A day at the Ortigueira Festival in Galicia, Spain July 16 2016
(warning: Long read)
We’re somewhere outside a sleepy village in the northwestern corner of Galicia when it first kicks in. A strange elusive feeling. As if there but still far out of reach, hovering somewhere above the steep Hortensia-lined streets.
All sounds are muted as we turn off from the narrow road and enter the woods. The ground is covered by a thick layer of rounded leaves in various shades of brown. The clinical scent blends with the sweet scratchiness of weed, which appears to be seeping in from every direction. I see smoke rising between the trees. The bark is peeling off in long dry strips hanging from the tall trunks. The dense treetops shield us from the burning rays and the smell takes me straight back to the humid eucalyptus forests of Queensland, Australia.
In between the trees, tents in all colours of the rainbow lie scattered in more – but more likely less – planned formations. Like temporary pop-up communities just flung in there like a handful of legos. There are no fences here. No signs or guards with walkie talkies and day-glo orange vests telling you where you can or cannot put up your tent. Here, tranquility and chaos rule – all at the same time by the look of things.
There are people sleeping everywhere, in hammocks, under the bushes, underneath stretched out sheets or directly on the ground – a last resort for those who either couldn’t or didn’t have the energy to find their camp last night.
It’s already long past noon as Guido and I arrive at the camp. Sweat dripping and carrying my brand new tent and sleeping bag bought especially for the occasion, involving a rather lengthy expedition to a gigantic sports store on top of a mountain on the outskirts of Vigo.
The afternoon heat starts penetrating the leaf cover and even though the temperatures are hitting far beyond the 30 degree mark the others are still sleeping in their tents. It must be hot as hell in there I think, but maybe they’re used to it?
I throw my stuff in a pile on the ground and sit down on a bright blue sleeping mat. It’s sticking to my bum and I feel a little dizzy from the five-hour bus trip from Vigo and the walk from the bus stop in town.
In the camp right next to us a tanned guy with fuzzy dreadlocks strums passionately on a guitar. He’s naked and just barely in tune. Every time his eager fingers hit the strings, his penis swoops from side to side like a lazy metronome. The others don’t seem to mind. They’re singing “Bella Ciao Bella Ciao Bella Ciao, Ciao, Ciao!” and it reminds me of the countless times I’ve sat around a campfire belting out the exact same song. I wonder if they might feel differently about the anti-fascist tune here? With Franco and all? But I don’t think they’re old enough to remember.
My tent is turquoise, the same colour as the ocean around these parts. Its cheap and poor quality compared to the one I have at home but there’s no sign of rain so it’s perfect, although a bit of a nightmare to put up. We laugh at it while the others slowly get on their feet.
More friends show up at the camp and we say hello. I don’t really speak Spanish and only a few speak any English. It’s going to be fine, I reassure myself and praise the tiny amount of the Spanish, I actually do understand.
I ask for directions to the nearest restroom and a small group of us head off for the toilets. They’re located about half a kilometer outside the forest and there aren’t many of them. Maybe 20 in total (including the ones near the beach) for the 90,000 people, they tell me are at the festival.
Oddly enough they are neither broken nor otherwise disgusting as they always seem to be at festivals in Denmark. Perhaps people from Spain are just cleaner? Or maybe they don’t go to the toilets?
We all meet up at a small café close by. The place is buzzing. It’s packed with people and the staff struggle to keep up with the orders. We give up on getting something to eat but wait around for the others to finish their coffee and bread with tomato and olive oil before heading back to the camp.
Guido is sick. Upset stomach, he says with a serious look as he crawls into his tiny red pop-up tent. A third of him is sticking out and he looks like a giant wounded caterpillar in his sleeping bag.
“That’s what you get from partying too hard on the first night,” I joke. Guido doesn’t find it funny. I guess having the shits in place like this really isn’t a laughing matter. I think about those 20 faraway toilets as a moment of awkward silence passes.
And that’s when it hits me again. That strange feeling and I think to myself: Where are all the beers? Why aren’t people chugging back booze like there’s no tomorrow as they do at the festivals I go to in Denmark? It’s close to 4 in the afternoon and I haven’t seen a single drunk person yet. Well, there were a couple of beers on the tables in the cafe earlier, but nothing even remotely resembling the loud mindless intoxication you’d find at Roskilde or any given Danish festival.
Someone gets out a gas burner and starts cooking onions. A bearded guy named Bruno asks if I want to go to the beach while Guido rests.
As I pull on my swimsuit I don’t really feel like going swimming. A few days ago I went to the beach in Cies Islands with Guido and a group of ladies from Paris. I got badly sunburned and my belly still looks like something straight out of a burn victims unit. Not exactly what you feel like flashing on a beach surrounded by perfectly tanned people.
Bruno is fun. He’s a big guy, former kick boxer and very protective. He speaks both English and German quite well with an odd mixture of Spanish and Austrian accent. Schwarzenegger-style. He asks me a lot about Denmark and I try to answer as best I can. It’s the first time he’s at the festival, he says when I ask him about what they usually do and who’s playing at the concerts later that evening. I only had a quick peek at the program on the website before I left and recognised one single name on the poster. Looks like they’re playing Sunday night when we are long gone.
