The Serendipity of Traveling in Galicia

I have oodles of serendipitous moments while traveling through Spain and the world beyond – from sharing a tanjine with a Berber man to rubbing shoulders with Falete (seriously, he literally brushed passed me on the street in a flare of flamboyant nonchalance). Camera in hand, belly full of food and with my dad or Novio, and I’m totally in travel nirvana.

Still, I gotta throw out this disclaimer: I have just as many flubs and mess ups and utterly frustrating moments when I travel. But I wouldn’t keep traveling if those moments didn’t thrill me and push me to see more.

Just last weekend, I hopped on a plane after work to Galicia, the region where I work during the summer. The food, the people and their sing-song language, the endless stretched of rocky beaches – Spain’s northwest corner won me over on my first visit in 2008, and I now spend my summers working in A Coruña. Kike had spent just an ounce of time here, so I was eager to pay the plane fare and join him during his weekend there.

On Saturday morning, we jumped in his car and drove towards Santiago, windows down. We’d been blessed with a clear sky and warm temperatures and stripped off our jackets as soon as we got parked. I’d been to Santiago four times already, including for the fest of Spain’s patron saint, but coming into the Plaza do Obradoiro was serendipitous: the sun glinted off the stalls selling scallop shells and rosaries, and Camarón was glued to my face as I looked for new ways to capture St. James’s final resting place. From out of nowhere, I heard my name.

Standing just behind me were about a dozen of my old students from Olivares. Like a weirdo, I started sweating, my head spinning. I haven’t found a day to go back and visit a town 40 minutes away by bus, but I suddenly found myself in an entirely different corner of Spain embracing students I taught English to for three years. I promised to visit over Feria and gave everyone a quick kiss more before tailing off behind Kike to the entrance of the Cathedral.

Mass was being conducted in the high arcs of galego. Kike and I had just barely entered when the priest called for the attendants to give the sign of peace. I watched, midday light streaming in through the stained glass, as pilgrams embraced after a long Camino, backpacks still affixed on their shoulders. We circled the church’s chapels before Kike prayed to Saint James that Spain survive the economic crisis.

My ears perked up at the words botafumeiro. KIKEEEEEE I whispered shrilly, they’re going to do it, ¡qué suerte! I couldn’t believe our luck in seeing an enormous incense holder during a Pilgrim’s Mass. The team of scarlet-clad priests gingerly lifted the lid off of the 53kg tin and silver holder. Vaya tajá, Kike noted as I watched the men begin to pull down on the long, braided rope that attaches the botafumeiro to the high ceilings. Like ringing a bell, they heaved together in a perfect synchronization, and the botafumeiro swung like a pendulum – a small ripple that strengthened to a feverish height. My spirit soared along with it.

Kike and I spent the early afternoon walking the back streets between stone buildings, stopping at attractive plazas for a beer and pintxo of tortilla or empanada. I dragged him to O Gato Negro, an unassuming bar I’d eaten at years back. We ordered a bottle of chilled Ribeiro, drinking it out of saucers. Pulpo was our main fare, squishy and seasoned with paprika. Kike stepped outside for a cigarette and struck up conversations with a gallego leaning across the stone entryway of the bar. He returned seconds later, still putting out his cigarette, to order another round of wine and what he called “a crab’s cousin.”  Wrapped in philo dough, the slimy cousin more than got its due. “The man outside said this is the best bar in Santiago, and the cheapest, too.” He wasn’t kidding – a bottle of wine and two raciones ran us a tab of 17€.

I suggested a dessert of queso de tetilla – so named for its shape – and quince with a sweet wine at the Parador, an old hopital sitting at the foot of the Cathedral that has since been converted into a luxury hotel run by the government. Here’s to Los Puppies, Kike said as we shared tiny sherry glasses of vino de pasas. I was happy – belly full, wine making my head ring every so lightly, walking arm in arm with my love. My spirit felt as high as the spires of the temple that marks the end of a pilgrimage with as much force as the waves that batter Coruña’s rocky beaches.

The following day, the gran mariscada was planned. Since camp, I’ve craved the seafood one can eat in Galicia and often use the paycheck (or just really big denominations of euros) to get a nice mariscada, or plate full of different types of shellfish. The day was one of those perfect ones, especially in rainy Galicia – bright even with sunglasses, a hint of a breeze – and Kike had found the perfect place.

…we just never got there. On the back roads out of El Ferrol, his car box shifter thingy gears just kinda, well, gave up. He quickly got out of the car and quickly smoked a cigarette before calling his insurance company. I put my head to his chest and rubbed his back, knowing that the granola bar in my back would be consumed sooner or later.

When he got off the phone, a taxi pulled up and offered to take us as far as Coruña, where I had to fly out of a few hours later. Kike griped about how much the car would cost to repair and that he may not make it down to Seville before my trip, so I suggested we grab a few bees from a grocery store and sit on the Orzán. Looking across the shallow bay to the Torre de Hércules, back leaned up against my duffel bag, we told jokes and sipped Estrella Galicia as the sunlight waned. It felt strangely good to be sharing a place in Spain that I never associated with him, and we could laugh up the negative events of the day.

Galicia has everything that I feel Andalucía lacks – the people who tug at your heartstrings with their generosity, placid beaches, a religious fervor that isn’t just about Semana Santa. I feel at my best in Spain in general, and Galicia takes it to the next level. It’s lovely on the senses and gives me a lifting feeling of serendipity.

