San Andrés de Teixido is a strong contender for the title of Spain’s weirdest village with its strange rituals and annual festival of the dead.
This tiny sanctuary is perched on the dramatic cliff tops of northern Galicia amidst stunning scenery and wild landscapes.
Its cliffs are amongst the highest in Europe at 6oo metres above sea level, resulting in spectacular views over the surrounding coastline.
Driving to this remote village is a treat with a route that takes in hair-pin bends, stunning vistas and fabulous viewpoints.
Wild horses roam the landscape looking unapproachable and undomesticated, a rare sight in modern Europe.
What a thrill to watch these shaggy and entirely natural creatures grazing freely a few hundred metres from your car or camper van.
The land that time forgot
San Andrés de Teixido is like a small jewel encircled by a brilliant azure blue sea.
Legend says that San Andrés (St Andrew in English), one of the nine Apostles, was stranded by the nearby cliffs after his boat overturned and capsized.
In the myth the boat became a small island, later called Barca de San Andrés, whilst the drowning saint was saved by God.
San Andrés landed on shore and his presence led to the founding of a shrine and pilgrimage site on this craggy promontory.
That is the start of the surreal story of San Andrés de Teixido which becomes weirder as you learn more.
We visited the village on impulse as a result of an intriguing but random reference in a local tourist guide.
Finding information about San Andrés on the internet proved tricky so we decided to discover more about this remote community under our own steam.
We arrived at midday and found the village almost deserted, a bit like ‘the land that time forgot’.
A few rows of washing wavered in the coastal breeze whilst a group of cows wandered freely through the village, apparently on a lunchtime jaunt.
A solitary visitor was sitting outside the local bar looking up at a cow teetering perilously on a steep grassy slope trying to reach some delicious greenery on the other side of the hedge.
Seeing its head unexpectedly poking through a bush next to the main footpath gave me a bit of shock when the beast mooed loudly!
As we wandered through the deathly quiet village, it became clear that San Andrés de Teixido was a surreal place.
There was something so eerily quiet and unreal that the scene was reminiscent of The Village in the TV cult classic, The Prisoner.
Half of me expected a giant, white bubble to come rumbling along the street to prevent me escaping back to the outside world.
There were also echoes of the classic film The Wicker Man in which Edward Woodward undergoes a strange experience on an isolated Scottish island which culminates in a Pagan burning ceremony!
As we ventured into the old multi-coloured church with its blocks of white and black stones, I anticipated a God-like presence reaching down to carry me off into hell – or if lucky – heaven!
But things were about to get even weirder…
Pagans, saints and sinners
There’s definitely something of a Pagan feel to San Andrés de Teixido, reflected in its rituals, customs and locally crafted artisan goods.
As we walked through its silent streets a few locals looked out from dark shops selling weird relics and carvings in odd shapes.
What could all of this mean?
Perhaps it’s down to the fact that Teixido was a place of worship in pre-Roman times and many of its early customs were related to Pagan cults.
When Christianity later took hold, farmers and fishermen in Galicia started to make pilgrimages to San Andrés de Teixido, and this practice continues today.
Many of the old Pagan customs went on to co-exist with the new Christian rituals in the village.
There’s no doubt that the village is a place of powerful spirituality – and conveys a strong sense of foreboding!
It is said that San Andrés de Teixido is where ‘The Door Beyond the Celtic World’ lies which perhaps accounts for the powerful pagan vibes which I was getting during my visit.
We also discovered that San Andrés is noted for its famous love herb, which is consumed after Mass as a prelude to a good old-fashioned orgy.
Sadly we were unable to secure the herb and I was too afraid to ask the locals who spoke not Spanish but Gallego, the language of Galicia.
Gallego is impenetrable to an outsider with its multiple ‘x’s and archaic dialect so there was no chance of making sense of anything that seemed strange in this place.
Reincarnation as a toad
San Andrés (St Andrew in English) was supposed to have many powers including curing diseases, protecting cattle and crops.
There’s a brilliant old saying in the village – ‘If you don’t visit San Andrés de Teixido when you’re alive, you’ll go dead’ (or in Spanish – ‘A San Andres de Teixido vai de morto o que no foi de vivo’).
Bottom line, a visit to the village can save your soul and, best of all, you could be reincarnated as a lizard, snake, bird or toad.
As a result all animals in the village are never harmed. Woe betide anyone who accidentally steps on an insect or kills a humble wasp!
I spent quite some time weighing up the advantages of being saved as a toad or bird – and opted to come back as a Peregrine Falcon.
Well, falcons have very few predators and they’re king of the food chain!
But there was another mystery I hadn’t solved – what were the odd figurines on sale in the village shops?
They looked like a set of relics or ‘memento mori’ made from a strange substance which I couldn’t identify.
It wasn’t till I got home that I discovered they were “sanandreses”, figurines made from unfermented bread and painted in a variety of colours.
The women who make them are known locally as “saint carvers” who model the figures and bake them in the oven of a wood stove.
