November 6, 2015
It was fitting that we would spend our last day in Spain visiting two of the places where many pilgrims choose to end their Camino: the beautiful coastal locales of Finisterre and Muxía.
Back when we first started the Camino, we planned to include two destinations in our walk: first, Santiago, where we would visit the cathedral and get our Compostelas, and then the rocky cliffs of Finisterre, an additional 52 miles of walking but a fitting symbolic end to our journey. By the time we reached Santiago, however, we were pretty beat up, and our bodies had different plans for us. Instead of hiking, we spent those extra days resting in Santiago, with the only real activity being a bus tour to Finisterre and Muxía.
We went with a tour company called Discover Galicia. Our tour guide, Jesus, was a native of Santiago and very knowledgeable about Galicia. He shared a great deal about the region as he drove. Most of the tour was along a stretch of Galician coastline called La Costa da Morte, or The Coast of Death, aptly named because of the many shipwrecks that have occurred here throughout the years. According to Jesus, more ships have wrecked here than along any other part of the Spanish coastline due to the treacherous terrain and rough water; waves have been known to reach up to 20 meters (65 feet).
La Costa da Morte may be deadly for ships, but it made for an incredibly beautiful day trip, and our tour had many highlights.
Finisterre is a peninsula on the western coast of Spain that the Romans believed marked the end of the world, hence its name, which is Latin for “end of the earth.” This pilgrimage route pre-dates Christian times. As early as 1000 BC, Celts inhabited Galicia, and the area now known as Finisterre was used by Celtic pagans for religious ceremonies. They believed Finisterre was a sacred and magical place.
The rocky cliffs of Finisterre offered vast views of the ocean and the coastline. We met quite a few other pilgrims as we scrambled down the rocks and hiked to the edge of the cliff to celebrate our completion of the Camino.
Supposedly, peregrinos of old would burn their pilgrimage clothes on Finisterre to celebrate the end of their journey, and in recent years, modern peregrinos have taken up the tradition. This practice is controversial because of its impact on the natural environment, and indeed, we saw multiple spots of scorched earth and partially-burned clothing, shoes, and other hiking paraphernalia marring the landscape. Fortunately, this practice is becoming less common.
The next stop was Muxía, a small town along La Costa da Morte and, like Finisterre, a place considered sacred by both Celts and Christians. It’s also another location where peregrinos often end their hike (and the location in The Way where Martin Sheen spreads his son’s ashes).
Like much of Galicia, Muxía was once inhabited by Celtic pagans. When Christianity began spreading, the Celts were fiercely resistant to conversion. Christians put great effort into converting the pagans, even bringing in their heaviest hitters: legend has it that the Virgin Mary landed at Muxía in a stone boat to help the apostle James convert the locals. Some of the granite stones in the picture below are believed to be the remains of the Virgin Mary’s boat, and the seventeenth-century Santuario de Virxe da Barca, also at this site, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
A serious oil spill occurred off the coast of Muxía in 2002 when the Prestige tanker broke apart, spilling 66,000 tons of oil into the ocean. This sculpture, called A Ferida, by Alberto Bañuelos, represents the wounds that the spill wreaked upon the sea and the coastline. It is 36 feet tall and weighs over 400 tons.
Of these two beautiful places (Finisterre and Muxía), Dale and I both felt more drawn to Muxía, perhaps because it allowed us to be so close to the ocean, where we could fully appreciate the power of the water and the rugged beauty of La Costa da Morte. The waves crashed mightily against the rocks, sending spray high into the air, and it was so windy that it almost knocked me over a few times. Muxía was a raw, wild piece of coastline, and it’s easy to see why people of various faiths have attributed special powers to this place over the centuries.
The trip was an all-day excursion, mostly along La Costa da Morte, but Jesus took us to a few other interesting places as well.
Our first stop of the day was Ponte Maceira, a village that our Camino guidebook described as one of the prettiest on the Camino. With its old stone buildings nestled in the hills, we found Ponte Maceira to be quite scenic. The town is famous for its namesake, a medieval bridge across the Río Tambre that has Roman origins but has been rebuilt and refurbished over the centuries. According to legend, followers of Saint James were carrying his remains and trying to find a proper burial place for him while also being pursued by Romans. The Romans were gaining ground on the Christians as they approached the Río Tambre, but by divine intervention the bridge collapsed just after the followers crossed the bridge, leaving the Romans gnashing their teeth on the other side.