Have you ever traveled to Galicia? What are some of your most serendipitous travel moments?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. We saw the botafumeiro too! We also got yelled at because I kissed mario on the cheek: “Chicos, estamos en misa.” Oooops. I blushed a lot.

    I don’t like a lot of seafood, but I do like scallops, and the scallops I ate at this place in Santiago were the absolute best. The bread was pretty amazing, too. The north of Spain is just a mecca for food, isn’t it?

    Great post.

  2. “Have you ever traveled to Galicia? What are some of your most serendipitous travel moments?”

    Whilst I live in Galicia I do travel. So here is my serendipity moment.
    Whilst researching about the wines of the Ribeira Sacra the wife and I attended one of the many wine festivals in the region. Walking past the booths where the wine was sold we came across a family run business. Well actually it was two brothers who ran it. Whilst talking to one of the brothers he invited us back to his bodega (winery) to show us the facilities. To cut a long story short he showed us the installations used these nowadays, all clean with tiled floor etc. and the old bodega with the old wooden barrels and earth floor. We later went on to see the terracing. We talked about production the history of this label. We talked for hours, even though he had a stall to run back at the wine festival. This family run business is one of our favourite wines from the Ribeira Sacra. But it is in short supply as they only produce around 1000 bottles a year.
    All of this may not seem like one of those moments, but we now become good friends and we are able to send our clients there. Last year several groups of American wine lovers managed to visit this wonderful location.

  3. I find your opinion about the Galicians funny. I think the people of Sevilla are the nicest ever. I almost moved to Sevilla once because of the people (and the loveliness of the city, ok). Regarding the Galicians, I once had a Gallego boss and colleagues. Never been to Galicia, I have to admit. But wherever I went and said my boss was Gallego, people were rolling eyes and petting me with a ‘poor you’ gesture.

    • And I find yours of sevillanos funny! Sure, I’ve spent just 4 months in Galicia (and over four years in Sevilla), but they’ve been nothing short of warm and helpful. Sevillanos on the surface are the same, but we have a saying: Sevillanos will be the first to invite you to their house, but never give you the address.” Interesting how we pulled different ideas about both!

      • I have found the Galicians to be some of the friendliest persons in Spain. I am not say all are neither am I saying that the rest of Spain are not 😉
        The Galicians do not have much confidence in themselves and always say they are “closed off.” I like that modesty

  4. I agree with Kaley, I think Galician bread is the best bread in Spain (although I may be a little biased!). I love going to the parador, it’s so beautiful. Awesome picture of the botafumeiro as well!

    And I agree, some of the best travel moments are the unexpected or unplanned ones. Can’t wait to be back in Galicia this summer! I hope the nice weather holds up!

  5. This post makes me want to jump on a plane today! I love Galicia–specifically Santiago Compostela. I’ve been there a few times and every time it’s amazing. My first time there I was traveling by myself. It was January, no tourists. I stayed in SC for about 5 days – went to mass everyday but never got to see the botafumeiro. One evening I was walking through a few side streets near the Cathedral and out of nowhere I heard the Gallego bagpipe music. It was so magical. I find Galicia to be an area where the people are so down to earth and really ‘of the earth’. I also find SC to be incredibly spiritual and magical. My first time there was just a few weeks after I’d survived a high rise fire at work and I was still a little shaken up but was so at peace in SC.

    • I completely agree with you – I feel different in Santiago than I feel elsewhere, and it’s a city I’m fortunate enough to revisit once a year, it seems. Always helps my soul cope with whatever is bugging me. You’re not still in Spain, are you?

  6. Aw, this gave me so many ganas to return to Galicia, it almost seems like it couldn’t be part of the same country as Andalucía. I’ve never been to the Galician coast, I’ve only seen the part that I hiked on the Camino from the border of CastillaLeon to Santiago de Compostela. After hearing so many good things, it is a must visit before I leave Spain in June!! I remember going to the Pilgrim misa after finishing the Camino and my Spanish friend told me the giant incense was because us pilgrims smelt bad after hiking so far in the rain..

    • Ah Coty!!! How are you? I may be heading to Ayamonte later in June, so hopefully I’ll catch you. I want to hear about the Camino, as that’s my tentative Summer 2013 plan, along with ym friend Hayley.

      • I’m always game to talk about the hike, I wish I had time to do it again! Life is great in Ayamonte. I’m here til the 19th of June, so let me know when you’re coming and we could meet up!

  7. I just love Galicia and have very many Galician friends (mainly through climbing, so we meet up at different crags throughout Spain.) One of our most serendipitous trips ever was to the Costa da Morte, to check out a bouldering area near Corme. We had been give the phone number of the guy who single-handedly started the development of rock-climbing in this stunning place. He turned out to be the nicest guy ever, and guided us around the boulders all weekend. Plus he’s a percebeiro and his wife is the most awesome cook so we had the best seafood I have ever eaten in my life!

  8. A. Suárez says:

    You should read “La Casa de la Troya” by Alejandro Pérez Lugín. It’s a classic about Santiago de Compostela at the beginning of the 20th century. A love story about a student from Madrid that is forced to go to Santiago’s university to get him away from bad influences in the kingdom’s capital. Funny and entertaining, it sheds a very authentic light on the Galician character and traditions. It has been reprinted hundreds of times, and it is readily available in the internet — or in any Galician bookstore. I think that you would enjoy it.

    • Hola! Just seeing this but I do have a soft spot for Galicia. Will check it out! Have you read All This I will Give to You? Set in Galicia and a long but good read!


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