Brings you the best marine ecotourism experiences in Europe

Atlantic maritime heritage along the WAOH Route

Explore the heritage, culture & traditions of Atlantic life
by WILDSEA Europe | 05/11/2019 | 18:35
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Indulge yourself with a journey of discovery of the heritage, culture and traditions of Atlantic life along the WAOH Route.

One of the best things of exploring the WAOH Route is experiencing the historical and cultural context of Europe's Atlantic region. The Route provides fascinating insights into ancient, medieval and modern life so you learn to appreciate the local culture and heritage of each destination while enjoying world class outdoor adventure. It’s part of what makes the WAOH Route special – taking part in the marine ecotourism experiences offered along the Route goes far beyond enjoying the thrill of the outdoors, you’ll take away with you a deeper level of understanding of the lives of local people as well as an appreciation of the local culture. In the modern day, people’s lives are inseparable from the geography that surrounds them, from fishing, boatbuilding and lighthouse keeping to art, music and gastronomy.

The wild and rugged Atlantic coastline

From the northern tip of the WAOH Route in Donegal in the north of Ireland all the way down to the southern end in Portimão, Portugal, a feature of this wild and rugged Atlantic coastline is that many of the locations are on peninsulas, which are literally and culturally distinct from their respective mainland. They are inimitable and absorbing places to visit. In Portugal, the peninsulas of Sesimbra and Cascais are just 30 minutes’ drive from Lisbon and yet are quite distinct from the capital. Cascais is a former fishing town, now dubbed the ‘Portuguese Riviera’ because of its pretty winding streets, fish restaurants and aristocratic clientele. Sesimbra is a fishing and resort town prized for its marine reserve, sheltered emerald waters and Moorish castle, and the remains of fish-salting vats from Roman times remain visible close to the Tróia peninsula.

Sesimbra’s Cali Beach was named by the Romans for its “cal” production (limestone), and there is a theory that California in the US was so-called because it was considered a hot place like a hot kiln furnace. Nowadays California is known as the surfing capital of the US, while Sesimbra is often recalled as the diving capital of Portugal.

Family Dive & Beach Adventure in Sesimbra
Image: Family Dive & Beach Adventure in Sesimbra

A great way to appreciate this region is on a full day’s dive and beach adventure – great for both divers and non-divers. The adventure starts with a boat trip out to Praia da Ribeira do Cavalo from where divers explore the waters of Sesimbra while non-divers spend their day on one of the most beautiful beaches of Portugal enjoying its unique landscape, snorkelling, birdwatching and taking part in beach games and activities.

One of the best celebrations of local heritage and culture is at Sesimbra’s annual Carnival in early March, which includes a lively mix of music and dance, colour and samba, as well as one of the largest clown gatherings in the world parading along the seafront (some 4,000 clowns making their way through the cobbled streets is quite a sight!), while in May, the region holds the festival “Sesimbra é Peixe”, which includes a Religious Festivity “Senhor Jesus das Chagas” and a Tourism Film FestivalFinisterra – with a section dedicated to underwater films.

Arades & Silves Boat Tour

Image: the Arade river and the medieval town of Silves

At the southernmost tip of the WAOH Route, Portimão in southern Portugal has been fought over for centuries owing to its access to the Atlantic and position on the Rio Arade estuary, providing sea access to Silves, once the capital of the Algarve. It was protected by two towers that still exist today – Fort of São João do Arade above the traditional fishing village of Ferragudo and Fort of Santa Catarina. They are good positions for a view across the Atlantic and its wild coastline. The Portuguese are among the greatest consumers of fish on the planet, and nowadays, in Portimão, the sardine is king. It is served fresh and barbecued, with a view over the water. The best-known restaurants are on the cobbled streets of the Rua da Barca near the Ponte Velha. Sardines are served with fresh bread, salad and a local red wine, the way they have always been. The flavours are fresh, sweet, pure – it is the Atlantic on a plate. In the first week of August each year, Portimão celebrates its sardine heritage with a festival on the Ribeirinha – the waterfront area – which is packed with stalls and smoking barbecues selling fresh seafood.

