AN OPEN MIND IN Galicia
Many pilgrims have followed this route through the ages. Slowly inching their way, by foot, to the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela.
Granted, not many have done so in such comfort. Riding high on life, sprinting along the well appointed motorway that skirts between the Spanish mountains of Pico de Europas and the North Atlantic. We sunk a tepid service station ceveja an hour from our destination, served by a grinning, gap-toothed attendant who recognised in us the unquenchable thirst that travel affords; forging onwards to Santiago we fired spent pepita husks out of the van window onto the rain lashed road, an offering of sorts.
We had found, in our brief sojourn through northern Spain, that the rain had not fell ‘mainly on the plains’ but mainly on top us. A sodden dark cloud had accompanied us on the lengthy drive, having that morning decided to abandon a similarly wet, yet familiar spring time Hossegor scene for the unknown path. A path which despite being well trodden for those with religious inclinations, is often ignored by surfers who favour the well plundered, but guaranteed surf riches of South West France and the Basque country.
The North West region of Spain known as Galicia, is afflicted with that unique kind of sweeping write off that surfers love to bestow on certain locales around the world. Ask a friend, even someone who hasn’t visited and they will often repeat a wellversed opinion, garnered from group think and patchy statements from the first edition Stormrider guide. ‘It is wet’ they proclaim, ‘You have to wear a 4/3 steamer and boots - In the summer! they exclaim. But so often is the case with any hard-held sentiments, if you crawl beneath the half-truths then a different picture can emerge.
A couple of my Cornish friends had visited the previous summer and told me first-hand of quiet, river mouths flanked by granite cliffs and excellent free-camping spots. They spoke of Estrellas so cold they would gel in the glass and menu del dias comprising of crispy, fried Octopus served with soft, fresh bread. They said they had even met ‘friendly Spanish surfers’ something I
have rarely encountered on my past, extensive travails through the Basque and assorted Canary Islands.
I liked the sound of all of these things and was able to easily recruit my friend Harry to tag along for the ride. I had probably laid on a couple of exaggerations to seal the deal, because halfway through our warm service station beer on the outskirts of Galicia, Harry called me out on the ‘beer so cold, it would gel in the glass’ claim. We looked outside into the rain swashed forecourt, now brightly illuminated by flickering incandescent light. It was as if this sodden April afternoon had simply given up and dissolved into evening. Having chosen to leave the familiarity of Hossegor for an unknown entity, I now feared we were stumblingly into another washed out scene.
Santiago de Compostela is said to be the burial place for the patron saint of Spain ‘St James’. Throughout the middle ages it became the focal point for huge movements of people throughout Europe, all seeking emancipation from their sins; a successfully completed pilgrimage or Camino was said to reduce the time spent in purgatory. Nowadays the Camino has morphed into a tourism juggernaut, that having shaken off some of its religious fervour now dictates and defines the travel
conversation in Galicia. Every shop proudly displaying their scallop shelled trinkets, the adopted emblem of St James.
We arrived late on a Friday night, the persistent rain thankfully lifting as we hastily parked our van on a quiet back street and made our way to the city centre by foot. “El Caminooo!” The jubilant shouts of pilgrims, battered and bruised after their gruelling multi-week hikes, rung out through the warren like streets, also packed with weekend revellers. We found a commonality down those lanes and small backlit bodegas, the shared experience of a journey’s culmination and the freedom of a night out in a new town. It dawned on me that I hadn’t had that feeling when arriving in Hossegor the week before, seeking out the old, familiar haunts down the same well trodden path: the favoured patisserie, an old friends café and current sandbar du jour.
Thankfully ticking off the icy beers on our to-do-list that evening in the city we made a beeline at dawn for the most westerly point of Galicia. The Romans dubbed this extremity Cape Finisterre or the ‘End of the Land’. We lucked upon a scenic beachbreak in the lee of the Cape which offered an empty hour of rights zipping down the bar before the tide had other ideas. Reinvigorated by the unexpectedly pleasant water temperatures, we changed in the early spring sun whilst watching a fisherman set about mercilessly smashing a octopus against bare rock, its limp body slapping wetly round the granite slab. We discussed over lunch at the local Octopus joint or ‘Pulperia’ if such brutality can ever be justified, whilst guiltily chowing down.
Galicia is open to a staggering array of swell directions from NW right round to the SW. Swells originating from parts of the Atlantic that we will never see or hear about in the U.K, will meet an quiet end on the south facing beaches down here. We never saw another surfer south of the Cape. Later that week, during a flat spell, we travelled further north in search of a surf spot described as ‘the most exposed in Spain’. I can safely say that never have two men expanded so much effort in fruitless pursuit of a spot described, at best as ‘distinctly average’ in the Stormrider guide.
Those seeking world-class setups, will probably leave Galicia disappointed. Yet, If you decide to drive away from the classic dots on the European surf trail you may be pleasantly surprised what you find at the ‘end of the road’. A Celtic land not dissimilar to Cornwall, littered with fun beaches and low-key camping spots; welcoming but not cloyingly so.
As surfer’s we are inherently wary of a journey’s end, favouring instead to always look beyond than in the rear view mirror. The recent passing of John Severson, founder of Surfer magazine, made me revisit his epoch defining and now immortal words from the first Surfer magazine in 1960:
“In this crowded world, the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts.”
As fresh as the day it was penned, it continues to define our common wanderlust by posing surfers like you and me with a ‘call-toarms’ to seek perfection in a clearly non-perfect world. In this increasingly well mapped surf world it can become easier to rely on the tried and trusted, the guaranteed score mi ssion. Despite our tendencies to become creatures of habit, we should never forget surfing’s power to release us from the rigmaroles of a standard life. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you make the journey to the ‘end of the world’ or simply choose to paddle away from the crowd on your local beach. An open mind is all you need.
Pete travelled to Spain with the nice folks at Brittany Ferries your go to operator for any Euro surf mission.