A group of Galicians are studying the sunburn on my father’s face at a sardine festival in Muxia, Spain; “I know, I’m as red as a lobster,” he says with embarrassment, prompting a huddled group discussion, after which, almost in stoic unison the response is, “No, not a lobster, more like the colour of little shrimp…” A grandmother, who had not previously participated in the conversation, nods her head knowingly, “Si, camarón.” They take their seafood very seriously in this northern part of Spain, as they do their weather, and this year hasn’t been kind on either count.
We’ve just completed a Camino, a Spanish term for the long pilgrimages taken on foot, bicycle, or horseback that culminate in the auspicious city of Santiago de Compostela–and can continue on to Muxia and Finisterre. This year being the Jacobean New Year 2021-2022, Spain’s network of country and forest trails that make up the Caminos have been especially packed with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, from Catholics and other manner of Christians, to outdoor enthusiasts and people walking for their own spiritual purpose–and upon completion, many of them are sporting the hue of the ‘little shrimp,’ or worse.
Heat waves are no strangers to southern Spain, but in the northern regions of Asturias and Galicia they aren’t the norm–famed for rain and fog reminiscent of stereotypical English weather–cue the unused rain jackets and pants weighing down our sweat-soaked backpacks, which were only used for about an hour on the last day of our two-week journey on foot. It’s not as if sunny days don’t happen in the north, but temperatures topping 40 degrees Celsius continuously for a week in June, followed up by another ten-day streak in July, are unprecedented; they are also affecting the migration patterns and well-being of sea creatures along the coast. Southern Spain is currently experiencing its fourth significant heatwave this summer, with Seville often experiencing daytime highs at 43 degrees Celsius, and making headlines for naming the first ever heatwave, Zoe; more are expected to follow throughout the summer. The Spanish government has confirmed hundreds have already died this summer due to the heat wave.
Every single Asturian or Galician we met on the Camino would grumble that their pueblo was turning into Andalusia, and the television screens in cafés warned people to stay inside, as news anchors demonstrated how heat exhaustion victims are treated by first responders, pontificating on the correct colour swimwear to wear in the heat, and wandering beaches across Spain as their camera crew–which I suspect to be mostly male–lingered, perhaps, a bit too long on bronzed bodies tanning on the sand. While Mediterranean beaches have long been highlighted as being dangerous during the summer heat, climate change seems to have changed what it means to ramble across the cooler, bucolic countryside in the north of Spain, a region frequented by many southern Spaniards and other Europeans trying to avoid the heat.
Halfway through the pilgrimage almost all our bunk mates began zipping up their trekking bags at 4 a.m., slinking out into the chilly night air to arrive at the next day’s destination before the midday heat fully beat down on them, while my father and I were often the last ones leaving the hostel at 7 a.m. However, after the day my father had to buy a medical cream to treat his sunburn we began to set off at 5 a.m., missing some of the region’s countryside charm under the cloak of night just to make the journey more bearable.
And we were the lucky ones. We met families with young children who decided to can their pilgrimage plans rather than expose their children to heat exhaustion, and people who had to delay their journey for days due to wildfires (which occur at a higher rate during heat waves) on the Camino Frances, their later route taking them directly through charred forest trails. On our Primitivo route we also saw wildfire smoke in the air, and were told that nearby trees were being cut down to avoid the rapid spread of the fires. Once we were even warned by a police envoy to quicken our pace as the heatwave could cause a dangerous thunderstorm in our area due to the erratic weather patterns.
What is happening in Spain is indicative of what is happening across the whole world, 2022 marking serious and widespread heatwaves that saw Jacobabad, Pakistan record a startling 51 degrees Celsius day this May; this July, Taiwan experienced a record heat at 41.4 degrees Celsius, several cities in China’s Yunnan province crossed temperatures over 44 degrees Celsius, rampant wildfires have erupted across Morocco, 100 million Americans are under a coast-to-coast heatwave warning, and Tunisia’s capital felt a temperature of 48 degrees Celsius along with wildfires. Many this year have so far gotten away with being cooked to the rosy pink of a ‘little shrimp,’ but in the years to come it looks like summer heat waves may boil us all as red as lobsters.
Julian Manning can usually be found eating a crisp ghee roast with extra podi. The rare times his hands aren’t busy with food, they are wrapped around a mystery novel or the handlebars of a motorcycle. He is Senior Assistant Editor at National Geographic Traveller India.