Traveling Celtic Galicia

Don Harris | April 2015

Many people are unaware of a Celtic region in northwest Spain, north of Portugal. With bagpipes, rias/fjords and rolling green hills dotted with cows, Galicia reminds many people of Ireland. The Gallegos are distinct down-to-earth people. There is some evidence that the Celts of the British Isles were originally from this part of Spain. 

If you are thinking about an off-the-beaten-track trip to Spain, I would like to whet your appetite with this compact itinerary that my wife Ruth and I found very satisfying. We were in the region in March 2011 and were surprised to find many fruit trees in bloom! Any time of year is fine, bearing in mind that August is the month in which all of Europe goes on vacation, and, like Ireland, the off-seasons can be misty and rainy. 

We found that driving along the shoreline of Galicia was a lot of fun, visiting picturesque fishing villages as well as some teeming ports. The villages are reminiscent of ones in northern New England, or northern California and the coastal region of Oregon. (I visited the lighthouses and rescue stations of that beautiful region many years ago as a Coast Guard chaplain). If you choose to turn inland, you will find rolling hills, grazing cows and wild horses. 

The heart of Galicia (and perhaps Spain) is the medieval city of Santiago de Compostela, which has been the pilgrimage destination of the Camino de Santiago for over 1,000 years. When you visit you will meet modern-day pilgrims walking towards Santiago and on to Cabo Fisterra (Finisterra), the "end of the world."

We flew into Santiago de Compostela after changing planes in Madrid – it is an easy connection. We arrived in Santiago at 12:30 PM. That allowed us plenty of time to take a siesta to compensate for the jet lag, and get up for a stroll under the granite arches of this magical city and sample a few tapas.

Over the years we have stayed in several good hotels in Santiago, but without doubt we found our stays at the Parador de los Reyes Católicos to be extraordinary – worth every dime. It is a splendid hotel erected in 1492 by Queen Isabella as a hospital and resting place for pilgrims. It is one of dozens of ancient buildings converted to Parador hotels by the Spanish government. Antique furniture and beautiful art objects from the Middle Ages fill the hallways. In the center are four granite patios of the medieval hospital which are dedicated to the four evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It is an unforgettable experience, and the service is very friendly and attentive. An alternative is the Hotel San Francisco. It was originally a seminary devoted to the training of young men to be Franciscan missionaries, but has been completely renovated, including an indoor swimming pool overlooking the green hills.

After breakfast the next day, we returned to the awesome Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. It has the solid earthy feel of an ancient Romanesque church with its sturdy barrel-vaults and arches. Always populated with grateful pilgrims, I think you would feel its grandeur even if you know nothing about ancient architecture. Above the high altar is a bust of Santiago (Saint James) who seems to be surveying the faithful visitors. We always climb the narrow stairs behind the bust and join the many pilgrims who quietly embrace the representation of Santiago as countless people have done over the centuries. His remains reside in a crypt below.

As you stroll through the granite arcades of the town, you will encounter pilgrims from all over the globe, as well as young medical school students and music majors from the University of Santiago – it is a delightful mix of people. 

The concierge at the Parador recommended that we try having dinner at Don Quixote Restaurant, right down the hill from the hotel. Despite its name, it is not a tourist restaurant, but rather one the local people enthusiastically support. We found their seafood and fish artfully and simply cooked. To get there from the Parador, continue walking down the hill and turn right. Soon you will find the restaurant. We feasted on amazingly fresh seafood – my favorite dish is steamed berberechos – tiny cockle clams.

The next day was devoted to visiting the fishing villages by driving south toward the shoreline and the many rias or fjords which feed into the Atlantic Ocean. It is a rich habitat for the famous local seafood. We found Aguiño: a picturesque fishing village with beautiful beaches. The fishermen there specialize in catching pulpo (octopus) the local delicacy.

As you drive along the shoreline, you will come upon the bustling fishing port of Muros. It has a history linked with fishing, shellfish gathering and factories to salt sardines and mackerel. 

In the Middle Ages, Muros was one of the Galicia’s most important ports, and had a large fishing fleet. This splendor may still be felt as you walk through its narrow, winding streets. The tapas bar district near the port is the picturesque focal point of the city, with the neighboring areas of the Peixería Vella (old fish market square) full of life, particularly in the morning and evening, after the fish auction held on the quayside.

