The pilgrims are steadfast, fervent, determined as they pass through the Galician village of O Cebreiro, in northwestern Spain. The dogs do not bark; they see pilgrims every day. O Cebreiro is on the final leg of the Way of St. James, a medieval route that ends in Galicia’s capital, Santiago de Compostela.

Menhir stones erected along the coast in A Corona in 1994 hark back to Celtic times. (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

Menhir stones erected along the coast in A Corona in 1994 hark back to Celtic times. (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

Mine is a different pilgrimage. Not across the verdant mountains of northern Spain. Not for the remission of sins. Mine is a pilgrimage into my Celtic ancestry. Celts once inhabited much of Europe, including the wild fringes of Atlantic Ocean, from Scotland south through Wales, Cornwall (where my ancestors resided), Brittany, and northern Spain.

That they established themselves this far south surprises many, but the evidence is all around me. In O Cebreiro, thatched palloza huts, peaked like the mountains beyond, are based on Celtic designs.

Stone walls of ancient pallozas crowd Santa Tecla hill, on Galicia’s western coast. Looking down from this site — already old when the Romans came — to the modern suburbs of A Guarda below, I can feel the continuity of human existence, of communities following one another for 2,000 years.

Morning view of O Cebreiro as pilgrims head out on a rainy day (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

Morning view of O Cebreiro as pilgrims head out on a rainy day (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

Stone is everywhere in Galicia. Hundreds of weathered stone granaries, set on pillars to keep rodents out, grace the countryside. In Galicia’s western reaches, by the town of Muxía, sits the church Nuestra Señora de la Barca.

Below it, the flared Pedra dos Cadris draws visitors with its purported healing powers. Pilgrims come here after completing the Way of St. James to crawl under the stone, repeating a local tradition.

Celtic rituals appear to inform Galicia’s queimada, or “burn,” which refers to both an alcoholic drink and the ceremony around it. In the town of Piornedo, I watch as the drink — made with a liqueur, sugar, lemon peel, and coffee beans — stews in a clay pot. It then is set on fire. As flames leap into the night, an incantation is read: “Demons, goblins, and devils, spirits of misty vales…howl of the dog…omen of death…maws of the satyr…” Finally, the steaming brew is ladled into cups. I drink. No witches; I have a good time. Though I wonder what older Galicians make of such Celtic throwbacks.

The Bar de Fredi in Espasante is a popular spot for Celtic music, with the revelry lasting into the wee hours. (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

The Bar de Fredi in Espasante is a popular spot for Celtic music, with the revelry lasting into the wee hours. (Photograph by Jim Richardson)

Horses played a big role in the Celtic world. Valued for their strength, they were associated with gods. Wild descendants of those horses are rounded up today in the rapa das bestas, or taming of the beasts, at which they are wrestled to the ground by bare-handed men and women so their manes and tails can be trimmed.

I join the fray, watching as two men single out a horse and grab at its mane; others go for the tail. Dust rises in clouds, and the horse slips away. Suddenly, I see a wall of horses charging toward me — and I do something strange: I wait for them to get closer. Why? I can’t say, except that at that moment I understand why men grab a feral horse: to feel the wild in their hands.

Galician nights have their own wildness. At O Bar de Fredi, musicians beat tambourines to songs they chant with frantic energy, a music that has filled the valleys here for centuries.

Like other pilgrims, in Galicia I have found what I’ve been looking for: living echoes of my Celtic ancestry.

Jim Richardson is a contributing photographer for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow his story on Twitter and Instagram @JimRichardsonNG.

Comments

  1. Cate Smith-Brubaker
    Abu Dhabi
    September 20, 2013, 2:29 pm

    I’m not really sure how “wild” that horse is, and its treatment makes me sad.

  2. Jim Richardson
    September 24, 2013, 7:39 am

    Hi Cate,
    The horses live wild on the hills of Galicia during the year before being bought in for the Rapa das Bestas. I won’t presume to tell you how you should feel about this event, and I can understand your reaction. And I hope you understand that when we show a picture like this we don’t necessarily mean to endorse or condemn an event. We all find much to like and dislike in everything we see, in places all over the world, for a host of reasons. I can tell you that the people who take part in this event see it as part of caring for the horses and keeping them healthy. Coming from a farm background myself I understand what they mean, even if it looks otherwise.

    Thanks for following us at National Geographic Traveler.

    Jim

  3. Brenna
    Colorado
    January 23, 2:54 am

    I just returned from living in Vigo, Galicia for a while. I can confirm: those horses are *definitely* wild. I have many pictures of others just like this roaming the hills! However one feels about it, rapa das bestas is a truly unique celebration and close to the heart of many, particularly the “lucenses” (people of Lugo), and a wonderfully Galician custom to include.

    This was a great article and did an excellent job of encompassing pieces of Galicia so briefly. It’s nice to see someone touch on the Celtic heritage that is so oft forgotten (very much like this beautiful, but somewhat isolated region itself). I enjoyed it. Thank you!