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Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Random thoughts from a Brit in the North West. Sometimes serious, sometimes not. Quite often curmudgeonly.

Thoughts from Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain: 19 September 2020
19 September 2020 @ 11:01

Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.  

- Christopher Howse: 'A Pilgrim in Spain'* 

Covid 19    

What's happening in Europe, where it's  not as bad as it was but where the growth in cases (and future deaths?) is still worryingly exponential.

Living La Vida Loca in Spain and Galicia  

A nice article on the Valley of the Fallen and the monstrosities therein.

My car had its regular mechanical test yesterday. Waiting at the ITV for my turn to enter one of the 3 sheds, I feared - given the 6 cars in front of me - that I had an hour's wait ahead of me. But the gods smiled on me and I was selected - via an SMS message - to leave the queue and to drive into shed number 3. Later I wondered if this was because the woman at the desk and I had had a good laugh when I gave her my Sergas heath card instead of my credit card. Well, they are the same size and colour . . .

I have at least 4 official documents with the registration number (matriculación) of my car on them. But the chap who did the final test told me, very pleasantly, that a sticker (pegatina) with the number on it had dropped off the initial registration card of the car. So I had to go to Tráfico to get a new one, or I'd  be fined if stopped by the police . . . So, I have a cita for this next Tuesday. IGIMSTS.

Which reminds me . . . Our local police have been charged with keeping a special lookout for drivers using a phone or lighting a cigarette. I confidently predict that, within 5 years, you'll be fined here for inserting a CD or adjusting your radio except via the steering wheel. And that, within 10, the same will apply to scratching your face or picking your nose . . .

María has kindly sent me this article on the Maragatos, where Ford's reference to both Don Cordero and Pedro Mato are explained. Incidentally, I take issue with the claim that, on the Calzada Real, Betanzos is at the east end and Madrid at the west. Not from where I sit. It says the same in Spanish, so it's not a translation error.    

Which allows me to segue into George Borrow's description of the Maragatos as: The most singular caste to be found amongst the chequered population of Spain. See below for everything he said about them - good and bad - in his famous book The Bible in Spain. A highly recommended read. Possibly all true, But, then again . . On line here.

See the first article below on wonderful Spanish 'ingredients'.

María's Fallback Diary: Day 4   

The UK

Click here for a terrific hatchet job on the country's (alleged) Prime Minister.   


Today, having continued to have a faster growth rate than nearly all other countries, the USA will overtake the UK total of 614 deaths per million. The next dread milestone is Spain's total of 647. Countries that the USA used to be 'doing better than' include Italy, Sweden, France. the Netherlands, Ireland and Switzerland. It's hard to see how Trump supporters can continue to trumpet his 'success'. But that's American politics, I guess. Hitlerian level lies.

The Way of the World

We live in an era in which extreme and unreasonable discourse and action have become the most reliable tool for those seeking political, economic or social success. It explains how purveyors of extreme and unreasonable discourse have won recent elections in nations as diverse as the US, the UK, India, the Philippines and Brazil, to mention only those countries. . .  outrageous hyperreality . . . Click here for more. 


A few years ago, I was looking for a Vigo restaurant called Bangkok, where we ‘actors’ from the documentary I mentioned the other day we’re going to have dinner. After 20 minutes vainly wandering the streets, I realised that the name of the place was actually Van Gogh  . . . We have one in Pontevedra too.

Finally . . . 

Is it just me or is modern TV advertising more phoney, meretricious and nauseating than ever? Especially when multinationals seek to demonstrate their green credentials.

Richard Ford - like Vincent Werner more recently - doesn't pull any punches when it comes to criticising who and what he saw around him in Spain during his 3 years in the country in the 1840s. But he does love and admire Spain and its people. So it is that, after pages of negatives, he suddenly lists positives such as these: They are full of excellent and redeeming good qualities; they are free from caprice, are hardy, patient, cheerful, good-humoured, sharp-witted, and intelligent; they are honest, faithful, and trustworthy; sober, and unaddicted to mean, vulgar vices; they have a bold, manly bearing, and will follow well wherever they are well led, being the raw material of as good soldiers as are in the world; they are loyal and religious at heart, and full of natural tact, mother-wit, and innate good manners.


1. Why Spanish ingredients are worth their salt: The country’s larder is bursting with the finest produce, from fiery spices to preserved fish and vegetables – all perfected over centuries by generations of passionate artisans

There’s a reason the flavours of Spain are instantly recognisable. Seasoning from salt flats, smoky pimentón, precious saffron… the region’s unique ingredients, and the care and attention that go into bringing them to the table, are what make its dishes so special.

