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.
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.
Galicia’s north coast has been ravaged by the ocean into a series of dramatic bays and estuaries known as the Rías Altas (High Estuaries). As you approach from Asturias, the coastline becomes noticeably more desolate, the road twisting around rocky inlets where wind-lashed villages cling to the shore, backed by eucalyptus forests and wild-looking hills. Driving is slow, though the final westward stretch of the FEVE railway, from Luarca to Ferrol, is perhaps the most picturesque of the entire route.
Wild, windy and at times desolate, the Costa da Morte, west of A Coruña, is often passed over by tourists heading south to the beaches of the Rías Baixas. But while the Costa da Morte lacks both the climate and the infrastructure for large-scale tourism, it’s not nearly as overdeveloped as the regions to the south, while boasting similarly beautiful coves, tiny fishing villages huddled against the headlands, and forested mountain slopes aplenty.
Its fearsome name, which means Coast of Death, stems from the constant buffeting the shoreline receives from the Atlantic waves. The most notorious of the countless shipwrecks that litter the sea bed is the oil tanker Prestige, which snapped in two following a ferocious storm in 2002. Although 77,000 tonnes of crude oil were released into the ocean, barely a trace of oil remained just twelve months later.
The coast from Camariñas to Fisterra is the most exposed and westerly stretch of all. Ever since a Roman expedition under Lucius Florus Brutus was brought up short by what seemed to be an endless sea, it has been known as finis terrae (the end of the world), and it is not hard to see why. This is prime territory, however, for hunting percebes (barnacles), one of Galicia’s most popular and expensive seafood delicacies, which have to be scooped up from the very waterline. Collectors are commonly swept away by the dreaded “seventh wave”, which can appear out of nowhere from a calm sea.
Even where the isolated coves do shelter fine beaches, you will rarely find resort facilities. While the beaches may look splendid, braving the water is recommended for only the strongest of swimmers, and the climate is significantly wetter and windier here than it is a mere 100km or so further south.
Famed until the time of Columbus as the western limit of the world, the town of Fisterra (Finisterre) still looks like it’s about to drop off the end of the earth. On a misty, out-of-season day, it can feel no more than a grey clump of houses wedged into the rocks, but it puts on a cheerier face in the summer sunshine.
Just beyond the southern end of Fisterra’s long harbour wall, a tiny bay cradles an appealing beach, overlooked by the pretty little eighteenth-century Castelo de San Carlos. Originally an artillery post, this now holds a museum of fishing . Beside the road south out of town, Santa María das Areas is a small but atmospheric church. Its beautiful carved altar, like the strange weathered tombs left of the main door, is considerably older than the rest of the building.
The Rías Baixas, much the most touristed portion of Galicia’s coastline, starts in the north with the Ría de Muros e Noia. In truth, it’s so close to the Costa da Morte that there’s little difference in climate or appearance, and it remains relatively underdeveloped, but unspoiled little MUROS is well worth visiting. Some of the best traditional Galego architecture outside Pontevedra can be found in its old town, enhanced by a marvellous natural setting at the widest point of the Ría de Muros, just before it meets the sea. The town rises in tiers of narrow streets from the curving waterfront, where fishing boats unload their catch, to the Romanesque Iglesia de San Pedro. Everywhere you look are squat granite columns and arches, flights of wide steps, and benches and stone porches built into the house fronts. There’s also a nice – though small – beach on the edge of town next to the road to Fisterra.
Tourism on a significant scale starts to make its presence felt in the next ría south, the Ría de Arousa. The most popular destination is the old port of O Grove – linked by bridge to the island of A Toxa, which holds a very upscale enclave of luxury hotels – while much the nicest of the old towns hereabouts is Cambados, renowned for its beautiful central plaza. Sadly, both are bypassed by the rail line south from Santiago to Pontevedra and Vigo.
While strip development mars much of the coast, the hillsides just inland are a patchwork of tiny fields, primarily planted with the grapes that go into the delicious local Albariño wine. Gourmets will want to sample authentic pimientos in the village of Padrón.
According to legend, St James completed his miraculous posthumous voyage to Galicia by sailing up the Ría de Arousa as far as Padrón. Accumulated silt from the Río Ulla having left it stranded 12km inland, Padrón is no longer even on the sea, and the old town now consists of a handful of narrow pedestrian lanes squeezed between two busy roads. There’s surprisingly little to show for the years of pilgrimage, except an imposing seventeenth-century church of Santiago, where the padrón (mooring post) to which the vessel was tied supposedly resides under the high altar.
