The Byways of Galícia

Don Harris | January 2004

Many people are unaware of this Celtic region in northwest Spain, north of Portugal. With bagpipes, rias / fjords and rolling green hills dotted with cows, Galícia reminds many people of Ireland. The Gallegos are distinct down-to-earth people. There is some evidence that the Celts of the British Isles migrated from this part of Spain. This compact itinerary we found very satisfying. We were in the region in March, 2011 and were surprised to find many fruit trees in bloom!

Driving along the shoreline of Galícia is a delightful experience as you visit picturesque fishing villages as well as some teeming ports. At the same time if you turn inland you will find rolling hills and grazing cows. The heart of Galicia is Santiago de Compostela, a pilgrimage destination for over 1000 years. You will meet modern-day pilgrims walking towards Santiago and on to Cabo Fisterra (Finisterra), the end of the world.

Day 1 - Arrival from Barajas/Madrid Airport

Fly to Santiago de Compostela – it is an easy connection from Madrid. If you are coming from the USA your transcontinental arrival should be between 7 and 10 AM, and the Santiago flight is around 12:30 PM. Take time to rest for 23 hours if you have jet lag, and then explore the medieval city.

We have stayed in several hotels in Santiago, and have found our stays at the Parador de los Reyes Católicos to be extraordinary – worth every dime. It is a splendid hotel erected in 1492 by Queen Isabel and her husband Fernando (known as the Catholic Monarchs) as a hospital and resting place for pilgrims. Priceless antique items from the Middle Ages dot the hallways. The four granite patios of the medieval hospital are dedicated to the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is an unforgettable experience, and the service is exquisite. The Hotel San Francisco situated directly behind to Parador de los Reyes Católicos is also a good option – nicely appointed but less expensive.

Day 2 - Santiago de Compostela

Start your day visiting the awesome Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, for over 1,000 years the goal of the Camino de Santiago, a major pilgrimage route. Behind the high altar many pilgrims pause to embrace the bust of Santiago (St James) and visit his crypt below.

As you stroll through the granite arcades of the town you will encounter pilgrims from all over the globe as well as young medical school students and music majors from the University of Santiago – it is a delightful mix of people. It is fun to stroll the ancient arcaded sidewalks and the many shops.

On the outside of town is the 12th century Colegiata de Santa María del Sar which has curiously slanted columns despite sturdy flying buttresses built between the 17th and 18th centuries. You might try having dinner at Don Quixote Restaurant, which, despite its name, is not a tourist restaurant but rather one the local people enthusiastically support. We found their seafood and fish artfully and simply cooked. To get there from the Parador, continue down the hill and turn right. Soon you will find the restaurant. We feasted on amazingly fresh seafood – my favorite dish is steamed berberechos – tiny cockles or clams.

Return to Parador de los Reyes Católicos.

Day 3 - Experiencing the Fishing Villages

Drive south toward the shoreline and the many rias or fjords which feed into the Atlantic Ocean. It is the perfect habitat for much of the sea life which thrive in the ocean. Enjoy the protection of the many inlets. Arrive in Aguiño: a picturesque fishing village with beautiful beaches. The fishermen there specialize in catching the local delicacies: pulpo or octopus.

As you wander along the shoreline you will come upon the bustling fishing port of Muros, an excellent example of a typical fishing town. It has a history that has been firmly linked since its foundation in the 10th century with fishing, shellfish gathering and factories to salt sardines and mackerel. In the 19th and early 20th century there were more than thirty. In the middle ages Muros was one of the Galicia’s most important ports, had a large fishing fleet and was the home of renowned seafarers. This splendor may still be felt as you walk through its narrow, winding streets. The tapas bar district near the port is the picturesque focal point of the city, with the neighboring areas of the Peixería Vella (old fish market square) full of life, particularly in the morning and evening, after the fish auction held on the quayside.

Cabo Fisterra is the final destination for many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, after they have visited to the shrine of the apostle James in the cathedral. It is about a 56 mile walk from Santiago de Compostela. The origin of the pilgrimage walking to Finisterre possibly date from pre-Christian or medieval times, when “hospitals” were established to serve the pilgrims walking along the route from Santiago de Compostela to Cabo Fisterra. A curious and relatively new tradition that was established between the pilgrims is the burn of their clothes when they arrive in Fisterra.