The gold standard

Spain is one of the world’s largest producers of saffron, plucked from the stamens of the delicate crocus flower. It enriches dishes around the globe and is worth more than its weight in gold. Azafrán de La Mancha saffron, with its protected designation of origin (PDO) status, is considered the best. It has aromas of dry hay with floral hints and a bright red hue, and a flavour profile that begins with a slight bitterness and mellows to ripe grain and toast.

Just a pinch of this precious ingredient is enough to impart big flavour and bring that familiar yellow to the country’s much-loved paella. Resplendent with ruby-red peppers and scarlet tomatoes, together they make up the colours of the Spanish flag.

Originating in the Levant, saffron was brought to the Iberian peninsula by the Moors. The purple crocus only flowers for a few fleeting days in October, so labour for the cultivation and production is intensive – saffron workers’ nimble fingers need to gather 10,000 flowers to produce just one kilo of the spice. Everything is done by hand: tending the soil; harvesting the crocuses; separating the stigmas; and arranging them in layers to be gently toasted over hot coals. In autumn the towns of La Mancha celebrate their efforts at the annual saffron harvest.

Crystal-clear winner

Salt or flor de sal is used to cure anchovies straight from the sea and is a key seasoning in salt cod, chorizo and salchichón, another classic variety of fermented Spanish sausage. Harvesting in Spain dates back to antiquity, from the pristine coasts of Majorca to the Canaries, thanks to natural ingredients of sunlight, moisture in the air and wind. Pioneering salineros are ever inventive, creating new gourmet products like “salt foam”, a variety of delicate, low-density sea salt, with light, soft crystals; airy in consistency, subtle in taste and perfect with fish. Production takes place on the Santa Pola Salt Flats of Alicante, a nature reserve of almost 1,600 hectares inhabited by 40 species of birds and fish.

Other luxury varieties include salt flakes or sea salt flavoured with lemons, tomato and basil, red wine, ginger, and even rose petals – often hand harvested on a small scale.

Old flames

Pimentón or Spanish paprika is one of the quintessential flavours of Spain. A touch of this special spice gives a distinctive sweet, smoky signature to chorizo, soups and stews. In Extremadura’s La Vera valley, the fields blaze with an intense red from crops of peppers that originally came back from America with the Conquistadors. Columbus brought the first pepper seeds – Capsicum annuum – from the New World, gifting them to the Spanish king and queen in 1493, who gave them to monks to grow and, praise be, they did a great job. The PDO Pimentón de La Vera and PDO Pimentón de Murcia remain the main production areas today.

Picked and dried on racks for several days, the peppers are then smoked over fires burning holm oak. Wafts of smoke drift around piles of peppers, which are turned every couple of days before being ground into the deep red spice. Graded by flavour, the three distinctive blends are sweet, bittersweet and piquant.

Well preserved

In winter months, cooks reach for canned fish and vegetables and Spain’s longstanding tradition of preserving produce picked at its peak means quality all year round.

The best anchovies in the world are from Cantabria – on a par with Ibérico ham, truffles and caviar for gourmet status.

The blue-hued, firm-fleshed fish thrive in the cool waters along the Cantabrian coast. Salted moments from landing at nearby canning factories, they’re washed and cured in barrels for a year. The anchovies are then filleted and packed by hand into ornate tins, in neat layers topped with olive oil. They’re delicious draped on top of a salad of crisp lettuce with boiled eggs and pungent aioli or served solo with a chilled glass of white wine.

The tradition of tinning tuna began with exceptional albacore from the Bay of Biscay – and now Spain is the world’s second largest producer of tinned tuna.

On Andalusia’s Cádiz coast, PGI (protected geographical indication) tuna is caught by the almadraba technique, used for upwards of 3,000 years in the area. In ancient times nets were attached to land on both sides of the Strait of Gibraltar to catch the fish on their migration; now a system of nets suspended between boats is used to ensure sustainable quotas are adhered to.

Spanish molluscs are excellent too, such as clams and cockles typically preserved in brine, octopus canned in olive oil and squid in its own ink.

The growing and canning of vegetables in Extremadura, Andalusia and Catalonia follow traditions going back generations. Star products include vibrant asparagus from Aragón and stalk vegetables such as cardoon and borage from Navarre.

In regions like Murcia and Valencia, and around the Ebro valley, Navarre and La Rioja, just-picked asparagus, peppers and artichokes are preserved. And in all areas of Spain, tangy tomato puree and sauce are fantastic.

Navarre’s preserved PDO Pimiento del Piquillo de Lodosa peppers are a sought-after delicacy, for their silky texture and sweetly fragrant, slightly hot flavour. Peppers from Nájera in La Rioja are a tapas favourite as are the smoky Bierzo peppers from León.

