I have to travel a lot in this job, and I just returned from a recent trip to Spain's Galicia region, in the Northwest of the Iberian peninsula. One thing I love about these voyages, aside from the good food, nice wine, and passionate people, is the exposure to local culture that I receive. I love learning about that, always have, always will. And there are always surprises to be had...
So it was quite a shock to discover that this part of Spain has a strong Celtic tradition. There are dolmens, folks wear kilts sometimes, Celtic runes on the walls of pubs, heck, there are PUBS, and, more weirdly, they play bagpipes (!). It's quite something to see someone speaking fluent Spanish to you while wearing a kilt and playing a bagpipe, or to see someone with the facial features of a Dublin resident speaking Galician. A bit disconcerting but also reassuring that this world is much larger and more full of surprises than you expected.
The geography is quite intensely wild, with forest and vineyard-lined fjords called Rias carved by receding glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age all along the coast. When one thinks of Spain, one thinks dry and hot, but this was cool and wet. Quite like Ireland, actually. Or rather, the reverse, as the original settlers of Ireland were tribespeople from this land. Who knew?
Our trip took us all over this sparsely-populated land, visiting wineries who make Mencia, Godello, Treixadura and Albarino. For the most part, it's almost all white wines, except for Mencia, which tastes a lot like Cabernet Franc.
Starting in the small city of Vigo, with its industrial port overseen by an ancient fortress and small homes, we made our way inland to Leiro. The maritime influence is still evident even here, with its food and culture and weather deeply affected by the Atlantic Ocean.
The Celtic background is evident here too, with monasteries looking like they'd been plopped right from England or at least the set of the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail".
We were also close enough to take a quick stroll across the River Mino into Portugal, though we weren't there to taste Portuguese wines so our guides quickly rushed us back across the border before we could do any harm.
Despite all these influences, there was still the over-riding aspect of Spanish culture, such as Jamon Iberico at the local Feira del Vino in O Rosal, near the border.
The shared culture of fishing and respect for the bounty of the waters was there as well, in decorations on the walls and in the way the food was presented. Everything was appreciated, nothing taken for granted.
And, amidst all this, there was the dance festival in La Guarda, literally on the border with Portugal. There, women in fancy costumes whirled to the sound of Flamenco, their castagnettes clacking away madly, making a lovely counterpoint to their movements.
God, I love travelling.