Still Life in “The Heart of the Death Coast”

Faro Cabo Vilan Lighthouse
Faro Cabo Vilán, one of the few lighthouses where the tower and keeper’s dwellings are linked by a tunnel

Have you heard about the Costa da Morte on the Galician coast of northwestern Spain? Until a few months ago when planning a hiking trip to Spain’s Picos de Europa combined with our first visit to Portugal we hadn’t. Looking like a jagged heart atop Portugal, the Costa da Morte seemed like a good waypoint. Instead, it was a highlight—the subject of our first blog about this five-week trip. Life in Camariñas, the town with slogan The Heart of the Death Coast, grabbed us by the heartstrings.

Driving the excellent, high-speed mountain highways to get there through traffic thin as a sardine and fog white as a slice of codfish was easy. Especially compared with approaching by sea from the Atlantic in the old days along this rugged coast where the many shipwrecks gave the area its deadly name, Costa da Morte. Just ten kilometres outside Camariñas is the Cemiterio de los Ingleses, named in memory of the English ship, The Serpent, which went down here in November 1890, carrying with it 172 of its 175 naval crew. Seeing the Cemiterio de los Ingleses reminded us of Gordon Lightfoot’s lyrics: “That good ship and crew was a bone to be chewed/When the gales of November came early.”

I’d been telling people that we were going to be staying in the one-slice-short-of-a-hamlet Lugar do Cotariño, with only three buildings, now all owned by the Hotel Rústico. The surprise for us was that Lugar do Cotariño is on the outskirts of Camariñas, rural but not remote.

Alberto, young and handsome in in his rose-coloured sweater with navy sailor stripes, explained how his dad bought the property from a woman named Valentina who had lived on it all her life (1900-2003). Valentina’s photo graces the reception area in the main building, a stone structure dating back to the 1700s with a communal oven used by the four families who lived in Lugar do Cotariño. Alberto’s dad, a designer who fell in love with the place 40 years ago, restored the main dwelling where Valentina was living and reconstructed the other two buildings using some of the original stonework from their ruins. Alberto joined his dad in the business in 2011. “You will be in Alcatraz, the bird not the prison,” said Alberto. We loved the blend of tradition and contemporary, style and comfort. The original Galician fireplace in the reception area, the common room, the old-fashioned light switches… “Where you sleep?” the manager at the Repsol station asked us. “Good people,” he said.

Alberto gave us much good advice, beginning with lunch at Puerto Arnela in Camariñas. Rustic bread. Clams in a flavourful sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, spices and breadcrumbs. Perfectly cooked hake, likely caught that morning. “This fish is as good as at Fleur’s Place,” I said to Magellan. (Remember the story “Fossicking?”  We returned for langoustines cooked on the plancha the following night. And because Camariñas, a working town of around 5,500 people, is relatively isolated (you have to drive eight kilometres away for fuel for example) and unspoilt (no souvenir shops), the cost was less than we’d pay in Vancouver for two lobsters to cook at home. And oh, the taste—ocean sweetness!

Then there was the very ordinary cafe with a thin, apple-intensive pie with no upper crust in the window that lured us in for a second breakfast. “I’m glad you liked it,” said the man behind the counter, “I made it myself this morning.” (In Camariñas, people speak Galician, a mix of Spanish and Portuguese that Alberto says is “really more like Latin.” And yet we found a lot of people, like this guy, who spoke English as well.)

But let’s get back to the most important advice Alberto gave us.

“We have the most wild and beautiful beaches in Galicia,” said Alberto. “But you don’t need to walk the Death Coast or Coastal path. They’re too long. My advice is to see Faro Cabo Vilán, the lighthouse, and then drive along this road, park your your car and walk along the beaches. My favorite is Treche near the Cemiterio de los Ingleses, which you must see.”

Like Tofino and Ucluelet in BC, the rocky headlands around Camariñas soften into inlets of crescent-shaped sandy beaches. We spent hours (not habitual for us) on the sun-warmed beaches of Predrosa, Balea and Reira—and even more on Treche—sharing them with two or three other people in the glowing afternoon light of late September. Remote. Enchanting. Captivating.