A very special hórreo
Jesus also took us off the beaten path to see a notable hórreo. Dale and I had seen hórreos all over Galicia during our hike, but this was no ordinary corncrib. It was, according to Jesus, Spain’s largest, and, at 295 feet long, I believe it!
This hórreo, built in the sixteenth-century, sits on the grounds of a twelfth-century monastery near the village of San Martin. The monastery seemed to be falling apart, and there were people with power tools working on repairs while we were there, but it’s also a place of residence for volunteers and used as a pilgrims’ albergue. One of the residents happened upon our group and gave us a quick tour.
We went inside the hórreo, which was just as you might imagine a long, windowless building would be inside–kinda dark. The residents of the monastery appeared to be using the hórreo to store all kinds of things, not just vegetables. We saw furniture and other odds and ends lining the walls. The man giving us the tour said that, when the weather is right, peregrinos actually sleep in there. Hmm. I’m sure the discs do an adequate job of keeping the rodents out, but I think I’ll pass!
There were eight of us on the trip: four of us were peregrinos from the US, and the rest were tourists from the Spanish region of Andalusia, including a young couple from the town of Seville and an older couple from Málaga named Toni and Jose.
We interacted very little with the group until the afternoon, when we stopped for lunch at a quaint restaurant in one of the little villages through which we passed. The meal was a typical Spanish menu del día, with two courses, wine, dessert, and coffee after, so it meant that we’d be having a long and leisurely lunch together. Toni and Jose, the only ones who didn’t speak English, sat across from Dale and I. Using my basic Spanish, I struck up a conversation. They were thrilled with the fact that I could speak a little Spanish and rewarded my every effort with enthusiasm (and sometimes, literally, with applause). The effect of all of this positive reinforcement was to make me try even harder. Wracking my brain for proper verb conjugations and correct word choices, I told them about the Camino and our travels throughout Europe. They told us about their children and their jobs and about Andalusia. They were enthusiastic about all things Andalusia.
Dale and I had already heard amazing things about this region from friends and other travelers, reporting:
- friendly, tolerant locals who embrace foreigners
- a beautiful and varied landscape, with a mixture of mountains, desert, and ocean and coastlines on both the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean
- warm weather–it’s the sunniest and warmest place in Europe
- classic Spanish culture–flamenco and bullfighting originated here, and it’s also known for its distinctive and beautiful Moorish architecture.
Toni and Jose reinforced what we had heard about Andalusians. This couple was open and friendly and and genuinely interested in us. They insisted that we visit Málaga, saying that it’s beautiful and full of wonderful people, and, oh! The sol! The sol is always out. They obviously worshipped the sun (which we didn’t see much of in Galicia).
Jose and Toni were more effective than a colorful advertisement or a travel brochure. They convinced us–we must return to Spain one day soon and visit Andalusia.
Spain’s Economic Crisis
Spain is experiencing an economic crisis, and Dale and I were curious to learn more about this from a local’s perspective. We had seen evidence of the country’s troubles throughout our hike. The For Sale signs were ubiquitous, and some of the villages we passed through felt like ghost towns. They were completely shuttered. Jesus told us that Galicia has been hit especially hard and many residents live in poverty. For example, Galician farms provide 40% of the milk for all of Spain and yet at least one farm a day closes because farmers can’t afford the costs associated with processing the milk. He pointed out that Spain is a nice place to visit and to live but not a great place to work; the current unemployment rate for the country is around 21% (compare that to 5% for the U.S.) and around 47% for youth. So many Spaniards are struggling right now that younger generations are either returning home to live with elderly family members or leaving Spain for countries where employment opportunities are better. Jesus lamented that Spain is losing its best and brightest, and he was not overly optimistic about the future, what with the political conflicts that are dividing much of the country.
With its beautiful landscapes, vibrant cities, amazing food, and wonderful people, Spain was easily the country we loved most on our trip, but the fact that it was so cheap also made it an appealing travel destination. Jesus offered a good reminder that what makes Spain so affordable for visitors is also why so many locals are suffering, and I hope that Spaniards can find solutions for their complex problems.
A note about the spelling I used for the locales discussed in this post: I generally used Galician instead of the Castilian Spanish because that’s often how place names appear in guidebooks and on road signs and websites. The only exception is Finisterre because the Latin spelling is more widely known than the Galician spelling (which is Fisterra).