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The City and the Writer: In Santiago de Compostela, Galicia with Yolanda Castaño

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                                    —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Santiago as you feel/see it?

Nostalgic but tenacious, melancholic but resilient. Relentless. Calm, but with an awakened heart. Innocent and proud. As Gerardo Diego, the Spanish poet of the Generation of ’27 wrote, “También la piedra, si hay estrellas, vuela” (“A stone, in the presence of stars, also flies”). Santiago always has that glow of silent aspiration.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

This memory is not so much mine but rather one my grandmother told me: of those who paraded through the streets of Santiago, in the night, silently brought in for torture and execution during the harsh climate of post-war Spain and the dictator’s regime. Neighbors would turn one another in for the slightest of infractions—sometimes merely domestic—accused of opposing the regime’s beliefs. They were taken from their homes and led by the feet to face a sentence that had no turning back.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

The secret gardens that lie in the maze of Old Santiago’s winding cobblestone streets, such as those found in the charming Hotel Costa Vella. And the surviving orchards in the old town’s historic center, behind the Cathedral, are proud and obstinate. They are evidence of Santiago’s rural past, of its resistance.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Of course there’s Rosalia de Castro—she’s a main figure in Galician literature. A nineteenth-century writer and Spain’s first great romantic poet—authentic, heroic, ahead of her time . . . a revolutionary and exceptional artist. And there are her successors, like the young poet Maria do Cebreiro (Santiago de Compostela, 1976). Her work is cutting-edge and ambitious, and can now be read in English. There’s a matrilineal heritage that testifies to the rich and powerful feminine tradition in Galician literature.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I tend to return to the old streets of San Pedro, to the Porta do Camiño, to Rúas (streets) such as Nova and Villar. There’s always an artistic or literary project breathing behind the doors there . . . and always something great to eat!

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

The Panteón de Gallegos Ilustres is a significant place because it’s where several major literary figures are buried (including Rosalia de Castro), but also, it’s next to the Museo do Pobo Galego and near the Centro Galego de Arte Contemporánea. So within a few square meters you can find both our contemporary and traditional culture.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

All ancient and important cities contain other cities within themselves. Santiago—religious and rebellious, puritanical and deeply passionate, intricate and prideful, drowsy and always alert, sullen and endlessly smiling. In Santiago, a patriarchal and religious culture coexists with a more alternative counterculture. The latter breathes through and is supported by various musical, artistic, theatrical, experimental spaces; and even includes social projects crossed with a thriving experimental spirit, led to a great degree, by the rich and fertile student-led social groups, such as—the “Sala Nasa,” the “Laboratorio de Movementos” and “Banda das Crechas.” They are the chiaroscuro that goes beyond the postcard.

Where does passion live here?

In the attics of the artists’ old town lofts; in the Cathedral filled with the ecstasy of the pilgrims who’ve travelled hundreds of kilometers; in students’ rooms where, stuttering, they learn the language of sex; in the secluded convents where religious fervor is stifled; in the wine and tapas bars where gluttony feasts; in the Fiestas del Apóstol as a baroque facade is lit by fireworks, and sheltered under the porches of the old city as it rains on the cobblestone because Santiago is where the rain becomes art.  “Chove en Santiago, / meu doce amor” (“LLueve en Santiago, mi dulce amor” /  “It's raining in Santiago, my sweet love”), Lorca wrote in Galician, among many other verses, paying homage and endorsing a language that struck him as ductile, musical, and suitable for poetry.

What is the title of one of your poems about Santiago and what inspired it exactly?

I haven’t written a poem about Santiago in particular, but I have written several poetic texts dedicated to my native city. For example, “Santiago cidade da que medran torres e picoutos, historias grandes e delicadas labradas nas pedras voandeiras. Unha cidade libre onde se é artista con ser paseante, onde se é heroe con ser peregrino e ata os pichos das fontes son ilustrados. Santiago, todos os camiños levan a ti” (“Santiago, city from which towers and peaks grow, where stories and histories—great and delicate—are carved in those piedras voladizas (projecting roofs). A free city where one becomes an artist merely by passing through it, where one is a hero as much as a pilgrim, where even the water pipes are illustrated. Santiago, all the roads lead to you.”). I was speaking about the centuries of tradition that can be taken in, just by walking through these streets, of the stories of triumph that pertain to such an ancient pilgrim’s route, and of all the modernity and cultural wealth that came to us through her.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Santiago does an outside exist?”

