It was Carnaval and I had some days off school. My friend John came to visit me and we planned a road trip. I think he expected for some fair weather, a bit of sun, you know, light sweater weather. He might need his sunglasses. I told him it rained in Galicia, but I’m not sure if he took me seriously. Anything would be better than Edinburgh in winter, probably.
We sprinted to the car on Monday morning, pelted by a sideways slanting rain, the coldest precipitation that I had felt in La Coruña, and I had not put on my jacket. The palm trees planted along the streets threatened to crack from the force of the wind. John and I dove into our tiny rental and gasped, shocked.
“Ahh! It’s raining!” I shuddered.
Ten miles out of the city the cold rain turned into snow.
I shrieked with glee, because I love snow, and I never prepared for the possibility of seeing snow while in Spain. I’d rather stare at snowflakes outside a window than do anything. It’s better than watching a campfire. And kind of the opposite.
I took photos out the window while John concentrated on driving. Note to self: never try to take photos of falling snow. They will never capture the real pleasure. I continued to oooo and eeeee! while the snowflakes pattered against the windshield and obscured our vision. Then the snow would ebb, then pick up, and I’d get excited all over again.
We stopped in Monforte de Lemos to take stock of the weather conditions, but all was sunny there, so after a brief stop to the closed castle, we continued on our way to the Cañon do Sil.
Cañon do Sil
We descended into the canyon, green river flowing below terraced hillsides of empty vineyards. The Ribeira Sacra, in which the canyon sits, is famous for wine and monasteries, both difficult to reach because of the steep river canyon and inaccessibility by roads. The vineyards are planted in narrow, stone-walled rows, making mechanized farming impossible. We stopped for a picnic overlooking the river and vineyards, and I romanticized life working here, in a misty river canyon, full of mysteries. I have a bad habit of letting my daydreams get carried away.
Rain clouds rolled in through the mouth of the canyon and we ran back to the car. We continued along the winding roads, crossed the river by bridge, and wound right back up to the small town of Castro Caldelas, perched on a hill dusted with snow.
Castro Caldelas is really small, and must appear smaller than normal during holidays, which this was, since we saw two other visitors and the castle and most establishments were shut. A snowstorm had passed through, leaving several inches on parked cars. We climbed the church tower at the graveyard, contemplated ringing the bell, but settled on monopolizing the view from above of a the quiet hamlet, blanketed in white. (On another note, I just looked up the word hamlet, and in British english it means “a village without a church of its own,” so I am in blatant misuse of the term, if you are reading in British english. Just thought I should own up to that.)
We found the one open bar in town, a family run place with music videos playing on the large flat-screen TV, and family members preparing decorations for Carnaval festivities under a trio of dormant disco balls. I imagined this must be one of those small towns so small that the local cafe turns into a dance club at night. ”Gangnam Style” starting playing on the TV when a snowstorm rolled in over the hilltop village.
After the snow subsided we brushed off our car and headed west. Low clouds filled the canyon now but quickly floated off to reveal more hibernating vineyards carved into the steep hillsides.
Looking down at the river from above we spied a long wooden walkway and headed for it. The Pasarela de Madeira provided a nice walk along the Rio Mao, gave us some photo opps, and although I usually relish long hikes, it was cold, and I was glad it was short enough not to chill me to the bone.
We drove on, up the canyon now, through more mist and rain and snow, and scenes of sunbeams through clouds and windmills working hard in the distance, faced with such nonsense weather. Although we were tired, we had a long night ahead of us yet. Onward we went to Ourense, with it’s Roman bridge and old town, to celebrate Carnaval in the streets.
Ourense Province: Carnaval (or Entroido, in Galician)
Since we didn’t have costumes John and I picked through a pile of past Carnaval wear provided by our couchsurfing host Gonzalo. It was a cold night, so I piled on layer after layer of odd costume and ended up looking like a furry potato. But I was warm. John ended up as what I think was a court Jester. Gonzalo out-shined us both with his creepy costume of a backwards woman. And off we went, to the streets of Ourense, dining on tapas and dancing in the street with all the other crazy fools.
The next day started off slowly, as you can imagine, but we headed off to Xinzo de Limia, not sure what we would see, but knowing that it was a place to be during Carnaval.
