Santiago de Compostela Galicia: From Wash-Your-Butt airport to the Coast of Death

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Like the rainforest, Galicia is wild, wet and green. It is rich in superstition, legend and myths. It has its own language. And, most importantly from a Maya perspective, it faces the setting sun. With its craggy coast, medieval cities, Celtic heritage and colorful festivals, it is one of the most evocative locations in Europe. So we set out to explore this hidden treasure for the sort of idiosyncratic details that make a story come alive.

Santiago de Compostela - Galicia

Our base was Santiago de Compostela, capital of Galicia and its spiritual center. The city is named after St. James the apostle, whose remains are said to lie in a silver coffin under the main altar of the cathedral. For more than a thousand years – and still today - pilgrims on the route to Santiago have worn the scallop shell, symbol of St James.

We flew into Galicia's international airport at Lavacolla - literally wash your butt. In medieval times, the town was the last stop on the pilgrimage before arriving at Santiago. Sentries were posted at Lavacolla to ensure that pilgrims bathed in the stream to scrub off the residue of months of traveling and sleeping rough.

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This ritual seems to have been only partially successful, as 700 years ago the cathedral installed the world's largest incense censer to mask the smell of the pilgrims. The Botafumeiro (meaning smoke belcher in Galician) is still in use today. On certain religious high days it is loaded with red-hot coals and eight red-robed tiraboleiros pull the ropes that swing the gigantic censer until it reaches speeds of up to 60 km/h, dispensing vesuvian clouds of incense all the while. We were lucky enough to catch it in action twice and were hypnotized by its lurching arc, gasping along with the rest of the congregation as it swung seemingly within inches of the ceiling.

On our last visit to Santiago, we arrived during a medieval fair. It was quite disorienting, like walking through one of our own books, to find ourselves surrounded unexpectedly by living history: wenches and serfs purveying their wares, roasting pigs on spits, craft demonstrations, stalls selling cheeses and charcuterie, strolling minstrels playing haunting Celtic music. Only a brown-robed pilgrim speaking into his cell phone brought us back to the twenty-first century.

Lodging and Food
As most of Santiago's tourist sights are in easy walking distance, it's best to stay in the historic quarter. Although pricey, the government run Parador - the Hostal de Los Reyes Catolicos - is a favorite with many. This luxurious hotel, located on the central square right next to the cathedral, used to be a hostal for the poorest pilgrims in the 15th century. Even if you don't stay here, you are welcome to call in and explore its four magnificent interior courtyards. Our preferred lodging is the smaller, humbler and more reasonably priced Altair - a family-friendly boutique hotel on a cobbled street a few minutes' walk from the cathedral.

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Santiago has some fantastic seafood restaurants- the Rua du Horreo is lined with them. You'll see many windows filled with pulpo - the local specialty - a very purple octopus dish of tentacles and suction cups. Nothing warms and restores the body after the wet and windy Galician weather like a hearty bowl of Caldo Gallego (a thick stew made with bacon, chorizo, white beans and greens) and every restaurant has their own version. If you want to live dangerously, order a plate of pimientos de Padron - small fried green peppers from the nearby town of Padron. Mostly, they are mild and tasty, except for the one in twenty that is so hot it blows your head off – like culinary Russian roulette.

The Freeway to La Coruna, the Crystal City and the Coast of Death at Cape Finisterre

From Santiago, we took the freeway to La Coruna, the Crystal City – so called for its walls of glassed-in balconies facing the sea. On the rocky headland is the Tower of Hercules, the city's proudest symbol and the oldest working Roman lighthouse in the world. We climbed the 242 steps to the top, marveling all the way that this structure was built in the second century and has been in use ever since. From the top there is a spectacular view of the coastline and far out to sea, where a new world lay waiting for the Spanish explorers.

Less hospitable to sailors is nearby Cape Finisterre - or Lands End. Prior to the discovery of America, this rocky promontory was the end of the known world. From here, the Celts believed dead souls embarked for their onward journey towards the setting sun. It is traditional for pilgrims to burn their travel clothes on the beach in a ritual of purification and run naked into the sea. We saw no naked pilgrims, no humans at all, as the weather was wild and fierce that day. We cowered in the car as lightning flashed and thunder roared and the waves crashed against the cliffs. This is the start of the Coast of Death, la Costa de la Muerte, a name well-earned for the number of shipwrecks on its rocks.

Legends and Odd Customs of San Andres de Texido and Santa Marta de Ribarteme

On a less stormy day, we followed the precipitous coast road to the haunting and deeply melancholy town of San Andres de Texido. Legend has it that any Galician who does not visit San Andres in their lifetime will be reincarnated there as a frog or a lizard. The one get-out clause is that a bereaved family member can escort the soul straight after death. Buses make the trip, half full - all the seats are paid for, but only half are occupied by flesh & blood travelers. In the cafes, you see one person and two glasses at each table.

South of Santiago and way off the beaten tourist track is the tiny village of Santa Marta de Ribarteme - home of another eccentric Galician custom. Every year, at the end of July, they celebrate the Festival of the Near Death Experience. As its name suggests, it's a celebration for people who've had a brush with death and lived to tell the tale. The lucky "survivors" are carried to church in their coffins by their loved ones. As our teenage son had recently recovered from a serious accident, we tried to persuade him to get in a coffin but he refused point-blank. Still, we danced in the streets and gave thanks in our hearts with the happy mothers and fathers of Santa Marta.

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Jon Voelkel grew up in Peru, Costa Rica and Colombia. Pamela Craik Voelkel grew up in a sedate seaside town in the north of England. In 2001, the Voelkels moved to rural Vermont and began work on 'Middleworld', the first book they have written together and the first of the Jaguar Stones series, followed by the End of the World Club. Read about the Voelkels and their books at

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July 25th, 2015

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