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#OnLiteraryLocation in Galicia – the reality

3rd May 2018

Well, that was a challenge. Physically and also in literary terms. As in not having enough time, rather than not enjoying the book that travelled with me #OnLiteraryLocation in Galicia (Death on A Galician Shore by Domingo Vilar)

OnLiteraryLocation in Galicia

On Foot Holidays Lighthouse Way walk in Galicia

I wrote before going how I would be walking the new Camino dos Faros – ‘Lighthouse Way’ – long-distance walking route in Galicia, around the north-western tip of Spain and the Iberian peninsula, to the end of the earth in Fisterra (Finisterre). And how I would be reading Death on a Galician Shore by Domingo Villar while I was there – surely exactly what TripFiction was created for.

The walk with On Foot Holidays closely follows the Camino dos Faros, a new 200 km route along the wild Costa da Morte, from the small fishing port of Malpica to the iconic lighthouse at Finisterre. The rugged, wild shipwreck-littered coastline is spectacular, the walk is demanding and often not for the faint-hearted, but the route really immerses you in Galician life. The people, culture, food and wine in this remote corner of the country are certainly very different from other parts of Spain that we might all know better, and it was a joy to have an author and his characters shining a light on our path.

One misty dawn in a quiet fishing port in northwest Spain, the body of a sailor washes up in the harbour. Inspector Caldas is called in to sign off what appears to be a suicide. But details soon come to light that turn this routine matter into a complex murder investigation. Delving into the life of the village, Caldas uncovers a disturbing decade-old case of a shipwreck, a ship’s captain lost at sea and a mysterious disappearance.’

Inspector Leo Caldas lives and works in Vigo, and the fisherman – known locally as ‘El Rubio’– sailed from the quiet fishing port of Panxon, just 20 km further south along the mesmerising coastline.

Our epic walking route may have taken place a little north of here, but Leo’s reflections on Galician life – and those of Estevez, his less subtle assistant from elsewhere in Spain – soon resonated very loudly with our own experiences.

Estevez wondered aloud how Galicians could make sense of weather that went from springlike to wintry in a few hours. The inspector walked beside him in silence, not admitting that they didn’t try to make sense of the climate, they simply lived with it.’

Our walk lasted 9 days end April/early May, during which we got very wet and very hot, often during the same day and with the weather changing as quickly as Estevez’s temper. This part of the country isn’t known as Green Spain for nothing.

Caldas and Estevez spend a lot of time in small bars dotted around the city and smaller fishing villages, as they chew on the seemingly unfathomable details of the case. They drink rustic ‘carafes of chilled white wine‘, eat ‘bacalao a la gallega‘ (Galician cod with potatoes), ‘or squid in its ink with rice.’ At the El Eligio on Calle del Principe, Leo succumbs to the ‘veal with chickpeas, left over from lunchtime.’

‘Eating pulses late at night didn’t agree with him, but the Eligio’s veal with chickpeas was hard to resist. Leg of veal, boned and chopped small, was simmered over a low heat all morning together with onions, leeks, carrots and seasoning. After about three hours on the hob, the chickpeas were added and, at the very end, a sofrito of onions, garlic and paprika.’

One long challenging day on the Camino dos Faros, we stumbled into a small local cafe bar Los Espinos in the hamlet of Mordomo. Men dressed in dark clothes slammed dominoes down on the hard table tops, just as they do throughout Death on a Galician Shore. Our appetites were sated by a small earthenware dish crammed with a salty chickpea and ham stew, and our senses were refreshed by a couple of ice-cold Estrella Galicia beers. Other days on the Camino, or in local villages or casa rurals in the evenings, we sampled delicious Alabarino white wines and Mencia reds from Galicia, convincing ourselves we were working on the case with Caldas and Estevez.

But the coastline is almost the most important character in the novel and in everyday Galician life: ‘to the north rose the Cies Islands with their mother-of-pearl beaches and, further on, the point of Cabo Home, the the tip of the north shore of the Vigo estuary, like an animal lying beside the sea. It was a clear day so the outline of the island of Ons was visible beyond them, facing the next estuary along, that of Pontevedra.’

Our route hugged the northern coastline, taking us along vertiginous gorse-lined and root-rutted footpaths high above the pounding Atlantic waves, across broad pristine unpeopled beaches, from lighthouse to lighthouse and with the occasional inland foray through quiet Galician fields.

With all that walking, eating and drinking, I didn’t manage to finish reading Death on a Galician Shore until a few days after getting home. The plot is deviously woven by the author, the characters complex and believable, and the translation – by Sonia Soto – wholly sympathetic. But the best compliment I can pay this novel is that it has made me want to return to Galicia – this time to Vigo, Panxon and all those other places visited by Leo and his sidekick during their investigations – as soon as possible.

And what better recommendation for TripFiction can there be than that?

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