Viking Festival in Galicia. Catoira in Galicia, Spain, has earned a place among the most original destinations for Spanish summer attractions.
Situated on the Atlantic coast of Galicia, on the left bank of the Ulla River, which flows into the Ria de Arousa, the village of Catoira has become one of the most popular summer tourist destinations in Spain.
Do not be surprised if, when walking the streets of this town with a population of 3,500, you suddenly come across the menacing silhouette of a figurehead on a the prow of a longship, with the ship’s rectangular sail unfurled to the wind and the body filled with a retinue of fierce Vikings all wearing horned helmets. No, this is not an incidence of time-travel, nor is it a consequence of too much of the quality local red wine: on the first Sunday of August, Catoira remembers the conflict between the Vikings and the natives that took place here over a thousand years ago.
At the beginning of our era, Catoira, which had been a fort settlement, became an important trade port in the Roman Empire. One of the most important architectural elements from this time were the West Towers which emerge from the ground like two cliffs, reminding us of the original structure of five towers, although the remains of only two remain. This fort was built in the Middle Ages to face the waves of Normans that would venture up the Ria de Arose to plunder coastal settlements. The Danish Vikings also arrived on these shores in search of Jakobsland, as they were supposedly full of riches. Jakobsland corresponds to what is now known as Santiago de Compestela.
This fort was used for centuries, combating invasions from Nordic groups such as the Saracens, and it became (and with it, the population of Catoira) the key of Galicia, as it is still known today.
These terrifying memories of a bygone era are embraced within the city walls with a chapel dedicated to the apostle Saint James, which for a long time was the final point on the Camino Francés (French Way), when pilgrims, not satisfied with having reached Santiago de Compostela continued on their way to Catoira, Muxia or Finisterre.
In 1961, and under strict censoring imposed by the dictatorship, a group of intellectuals from the region around the Ulla river met to form the Ateneo do Ullán in the canteen of Catoira railway station. These pro-Galicians were pursuing the recovery of Galician culture and history that had been restricted by the Franco dictatorship. The group’s concerns led to the idea of celebrating and recreating the landing of King Ulfo “the Viking” in the area, where he was defeated by the Archbishop Gelmírez’ troops. This first performance was so successful, the members of the Athenian group decided to repeat it annually, which they did until mid-August 1964. From 1965 to 1990 the Romería Vikinga (Viking Festival) was sponsored by the local company “Cerámica Dominguez del Noroeste, S.A”. By the 1990s its success was so great and it was attracting such huge numbers of visitors, the Catoira Town Council took over the organization of the festival. The Council is still organizing the event today and in 2002 the event was named a Festival of International Tourist Interest.
Since the 1990s, Catoira has been twinned with the Danish city of Frederikssund, the town with the oldest Viking traditions in Denmark, and they have established similar interests and strong cultural exchanges. The British town of Watchet, in West Somerset, and also the site of many Viking attacks, joined the two other towns to make a trio, all of whom have a shared Viking history, either as a port or target of the Nordic ships.
An example of the variety and number of events in the Viking Festival in Catoira, can be seen in this summary of the 53rd edition (2013), and which can serve as a pattern for the festival:
During the week prior to the Festival many theatrical productions and musical performances are held at night in various locations around the West Towers.
On Saturday night a Viking Feast is held by the West Towers with a menu consisting of mussels, octopus, mutton, drinks and coffee. The only condition that needs to be fulfilled in order to be able to attend the feast is that guests follow the dress-code, by wearing medieval costumes. After the feast there is a musical-firework show that goes on until the early hours.
On Sunday, some pipers walk around the city leading festival-goers and participants to the West Towers where a mass is held in the Chapel of St. James, and after this there is a feast of mussels accompanied by red wine from Ulla. A medieval market takes place around the whole area, which helps to set the festival in its historical context. After the mussel feast there is a Literary Speech from a renowned figure (criers may cite the likes of Gonzalo Torrente Ballester or Camilo José Cela). Next comes the Viking landing and the defence of the West Towers. For curiosity’s sake, the longship which is used for the performance is an identical copy of an 11th Century ship conserved by the National Museum of Roskilde (Denmark), made, in co-operation with Danish experts from Frederikssund, by young people from a local workshop in Catoira. To finish the battle all of the participants and visitors take part in a Comida Campestre (picnic) where fellowship and fun rule the party.