During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by my portraits of camellias. Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.
Where is Galicia? And Who are the Galicians?
Raindrops stung as I walked toward the large hanger that anchors the airport in Vigo. It was the beginning of March and I was on my way to meet a small group for a week of touring gardens in Galicia.
Touring gardens? In March? In the rain? In Spain?
Friends laughed when I told them I was crossing an ocean to see camellias. Stay home, stay warm, stay dry. You can see camellias from your window.
But I had seen a picture of bright pink camellia petals strewn like a royal carpet across an expanse of green that ran up to aged stone steps.
I was hooked. Camellias that shed like that must be worth seeing. And where did those stone steps lead?
I shivered as I slipped into a cab that had been waiting over an hour for our weather-delayed flight.
Gray skies weren’t doing much to brighten clusters of nondescript homes climbing steep hills above the city, but rain shined up outcrops of granite along the roadway.
Those crooked, cracked layers! Something big happened here. Was I seeing remnants of mountains rising from middle earth?
Or continents torn asunder? Yes, there really is a part of Galicia on the far north coast of North America.
But the Galicia I was visiting is an enchanted land that sits quite comfortably north of Portugal in a small green corner of Spain that stays green even in summer, when the rest of Spain is yellow.
It’s only about the size of Belgium, and surprise! it lies on a straight-arrow course west to Boston.
This should be a recipe for cold winters, except that its neighbor, the Atlantic Ocean, moderates climate. Summers usually stay cool and winters are benign.
Did I mention that it rains a lot in spring?
Most of the trips I take, usually with my daugher, are self-planned with a little strategic help from travel agents. But I hadn’t the vaguest idea of how to navigate this land I had never heard of.
Four years after seeing that photo I found Ciceroni Travel, who, it turns out, was already navigating this land with five-star panache. Ciceroni is based in England. They plan high quality, in-depth cultural tours to singular destinations.
We were cared for like royalty. Taken about in a comfortable coach. Escorted by Manuel, our knowledgeable and engaging Galician guide.
And squired by David, who kept the tour humming and catered to our needs. Which in my case meant keeping track of my umbrella, locating my lost eye glasses, and helping me with travel details when my flights home were abruptly cancelled.
By the time the cab pulled into the parking lot of the Parador in Cambados the sun was shining on what must be one of the prettiest coastal towns in Galicia.
(Paradors are a chain of hotels operated by the Spanish government.)
Cambados is one of many fishing communities along Galicia’s jagged thousand-mile-long coastline. Yes, tiny Galicia’s coastline is a thousand miles long. Inlets, islands, coves, bays, archipelagos and rias zig and zag, all governed by the laws of geologic change.
Rias, whose waters slice through the land to join the sea, are lifelines for Galicians, or gallegos, as they call themselves. They are the inlets you can find on a large map, river valleys drowned by rising seas when glaciers melted.
Here is where rivers spilling from mountains meet salty ocean waters.
And here in these estuaries, in this mix of salt and fresh waters, is where Galicia’s wonderful seafood comes from.
In fact, Galicia ranks among the top harvesters of mussels in the world.
The city of Vigo is second only to Tokyo in its fishing trade. Octopus boiled in large copper kettles is a popular Galician delicacy.
Seafood was on our menu regularly. Delicious. Fresh. Perfectly prepared.
How is it harvested? From a distance, bays and harbors look like they are spattered with strange black rectangular islands.
Look more closely and you see manmade platforms rigged with ropes suspended in water, just the lure for a young mussel looking to attach itself to a permanent home.
Once they mature, cranes raise the mussels up out of the sea. Then they go down easy with a glass of albarino wine from Galician vineyards.
I took these pictures on a tour that included a boat trip around the Rias baixas (low rias) in the province of Pontevedra, the same province that celebrates the Route of the Camellias in Galicia. A close look at mussel production and fishing boats was accompanied by servings of Galician mussels and Galician wine.
Yet fifteen years ago the fishing industry was devastated by a colossal oil spill off Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte, a graveyard for ships battered during winter gales. An obsolete rust bucket, ironically named the Prestige, began to leak fuel oil. It was refused dockage by the Spanish, French and Portuguese governments.
When the Prestige finally split in two after aimless days at sea, some 20 million gallons of fuel oil fouled miles and miles of beaches and harbors along the Galician coast.
Small fishing villages like Combarro, the little mariner’s town of 18th century vintage, suffered economic losses. Combarro is known for its horreos (granaries for corn and occasionally dried fish), its cruiceiros (stone crosses), and its casas marineras (sea houses).
Sluggish officialdom be damned, gallegos and others by the thousands were on the beaches pitching in, volunteering along side paid workers. They were spectacularly successful.
You are wondering now, when we will get to the gardens, which are, after all, what you are most curious about.
Be a little patient with me, for these gardens are different.
