The first thing that probably springs to mind when you hear about Galicia (northern Spain) is the Camino de Santiago or St. James’ Way, one of the world’s most popular and well-trodden pilgrimage routes which terminates in the region’s capital city Santiago de Compostela. Unsurprisingly, the final destination of the pilgrimage is also the heart and soul of Galicia, Spain. But there’s so much more to the region than just the final leg of the St. James’ Way. Santiago de Compostela is a city steeped in history and the old town boasts an endless maze of tiny alleyways and squares with historic buildings, many of which hark back to medieval times. Rua da Raina, for instance, is an area riddled with ancient restaurants and mystic tapas bars and is one of the best spots to savour Galician delicacies and wine. It’s fair to say that Rua da Raina is a bit of a hidden gem, tucked away between two more prominent touristy areas. What I found particularly appealing is that the area is mostly roamed by locals and therefore has a more personal and authentic feel to it. Santiago is no place to traipse around the major sights and then quickly tick them off your list. Instead I found it much more rewarding to take my time and delve into the local culture.
One such way to immerse yourself in the local way of life is by joining local fishermen to find out more about their daily routine. Many fishing villages along the coast offer special day trips so I decided to hop on a trawler and experience first-hand how the fish and squids are first caught, then sold at fish markets and finally prepped in restaurants. Another way to familiarise yourself with the Spanish culture and lifestyle is by attending some of the country’s numerous festivals. Spain is home to an estimated 25,000 public festivals per year (i.e. one every 20 minutes!) many of which have achieved worldwide acclaim. Word is that a country’s festivals are testament to the character and mentality of its people. Well, it’s safe to say the Spanish always find a reason to celebrate, no matter how surreal or far-fetched it may appear. Festivals where locals throw tons of food at each other (tomatoes, eggs, wine, oranges etc.) are plentiful. However, one of the wackiest things I’ve ever seen was a religious procession in a tiny town called Las Nieves in North-western Galicia. I had to do a double-take when I found out it was a pilgrimage for those who have recently escaped death. More specifically, those people who have had near-death experiences due to an accident or disease are carried around town in open coffins. The final destination of the procession is the local church where the ‘coffin testers’ relate how they were able to cheat death! The pilgrimage is then followed by a huge party with fireworks, street music, folk dances and, needless to say, loads to drink and eat! Just make sure you arrive early because people flock to the spectacle in droves and the streets are usually inundated with tourists and locals by 10am.
Culture aside, Galicia is also the perfect haunt for any outdoor addict. The rugged coastline is highly diverse and dotted with tranquil beaches and stunning cliffs, interspersed with hidden bays and inlets which are locally known as rias. My favourites are the islands off the Galician West coast. Some of them are largely uncharted territory on the tourist map and even many Spaniards are still unaware of these picturesque islets which form one of Spain’s most idyllic national parks. Unfortunately, ever since ‘Praia das Rodas’ on Cies Island was voted the world’s most beautiful beach by a British newspaper, hordes of tourists flock to the island and spoil the quaint ambiance shaped by sun-drenched beaches and contrasting pine and eucalyptus woods. By the way, don’t be surprised if you see the odd load of poo fly past you … the islands are home to one of the world’s largest seagull colonies!
I personally much preferred Ons Island which sits just off a fjord-like inlet close to Pontevedra. It’s the only inhabited island out of the Atlantic archipelago and far from any sign of civilization. No cars, no noise and only a handful of people make it a perfect retreat to unwind and escape the hustle and bustle of city life! At some point during my travels I decided I wanted to keep clear of all the well-trodden tourist trails and stayed at the island’s only guesthouse for a couple of days. The island is well-known for its outstanding seafood so don’t miss out on the local empanadas filled with octopus…yummy! If you want to get a bit active there’s plenty of hidden coves near Burato do Inferno that are ideal for swimming and snorkeling. There’s even a nudist beach further up North. However, if you decide to leave behind not only your worries but also your clothes don’t be surprised if people give you strange looks … skinny-dipping isn’t very common in the north of Spain!
Author Bio: Rob Melau
Rob Melau, decided to study tourism management to combine his professional career with his passion for travel. He lived in England and France for a while and is already on the lookout for the next adventure somewhere in Asia or South America. Enjoys writing, sports and any type of outdoor activity.
Have you visited Galicia, or perhaps even trekked the Camino de Santiago? What did you like best? What would you suggest other visitors skip? Share your highlights in the comments section below, and this post too if you liked it!