Galicia: Journey to the end of the world

First published in The Surfers Journal

© Tony Butt 2008 - Please be decent enough to contact me before plagiarizing my stuff


From the line-up I spotted a sandy beach.  It had been out of view from my original jump-off point, and I decided it would be a much easier way to come in.  Chestnut reef, I had called this place, simply because there was a chestnut tree nearby.  I was fed up with trying to invent clever names for surf spots.  Besides, I could hardly imagine this place being surfed much in the future – it was a bouncy, shoulderless wave; really just a take-off.  But at least I had been the first to surf it. 

As I got out of the water, a local farmer, cutting the grass with a giant scythe, grim-reaper style, stopped and looked up at me.  I guessed he probably didn’t have a clue what the hell I was doing.  I needed to get back to the main road where I had parked my car, so asked him if he could explain to me, en Castellano, por favor, how to get there.

“Along that railway line and across that bridge” he said, in Gallego.

“What about the trains?”  I said.

“Today is Tuesday” he asserted, looking at me as if I was an idiot.

“Don’t you know? There are no trains on Tuesdays!” 

So I thanked him and continued on my way.  I looked back, and he was once again absorbed in his work.  I couldn’t help wondering what was going through his mind.  He didn’t seem surprised at all that I had suddenly emerged from the sea wearing a black rubber suit and a white plastic helmet, and carrying a fish-like object.  He was more shocked that I didn’t know there were no trains on Tuesdays.  I had seen this kind of thing before – an almost blatant acceptance of the totally incomprehensible.  Apparently, in this part of the world, it is quite normal.

Nowadays, if you want to find a new or uncrowded surf spot, you have to go somewhere where other people either cannot get to, or don’t want to go.  This could be for many different reasons.  For example, the spot could be in an inaccessible or inhospitable location, the waves could be exceptionally big or dangerous or the water might be freezing cold. There could be sharks in the water or bears on the beach.  There might even be a better wave with easier access just around the corner, sucking in all the people.

In Galicia, Northwest Spain, new spots are still being discovered, but almost none of them come under any of the above categories.  Why that is, is somewhat of a mystery.  Even in 1992, by which time surfing had already been thriving in Europe for over 30 years, not many people seemed to know much about Galicia, surf-wise or otherwise.  Those few I talked to who had been there described it as a wet and miserable corner of Europe, a place where one would become trapped in a maze of tiny roads, or stuck on the ends of bleak peninsulas, destined never to find any surf.  I too was convinced for a while.  But gradually, over a period of almost twenty years, Galicia would begin to reveal her secrets to me, one by one.

Galicia is located at the far northwest tip of the Iberian Peninsula, the last outpost before the Atlantic Ocean.  It is in Spain, but has close cultural links with Portugal.  The climate is wet and windy with year-round cold water and constantly changing conditions.  The close proximity of the raging North Atlantic and the frequent arrival of angry weather fronts give Galicia a raw climate not found anywhere else in Spain.  Despite this (or because of it), Galicia also has a unique harsh beauty, with forests, mountains, empty white-sand beaches, towering cliffs and granite headlands.

The name of the most western peninsula – Cabo Fisterre – tells you, literally, that you have reached the end of the land.  With ancient cathedrals shrouded in mist, ominous place names like Costa da Morte or Cementerio de los Ingleses and black-robed farmers carrying huge scythes, one sometimes gets the impression that this place really is the end of the world.

The coastline of Galicia is the longest out of all the autonomous regions of Spain.  The coastal geology varies considerably between one part of Galicia and another.  Following the coast around from the eastern border with Asturias, the flat, straight, east-facing coast of Lugo gives way to the awesome north-facing peninsulas of Estaca de Bares and Cabo Ortegal.  The coastline then continues on through the northwest and west-facing urban beaches of Ferrol and Coruña, and on to the granite topography and pristine white-sand beaches of the remote Costa da Morte (Coast of Death).  Further around to the south lay the Rias Baixas, a large region of fjord-like coastal indentations, followed by another west-facing stretch of coastline before reaching the Portuguese border.

Galicia contains almost every type of surf spot: long rivermouth peelers, snappy hollow beachbreaks, brutally-powerful and dangerous big-wave breaks, gently-cruising reefs on flat plates of limestone, and the odd fajã-type reef and cobblestone pointbreak, if you know where to look.  But all these different types of breaks are masked behind a plethora of closing-out, windswept beachbreaks.  At first sight, Galicia appears to be devoid of good surf; but if you are prepared to work hard and look for it, it’s there.

The surf in Galicia is probably the most consistent in Europe.  With a swell window of more than 180 degrees, it can receive swells from virtually any point in the North Atlantic, and has a yearly average wave height not far behind that of Ireland.  However, unlike its northern Celtic counterpart, a closer proximity to the Azores Anticyclone means that, even during the biggest winter storms, the wind is rarely so strong or the waves so big that somewhere surfable can’t be found.

The water in Galicia is surprisingly cold, all year round.  The constant replenishment of water by the cold Canary Current and the coastal upwelling from the north-easterly trades keeps the water almost as cold in the summer as it is in the winter.  If you visit Galicia in the summer you’ll need a steamer and boots.  At the same time in Southwest France (actually further north) you’d be surfing in boardshorts.