Unlike many gardens I have visited, they have not begun life as a grand vision in a designer’s imagination, then been carved out of the land and reassembled by bulldozers and earth movers.
Galicians are by tradition farmers. The gardens we visited began as farms and orchards long ago.
Their structures echo times past, and moss on old benches and dovecotes sings of age.
The gardens grew up as Galicia changed. So we need to hear the story of Galicia to understand the gardens and the people of Galicia.
Life should have been idyllic in this land of meadows and forests embraced by seas to the west and rugged mountains to the east, a land made green by misty days and nights.
It was not. It never has been.
Every noble, or ignoble, dynasty in history seems to have taken a turn at rampaging through Galicia.
I will spare you and skip those stone and bronze ages when the art of weaponry was first being perfected. Yes, I can see by the absent smile and glazed eyes that you are about to skip this entire section. Again, be patient, because our short trip will give you an idea of how the Galician character was framed.
The Celts, first recorded invaders, were later flattened by the Romans who scorned them as hard-drinking, hard-fighting barbarians, then conscripted them for battle and, under Caesar, occupied Gallaecia in equally barbaric manner.
When some nomadic Germanic tribes (Germany!) learned that the Romans were slacking off, they swept in to fill any possible abhorred vacuum in warfare.
The Visigoths, by now good Catholics, followed them with raids and ongoing scrapping between nobles and bishops.
Lots of sword play, I suspect, probably involving commoners, too, though their arms may have been less elegant.
We mustn’t forget the Moors, who invaded, were thrown out, re-invaded and re-tossed.
Then there was the Inquisition to stamp out contamination by Protestants.
Raids by Vikings.
And a victorious but hapless incursion by the British, whose armies, to the good fortune of gallegos, were decimated by the plague.
In his will of 1473, a Knight whose full name was Fernan Garcia Barba de Figueroa (character from an opera? Or a Monty Python skit?) plaintively describes the situation:
“The Kingdom is totally scrambled in war, with so many thieveries and deaths, and ill facts: to rise up a large mob of commoners against the knights; and many knights to rise up against the King himself, our Master; and another lords of the land to make war on each others; and to dash to the ground so many houses and towers.”
Shortly before the Knight was laid to rest, Galicia officially became part of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, the same pair who sponsored Christopher Columbus.
Do not assume that this union with Spain magically cut the butchery. Galicia mattered little to Madrid, except for what could be taken from her – her men for armies and her taxes for wars that mostly didn’t matter.
There were wars with the Portuguese, the British (again), the Dutch, the French, and, along the way, abductions by Barbary slave traders.
The Battle of Vigo Bay in 1702 pitted the Dutch and English against the French and Spanish over silver from America.
The oil spill of the 21st century was yet another invasion.
The unkindest blows to 20th century Galicia came from the iron-fisted 36-year rule by General Francisco Franco, that bastard Franco, as he is familiarly but not affectionately called. Blows so terribly unkind because Franco was born and raised in Galicia.
Yet he expeditiously offed officials and dissidents there and strictly limited use of the native Galician tongue – the romance language he had grown up with. The point was, of course, to bend Galician will to the rest of Spain.
It never quite worked.
The constant grind of war and oppression have taken its toll. Some have prospered. Many have been reduced to hardscrabble life.
The custom of minifundismo was lethal to landholders.
Dividing land equally among heirs may sound eminently fair, but it has chopped the countryside into scraps of farms that punish the owners because they cannot be worked profitably.
Out of desperation, people began to emigrate. Mostly men leaving families, hoping to find solutions, hoping to return. Women remained in the countryside, mustering the grit to endure the absences and assume the roles of husband, father, brother, son.
Though some moved from country to city, many more went into the unknown: Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany, France, Switzerland. They assimilated.
Manuel Ferrol, who grew up in the early 20th century on Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte, has recorded these farewells in poignant photographs: final scenes of separation, fear of the future, grief, desolation, desperation.
For of all people, Galicians are most rooted to their land. Despite turbulence and hardship, Galicia calls to them. There is a romance in this green earth that binds them to their homes.
The Spanish word for yearning, or homesickness, is lamorrina. It can be loosely translated as intense sadness at leaving Galicia.
Today, the feeling is upbeat along Galicia’s corrugated coast.
The Atlantic Motorway takes tourists and locals from town to town, as does regular but limited bus and train service.
Fishing, tourism, industry, wineries, even fashion, are bringing prosperity to western cities.
Inland, though, gallegos have not necessarily felt these fair winds.
Rosalia de Castro is perhaps Galicia’s most beloved poet. Her romantic yet wistful 19th century poems speak of sadness and loss. Her simple phrases express every gallego’s love for Galicia.
Lugar mais hermoso
No mundo n’hachara
Qu’aquel de Galicia
Land most beautiful
No world can fell that Galicia
Next: The Camellias, Part II
For more on camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.