Tag Archives: topography


While sparsely peopled in general, Spain contains some areas which compare in density of population with like areas of western Europe. One of these is the northern green strip extending across Spain from Vigo to Barcelona. Of this well-settled strip, Galicia is the westernmost region and thus the most remote. It is also the least metropolitan, the least industrialized and the most softly beauti ful. Almost ten percent of the 30 million Spaniards live in the four Galician provinces of Lugo, Pontevedra, La Corufia and Orense. But only two cities, Vigo and La Corufia, have more than 150,000 people.

The Galicians are farmers, fishermen, herdsmen and foresters. They are largely of Celtic and Germanic origin and, while they share the Spanish nationality and many other cultural elements, such as the Roman religion and law, they are the least like the rest of the Spaniards in many ways. Their local language shares a com mon origin with Portuguese.

The Galicians are a restless and far-wandering people, with a temperament suited to living away from home. Since they are also industrious, they have found work all over Spain and in many parts of the world. Many live in North and South America; many of them, retired, collect social security checks from the consulate of the United States at Vigo. There is a folk song, Para Vigo me Voy, which celebrates the fact that the modern overseas Spaniard is usually a Galician.

Galicians have always been an enterprising and able people. Celts had already settled in ancient Gallaecia when the Greeks first made contact with it; they kept both the Greeks and the Romans at arm’s length, developing a tradition of independence they have never lost. Only the Suevi, pushed out of eastern Europe by the advancing Huns, succeeded in inundating this northwest corner of the peninsula. The Suevi succeeded where more powerful ad versaries had failed because this Germanic people sought not con quest but a home. By the fifth century a distinctive Galician society was well established. It has remained more or less intact into modern times. The Vandals, Visigoths and Moors were no more able to change this remote corner of Europe or bring it under their per manent control than were the Greeks and the Romans.

The kingdom of Galicia was in fact in the vanguard of the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, the Galician knights pushing the Moorish armies southward until they had liberated not only Galicia but also most of what is now Portugal. In spite of the soft and inviting appearance of the country, foreigners have usually found Galicia too spiny a burr to swallow. One of these was Napoleon.

Galicia not only presents outsiders with a determined human re sistance, but the countryside itself is hard to penetrate. It is the most difficult corner of Spain to reach by ground transportation. The still, deep fjords come in from the Atlantic, sending mists over the hills, pastures and woodlands where pigs fatten on acorns and where the small grain bins standing beside the farm houses pre serve an ancient rural architecture. But back of the rolling hills rise mountains and remote moorlands which impeded the progress of the Duke of Wellington as a military commander, as well as that of George Borrow, a famous Protestant Bible salesman who travelled in Galicia in the same century.

But neither distance nor difficulty of passage slowed up the long line of pilgrims that came into Galicia in the Middle Ages from every part of the Christian world. Journey’s end was Santiago de Compostela, which is understood to house the remains of St. James the Apostle, patron saint of Spain. Most modern pilgrims come by automobile or airplane; they no longer need be flanked along the route by knights hospitalers on the lookout for Saracens. Pilgrim travel is not now as heavy as it was, but the city still stands as a spiritual center of importance as well as a place of great educational and artistic attraction. Like many university and cathedral cities of Spain, it is rich in medieval architecture.

Galicia is not yet well integrated into modern Spain, nor does it compete very strongly with other regions in industry and trade. Vigo and La Corufia are close to the trade routes and the fishing banks of the Atlantic. Their shipping, fishing and food canning is mostly regional in nature, although tinned fish is exported in quan tity and fresh fish is sold elsewhere in Spain. Galician forest prod ucts, building stone and food products are also shipped out by truck and railroad. The Roman iron and tin mines are little used now. There is some primeval forest remaining, almost all that is left in Spain except in the Pyrenees.

Galicia is not an opulent region, but neither is it as poor as the uplands of Central Spain.


Why Spain is So Diverse

Until the advent of the airplane, the hard facts of Spain’s topog raphy stood in the way of every attempt at effective national organi zation. It is still difficult to reach Vigo from Barcelona by surface transportation, although both cities are in northern Spain. It is no wonder that the regional languages spoken in these two places are mutually unintelligible.

There are no navigible rivers reaching very far into Spain. There are, except in the northwest corner of the country, few good deepsea ports, and these are remote from coastal shipping lanes and cut off from the rest of Spain by mountains. Only two valleys lead in ward from the coast, those of the Guadalquivir in the far south and the Ebro in the northeast. There are few wide coastal strips, and these stop abruptly at the mountain wall that flanks the intericr. Back of that wall is the me seta, the high central tableland which is itself cut by steep valleys and chasms.

France is walled off by the Pyrenees. Four other major mountain ranges block the interior coastal access and break the me seta into transverse sections. A strip across the northern coast, mild in climate and green from ample rains, is divided from the rest of the peninsula by the Cantabrian Mountains. To the south, the Guadarramas split the meseta itself into a northern and southern plain identified now as Old Castile and New Castile. These are in turn cut off from Anda lusia in the south-central part of the country by the Sierra Morena. Rising above the southern coast, the Sierra Nevada keeps the interior of Andalusia from the seacoast of Malaga. These major ranges, together with some smaller mountain complexes, mark off the five great geographic zones of Spain. Portugal lies to the west, enjoying the better climate and gentler topography of lower altitudes.

The northernmost of the great zones of Spain is the green strip extending five hundred miles from the fjords of Galicia to the Costa Brava. This area is entirely unlike the rest of Spain. Estremadura, rolling and arid, lies in the southwest against Portugal. The eastern zone on the Mediterranean coast includes the old kingdoms of Valencia and Murcia. The southernmost zone is Andalusia, resem bling southern California. These four contrasting areas are all dom inated by the central plains of Castile which bear the rocky headwaters of the rivers. Higher in elevation than any other part of Europe out of the Alps, these plains are rigorous of climate, clear of air, subtle of color, denuded of forests; a land of sheep and goats, thin wheat fields and towns hardly distinguishable from the stones against which they are built.