The sand burns my feet but the view is stunning. The beach stretches along the horizon is flanked by rugged green slopes and the raw Atlantic beats tirelessly against the rocks. On the other side of the ocean is Ireland. Where the Celtic music the festival is all about, comes from.
A mass of people, most half-naked with lean tanned bodies have gathered at the water’s edge. Arms, legs, breasts and braided beards sway as a group of young men with dreadlocks and long beard play trance-like drums and somewhere in there another guy is picking a guitar. Some people are dancing. The kind of dance you can tell is fuelled by the pungent fragrance that seems to be a constant in every corner of the festival.
“It’s like a full moon party in Thailand”, I say to Bruno, even though I’ve never actually been to Thailand, let alone to a Full Moon Party. But I imagine that it must be like this. Only in the daytime.
We put our towels out on the sand. Mine is lilac and has a map of the Canary Islands on it. I haven’t been there either but Bruno has and he points out the route of a road trip he’s been on around Tenerife before I sit down on the island. Next to us a group of bare breasted girls are painting each others faces with light blue swirls.
Bruno and I go for a walk along the beach, fingers crossed that our towels and shoes will still be there when we return. We don’t dare leave our backpacks behind.
After a quick dip in the Atlantic (Bruno went in, I stayed on land), we go back to the camp. We buy a few beers along the way at one of the stalls lined up in the area between the forest and the beach, and get lost in the woods. We call the others on the phone, but the network is overloaded and there are no signs or markings to tell which way to go. Half an hour later we finally find our camp.
Everyone is gone. Even Guido has risen from his near-deathbed in the boiling tent.
We eat sandwiches with ham and cheese. Bruno, like most others, bought food at the local supermarket. He thinks that the others might have gone into town where the festival and concerts are held.
There’s about a three kilometers walk to the town center and the road is littered with happy people in brightly colored pants and intricate face paint. Somewhere along the way a samba orchestra plays ‘Killing In The Name’ and the crowd erupts stomping and shouting.
The stage is just next to the harbour. Around it there are little stalls that sell pizza, empanadas, cakes and Galician handicrafts. We take a walk around and look at the stalls while an orchestra with perhaps 30 people do their sound check. We go a little further out along the harbor. The weather is great and apparently it’s the hottest year since the festival opened in 1978. The wind blows the smell of rotting seaweed onto the pier. In some places the tide is so low you can walk several hundred meters out on the seabed without getting your feet wet. We stay on the pier and head back.
The orchestra from earlier has started playing. They’re from Brittany and are all wearing traditional white and black costumes. They do their very best to capture the attention from the audience but it seems as if the majority of the people in the camp area haven’t noticed that the party has already started downtown.
“Ha! There are more people on stage than in the audience,” Bruno says dryly and we laugh a bit about it as we sit on the grass trying to get in touch with the other over the phone. Over a coffee with ice and Crema de Orujo we finally get through. They’re also in town at a restaurant. Guido has gotten worse. He can barely sit upright as a large group of Irish river dancers in purple skirts pass us dancing and jumping like a bag of fleas. I feel sorry for him, having invited me to come along to the festival, but there’s really nothing I can do. Luckily he has a friend in town he can stay with, so he doesn’t have to sleep in the camp.
The concert with this evening’s headliner Susana Seivane who plays the Galician bagpipes (Gaita), has slowly begun. I buy a piece of a giant empanada with pork and kale. Bruno has his eyes set on a chocolate donut the size of his face. Along with Xose Luis and Jorge from the camp we move closer to the stage passing audiences of all ages. Teens with painted faces and waving flags, older couples dancing, families with small children and a couple who lovingly share a joint before they start dancing wildly to the music. We share the two lukewarm beers in my Fjällräven.
The concert itself is a lively affair. The songs are varied in intensity and feeling and the audience is ecstatic about the blonde bagpipe virtuoso. It sounds as if the bagpipes have a synthetic filter on and the sound kind of reminds me of Jean Michel Jarre’s famous Laser Harp.
Midway through the show Seivane invites the internationally acclaimed accordion player Andrés Penabad up on stage. My friends tell me that he has worked closely with my friend, Galician musician Carlos Nunez. The young musician sets off a wildfire and the crowd erupts dancing and cheering.
Later the whole Seivane family joins her onstage. There are small children with bagpipes, flutes and teenagers with tambourines. The audience loves it, but I think it gets a little too much. It is however quite amusing as one of the smallest children kicking and screaming refuses to leave the stage and has to be dragged away like a diva.
The concert ends with a massive sing-along. The unofficial Galician national anthem my friends tell me. Like the rest of the audience, they’re belting out the song as loudly as they can.
And then it’s back. Only now the ethereal feeling has changed into something so real I can almost touch it and I watch how the Galician spirit moves within the crowd, working its way slowly up the narrow winding streets where thousands of smiling people are pouring in from the campsite in a steady flow along the cobblestones as if only guided by the Celtic tunes streaming from the brightly lit stage.
Read more about the Ortigueira Festival here
Note: This Summer I spent two weeks in Galicia, Spain, writing and visiting friends. This piece was written mostly as an writing exercise. It turned into a little more than that and I thought I’d share my experiences at the festival with you all. Well done if you made it this far in the text!