Thursday, February 24, 2011

 

The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James)

I will start rather boringly by mentioning that my website about Galicia will soon be supplemented by a large and brand new section all about the Camino de Santiago or Way of Saint James.

Although I continually update pages and periodically add new mini town guides, this will be the first all new section for a number of years. As yet I am not quite certain of the scale of the project as the entire segment has been researched and written by my wife (with the help of a number of people who have completed different parts of the French Camino). However, from what I have been informed by my Galician partner, it would seem like it will be at least 40, and possibly as many as 60 or 70, pages in “webpage” length.

For anyone interested in finding out about the Camino, this excellent and entertaining diary by Colin Davies recounts a section of the Portuguese Way that he completed last year - colindavies.net/Camino.htm. (There are plenty of photos for those who like to see as well as read, plus extensive appendices.)

Staying with the Camino for just a little bit longer, this link http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2011/3127002.htm came up when I did a “news” search on Google and it relates to a book recounting a Camino undertaken by a chap called Tom Trumble. The book is not concerned with the religious aspects of the trek, but rather the personal journey of the author – it may be of interest to some.

The Sheen family, or at least Martin and his son Emilio, are continuing their promotional quest for their film about the Camino de Santiago. Last night they were both on a TV magazine show in the UK (which I somehow managed to miss), no doubt with the objective of gaining publicity for the movie which will shortly come out on DVD. When it does become available I will obviously get hold of a copy and give it a review here (although I am certainly no movie critic).

For those thinking of visiting Galicia this year I have updated some of the flight availability information on Galicia Guide. The Ryanair details remain the same, but there is some further information about Vueling flights going into both la Coruna and Vigo. As yet I have not done any price comparisons between the two airlines, so it will be interesting to see if Vueling, as a “new” budget airline, are competing on price.

Interestingly the Vueiling information comes from an individual who periodically contacts me by email to let me know of changes to the former Iberia schedule. I have little doubt that he is an employee of Vueling and that his communications are all part of a viral marketing campaign, however his information appears to be accurate, so I am always happy to hear from him and use the info that he provides.

Finally, for those who have been following it, the 14th chapter of Colin’s eldest daughter’s novel is available to read here - http://theseconddeathofjuanlaroca.blogspot.com.

Since I am struggling with a heavy workload and a lack of genuine Galicia related subjects to write about, I will call it a day for now.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

 

Changes in sand levels

I am a long way from being one of the “eco people” and, as someone who reads the real facts (rather than government propaganda aimed at excuses for new taxes), I know that humans are having very little impact on global warming. That said, global warming and cooling cycles have been rocking this way and that for eternity and right now there are some clear and measurable changes taking place.

I mention all of this by way of making reference to some observations that I included in some blog posts of 3 and 4 years ago when I noticed a very significant drop in the sand levels at some of our local Galician beaches (namely Testal and Taramancos near the town of Noia). Not only did the sand levels fall by around 5 feet, but all of the white powdery sand was washed away and now only a hard muddy sand remains. This happen over the course of a couple of years, a very short time span.

I now see that the same thing has also happened at the East Yorkshire beaches like Filey and Cayton Bay where all of the soft top-layer of sand seems to have disappeared.

No doubt rising sea levels will be targeted as the cause, yet in both areas coastal erosion levels have not accelerated. Have the tides become stronger? Have the under currents changed? It would be interesting to know what the real cause is. I know that at the time of my first noticing this (in Galicia) I suspected illegal “sand selling” which is not uncommon and, although some of the locals had a similar viewpoint, I am no longer so sure.

Interestingly, some friends down in Pontevedra tell me that in their view the recession is getting worse and that they see no immediate end to it. Yet at the weekend I was talking to someone who had recently been to Southern Spain and who had been told by numerous people that the property market down in the south was picking up. Perhaps this was nothing more than trying to” talk a way” out of the recession, or perhaps the people that he was speaking to saw him as a property buying prospect and they were priming him accordingly.

My neighbours, who have a villa in Murcia, are taking a break there in a week or so, so I will get some idea of their take on the situation when they return. In any event, there do not seem to be any consistent recovery signs showing just yet. (I amend that comment slightly having just read an email by some friends with a tourism business in Galicia who tell me that their bookings for 2011 are already up on this time in 2010.)

Finally this link http://www.corporate-fx.co.uk/marketupdates/News/Story/spanish-regions-becoming-more-popular-1297328509.html suggests that property buying in places like Galicia and Asturias is on the increase, however the source is an employee of the Spanish tourism office, so perhaps this is not the most reliable source.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

 

Is Galicia ready for more tourism?

Bear with me as I give a background to my answer to this question.