Padrón is best known as the source of the small green peppers known as pimientos de Padrón. Available in summer only, they’re served whole, shallow-fried in oil and liberally sprinkled with sea salt. Most are sweet, but around one in ten is memorably hot.
Thanks largely to the international success of its crisp, dry Albariño, which has become the best known of all Spanish white wines, Galicia is now recognized as a premium wine-producing region. The Romans first introduced vines two thousand years ago, growing them on high terraces sculpted by slaves into the banks of rivers like the Miño and Sil. With its mild climate and high rainfall, Galicia is more akin to Portugal than to the rest of Spain – Galego wines, and especially Ribeiro, were much exported to Britain during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, before declining relations between Britain and Spain led the Portuguese to develop their own wineries, which produce similar wines to this day.
Technically, “Albariño” is the name of a grape variety, introduced to Galicia by monks who followed the Camino de Santiago all the way from the Rhine during the twelfth century – it translates literally as “white wine from the Rhine”. Albariño cultivation centres around the Rías Baixas (wdoriasbaixas.com), where around five thousand farmers grow grapes on tiny, scattered plots, often banding together and forming co-operatives to bottle and market their wine. The largest co-operative winery, Condes de Albarei, on the main road 2km south of Cambados, is open for guided tours and visits (t986 543 535, wcondesdealbarei.com).
The best-selling wine in Galicia itself is Ribeiro, produced in the region around Ribadavia on the Río Miño. It comes in both white and red, from such grape varieties as Treixadura, Torrontés and Loureira. The recent success of Albariño having spurred greater quality control, white Ribeiro has lost its previous trademark cloudiness, and is seen as the closest Spanish approximation to the dry Muscadet of France. Ribadavia’s tourist office (wribadavia.net) organizes guided tours, and can also provide maps and listings for free, self-guided winery visits.
Only the Ribeira Sacra region, concentrated along the stunning canyon of the Río Sil, produces more red than white wine. That it’s not better known is largely because two thirds of it never reaches the market but is drunk by the producers themselves. There are no large wineries or even co-operatives, but the three thousand or so farmers who create it have instigated a tourist route through the region and its vineyards.
By contrast with most of its neighbours, the village of Cambados, 5km south of the Illa de Arousa bridge, is exquisite. Only its historic core, however, set a couple of hundred metres back from the waterfront and easily missed altogether if you’re driving along the coast road, deserves such praise. The paved stone Praza de Fefiñáns here is an idyllic little spot, overlooked by a seventeenth-century church and lined on all sides with beautiful buildings, several of which hold wine shops and bodegas. As the vines crammed into its every spare square centimetre testify, Cambados is the main production centre for Galicia’s excellent Albariño wine.
The seafront itself is unremarkable, though a small island at its southern end holds the vestiges of a watchtower originally erected to look out for Viking raiders, while the vast seaweed-strewn flats exposed at each low tide play host to legions of redoubtable freelance clam- and cockle-pickers known as mariscadoras.
Of all the Rías Baixas, the long, narrow Ría de Pontevedra is the archetype, its steep and forested sides closely resembling a Scandinavian fjord. Pontevedra itself is a lovely old city, set slightly back from the sea at the point where the Río Lérez begins to widen out into the bay. Though it lacks a beach of its own, it makes a good base for excursions along either shore of its ría. The north coast is the more popular with tourists, with Sanxenxo (Sanjenjo) as its best-known resort, but if you want to avoid the crowds, head for the south coast, which stretches out past secluded beaches towards the rugged headland, ideal for camping in privacy.
The Ría de Vigo ranks among the most sublime natural harbours in the world. Its narrowest point is spanned by a vast suspension bridge that carries the Vigo–Pontevedra highway; you’ll see its twin towers from all around the bay. On the inland side is what amounts to a saltwater lake, the inlet of San Simón. The road and railway from Pontevedra run beside it to Redondela, separated from the sea by just a thin strip of green fields, and pass close to the tiny San Martín islands, once a leper colony and used during the Civil War as an internment centre for Republicans. Beneath these waters lies a fleet of Spanish bullion galleons, sunk by a combined Anglo-Dutch force at the Battle of Rande in 1703.
The city of Vigo looks very appealing, spread along the waterfront, but although it makes a good base for trips along the south shore to Baiona, across the bay to Cangas, and, especially, out to the wonderful Illas Cíes, it has few attractions of its own.
