Sunday 6 October 2019

A very special birthday present!

I celebrated a milestone birthday this year and got the best present ever from my long-suffering husband, another trip to the city which means so much to me - Santiago de Compostela. He's been with me on numerous trips over the past nineteen years but, having mobility problems as he awaits knee replacement surgery, he opted to stay at home this time. We have usually stayed in the city for a couple of nights either at the beginning or the end of a driving holiday. Over the years we've explored most of Galicia; Cantabria; the Picos de Europa; driven through Oviedo, Leon, Salamanca, Caceres, and down into Portugal. But on this trip I was going to be based entirely in Santiago for five nights. Initially intending to travel alone I was thrilled when my dear friend, Elizabeth, said she had always wanted to visit the city and would be more than happy to be my travelling companion. She is a seasoned traveller; I knew she would be happy to spend a couple of hours alone each morning while I did my research and, as an added bonus, she speaks Spanish!

We didn't have any luck finding two hotel rooms at short notice. One website stated that Santiago was 98% full, so we opted for a two-bedroomed apartment in a residential area about twenty minutes' walk from the Arquivo. I timed leaving the apartment so that I could stop for a coffee and pincho de tortilla before the office opened at 9.30am.

I have written about my connection to Santiago de Compostela in previous posts; it was my grandmother's birthplace and visits, however short, have always included time spent in the Arquivo Historico Diocesano, where I've solved some of the mysteries concerning my Spanish ancestors.

Over a number of years my contact at the archives has been Victor Camino. He is incredibly supportive, as are all the staff. I don't suppose they have many silver-haired elderly ladies from England researching their Galician roots! I think they appreciate my love of their city, of Galicia in general, and my sheer doggedness in returning time after time to uncover more pieces of the puzzle. Each time I visit Santiago I worry that it may be the last - this photo was taken on my visit in 2017, so this year's trip was a real bonus.

On my first day, I climbed the now familiar stone steps and, passing through two sets of incredibly heavy iron doors, gained access to the archive department. The original stone steps to the first floor have now been covered by a wooden staircase. There is even a lift - which I was using towards the end of my stay! A shiver of anticipation as I signed in and was allocated a desk in the research room. Would I discover anything new today?

With more time in the city than usual I was able to split my research into four, two-hour blocks. The search method in the arquivo has evolved over the years. Each volume is listed on the department's computers; baptisms, marriages and deaths in the various parishes covering certain spans of years - for example, if you want to look in the ledger for baptisms in the parish of Santa Maria del Camino for the year 1850, there will be a volume number which you enter on a slip of paper and one of the archivists will bring that particular volume to your desk. You are usually limited to three volumes at any one time. They are heavy, very fragile, often tied with tape, and their pages are stiff with age. I found it physically, mentally and emotionally impossible to sit and concentrate for more than two hours at a time.

Oh, the relief when you open a volume and find that the priest, writing hundreds of years ago, had a good, legible style and the ink stands out almost as clear today as it did when he originally took up his pen. And the sinking feeling when the priest's writing is barely readable, written in almost invisible ink! My limited Spanish is not much of a drawback at this stage of the research as the names are written in the margins of the ledger and you soon get used to translating the dates and the general gist of the document. I have mentioned in previous posts that baptism certificates in particular are a treasure trove of information, giving not only the name of the child but the exact time and place of birth, the names of both parents and both sets of grandparents, often with their occupations, and their parishes. This is invaluable in confirming that you have the correct ancestor before you order the certificate, especially since the spellings of family names are not always uniform; Vilarelle may be spelt Vilarello, Morana can become Moran, or Morano. It may have been that the relative registering the event wasn't totally literate. There are also many entries which make sad reading, where the baby's father is 'incognito' - or where the euphemism 'born on the pavement' is used.

It isn't necessary to visit the archives in person. Many family historians would find it difficult to travel from abroad, especially from the Latin American countries, to where many Galicians emigrated, but it is possible to fill in an application form online. If you know the parish and an approximate date, the archivists will search within a five-year period. Obviously, this is very time-consuming and you may have a long wait to receive a certificate. On this trip it took me eight hours to find four certificates. It's not just a question of finding the relevant document, typed copies then have to be prepared for the researcher - a task that must be a great strain on the eyesight.

In the past couple of years the advice of genealogist Daniel Smith Ramos has been invaluable in breaking down brick walls and solving mysteries on my family history journey. He has an excellent blog on https://the, full of excellent advice for family history addicts. We initially made contact through twitter and despite the almost fifty-year disparity in our ages Daniel has become a good friend. We met up in person at the 'Who Do You Think You Are?' event in Birmingham in 2017 and since then have met twice in Santiago de Compostela and again in Birmingham this summer at:

where I also met up again with Sonia, another twitter friend whose detective work solved the mysteries in my Spanish grandfather's life.

But nothing quite compares to that feeling of excitement when you discover something for yourself; when your finger hovers over the margin of a page and a family name jumps out at you - when you feel like punching the air and shouting 'Yes!' You don't of course, silence has to be observed.

Before I flew home from Santiago I requested copies of four documents, at ten euros each, to be sent by post. Had I been staying in the city longer they would have been ready to pick up within a couple of days. The typewritten copies are much easier for me to translate and I'm thrilled that I now have the marriage certificate of my great-great-grandparents on my grandfather's side, which also gives the names of my 3xgreat-grandparents.