Some pilgrims continue on to Muxia, which is a day’s walk away. You will find a lighthouse built in 1853 and the Castillo de San Carlos.

As you drive by A Coruña, enjoy the beautiful shoreline view as you continue to El Ferrol. On the way, you might like to stop at Betanzos. It is a medieval walled town which preserves three of its original four gates. Then, drive to El Ferrol and stay at the Parador El Ferrol, next to the naval base. It is a nice place to rest.

Day 4 - Cantabrian Sea and the Ancient Lugo

After exploring the two medieval castles: Castillo de San Felipe and Castillo de la Palma in El Ferrol, drive up to the northern coast and turn east to the small town of Sargadelos. There you can visit a porcelain pottery which produces some of the most noteworthy examples of contemporary design. Then, continue into the interior of Galícia to the medieval town of Lugo surrounded by intact Roman walls. Take time to visit the San Francisco Monumento and the Gothic Convento y Iglesia de San Francisco. The dairies in the vicinity of this medieval walled city contribute to the production of tetilla, a mild, nutty cow’s milk cheese, somewhat similar to Edam from Holland.

Proceed to Monforte de Lemos and stay at Parador Monforte de Lemos which overlooks the town. The Parador was formerly the Monastery of San Vicete do Pino and the Conde de Lemos Palace.

Day 5 - Ourense

The cathedral is the most important monument in Ourense. Founded in 1188 AD, it is the second oldest church in Galícia. The sculpture on the tympanum at the entrance was made by Maestro Mateo, the same sculptor who adorned the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. In the Ourense cathedral, however, because of its preservation you still can appreciate much of the original polychrome coloring of the granite sculpture. Then, walk though the remarkable Ponte Vella, an old bridge with Roman foundations. The Provincial Archaeological Museum is also worth visiting.

Nearby, you might want to visit an ancient, yet accessible fortress on a hill overlooking Verín. It is the Castillo de Monterrei. The young lady who is the guide is pleasant and knowledgeable.

Drive to Baiona. It was there that caravel La Pinta moored in 1493 bringing the first news about the voyage to the New World. The Parador de Baiona is breathtaking – midway between a medieval fortress and a manor house, surrounded by a pine forest. It commands impressive views of the Atlantic.

Day 6 - Vigo to Cambados

Proceed to the bustling port of Vigo. Take time to visit at least one of its museums and the Castro Fortress built in 1665.

Next, drive up the coast to Pontevedra, traditionally believed to be founded by a survivor of the Trojan War. The Roman bridge spanning the Léres River stands intact from the 1st century BC. The city reached its apogee on the 15th century when it became an important commercial center. Another curious fact is that the Christopher Columbus’s ship Santa María, originally named “Gallego”, was built in Pontevedra. You might like to stop and explore the second-largest medieval town in Galícia – only rivaled by Santiago de Compostela. We recommend a visit to the Capela da Virxe Peregrina (the chapel of the pilgrims). It has a Jacobean influence with a scallop plan shaped and a picture of the Pilgrim Virgin on the main facade.

Finally, drive to Cambados, a lovely fishing port and resort. Some of the finest gourmet seafood such as berberechos (cockles), percebes (barnacles) pulpo (octopus) are tinned there. Cambados is the capital of Albariño, the world-famous sparkling white wine. Be sure to enjoy it locally, because the wine is quite fragile and does not travel well. An excellent place to stay is Pazo a Capitana. One of our favorites in all of Spain.

Day 8 - Padrón

The most famous production of Padrón are its small green peppers known as Pimientos de Padrón. They are sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with course sea salt. Most taste sweet and mild, but a few are very hot and spicy – and there’s no way to tell which one is which! Some people have referred to eating them as “Spanish roulette.” The peppers grown in August and September tend to be more hot/spicy than those of June and July. Apparently they contain more capsaicin than the ones of June and July.

According to tradition, Padrón is the site where the apostle James first preached during his stay in Spain. Soon after his death by decapitation in Jerusalem, his disciples placed the remains of the martyr in a stone boat and sailed across the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula. They finally moored the boat to padrón (Spanish word for “big stone”). If you would like to visit the stone “padrón”, it still can be seen today at the Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol de Padrón. There is also the Iglesia de Santa María Mayor de Iria Flavia. It is a curious building with a small graveyard packed with gravestones.

Drive to Santiago – Puerto del Camiño Airport.