Galicia is the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula, bordered by Portugal on the other side of the Mino river to the south, by the Spanish region of Asturias to the east, and by the Atlantic to the north and west.
It contains very little flat land, being hilly with many rias (basically submerged valleys / river estuaries which are similar to fjords) along its coast and becomes more mountainous going inland.
The wet, mild climate that results from its proximity to the Atlantic has always made it extremely green and fertile and with the rias providing rich sealife it has been inhabited by people for many thousands of years.
Through its history Galicia has long been recognised as a defined region but has almost always formed part of some larger empire. It was a Roman province for several centuries and then remained a Celtic kingdom annexed to Asturias during the Moorish occupation of Spain. Later it fell under the wing of Castille y Leon and it now forms an autonomous community within Spain.
Prior to the mid-20th century Galicia had predominantly been a comparitively affluent region of subsistence farming and fishing, but as Spain industrialised under Franco’s dictatorship it was rather brutally plundered for its natural resources and insensitively industrialised around the two large ports of La Coruna and Vigo and the port of Ferrol which was and remains home to the Spanish armada (navy).
As well as the construction of some highly polluting industry, mines and a few dams the mid-20th century saw the introduction to Galicia of eucalyptus. This tree, being from Australasia, has almost no natural predators in Galicia and grows extremely quickly in the wet, mild Galician climate.
Over the next 50 years, and particularly near the coast, much of Galicia’s rich pasture land was dug up and likewise its traditional forest cover of chestnut and oak cut down to be replaced with dense eucalyptus plantations which massively damage biodiversity and also acidify the soil, which is traditionally of an extremely high quality, making re-use of land forested with eucalyptus quite difficult.
Galicia in recent times
In recent years there has been increasing pressure to close down or clean up what remains of the polluting industry, although the likes of the coal burning power station in As Pontes and Pontevedra’s paper mill stubbornly remain.
And whilst there are increasing restrictions on which land can be used for eucalyptus plantations this tends to meet resistance from the local land owning population because eucalyptus grows well, takes little or no maintenance and generates good income for people living in the countryside who have few alternatives to make money.
In the last couple of decades Galicia has become more internationally recognised for its seafood, wines and tourism potential and this, along with the general trend of caring a little more for nature, has led to greater care being taken with at least some areas of Galicia in terms of protection against development and eucalyptus foresting.
In addition, and especially since the Prestige oil spill in 2002, a lot more care has been taken to preserve Galicia’s rivers, rias and beaches and these now achieve the highest EU categorisations for cleanliness.
Galician homes and people
Whilst trends towards and against industrialisation, foresting and so on have come and gone, one constant in Galicia has been a family orientated population that has the ideas of caring for your plot of land and growing food on it deeply embedded in its psyche.
As a result most houses outside city and town centres come with a fertile patch of land on which an amazing array of fruits and vegetables can be grown.
Most Galicians stick rigidly to the few vegetables that are used in Galician cooking (which is entirely meat and fish based), but in fact almost anything can be grown in Galicia and the growing season extends to virtually the whole year.
Galicia’s economy is modernising but still feels rather like the UK in the early 1980s, with the vast majority of businesses still small, local family businesses, with all of the good and bad things that entails.
As a result, and because this region was extremely poor under the Franco dictatorship and has a long way to go to recover the old affluence visible in the size and solidity of the old farmhouses scattering the countryside, jobs are scarce and not particularly well paid.
Immigration to Galicia
As well as keeping property cheap, the underdeveloped Galician economy also has the effect of not attracting many immigrants to Galicia in search of work.
Those who do come are predominantly south American, normally with a Galician connection from emigrants who left during the dictatorship, a scattering of people from less developed countries in the cities, enough Chinese people to maintain at least one shop selling all manner of cheap Chinese made goods in every town in Spain, and an eclectic group of north Europeans (British, Germans, French and Dutch seem to be the majority) in search of a different lifestyle.
Two major effects of this low level of immigration that stand out in stark contrast to the UK and, judging from the trends in recent north European elections a lot of other more developed countries, are:
- Galicia really does not feel crowded or full, and
- The odd person aside there is no resentment of immigrants. In fact, with all areas of Galicia other than the coastal cities and towns experiencing population ageing and decline, immigrants, and especially those who might or already do have children, are an object of welcoming curiosity.
Living in Galicia as a foreigner
Galicia has two heavily populated zones, the coast between A Coruna and Ferrol in the north and between Vigo and Pontevedra in the south.
In these zones and other main cities (Santiago, Ourense and Lugo) and towns with a healthy tourism economy people are, on the whole, open and welcoming towards foreigners, but in a fairly low key way.
Travel inland into rural Galicia and this changes markedly.
Should a north European turn up in a small village in rural Galicia the chances are that it will be because they have bought one of the grander properties in the area and now seem to be going about doing it up in some non-conventional way whilst also smiling uncomprehendingly and being polite towards everyone, even the people that everyone knows are a complete waste of time, bah!
This, plus the lack of much else going on in the locality, invariably makes incomers a hot topic of conversation, and so on top of being naturally friendly the locals will also be extremely curious about incomers.
As most incomers start out far too polite they will very soon experience a phenomenon that could be termed “kidnapped by rural Gallegos”.
How this typically goes is that the unsuspecting incomer goes for a walk somewhere near their new pile of stone and woodworm eaten wood that just about serves as a house and encounters a rural Gallego peering out from the darkness shrouded top half of a stable door or sitting at the roadside somewhere squinting at them.
The incomer will deliver a cheery “hola” (with a hard “h”) and this will be the start of a multi-hour odyssey of loud and incomprehensible Gallego, tours of strong smelling rural things, enormous quantities of free vegetables and the imbibment of dubious foodstuffs and drink.
The typical rural Galician:
- Is some indeterminate age between 60 and 90
- Is between 145cm and 160cm tall
- Has astounding energy levels
- Is surprisingly strong and will also risk serious injury to themselves in order to demonstrate this by lifting heavy things
- Talks loud, fast Gallego at you, and if you don’t appear to understand them, talks louder
- Has a menagerie of animals living in disturbing conditions in a series of lean-tos sprouting out from their house
- Brews some form of highly alcoholic beverage in a homemade still
- Has a prolific and scrupulously maintained vegetable garden
- However busy they are is happy to break off what they are doing for several hours to talk at the village’s new foreigner
Being kidnapped by rural Gallegos is actually a great way to meet local people and find out about the locality, even if you have no idea what’s being said by the 3 or 4 people (there will be this many by the end) simultaneously talking at you most of the time.
Whilst it may take you several hours or even days to recover, and in the future you may sometimes hide when you see certain people coming at inopportune moments, this phenomonen is almost invariably kindly meant and comes from a sense of community largely lost in countries where moving around with employment and large scale immigration has diluted communities.
And what you will also find is that, once you’ve met people locally, they will always be prepared to take the time to help you and give you advice if you need it.
OK, yes, occasionally the famous scene from Deliverance might pop into your head ;o)