Arde Lucus: My Roman Holiday

I wanted to share one of the really special things that we experienced while we were in Galicia this time: The Arde Lucus Festival in Lugo. Now I had been to Lugo once or twice before. As some of you may know, I was born there so this wasn't my first trip. But to see it in this way was an extra special treat.

Roman Costume at Arde Lucus. © 2014 Helena McMurdo

The area of Lugo was originally a Celtic settlement, dedicated to Lugos, the Celtic god, of among other things, light. Depending on your point of view, the area was either a) conquered, or b) pacified by the Romans in 13 BC who built the city which they named Lucus Agusti. By the 3rd century they had surrounded the city with fortified walls mostly to protect the city from the local tribes. The walls still stand and today are described by UNESCO as "the finest surviving example of late Roman military fortifications".  In 2000, the walls were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Arde Lucus festival is a celebration of this Roman heritage. If you have ever been in Spain for festivals like Pamplona's San Fermin or Sevilla's Feria de Abril, you will know that they are spectacles of colour and pageantry. And Arde Lucus is no different in that respect. This is no sweaty fraternity toga party. This is the full set of Gladiator. With 600,000 visitors over 3 days, it is a sight to behold. 

Catedral y Muralla de Lugo © 2014 Helena McMurdo
Romans catching up with the news at The Arde Lucus Festival  © 2014 Helena McMurdo

For me one of the highlights was the way the families approached this event, all dressed up together and coordinated. We even saw baby carriages decked out like Roman chariots. They went to such great effort, each putting their own spin on things. It was lovely to see everyone getting into the spirit of things. Of course, there were events and spectacles like a Roman Circus to behold, but for me, the fun part was the people watching. The variety and quality of the costumes was astonishing. And of course today, Romans and Celts mingle in the streets with little animosity. 

A young gladiator at the Arde Lucus Festival © 2014 Helena McMurdo
Celts at The Arde Lucus Festival © 2014 Helena McMurdo
Family at the Arde Lucus Festival © 2014 Helena McMurdo
Roman Warrior at Arde Lucus. © 2014 Helena McMurdo
Roman Hair. Arde Lucus © 2014 Helena McMurdo
Lugo, Arde Lucus Festival  © 2014 Helena McMurdo
Calle de La Cruz, Lugo, Arde Lucus Festival  © 2014 Helena McMurdo

Of course, we joined in the fun in the bars and restaurants. As we stopped in one restaurant in the narrow street above, we sipped our wine happily, while past the doorway marched legions of Roman soldiers, with their drums and cavalry to boot. For a brief moment I thought of what it must have been like to be a Celt living in a straw covered hut, seeing the Romans marching in and wondering how life would change. But then I took another sip of wine. And everything seemed fine.

A truly special display, and if you find yourself in this part of the world around the middle of June, you might want to consider investing in some Gladiator sandals. In 2015, Arde Lucus will take place June 19-21.

Galicia: Te gusta?

I'm back from a recent trip to Galicia and I wanted to share some of the images I made as well as some of the memories I have from this place. As many of you know, I was born in Spain or more specifically - as my relatives remind me often - in Galicia. Which is different. When we were kids, we visited in the summers from our home in the North of Canada. The differences were dramatic. In Yellowknife, the Frozen North, the chickens came wrapped in plastic on meat trays in the YK Super A, the local grocery store. In Galicia hens strolled around the yard of my grandparents house and baby chicks were gifts from my Abuelo (grandfather) to me and my two sisters when he came back from the local market. Today in North America we would call it a 'Farmer's' Market. In Galicia, then as now, no one felt the need to specify this obvious detail. We were disappointed to learn that grandma's chickens laid no more than one egg a day and sometimes not even any. This did not seem to tally with the pictures in our kindergarden schoolbooks of mother hen sitting on a mountain of eggs. Our relatives viewed us as city slickers (clearly not the case as anyone who has been to Yellowknife can attest), but our words and actions revealed that we ignorant of country ways. They  laughed when my sister tried hopelessly to shake a chicken in order to induce an increase in egg production.

Big excitement happened when one of the neighbours would move cows from one field to another yelling; Vaca Ve!  My sisters and I would copy them, grabbing a stick and yelling the refrain, not really understanding the words but getting the message.  Today there are fewer cows in the village. But they still move back and forth in a rhythm that marks the days. Today they wear ear tags and in the words of one of the neighbours, "they have more paperwork than we do".

Galicia Village Textures © 2013 Helena McMurdo

When we were kids, my grandparents ran a little bar come shop and their little corner of the world seemed a bustling place with neighbours dropping by to have a drink, a slice of jamón or to buy some basic essential like shampoo or the famous black soap from LaToja.

