“Para noble nacimiento hay en España tres partes, Galicia, Vizcaya, Asturias, o ya montañas se llamen.”
“To noble birth ensure three parts of Spain over all, Galicia, Biscay, and Asture, the highlands them we call.” – Lope de Vega
From my limited knowledge of Spain, the country seems to be divisible into three general geographical regions: the South, including Andalucía, Caceres, Murcia and Valencia; the center/northeast with Madrid, Toledo, Barcelona; and the northwest with the Basque country, Asturias and Galicia. Since I had already visited the south (Granada), as well as the northeast (Barcelona), I really wanted to venture to the northwest (specifically the province of Galicia, directly north of Portugal), which I heard was much more like Ireland (green and rainy), than the rest of Spain.
For a long weekend at the beginning of December, I thus decided to go to Santiago de Compostela, within Galicia. The city is best known as being the end of the famous Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), the religious pilgrimage from the south of France through the North of Spain. It’s official end is at the shrine of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where St James was supposedly buried in the ninth century.
Galicia is also interesting in that it has its own local language, Gallego, which is basically a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese. Because of this, many of the buildings, signs, roads, etc. are labelled in both Spanish and Gallego (or just Gallego), which can be a little confusing but interesting at the same time.
Ben and I primarily wanted to go to Santiago to explore the province of Galicia itself, and foray through its rugged terrain.
Being in the farthest northwestern corner of the country, there are not a lot of convenient travel options to get up to Galicia. Since the bus ride was an unforgiving eight hours, I decided to try my luck with www.blablacar.com, a Spanish rideshare website. I actually used another website previously, www.amovens.com, to snag a ride up to Barcelona, which worked out perfectly.
Blablacar is pretty easy and convenient to use. You simply plug in your desired destination and day of departure, and it shows you a list of drivers going there that day. Many of them even have reviews and information about their car (i.e. how big your luggage can be). I learned that the drive to Santiago was roughly five hours, and the prices were about the same as the cost of the bus ride.
Ben and I met our driver Victor, in the northwestern part of Madrid, Moncloa, close to the A6 freeway which goes to Galicia. I was surprised to see Victor had a new BMW M3, so I figured we would probably haul ass. After short introductions, we threw our bags in the trunk and packed in for the trip.
While Victor seemed like a decent driver overall, he was an interesting character and seemed to rant about unrelated subjects in heavily accented Spanish.
The trip was mostly uneventful, at least when I wasn’t clinging on for dear life and cringing at the frightening speeds we were reaching (I looked once and saw we were going 175 kph, and decided not to check again). As we neared Galicia, we became enveloped in a thick fog that combined with the night sky made it hard to see anything around us, so it kind of felt like we were flying through the clouds, and when we were dropped off in Santiago, I felt like I could have been anywhere.
We walked to our hostel which turned out to be more like an inn, than a hostel. Situated in the historic old town, Casa Felisa was a restaurant and tavern on the ground floor, and a hostel/hotel on the upper floors. It definitely added to the old feel that I got when walking through the old city on our way there.
After depositing our stuff, we decided to grab some dinner. Since Galicia is well known for its seafood, I wanted to try Pulpo á feira (which literally translates to “Fair-style Octopus”), which was recommended to me by some of my Spanish co-workers.
Pulpo á feira is boiled octopus, with paprika, salt and olive oil. Many restaurants in Santiago are actually “pulperias”, or restaurants specializing in ‘pulpo’ (octopus). We found a small pulperia near our hotel and decided to try it out.
Although it is a very simple dish, I was blown away by the soft and tender octopus and the bite that the combination of salt and paprika gave the dish. I have had octopus before, but never in such large, rich chunks. It was easily my favorite dish that I have had yet in Spain, and I vowed to eat it again before leaving Galicia (although I can find it in Madrid, it is not as fresh and high quality as in Galicia). Interestingly, many restaurants including this one also served their wine in large, stone bowls, keeping with the traditional vibe of the city.
After the delicious meal, we strolled around the city a bit before heading back to our hotel.
The next day, we decided to sign up for a tour of Galicia. I really wanted to see the landscape around Galicia, and rather than paying for a rental car we booked a tour. The tour included several locations through Galicia along the Costa da Morte, or ‘Coast of Death’ because of the large number of shipwrecks along its rocky coast.
After a small breakfast of coffee and tarta de Santiago, a local sweet almond cake, we were picked up by our tour company. We were then deposited onto our tour bus, and set off for our first destination.
One thing I really liked about the tour was that the guide talked via loudspeaker about the attractions while we were on the bus, and then let us wander around the actual sites unbothered. Although his explanations were only in Spanish, I found his accent easy to understand so I could tune in to what he was saying when I wanted, and zone out when I wasn’t interested.
Our first stop was a small medieval village called Ponte Maceira, a site along the Camino de Santiago known for its old stone bridge. Built in the thirteenth century, the stone bridge was very pretty and definitely added to the medieval feel of the village. I was blown away by the lush, green vegetation and really felt like I was in Ireland, not in Spain.