Back in around 2007 a large hotel reservation company contacted me about becoming part of their affiliate program. The way these “affiliate” systems work is that you promote their hotels and, in return, you get a small slice of any business that you send their way. Typically a very small slice indeed.

At the time I was not very interested as the website in question, Galicia Guide, had no commercial content and was our “personal” guide to the area with no outside intervention or influence (that remains the case). However, I was contacted many times by one of their people and I remember very clearly that they had about 80 hotels across the region. At the time I thought that this was pretty impressive and so I ultimately decided to give the program a try.

Today, less than 4 years later, that same company (with the same affiliate program) have over 470 different hotels scattered across the length and breadth of Galicia. This is an increase by a ratio of about six times. Naturally most of those hotels were already operating, however they were not book-able through an online international agent and consequently they were hard to find and pre-book. That has clearly improved.

For me the termination of the Ryanair Liverpool to Santiago flight schedule at the end of 2008 was a big disappointment, however this year there are direct flights from the UK to three different destinations within Galicia. This means that you can now enter the Galician region at la Coruna, Santiago de Compostela and Vigo airports - A big choice for a single region. Where you depart from in the UK is of course restricted to the Greater London area, but none the less the choices are far more open at the other end.

It becomes obvious that getting to and staying in Galicia has, despite some setbacks, become easier over recent years. But that is not all. Ten years ago very few bar and restaurant staff spoke any English. Most of those employed in shops would not even know which country an English accent represented, but again things have changed. Many of the generation that have left school and gone into the hospitality sector over the last decade do speak some English. They also see opportunities in tourism and the potential of this industry to present a good career path for them over the next few decades. All of this indicates that perhaps there is an improved underlying infrastructure to Galicia’s tourism potential, even if it has developed despite a lack of Xunta initiatives and promotion.

To me this indicates how ripe Galicia is for a significant increase in tourism and it also confirms the ability of the existing independent (none state assisted) infrastructure to deal with it.

Regrettably, setbacks with certain airline schedules and even the withdrawal of some well known car rental companies like HolidayAutos have not helped matters. Even so the region clearly has a good hotel base with a mix of large international hotels in the cities and many smaller family runs hotels in the lesser towns and rural areas, and getting to Galicia is no longer a big issue.

So is Galicia ready for more tourism? I certainly think that Galicia is well placed for an increase, but it requires some help and some much needed publicity. Whether this comes from Xunta funded international advertising, or some features on travel related TV shows I do not know. What undoubtedly remains the case is that this “hidden” part of Northern Spain will remain hidden unless (or until) its existence gets more of a headline. Furthermore, any publicity needs to not only to promote the place and the location, but also the huge differences between Galicia and the more well known southern Costas. It is this difference that can advance tourism in the area and generate the kind of “explorative” tourist that the economy and the population would welcome on all levels.

Monday, February 07, 2011

 

Social differences

There are many things about Galicia that you quickly realise distinguish its character from that of places like Britain and the USA.

People having an argument is a great example.

When this occurs with strangers it can be an explosive and dangerous situation – at least in the UK. Typical examples can be over an incident whilst driving, or some other act of thoughtlessness or a disregard for others. When this happens it is far from uncommon for the situation to escalate into violence and, at the very least, unpleasant bad language will be liberally used.

Somehow this level of intensity is never (or at least very rarely) reached in Galicia. The discussion can be noisy and accompanied by lots of hand waving, but this seems to be as far as it goes. Another difference is in the level of insults. Using the Spanish equivalent of the “F” word carries very little offence, however calling someone “uneducated” is as bad as it gets. In fact, when this occurred whilst my wife’s father was having a dispute with a neighbour over some land it literally brought the discussion to a few seconds of silent shock. Questioning someone’s parentage is taken comparatively lightly, however questioning their intellect is not. I suspect that there are many historical reasons for this, most of which relate to the increased value that a good education is perceived as having in Spain (and of course the converse).

On another occasion that I remember well, we were having a coffee in one of our favourite cafes when we saw a driver (opposite the café) park his car directly in front of a property entrance. He quickly disappeared, no doubt to a shop or bakery, during which time another vehicle arrived wanting to enter “what we assumed” to be his drive.

This second driver got out of his car and was clearly very agitated by his “prevented entry” as he waited for the owner of the first car to return and move his vehicle. When he finally did, there was a massive argument with shouting, gesticulations and everything else that these events generate. Shortly after this started we left the café with the argument still raging and headed into town. Amazingly, about 45 minutes to an hour later we returned, only to see the same two characters leaning against one of the cars and having a chat and a laugh. This is a situation that I cannot imagine happening in the UK, but one which is common place in Galicia and, I suspect, most of Spain.

