When you hear the word “Celtic”, you usually think of places like Ireland and Scotland, or perhaps Brittany or Wales. What you don’t think of is Spain. Gloriously sunny Mediterranean beaches, olive trees, bullfighting, flamenco, tapas, and sangria — that’s Spain, isn’t it?
You might be surprised, then, to hear that Spain has a secret Celtic history hidden on the northern coast. Far from the Costa del Sol and the Ibiza dance beats is a green land of mountains, cliffs, and wild Atlantic waves where the last remnants of an ancient culture can still be found.
This region is one of Spain’s best-kept secrets and a great destination for a unique experience away from the usual tourist crowds. Remember that from mid-2023, you may need to complete the quick ETIAS application online before travelling to enter Spain.
The regions of Galicia, Asturias, and Cantabria are beautiful, wild, and strangely reminiscent of Ireland and Britain in the scenery, climate, and culture. Particularly in Galicia and Asturias, people will proudly tell you about their Celtic heritage.
“There were Celts in Spain?” I hear you ask. Actually yes!
Going back before Roman times, Celtic people spread across Europe, settling in many parts of the continent, including Northern Spain. As time went on, the Roman Empire conquered most of these regions, which were later taken by Germanic tribes. Much of Spain was then conquered by the Moors before being retaken by Christian kingdoms.
While much of Europe lost its Celtic culture over the centuries, some of it quietly persisted in Galicia and Asturias. Although the Celtic language was lost, replaced by Spanish and Galician, Celtic folklore and music rooted in pipes and flutes remain an integral part of the region’s culture.
Generally unspoiled by tourism, these regions of Spain are its best-kept secrets. They boast some of the country’s best beaches, hiking spots, and food, as well as their unique Celtic connection. They’re a far cry from Barcelona, but can make for a more interesting and rewarding experience, often at bargain prices.
Once of the best places to see Galicia’s connection to the Celtic nations is in the city of A Coruña.
Located on a headland just outside the city centre stands the Tower of Hercules. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is the oldest known lighthouse in the world and a popular tourist destination. Although it was built under Roman rule, tradition maintains that there was an earlier Celtic structure built by the legendary King Breogán.
Breogán was said to be the founding father of the Galician Celts as well as featuring in the Irish legends as the forefathers of the Gaels. According to the myth, he built the enormous tower, from which his sons saw Ireland and sailed there from Iberia. According to the 11th-century Irish compilation Lebor Gabála Érenn, the ancestors of the Irish people began in Spain with Breogán.
On the way to the tower, you’ll find a great statue of Breogán, commemorating the legend. But that’s not all!
On the other side of the tower, close to the sea, there’s a large blue mosaic showing a compass. Each section features an icon and the name of one of the Celtic nations: Eire (Ireland), Alba (Scotland), Mannin (Isle of Man), Cymru (Wales), Kernow (Cornwall), Breizh (Brittany), and Galiza (Galicia).
The small seaside town of Ribadesella in Asturias is more than just a quaint town with a nice beach. Nestled in a bay between rocky headlands, and flanked by green fields watched over by towering mountains, it is little wonder that this place has strong links with its ancient Celtic history.
The walk from the old town out to where the Sella River meets the sea is full of placards detailing the local myths and legends about the Celtic gods and monsters from Asturian folklore.
It’s hard not to fall in love with Ribadesella. The town is incredibly atmospheric. When you walk out to the headland and look back at the bay, with low cloud hanging over the surrounding mountains and the wild Atlantic waves rolling in to the shore, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d slipped into a Scottish fairytale. Only you’re in Spain.
But Ribadesella’s biggest Celtic connection is music. Known throughout Asturias for being a centre of traditional folk music, this unassuming little town is home to a number of successful bands, including Corquiéu, whose members own a pub near the river. The Chigre’l Corquiéu is the place to come to experience authentic Asturian folk tunes.
The traditional music of Galicia and Asturias sounds surprisingly similar to the music of Ireland, Scotland, and the other Celtic nations. You’ll hear flutes and whistles, percussion instruments similar to the Irish bodhrán, and usually stringed instruments like the bouzouki strummed rhythmically behind the melodies. But the staple of Northern Spain’s Celtic music is the gaita.
Similar to Scottish bagpipes or Irish uilleann pipes, the gaita is played extensively in local folk music. When visiting Asturias or Galicia, you’re sure to hear its distinctive tone at some point, whether at a folk session at a pub, at a festival, or just from a street performer.
When exploring the beautiful old city of Santiago de Compostela or visiting its famous cathedral, you’re likely to come across gaita players entertaining people in the street.
The Spanish term castro means an ancient fortified village, and that’s exactly what you can find in several places in Northern Spain. Most of these Celtic ruins pre-date the Romans and can be found in the mountains and by the coast.
The castro in Coaña, Asturias is hidden in the hills, surrounded by verdant forests and fields. The stone rings give an idea of how the ancient Celtic people used to live.
The Castro de Baroña on the western coast of Galicia is perched right on the edge of the land, giving you fantastic views of the Atlantic. Sunset is the perfect time to come here and see the same golden horizon that the Celts must have seen around 2 millenia ago.
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