Al-Ahram Weekly Online   6 - 12 December 2007
Issue No. 874
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

And I remember Spain

Wrapped in a coat of mist and white sunlight in Galicia, Serene Assir sees history and modernity collude

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Scene from the Os canerios festival, at Betanzos, held yearly in August; the façade of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral; travellers relax at one of Galicia's many spas photos: Serene Assir and Turgalicia

Madrid International Airport's Terminal Four was exploding with business travellers that morning. The weather, cold for a traveller who has spent a few years in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, was accentuated by the sight of thousands of wandering impersonations of "modern" people. Thinking back, it feels like a hallucination -- surely such mass dehumanisation, such mechanisation, could not have happened anywhere in Spain, of all places.

Consistently, brave new Fortress Europe (to adapt Naomi Klein's description of her imperial continent), while seeking to encroach upon the living, loses on the streets of the continent it wants to consume. But the airport, the internationally mimicked beast of speed and bureaucratised travel, appeared to defeat all entrants that morning into a trance of emotional exhaustion, thoughtlessness and plainness. I didn't scream at the top of my lungs to clamour for air, though the thought crossed my mind.

And so for my resilience, I was rewarded with Santiago de Compostela.

As we drove out from the airport and into the city about 20 minutes away, I opened my eyes to the second morning. The first, I knew now, was a merely functional, even fictional moment spent out of real time, whereas now I was re-entering reality, with one layer unfolding after another with infinite grace and mystery.

Perched on the north-western tip of the Iberian Peninsula, just north of Portugal, through millennia, Galicia has looked out onto the vast Atlantic Ocean, reaffirming its presence in the face of the ocean's magnetic pull. And through millennia, it has witnessed thousands of stories, at once dark and fascinating.

Though at first they appear today to have found a means to weave themselves into each other to form a sort of tapestry, the fragments of Galicia's ancient history are in fact radically different from each other. Celtic history meets Rome in Galicia, and to date seem to move in a dangerous harmony around each other. Rebellion lives beneath the surface. Galicia, or Gallaecia as the Romans named it after the Gallaeci tribe, was the last area of what is now Spain to be taken by the invading Roman army.

The final battle, fought under the Roman emperor Octavian from 26 to 19 BC, saw a massive defeat of the Celts, but not without overwhelming acts of resistance involving collective suicide before surrender and mothers killing their children before themselves committing suicide. This is a resistance the people of Galicia have not forgotten. Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, one Gallego said: "We resent the Romans to this day. We do not identify with the culture of empire that they brought and imposed on us. We are different, and have roots of our own, in our land. Across the world we pay the price of Rome's ventures to this day in the systems of rule by military empire that we have inherited. Do you not see the importance of what the Celts tried to do?"

Today, the Celtic and Roman legacies are perhaps most visible in the defensive structures they constructed. The best conserved Celtic fortresses, or castros as they are known here, are in Baroña, Viladonga and Santa Tegra. Declared by UNESCO in 2000 a World Heritage site, the Roman Wall in Lugo, a fortified site with a perimeter of 2,200 metres, tells of the brutality of conquest and the tangible legacy of a power long gone.

But there is more. Walk through the streets of the old city in Santiago de Compostela, and you hear Celtic music play from scores of the city's shops and cafés. Could this mean that roots survive empire, however definitive a conquest appears? Probably, especially given the recent rise in appreciation of Celtic culture and not just in Galicia, but across the rest of Spain. Celtic music has been played in various forms, often adapted in endless ways to audiences throughout the country, particularly following a revival of regionalism and regional cultures over the past 20 years. Predictably perhaps, themes covered by Spanish artists, such as Ismael Serrano, who have been influenced by Galicia's Celtic heritage, cover not only the all-time classics of love and betrayal, but also abhorrence to war.

