Santa Marta de Riberterme

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.

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.

“Life was hard in this village – my youngest sons left at thirteen to find work in the Vigo”

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.

A woman who had just completed the the procession on her knees praying inside the small church

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 ”

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