After strolling around the village and exploring an old mill on the river we set off to our next destination.
Our next stop was a viewpoint overlooking one of the biggest beaches in Galicia, although the cloudy weather made the view a little less interesting than it would be normally.
We next stopped by the Cascada del Ézaro (Ezaro waterfall). It was a short walk out to the waterfall where I had fun scrambling over rocks to get the best picture.
Our last stop before lunch was Finisterre, literally ‘The End of the World’. Finisterre is also the last stop of another religious pilgrimage that starts in Santiago de Compostela. Although it is not actually the farthest western point in Spain as it claims, it is the more easily accessible than the actual westernmost point slightly further north. I could see why it was the end of a religious pilgrimage, as the rugged, primal landscape with sun rays piercing the clouds really felt raw and powerful.
There were a few goats sunning on the rocks below us, also enjoying the rugged beauty.
After Finisterre, we stopped for lunch on the way to our next destination. Since lunch was included in the price of the tour, I was expecting something mediocre. However, when we stopped at a cute, old restaurant, I was intrigued.
To start off we had our choice of water, wine, or beer to drink, which they were refilling in copious amounts along with seafood paella and bread. The paella was loaded with squid, shrimps, and other seafood and was much tastier than I was expecting. At this point, I was starving and didn’t actually realize we were having a multi-course meal so I let out a sort of muted cry when they took our giant pan of paella away.
However, a waitress came around and took orders for a main course, and I simply poured another glass of wine and waited. The main course was a great filet of some white fish, with potatoes and vegetables. Although not the most exotic of dishes, it was also delicious and very rich.
Finally, they brought our dessert, some sort of tiramisu-like cake, that was light and fluffy. Altogether, we were eating very slowly for about two hours, talking and drinking wine in the quaint restaurant. I like the Spanish method of tourism, see some sights and then dine and relax for a while before doing anything else. But all good things must come to an end, so we eventually set off for our last stops.
Our next stop was a church called the Santuario da Virxe da Barca outside the small town of Muxía. Built mostly of stone, the church almost appeared to be a natural extension of the rocky landscape. Walking on the hills above the church, I ran into an interesting sculpture which I learned later is a memorial for an oil spill in 2002 from the Prestige oil tanker. The oil spill is actually the worst environmental disaster in Spanish history and severely harmed the fishing industry, the most important source of economic revenue in the area. That being said, the area seems to have at least somewhat recovered, from my limited observations.
Our last stop was at a large, ancient granary used to store corn in front of an old monastery. We pulled in front of a decrepit looking monastery that resembled more of a crack house than a religious structure, with clothing and random objects strewn through the overgrown yard. We meandered around the strange monastery for a few minutes, before taking pictures of the also unimpressive granary and shuffling back to the bus.
All in all, it was a great way to see the countryside of Galicia. In my opinion, Galicia is easily the most beautiful part of Spain I have visited. I am definitely glad I splurged for the tour to see the countryside, as it is not easy to explore outside the cities without a car.
The next day we decided to simply explore Santiago. After a western breakfast of scrambled eggs with mushrooms, we headed to the Cathedral, the main sight of Santiago (basically the only sight). Unfortunately, the front of the cathedral was under heavy construction, so the façade was marred by scaffolding and metal barriers.
However, entering the cathedral was free, to my surprise. Although it appeared massive from the outside, it did not feel so large once inside as it is shaped like a cross, rather than one massive hall (i.e. St. Peter’s Basilica). There was a large model of the nativity scene which we saw before walking down the main hall. The main hall was very interesting, as it’s mostly stone construction makes it feel somewhat austere until you see the giant gilded sculpture on the altar. I was very impressed by the large organ pipes, and wished I could have played the machine powering those behemoths. We strolled around the cathedral for a little longer, before leaving.
The old city of Santiago definitely felt very medieval with its thin winding streets and uniform stonework as far as the eye can see. It was also a little dismal and depressing with the grey, cloudy weather hovering over the grey, stone streets but still was interesting to explore. Because it started raining fairly heavily, we headed back early to rest in our hostel until the evening.
As it was our last evening in Santiago, I decided to eat pulpo á feira one last time. We finally settled on a restaurant where I ordered the Galician standard, while Ben ordered spinach croquettes. The pulpo was very delicious and tender again, although not quite as good as the dish I ordered on the first night.
After the meal, we walked around for a little bit before getting a few glasses of wine, and heading back to our hostel.
The next day, we met our outgoing Blablacar driver Fon near the cathedral, before heading back to Madrid.
Overall, the trip to Galicia was great to see the countryside and the different culture, and sights that Northern Spain has to offer. Although the most popular places to visit are in Southern Spain, I think Northern Spain is very beautiful, and its history and culture are fascinating as well. I hope to return to see the province of Asturias, as well as the neighboring Basque country, but might splurge for a rental car if that is the case.
Still, now I feel like I have already checked off the main places I want to see in Spain, although I’m always ready for more!