Eat, Drink, Breathe, Repeat: A Galicia Travel Weekend
Thinking of holidaying on the coast of Spain? Ever considered Galicia in the North West? I hadn’t until now. Unlike some other Spanish and European coasts, Galicia doesn’t run around with a bucket and spade screaming ‘Play With Me’ and nor does it shout ‘Let’s drink’ with a Sangria from a high rise apartment. Instead it quietly beckons one of its fjord-like fingers, invites you to a sunset dinner in a fishing town with a view as fresh as the catch, and whispers ‘Stay awhile?’
If you fly from a UK airport you can touch down in Santiago de Compostela, Vigo or La Coruña in around two hours. From there it’s a short drive to the coast. I travelled with the Spanish tourist board and in the coming days I’ll be blogging about five heritage walks and an experience of shell fishing with a crew from Muros. But before that I want to introduce you to my impressions of an undeveloped region of Spain that keeps its treasures close to its chest…
Impressions from a Galicia Travel Weekend
Galicia is the space between the sky and the ocean. And everything here reaches for one or the other. Fingers of granite claw into the bay. The wildflowers gently stretch to feel the morning breeze on pastel petals. The lighthouses crick their necks to watch out for ships on a winter’s night.
When I stay awhile in Galicia
The sky and the ocean seem bigger here. They demand I stop and think about them. They invite me to walk and connect with them. To feel the grass growing on the soles of my feet. To sink my toes into the white gold and notice how the grains rush away. To blow bubbles in the shallows and see how the light is refracted. They shout their legends of pirates and sailors and request that I respond with my own songs of faraway travel. In Baiona harbour, the place where Columbus’ fleet came to refuel, they invite me to be more adventurous. On a hairpin bend zig zagging to the lighthouse on the ‘Middle Island’ of Cies they ask me to be brave and look down. At Finisterre they beg me to see into myself when I believe I can see nothing except time and the tide. As I speed out past Monte das Figueiras they make me laugh as I bump around on the boat. And when I stand alone at the Romanesque Hermitage of La Lanzada and watch the strength of the waves crashing onto the rocks they inexplicably make me want to cry.
When I look down in Galicia
If I was to soar into the air and fly around the bays like one of more than 44, 000 seagulls at Cies, I’d be looking down on around 1500 kilometres of wiggling winding Galician coastline. Some of it almost flat with dunes and some plunging down almost vertically to the Atlantic. The shape and sheer number of estuaries on the map reminds me of the fjords we squiggled our way around on our bike tour of Western Iceland. And the capes, beaches and settlements dotted around the low estuaries of the Rías Baixas remind me of the west coast of Cumbria, Ireland or Scotland. (There are many Celtic influences here, from the Pre-Roman settlements to the excessive use of bagpipes at Santiago.)
When I breathe in Galicia
When I breathe in Galicia, I breathe in colour. The shades are definitely more like the green of home than the burnt yellow of the meseta we rolled along on our pilgrim ride to Santiago. And there’s a reason for this. “We call Galicia the country of 1000 rivers,” says our guide Sabella Vilariño from Art Natura, explaining that it isn’t just the sea that washes around Galicia. The region is lush with rain, rivers and streams. People have always used water liberally in the Rías Baixas; -a common feature of the landscape is the disused community washing buildings on the islands where the women came to launder the family clothes. Sabella tells me in Santiago they flush the streets with water to clean them. In other parts of Europe in summer that wouldn’t just be unheard of, you might get arrested for it.
When I walk in Galicia
When I walk in Galicia, my footsteps are adding to an ancient collage created in the mud and sand. Pilgrims have walked this way since the 9th century and still do in their millions, especially since the Hollywood film The Way immortalised walking the Camino. The Celts hunted and fished from beachside stone settlements before the Romans arrived. Discoverers ran ashore to bring news of a new world. Children skipped along barely carved out paths to gather corn and vegetables from stone granaries that look like big doll’s houses. And lighthouse keepers walked up a steep hill to work at dusk, to shine a light on the darkling rocks. When I walk in Galicia, my footsteps fall in time with theirs and I wonder about their lives.
