The complete guide to Galicia

The north-western tip of Spain is back on the holiday map. In a month from now its beaches will have been restored to their former beauty and opened in time for the swimming season. You'll enjoy its ancient cities and pretty coastal paths, says Mick Webb


WHERE IS IT?

WHERE IS IT?

Think Portugal and up a bit. Or Ireland and down a lot, which isn't quite as daft as it sounds: Galicia, on the far western end of Spain's northern coastline, is very much part of Europe's Celtic fringe. Mists, mystical religion and a rugged coastline reveal its connections with Brittany, Scotland, Wales and Ireland; you may well see red-haired people and hear the sound of the bagpipes. If you spend much time here you will almost certainly get rained on, because the rain that is supposed to fall mainly on the Spanish plain, actually deposits itself in hilly Galicia.

OUT ON A LIMB, THEN?

Yes and no. Galicia may be at the end of the line geographically, but it's very much part of "Green Spain", the temperate and hilly band that runs along the northern edge coast and includes Asturias and the Basque Country. Its western resorts, such as O Grove and A Toxa, are popular destinations for Spaniards escaping the baking heat of summer further south on the peninsula. The rest of Spain also prizes the produce of the region: shellfish harvested in the Rias, the unique fjord-like inlets that indent the Galician coastline; the wines of Ribeiro and Albariño, and the sweet green peppers of Padron.

The region can lay claim to two of the country's most contrasting historical figures: the national sinner, General Franco, who hailed from the grim naval port of El Ferrol (re-named El Ferrol del Caudillo, "of the Leader" during his lifetime); and the national saint, Saint James, Santiago in Spanish, who is commemorated in the city of Santiago de Compostela, at the end of a long walk across the top of Spain made by countless pilgrims.

Galicia has never been an industrial or cultural powerhouse; besides the pilgrimage industry, its economy has revolved around fishing or small-scale farming. Yet the independent-minded Gallegos have made their mark in various ways. In recent years, the successful football teams from Vigo and A Coruña have had a great impact on this football-mad country.

HOW DO YOU GET THERE?

The quickest way is to fly direct to Santiago de Compostela on the daily service from London Heathrow on Iberia (0845 601 2854, www.iberia.com). The no-frills option is provided by twice-daily flights from Stansted to Bilbao with easyJet (0870 600 0000, www.easyJet.com), but it's followed by a long and difficult journey along the northern coast - at least seven hours' drive to Santiago. Possibly misinformed, but persistent, rumours suggest that Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) is soon to launch flights from London Stansted to Vigo in the south of Galicia. This would open up the region dramatically, but it is probably not a good idea to buy a holiday home in Galicia on hearsay.

Portsmouth is linked with Bilbao by P&O Ferries (0870 24 24 999, www.poferries.com), while Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360, www.brittanyferries.co.uk) sails between Plymouth and Santander. You can also book accommodation through Brittany Ferries Holidays.

Other tour operators worth contacting include Mundi Color Holidays (020-7828 6021; www.mundicolor.co.uk) which offer hotels in the small villages of Galicia, and Casas Cantabricas (01223 328721; www.casas.co.uk) which has properties to rent in Galicia's rural areas. For example Mundi Color offers the Pazo O'Rial, a 17th-century manor house close to the beach near Villa Garcia de Arousa. Seven nights in August costs from £285 per person sharing and includes return flights from Heathrow to Santiago and accommodation on a B&B basis. Casas Cantabricas has cottages and small houses mostly on the coast, and prices start from £250 per week mid season (from 9 June to 13 July and 25 August to 14 September) and £350 per week high season (14 July to 24 August). Or if you have five weeks free to make the journey along the Camino de Santiago, why not walk? (see box).

HOW DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU GET THERE?

Pilgrims certainly know that they're in Galicia when they arrive at, or rather stagger over, the high, windswept pass of Piedrafita, which marks the border with the neighbouring region of Castilla-Leon. And us mere mortals will be struck by the greenness of the countryside, by the ancient roadside crosses and the curious granaries called horreos, raised above the ground on stone supports to keep the rats and the damp from the crops.

If you're in a very rural area you might still see an old lady dressed in black leading her single cow to a fresh patch of pasture. She'll be carrying an umbrella, because it will either be raining or about to rain.

WHAT DO THEY SPEAK?

Almost all the local people speak Castillian (Castellano), which we know as Spanish. But as well as the national language, a large number (3 million) also speak the regional language, Galician (Gallego). Speaking Gallego was banned under the dictatorship of local anti-hero Franco, as were Basque and Catalan. But since Galicia became an autonomous region, the language has made a comeback. Road signs bear names in both Castillian and Galician - a softer-sounding language than Castillian, sharing a lot in common with Portuguese. Spanish speakers will have little trouble reading it or picking up a few words; luckily, like other Spaniards, the Galicians are both very welcoming and tolerant of linguistically challenged tourists, though they have a reputation for being more reserved than their voluble compatriots.

