Jutting defiantly into the Atlantic on the north-western corner of Spain, Galicia is a far cry from the country’s typical costas. On a misty morning among the green hills and valleys, beside one of the characteristic granite roadside crosses, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d strayed into Ireland. Yet this is where you’ll find some of Spain’s sandiest beaches, freshest seafood and most attractive small cities. An early autumn visit offers the advantage of uncrowded beaches while temperatures, particularly south of Santiago, are still reasonable. There’s also the chance to enjoy the spectacle of the changing colours within the wooded interior.
The event which put Galicia on the map was the discovery, in the 9th century, of what were claimed to be the bones of the martyred Christian saint, James (Santiago). The cathedral which was built on his burial site became the goal of a great pilgrimage and the centre of one of Spain’s most beautiful and most-visited cities, Santiago de Compostela. Much less known, outside Spain, is the small inland city of Lugo – which has the most complete set of Roman walls in the world – and Galicia’s authentic “hidden gem”, Pontevedra, whose remarkably preserved historic centre is blessedly closed to traffic.
Three major ports attest to Galicia’s close relationship with the sea. In the south is Vigo and in the north are La Coruña and the naval base of El Ferrol. The 1,500km coastline is indented by a series of rías (coastal inlets), which carve fjord-like into the land to create sandy beaches, while their shallow waters provide a harvest of shellfish. The Rías Baixas (lower rías) are found in the southern part of the west-facing coast, above Portugal. The sea here is warmer and the climate milder than in the Rías Altas (high rías), which stretch along the north-facing coast. Between the two, lie the rugged cliffs, isolated fishing villages and treacherous waters of the Costa da Morte – the Coast of Death. Particularly wild and dramatic is the cape of Fisterra, “the end of the land” as it was named by the Roman occupiers, who thought, mistakenly, that this was the westernmost point in Europe.
The mournful sound of bagpipes, which are regularly played outside Santiago’s cathedral, conjures up the Celtic origins of the Galician people. Romans and Visigoths also occupied the region, as they did the rest of Spain, but the hugely influential Moors never managed to conquer Galicia.
Throughout its history, Galicia has been among Spain’s poorest regions, reliant on small-scale subsistence farming and fishing. The climate is mainly temperate, except in Ourense province, where extremes of temperature are more typical of central Spain. Rainfall, particularly during winter in the northern provinces of La Coruña and Lugo, is legendary: a philologist from Santiago university has discovered 100 local words to describe different kinds of rain.
Galicia is not a package-holiday destination, but is well worth a break at any time of the year. During the summer holidays the Rías Baixas, in particular, are crowded with Spanish holidaymakers who make a beeline for the island of El Grove and the surrounding beaches.
Aim for Santiago, La Coruña or Vigo, which have international airports and are well-connected with the rest of the region by motorway. Corona Holidays (0800 567 7688; coronaholidays.co.uk) offers a three-night break at the NH Obradoiro in central Santiago from £297 per person, including flights from Gatwick.
Best foot forward
Europe’s most celebrated pilgrimage, el Camino de Santiago, above, takes in a scenic stretch of Galicia en route to Santiago. New from Headwater Holidays (0845 154 5475; headwater.com) is a 12-night independent walking holiday that starts at León. Following the Way of St James costs from £1,208pp including B&B and most evening meals, luggage transport, flights from Heathrow and transfers.
Less well known is the “English route” to Santiago, named after the British pilgrims who arrived by ship at La Coruña or El Ferrol. Start from the latter to gain the prized “compostela”, the certificate for pilgrims who have covered more than 100km. The walk is divided into five stages. Details are available on santiago-compostela.net.
Galicia’s six natural parks encompass the wide variety of its landscapes, including the eastern mountains where bears and wolves are still at large. The most accessible is Las Fragas del Eume (00 34 981 432 528; eumeturismo.org), a huge ancient Atlantic forest, alongside the canyon of the River Eume.
Landmarks old and new
Santiago de Compostela’s cathedral is not to be missed. The roof-top tour gives unequalled city views (00 34 902 557 812; catedraldesantiago.es; €12).
