The region of Galicia, sometimes referred to as the “land of rivers,” is just at the edge of the Cantabrian Range of mountains. Subject to the rough Atlantic weather patterns, it is often misty and foggy, bringing a sense of mystique to the place.
It is separated from Castilla and León by the mountains known as the Sierra de Ancares and the Sierra do Courel, and though without the high peaks of the Cantabrian range, is by no means flat; to the contrary it is constantly undulating. It is a place of coastlines and green, be it in the fields of rolling hills, or the woods which cover much of the terrain. It is also the place where Celtic traditions have most endured.
The Celts arrived on the North Coast from around 800 BC. These fair skinned tribes came from over the Pyrenees, and brought with them their own iron working skills. They contrasted with the resident darker Iberians, living in fortified settlements, or castros, in circular stone houses, wearing trousers, and favoring beer over wine. The Celts were superstitious, revering the sun and the moon, believing in the power of witches and druids, and participated in outdoor ritualistic worship. The far north of the country was also never really tamed by any of the foreign invaders, and Galicia has a very different feel to the rest of the country.
Unfortunately for its inhabitants, Galicia has traditionally been one of the poorer regions, relying on fishing and farming for income, and some of the inland farming villages have a dilapidated feeling. It has much to recommend it though, with scores of secluded beaches, an evocative and wild coastline, and mouthwatering cuisine, of which the salted octopus pulpo gallego stands out. It is an incredibly untouched corner of the country, one that is often battered by the rough Atlantic weather, that still offers the chance to get away from it all.
It is also home to the city of Santiago de Compostela, and its famous Cathedral, to which hundreds of pilgrims arrive each year. The resurgence of the pilgrimage of late is quite remarkable, considering how it had fallen out of favor. During the Middle Ages it was as important as the trails to Jerusalem and Rome, Pilgrims were assured of forgiveness for sins, and a diminishment by half of time in purgatory, with prisoners able to defer sentence by completing the route, and rich nobles paying others to make the pilgrimage on their behalf. But over the centuries popularity subsided, and the political situation in Spain and abroad exacerbated the decline. As late as 1986 less than 2,500 people received their Compostela, the certificate of completion.
The rebirth since then has been astonishing. Much of this attributable to a Galician priest by the name of Don Elias Valiña Sampedro who way-marked the entire length of the most popular route and helped setting up a network of associations who would campaign for the maintenance of the heritage of the trail.
Through the efforts of these volunteers awareness in the public consciousness was heightened, and both the trail and Santiago de Compostela have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. This has led to a steady year on year increase since 1985, with numbers reaching Santiago de Compostella each year passing 50,000 in 2000, 100,000 in 2007, and 200,000 in 2013. In Holy Years the numbers are even greater, with 272,000 registering in the Pilgrims Office in 2010. The “French route” that passes from St. Jean Pied de Port through the famous cathedrals of Burgos and Leon is the most popular route, but you can start the pilgrimage from anywhere. Leaving from your house was once the traditional way, that many still follow, and there are alternative trails from almost anywhere in Spain.