The appeal of a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago is partly due the unique character of Galicia, a region of deep forests, dramatic gorges and canyons, and many rivers.
Along with Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, Isle of Man, and Brittany in France, Galicia is considered one of the seven Celtic nations. The Celts came here in the fifth century B.C.E., leaving behind a treasure trove of dolmens (slabs of rocks arranged in table form), petroglyphs, and fortified hamlets of stone, as well as Galician bagpipes and an abiding love for fantasy and myth.
To this day the intensely green and rugged landscape of Galicia, often wreathed in mist and rain, shares a common heritage and ethos with the other Celtic lands.
The history of Galicia was also influenced by the Romans, who considered this region to be the end of the world, or Finis Terrae in Latin. It was believed that the sun died each evening off its rocky coast, and that from this point the souls of the dead embarked for the next life. Roman legions left their mark on the region, building a city at Lugo and constructing massive walls that stand today as some of the best-preserved in Europe.
In later centuries the Church came to dominate Galicia. Only Greece has a greater concentration of monasteries and churches. Medieval pilgrims were awed by the rugged landscape of Galicia and drawn to the relics of the apostle St. James that were said to reside at the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostela (Santiago is Spanish for James).
Santiago was one of Europe’s first great cultural centers, as a flood of pilgrims from throughout Europe made their way here to pay homage to the saint.
Throughout Galicia, you’ll find fascinating sites to explore. In the seaside city of A Coruna, the serene Garden of San Carlos is said to be haunted by the fiancée of Sir John Moore, a British general who was mortally wounded in a battle here in 1804.
Farther south in the coastal town of Baiona, visitors can see the tower where the son of King Philip II was kept imprisoned in the sixteenth century because he had fallen in love with his stepmother, a story that became the basis for Verdi’s opera Don Carlos. Locals say that when the wind blows, his lament can still be heard.
The spectacular Ribeira Sacra, or sacred bank, offers some of Galicia’s most dramatic vistas. Beginning in the twelfth century, this wild and remote mountainous area began to draw anchorites, monks, and mystics.
One of its loveliest spots is Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, a Romanesque ruin from the twelfth century that clings to a steep slope overlooking the Sil River. Surrounded by an ancient chestnut forest, the monastery’s cloisters provide a place for contemplation and prayer.
Wherever you travel in Galicia, take note of the unique character of its people. Because of its location on the western coast of Europe, the Galician character owes more to the stormy Atlantic than to the sunny Mediterranean. Even today the Galicians are said to be more melancholic than their fellow Spaniards, in part because in this historically poor region, many have had to emigrate to other lands to survive. Those who stayed often lived in isolated villages where the old ways and traditions remained strong.
The gift that such isolation and hardship brought was a deepening of the Galician soul. One can sense that, I think, on travels through this moody and haunted place. It’s not surprising that the miraculous story of the relics of St. James would gain such widespread devotion here. Far from the centers of power in Europe, Santiago de Compostela—and the sites along the Way to St. James—gained spiritual stature instead.
Don’t leave Galicia without sampling its wonderful food and wines. In particular, the wine-making region of O Ribeiro produces some of the finest whites in Europe. After sampling the vintages of local wineries, visitors can tour the narrow, picturesque streets of the historic Jewish Quarter in the town of Ribadavia.
Galicia produces a cornucopia of enticing food to complement its wines. Its cuisine is dominated by the more than 80 kinds of seafood harvested here, along with delicious meats and a wide range of cheeses. Octopus is a particular favorite, along with hearty peasant stews of pork, potatoes, and other vegetables. No matter what the menu, Galician food is eaten at a leisurely pace. There is no such thing as a half-hour lunch or dinner in Galicia.