Perched atop Mount Gaiás, in a landscaped park on the outskirts of the city, is an equally compelling piece of architecture, the Cidade da Cultura. Only four of the six buildings have been completed but it’s worth visiting to appreciate their swirling lines, colourful layers and clever references to the old town buildings (00 34 881 997 565; cidadedacultura.org; free).
Pontevedra’s Old Town has a fine museum, located in adjoining 18th-century buildings. The collection includes Roman gold pieces, jet-stone jewellery and a reproduction of a traditional kitchen (00 34 986 85 1455; museo.depo.es).
La Coruña’s iconic piece of architecture is the Tower of Hercules lighthouse. Originally Roman, it still warns ships away from the treacherous coast (00 34 981 223 730; €3).
The Domus Museum of Mankind (00 34 981 189 840; casaciencias.org; €2) is family friendly and a good rainy-day option.
Good food, fine wine
The town of Padrón is famed for the small green peppers which make the tastiest of tapas. Further south, the fishing port of Cambados is seen as the capital of Albariño, Galicia’s delicate and fragrant white wine. You can taste some during a cellar visit to the 17th-century baronial palace of Fefiñanes (00 34 986 542 204; fefinanes.com; €4).
The real glory of Galician cuisine comes from the sea. Try pulpo (octopus) with olive oil and paprika; sardines; or the weird and costly percebes (goose barnacles).
Galicia’s coastline, an intriguing mix of the wild and the gentle, shelters a number of wonderful beaches. On the north coast is Praia das Catedrais (Cathedral Beach), where low tide reveals the sculpted cliffs that inspired the name.
Best for families are the beaches on or around the Rías Baixas: Sanxenxo has the most blue-flag beaches in the region, while La Lanzada on the narrow neck of land linking the mainland with the island of Grove is regularly voted Spain’s best beach.
Most likely to be uncrowded are the lovely beaches on the Cíes Islands (ferries from Vigo €16 return; 00 34 986 225 272; mardeons.com). On the northern shore of the Ría de Arousa, the wetlands of Corrubedo are well worth seeing, not just for the abundant waterfowl (among them spoonbill and sandpipers) and the otters, but also for the extraordinary “moving dune, ” a slowly shifting mass of sand 20m high and 1km in length.
For surfing, make for the Atlantic waves that pummel Doniños, where you’ll find the Surf Camp (00 34 605 182 537; thecamp.es; a week’s B&B from €378
Where to stay
Paradors are a good high-end option, particularly in historic Santiago and Pontevedra. The Parador de Santiago, above (00 34 981 582 200; www.parador.es), next to the cathedral, is a monument in itself that was built in the 16th century as a hospital for pilgrims. B&B from €180.
Also convenient for the cathedral is the Hospedería San Martín de Pinario (00 34 981 560 282; hsanmartinpinario.com), with doubles – but no frills, as befits a former monastery – from €66, B&B.
In La Coruña, the five-star Hesperia Finisterre (00 34 913 984 661; hesperia.com) is poised between the ocean and the old town, with a 50m outdoor pool. Doubles from €140, with breakfast.
In the countryside south of Santiago, Pazo de Galegos (00 34 981 512 217; pazo degalegos.com) is set in a vineyard which produces Albariño and the rich red wine, Mencía. Doubles from €75, B&B.
Getting there and getting around
The writer visited Galicia courtesy of the Galician Tourist Board (turgalicia.es) and Vueling Airlines (0906 754 7541; vueling.com), which offers daily flights from Heathow to La Coruña. Flights to Santiago are operated by Ryanair from Stansted (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick.
A toll motorway, the AP9, slices diagonally across Galicia, linking El Ferrol in the north with Vigo in the south-west, taking in La Coruña, Santiago and Pontevedra on its 219km journey, before continuing to Portugal.
The national railway service (renfe.com) links Santiago and La Coruña, but bus is the best local transport. The company Monbus (00 34 902 104 444; www.monbus.es) runs regular services linking all the major towns and cities; a ticket from La Coruña to Vigo, for example, costs €13.
The Spanish Tourist Office (020-7317 2011; spain.info).