A great to way to a sense of Portimao’s history is to join a 4-hour boat tours along the Arade river to the medieval city of Silves, passing through the fishing village of Ferragudo. En route, keep an eye out for the many different species of birds and the fauna and flora of this impressive river ecosystem.

The Celtic connections

Rugged cliffs and white sand beaches in Cornwall

Image: White sand beaches and rugged cliffs in Cornwall (UK) along the WAOH Route

One of the most unique stretches of coastline on the WAOH Route is Cornwall in the UK, whose geography has long influenced its isolationist history. It occupies a peninsula stretching 90km into the Atlantic and is almost severed from the mainland by the River Tamar, which flows along the border with Devon, starting 6km shy of the north coast and flowing into Plymouth Sound in the south. It became its own country when Celts, driven west by the invading Saxons after the fall of Roman rule, settled here. Burial mounds called barrows and quoits – stone chambers – from this time still remain, such as at Obadiah's Barrow on Gugh, one of 80 burial chambers on the Isles of Scilly and the well preserved Chun Quoit, on an exposed hillside of the north Cornish coast. You get a real sense of its isolation if you head to Predannack Wollas on the Lizard Peninsula – the UK’s mouth southerly point off – where you’ll see the rugged cliffs and white-sand beaches surround the unique geology of the area (huge stacks of black volcanic rock) and where you can dive in and explore the many shipwrecks off the iconic Manacles rocks. Atlantic Scuba runs several diving trips in the Falmouth area to some of the best dive sites, such as Castle Beach, Silver Steps, Gyllyngvase Beach, Swanpool Beach as well as out to the Manacles.

Celtic culture lives on today, in the Cornish language as well as the music - the St Ives Festival in September is a celebration of Celtic and folk music and there is also the Lowender Peran festival, which takes place in Newquay each autumn. It showcases performers from Europe’s Celtic regions – Cornwall, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and the Isle of Man, and offers concerts, ceilidhs, workshops, storytelling and a Celtic craft market.

Along the WAOH Route in Galicia (Spain)

Image: Pipers in Galicia (Spain)

But Cornwall isn’t the only destination on the WAOH Route with Celtic connections. Further north on the Iberian coastline, one of the most iconic sights in Galicia is the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, the end point for many pilgrims on the "Camino de Santiago" route across northern Spain. Further west, where the Iberian peninsula juts out into the Atlantic, is Finisterre. It is a place that has long held significance as ‘the end of the world’ and is what some people consider the ‘true’ end of the Camino, where many burn their boots to mark the end of their journey. Occupying dramatic hilltop locations overlooking the sea alongside the entire pilgrim route are ‘castros’, settlements that date from the 4th Century BC and according to Celtic culture, are built in high places to bring the inhabitants closer to heaven. Castro de Baroña is a particularly impressive site overlooking the beach, while the Castro de Santa Trega, in A Guarda, is one of the best preserved and largest, with sweeping views of the River Miño.

Similar in design to the castros are pallozas, circular buildings that had thatched rye stalk roofs. A good example of these are in the village of O Cebreiro in Galicia where a series of pallozas have been restored and converted into a museum. The buildings are evidence of Galicia’s connection to Celtic culture, a series of tribes who lives across northern Europe around the Iron Age and shared a language as well as artistic and religious traditions. There is also thought to be Celtic roots in some of the words of Galicia’s regional language, galego, such as the word for ‘sea’, which is the same in Galician as in old Irish – ‘ler’. In music, the Celtic origins are strong – the enduring tones of Galician folk music are provided by the bagpipe, or gaita, reminiscent of the Scottish equivalent. Pipers can often be heard in Santiago de Compostela's main square, Praza do Obradoiro, and at the annual Festival Ortigueira in the province of A Coruña in July, Celtic musicians from across the world gather to share their love of music and dancing.