The people of Galicia are as hardy as the granite rock that permeates every headland.  They are fiercely proud of their heritage, yet accustomed to being punished, betrayed and kept poor. They have had to endure starvation and poverty for hundreds of years, and have frequently been driven out of their own land.  Although friendly and harmless, they are a melancholy, sombre and mistrustful people, quite uncharacteristic of the traditional Spaniard.

The Galicians are a superstitious folk, as often is the case with rural populations dominated by natural forces.  Many Galician fishermen do not know how to swim.  If you ask them why, they will tell you there is no point trying to fight against such an unpredictable and incomprehensible force such as the sea.  If it’s God’s will that you should drown, then so be it.  Sometimes, local fishermen get very angry with surfers for not giving La Mar the respect she deserves.  Some friends of mine recently had to confront a barrage of angry villagers after towsurfing for the first time a notorious reef in Galicia which, unbeknown to us, had recently claimed the lives of two fishermen.

Many aspects of the Galician culture are unmistakably ‘Celtic’.  Galicia boasts numerous cultural similarities with Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.  The most obvious of these is in the music; each region sporting its own variation of that most Celtic instrument, the bagpipe.  But there are other similarities too, including the character of the people themselves and, in some cases, their actual physical features.  This has led to a number of studies to try to find out exactly how and when the people migrated from one area to the other, and if there really is any sort of genetic connection. 

But there are probably more pragmatic explanations as to why the people and culture of these western promontories all seem remarkably similar.  For instance, the peninsulas of Cabo Fisterre, Cap Finisterre and Land’s End (all meaning the same thing) must have been obvious drop-off and pick-up points in the trading routes between the north and south of Europe.  This trading must have resulted in at least some interchange of cultural artefacts, including bagpipes.  Also, there is the fact that all of these people live on wind-swept, granite peninsulas, shrouded in mist and surrounded by the fierce Atlantic Ocean.  The same forces of Nature that have moulded the landscape over millions of years have moulded the people over hundreds of generations.

The language spoken in Galicia is not a ‘Celtic’ language like Welsh, Cornish, Irish or Breton.  Gallego is a Latin-based language that sounds like Spanish and looks like Portuguese.  Galician and Portuguese folk seem to be able to understand each other perfectly, but, to non-Galician Spaniards, Portuguese is almost as hard to understand as English or German.  The subtle details of the history of the language are a matter of controversy; whether it is either a modern mixture between the two languages or a direct descendent of a language called Galego-Portugués, nobody really knows.

Emigration seems to be ever-present in the culture of Galicia.  The people here have always had a tradition for moving away from their homeland.  But they also have a tradition for coming back.  The idea that they are blessed with some sort of romantic Celtic passion for travel and discovery is just not true – the vast majority leave Galicia out of sheer desperation, returning to their native soil at the first opportunity.  Of course, many have emigrated, made a lot of money, and returned.  This partly explains why there are so many disproportionately large mansions scattered around the countryside in what is supposed to be one of the poorest parts of Europe. 

But there is another explanation to this mystery.  An isolated province on the edge of the ocean in a country like Spain is bound to be rife with corruption and lawlessness.  Couple this with a convoluted shoreline full of hidden coves and inlets, difficult to control by the authorities (even if they wanted to) and you have all the ingredients for a smuggling paradise.  The southern area of the Rías Baixas, around Vigo and Pontevedra, has a reputation for being one of Europe’s major drug gateways.  In many small villages in this area, desperate parents have to live with the horror of drug-addicted teenagers.

As if the Galicians haven’t suffered enough, there is also the matter of environmental disasters.  In the recent past, Galicia has had more of its fare share of environmental abuse, including deforestation, ecocide, atmospheric pollution and coastal urbanization.  But the worst catastrophes have been the oil spills; the biggest of which by far was the Prestige in November 2002.  The Prestige oil spill was one of the most profound events in the history of Galicia, and the biggest environmental catastrophe ever to take place in Spain. 

Apart from the fact that, for a good three months afterwards, surfing was out of the question on every part of the coastline from Northern Portugal all the way round to Southwest France, the tens of thousands of tonnes of highly-poisonous fuel-oil that arrived on the beaches of Galicia put a large proportion of the population out of work.  Many Galicians work as percebeiros – collectors of goose barnacles, a delicacy unique to this area.  These people risk their lives every day, clinging onto the rocks in all weather and wave conditions, painstakingly picking off the shellfish, one by one.  In Galicia, about 5,000 families live exclusively from the sale of shellfish they have collected themselves.  The black tide of the Prestige cut off their livelihood, just like that.  For nine months, the percebeiros couldn’t work, and, if it hadn’t been for support from the government (the least they could do after badly mismanaging the oil spill), most of those families would have packed their bags and emigrated.

