It’s not all about the Mediterranean…
What comes to mind when you think of Spain?
I’m guessing I won’t be too far off the mark if I say a word beginning with ‘S’. Sun, sea, and sangria easily roll off the tongue.
And you’d be in tune with most people, of course — the sunny south of Spain did attract the majority of the 82 million people that visited the country in 2018.
But what if I mentioned a land of witches?
A green and misty region, covered with lush forests and rugged mountains?
A landscape which is more likely to be subjected to a torrent of rain than a dose of sun?
A land that has more in common with Celtic folklore than with flamenco?
It even has its own language.
Doesn’t sound very Spanish, does it?
Well, it certainly exists. It’s called Galicia. And more and more people are beginning to view it as Spain’s glittering emerald in its crown.
Having lived here for a while now, I’ve seen firsthand why Galicia is held in such high esteem. In this article I’m going to share with you some of my best picks of the region.
It has one of the world’s most famous walks…
Friedrich Nietzche once said that ‘all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking’ and Galicia offers one of the most inspirational routes on the planet.
Millions of people have followed the Camino de Santiago over its 900-year history. It’s a series of pilgrimage route that lead to the alleged burial place of St James, one of Jesus’s disciples. Hikers from all over the world have followed its winding paths, including historic figures like Charlemagne and Pope John XXIII.
Walking the path has been described as a unique, even spiritual, experience by many people. Brazilian author Paulo Coelho wrote a novel about it calling it ‘his voyage of self-discovery’.
Tip: 780km not enough? There’s an extension route that leads to Finisterre. Walk to a lighthouse there that’s perched on the cliff which the Romans believed to be the edge of the world.
On the trail itself, it’s more likely that you’ll hear woeful tales of blisters and cramp as the miles take their toll, but the incredible scenery along the way is sure to make it all worth it.
…and this leads to one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe
The focal point of the Camino de Santiago. This has been the end goal for centuries of weary pilgrims, trekking from all over Europe to get to this place of monumental importance.
Galicians are rightly proud of this heritage site having constructed a supremely handsome Gothic-Romanesque cathedral there. Its main entrance, The Pórtico de la Gloria, is one of the most beautiful in Spain, adorned with 200 sculptures of historical figures.
To visit there for the first time, at the height of tourist season as I did, is a surreal experience. Cheers fill the air as throngs of walkers enter the square; it’s not uncommon to see a pilgrim, almost delirious after weeks (or even months) of trekking, fall to their knees in wonder at the sight before them.
Tip: Head there for sunset — the fortress glistens in the twilight over Plaza Obradoiro.
There are more than 750 beaches
Only southern Spain has great beaches, right?
Scattered carelessly around the Galician coastline, it’s easy to stumble upon some of the most majestic bays in Western Europe.
Tip: Need to switch off? Head to Sanxenxo. It has the highest number of European Blue Flag beaches in Spain.
From the crystalline waters of A Lanzada to the jaw-dropping natural rock formations of As Catedrais along the 1,500 km of rocky, undulating coastline, it’s little wonder that locals say it could take you years to discover all of it.
And it’s this vast landscape that makes the next Galician speciality possible. Some might even call it the region’s highlight:
It boasts some of the best seafood in the world
Seafood has traditionally made up a large part of the local diet. Galician chefs take great pride in showing off what the region has to offer, much to the delight of visiting food-lovers.
Staples such as vieiras á galega (breaded scallops) and the classic pulpo á feira (boiled octopus) have been lovingly honed to a high degree of excellence over many years. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting such a myriad of flavours from such simple ingredients (oil, garlic, paprika and salt) when I first sampled it.
Tip: Ask for the Albariño wine — the perfect accompaniment for your seafood. It’s so good they even throw a street party to celebrate it in the summer.
There’s a theory as to why Galicia’s seafood tastes so great- many people say its because of the elements of freshwater and seawater that collide to make a perfect habitat for a vast array of sea life to thrive in.
The epicentre of this natural fusion is also arguably the region’s most beautiful area…
Its magnificent Rías Baixas
As a newcomer to the area, one of the questions I asked Compostelanos was which part of Galicia was unmissable. One answer kept appearing time and time again — the Rías Baixas.
This is a coastline described by many as a paradise — the Romans even described a collection of islands there as ‘the islands of the gods’ — and its difficult to see this as an exaggeration when you visit there.
A collection of coastal inlets hugging the Atlantic coast, the Baixas lure beauty-lovers all year round with their mix of scenic villages, sandy beaches and mouth-watering food.
If all that’s not enough, it also boasts a stunning city, Pontevedra, one of the most scenic in Spain.
Tip: The peninsula between the Rías de Vigo and Pontevedra is particularly breath-taking.
The Gallego sound
How can I write about Galicia without mentioning the music?
Sharing strong Celtic ties with Ireland and Scotland, the shrill wail of gaetas (bagpipes) can be often be heard floating through the air throughout Galicia. It’s a culture that can be traced back to the ancient migration of the Celts around 2,500 years ago and is a vibrant part of life in the region.
Traditional music nights happen regularly with other instruments such as the pito pastoril (shepherd’s whistle) and the pandeiro (hand drum) being played live. Talented musicians gather, often spontaneously, to perform the ancient music every week.
Tip: The best one in my experience is at ‘As Crechas’ in Santiago. A friend described the atmosphere as ‘like the dance scene from ‘The Titanic’’ on our last visit.
- sentir morriña de su tierra — to feel homesick for your country
It’s the word Galicians use to describe how much they miss home whenever they’re away. Maybe it’ll become part of your vocabulary, too.