Good manners are certainly different in Galicia to many other parts of the western world (or at least the UK). Greetings and salutations are given a very high priority (as they should be), but a general unawareness of the presence of other is surprisingly common. This manifests itself in all kinds of ways from “rarely” moving out of someone’s path when walking, to making lots of noise, even if it will inconvenience or disturb someone else.

In the case of the latter, I think that what appears to be a general “disregard for others”, has more to do with the Galicians liking the noise and company that comes from other human beings.

Another example of this is that the Galicians do not like open space around them. As an example, we often seek out semi deserted areas of beach so that we can have a large area to ourselves – even if it means walking some considerable distance. However, time and time again when another group of people arrive on the beach they will park themselves only a few feet away from us, even if the rest of the beach is deserted.

One case sticks in mind from a couple of years back when we decided to walk some ten minutes down one of the local beaches in order to get a completely deserted space to ourselves. When we finally set up camp in a little rocky cove there was no one within 300 – 400 metres of us. Even so, a group of teenage girls who in the UK would want to be as far away from adults as possible, walked past hundreds of yards of clear sand to sit 6 feet from us. They did of course produce a radio and combined this with a mix of excitable noises whilst playing cards. Having said that, their behaviour was good and they did of course say hello on there arrival and goodbye on their departure (before which they picked up and removed all of their empty cans, bottles etc). I suspect that our disappointment at their arrival was in part due to our anticipation of their behaving like typical British teenagers, namely getting drunk, making lots of noise, swearing and leaving a mess behind them. Of course they did none of this.

One area where either, I have to disagree with some of Colin’s (Davies) experiences, or perhaps simply say that “we got lucky” (lucked –out), is in striking up friendships with Galicians.

My wife is of course from Galicia, but English is her native tongue and to the locals she is perceived as a foreigner, so I doubt that her presence gives us any real advantage. That said, we are of course a couple which, in a country with fewer divorces than the UK or USA, may give us a social gain.

In any event I would have to say that, we have been able to meet people, e.g. based on taking to them in their business, and then see them socially.

There is no doubt that family and the family unit always take a priority (as it should), be we have found a willingness of casual acquaintances to go to the next stage and become “loose” friends.

Indeed, in reality, it has been with family (those of my wife) where we have struggled the most. In fact with one particular member, arrangement after arrangement was made and, not only did they not turn up, but they never even let us know of their “changed” plans. Nor of course was there ever an apology, even when we waited at a bar till well after midnight one occasion.

These days we always make an arrangement to meet up with them at some tapas bar or other, but we then dismiss the arrangement knowing full well that they will be a no-show.

At first I found all of this very annoying, but now I recognise it for what it is, a form of social posturing that is intended to complement you by agreeing to meet up, but without the actual intention of ever going through with it. I suppose it is a bit like saying, “lets have a drink some time”, where the comment is made more out of courtesy than intension. The difference, however, is that the time and place are formalised, even though the intention to turn up is not.

Anyway, that is my 1200 words for today. I will post again later this week.

Friday, February 04, 2011

 

Thinking back in time

Over the last eleven years I have been fortunate enough to amass quite a number of memories of times spent in Galicia. I have also been fortunate enough to make friends with a number of people who are resident in the area and this has ultimately made the region a home from home. In fact in many ways more of a home than my English one.

I am also fortunate to have a Galician wife with family still in the region and this has the advantage of giving us multiple accommodation options, all at the perfect price – FOC. We always stay in the seaside town of Noia, just 34km from Santiago de Compostela and about one hour’s drive away from Pontevedra.

Last year was, for a number of reasons, the first year in over a decade that we did not visit Galicia. Given that we have, on a number of occasions, had three holidays per year there (often with one of 3 weeks or more) it left a large void in 2010. Naturally we are hoping that 2011 will see a return to the status quo.

So, by way of revisiting some past memories, I am going to recite some of these experiences over the next couple of blogs. The first one was an evening in Pontevedra back in around 2005 or 2006 and it highlighted, for me, many of the differences in social attitude, a feeling of personal security, and the Galican (Spanish) approach to “going with the flow”, that differentiate Galicia from the UK.

This particular day was actually significant for a number of reasons. Some months earlier I had made email contact with Colin Davies (many of you are familiar with his blog) and Colin had generously offered to put us up in Pontevedra for a couple of days.

We arrived at Colin’s house late in the morning and, after enjoying some first class Albarino (that Colin gets from a friend who owns a bodega), headed down to the beautiful old town of Pontevedra.

The first two big memories I have of this day are meeting Colin after many months of email exchanges and the spectacular view that Colin’s massive living room window offers over Pontevedra. For those who do not know, Colin’s house is in the hills directly above Pontevedra city and it looks down over the historic quarter and the river. In the distance there are hills and lush scenery. It is a view to behold, particularly if you have never seen it before and you were not expecting such a panorama.