As far as surfing is concerned, nobody really knows exactly when or how it started in Galicia.  As is often the case, the first people to surf in Galicia did so using boards left behind by travelling surfers.  Roberto ‘Tito’ Fariña was one of the first; after having been handed down a longboard by an Australian lifeguard in 1971, Tito went on to become the first Galician shaper, working out of an old shed behind the ‘O Patacón’ bar in La Coruña.  Also among the pioneers was Vicente Irisarri, now the mayor of Ferrol.  He was born in Vigo, but moved to Ferrol and started working in La Coruña in 1978.  He considers himself to have been a useful link between the three cities in the early days of Galician surfing:

“In a lot of ways we complemented each other”, he explains, “In Vigo we had access to shortboards before they did in Ferrol and La Coruña.  But they had better waves than us, so they were better surfers.  I think I also helped to tone down a lot of the rivalry that existed in those days.”

During 1980s, once the Spanish economy had started recovering from forty years of brutal dictatorship, surfing began to grow very quickly.  If, in the rest of Spain, it was a surfing explosion, then in Galicia it was more like a controlled nuclear reaction.  Numbers of surfers increased almost exclusively within the confines of Ferrol, Coruña and Vigo.  Outside of these cities, there still remained hundreds of miles of unexplored beaches and reefs.

Even in 1994, when the urban beaches of Ferrol, Coruña and Vigo were starting to get a reputation for crowds and localism, surfing was still very confined to the cities.  That year, two friends and I spent the entire summer surfing alone on deserted beaches barely two hours from La Coruña.  When we did eventually bump into some surfers, they gathered around us like inquisitive children, carefully examining our boards and asking us all sorts of questions.

As I write this in 2008, Spanish surfing has caught up and almost overtaken the rest of Europe.  Surf camps and surf schools are springing up everywhere in Spain, and some spots really are getting crowded.  In Galicia too, the numbers are growing exponentially.  Surfing is now not just centred in Ferrol, Coruña and Vigo; it is also thriving in Viveiro, Carballo, Sanxenxo and Malpica.  Second-generation surfers are now in their twenties; Cristina Irisarri, daughter of Don Vicente, is currently one of the top female surfers in Europe. 

But why does the vast majority of the coastline still remain empty? 

Well, firstly, discovering surf outside the cities is not an easy task for anyone.  The spots are notoriously difficult to find, hidden behind a maze of un-signposted minor roads, twisting through steep mountains and dense forests.  Conditions are not easy to master either; the constantly-changing wind and swell directions mean you will probably end up in the right place at the wrong time.  On my first trip to Galicia I kept driving away from spots wondering if the surf might have been better given a different combination of wave height, swell quality, wind direction or tide.  There were just too many variables in the equation.

Galician surfers have grown up at a time when personal surfing performance matters more than finding somewhere with more pleasant surroundings or less people.  Even if there happens to be an unridden spot a mere stone’s throw from some local beach, it could still remain empty for years.  Often, people don’t think a spot is any good because they never see anybody else surfing it and, therefore, have no proof that it is any good – a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy.  At one spot I know, this state of affairs continued for an amazing fifteen years.

There has always been a lack of travelling surfers in Galicia, and there still is.  Most travellers still completely ignore that corner of the Iberian Peninsula, typically heading straight from France to Portugal when those nasty autumn rains come.  Any travellers in the past who did happen to filter through to Galicia would have probably had minimal interaction with the locals.  As a result, the adventurous nature of those travelling surfers – the very spirit that led them there in the first place – would have failed to rub off on the locals.

So what does the future hold for Galician surfing?  Although everything points to a continued increase in the number of surfers, will the cities burst, spewing out surfers all over the countryside and crowding every inch of the coastline?  Or is the coastline of Galicia rugged enough to protect itself from invasion, even by equally-rugged Galicians? 

Well, maybe, or maybe not.  I recently did a short trip to an unridden lefthander in Galicia.  It took me a day to find my way down the treacherous 2,000-foot-high cliff.  Once at the bottom, I discovered that the only entry and exit point was through a heavy shorebreak on a granite-boulder beach containing pieces of a broken-up shipwreck.  They were either scattered loose among the rocks or wedged between them, sticking up like giant knives.  The lefthander was a perfect eight-foot barrel with rides of about 100 yards, fanned offshore by the katabatic winds shearing down the mountain.  But, with a pushing tide and a rising swell, and the chance of getting a piece of rusty iron stuck in my leg, three hours’ hike from any help, I just didn’t feel comfortable about going out there that day.  So, it remains unsurfed, for the moment anyway.

So, what should one expect to find when travelling to Galicia?  Well, after almost twenty years trying to ‘discover surf’ here, I finally realized I wasn’t going to find another Tavarua, and, maybe it wasn’t even the surf itself that I had been discovering.  Good surf certainly exists, but, most of the time, it is just beyond reach.  Travelling in this place is not about finding the perfect wave; it is about something more subtle, something to do with the journey.  Perhaps trying to find good surf in Galicia could be likened to the Camino de Santiago, that famous pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.  Those hardy souls who endure that journey don’t come away with any prize at the end of it, only the everlasting memory of the journey itself.  Admittedly, I have found a few gems over the last few years, and I’m still hoping to find more; but the experience of looking for them, and the gradual revelation of Galicia’s paradoxes, mysteries and secrets, seems to be just as much of a reward as the waves themselves.