My trip this year wasn't just about more research. Not only did Elizabeth and I have plenty of time to immerse ourselves in the sights, sounds - and tastes - of my grandmother's birthplace, it was also a wonderful opportunity to meet up with dear friends. Anyone who has read Chasing Shadows will know that I met Nicola when she was spending her school holidays with her Galician father's family in a small village that by a strange coincidence has my grandmother's family name. Although Nicola was only fifteen at the time, we have kept in touch over the years. We were guests at her wedding to Antonio in Spain in 2007 and they are now the proud parents of two beautiful daughters. We have been welcomed into their home on many occasions and also spent time with Nicola's parents in Spain and in London. They now feel part of my extended Spanish family and I was thrilled to be able to introduce Elizabeth to them when we all met up in Santiago for Sunday lunch on our first full day in the city. It was also very appropriate that the restaurant was on the Rua San Pedro - the street where so many of my ancestors lived.

Late that afternoon, we were making our way back to our apartment when we came across an orchestra playing in one of the squares and stood immersed in the atmosphere and music.


On previous visits I've been disappointed to find the church of San Pedro Apostol closed and wondered if perhaps a shortage of priests meant it was no longer in use. On Monday afternoon we walked past the church and into the Calzada de San Pedro so that I could show Elizabeth the house where my great-grandfather had lived with his parents and siblings. Just as we paused outside the house, the door opened and an elderly woman came out onto the street. In all the times I'd stood outside that house this had never happened before. Had I been on my own I woudn't have trusted my basic Spanish enough to speak to her but it was surely fate that on this one occasion Elizabeth was with me. She explained why I was interested in the house and we learned that the woman's family had lived there for forty-seven years. I could hardly believe my luck when she also told us that the church would be open for mass the following evening.

Tuesday was a busy day. After my research session we took the train to Coruna. I don't know if it's true of the rest of Spain, but certainly in Galicia the Renfe and the railway stations are a shining example of rail travel at its best. No trip to Coruna, however short, is complete without a visit to the Torre de Hercules. On this occasion pouring rain somewhat spoilt the view from the base of the tower and, some nineteen years older than on my first visit, I didn't feel up to repeating the feat of climbing all those steps to the top. Despite the bad weather the view of the tower as we approached it up the long walkway was awe-inspiring.

When we returned to Santiago the rain had stopped and we walked from the station through one of the city's beautiful parks, exiting in the square right opposite my ancestors' church - and the door was open:

at last I would be able to go inside!

We slipped into a pew at the rear of the church. Despite my mother's nationality and religion, I was not brought up a Catholic, yet there was something in the atmosphere that made me very emotional. It may sound fanciful, but it was as though the physical presence of my forebears in that small space, over hundreds of years, the highs and lows of their lives, had somehow permeated the walls. I was imagining my grandmother's parents standing in front of the altar at 5.30pm on Christmas Eve almost a hundred and forty years ago as they exchanged their marriage vows. Gran was three years old and her mother was seven months pregnant with her second child. Why did it take them so long to decide to marry since they were both of age? That is what is so tantalising about genealogy, we can discover facts but in most cases motives elude us.

The priest seemed amiable and although I could only understand a few words of his sermon, I recognised that he was preaching love and tolerance. I was overcome with emotion and before the service was over I was trying to stifle my sobs. You have to be a very good friend not to be embarrassed in that situation and Elizabeth stood the test! As the service ended, she asked me if I'd like to speak to the priest and I dried my eyes and nodded. A couple of members of the congregation had stayed behind, observing us with good-natured curiosity as we waited for the priest to emerge from the vestry. Elizabeth spoke to him and I showed him the copy of my great-grandparents' marriage certificate. He was genuinely interested in my story, reading through the document carefully and taking time to show us around the church. He told us that it was just as it would have been all those years ago, except that the font where many of my grandmother's siblings were baptised had been moved to the front of the church from its original position at the rear.

As Elizabeth and I walked back to our apartment, after dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, I recalled some of the stories my mother had passed on to me in my childhood about my grandmother's life in Santiago. Crossing the square we could hear the sound of music coming from the colonnades opposite the cathedral. How could we not investigate? We were about to experience the music of Tuna de Derecho de Santiago de Compostela. A very lively hour followed, the music was foot-tappingly good, the crowd happy and friendly as we sang along - when we could - clapping and cheering. As we left, I bought their CD and listening to it brings back happy memories of our trip.

The following day was extra special as two of my cousins - who had found me on facebook in 2017 - had arranged to travel into Santiago from their home town of A Estrada. We met in front of the cathedral and spent the next couple of hours in a coffee shop poring over my family tree, and copies of obituaries and marriage announcements which Daniel had found for me in newspaper archives. Soledad and Antonio are related to me through my grandmother's family, our great-grandfathers were brothers. Although we have only met twice I feel we share a special bond, and they are a link back through the years to my Little Granny, Micaela.

Elizabeth and I flew home the next day, exhausted but exhilarated. When my certificates arrived I was thrilled with the accompanying email from Victor commenting that the staff at the arquivo believe my "effort and tenacity" to discover my Galician roots make me an "authentic native of Santiago"! I hope Micaela would approve.

Acknowledgement: The photograph of the inside of the Arquivo was downloaded from their website.