August 2006 issue

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Galicia's secrets

Forget bullfighting and Flamenco, Galicia provides it own cultures and traditions, from Celtic-influenced traditional music to festivals that involve flower-laden boats. Gillian Evans finds out more.

Nestled up against Spain';s northwestern border with Portugal, the region of Galicia offers an experience far removed from the usual image of Spain. "In Galicia, bullfighting is not typical, neither [is] gazpacho nor sevillanas, and our traditional musical instrument is the bagpipe," says Carmen Villasol, President of the regional language school group, Asociación Gallega de Escuelas de Español (Agaes) and Director of Liceo Internacional Agarimo in Betanzos. "As we are so near to Portugal, we share lots of cultural and linguistic features with our neighbour country."

Having its own distinct character means that Galicia can offer language travellers a very different Spanish experience, and what';s more, it remains relatively undiscovered by international tourists. "Galicia has its own cultural traditions. It is free from mass tourism and it is famous for its beaches, its natural greenery and for the Santiago Way, the oldest and most famous pilgrim route," says Carmen Neira Freire from Tú Hablas School of Spanish for Foreigners, which has branches in Santiago de Compostela and A Coruña.

Dolores Peleteiro, Academic Director at Chester College, which is a private day and boarding school running summer programmes for language students and situated three kilometres from Santiago de Compostela, adds, "[Galicia';s] green scenic landscapes with hills, valleys, cliffs and sheltered sandy beaches make [it] a very beautiful region." The pleasant summer temperatures that average around 25 degrees Celsius mean that the area has an ideal climate in which to participate in outdoor actvities and explore Galicia';s many attractions.

Being rather unknown internationally means that Galicia is not a "top-of-the-list" destination for most language travellers, according to Ramón Clavijo, Director of Academia Iria Flavia in Santiago de Compostela and Agaes Vice President. "But in most cases," he continues, "it becomes so after [students] finish their stay with us. They love to discover a place far from the overcrowded [southern] coastal areas and popular language travel destinations, with little possibility of talking to local people."

Galicia has several towns and cities of historical interest, the most famous being Santiago de Compostela, the region';s capital. "Santiago is widely known as the final destination of a thousand-year-old pilgrim route: el Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James)," states Clavijo. The city itself has been declared a World Heritage City by Unesco and was one of the European Cultural Capitals for the year 2000 – and a visit to the city soon reveals why it has been bestowed with such titles.

"Santiago de Compostela is one of Spain';s most remarkable cities, containing old quarters, an impressive cathedral, churches, convent buildings and an air at once ancient, solemn, lively and modern," asserts Peleteiro. Clavijo confirms, "The old part of the town is one of the biggest and best preserved in the whole country."

Today, Santiago de Compostela is a lively city with around 35,000 students who attend its university. As a result, there is a lot going on. Clavijo mentions year-round music concerts, film festivals, theatre, dance and traditional celebrations – "The big fiesta of the town takes place in July and the celebrations and events last the whole month," he says. Clavijo also says that the local people are "open minded and welcoming" and enjoy having fun. "Locals love spending their time in the street: tapas at noon and after work, a good time at a café in the old town [and] sunbathing at the Quintana Square."

For a taste of the sea, Galicia';s second-largest city, A Coruña, offers a great experience. "A Coruña';s main attraction is the ocean," states Marga Chao, Academic Director of Escuela Paralaia, situated just three minutes from one of A Coruña';s beaches. "It is surrounded by the sea, which leaves a strong imprint on the city. We have five urban beaches and one of the longest maritime walks in Europe (13 kilometres) – it is difficult not to enjoy the spectacular show offered by the ever present sea."

The ocean';s proximity also means that water sports are well represented in the city, while on land there are opportunities for cycling or horse riding as well as attending football matches of the local team, El Deportivo. There is, of course, also sight-seeing in the city itself, which boasts the tower of Hercules, the oldest working lighthouse in the world that dates back to at least the Roman times, and a Celtic hill fort.

Offering the experience of studying in a small town in Galicia is Liceo Internacional Agarimo, situated in Betanzos, just 18 kilometres from A Coruña. "[Betanzos] is a small and charming Medieval town on the Galician coast with 13,000 inhabitants, where it is very easy to meet people," explains Villasol. "[We are] only 10 minutes from the best beaches of Galician Rías Altas, and there is unspoilt nature and a gently changing landscape which allows students to enjoy rural tourism and outdoor sports like trekking, cycle touring, sailing, etc."

Proud of the region';s unique history, schools are keen to introduce students to certain aspects of Galician tradition. "The activity programme offered by Academia Iria Flavia has one specific goal: get the students to learn not just the language, but the culture, traditions and way of life of the region and city they are studying in," asserts Clavijo. "Thus, the school organises a guided tour of the town followed by a tapas evening; excursions to cities, fishing villages and historical sites; Spanish music samplings; visits to the local newspaper; Spanish cooking workshops; and tasting wine and other typical Galician products."

And when it';s festival time, which is a regular occurrence throughout Spain, everyone joins in. Galicia has many annual festivals and events that language students can get involved in, ranging from the Ortigueira Festival that attracts folk music groups from all over Europe and the Os Caneiros fair in Betanzos, where small flower-laden boats sail down the river.

With so much to offer it is no wonder that, once visited, Galicia is never forgotten. "When [students] discover Galicia, they keep coming back year after year," confirms Clavijo, "and recommend it to their friends and family."

Agent viewpoint

"The only school which we offer in Galicia is Iria Flavia in Santiago de Compostela and we don';t send them big numbers of students, since it';s still rather an unknown region for Dutch students - they prefer the south of Spain. People who choose Galicia are interested in a region [that';s] pretty ‘undiscovered';. Students going to Santiago are interested in a different part of Spain, in the Camino de Santiago, in the food. Santiago is popular because it';s rather small and quiet. Since Dutch students are looking for new destinations, the interest for Galicia might grow in the future." Saskia van der Ploeg, Tricolore, Netherlands

"Our students tend to choose Galicia, and specifically Santiago de Compostela, as it is largely undiscovered by mass tourism and has a very interesting history and culture. Santiago is a beautiful university city, and the school there is in a lovely location, right in the heart of the historic centre, just a short walk from the famous cathedral. Students enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of the city, and particularly love the outdoor spaces and great restaurants serving traditional seafood dishes. The cathedral of Santiago is always a popular place to visit, as well as some of the coastal cities such as A Coruña and the stunning Cies Islands. Students are often surprised by how the countryside in Galicia is so unspoilt and lush. They always comment on the quality of the seafood and the variety of tasty traditional dishes. They also mention how friendly and welcoming the people are."
Victoria Jones, Language Courses Abroad, UK

"I think that one of the most important aspects of this region [that attracts students] is [the fact that there are] fewer tourists than in the south; giving the student who chooses Galicia advantages, such as fewer students and more chance of direct contact with people from Spain. Some students are interested in resting and enjoying the landscape. Others are interested in travelling and visiting their surroundings, admiring the nature and visiting important cities like Santiago de Compostela, for example. What surprises them the most is the natural beauty of the region and its peacefulness, the mountains, the landscapes, the beaches, the old constructions near Santiago de Compostela. Most of my students return to Warsaw very rested and relaxed. The people in this region are kind, open and keen to show and share with outsiders not only the beauty of the place but also a great variety of delicious typical dishes."
Freddy Araya, independent agent, Poland

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