Though many parts of northern Spain are lush with vegetation, the color green seems to be Galicia’s own specialty. Tucked away in the northwest corner of the peninsula, this mainly agricultural and fishing-based region looks more like parts of Ireland or Scotland than Spain. Galicia’s Celtic heritage seems right at home with its misty valleys and mountains, fjord-like bays (or rias) and forests suitable for elves and fairies.
Santiago de Compostela, the most well-known city in the region, is the end point for the Camino de Santiago, or St. James Way, a pilgrimage route that has brought visitors from all over Europe and beyond for a thousand years. Vigo, the most populous city in Galicia with about 300,000 inhabitants, is the economic center of the region, with a large port and an exceptionally mild climate compared to other Galician cities.
Like the Basque Country and Catalonia, Galicia has its own language, Gallego, and Galician is recognized as a separate nationality in Spain.
The region has been inhabited since ancient times; burial mounds and stone monuments remain from a megalithic culture that worshipped a cult of the dead. Little is known about the subsequent Celtic Bronze Age society beyond their mining and metallurgy skills, but their settlements took the form of hill forts, or “castors,” remains of which are still being uncovered throughout the regions and which are similar in structure to other Celtic nations. Galicia developed a very particular Celtic culture in this corner of Iberia.
The Romans defeated Celtic resistance in the region in 19 B.C.E. and ruled the area until about 400 B.C.E. The Suebic kingdom, formed by Germanic immigrants from across the Rhone, lasted only until the Visigoths came to power in the sixth century B.C.E. In that century a wave of Britons fleeing the Anglo-Saxon invasions settled in northwest France (Brittany) and Galicia and established a diocese known as Britonia. Muslims had only a weak presence during the Moorish conquests, but did manage to sack Santiago de Compostela and burn the original cathedral to the ground.
As the region later became incorporated into the kingdom of Castile, which then unified with Aragón, the region lost more and more autonomy. Gallego was often put at a disadvantage to Castilian Spanish, and the culture was suppressed under the dominant national narrative of Castilian Spain.
Galician was first recognized as a distinct nationality, along with its own language in 1936, but never fully enjoyed autonomy due to the outbreak of civil war. Galician culture was suppressed by Francisco Franco (who was, incidentally, Galician-born) until after his death in 1975.
Since then, there have been varying degrees of Galician nationalist and separatist sentiment, ranging from those who want total separation from the Spanish state, to those who simply want more autonomy within the state, to those who would rather follow linguistic affinities and link up with nearby Portugal.
Galicia probably get the lion’s share of its international visitors in the form of pilgrims, some religious, some merely tourists. In 813, in what would become Santiago de Compostela, the remains of St. James (Santiago) the Apostle were purportedly discovered, sparking centuries of pilgrimage from all over Europe and beyond. How the remains of a man beheaded in Jerusalem eight centuries before made it to this remote part of Spain can only be explained through a succession of miracles, but the story lit a fire in this Christian corner of the Muslim-dominated peninsula, and the apostle’s shrine would become the third site in Christendom, after Jerusalem and Rome.
A 20th-century rehabilitation of the ancient pilgrimage route means thousands of travelers, secular and religious alike, still flock to the 11th-century cathedral that houses the saint’s shrine. Towns along the route, and Santiago especially, are accustomed to foreigners of all stripes.
Festivals in Galicia, like most of Spain, have a religious base, revolving around saint’s days and the like. True to their Celtic origins, fiestas are more likely to have cider than beer, and to include the music of the gaita, a type of bag-pipe. Food, especially seafood, is a big part of celebrations. Pulpo a la gallega, or Galician octopus, is but one famous dish from the region. Regional wines, especially whites like Albariño, are of high quality and gaining in fame worldwide.
Moving to Galicia
Galicia is historically better known for its emigration than its immigration. In the late 19th century, cold winters and a series of economic downturns led to a mass emigration from the region to Latin America and other parts of Spain mainly, which continued again after the civil war in the 1930s. Alfonso Daniel Rodriguez Castelao, a writer, politician and founding father of Galician nationalism famously said, “Gallegos don’t protest, they emigrate.” Currently, only 2.9% of Galician residents are foreign born, and almost a fifth of those are from Portugal.
Since the expatriate community here is much smaller than in the sunnier parts of Spain, you shouldn’t expect the sorts of expat-oriented services (such as English-speaking real estate agents) that you might find elsewhere in the country.
Living in Galicia
If you want beautiful lush coastline, uncluttered by the development seen in more touristy parts of Spain, you’ll love Galicia. Just don’t forget to bring your umbrella. If you’ve ever enjoyed the coast in Ireland, or even the Pacific Northwest in the U.S., you’ll have an idea of the kind of beauty to expect in Galicia.
The climate is wetter than other parts of the country, but even in winter the temperatures don’t drop very far, and summers are temperate and refreshing.
Life is generally slow-paced, crime is very low and people are friendly. Most of the population speaks the Galician language, but all are bilingual and have no problem with speaking Spanish with foreigners. The cost of living in Galicia is much lower than in other areas: as little as €200 a month for a rented room in Vigo, the largest city. But that should be taken against the backdrop of a much more sluggish economy and earnings.
Working in Galicia
Galicia has developed more slowly than most of Spain, and the mass emigrations took a toll on the overall population. The economy remains agriculture- and fishing-based, with some heavy industry in port cities. Unemployment is higher than the Spanish average, which is dauntingly high to begin with.
Teaching English is possible, of course, especially in larger cities like Vigo, but start your research well ahead of time, and check to see if academies have a “hiring season.” It may be much easier to find seasonal, summer-camp work in the region than permanent, year-round teaching work. Give yourself plenty of time for searching and make sure you have money to survive on once you arrive. In anything outside of English-based jobs, a high level of fluency in Spanish will be essential.
1) The city of Santiago de Compostela and the cathedral
2) A mariscada, a feast of everything that swims in the sea, done best by the Galicians
3) The Cies Islands and their beautiful beaches
4) A Coruña and the Tower of Hercules lighthouse
5) Lugo’s roman walls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site