Sun, sea and...sardines? Edwardian tourists heading to Spanish Galicia sought, and experienced, a very different kind of summer holiday to the ones that British tourists heading to Ibiza, Andalucía or Mallorca experience today. Dr Kirsty Hooper looks at the connections between north-western Spain and the British Isles.
Mondariz, Vigo, Santiago. These are perhaps not the first names which spring to mind when we think of Spanish tourist destinations but, between 1907 and 1914, the small town of Mondariz and the cities of Vigo and Santiago de Compostela were the cornerstones of a popular set of holiday tours that saw hundreds of British tourists visit Galicia, the hitherto little-travelled region of Spain’s Atlantic Northwest, thanks to the ambitious scheme of a group of Galician and British businessmen.
The scheme was conceived by Enrique Peinador Lines, owner of the spa complex at Mondariz, Oliver Thomas Gibbons, director of the London-based British La Toja Company, Alfred Allen Booth, owner of Liverpool's Booth Steamship Company, and the man who brought them all together, Federico Barreras Massó, a prominent Vigo entrepreneur and one of the leading lights of the city's successful sardine-canning industry. The group’s aim was to develop the close historical ties between Galicia and Great Britain into a modern relationship of mutual economic, social and cultural benefit, and they considered tourism the ideal means by which to achieve this.
These were not your typical seaside holidays. Arriving at the southern port city of Vigo on one of the Booth Line’s giant modern steamships, holidaymakers would begin their tour at the brand-new Hotel Continental, perhaps dropping in to visit Barreras’s busy sardine cannery on the Vigo waterfront. They could then choose one of two options. They could be driven the forty kilometres inland to the elegant spa town of Mondariz and its thriving Balneario [spa], where they would receive a warm welcome from the Peinador family or they could head north, on the British-built West Galicia Railway, to the great cathedral city of Santiago de Compostela, perhaps making a detour at Pontevedra to visit Gibbons’ La Toja island and its eponymous spa. Whether they opted to stay in the south for pampering and relaxation at one of the spa resorts, or head north for the celebrated cultural attractions of Santiago, tourists would end their holiday by returning to Vigo with its lively fish market and sardine canneries, often visiting these ‘charming scenes of industry’ as they awaited the steamship that would carry them home.
What was it like to take one of these holiday tours? We can begin to imagine some of the experiences awaiting tourists to ‘The Switzerland of Spain’ thanks to the prominent multimedia advertising campaign funded by the Booth Line and its partners between 1909 and 1914, when their range of colourfully-illustrated guidebooks, brochures and advertisements circulated widely in the UK. Authors, journalists and artists were contracted to visit Galicia, take the tours and produce a written or artistic record of their experiences. Writers such as Catherine Gasquoine Hartley, her husband Walter Gallichan, Walter Wood, and the artist Frank Henry Mason created lively representations of Galicia (see slideshow below) whose connection with the Booth Line was not always explicitly acknowledged – although the canny reader would surely have been able to read between the lines. While we have to consider their accounts in many cases as thinly-veiled propaganda (did anybody really find the sardine cannery a must-see tourist destination?), their detailed descriptions of the itineraries they followed and their struggles with Galicia’s rapidly-developing infrastructure provide a fascinating insight into the day to day life of an Edwardian tourist.
The tours were even recorded in fiction. The popular novelist GB Burgin visited as part of a group of journalists in the summer of 1910, a visit immortalized in his novel A Lady of Spain (1911), in which a party of British journalists, including the cheerful Pymount and the formidable Mrs Jim, travels aboard the Hilary to 'a place [they call] "Galethia"':
“After three hours of dusty endurance – endurance which quite took away from the enjoyment of the road’s rugged grandeur, and made even Pymount moody – they reached Mondariz, and halted outside the town whilst the Alcalde delivered the customary speech of welcome. Then the motors formed into procession, headed by ‘Hell-Fire Dick,’ with Pymount graciously waving his hand to solemn-eyed children, and swept down the hill and into the courtyard of the Hydropathic Establishment of Mondariz as the band struck up ‘Le God Save,’ and Mrs Jim hastily cleansed her face with one of those mysterious little soap-papers which women use to mitigate the ravages of travel (p.30).”
Of course, the visitors were not only journalists and artists. We find a fascinating range of responses to the tours in the libros de ouro [literally ‘golden books’] or visitors’ books of the Grand Establishment at Mondariz, where British tourists left their thoughts alongside the eminent Spanish, Portuguese and Latin-American visitors who made up the majority of the spa’s clientele. Their entries in these elegant albums, some of which have now been in use for over a century, allow us to glimpse something of the ordinary tourist experience, with references to late steamships, wonderful service, long walks, good food, poor weather and the perpetual (but almost never realised) desire to return. Probably the most inspired of all was one James Rowley of Liverpool, whose entry is undated but probably made in August 1909:
“The gods of old walked the milky way of the firmament; we cannot go so far, either by motor or balloon, to enjoy ourselves, but at Mondariz there is to be found a most excellent earthly substitute, & we need not, therefore, envy the happiness of the classic deities of Olympus.”
Ambitious as it was, this early twentieth-century project to attract British tourists away from Spain’s sunny south and into its Atlantic north west is now all but forgotten. It is almost exactly a century since the Booth Line holiday tours to Galicia were brought to a premature end by the twin disasters of the Titanic and the First World War. Nonetheless, this clever Edwardian combination of culture, heritage, business and leisure provides rich inspiration for introducing new generations of international holidaymakers to the Tesouros de Galicia of which today’s Galicians are, rightly, so proud.
This article is adapted from an essay originally published in Mondariz-Vigo-Santiago: A Brief History of Galicia’s Edwardian Tourist Boom.
A specialist in Spanish, Anglo-Spanish and Galician cultural history since 1800, Dr Kirsty Hooper has particular interests in connections between Spain and other cultures, mobilities (travel, tourism, migration, commerce), relational approaches to cultural history, and the use of digital technologies for humanities research. She joined Warwick as Reader in Hispanic Studies in September 2012, after eight years at the University of Liverpool. She is the holder of a Philip Leverhulme Prize (2012-2015).
Gallery of images supplied by Dr Kirsty Hooper.
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