In Santiago de Compostela, the region's administrative capital and best-known city, another dramatic layer of history unfolds, perhaps the most prominent, and that is the mediaeval city. Said to be the burial place of Saint James (Santiago Apóstol in Spanish), Santiago de Compostela is among the holiest sites in Catholicism, after Rome and Jerusalem. Son of Zebedee and Salomé, to whom numerous icons are erected in the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Saint James was beheaded by King Herod in Jerusalem in 44 AD, four years after having a vision of the Virgin Mary in what is now Zaragoza whilst preaching. It is said that his remains were lifted by angels, who put him in a boat which landed on the coast of Spain, from where they were taken to what later became known as the city of Santiago de Compostela.

Another common association with Saint James is a story that emerged during the battles of the Reconquista, during which Christian armies recaptured Spain from Arab Muslim rule. With the Christians outnumbered at Clavijos, Asturias in 844 AD, Saint James is said to have appeared and aided them to defeat the Muslim army, hence the coinage of the graphic name Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James Killer of the Moors. Later, effigies depict Saint James on horseback, wearing late mediaeval armour and brandishing a sword, but they were recently removed from the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, for they are no longer believed by the authorities in Galicia to be pertinent imagery in today's context.

In honour of the saint, for almost 1,000 years pilgrims from across Europe and indeed beyond, given the existence of a route from Istanbul, have journeyed to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage has witnessed a revival over recent years, with hundreds of travellers making the journey to Santiago throughout the year.

Perhaps the most common route, known as the Camino Francés, begins either in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the border with Spain, or on the Spanish side at Roncesvalles. Pilgrims on this route cover almost 800 kilometres. Ever since the popularity of the pilgrimage was revived at the turn of the century -- as often for religious reasons as it has been for the pure enjoyment of the journey -- an estimated 65,000 people from across the world have taken it each year, according to one website dedicated to Saint James.

Pilgrims cover this route in about a month on foot, although those travelling by bicycle take about half that time. They are welcomed at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, which they visit to embrace the statue of Saint James to symbolise the end of their journey. "For those who are taking the journey for spiritual reasons, the embrace is very important," said Father Adriano, a priest at the Cathedral. "Don't forget that people of all kinds take part in the pilgrimage now, so for many it is purely symbolic. In the Cathedral, we believe the pilgrimage is for all, regardless of their actual religion."

Like all pilgrimages, the journey is not an easy one, whatever a traveller's purpose. But those who take it swear by its beauty, again, regardless of their purpose. To some, the journey constitutes a very specific step towards a greater understanding of one of Jesus' disciples; to others it is a dramatic exploration of man's interaction with nature; and to still others it is a beautiful way to walk side by side with friends, new or old. Some walk alone, inevitably meeting self and others along the way in real, uncodified space. Some walk with lovers or old friends. Regardless, the very fact that the old and the young have taken this journey for almost a millennium suggests an ancient instinct in the human being -- the instinct to really travel, and to witness.

Along the way, there are countless albergues, or hostels which put up travellers for the night at low cost. The journey is thus rendered practical for all. There are also hostels and hotels which are more expensive, particularly as Galicia's popularity on the travellers' trail is gaining acclaim and there may be those who wish to sleep more cosily along the way.

Once in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the enormity of the complex becomes almost overwhelming. As emblematic as, say, the Notre Dame de Paris, the Santiago Cathedral was built over more than 100 years starting early in the 11th century. It was later expanded during the 16th and 18th centuries. The initial construction began almost 200 years after a hermit, or so the legend has it, announced the presence of Saint James' remains in that spot, thus giving rise to the belief that angels had transported his body to Galicia following his execution. Standing before the Cathedral today, whether one believes the hermit or not, the sheer effect that words and visions can have appears almost outstanding. And this is part, no doubt, of the magic of Galicia, a region full of legend and history, tangible in their uncertain relation to each other to this day, in vast proportions.

Inside the Cathedral there are scores of effigies, icons and symbols worthy of lengthy historical study. Statues of Jesus Christ at his crucifixion are graphic descriptions of agony and peace; statues of Salomé eerily look down at visitors; from the cupola an enormous eye looks downwards, captured within a sand-coloured triangle; moving in tension between pain and beauty, the Cathedral awakens more questions than it appears willing to answer.

Surrounding the Cathedral are dozens of monasteries and churches of lesser grandeur but no less interest. Further, the University of Santiago de Compostela, situated a short walk from the Cathedral, is in itself beautiful and open for visits. Built in the 15th century, it is known as one of Spain's foremost centres of learning.