We found it all so very amusing, helping to serve the drinks and being paid in chocolate and Chupa Chups. Much of our time was spent being poked by neighbours and relatives who spoke freely with their pronouncements as to which of us was the fattest, skinniest, best looking, tallest, most intelligent etc. “The food must be very bad in Canada. The children are so skinny” The bar is  no more but the neighbours still have a lot to say. Now they tell me I am fatter but in a good way. “Estás bien ahora.”

On of the first spanish phrases I remember learning was 'Te gusta?'" Do you like it? Someone was always offering food. (What is a local custom became even more impressive presumably because of our perceived state of malnutrition.) Most of the things being offered to eat were too simply too scary for our young and picky palates to consider. Squid? Octopus? No thank you. "No me gusta". We seemed happy to exist on a diet of Fanta de Naranja, Maria Biscuits and Cola Cao with the odd tortilla francesa (omelette) thrown in. But I do remember always liking jamón and chorizo.

Today, I’m making up for my prior fussiness. In fact, there seems to be little that I don’t like. This is simple food; Green Beans with Garlic and Smoked Paprika, Kale with chorizo and a perfect farm fresh egg, a slice of empanada made in the local panadería. Octopus is boiled and sprinkled with salt and paprika and served with boiled potatoes.

Food in Galicia_©2013 Helena McMurdo

The cooking is not complicated. The ingredients are what make it. And nature provides. Y si me gusta!

Galicia : A Preview

Poppies del Prado

So if you've been wondering where I've been, I'll tell you.  I'll skip the usual excuses for not posting earlier and just say here's a bit of a teaser for what's to come  in the next week or so - a recap of my trip to Galicia. I hope that for the meantime, you enjoy these.

Pimientos&Chorizo ©2013 Helena McMurdo
Sunset Near O Cebreiro © 2013 Helena McMurdo

Sunset Near O Cebreiro © 2013 Helena McMurdo

Galician Headdresses ©2013 Helena McMurdo

Galician Queimada


Well it makes sense I guess. The season of Hallowe'en is upon us. So at a recent family dinner when my mother suggested we do a Queimada, who were we to argue? After all it is not every day your mother encourages you to set fire to some high grade alcohol and summon the spirits from on high. Is it?

A Queimada is a Galician tradition from Spain, which involves burning a Galician version of aguardiente called Orujo to ward off evil spirits and bring in the good spirits of those who have gone before to share in the ritual as friends. It was not necessarily done at Hallowe'en but as the Gallegos are Celts after all, I'm sure they would approve. In fact there is a saying which goes along the lines of 'any excuse is a good one for a Queimada'.

For best results, the alcohol is heated first before being poured into a a shallow clay bowl with oranges slices, coffee beans and cloves. A spoon with sugar is introduced into the bowl to gather some alcohol and then lit  on fire and introduced once more into the alcohol to set the mixture alight.

From then on, all present at the table take turns to stir the Queimada while the Conjuro or spell is read aloud. This is your typical bubble, bubble, toil and trouble stuff...beginning with:

Owls, barn owls, toads and witches.

Demons, goblins and devils,

spirits of the misty vales.

Near the end, we arrive at the main point:

And when this beverage

goes down our throats,

we will be freed of the evil

of our soul and of any bewitchment.

Powerful stuff! Evil of our soul? Bewitchment? Ok perhaps a bit dramatic. But I can't help but smile at the next part:

Forces of air, earth, sea and fire,

to you I make this call:

if it's true that you have more power

than people,

here and now, make the spirits

of the friends who are outside,

take part with us in this Queimada.

That sounds harmless enough! Enjoyable even.  Even if you are not inclined to believe in evil spirits, there is nothing to stop you from enjoying a Queimada. The resultant mixture, having burned off a great deal of the alcohol is sweet and smooth and delicious.  Happy Hallowe'en!

Grandma's House - Eating & More Eating

Grandma's house is in the Ancares region of Galicia. This is a  relatively unspoiled area of the earth where the people genuinely live  off the land. Everyone has their plot of land with cabbages, potatoes,  beans and maybe a cow, or some pigs and chickens.  Life is pretty simple  here. From the village, it seems like you are in the middle of nowhere  and it's quiet and lovely. You can hear birds sing and see the stars at  night.  But when you look over the hill, there's the motorway running  through the valley, bringing you out of your dream world and truth be  told it's an engineering marvel.


Grandma is an excellent cook and so we besides visiting we do lots of  eating. Simple things like home grown lettuce for salad, locally made  chorizo sausage and cured ham and local veal steaks.  She even made us a  cake - well truth be told - she had it made.  She gave her chicken's  eggs to the local bread man (he comes every day to deliver fresh bread  to the door - how's that for service!) and he made the cake for her.

These are truly free range chickens. They are closed in at night but other than that, they pretty much run the place.


There are lots of childhood memories of when this place was a busier, more bustling one.  My grandparents ran a store which was below the main house and I always remember it as being full of people and energy. The motorway has changed the atmosphere of the place.  The trucks used to run right past the front door on the old highway, so while it's now safer and less noisy its taken some of the life from the place.