In Galicia there is a striking series of large standing stones that overlook the Atlantic near A Coruña. The seven stones are called the ‘Family of Menhirs’, and are a simple and arresting piece of sculpture installed by the Spanish contemporary artist Manolo Paz to acknowledge the region’s Celtic history. The menhirs draw a resemblance to numerous Celtic-age megaliths around Europe, including the 64 stones that make up the circle at Beltany, a Bronze Age site in County Donegal, Ireland. Beltany is associated with the Celtic celebrations of the solstice and equinox and the lighting of hilltop fires to rouse the sun.

Bird colony in Inishowen (Donegal, Ireland)

Image: Bird colony in Inishowen (Donegal, Ireland)

One of the most recognisable images of Celtic history is the cross. Examples of these, often intricately carved stone crosses, can be seen across Donegal, including at Inishowen – the largest peninsula on the island of Ireland. The name Inishowen means ‘Island of Owen’ – the son of Niall of the Nine Hostages (High King of Ireland). Many of these carved stone crosses mark the location of ancient monasteries overlooking the sea. One of the more unusual crosses is a 100 metre Celtic cross made of thousands of trees, in a project undertaken - largely in secret - by a forester called Liam Emmery. The two tree species show the greatest difference in colour in autumn, and out of a forested hillside close to the wild Atlantic emerges a Celtic cross. It was first noticed by passengers landing at the City of Derry airport. The coastal adventure tour operator Donegal Climbing runs a 3-hour Walking and Heritage Tour in Inishowen where a professional tour guide Bren Whelan will give you a fascinating insight into the geology, wildlife and history of this stunning coastline. To learn about the west coast of Donegal, go on a Coastal Heritage Cruise in Kincasslagh run by Saoire Mara Charters where you’ll learn about marine wildlife, local history and heritage from your local guide and skipper Paul McGonagle. In August, don’t miss the Clonmany Festival – held in the picturesque traditional Irish village of Clonmany, it is Ireland’s longest running and best known family festival.

A feast of fishing heritage

Fishing Traditions in Galicia (Spain)
Image: Fishing traditions in Galicia (Spain)

All along the WAOH Route you get a sense of the role of the Atlantic as a source of food and passage for goods meant that ports along the European coastline flourished for centuries as centres of wealth and trade. But with industrialisation, depletion of marine resources and the development of improved transport links, Europe’s fishing ports endured stultifying decline in the late 20th century. In many areas though, fishing is making a comeback as the demand for local produce, with sound provenance and sustainable roots, gradually increases. The lives of many Galicians are still entwined with the sea and while seafood production does not operate on the scale that it once did, much of the seafood served in restaurants is hauled from the sea that morning. The most acclaimed is ‘percebes’ or goose barnacles, which can cost up to €200 a kilo because it is so dangerous to collect from the wave-lashed rocks. Another speciality is mussels, which are rope-grown off ‘bateas’, wooden rafts that are seen all over the estuaries of Galicia. Other abundant seafood in the region is clams, mussels, scallops, oysters, and octopus, which is famously served ‘a gallega’, a dish that can be traced back through Galician history and is now offered all over the Mediterranean. You can get a wonderful taste of what it’s like to be a modern day fisherman by joining a 3-hour boat tour in Ría de Arousa, famous for growing some of the best seafood in the world. Learn about the people who make this possible, while enjoying the unique landscapes of this gorgeous estuary.

Arranmore Island (Donegal, Ireland)

Image: Historical landmarks of Arranmore Island in Donegal (Ireland)

Donegal also has a long tradition of fishing and still supports Ireland’s largest fishing port at Killybegs as well as many smaller ones. The typical local dishes are seafood chowder or smoked salmon with Irish soda bread. From Burtonport, just north of Killybegs, you can join a Sea Safari and Heritage Toura 2.5-hour boat excursion around the historical landmarks of Arranmore Island, the former home to an 18th Century herring fishing station that is now abandoned. Your guide will teach you about the station and its historical landmarks as you cruise through the islands’ channels. Many townhouse residences constructed on the islands during that time are still in use to this day. En route, there are plenty of bird watching opportunities, as well as the possibility of spotting dolphins, seals and basking sharks.

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