Once in Pontevedra old district, Colin gave us his personal tour which included calling in for lunch at his favourite tapas bar followed by a leisurely walk around the town. One thing that sticks in mind are the numerous people who exchanged salutations with Colin and it was obvious to us that he was known to many in the town.

The remainder of the afternoon passed by very quickly as time always seems to when you are enjoying yourself. I vaguely remember going back to the house in the hills for dinner, but my next memories are of being in Pontevedra in the evening as the sun was setting. For those who have not visited Pontevedra the new town is somewhere that you can easily pass by. However the old district, especially at night, has a magical feel and it is overflowing with atmosphere and the sound of people laughing and talking. This is one of my big memories along with the way in which the whole of the old district was illuminated. Unfortunately on subsequent visits all of these things are taken for granted and almost ignored.

As I just mentioned, there was plenty of noise and lots of people and we spent most of the evening in the busiest of the bar encircled plazas (I forget the name). But despite this and the fact that we were there until after 2.00am in the morning, there was no drunkenness, no bad behaviour and no atmosphere of anything other than fun. I wish I could say the same thing about England’s cities at 2.00am in the morning!

The other big memory that I have of this evening is of two young women, both of whom Colin knew, spotting him at the table and coming over to talk to him. Naturally he introduced us (my wife and myself) and, despite having told Colin that they were meeting with some friends, they then spent the rest of the evening in our company. This was very much one of those “take the best and most immediate offer available” choices that the Spanish often make and which we Anglos struggle to comprehend. Anyway, the evening was our gain and a loss to whomever the ladies were originally intending to meet up with. Additionally, one of those ladies, Elena, is someone who we have subsequently met on several occasions and whose company is always enjoyed.

I vaguely remember going down to a little coastal town the following morning and having breakfast, but it is the previous day that sticks in the memory.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

 

What does 2011 hold for Galicia?

I wonder if 2011 will see an increase in Galician tourism?

The last two years have seen overseas visitor numbers drop and there are several reasons for this. One is clearly the economic crisis, but another is the absence of the once familiar “holiday” program on British TV. These shows were once staples of late winter and early spring TV viewing but, like so many other things, they seem to have disappeared.

Up to three or four years ago we had long running holiday destination review programs like “Wish You Were Here (Judith Chalmers on ITV) and Holiday (on BBC), however these shows have now been cast away – no doubt for more “reality TV”.

Certainly in 2006 and 2007 both of these shows featured Galicia and a number of other TV programs based around “buying homes abroad” also highlighted both Galicia and Asturias. All of this indirect publicity increased Galician tourism and was no doubt a motivation for the Ryanair routes that, at one time, headed to Galicia from three different UK airports (remember Liverpool and East Midlands). “The good old days”.

I can also recall, again in 2006, 2007 and 2008, being contacted by various holiday magazines and even a couple of UK TV stations regarding articles and features that they were planning about Galicia or one of its cities. All of that does, however, seem to have come to an end – at least for the moment.

Perhaps though there is some light at the end of the tunnel. After the first month of 2011 my website statistics show a definite increase in visitors for January 2011 versus 2010 and 2009. Furthermore, some friends who run a tour company in the region have also noticed enquiries and bookings up from the previous two years. Maybe there is a possible resurgence.

Staying with tourism, I do not think that Galicia benefits from the Ryanair flights in quite the way that it could or should. My reason for saying this is based on Ryanair’s approach to marketing and publicity which pretty much excludes all forms of direct advertising. This means that if you do not know about their flights to Santiago de Compostela, you are unlikely to discover them through any external promotions. Add to this the Xunta’s inward looking approach to everything and the obsession of Turgalicia to promote the region to its own inhabitants in gallego and you have an odd set of circumstances.

All of that said, Galicia is about to get some UK TV time in 2011, although it may not portray the region so much as a collection of British tourists. I was contacted by two different researchers from the TV program “Coach Trip” in late summer of last year as they prepared to film an episode (possibly two) in both Santiago de Compostela and la Coruna. Their reason for contacting me was to see if I had any ideas for traditional “participatory” activities that could be set as challenges for the coach passengers! I gave them a couple of ideas, so I will be interested to see if they are adopted. Their timing was such that they were arriving in Santiago on either the day of, or the day after, the St. James’ day festival. Not the best of timings.

By all accounts the Jacabeo year (2010) was a big money making success for Galicia. So much so that the Xunta even contacted Rome to see if the occasion could be extended over two years. At least that is the rumour! It would seem that religion can make money after all, but then again it always has.

Finally, did you know that Picasso has a connection with la Coruna? This article will tell you more http://www.journalgazette.net/article/20110201/FEAT/302019948.

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