Wide sandy beaches, tan bombshells dancing flamenco, suave males bullfighting, a steaming paella overflowing with red peppers and juicy chicken, and the endearing Don Quixote of La Mancha. I could go on and on and describe more stereotypical imagery associated with the heart of Spain, but I’ll stop right there because I rather spend this time describing the charming Spain that I know and love. Yes, paella and beaches are known universally as inherent to Spain, but there is more to the Spanish experience than blood spurting out of a raging bull in a bullfight or clubbing amidst the hot beaches of Ibiza, a cool drink in hand. There is a hidden Spanish paradise that I am lucky enough to know very well: the region of Galicia.
Every summer break since I was born I’ve gone to Galicia, where my mother’s family descended from. Galicia is the northwestern region of Spain, bordering the Bay of Biscay, Portugal, Asturias, and Castilla-Leon, and is categorized by rugged and lush forests, a variety of beaches and ports, estuaries, rivers, and low mountains. It is an aesthetically gorgeous region as well as culturally rich and diverse. The weather is mild and can never compare to the blazing 100 degree summer heat of Andalucia or Madrid. The forests and creeks, marshes and estuaries, are home not only to a variety of fish and birdlife, but also to diverse social and celebratory events for the townspeople. In many festivals honoring saints, meals and parades are set up alongside rivers and on the edge of dense forests. Bands play, picnic tables and food stands are erected, and lengthy meals are enjoyed with loved ones. Galicians embrace the natural landscape by integrating it into their social events. In this way, Galicia is more provincial and traditional than other regions. It has a lively history and the older generations keep the values alive with the Saturday morning markets, religious parades honoring Santa Maria, and the close-knit family structure. Catholicism, nature, and agriculture seem to play in as a social backdrop to the festivities of the Galician culture.
The social life in Galicia is much like the rest of Spain, continuously incorporating a focus on family, food, and close friends. Independence and strives for originality are not essential cornerstones of the culture as they are in the United States. Perhaps, because of Spain’s socialist and liberal policies, community comes before independence. I have had trouble finding something similar to these aspects of Spanish life within the US – meals with family last hours and are full of genuine laughter, and a mixing between generations, a rarity to find among many families in the States. Beaches and food have remained my favorite part about Galicia. The beaches range from two-mile long frothy havens for surfers, to calm and humble coves with crystal-clear turquoise water and white banks. This northeastern coast prides itself in its bolstering (locally and humanely farmed) agricultural base, producing mouth-watering cheeses and hams in addition to a famous maritime and fishery trade yielding the most succulent pieces of seafood I have ever tasted. If you aren’t a fan of crab, octopus, mussels, and the like, or are vegetarian and keep your hands off of beef and chicken, I guarantee you will be pleased with the cheeses and fruit. Galicia is known for superior pears, peaches, potatoes, and green beans. Before the Roman invasion and Middle Ages, Galicia was predominantly settled by Celts. The Celtic influences are still reflected today in the Galician music and regional language, Gallego. Gallego sounds much like a mix of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, and is understood by 99% of the population and spoken by 91%. Bagpipes, instruments often associated with Scotland or Ireland, are the regional instrument. You will be sure to hear bagpipe players and traditional drummers in any major festival as they march down the cobble-stoned streets.
So I hope that, now, when you think of Spain, you don’t just conjure up images of a dark beauty with a rose in her hair stomping on the ground with a ruffled black dress, a famous Picasso painting, or an Arabic-influenced southern Spain (although these are all wonderful aspects of this diverse country). Remember the local lifestyle of Galicia: the elderly farmers delicately preparing cheese and sausages, the eucalyptus forests, and the cool summer breeze of the beach after a nice swim. Galicia is a gem; it has exposed me to the beauty of 4 AM walks on the beach after a night of dancing, the smell of fresh bread and pastries from the local panaderia, the sensation of freedom when floating on my back in the Atlantic Ocean, and the smell of frying fish and chorizo on the beach at sunset. It is the epitome of a relaxed life full of character, and I’d rather have that then watch a bullfight any day.
Story by Olaya Barr and Photos by Carolyn Balk