Once complete, they are sold to visitors of the sanctuary.
These figurines always feature one of the following – a group with a boat; a sardine; a hand; a dove; a ladder; San Andrés; the cross; the medal of love; the crown; the anchor and small altarpieces.
I hadn’t appreciated their significance at the time.
What a shame that I was too puzzled to buy one of the figurines, although in retrospect HM Customs might have been baffled if I’d been searched on the journey back to the UK!
Pilgrimage and sanctuary
The sanctuary of San Andrés de Teixido has been a centre of pilgrimage since the 12th Century.
This was cemented with the construction of the parish church which began in the 16th Century, continuing into the 17th and 18th centuries.
The village has changed very little since with the exception of four-wheel drive cars and TV aerials.
Walking into the small chapel I was staggered to see a richly decorated altar which could have graced a much larger church in a big city.
The chapel dates from 1789 and was designed by Miguel Lopez de la Peña – and boasts an amazing amount of expensive decoration in silver and precious materials.
Again, it was strangely quiet inside like somebody had left open the door to another world.
It wasn’t long before we spotted more strange relics in a corner of the church in the form of wax figures featuring hands, feet, heads, bodies, pigs and cattle.
Apparently these offerings are supposed to represent the miraculous intervention of the Apostle in healing people and animals.
On the altar there were many different kinds of items offered up to the saint including symbolic objects with archaic connections.
There were also many heartbreaking items related to missing and dead people placed by their friends and relatives in the hope of some kind of divine intervention.
Local custom dictates that pilgrims drink three pints of water from a special well near the church to honour the saint.
To be sure that your wishes are granted, you have to throw a piece of bread into the water. If it floats it means that your wishes will come true, but if it sinks then you have to try again the next year.
We skipped this ritual but in retrospect perhaps it’s something we should have tried to check out. The promise of being reincarnated as a toad isn’t something you encounter every day.
The pilgrim’s journey
It’s easy to imagine how remote San Andrés de Teixido must have been to the early pilgrims. This village was so hard to reach that it became known as ” San Andrés at the end of the world”.
Despite the building of a new road, San Andrés is still remote by today’s standards. It’s on the road to nowhere, a place surrounded by cliffs, hills and vertiginious drops.
In earlier centuries, the pilgrims placed stones or “amilladoiros” at different points on their arduous route.
It was believed that on Judgment Day the stones would speak and give testimony to the fulfillment of their pilgrimage.
Presumably this would secure them the favour of the saint or at least a place in heaven rather than everlasting purgatory!
To prove their piety, they also wore a special habit comprising a long white shirt, sometimes fitted at the waist, on their pilgrimage.
It also had the bonus of protecting them from the baking sun and weather in this exposed landscape.
Festival of the dead
As we explored the village, we learned more about San Andrés’ strong connection with death. It seems like a dark angel is hovering over every aspect of the town’s life.
The dead are greatly revered in San Andrés, so much so that the village holds an annual festival on 8 September when the dearly departed are invited along.
Sadly we were four months too early for this strange ceremony although I’d love to come back to see the procession in its full glory.
Pilgrims who have had a brush with death in the last year are also carried to the church in coffins, which must be a sight to behold.
The villagers bake their colourful dough figures to be eaten before mass whilst amulets (or santera) to the saint are sold to those looking for a special place in San Andrés’ affections.
All this spooky stuff was quite unnerving especially as we seemed to be the only visitors in the village and hadn’t seen another tourist for over an hour.
There’s no doubt that San Andrés de Teixido is a fascinating place but next time I’ll come back at festival time when there’s safety in numbers.
What an amazing place and a stunning location though!
Meanwhile I’m off to muse about my afterlife as a Peregrine Falcon flying high over the Galician hills without a care in the world…
Tammy’s Top Tips – San Andres de Teixido
San Andrés de Teixido is located on the northern coast of Galicia in northern Spain about 30 minutes drive from the picturesque town of Cedeira.
The main annual festival of the saint in San Andrés de Teixido is held on 8 September.
Other special dates to visit the village are San Andrés Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Pentecost; June 24; August 16; the third Friday, Saturday and Sunday of September; and between 27-30 November.
Take time to drive the dramatic route between Cedeira and San Andrés de Teixido. The roads are well surfaced and suitable for a car or average-sized camper van/motorhome.
Stop off at one of several viewpoints and pull-ins en route to San Andrés. There are numerous local hiking trails for keen walkers.
There are awesome views of the Garita de Herbeira cliffs along the corniche road to San Andrés.
The village has a bar plus a small number of shops, and limited accommodation on its outskirts. There is a parking area on the edge of the village, a short walk from the centre.
Wildlife abounds in this verdant landscape with birds including Peregrine Falcons and Eagles commanding the skies whilst amphibians are to be found in ponds and lagoons.
There are very few good websites with information about San Andrés de Teixido in English, but a half day trip is highly recommended by Tammy if you’re staying in the A Coruna area.
Combine your trip to San Andrés de Teixido with the charming town of Cedeira down the road.