Further along the coast, Cabo Fisterra is the final destination for many pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, after they have visited the shrine of the apostle James in the cathedral. It is about a 56 mile walk from Santiago. The origin of pilgrims walking to Finisterre possibly dates from medieval times, when "hospitals" were established to serve the pilgrims walking along the route. A curious and relatively new tradition is for pilgrims to burn their clothes when they arrive in Fisterra.

As we drove toward A Coruña, we enjoyed the beautiful shoreline view as you continue to El Ferrol. On the way, we stopped at the town of Betanzos. It is a medieval walled town that preserves three of its original four gates. Then we drove to El Ferrol and stayed at the Parador El Ferrol, built in an old mansion by the sea. 

After exploring the two medieval castles - Castillo de San Felipe and Castillo de la Palma in El Ferrol - we continued into the interior of Galícia to the medieval town of Lugo, a world heritage site encircled by almost two miles of completely intact Roman walls and battlements built in the 3rd century AD. The dairy farms near Lugo contribute to the production of tetilla, a mild cow’s milk cheese, somewhat similar to Edam from Holland. Lugo is also the home of the bakery which provides the delicious Galician bread we import. 

We drove an hour further to Montfort de Lemos, which was a fortified Celtic town, famous for its swords, then a Roman settlement followed by a Visigoth settlement until it was destroyed by the Moors in the 8th century. We stayed at the imposing Parador Monforte de Lemos, which was the 12th century monastery of San Vicente do Pino.

The next day we headed for Baiona, where the caravel La Pinta (one of Columbus’s fleet) tied up on March 1, 1493. The crew was the first to bring news about the New World. You can visit a replica of La Pinta moored in the harbor. The celebration of this amazing discovery is the most festive of many annual ferias in this fortified medieval city. The location of the sumptuous Parador, midway between a medieval fortress and a manor house, is protected by a pine forest and a splendid bay into which the Rias Baixas empties. We lingered there for quite a while enjoying glasses of Albariño, the famous Galician wine from the region.

The next day we stopped by the busy port of Vigo before driving up the coast to Pontevedra, traditionally believed to be founded by a survivor of the Trojan War. The Roman Bridge which spans the Léres River has stood intact for over two thousand years. The city reached its commercial height in the 15th century. Christopher Columbus’s ship Santa María was originally named "Galego," because it was built in Pontevedra. We enjoyed taking our time exploring one of the largest medieval towns in Spain before heading north toward Santiago where we would to catch our flight back to the United States. 

We decided to stay at the active fishing port of Cambados, where our highest quality seafood is prepared in tins for export. Some of the finest gourmet seafood such as berberechos (cockles), sardinas and pulpo (octopus) are tinned there. Cambados is the capital of Albariño, the world-famous white wine. 

We discovered Pazo a Capitana, a restored 15th century estate not far from the center of the town, surrounded by vineyards, and with extensive gardens. We stayed in one of the tasteful bedrooms, which was decorated according to traditional Gallego style. Out in the plaza were extensive gardens with fruit trees and an antique bodega. It was a quiet almost Parador-like place with an antique bodega. It is one our favorites in all of Spain.

On our way to the airport we made a side trip to Padrón – home of the small green peppers: Pimientos de Padrón. I am sure some of you have tried them either in Spain or via La Tienda. They are sautéed in olive oil and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. Most taste sweet and mild, but a few are very hot and spicy – and there’s no way to tell which one is which.

According to tradition, Padrón is the site which received the relics of Saint James. As legend would have it, soon after his martyrdom in Jerusalem, Saint James’s disciples placed his remains in a stone boat that sailed across the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula. They finally tied up the craft on a padrón (Spanish word for “big stone”). If you would like to visit the stone "padrón," it still can be seen today at the Iglesia de Santiago Apóstol de Padrón. There is also the Iglesia de Santa María Mayor de Iria Flavia. It is a curious building with a small graveyard packed with gravestones encrusted with lichen.

At any rate, from Cambados to the airport is a little over an hour drive - and we were whisked away from a magical part of Spain, where we had enjoyed cordial down-to-earth people living in a land that in many ways remains untouched over the centuries.

Su amigo,