Nova Scotia, Cuban-Celtic-style

One of the best things about travel is the ongoing chance to have your most basic assumptions overturned by the unexpected realities of a new place. This happened to me a few years ago, when I traveled to Havana to learn salsa dancing, and instead wound up learning how to play the bagpipes.

Bagpipes, I discovered, aren’t some recent, quirky anomaly in this part of the Caribbean: The instrument was brought to Cuba in the late 19th century, when immigrants from Galicia and Asturias — Celtic regions of Spain — settled on the island. The bagpipers I met during my visit to Havana weren’t middle-aged hobbyists, either — they were hip young Cubans with a genuine passion for Celtic music.

Almost two years after I befriended these Cuban bagpipers, I had the privilege of accompanying them to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia for the fantastic Celtic Colors International Festival, a nine-day celebration of global Celtic music. Here, I was able to see my Cuban friends not just as musicians, but as first-time international travelers. What they found fascinating about Canada (such as the chaotic abundance of a Wal-Mart superstore) helped me see North America in a whole new way.


The audio slideshow above helps tell this story of my friendship with the bagpipers of Havana. Since that experience, they have gone on to host their own international Celtic music festival, called CeltFest Cuba, each spring in Havana. For more information, check out CeltFest Cuba’s Facebook page.

Green Spain: Exploring Iberia’s Celtic north

Green Spain, Cantabria, Santander
When people think of Spain, they tend to think of a sun-soaked, dry land with a hot climate and beautiful beaches. For the most part that’s true, but Spain’s northern region is very different and equally worth a visit.

Spain’s four northern provinces are often called Green Spain. From west to east, Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country are a verdant strip between the North Atlantic/Bay of Biscay and a chain of mountains that traps the rain. Lush, with a mild climate and rugged coastline, it feels more like the British Isles than Iberia. Indeed, the old Celtiberian culture that existed before the Romans has survived more here than in the rest of Spain. You can even drink cider and listen to bagpipes!

I’ve covered the Basque region in my series Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque Region, so let’s focus on Green Spain’s other three regions.

Cantabria is the smallest region of Green Spain, but packs in a lot of fun. Santander is the main city. I’ve been here for the past three days lounging on the beach with my wife and kid. The weather has been warm but not too hot, and the water cold but bearable. I actually prefer these beaches to the jam-packed tourist hellholes of Benidorm and spots on Costa del Sol in the south. Fewer drunken Englishmen, more space. More risk of rain, though, which is why I’m inside today talking to you folks.

%Gallery-127797%Like the rest of Green Spain, Cantabria has a rugged coastline you can follow on a series of trails. Jagged rocks break the surf while far out to sea you can watch freighters and tankers sail off for distant lands. Picturesque lighthouses dot the shore at regular intervals to keep those ships safe, like the one on Cabo Mayor pictured above, an easy stroll from Santander. The currents and tides make this and the Basque Country good spots for surfing, but wear a wetsuit!

If you go inland you can hike, ski, and rock climb in the towering mountains, many of which reach higher than 2,000 meters. Lots of little villages lie nestled in the valleys, where you can sample local produce and relax at outdoor cafes watching the clouds play over the peaks. Prehistoric people were attracted to this region too. The Basque Country, Cantabria, and Asturias have dozens of caves with prehistoric paintings dating back as much as 20,000 years. The most famous is Altamira, which is temporarily closed to visitors, but many more caves are fully open. There’s something deeply moving about standing in a cool, dark chamber and playing your flashlight over some paintings of bison and shamans left by your distant ancestors.

Asturias is bigger than Cantabria and famous for its cider. Alcoholic cider, that is. Personally I think Asturian cider is the best anywhere, and there’s some tough competition in England and Galicia! Many brands of Asturian cider are only available in Asturias. I can’t even get them in Madrid. The Asturians claim that cider doesn’t travel well over the mountains, but I think they’re just keeping the best for themselves!