Bittersweet artichokes like the ones from Tudela in Navarre (PGI Alcachofa de Tudela), with their layers of leaves and flavoursome hearts, taste equally good preserved as they do fresh.

2. George Borrow on the Maragotos, in the mid 1830s

Chapter XXIII: Astorga—The Inn—The Maragatos—The Habits of the Maragatos—The Statue. 

We went to a posada[inn] in the suburbs, the only one, indeed, which the place afforded.  The courtyard was full of arrieros [muleteers]and carriers, brawling loudly; the master of the house was fighting with two of his customers, and universal confusion reigned around.  As I dismounted I received the contents of a wineglass in my face, of which greeting, as it was probably intended for another, I took no notice.  Antonio, however, was not so patient, for on being struck with a cudgel, he instantly returned the salute with his whip, scarifying the countenance of a carman.  In my endeavours to separate these two antagonists, my horse broke loose, and rushing amongst the promiscuous crowd, overturned several individuals and committed no little damage.  It was a long time before peace was restored: at last we were shown to a tolerably decent chamber.  We had, however, no sooner taken possession of it, than the waggon from Madrid arrived on its way to Coruña, filled with dusty travellers, consisting of women, children, invalid officers and the like.  We were now forthwith dislodged, and our baggage flung into the yard.  On our complaining of this treatment, we were told that we were two vagabonds whom nobody knew; who had come without an arriero, and had already set the whole house in confusion.  As a great favour, however, we were at length permitted to take up our abode in a ruinous building down the yard, adjoining the stable, and filled with rats and vermin.  Here there was an old bed with a tester**, and with this wretched accommodation we were glad to content ourselves, for I could proceed no farther, and was burnt with fever.  The heat of the place was intolerable, and I sat on the staircase with my head between my hands, gasping for breath: soon appeared Antonio with vinegar and water, which I drank and felt relieved.

We continued in this suburb three days, during the greatest part of which time I was stretched on the tester bed.  I once or twice contrived to make my way into the town, but found no bookseller, nor any person willing to undertake the charge of disposing of my Testaments.  The people were brutal, stupid, and uncivil, and I returned to my tester bed fatigued and dispirited.  Here I lay listening from time to time to the sweet chimes which rang from the clock of the old cathedral.  The master of the house never came near me, nor indeed, once inquired about me.  Beneath the care of Antonio, however, I speedily waxed stronger.  “Mon maître,” said he to me one evening, “I see you are better; let us quit this bad town and worse posada to-morrow morning.  Allons, mon maitre!  Il est temps de nous mettre en chemin pour Lugo et Galice.”

Before proceeding, however, to narrate what befell us in this journey to Lugo and Galicia, it will perhaps not be amiss to say a few words concerning Astorga and its vicinity.  It is a walled town, containing about five or six thousand inhabitants, with a cathedral and college, which last is, however, at present deserted.  It is situated on the confines, and may be called the capital of a tract of land called the country of the Maragatos, which occupies about three square leagues, and has for its north-western boundary a mountain called Telleno, the loftiest of a chain of hills which have their origin near the mouth of the river Minho, and are connected with the immense range which constitutes the frontier of the Asturias and Guipuscoa.

The land is ungrateful and barren, and niggardly repays the toil of the cultivator, being for the most part rocky, with a slight sprinkling of red brick earth.

The Maragatos are perhaps the most singular caste to be found amongst the chequered population of Spain.  They have their own peculiar customs and dress, and never intermarry with the Spaniards.  Their name is a clue to their origin, as it signifies, “Moorish Goths,” and at the present day their garb differs but little from that of the Moors of Barbary, as it consists of a long tight jacket, secured at the waist by a broad girdle, loose short trousers which terminate at the knee, and boots and gaiters.  Their heads are shaven, a slight fringe of hair being only left at the lower part.  If they wore the turban or barret, they could scarcely be distinguished from the Moors in dress, but in lieu thereof they wear the sombrero, or broad slouching hat of Spain.  There can be little doubt that they are a remnant of those Goths who sided with the Moors on their invasion of Spain, and who adopted their religion, customs, and manner of dress, which, with the exception of the first, are still to a considerable degree retained by them.  It is, however, evident that their blood has at no time mingled with that of the wild children of the desert, for scarcely amongst the hills of Norway would you find figures and faces more essentially Gothic than those of the Maragatos.  They are strong athletic men, but loutish and heavy, and their features, though for the most part well-formed, are vacant and devoid of expression.  They are slow and plain of speech, and those eloquent and imaginative sallies so common in the conversation of other Spaniards, seldom or never escape them; they have, moreover, a coarse thick pronunciation, and when you hear them speak, you almost imagine that it is some German or English peasant attempting to express himself in the language of the Peninsula.  They are constitutionally phlegmatic, and it is very difficult to arouse their anger; but they are dangerous and desperate when once incensed; and a person who knew them well, told me that he would rather face ten Valencians, people infamous for their ferocity and blood-thirstiness, than confront one angry Maragato, sluggish and stupid though he be on other occasions.

