After taking the half-crazy decision to study Spanish ab-initio last year, this summer saw me journeying to the land of Cervantes as an au-pair to put months of endless grammar work into practice. Unlike previous fleeting school trips to Barcelona and Cantabria, this time I was heading to the North-western region of Galicia for a whole month, with a heady mix of trepidation and excitement at the prospect of a hopefully fiesta-filled July, trying to converse en castellano of course, but also, quite importantly, eating tapas. Being an Irish girl, I had a good feeling about Galicia, Spain’s Celtic region as I boarded my plane to the airport in Vigo, the region’s capital. Thankfully, this only developed into a deep affection for Galicia and a full on obsession with all things Spanish, from the churros y chocolate eaten by the Playa America with my host family, to weekends spent with friends on avid ‘tapas-crawls’ or dancing to questionable Spanish music at the annual Fiesta de Santiago de Compostela.
Pilgrimages, Celtic traditions and rain. It’s fair to say that prior to this summer, I knew next to nothing about the Spanish region of Galicia. Granted, the North-West of the Iberian Peninsula is often overlooked by tourists, considering its supposedly inclement climate more akin to the British Isles and far inferior to the sprawling olive groves of Andalusia or Gaudi’s Barcelona. But that’s their loss, I say; whilst Galicia may supposedly be the rough diamond of the Spanish pack, come summer it’s a hidden gem, with award-winning beaches, unrivalled seafood and plenty to do besides. Rising up from a coastline of sandy white shores into a swathe of forests and hills, I like to think of it as a tropical Ireland; it’s certainly got green fields and Celtic history in abundance, but is also on the border with Portugal – the regional language, el gallego, being closely related to Portuguese – and is decidedly Mediterranean in its culture and food. On any given day in Galicia, for instance, you could easily find yourself eating in a traditional bar de tapas, all while listening to the very Scottish sound of a Galician bagpiper or gaitero busking in the street.
So let’s begin with the essentials: accommodation, travel and weather. I was lucky enough to stay with a local host family during my time in north-western Spain this summer, but the general consensus regarding Galicia is that it’s pleasantly cheaper than the rest of Spain. Forgetting, of course, the regal 5-star Parador hotels in Santiago de Compostela or Baiona, there are plenty of reasonable options around. The main tourist destination in Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, is particularly well-equipped for the thousands of pilgrims who complete the ‘Camino de Santiago’ there every year, with fun and stylish youth hostels or guesthouses like ‘Montes Boutique Guesthouse’ and ‘Roots and Boots’ on offer. If, however, you’d prefer to escape the bustle of the city for Galicia’s coastline, you can also camp on the stunning Islas Cíes (more to come on this later), waking up in the National Park in either your own or the island’s very sturdy eco-tents, which are available to hire.
Transport and Weather:
Where transport’s concerned, getting to Galicia is also easy, with many budget airlines flying to Vigo and Santiago de Compostela’s airports, and if you don’t drive, both train and bus connections are cheap and generally reliable when it comes to getting around during your stay (though do be prepared for some Spanish laxity when it comes to provincial bus timetables). Weather-wise, Galicia is perhaps as unpredictable as St Andrews. In autumn, temperatures are generally fairly mild, but, as many locals warned me, stretches of unrelenting drizzle are hardly uncommon. That said, come summer it can get pretty hot for the region’s fiesta period, when seemingly everyone at some point will take a long weekend to attend open markets and dance the night away to live bands, be it in their local pueblecito or at the famous Fiesta del Apóstol in Santiago de Compostela on the 25th of July, also Galicia’s national day.
Despite being in Galicia for a month this summer, I still didn’t get round to seeing everything that this deceivingly large region has to offer. My first and subsequently most frequent excursion was to Baiona, a chic port-town south of Vigo, which is very popular with Spanish summer holidayers fleeing the extreme heat of the south. Most weeks, my fellow au-pair friend and I would do the 2 hour round walk from our local town to Baiona, stopping off at one of its many excellent beaches – La Playa America being the largest and busiest – or treating ourselves to a little bit of artisan helado from the local family-run ‘Heladeria Gamela’. Beaches and ice-cream aside, Baiona also has boasts a fair bit of history; in 1493, Christopher Columbus arrived in the town’s port with news that he had just crossed the Atlantic in his Pinta, which you can still see in replica form today. The town’s Monterreal Fort is also well worth a visit, taking the 3km walk around its walls for unbeatable sea-views, as are the cobbled streets of the old town, where you’ll find many a cute shop or traditional tapas bar (just follow the locals here for the best one).
From Baiona’s port, you can then buy your boat ticket to the increasingly talked-about Islas Cíes. After a leisurely one hour journey – accompanied by cheesy Spanish dance music blasted through the speaker system, of course – you’ll be able to explore one of the three beautiful islands, now with National Park status in Spain and only accessible in summer. The Guardian recently rated the main Islas Cíes beach as the best in the world, and it’s easy to see why. After completing one of the island’s many hiking trails, it’s good to know that you can collapse for a little while on the Caribbean-esque white sand before catching your boat home. Little tip though: slather on the suncream. The Galician breeze is deceptive, and you can all too easily turn into a roasted scallop by the end of the day as I did!
Other places of note are the towns of Pontevedra and Ourense, the latter being famed for its natural thermal baths. Lugo, Galicia’s notoriously gourmet town, is also a popular destination. You can easily spend a day here wandering around its Roman walls (now a UNESCO world heritage site) and doing a spot of tapas-crawling in the Rúa Nova and Rúa de Cruz area, where you’ll generally always get a free morcel of tasty tapas with every drink. Bodegón El Museo is a bustling, rustic bar in Lugo, for example, where you can try the regional speciality, pulpo or octopus – don’t knock it till you’ve tried it! – along with a very generously poured glass of Galician wine.
Galicia’s main cities, meanwhile, A Coruña and Vigo, are a bit less charming. A Coruña, the home of Zara, does have excellent shopping though, as well as the world’s oldest working lighthouse, the Torre de Hércules, which you can climb for around 2 euros. Vigo is still a rather industrial port city, with nevertheless an excellent eating scene, being the world’s largest exporter of mejillones, mussels. But neither of the two will ever match up to the architecturally beautiful Santiago de Compostela, where you can wander for hours, checking out the famous cathedral and university and just enjoying the ever jubilant atmosphere with an almond-y slice of tarta de Santiago or a cup of chocolate caliente.
And there you have it: Galicia. Cheap, intriguing, hospitable and yummy. I think I’ll raise una caña of Estrella Galicia to that!
Images sourced from Pinterest
First published in Owl Eyes, November 2014