ruins often have a strange and otherworldly beauty, and these skeletal structures, green with encroaching forest, were wonderfully evocative.
Our next stop was brief, to the nearby Dolmen of Argalo. A dolmen is a kind of megalithic tomb, consisting of a single chamber in a stone structure. In this case, very large slabs of granite were stuck into the ground to form the walls, and dirt was piled up all around it to make a kind of mound. Human remains do not preserve well in the acidic soil, so no bones were found inside. However, archaeologists did uncover stone tools and fragments of ceramics. As my guide remarked, we will never know what the people who built these believed.
Are you tired already? I was, but that did not stop us from visiting yet another stop. I shouldn’t complain, since this was also a wonderfully beautiful spot. We parked the car near a large old monastery building, the Mosteiro de San Xusto de Toxosoutos, which seemed unused. But this attractive old building was not our objective. Nearby, a path led into the forest, along the San Xusto river, and soon we were surrounded yet again by beautiful Galician forest. Better yet, at this juncture the river formed a series of ever-more attractive waterfalls (fervenza in Galician). Also of interest were the large mill-stones which now sit, unused, alongside the river, a reminder of the ancient importance of water-power.
In addition to its many charms, Galicia is rich in prehistoric sites. Not far from the waterfalls, for example, was yet another dolmen, the Dolmen de Axeitos. This one is larger and more impressive than the Dolmen of Argalo, with a massive granite slab somehow elevated in place as a roof over the wall stones. Whoever made this benefited from not a little teamwork, coordination, and technological sophistication, since moving stones of that size is no easy feat.
It was getting late now, and darkness was setting in. But my guide still wanted to show me one more thing. Aside from dolmens, Galicia has many sites known as “castros,” which are the remains of ancient (presumably Celtic) settlements. One of these sites is the Castro de Neixón, which occupies a peninsula on the coast. (Peninsulas were advantageous locations, both ideal for fishing and sea transport, and easy to defend from the land.) To be honest, this site was disappointing compared to the spectacular Castro de Baroña, which I had previously seen. But the interpretation center nearby also houses a fine museum—which, unfortunately, I was too tired to really take in.
We arrived back in Santiago de Compostela at around eight at night. I immediately went to the nearest restaurant I could find, which happened to be a Chinese place. I was ravenous—we had eaten just a little sandwich for lunch—and the order actually discouraged me from ordering the amount of food I wanted to. He was amazed when I ate every last bite. I really am grateful to the host for having shown me such a wealth of interesting things. But it was a long, long day.
A Pilgrims’ Mass
I had just one more morning in Santiago de Compostela, and I knew how I was going to spend it. The previous night, I learned that the other Airbnb guest (the one who had abandoned the odyssey of Galician sightseeing) was a veteran of the Camino de Santiago. He informed me that was planning on attending the so-called Pilgrims’ Mass the following day.
Now, I had already attended this mass several times (once while suffering a severe stomach cramp), and had always been disappointed that the famed Botafumeiro was not used. This is the enormous incensor that, on special days, is swung from wildly through the cathedral on a pulley. Constantly missing this event was perhaps my greatest disappointment in Spanish travel. But according to my fellow guest, today there was a good chance that I would finally witness the spectacle.
The cathedral was packed. There were lines to get in at every entrance. I arrived nearly an hour early and still had to stand, as the pews were completely occupied. It was obvious at a glance that most of the audience was not there to save their souls. Foreign languages abounded, and cameras were held at the ready. I was certainly no different; but even within this great crowd I tried to temper my expectations. I had been in a similar crowd when the Botafumeiro failed to materialize.
But today was different. A hush came over the crowd as the robed priests appeared. Then, somewhere behind me, voices began to echo in the stone chamber. It was a choir, and a very good one. The singers were moving through the space, from the front to the back, but with so many people I could hardly catch a glimpse of them. It hardly matters, as their voices were rendered omnipresent by the reverberations, washing over me like a wave. It was genuinely spiritual music, soothing and even spine-tingling in its ethereal beauty.
The choir ceased, and the priest approached the pulpit. Everyone turned around to face the main altar. Sunlight was pouring in through the high windows, a single bright beam illuminating the white robe of the priest. For the second time in my life, I briefly considered converting to Catholicism. (The first time was in Mont Saint-Michel, and also involved sunlight and choirs.) I was so transported by the atmosphere that I could hardly register anything he was saying. In any case, his prayers were brief. Soon an organ had begun to play, now filling the cathedral with piercing reedy notes, while several robed men got into position around a multi-corded rope.
My body filled with electricity as I realized that, yes, this time I was finally going to see it. The rope was pulled taught and the men began to tug, gently at first, and then more firmly. With every tug, the enormous incensor began to swing higher and higher, from right to left, until it completed an arc that almost touched the ceiling. Smoke poured out of the flying metal casket, and soon the entire cathedral smelled of frankincense and myrrh.
This performance lasted for about five minutes. Then, the Botafumeiro gradually slowed down enough for the brave priests to catch it. This was our cue to leave, and the audience filed out in a respectful silence. I must admit, as absolutely cool as the Botafumeiro was, it did leave me feeling a little sorry for the priests. It is not a sight calculated to inspire religious devotion, merely to please tourists like myself. There is nothing theologically significant about a flying ball of smoke. Even so, I was very happy to have seen it. Though it had been more than a year since my last walk on the Camino, it felt like the end of a long pilgrimage.