The men scarcely ever occupy themselves in husbandry, which they abandon to the women, who plough the flinty fields and gather in the scanty harvests.  Their husbands and sons are far differently employed: for they are a nation of arrieros or carriers, and almost esteem it a disgrace to follow any other profession.  On every road of Spain, particularly those north of the mountains which divide the two Castiles, may be seen gangs of fives and sixes of these people lolling or sleeping beneath the broiling sun, on gigantic and heavily laden mutes and mules.  In a word, almost the entire commerce of nearly one half of Spain passes through the hands of the Maragatos, whose fidelity to their trust is such, that no one accustomed to employ them would hesitate to confide to them the transport of a ton of treasure from the sea of Biscay to Madrid; knowing well that it would not be their fault were it not delivered safe and undiminished, even of a grain, and that bold must be the thieves who would seek to wrest it from the far feared Maragatos, who would cling to it whilst they could stand, and would cover it with their bodies when they fell in the act of loading or discharging their long carbines.

But they are far from being disinterested, and if they are the most trustworthy of all the arrieros of Spain, they in general demand for the transport of articles a sum at least double to what others of the trade would esteem a reasonable recompense: by this means they accumulate large sums of money, notwithstanding that they indulge themselves in far superior fare to that which contents in general the parsimonious Spaniard;—another argument in favour of their pure Gothic descent; for the Maragatos, like true men of the north, delight in swilling liquors and battening upon gross and luscious meats, which help to swell out their tall and goodly figures.  Many of them have died possessed of considerable riches, part of which they have not unfrequently bequeathed to the erection or embellishment of religious houses.

On the east end of the cathedral of Astorga, which towers over the lofty and precipitous wall, a colossal figure of lead may be seen on the roof.  It is the statue of a Maragato carrier who endowed the cathedral with a large sum.  He is in his national dress, but his head is averted from the lands of his fathers, and whilst he waves in his hand a species of flag, he seems to be summoning his race from their unfruitful region to other climes, where a richer field is open to their industry and enterprise.

I spoke to several of these men respecting the all-important subject of religion; but I found “their hearts gross, and their ears dull of hearing, and their eyes closed.”  There was one in particular to whom I showed the New Testament, and whom I addressed for a considerable time.  He listened or seemed to listen patiently, taking occasionally copious draughts from an immense jug of whitish wine which stood between his knees.  After I had concluded he said, “To-morrow I set out for Lugo, whither, I am told, yourself are going.  If you wish to send your chest, I have no objection to take it at so much (naming an extravagant price).  As for what you have told me, I understand little of it, and believe not a word of it; but in respect to the books which you have shown me, I will take three or four.  I shall not read them, it is true, but I have no doubt that I can sell them at a higher price than you demand.”

So much for the Maragatos.

It was four o’clock of a beautiful morning when we sallied from Astorga, or rather from its suburbs, in which we had been lodged: we directed our course to the north, in the direction of Galicia.  Leaving the mountain Telleno[Pico Teleno] on our left, we passed along the eastern skirts of the land of the Maragatos, over broken uneven ground, enlivened here and there by small green valleys and runnels of water.  Several of the Maragatan women, mounted on donkeys, passed us on their way to Astorga, whither they were carrying vegetables.  We saw others in the fields handling their rude ploughs, drawn by lean oxen.  We likewise passed through a small village, in which we, however, saw no living soul.  Near this village we entered the high road which leads direct from Madrid to Coruña, and at last, having travelled near four leagues, we came to a species of pass, formed on our left by a huge lumpish hill (one of those which descend from the great mountain Telleno), and on our right by one of much less altitude.  In the middle of this pass, which was of considerable breadth, a noble view opened itself to us.  Before us, at the distance of about a league and a half, rose the mighty frontier chain, of which I have spoken before; its blue sides and broken and picturesque peaks still wearing a thin veil of the morning mist, which the fierce rays of the sun were fast dispelling.  It seemed an enormous barrier, threatening to oppose our farther progress, and it reminded me of the fables respecting the children of Magog, who are said to reside in remotest Tartary, behind a gigantic wall of rocks, which can only be passed by a gate of steel a thousand cubits in height.


* A terrible book, by the way. Don't be tempted to buy it, unless you're a very religious Protestant.

** A tester bed: The 14th-century design suspends a full-size canopy (with curtains on the top, back and sides) from the ceiling or headboard instead of posts. Possibly like this one, though of a much inferior quality:-

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