It's always nice to be here.

Getting Behind…

So clearly I've been getting behind in my blogging. Somewhere after San Sebastián I lost the plot and got consumed by driving and getting to the  next place. Here are some highlights:


After San Seb. we headed to Biarritz to drop our friends to the airport and we stayed the night.

Stunning location on the Basque Coast. Check. Beautiful young people sunning themselves. Check. Snotty French waiters and mediocre food. Check. Check. All the makings of the perfect holiday resort. It is beautiful, no doubt but I'd be hard pressed to spend a week here I think.  We did have some amazing mussels in blue cheese sauce that were to die for. They were really small and tender but overall the food here was nothing like we'd been eating in Spain and was quite a bit more expensive.


Further down the coast toward Spain, the town of Saint Jean de Luz is  a much nicer town with a more homey feeling. The beach front isn't as  impressive but I enjoyed the town itself more with its little shops and  bakeries.  I have always wanted to go here because when I was a child my  family stayed in the next town on the Spanish side - Hondarribia and we  could see Saint Jean from there. As a young child I always found it amazing that you could look across the water and see another country.


Bilbao once more

I have some family friends/relatives in Bilbao so we met them for  lunch. Despite their best efforts to direct us to their home via an exit  name that did not exist, we inevitably ended up lost in Bilbao. After  several attempts to locate each other via telephone they eventually  ended up coming to find us so that we could follow them to their  apartment where we could eat lunch. Bilbao sits in kind of a hole in the  landscape and they live at the top so the view from there was quite  something. We could see all of Bilbao and even the Guggenheim from their  balcony.  The 'small' lunch as they called it consisted of ham,  chorizo, ensaladilla de Rusia - a kind of potato salad and asparagus.  Then for the second course, yes, I did say second course, they provided  some delicious meatballs called albondigas in a very rich tasty sauce.   This was followed by cheese of the Idiazabal variety which is typical of  the Basque country. To paraphrase Van Morrison….now the eating has  begun.


Gijon We said our goodbyes and headed to Gijón - a beach town on the  Cantabrian Coast in Asturias. It was lovely to have some fresh air after  all that driving so we walked up and down the beach front and had a  small dish of clams before taking a pretty early night.


Galicia I am a 'gallega' by birth so we were returning to my homeland. Galicia is a very green and very beautiful, not very industrialized. Much of it lies on the sea and the reputation for quality products from both land and sea is known throughout Spain.

We were ultimately heading to Grandma's house in Noceda a small village near Lugo but with a stop in Santiago de Compostela.

We stopped about noon at a beach called Praia os Catedreis or Cathedral Beach which is known for its spectacular formations. Sadly the tide was in and we didn't get the full effect but beautiful it was just the same.


Lost Once More…Santiago

Our plan was to have lunch with some cousins of mine in Santiago and then head to Grandmas. But once again, a combination of lack of local knowledge, confused instructions and communication issues resulted in us being lost at our destination and spending about an hour trying to find where we were going to go. Super G was quite frightened at one point as we navigated the small streets of Santiago with me driving, speaking in Spanish to my cousin on the speaker phone both of us shouting at each other which is more the Spanish way of discussion.

Eventually I gave up with trying to find our destination and we simply abandoned our car in the nearest public car park and took a taxi to the restaurant we were to meet them at.  This meal was so simple, but so enjoyable.

Grilled Octopus (Pulpo) Salad Red Peppers stuffed with Cod Pimientos del Padrón, a local specialty - small green peppers that are fried. It is somewhat of a lottery as some are extremely hot, others are not. But both are delicious. Tortilla Española - until this point I had been very disappointed with the tortillas we'd had in other places. This is a dish that my mother makes all the time and sorry but the others had not been up to scratch. But this one was more like the one I remember and was delicious. The flavour of the eggs was incredible and the colour was really rich and yellow, almost orange.


At this point, my cousins were ordering dessert, which was really quite unbelievable, but despite our protests out came a dessert plate with various things to try including delicious strawberries covered in chocolate as well as chestnuts in chocolate and creme caramel.


Paseo Por Santiago

Some of you may have heard of the Camino de Santiago which is a religious pilgrimage to the tomb of St. James the Apostle who is believed to be buried at Santiago. It is said that the remains of the saint revealed themselves in a field of stars or Campo do Stella from which comes the name Compostela. This has been a route for pilgrims since at least the 13th Century.  This year is a Jacobean Year or Año Santo which occurs in every year that St. James Day, the 25th of July falls on a Sunday. The next one will be in 2021.  So many more pilgrims will come this year than in others.

My youngest cousin Faia was an excellent tour guide deftly walking straight past any signs that said 'prohibido' or 'guests only' to show us lots of secret corners of Santiago - a truly magical city. She also showed us the 'insider tricks' like lying on the ground in front of the Cathedral and looking it upside down, which is what locals do.