The outside is also part of Santiago. That is precisely what has made her fertile, cultured and strong. What has given the city a personality and a history. Santiago wouldn’t exist if there wasn’t an outside.

Translated by Fathey Abdullah, Erica Mena, and Nathalie Handal


Yolanda Castaño was born in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia in 1977. She has published five collections of poetry, most recently Profundidad de campo. Her numerous awards include, the National Critics Award, the Espiral Maior Poetry Award and the Ojo Crítico Poetry Award. She has written television scripts, and was the director of Mercuria, a television program about Galician modern art on TVE-Galicia, which was awarded the Galician Audiovisual Academy Award for “Best TV Communicator” in 2005. Castaño’s poems have been translated into many languages and she writes for serveral mainstream Galician newspapers and journals. She is currently the co-hostess of a daily cultural show on Galician TV, and the General Secretary of the Galician Language Writers Association. Castaño is one of Galicia’s most exciting new voices.


NH’s Discovery: What I discovered about this splendid city I say best in my latest collection Poet in Andalucía: “Arriving in Santiago de Compostela—a World Heritage Site and one of the three capitals of Christianity along with Jerusalem and Rome—was like entering a dream city where fantasy and reality merge and submerge. The city has secrets and makes sure we know it. It has mysterious beats and enjoys watching us try to discover them. It looks like nowhere else in Spain I visited. It’s green, so green it at once blinds and bestows vision. The old town is small but grand. In the outskirts, at the top of Mount Gaiás, is the City of Culture of Galicia designed by the American architect Peter Eisenman. Built to host arts and cultural activities and to preserve the heritage of the region, it is a modern stone and glass building, indeed like a “city” mirroring the historical quarter of Compostela. And finally, the small deities of Santiago are the chimneys. They are iconic elements of the cityscape.

The Roman past of this area is evident in its name, Galicia, which derives from Gallaecia, the province established by Rome in the northwestern part of the peninsula. The Celtic feel floats in the air. The beaches, forests, coves, and forts mesmerize. Galicians are passionate about the Atlantic and its coast. Other unforgettable places I visited in the region: Lugo Wall (in Lugo)—the only Roman wall that is completely preserved—the Rías Bajas (Low Estuaries), Finisterre, and of course, the Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James, which attracts pilgrims worldwide. I couldn’t resist going to the magnificently melancholic city of Oporto in Portugal, which is only a few hours away from Galicia.

While in Galicia, a disconcerting incident occurred. The Códice Calixtino—the twelfth-century illustrated manuscript described as the first travel guidebook of Europe—vanished from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. How could such a theft occur? The historical and illuminated codex was a collection of texts including sermons, a guide to the pilgrimage routes to Santiago, and told the story of how St. James the Apostle's body got to northwestern Spain. After this regretful occurrence, I could almost inhale la morriña in the air—a term used by Galicians, and known to be present in Castro’s work, to signify nostalgia, especially for the land. The Portuguese say saudade. Galicia and Northern Portugal share this common melancholic spirit.”

Galician literature is rich yet remains unknown to the world. I discovered centuries of extraodinary poets and novelists, including Mendinho, Xavier Alcalá, Ana Romaní, Antón Lopo, Chus Pato, Xabier Cordal, Johán Zorro, Fina Casalderrey, Teresa Moure, Miguel-Anxo Murado, Manuel Rivas, Antón Riveiro Coello, Margarita Ledo Andión, Xosé Neira Vilas, Xesús Manuel Valcárcel, Vítor Vaqueiro, Suso de Toro and Miguel-Anxo Murado. Obviously, the list goes on and on.

But the spirit that travels throughout Galicia is that of Rosalía de Castro (1837—1885). A revolutionary Galician poet and writer. Lorca and Cernuda, among many others, praised her work in the twentieth century. Today, she is recognized as one of the most important writers in Galician and Spanish. Her work, along with the work of  a few other poets, is considered the beginning of modern Galician poetry. After her death, her eldest daughter destroyed her unpublished manuscripts, at the poet’s request.

Published Oct 2, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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