Spain – but not as you know it. In this lush mountainous north west region people gather to give thanks for surviving a near death experience in a most extraordinary way.
I’m standing among a few thousands spectators to witness one of the more peculiar rituals, in a country that has made a name for its oddball rituals. On the 29th July each year, in this tiny Galician village surrounded by gentle rolling hills, people gather for the Fiesta de Santa Marta de Ribarterme. The living, breathing inhabitants of these seven stout wooden coffins, are here to give thanks to Santa Marta for sparing lives. “A victory of life over death” local priest Alfonso Besada Paraje had explained the day before.
Galicia is not the Spain of your imagination. Forget the parched land, forget the paella – and forget the bullfighting. Galicia is a wonderfully green, mountainous corner of the Iberian peninsula, nestled almost regally atop of Portugal. A place of stunning, but harsh Atlantic beaten coastline, thick mystical forests and ancient Celtic hill forts. In general it still remains well off the tourist radar in a country that welcomed 18 million visitors last year.
Outside the church we are immediately befriended by Maria del Carmen. A wonderfully kind natured woman of eighty six, with a gold tooth and hair a deep rusty colour. She leans nonchalantly on the metal barrier, a plastic bag swinging from her arm.
“My smart shoes for the church” she winks at us. I look down at her feet to find a pair of well worn trainers. I like her immediately.
“My son is buried just around the corner, he’s the one in military uniform” she gestures to a set of nearby graves and her eyes momentarily mist over, her thoughts deep in the past.
The fourth coffin was below us when a haunting melody suddenly ruptures the silence. A group close to one of the coffins had broken into a eerie, wailing song – ‘Virgin Santa Marta, star of the north, we bring you those who have seen death’. It adds a deeply unsettling accompaniment to the slightly macabre visuals.
The procession is led by one of two women choosing to complete the journey not in the relative comforts of a padded coffin, but on their knees. Two companions grip each hand and help her along.
“Seventeen years ago I had a terrible infection in my legs, I nearly lost them” she had confided before the procession “I return each year to thank Santa Marta”.
As the crowd moves up the hill they are framed by a stark reminder of the perennial line between life and death. A vividly green hillside stands above, peppered with trees as black as lead. The previous year, on a catasphrophic October weekend, wildfires fanned by the winds of Hurricane Ophelia, had swept north, decimating much of northern Portugal and huge sways of Galicia, killing four in the local area and forty-five in Portugal. Though unquestionably one of the worst in recent times, wildfires are now an almost yearly occurrence.
The procession inches steadily past those choosing to pay their respects safely behind a table groaning with octopus and barbecued meat, and past the children’s trampoline, which provides the unique image of a coffin, juxtaposed by a child flying happily into the sky. Two dogs oblivious to their surroundings amble casually into the procession, and become entangled between the legs of the pallbearers.
Despite the obvious dark undertones of the whole event, there is a surprisingly jovial attitude to it – this is Spain after all. They do serious religion, and they do serious fiestas – and when the two are combined you’re in for quite an experience. The procession inched steadily through fair area, past those choosing to pay their respects safely behind a table groaning with octopus and barbecued meat (no judgement here), and past the child’s trampoline, which provided the unique image of a coffin, juxtaposed by a child flying happily into the sky. Two dogs oblivious to their surroundings amble casually into the procession, and become intertwined between the legs of some of the pallbearers.
The tradition dates back to the medieval ages, and perhaps further. It’s said to be an example of fervent religious beliefs mixed with the deep superstition that has survived in the local area to this day.
As the church comes into view again a young man gripping one of the Saint’s poles, pulls out his ringing mobile.
‘Digame’ he exclaims loudly before chatting nonchalantly for a good minute. Nobody seems to care, he hasn’t caused any offence. Older ladies behind him smirk and playfully shake their heads.
One by one the coffins arrive back at the church, the pallbearers grunting as they lower their occupants safely back to Earth. A young man in his twenties steps out, straightens his red and black checkered shirt and runs a hand through his casually styled black hair. He seems unfazed by the whole experience.
“My father and I made a pact that if my grandmother survived her cancer I would come here” he tells me quickly as a film crew rushes forwards him.
This unique spectacle mixes moments of both real sadness and joyfulness. Those who come, come not mimic death, but to revel in its defeat – to rejoice in that precious second chance. Those who have faced death, and who have turned away, come to this tiny Galician village surrounded by eucalyptus forests to shout wildly back into the abyss – “Yes – I’m still here ”