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An Exultation of Scallops

© By Mary Alice Downie
  It's known as the land of a thousand rivers. Galicia is one of the four north-western provinces of "Green Spain," so-called because of their mountains and temperate climate. Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, Euskadi. The words toll like bells in a cathedral, summoning the faithful to mass - or battle.
     This is not the sun-baked world of the south, but of the gentle chiri-miri (fine mist.) No bull-fights or flamencos here. Galicia is Celtic, mystical, a land of festivals, saints, witches and the ultimate pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela.
     First stop, Pontevedra. According to legend, it was founded by Teucris, a hero of the Trojan wars. (Bold Teucro founded you on the banks of this inlet so that you could be the most wonderful of all towns in Spain.) Perhaps not, but it has a long, proud history. There are pre-historic rock-carvings nearby, the Romans were here; their bridge still stands. Tough Swabians invaded in the fifth century. Local lore claims Columbus as a native son. More certainly, his ship, the Santa Maria, (first named La Gallega) was built in this ship-building town.
     Francis of Assisi passed through as a footsore pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Compostella before he became a saint. You may see people with hiking sticks, following the yellow arrows along the Portuguese Way, which runs through Pontevedra. (The town was once ceded to the church of Santiago in compensation "for damages caused by courtesans to pious pilgrims.")
     During a jetlagged afternoon, after the flight from Canada, we wandered narrow streets, lined with granite houses, through Bonfire Wood and Vegetable Square. Everywhere, the highly-decorated cruceiros, (stone crosses on pillars) erected since the late 14th century for a vow, a memorial or just to mark a road. Their long shafts are dramatically carved, with tormented souls in Purgatory or burning in Hell.
     What we originally thought was a small museum, is actually extensive, housed in four historic buildings. There are archaeological remains from many centuries: a treasure trove of Celtic gold and jewels, Roman anchors, what looks like a Visigoth version of a Swiss army knife, carved jet figures of witches, Galician paintings and pottery, the reconstruction of an admiral's quarters with original furnishings and naval charts.
     Our hotel was an experience in itself. Spain has the sensible custom of preserving some of its historic buildings by turning them into Paradors, which are half government, half privately funded. The Parador de Pontevedra is an 18th century Pazos (manor) ,with a swirling stone staircase suitable for an opera setting, stately lion-head chairs, maps, engraving, lining the walls. Carved archways are echoed by green bowers in the garden outside.


     Galicia is famous for its food, although there are a disturbing number of octopus recipes. At the market, there are cornucopias of fruit and vegetables, butchers offer pork in all its forms from chops, bacon, sausages, and ham to parts you don't want to know about. There are heaps of fish, some so fresh they try to escape and mounds of the favourite delicacy, goose barnacles.


     A drive along the Costa do Marisco (Coast of Seafood) past rias (river estuaries) with bateaus,( platforms where they raise mussels, oysters and scallops.) leads to Combarro. One of the best-preserved fishing villages, it is perched entirely on rock. You clamber about, grateful for sensible shoes, admiring the fine collection of horreos. These narrow-slitted stone or wooden granaries on stilts were used for ripening, drying and storing crops. They fell into disuse, but are now cherished. Bouquets of corn hang from flowery stone balconies, Brightly-costumed figures of Brujas (witches) stand - miniature menaces - in front of tourist shops. I thought of bringing one home, but decided that it might frighten the children.
     The Most Noble Town of Cambados is the centre for the wine region of Albarino. Just as we arrived, banners fluttering in the park proclaimed the celebration of yet another festival: Un Exultacion de Vieira. Bands played while chefs hovered over great vats and sizzling pans, arranging their delectable contents on trays of shells.
     We visited one ancestral vineyard, Gil Armada Joaquin, accompanied by a large friendly dog. There were low boxwood hedges, used to make that traditional Galician musical instrument - bagpipes! Hibiscus and oleander bloomed (in September) beneath arbours of vines. In this area, the tradition is to train the grapes high above the ground. A small shop in the vast main plaza square sells licors frutas del bosque. I snapped up two: Mirabeis and Albarino, in enchanting hand blown glass bottles. I wandered about trying to buy more, but abandoned my efforts because the van was waiting. Big mistake. They were exquisite!

Mary Alice Downie has contributed to Fifty-five Plus, Good Times, Forever Young, Kingston Life and many other magazines. She is the author of 28 books for children and adults.

Photo Credits
Mary Alice Downie
Tourism Spain

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