VAI DE MORTO QUEN NON FOI DE VIVO

There’s nothing like a ghoulish threat to kindle your imagination, and San Andrés de Teixido, Galicia’s most important religious pilgrimage after Santiago de Compostela still manages to prick the conscience of thousands of devout romeros or pilgrims year after year. The Galician take on Christianity has always set it apart from the rest of the peninsula. Many of the romerias or pilgrimages have their roots in the early Church’s rather unsubtle attempts to suppress paganism in the area and it’s not unreasonable to assume that places like Finisterre and Muxía on the Costa da Morte and San Andrés de Teixido, all precariously perched on the edge of the then known world and facing west, would have been, in their day, highly revered sanctuaries of Celtic sun worship.

The legend of San Andrés de Teixido tells us of an unconvinced hard travelin’ Apostle that whinges about being sent to such an inhospitable, uncivilised and far flung outpost. Finally breaking down in tears, he agrees to go, but warns Jesus that nobody in their right mind would travel to such a God-forsaken place to pay homage to him. Jesus tells him not to fret, that he would make sure that thousands of people down the ages would travel from far and wide to visit his sanctuary, but San Andrés remained unconvinced. Jesus then proceeded to utter the dreaded words, in Galician, so as to avoid any possible misunderstanding: ‘Vai de morto quen non foi de vivo’, which translates roughly as ‘he that didn’t go during his lifetime will go in the afterlife’, thus securing the faithful attendance of both the living and living dead. Heavy stuff.

Since then the stream of romeros to this wind-lashed hamlet on Spain’s stormy north-west coast has been continuous. The 12km route from the charming fishing village of Cedeira winds through some stunningly beautiful countryside, and the sloping granite cliffs here are the highest in Europe at 2,034ft. The path down to the village begins at the cliff-top Mirador Os Cadrís and is clearly marked by two wooden posts with yellow markings. Traditionally, the most devout of pilgrims make the descent on their knees. Today you’re more likely to see them do a time-saving, knee-bound lap-of-honour of the lovely granite 16th century chapel that houses, according to tradition, the saint’s bones.

The first written record of a chapel here dates back to the twelfth century when the Knights of Malta paid for the construction of a sanctuary on the site of a much earlier building. The wall murals inside the church depict the saint’s martyrdom and there is a magnificent 18th retablo, a typically ornate Italian Baroque reliquary, and a spookily lifelike statue of our man sporting a fabulous wig. The faithful deposit offerings of candles and exvotos, disturbingly weird wax effigies of hands, legs, feet, heads etc, in hope of the saint’s intercession in a number of areas, ranging from affairs of the heart to illness in the family, pets and even the family cow.

Local expert Antonio ‘El Tas’ Rey Caruncho confided to me that San Andrés de Teixido ‘moved millions of euros’ throughout the year, that a euro on a candle or exvoto here and a couple on a rosquilla, a kind of donut, there, generated a handsome income for the locals who live exclusively off the rich pickings of the pilgrimage. The entrance to the village is lined with stalls that hawk t-shirts, postcards, bottles of homemade augardente, the local hooch made from distilled grape-skins. There are several versions of this and all are great, though the uninitiated should tread carefully as augardente can be deceptively easy to knock back. Look out for herbas, made with local herbs, tostado, or toasted, crema, a cream liqueur similar to Baileys and the wonderfully potent licor café which can dangerously prolong any sobremesa or after lunch/dinner round the table chat.

After you’ve paid your respects to Andy, head down to the Fonte do Santo, or Saint’s Fountain, which is said to be fed by a spring under the altar of the church. Although someone has crudely daubed no potable or unfit for human consumption on this listed fountain, this doesn’t seem to deter the romeros, who, after they’ve made their wish, fearlessly drink from it. Many pilgrims gleefully pluck what is known as the herba de namorar or lovers’ herb, a sure-fire way of enlisting the saint’s help in the quest for a mate. What did seem strange was the enormous variety of herbs being plucked, which in turn led me to believe that no-one really knew or particularly cared about how to actually identify the herb in question. An odder and perhaps more tacky side to the romería is the custom of tying bits of white tissue paper, Tibetan style, to trees, bushes and barbed wire fences on the way down to the fountain.

I asked several people about it, but nobody seemed to be able to come up with a plausible answer. The huge Galician rubia or blonde cow that sat nearby, ruminating on the kerfuffle taking place didn’t seem very convinced either. Another deeply rooted San Andrés superstition are the almas en pena, or souls of the departed.
They can take the shape of reptiles and amphibians like lizards and toads and are said to represent the ones that didn’t hit the pilgrim’s route in their life-time.
Children down the centuries have been told the tale of a lad who, in a fit of boyish cruelty, was about to stamp on a toad that happened to be hopping along the pilgrim’s way. Just before the lad’s boot came crashing down on the hapless creature a voice croaked out ‘Don’t do it José, it’s your Grandfather’. Faith can evidently move mountains.

After fighting my way past the trinket floggers I was relieved to find the village bar-restaurant. One of the great things about romerias in Galicia is the fact that the comilona or mega pig-out is never far away. The sun had passed the yard arm and we entered the bar for an aperitivo. The place was packed with pilgrims and eco-tourists, the term the Spanish Tourist Board uses these days for ramblers. A swift glance at a sign up on the wall told me I was in percebe country.

The percebe or goose barnacle (pollicipes cornucopia) is Spain’s most expensive crustacean, which, depending on the time of year, can reach up to 120 euros per kilo. So why then are they so expensive? Basically, because the gathering of this most sought-after animalito can be downright suicidal, with percebeiros losing their lives on the rocks almost every year. So why don’t we eat them in the UK then? Probably because it hasn’t occurred to anyone yet that something resembling Sir Ranulph Fiennes’s frost bitten toes could be in the slightest bit edible.

‘El Tas’ and his lovely daughter Luz were shocked to hear that entire colonies of percebe on Britain and Ireland’s Atlantic coasts, probably capable of sustaining entire communities, were left to their own devices. If the Canadians and Moroccans could export their percebe when demand in Galicia outstripped supply, then why couldn’t the British and Irish board the percebe train too? Percebe for thought. The annual pilgrimage of San Andrés de Teixido takes place annually on September 8th when the wantonly beautiful fishing village of Cedeira swells to bursting point. So remember, O que non vai de vivo, vai de morto. The choice is yours, but take heed of the western wind and the stormy weather.

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