There’s sun, there’s sea, and there’s sand. But this isn’t the Spain you’re thinking of. The sunshine disappears as quickly as it arrives, as storm clouds are whipped across the sky by restless winds. The sea is not the easygoing Med but the turbulent Atlantic Ocean, crashing against jagged rocks. There might be sand, somewhere at the foot of these soaring cliff peaks. It’s wild, beautiful and exhilarating, and there isn’t a foreign tourist in sight.
We’re on the Costa da Morte in Galicia, on the far north-western tip of the Spanish mainland. This is the ‘Land of a Thousand Rivers’ – Spain at its greenest, with the rain keeping waterfalls flowing full-force year-round and lush pastures grazed by wild horses and shaggy blonde cattle. It’s a world dotted with stone in the form of ruined citadels and dolmens – Stone Age burial structures reappropriated by the Celts.
Celtic culture may have flourished in this isolated corner of the world, but it isn’t hard to imagine how this untamed terrain could refuse to be conquered by others, including the Moorish invasion that swept through the rest of the country. The picture-sque fishing villages tumbling down the hillsides may seem tranquil, but people here have always known to be humble before nature – the same treacherous waters that sustain livelihoods are just as likely to claim lives. The ‘Death Coast’ deserves its name, our guide Pepa tells us, regaling us with tales of shipwrecks, and forlorn sweethearts waiting on the cliffs. There’s a thrilling romance to the lore of this land. As the road winds coastward Pepa gestures to a group of ominous pointed rocks in the distance. Legend has it that they were monks, kidnapped by pirates and drowned at sea.”
I’d already come as close to my own Jules Verne adventure as I cared, however, when I found myself eye to eye with a giant squid. Just over the border in Luarca, Asturias, the Aula del Mar or ‘Classroom of the Sea’ is a quirky centre run by café-owner Luis Laria, a lay scientist with a passion for local marine life. In the eerie blue glow of the preservation tanks, one thing looms larger than all the gargantuan specimens: two words written large above a macabre display of dead, oil-covered seabirds. Nunca Maís – Never Again.
These two words are to become increasingly familiar on our travels in the area. When the oil tanker Prestige sank off the Costa da Morte in November 2002, the black tide that engulfed the coastline decimated marine life and human livelihoods. Staff at the Aula del Mar were among the ‘white tide’ of boiler-suited volunteers who joined the colossal clean-up effort.
The water lapping the harbour in the remote seaside town of Muxía today is deep blue, but three years ago the scene was one of horror. “The waves splashed so high these streets were black,” says Pepa, a Galician herself. “Everybody lost their jobs overnight, from the fishermen to the workers at the ice factory to the women sewing the fishing nets. It was horrible.”
Today, local feeling is more positive. “Tourists are starting to come back for the summer -it’s almost like it was before,” says local bar owner Nino Perez Bua. “But they’re all from nearby. We hope that cheap flights will bring more tourists from outside Spain.”
The sun-worshipping hordes may never beat a path to Galicia, but this is, in fact, where tourism first began – albeit of a more spiritual kind. Ryanair may have put Santiago de Compostela on the budget travel map, but since the Middle Ages, Christian pilgrims have taken the long way round – on foot, bicycle or horseback, to pay homage at the cathedral, beneath which the bones of St James are said to lie.
We may be cheating with our motorised vehicle, but as we near the final destination of the Camino de Santiago we dutifully visit stone churches and sanctuaries linked to the legend. The legend, myth and magic that are so much a part of this land won’t be blotted out though – in the souvenir stalls, mermaids and witches jostle for space beside traditional Catholic kitsch; the Virgin Mary herself given a mythical twist as she rises from a stone-carved boat or a bed of seashells. Passing a stone cross, Pepa points out the snake entwined around it. Ancient religions revered the serpent as a symbol of wisdom – the carvings have been ‘Christianised’, she tells us.
Santiago de Compostela doesn’t disappoint. Once the spiritual frontier of Europe, it was said that the ground could not be seen for the mass of bowed heads walking, and here they are. Rain-sodden pilgrims lean on wooden staffs that have supported them on the long journey, gazing with fulfilment at the spectacular interior of the Cathedral, incense smoke billowing from the botafumeiro as it swings breathtakingly high over the congregation. The city itself is an attractive place, lively not only with a constant stream of jubilant pilgrims, but with its emerging status as a hip European city break destination. Yet before we cut loose, we must reach the end of the line.
As he watched the sun sink into the sea at Cabo de Finisterre, Decimo Junio Bruto, Roman explorer of Galicia, thought he had found the edge of the world. Perched on the clifftop, the view from the café window is an impressive one, but it’s time to face the elements. I have never felt a wind so terrifyingly powerful as the one that blasts the precipice but a photograph must be taken of the simple monument here – a pair of boots, symbolic of those that Camino pilgrims must come here to burn once their mission is accomplished. Battered by the ocean spray, ravaged by wind and rain, and still smiling.