Beyond this, the city has much to offer. Open collusion by history with modernity renders the city intrinsically Spanish, beyond the onslaught of capital and at peace with itself. Scores of cafés and restaurants line the tiny labyrinthine streets that criss-cross the old city of Santiago de Compostela, providing opportunity to sit back for hours and think, or converse with friends in the cool sunlight. Traditional Celtic music adds even more colour, bringing the sound of the Atlantic inland.

Evenings, Galicia has as a whole taken a massive leap over recent years to provide some of the most vibrant cultural events Spain is hosting today. Throughout the year, independent cinema is shown at the various cultural centres, each with its own inclination, some more international than others. Close cooperation by the centres with the community renders visits at one time or another all the more fruitful for the traveller, so for instance during this year's rendition of the annual Amal Euro- Arab International Film Festival in October, the university meanwhile hosted its own festival, screening student films relating to the Arab world.

Meanwhile, for those who are yearning an exit from the machine and a return to the embrace of nature, Galicia silently awaits. Traditionally a region dependent upon fishing and agriculture, much of its territory remains virgin. Of the 700 beaches that line its coast, some have developed to the demands of international tourism; but in many, practical isolation remains the rule. Further, in response to the growing desire for closeness to nature and the de-escalation of agricultural activity, 542 rural houses ( pazos ) that once housed the bourgeois landowners, have been converted over the years to hostels, welcoming travellers into the heart of forests and once-cultivated land. Some pazos date as far back as the 16th century, though the norm inches closer to the 19th.

As of the early 1990s, the local authorities in Galicia provided assistance for the rehabilitation of these pazos, on condition that they have them opened upon rehabilitation to welcome travellers. So it is the case today that bookings can be made internationally prior to arrival dependent via Turgalicia upon a prospective visitor's description of what s/he is in fact looking for in the pazo s/he will stay in. Some are closer to the cities while others are in complete seclusion; some are humble while others are indeed palaces.

In addition, Galicia has a well- developed tradition of understanding the gifts nature provides for improving health. With 30 spas situated across the region, there are also thermal baths built from naturally medicinal springs. The Romans exploited this well and in fact the Roman thermal baths in Lugo are still in use today.

Not unrelated but certainly involving a great degree of intensity, numerous popular rites and festivals take place across the year which act as a reminder of the clash between man and nature. Between May and August, one of Galicia's most iconic rites runs a number of times across the region, during which mozos (young men, but far closer in definition to the equivalent Arabic shabab ) go out at dawn to capture the wild horses that still populate the countryside of Galicia. The foals are set free again, while the older horses are brought in to be tamed.

Back in the cities, such wilderness is not without its resonance. The cities are small -- Santiago de Compostela has a population of fewer than 100,000 -- and so the pull of nature remains dramatic. Not for this reason, however, is there boredom in the city. On the contrary: come nightfall, the city comes alive as young Gallegos trek from dance floor to dance floor, and conserve the Spanish tradition of taking the streets over, too, for the evening. Shrouded in mist, the cold night is warmed by the welcome of the city's people, who maintain a fine balance between the urban acceptance of the multicultural, and the rural openness towards coincidental meeting and uncomplicated friendship.

All the while, even as the music is at its loudest or as the silence is at its deepest, the magic of Galicia endures. There is a constant sense of change, as the region has borne witness to infinite political and historical earthquakes. But there is a far deeper sense of peace, in the knowledge, perhaps, that nature is stronger. It is little wonder amidst such intensity that the mystical side of Galicia endures, where a popular saying goes: No creo en las meigas, pero haberlas haylas (roughly, I don't believe in witches, but that doesn't mean they don't exist).

KEY CONTACT: Travel to and in Galicia is easy to plan from the world over. However, the outstanding service provided by Turgalicia ( makes planning your trip much easier. The government-linked agency is at the heart of the effort to publicise Galicia the world over, and to attract new and experienced travellers. Their site runs in numerous languages, including English, and their staff are prompt and friendly, willing to cater to all budgets.

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