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.Read More
1: Livestock fair at Betanzos.
6: Los Reyes Horseback procession of the Three Kings in Baiona.
1: San Rosendo Celanova’s big festival, at the monastery.
Pre-Lent: Carnavales throughout the region.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) Celebrations include a symbolic descendimiento (descent from the Cross) at Viveiro on Good Friday and a Resurrection procession at Fisterra. On Palm Sunday, there are Stations of the Cross at Monte San Tecla, near A Guarda.
Sunday after Easter: Fiesta de Angula Elver festival at Tui.
Second Monday after Easter: Fiesta San Telmo At Tui.
Late April–early May (dates vary) Festival at Ribadavia celebrating and promoting Ribeiro wines.
May 1: Romería at Pontevedra marks the start of a month-long festival.
Last week: Vino de la Ribeira Sacra Festival at Monforte de Lemos.
First weekend: Rapa das Bestas The capture and breaking in of wild mountain horses at Viveiro.
11: Fiesta de San Benito At Pontevedra, with river processions, and folk groups, and a smaller romería at Cambados.
Second weekend: Medieval de Betanzos Three-day fair at Betanzos, reliving the town’s time under Andrade rule.
Second weekend: International Festival of the Celtic World Galicia’s most important music festival is held in Ortigueira (wfestivaldeortigueira.com); pipe bands from all the Celtic lands perform, alongside musicians from around the world, and every event is free.
16: Virgen del Carmen Sea processions at Muros and Corcubión.
24–25: St James (Sant Yago) Two days of celebration in many places, with processions of bigheads and gigantones on the 24th and spectacular parades with fireworks and bands through the following evening.
25: Santiago Galicia’s major fiesta, at its height in Santiago de Compostela. The evening before, there’s a fireworks display and symbolic burning of a cardboard effigy of the mosque at Córdoba. The festival – also designated “Galicia Day” – has become a nationalist event with traditional separatist marches and an extensive programme of political and cultural events for about a week on either side.
First Sunday Albariño wine festival at Cambados; bagpipe festival at Ribadeo; Virgen de la Roca observances outside Baiona; pimiento festival at Padrón; Navaja (razor shell) festival at Fisterra.
16: Fiesta de San Roque Festivals at all churches that bear his name: at Betanzos, there’s a Battle of the Flowers on the river and the launching of the Fiesta del Globo.
24: Fiesta (and bullfights) at Noia.
25: Fiesta de San Ginés At Sanxenxo.
6–10: Fiestas del Portal At Ribadavia.
14: Fiesta do Marisco Seafood festival at O Grove.
13: Fiesta de la Exaltación del Marisco At O Grove – literally, “A Celebration in Praise of Shellfish”.
11: Fiesta de San Martín At Bueu.
17: Magosto castaña Chestnut festival at Ourense.
Galegos boast that their seafood is the best in the world, and for quality and sheer diversity it’s certainly hard to match. Local wonders to look out for include vieiras (the scallops whose shells became the symbol of St James), mejillones (the rich orange mussels from the rías), cigallas (Dublin Bay prawns, though often inadequately translated as shrimp), anguilas (little eels from the Río Miño), zamburiñas (little scallops), xoubas (sardines), navajas (razor-shell clams), percebes (barnacles), nécoras (shore crabs) and centollas (spider crabs). Pulpo (octopus) is so much a part of Galego eating that there are special pulperías cooking it in the traditional copper pots, and it is a mainstay of local country fiestas. In the province of Pontevedra alone, Vilanova de Arousa has its own mussel festival (first Sun in Aug), Arcade has one devoted to oysters (first weekend in April), and O Grove goes all the way, with a generalized seafood fiesta. When eaten as tapas or raciones, seafood is not overly expensive, though you should always be wary of items like navajas and percebes that are sold by weight – a small plateful can cost as much as €50. Superb markets can be found everywhere; the coastal towns have their rows of seafront stalls with supremely fresh fish, while cities such as Santiago hold grand old arcaded market halls, piled high with farm produce from the surrounding countryside.
Another speciality, imported from the second Galego homeland of Argentina, is the churrasquería (grill house). Often unmarked and needing local assistance to find, these serve up immense churrascos – a term that in Galicia usually refers to huge portions of beef or pork ribs, cooked on a traditional open grill (parrilla). While Galegos don’t normally like their food highly spiced, churrascos are usually served with a devastating garlic-based salsa picante. Other common dishes are caldo galego, a thick stew of cabbage and potatoes in a meat-based broth; caldeirada, a filling fish soup; lacon con grelos, ham boiled with turnip greens; and the ubiquitous empanada, a flat light-crusted pie, often filled with tuna and tomato. Should you be around during the summer months, be sure to try pimientos de Padrón, sweet green peppers fried in oil, served as a kind of lucky dip with a few memorably spicy ones in each serving.