WHAT ABOUT THAT OIL SPILL - ARE THE BEACHES RUINED?

Last November's spill that followed the sinking of the oil tanker Prestige damaged Galicia's coastal ecosystem and its fishing economy. The Spanish and regional governments, castigated at the time for their slow response, have announced that all the affected beaches of the Rias Altas will be clean and ready for the start of the swimming season on 1 July. Experts, though, have warned of a possible "lasaña" effect - the likelihood that a residue of crude oil remains beneath the top layer of clean sand.

WHAT'S THE BEST HOLIDAY BASE?

Galicia boasts a number of interesting, contrasting and underrated small cities. If you're interested in seeing the northern coast and the Rias Altas, your best bet is A Coruña, which has plenty to do whether it's sunny or raining, in a great seaside setting. Enjoy the elegant architecture of the tall townhouses with their glassed-in balconies as protection against the Atlantic gales.

There are also Romanesque churches, an excellent modern anthropological museum called the Domus. Aficionados of the beautiful game should visit the compact Riazor Stadium, splendidly sited beside the Atlantic at the end of the town beach. It is the home of Deportivo la Coruña who have over a few years, risen from football obscurity to become one of Europe's finest football teams.

A Coruña has strong British connections: pilgrims used to disembark here in "Corunna" to take the camino ingles "the English route" (the easy way) to Santiago.

Just east of the Old City is El Jardin de San Carlos, with a memorial to Sir John Moore, who was buried after his heroic rearguard action against the French forces in the Peninsular War. His death is commemorated in a poem by Galicia's favourite poet, Rosalia de Castro as well as in Charles Wolfe's famous lines "Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, as his corpse to the ramparts we hurried".

For the southern part of Galicia and access to the Rias Bajas, possible bases are Vigo, Pontevedra and Santiago. Vigo is the largest city in Galicia and the second-largest fishing port in the world after Tokyo. It's exciting and noisy, with a fading architectural charm that dates from its heyday as a great steamship port of the 19th century. In contrast, Pontevedra is a much more relaxed place in a fine location at the end of a ria. Its lovely old town has some fine squares and attractive churches.

The capitals of Galicia's two inland provinces are Ourense and Lugo. The latter is certainly worth a visit, if only to walk on the marvellously preserved Roman walls which almost completely surround the very pleasant old centre, which in common with the other Galician cities is not short on good bars and restaurants.

The best base, though, for a real exploration of Galicia is undoubtedly Santiago de Compostela. It's well-connected by road and rail with the rest of Galicia and well-positioned for trips out to the beaches of the Rias Altas on the north coast, the Rias Bajas to the west, as well as the mountains of the interior.

Santiago is also a fabulous place in its own right with one of the best squares in Europe - la Plaza del Obradoiro - and a lively student population and accompanying nightlife which balances the religious heritage.

COULD I TAKE A CITY BREAK THERE?

Definitely. Because of its international airport, Santiago is the best bet for a short visit. Before you book, bear in mind that Santiago once had a tourist slogan "donde la lluvia es arte" - where rain is, is art - so pack an umbrella instead of the sun-cream. But that aside, you could spend an entire weekend exploring the architecture of the Praza do Obradoiro alone.

The western façade of the cathedral, with its twin grey towers, is the focal point: granite, baroque but not overly ornate. Also impressive are the Palacio de Xelmirez, originally a pilgrims' hotel and now the luxurious Parador de los Reyes Catolicos; and the attractive neo-classical Town Hall, opposite the cathedral.

One of the streets running off the square is Rua del Franco (which by the way means street of The Frank not General Franco). It is bursting with seafood restaurants and bars, and there are plenty of cheaper establishments around the university.

Magic of Spain (08700 270 400; www.magictravelgroup.co.uk) offers a basic price of £295 per person for flights and car hire. For each night at the Parador de Santiago de Compostela expect to pay around £70 per person on a bed and breakfast basis.

ANY SHORTER WALKS?

Apart from the obvious Camino de Santiago, there are some wild walks through beautiful landscapes along trails that are waymarked, sometimes erratically. One of the wildest of them loops around the spectacular coastal mountain, O Pindo, starting from the tiny village of the same name, and gives unrivalled views over the Costa da Morte (the Coast of Death), which has seen the end of many a ship in the vicious winter storms. A longer two-day trek, the Spindrift walk, links the Costa da Morte's two northern rias. It takes you right along this desolate, rolling coastline, starting at the village of Laxe and ending in Camariñas.

Inland and on the border between Galicia and Castilla-Leon, the isolated mountain ranges of Ancares and Caurel provide deep valleys mixed forests and walks that give a glimpse into Galicia's rural past, though they are not easy to get to using public transport.

The Wayfarers (01697 371744; www.thewayfarers.com) offers an eight-night adventure walking from Burgos in the south of Galicia and finishing in Santiago de Compostela. The itinerary includes Leon, Portomarin. The trip costs £1,850 per person including all accommodation (per person sharing a twin room), all meals and transport and baggage transfers. The next walk takes place on 4 October. The price excludes flights.