When I eat in Galicia
When I eat in Galicia, local families eat alongside me. Late in the day in an airy, noisy restaurant on the isle of Ons, a dish of Pulpo á la Gallega (lightly boiled octopus with paprika and olive oil) is delivered to each table on a traditional wooden plate, and eaten with gusto along with fresh bread, mussels and clams. And when I eat Michelin starred food in Cambados, (home of the famous Albariño wine) celebrity TV chef Yayo Daporta makes art out of the ocean with a dish creating the ‘bottom of the sea’ in miniature. When I eat in Galicia, I taste the air and the waves; pre-dinner liqueurs flavoured with sea salt. Subtle seafood courses punctuated with young wines.
When I rest in Galicia
When I rest in Galicia, (in an impressive Parador fort, a grand manor house hotel and an arty rural hotel; see below for details) fat bobbled lemons fall from trees and vines nurture tiny grapes as the sun drops out of the sky. I imagine people in Roman times thinking the sun at Finisterre would extinguish forever when it fell beyond the horizon. I drift far away from my day as the tide drifts away from the bay and a dog barks somewhere else. When I rest in Galicia all I can feel is my heartbeat and the waves.
When I sail in Galicia
When I sail in Galicia, I hop carefree around the archipelago of car free islands that make up the Islas Atlánticas National Park. (I had hoped to kayak around them but too windy on my visit!) I see the island of San Martiño climb out of the sea like a magician just touched it with his wand. I watch gulls cackle at the cormorant who cannot take flight until he has dried in the sun. When I sail in Galicia from Muros with the shell fishermen to one of the region’s 4,000 mussel farms, I watch families cradle baby mussels in their hands, wrapping them with biodegradable net to place on floating ‘batea’ platforms where they will get plump on the nutrients of the sea.
When I explore in Galicia
When I explore in Galicia pine and the eucalyptus that once enchanted Franco hang in the air like hammocks. I smell the pilgrims before I see them and long to smell the incense from the Cathedral’s botafumeiro that takes seven priests to swing it. With the help of our guide I hunt for secret marks on the gothic walls of San Pedro’s Church in Muros proving that fishermen funded the building. I empathise with streets named after emotions in the arcaded fishing town; hope and suffering and the impossibly tiny alley of loneliness that could hardly fit a second person. When I explore in Galicia I observe Dominican nuns of La Anunciada chatting in the sunshine and well dressed ladies in Santiago listening intently to their guide at a 9th century monastery.
When I stop in Galicia
When I stop in Galicia, at the end of my journey in Finisterre, the tide seems to cease hitting the rocks, and the world goes silent. And there is just me and that ocean and that sky and that space in between. When I stop in Galicia I feel like I might stop forever, not just a weekend, as routine and the real world slip away. How often do you feel like that on holiday? I can’t remember feeling like this for a while.
Galicia Travel: Practical Information
You can fly directly to Galicia from either London Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted. Flights go to either La Coruña, Santiago de Compostela or Vigo. Find more about Galicia travel and getting to Galicia here.
We stayed at Parador de Baiona, a Parador hotel sitting high on a rocky promontory with fabulous views of Baiona, the Isles de Cies and the ria leading into Vigo. And at Pazo do Tambre, a quirky and grand hotel owned by a Portuguese family with gardens that bear an uncanny resemblance to a Monet picture and white horses that trot to meet you on a morning stroll. And at the charmingly restored century-old rural hotel Quinta de San Amaro overlooking vineyards at Meaño.
You can hire our guide Sabella at ArtNatura. Ask around in the resorts for a private boat to take you island hopping or take one of the public ferries that run regularly. In summer you will need to book your ticket to Islas de Cies in advance as only 3000 people are allowed on the islands each day.
Disclosure Note: This post is brought to you as a result of the #InGalicia blog trip, created and managed by Captivate and the Spanish Tourist Board. All contemplation at lighthouses, overindulgence in seafood restaurants and bouncing around on boats pretending to be a Bond girl was my own.