Passionately entangled with the Atlantic Ocean, at the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula, Galicia feels far removed from the rest of Spain. Everywhere is green, from the high forested hills to the rolling fields, a patchwork of tiny plots still farmed by hand. Indeed, with its craggy coast and mild, wet climate, Galicia is more like Ireland than Andalucía. Its people take pride in their Celtic heritage, and cherish the survival of their language, Galego. It’s hardly off the beaten track, however. Santiago de Compostela ranked during the Middle Ages as the third city of Christendom, and pilgrims have been making their way here along the Camino de Santiago for well over a thousand years.
Santiago itself remains the chief attraction for visitors. Still focused around its unspoiled medieval core, a delightful labyrinth of ancient arcades and alleyways, it’s an unmissable gem. Galicia’s other major selling point is its endlessly indented shoreline, slashed by the powerful sea into the deep, narrow estuaries known here as rías, and framed by steep green hillsides. Sadly, however, a lack of planning controls has meant that much of the coast is depressingly overbuilt, albeit with dreary villas and apartments rather than high-rise hotels. With each town tending to merge into the next, those few resorts that remain recognizable as sturdy little medieval fishing villages, such as Cambados, Muros and Baiona, come as welcome highlights. Pretty, secluded sandy beaches do exist, but they take a bit of finding these days, and often require a drive away from the built-up areas.
Broadly speaking, of the distinct coastal stretches, the Rías Altas in the north are wilder and emptier, while the picturesque Rías Baixas, neighbouring Portugal, are warmer and more developed, and consequently attract many more visitors. In between the two lie the dunes and headlands of the more rugged Costa da Morte. Only a couple of the seafront towns have grown to become cities: the modern ports of A Coruña, with its elegant glass-encased balconies, and Vigo, perched alongside a magnificent bay. Further inland, the settlements are more spread out, and the river valleys of the Miño and the Sil remain beautifully unspoiled, while the attractive provincial capitals of Pontevedra, Ourense and Lugo seem little changed since the Middle Ages.
Again like the Irish, the Galegos are renowned for having emigrated all over the world. Between 1836 and 1960, around two million Galegos – roughly half the total population – left the region, thanks largely to the demographic pressure on agricultural land. Half of them ended up in Argentina, where Buenos Aires is often called the largest city in Galicia. An untranslatable Galego word, morriña, describes the exiles’ particular sense of homesick, nostalgic longing. That Celtic melancholy has its counterpart in the exuberant devotion to the land, its culture and its produce that you’ll encounter in Galicia itself, as evinced in its music, – they even play the bagpipes (or gaita galega) – literature and festivals. Above all, Galegos view their food and wine almost as sacraments; share in a feast of the fresh local seafood, washed down with a crisp white Albariño, and you may find the morriña gets a hold on you, too.