Galicia is a bit different than the rest of Green Spain. Sticking out from the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, it gets the full blast of Atlantic winds. It’s even more rugged, with more amazing views. A big draw here is the Santiago de Compostela, where the Cathedral of St. James has been a pilgrimage center for more than a thousand years. It’s the destination of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (Way of St. James) a network of pilgrimage routes across Green Spain. Some trails start as far away as France, and they all join together eventually to make their way to this holy cathedral where St. James is said to be buried.

Hiking is big in Green Spain. If you don’t want to walk all the way from France to Galicia, there are plenty of shorter trails and day hikes. If you’re more interested in what’s under the land than on top of it, the Picos de Europa in Asturias and Cantabria have some of the best caves in the world. I’m not talking about the homey caves of prehistoric Spaniards, but massive labyrinthine networks of tunnels reaching more than a kilometer into the earth. If you’re not a dedicated spelunker, take heart. Every guidebook lists “show caves” you can go to with the kids.

This is just a quick overview of what northern Spain has to offer. You’ll be getting more from me in coming months about this fascinating region because we’re moving up here in September. If you have any specific questions, drop me a line in the comments section and I’ll try to turn your questions into day trips and posts!

Colchester Castle celebrates 150 years as a museum

It’s not often that a museum becomes a museum piece.

The Colchester Castle Museum recently celebrated its 150th birthday. Located in Essex, England, and housed in one of the best preserved Norman castles in the world, the museum boasts a massive collection of Roman artifacts.

Colchester used to be the capital of Roman Britain until it was leveled by the warrior queen Boudica in 60 AD. As the leader of the Celtic Iceni tribe, she had defied the recent Roman conquest of England. As punishment she was whipped and her underaged daughters raped before her eyes. Boudica raised an army and wreaked a terrible revenge across Roman Britain, slaughtering an estimated 30,000 people at Colchester alone before she was defeated at the Battle of Watling Street.

The Normans built a castle here around the year 1076 on the foundations of the temple to the Emperor Claudius. The foundations were so large that the castle ended up being the biggest ever built in England. After a stint as an interrogation center for suspected witches, it eventually became a museum in 1860. Today it houses an excellent collection of Roman artifacts as well as collections from other periods. An interesting article in the Chelmsford Weekly News reports the collection is the product of generations of collectors and includes not only priceless archaeological treasures but oddities such as a crab with oysters growing on its shell.

[Photo courtesy Filip Walter via Wikimedia Commons]

May Day in Cerne Abbas village in Dorset

Tomorrow is May Day when spring is to be celebrated by dancing around a pole, wearing a flower wreath, arranging a bouquet, celebrating workers or honoring the Virgin Mary. It depends on where you’re from and when you grew up.

When my mother was a girl growing up in Appalachian Kentucky, she dressed in a white dress to dance around a May pole during a school-wide celebration. Early settlers of her town were steeped in the culture of Ireland, Scotland and England, so a May Day spin off in Celtic traditions was a natural fit. Here’s a YouTube video from last year’s May Day celebration in Cerne Abbas village in Dorset, England where folk dancing and the May Pole are still traditions.

Do you speak EU?

Once again the EU has found a way to create more jobs. Hallelujah!

This time, it will need people to translate documents to Irish Gaelic because the old Celtic language has become one of the 23 official EU languages (though only about 5% of the 4-million inhabitants of Ireland use it actively.) Irish Gaelic (or simply Irish) is often confused with Gaelic (aka Scottish Gaelic) which is not yet an official EU language, but it is probably just a matter of time. Catalan and Basque are considered “semi-official”.

As of the New Year, three new languages joined the family of the EU official languages: Romanian, Bulgarian and Irish Gaelic. With all of EU’s efforts to be culturally and linguistically diverse, it has managed to achieve the opposite effect. According to The Economist, in the beginning of EU integration, about one half of official documents were in English, now it is two thirds.