Waymark (01753 516477; www.waymarkholidays.com) offers a similar itinerary starting in Villafranca and heading west across the hills of Galicia. The 14-night expedition travels through the mountains to Cebreiro, on to Sarria and on to picturesque Portomarin. The trip ends with two nights in Santiago. This costs £685, based on two people sharing and includes flights from Heathrow, accommodation on a bed and breakfast basis, transfers and baggage transfers.

Walks Worldwide (01524 262255; www.walksworldwide.com) offers an eight-day trip starting in Leon and finishing in Santiago. The price of £990 per person sharing includes accommodation on a full-board basis, baggage transfers, a guide and entrance fees. The price excludes flights. The next departure is on 14 June. Alternatively, the company offers eight-day unescorted itineraries starting from around £490 per person.

INTERESTING WILDLIFE?

In the eastern mountains there's a great array of spring flowers. Among the bird population you may spot eagle owls, goshawks and, if you're very lucky, the urogallo, or capercaillie. Wolves and pine martens are to be found occasionally in the Galician woodlands, along with more common species such as wild boar and deer, while the more remote coastlines are a haven for sea-birds, including guillemot, the crested cormorant and many kinds of gull.

WHEN'S THE BEST TIME TO GO?

The winters are wet and, on the higher ground, harsh as well. The weather in the southern and south-eastern areas is more Mediterranean and generally drier. May to October is the best time to visit, particularly if you're going walking. There are some festivals which are worth bearing in mind, particularly the Rapas das Bestas, which are held in July in various parts of Galicia. They involve the rounding-up of wild horses, which are then branded and have their manes cut. All to the accompaniment of rodeo-style antics, picnics and much partying. One date cannot be disregarded: 25 July, which is the feast day of Santiago, and is royally celebrated in his city.

Pilgrims' progress to Santiago

A 738km walk with food as a reward at the end

In the 9th century, a hermit led by a star reportedly came upon the tomb of James the Apostle, whose name in Spanish is Santiago. When news of the discovery spread around the Christian world, it created a pilgrimage destination to rival Rome and Jerusalem, and a city and cathedral of appropriate splendour.

Three paths from France - from Paris, Vezelay and Le Puy - converge to form the main backbone of the route at St Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees. The mountain range dividing France from Spain is crossed at the pass of Roncesvalles.

From here the hike to Santiago de Compostela is Europe's best walk. It's 738km long and takes about five weeks to cross the mountains of Aragon and the plains of Castille before arriving in hilly Galicia. Some tour operators offer shorter trips, lasting as little as a week.

If you prefer to go it alone, accommodation is readily available en route. Collect an official Credencial (pilgrims' credential) in Roncesvalles and have it stamped daily at the official refuges, you will be rewarded in Santiago with a Compostela certificate and three days' meals at the government-owned Parador de los Reyes Catolicos - though these are served in a canteen round the back rather than in the luxurious restaurant of this opulent establishment.

You do not need to walk. Many of the thousands who follow the route each year go on bicycles or even by motorbike or car - which of course is cheating but allows you to enjoy splendid countryside and Romanesque architecture in comfort.

For further information contact the Spanish Tourist Board on 020-7486 8077 or see www.tourspain.es.

What's On The Galician Menu?

Seafood is the local speciality

Top of the culinary bill are the local shellfish: they include vieiras (the scallops whose shells became the symbol of St James and the pilgrimage), centollas (spider-crabs), cigallas (crayfish), mejillones (mussels), angullas (eels from the Miño river) and the prince of shellfish, the percebe (goose barnacle). It combines a horrible phallic exterior with a flavour to match a lobster. The spectacularly high price reflects the danger of collecting them from wave-battered Atlantic reefs. Do try them, if only once.

The most popular single dish is probably pulpo (octopus) served in restaurants or bars called pulperias. It's boiled and sprinkled with olive oil and paprika, and must be washed down with a taza (a charming white porcelain drinking-vessel) of the earthy local white wine, ribeiro.

A hearty tasty snack, which is also served in top restaurants, is the empanada (meaning pie or pasty). It is usually filled with tuna. As a relief from seafood, cabrito (roast kid goat) provides a succulent dish.

Among the vegetarian options, pisto manchego, a kind of vegetable stew, is worth trying, as are the famous peppers from Padron - small green and usually sweet, though every now and again there's a hot one.

Last but not least, the striking breast-shaped cheeses (quesos de tetilla) are excellent, either in their smoked or natural forms.

Useful phrases

Quisiera un paraguas - I'd like an umbrella

Para ir a Santiago? - Which way's Santiago?

Como se llama este lugar? - What's this place called?

Cuanto cuestan los percebes? - How much are the percebes?

Como se dice en castellano/ingles? - How do you say it in Spanish/English?

Somos peregrinos/turistas - We're pilgrims/tourists

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