Xinzo de Limia is a small town of 7,000 people, and home to the pantallas, the guardians of the Carnaval which run through the streets moaning loudly while slapping two inflated pig bladders together. They drag those not wearing costumes into bars, in order to suck out their soul. Well no, they probably just make them buy a drink.
Pantalla in Xinzo de Limia
However, when we arrived, we had no idea to go because the town hadn’t yet woken up, and we drove right through it without a clue as to where to go. We parked and walked through the small streets looking for people, and right on time, people began to occupy the streets and the bars, continuing the drinking from the night before.
Pantallas in the streets of Xinzo de Limia
John and I were the only people not wearing costumes, and I cowered behind him whenever the pantallas passed through the street, which was often, groaning like zombies and banging those bladdars together like noisemakers at a sporting event.
Soon it was evident that the street revelry had ended and now every resident of the town lined up along the main street, shivering in a freezing drizzle and waiting for the parade to begin. We made friends with two friendly troglodytes who lent us an umbrella and kept us entertained while watching the motley assortment of floats and costumes saunter down the street.
The wounded in war during the Carnaval parade in Xinzo de Limia
New friendships forged while dancing in the street
Needing a place to stay for the night, I pointed to the map and John drove onward, probably suspicious I was leading him into another snowstorm.
Feeling sleepy at 10:00 at night, and driving through rainy pitch black country roads, we passed an albergue with a bar still lit up. We nodded to each other in agreement, turned around and got two beds, ten minutes before it locked up for the night.
In the morning Samos remained rainy, but in a green, mossy, mysterious way. We walked around the Benedictine monastery of San Xulián de Samos, and met a Swedish pilgrim biking the Camino de Santiago who was waiting at the front doors for a tour. We decided to join him, and the three of us and our young tour guide walked around the serene compound. It was so big and quiet, I had the feeling that we would wake someone from a deep sleep if I walked too loudly.
Monastery in Samos
Watch out for Pilgrims!
I mentioned I really like snow. But when we got to O Cebreiro the mounds of snow put a stop to any and all sight seeing. The village of O Cebreiro is one of the places to view traditional Galician houses, called pallozas. I had been excited to see a little of by-gone Galicia, but all of the pallozas were buried in snow. We ducked into a small souvenir shop and I asked what exactly there was to do around here.
“Is there anywhere to walk around?” I asked the young woman behind the counter. We were most likely the first, and only, to enter the store that day.
“No, only the Camino de Santiago. Everything else is buried in snow.”
“Where can we see the pallozas?” I asked, sure that at least we could do this activity.
“The man with the key to all the buildings didn’t come today because of the snow.” Apparently there was one man with a key to O Cebreiro. All of the touristic buildlings were shut. It seemed like bad planning that the key to all activities in the village rest with one person. I pouted.
“Are there any especially good places to eat here?” I asked, although we weren’t hungry.
She shrugged. ”Not really. The only places open are over there,” she gestured to the one road. It was all the same to me, all covered in snow.
We thanked her and crunched around on the snow outside. The ground and sky were a canvas of white, fog resting on snow, and I was the coldest I had been on what I would now remember as the Cold Tour of Galicia. John didn’t seem cold at all and bounced around with energy and ease. But alas, there was nothing to do in this locked up little mountain village, and we had to make new plans.
Snowed-in palloza in O Cebreiro
Our next intended destination had been Os Ancares, mountains in the east of Galicia, which called to me to be climbed. But the snow and general wet muddiness of winter had us reconsider. With a few hours of daylight left, we went drastic and drove in the opposite direction, to the coast.
We chose “the end of the earth”, Fisterra (or Cape Finisterre), which while not technically the edge of Europe (Cabo da Roca in Portugal is the westernmost point in Europe), the seaside around Fisterra alternates between rocky shore cliffs and white beaches.
The end of the Camino for some.
We drove to the lighthouse, known well by pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago; many continue past the ending point of Santiago de Compostela to the sea, and below the lighthouse burn or throw into the sea their trail-worn boots. The sunset obscured behind a bank of clouds, but the air felt twenty degrees warmer than in the east, and finally we could sit looking at the green cliffs without shivering quickly back into the car.
Our Galician adventure ended the next morning, on a warm morning that felt like spring. Although filled with rain and snow, and a bit of getting lost, I was awarded with a new understanding of how beautiful Galicia really is. And the best part is, there is so much more to see.