With her jumble of blocky buildings, Camariñas may not win Spain’s Most Beautiful Village. But she’s got a depth of unvarnished, authentic beauty. Her harbor around a halfmoon bay leading to the marina via a timber boardwalk with metal railings angled to the sea draws you toward the town’s fishing boats, to an industry that’s still important.

Not like in the mid-17th century when Camariñas was the major port for sardines from the Atlantic and Cantabrian coastlines. Back then, sardines were salted in barrels and shipped to the Basque country in exchange for iron.  In an entry from 1753 in the Registry of the Marqués de la Ensenada, this process is described as “the way of fishing the sardine in the village of the bobbin lacework.”

Another highlight! Centuries later, Camariñas is still renowned for its local palilleiras (bobbin lace makers): 60 percent of the lace made in Galicia comes from here. We found about a half dozen shops specializing in intricate cotton and linen lacework, which is also on display at the Museo do Encaixe. Seeing the women at work in groups was fascinating. The click clacking of the pegs they tossed about with great speed with their dextrous fingers outpaced the sound of their voices as they chatted away, seemingly oblivious to the delicate patterns of lace emerging from their work. Since 1991, lace makers from around the world have been coming to the International Camariñas Bobbin Lace Fair, held annually during Holy Week.

Wait, there’s still more art. Sadly, more death, too.

We took Albert’s advice and drove 15 kilometres along the coast (“It’s not marked on the map but there’s a road here…”) to the village of Camelle to see the work of “Man.” Manfred Gnädinger moved here in 1962, lived in a concrete hut on the spit and began creating art exclusively from the remains of the sea: stone, wood, animal skeletons… He charged visitors to his outdoor sculpture garden a small fee, his only income, and asked them to draw something for him about their visit in his small notebooks. As Alberto told us, “Man” died of heartbreak a month after tons of oil from a tanker that wrecked nearby in 2002 desecrated his home and art.

Can you see why we got hooked on this place?

Our visit to Camariñas reminded me of a quote I read that came from Sylvia Plath’s diary about a day she spent on a wild beach.

From this experience I emerged whole and clean, bitten to the bone by sun, washed pure by the icy sharpness of salt water, dried and bleached to the smooth tranquility that comes from dwelling among primal things.


Here’s the town of Camariñas’s website info about the Museum of Encaixe (bobbin lace).

The Hotel Rústico’s website shows you more of the beauty of this property.

We’d have liked to see The Man Foundation, which is dedicated to conserving and displaying “Man’s” work, but it was closed. However, the Foundation has a very touching website about “Man.” The Camariñas town website has info about “Man” as well. There’s also a good blog about “Man.” Even BBC did a profile on him.

You can see more info about Faro Cabo Vilán here.

8 Responses

  1. Loved the – (getting there) “through traffic thin as a sardine and fog white as a slice of codfish” – now that is a road to a coast..

    Lovely writing..

    1. Thanks Wade. Getting there was a bit ethereal. The section from A Coruña is called the drive “to the end of the world” and features many high viaducts. I can only imagine what it would be like on a blustery, winter day. For us in September, unexpected, unforgettable.

  2. An incredible place, many thanks for this! I especially enjoyed the photos of you2 on the large sand dune, the colourful harbour, and all the rocks, inside and outside. The information about the oil spill was so sad. Again, well done!

    1. The 2002 wreck of the Greek-operated single-hull tanker was an incredible disaster – by some accounts exceeding that of the Exxon Valdez. At the time and certainly now, the ship shouldn’t have been allowed on the high seas. After one of the tanks burst, the captain requested refuge first in Spanish ports, and then Portuguese and French ports, all denied. Subsequently the ship split in two, spilling 70,000 tonnes of oil. The Galician coast was very hard hit, with more than 22,000 dead birds counted, a fraction of the total, and one heart-broken man.

      “Man” has become a unique human symbol of environmental catastrophe.

  3. We have a friend that is from Galicia…Love the area, and the bagpipes too…I also love the photo of you two love birds on the beach. Awesome. Heather

    1. Thanks, at least we didn’t have our heads in the sand, although it felt like it as we waited for an hour for the perfect sunset photo that never happened!

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