I sometimes ponder on the psychological confusion and disorientation that has existed since the advent of the jet engine. Take this for example: planned correctly, I can fly inexpensively from London to Oslo and get a connecting flight to Longyearbyen on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Circle, all within 9 hours. Pretty weird when you think about it – going from the frantic high streets of over-developed London to the remote polar bear inhabited wilderness of the snow carved Arctic. It’s a fair bit to absorb in a day and in many ways, North West Spain is no exception to this muddle.
I can leave my flat in Islington for the airport (with my one item of luggage) and be in La Coruna in Galicia with time to spare in four hours. The idiosyncrasies of maritime La Coruna warrant a separate article – but it’s just a short journey away from this city to really feel like you’re somewhere completely separate to Europe.
Exemplary of this difference is an area found about 20 miles north of La Coruna on the winding roads from Mino to the region of Monfero. Here the land rises abruptly into lush rainforest – two words not often heard in the same sentence when talking of Spain. Cultivated Eucalyptus trees blanket the rolling hills and can reach dizzying heights of over 150ft.
View of Pontedeume from the Monfero road
The roads tilt and ride in and out of these dense forests, occasionally affording unbroken views across to the tumultuous Atlantic coast. The odd rocky crag pokes out of the green slopes and for added drama, the mist eddies along the valleys. Eritrean in contour and Congolese in colour, it’s not long before comparisons with Africa are made.
This mountainous zone of trees and fertility is not the first thing one associates Spain with. This is not the dry dusty Spain of the warm south. This all comes with a damp cost. By definition where ever there is a rain forest, there is rain. Months of incessant stair-rods are not unheard of. In fact Galicia has around double that of Spain’s average pluvial punishment. Then just when you’re least expecting it, as if by alchemy, the sun will appear. When the sun shines here, it can rage. I love this kind of thing. It’s bracing. It’s red-blooded. It’s unpredictable. Pack for all seasons when you go to Galicia.
The wildlife of Galicia
View towards Os Ancares
This land is not just home to trees and vines that yield a fresh vintage but also to all sorts of animals. This is first evident when you stop for a swift quinto of beer in any of the bars along the road, where the walls are often adorned with the heads of wild boars (jabalís). It’s rumoured that the name “jabalí” has its origins in the Spanish word for javelin (“jabalina”), the weapon used to hunt boar before the advent of the rifle.
Boar hunts are commonplace in Galicia. You’ll often see hunting groups out in numbers on the weekends, especially in the bars celebrating while outside the hunting dogs bark at the kill lying in the back of a pick-up truck. If wild boar hunts are not your cup of lapsang then you may want to pretend it doesn’t exist as it is a precious pastime in Galicia.
The Iberian wolf is a rare but incredible sight in Galicia. Sleek and feral with a whiff of the primordial, these are truly majestic creatures. They are thought to have developed in isolation from their European counterpart, the Eurasian Wolf, around 12 thousand years ago when the Iberian Peninsula was cut off by Pyrenean ice. To stand a chance of seeing these you’ll most likely have to get further west into Galicia towards the Cantabrian mountains, but farmers in the foothills and around Monfero report the odd nocturnal theft of calves and chickens – the only trace of the thief being large canine paw prints. The Iberian wolf was considered a pest until the 1970s but is now a protected species.
Distributionof the Cantabrian Brown Bear
And now for the piece de resistance; Ursos Arctos aka the Cantabrian Brown Bear. I found it impossible to imagine that Spain could be home to bears. I thought bears are left to places like Yellowstone and Siberia – grizzly and ferocious. While the in the bright lights of La Coruna people dance in the night clubs, only a hundred miles west live these huge heavy set beasts deep in the Cantabrian wilderness.
The truth is, their presence in the Galician mountains is intermittent, ephemeral and a bit mysterious. Apparently the Cantabrian Brown Bear population straddles the borders of Galicia, Asturias and Castilla y Leon where there is an estimated transient population of around 130. There is another population of around 40 bears, 30km further west of Galicia on the Cantabria, León and Asturias. Hunting of these bears was only outlawed in 1973 and there is now a €300,000 fine for killing a bear.*
Bear and cubs in the Trubia valley, Asturias
The bounty of these mountains is secretive not easily yielded. I went to Os Ancares a year ago, an area on the border of Galicia and Asturias hoping to get a glimpse of a bear. I spent a week alone, carefully moving from mountain to mountain. Sadly the only bear I saw was in the local newspaper that had been knocked down by a car. Sightings of these big guys have been reported near the villages of Murias and Poso but it seems they are rare. These large creatures are protected by isolation and wilderness as well as the government. I asked some of the locals if they had seen any bears around the villages but many of them shook their heads others remained aloof and changed the subject.
I’m back in my London flat now and my mind is far away from ruminating on the jet engine and bears. Instead I’m alone in my living room listening to a mouse that is trying to break in via the skirting board. It’s not quite the same drama as Galicia.
Article written by Ed Ward
‘I’m a script writer and producer. I studied History of Art and French at Trinity College Dublin and then moved to London in 2004 where I am now based.
A few years ago I bought a small house in Pontedeume in Galicia and I try to make it out there at least 6 times a year. There is something about the people, architecture, landscape and unreliable weather that all come together that make me go back there. The culture is steeped in myths and poetry, all set against a green backdrop. I like the ruggedness of the Atlantic coast that creeps into Galicia. One day sunny the next day a storm. There is something in the unpredictability of nature that I find attractive.
Distribution of the Cantabrian Brown Bear (map) kindly supplied by http://www.fundacionosopardo.org/
Bear and cubs in the Trubia valley, Asturiaskindly supplied by http://www.fapas.es/
* Thanks to Lisa Stuart for this information