Baiona (Bayona), 21km south of Vigo, is situated just before the open sea at the head of a miniature ría, the smallest and southernmost in Galicia. This small and colourful port, which nowadays makes a healthy living from its upscale tourist trade, was the first place in Europe to hear of the discovery of the New World. On March 1, 1493, Columbus’ Pinta made its triumphant return to Spain; the event is commemorated by numerous sculptures scattered around the town. An exact replica of the Pinta (daily 10am–8.30pm; €2) is moored in the harbour, which these days contains pleasure yachts rather than fishing boats.
The medieval walls that surround the wooded promontory adjoining Baiona enclose an idyllic parador (see Praia de América). It’s definitely worth paying the €1 fee to walk around the parapet, which provides a series of changing, unobstructed views across the ría to the chain of rocky islets that leads to the Illas Cíes. Another hugely enjoyable footpath circles beneath the walls at sea level, and provides access to several diminutive beaches. These are not visible from the town proper, which despite its fine esplanade has only a small, if attractive, patch of sand.
The most irresistible sands of the Ría de Vigo adorn the three islands of the Illas Cíes, which can be reached by boat from Vigo, and (less regularly) from Baiona and Cangas. Sprawling across the entrance to the ría, battered by the open Atlantic on one side but sheltering delightful sandy beaches where they face the mainland, the islands were long used by raiders such as Sir Francis Drake as hide-outs from which to ambush Spanish shipping, but are now a nature reserve. The most southerly, Illa de San Martiño, is an off-limits bird sanctuary; the other two, Illa do Monte Ayudo and Illa do Faro, are joined by a narrow causeway of sand, which cradles a placid lagoon on its inland side.
Most visitors stay on the sands, with their sprinkling of bars and a campsite in the trees, so if you want to escape the crowds, it’s easy to find a deserted spot – particularly on the Atlantic side. From the beach, a long climb up a winding rocky path across desolate country leads to a lighthouse with a commanding ocean view. The islands’ campsite has a small shop and restaurant, but if you’re on a budget you’re better off taking your own supplies.
While most visitors to Galicia concentrate their attentions on Santiago and the coast, the interior of the region can be both spectacular and intriguing. The Romans were always more interested in mining gold from inland Galicia than they were in its coastline, and some remarkable vestiges of their ancient occupation still survive, including the terraced vineyards along the stupendous canyon of the Río Sil, and the intact walls of unspoiled Lugo. The obvious route for exploring the region is the one used by the Romans, following the beautiful Río Míño upstream, via towns such as Ribadavia and Ourense, and through the wine regions of Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra.
Set slightly back from the Miño atop a low hill, the historic core of Ourense (Orense), one of Galicia’s four provincial capitals, is more attractive and personable than you might expect from the dispiriting urban sprawl that surrounds it. While not a place to spend more than one night – or to break a train or bus journey, as both stations are a considerable way out, across the river – the old quarter does at least offer a handsome and lovingly restored tangle of stepped streets, patrician mansions with escutcheoned doorways, and grand little churches squeezed into miniature arcaded squares. Its centrepiece is a squat, dark Catedral, an imitation of the one in Santiago, which contains a museum of religious odds and ends that’s not really worth bothering with.
A bewildering number of bridges cross the River Miño as it curves extravagantly through Ourense. The oldest is the thirteenth-century Ponte Romana, but the most visually impressive is the new Ponte Milenio, a futuristic road bridge with an undulating pedestrian loop that provides great views.
Inland Galicia’s most spectacular scenery can be admired not far northeast of Ourense, though it’s only practicable to explore this area by car, and you can expect the driving to be slow. Follow the N120 out of the city, alongside the Río Miño, and after 20km you’ll reach the confluence of the Miño with the lesser Río Sil. For roughly 50km east from here, the final stretch of the Sil is quite extraordinarily picturesque and dramatic, flowing through a stunning canyon known as the Gargantas del Sil.
This magnificent gorge is the heartland of the Ribeira Sacra wine region – the only place in Galicia that produces more red than white wine – and even where they’re all but vertical, the river cliffs are almost always terraced with grape vines. That phenomenal landscaping project was started by the Romans, and has continued for two millennia. A high mountain road climbs east from the N120 just before the confluence, then winds along the topmost ridge of the canyon’s southern flank, passing through a succession of lovely villages.