A Spellbound Place in Spain: Where Ancient and Pagan Legends Meet Christian Stories

There’s a place in northern Spain, in the region of Galicia, very close to the remote northernmost corner of the Iberian Peninsula, that even the inhabitants consider one small borough, even though it has officially been granted the township. It was in the Galician borough of Viveiro, founded back in the Iron Age, where I first discovered that on this particular realm Celtic, Roman and Christian legends and myths get along to spell even the most modern of all travellers. It’s actually true what they say: calm waters run deep. Just as all Galician people, the locals don’t talk much, but when they do share some piece of story, a new and intriguing part of a legend or some genuine explanation for a pagan rite, well… you’d better take notes. They won’t say it again, they most certainly won’t admit they made the assumptions and they won’t even reduce anything to writing.

First of all, if you feel audacious enough to start this affair, pay attention: they won’t actually take you by the hand to show you stuff, but on a closer look, you’ll easily see there is no story, piece of tradition, pagan rite or Christian custom that the locals won’t respect with ever more passion in this small town. Viveiro is officially on the map of itineraries also known as Camino do Mar, created by the pilgrims travelling to great lengths of distance to honor Saint James. It’s therefore impossible for the modern traveller passing through this land hidden by the Bay of Biscay Bay and the creek formed by the Atlantic waters not to hear at least one story about the Celts who seemed to have left this particular place to start the conquest of the British Isles, or even some surreal explanation of the origins of the Tower of Hercules, the oldest Roman lighthouse still working and still standing for almost two millenia.

The old quarter of the city seems to be the most beautiful safekeeping window on the Galician coast of the Celtic Sea, because it counts no less than six old gates from the 13th century which are part of a collection of medieval walls from around the town. At least, that’s what the modern historian says, while imperceptibly leading the visitors deep inside the city, on narrow and arduous streets. Therefore, even more surprising are the vestiges of modernity in this fishermen’s town: Viveiro counts luxurious hotels, cinemas and a theater hall, museums and new buildings, a sports center and a music school. Besides, the locals take good care of the annual carnival, pay their respects during religious feasts, and also mount up parties and even a punk music festival.

The voyager must rest assured: Galicia has its place among the seven Celtic realms, alongside Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, The Isle of Man, Ireland and Brittany. People claim the ancient anonymous Lebor Gabála Érenn, the 11th century Book of the Taking of Ireland simply tells the story for everybody to know it: the son of the mythical leader Breogan is said to have looked far into the horizon, to the north, and there saw a realm he decided he had to conquer. As far as the story goes, after his father’s murder, Ith climbed up in Breogan’s Tower and must have seen the same realm again, because he eventually started the invasion, from right there, on Galician shore, to Ireland – Ith’s land. And it’s not just the beautiful legend of the Celts leaving Galicia to conquer the British Isles. More than one historical source seems to confirm it: the ancient inhabitants of these lands called themselves Celts and a medieval German historian apparently figured out the meaning of a funeral inscription that stated that the country was called “Gaeltia” – also spelled as “Caeltia”.

If this was incentive enough to just pretend you ignore the logical chronological succession, go ahead and just ask: where do Celtic/Gaelic and Roman stories meet? On the precise moment in time where, from high above in the tower, a mythical character spots a green realm, 900 kilometers away. Yes, Breogan’s tower was that high, and his son had that good a sight, that he saw the British Isles. This same tower from the Celtic/Gaelic stories has been identified as what was left of the Tower of Hercules,

On the way to the Tower of Hercules, it shouldn´t be surprising to hear a local playing the gaita
On the way to the Tower of Hercules, it shouldn´t be surprising to hear a local playing the gaita

built by the Romans in the 2nd century, to honor the demigod the legend says had fought for three whole days and three nights the giant Gerion for spreading terror among the locals, then cut his head, buried it with his weapons and had a city built on the spot – the modern A Coruna.

Nevertheless, the heroine of this city is yet another legend: Maria Pita is said to have saved the city from the invasion the British sea wolf Francis Drake prepared in 1589, just by inspiring the locals the courage to stand up and fight. The invincible British corsairs backed down and Francis Drake got to taste disgrace. Maria Pita was a strong, valiant woman, but also a passionate one: she was three times a widow before the fourth husband brought her in front of justice for ill-treatment. Nowadays locals say Galician women are good and kind, but sooner or later, Maria Pita’s gene is bound to resurface.

But wait: when does the Christian tradition recover and put order in the pagan stories? At the end of the earth, in the most remote place of the known world, that is, the European continent – the Galician finisterrae, the place where Jesus Christ sent his apostle James, John the Baptist’s brother, to tell his story and spread the faith. This place, the end of the known world, was where Aristotle used to say the sun died. At sunset, the brightest of all stars completely drowns into the sea and that’s why the Romans didn’t dear go any further: no one ever came back from the other side. You should see there was no other place Saint James could have been buried: by all means, Peter was buried in the apostolic office of the Catholic Church, John remained on Holy Land, and James’s remains were buried at the end of the known world.

One finisterrae of this world
One finisterrae of this world

They’ve been discovered in the 9th century, where now lies the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella, the place where the third most important pilgrimage route of Christianity comes to an end. Saint James’s path is the most famous road of the European history: it’s where its cultural conscience was literally built and strengthened, all along the networks of routes that lead to the apostle’s tomb. Over the centuries, it was on these precise routes sharing the one and only end that European languages were spoken and formed as such.

If you’ve had just enough of the cryptic stories and the curious wishful explanations, you don’t even have to leave Galicia to see just as many natural monuments in one single most remote and small place. It could be the Sanroque mountain peak, the northernmost part of the Iberian Peninsula; maybe the oldest European eucalyptus, almost two centuries of age and also called “the grandpa”; or the gorgeous landscape of As Catedrais beach, built by the wind, made of seawater and preserved by time, all along the shore. The scattered huge rocks, the galleries, the caves and stone arches would definitely make you think of some curious halidom. Funnily enough, it all seems to be cut and pasted from the British realms – at least as far as the smog, the wind and rain go.

The curious halidom of A Catedrais beach
The curious halidom of A Catedrais beach

Okay, so maybe after a day or two of stories, rain and dew, of hearing of a green Spain the capricious weather makes unfamiliar, and raising all kinds of chronological red flags, you may think it’s time to talk some sense into the locals and sit down with them to try and get a thing or two for real. You’ll just get a good chance to taste the exquisite gastronomy, almost exclusively based on recipes with fish, seafood, cockles or oysters, all bearing untranslatable names, with traditional wines and richly flavored liqueurs. Over a good meal and more than one sweet glass of wine, you’ll just see the Galician share just as much as their language lets you hear the vowels in the words.


Author: Ruxandra Constantinescu

My every now and then jottings run on this blog in English, Spanish, and Romanian, as a tribute to all cultures I currently find myself at the crossroads of. I was born and raised in Bucharest, but I had been traveling in my mind ever since I could read. Eventually, I started doing it for real as soon as I could, so I got to study, work, live, and travel in Romania, Germany, France, and Spain. Take your pick of posts on books, travels, places, people, current social and emotional issues. International politics or current affairs are no stretch, as neither are movies, series, journalism and communication, nor teaching EFL.

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