Autonomous Community Spotlight: Galicia

Not one to make travel goals, I did make one when coming to Spain: visit all 17 autonomous communities at least once before going home. While Madrid, Barcelona and Seville are the stars of the tourist dollar show (and my hard-earned euros, let’s not kid around here), I am a champion for Spain’s little-known towns and regions. Having a global view of this country has come through living in Andalucía, working in Galicia and studying in Castilla y León, plus extensive travel throughout Spain.

spain collageOh goody! I get to talk about one of my favorite places in Spain this month!

Ever since my friend literally stood over me as I looked for fares, then forced me to buy a ticket to La Coruña that I couldn’t afford, I’ve swooned over the northwesternmost province of Spain. Galicia is acutely Spanish while not being very Spanish at all, thanks to its Celtic roots. It’s a land ruled by superstition, by an aversion to long spans of rain along the coast, by plump seafood and white wine. Where stone churches and hórreos stand guard. Where language is sung, not spoken. Where rivers and mountains and forests abound. Where I’ve had one serendipitous experience after another.

camino de santiago in galicia

I’ve spent more time in Galicia than I have in the city where I studied abroad, Valladolid. Coruña is like a second home to me after five summers teaching there. 

Name: Galicia, or Galiza in local gallego

Population: 2.7 million

Galicia Collage

Provinces: Four; A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, Pontevedra

When: May 2008, 10th of 17

About Galicia: Galicia is one of those places you’d probably peg as part of Scotland because of its weather and ever-present bagpipes, and the fact that it’s rather isolated – the high-speed trains won’t reach the region until 2017 (or so hey say). I both welcome this and fear it because Galicia is so staunchly suyo, that a boom in tourism may mean losing a little bit of what makes Galicia, Galicia.

mondoñedo galicia camino de santiago

There’s a long version of the story of Galicia, but here’s the short one:

Humans first began inhabiting the northwest corner – mostly north of the Duero River – of the Iberian peninsula in the Middle Paleolithic period slowly and eventually the Iron Age and Castro period. These people were of Celtic origin and called Gallaeci. Eventually becoming part of the Roman Empire and then the Visigoth, these kingdoms have left their mark on Galicia’s history and architecture before eventually falling to the Christian Empire in Northern Spain.

The Middle Ages was a time of  prosperity in Galicia, and even though the region was still under the Crown of León, inhabitants were ruled by seven kings in seven kingdoms that were able to retain their culture and language, though there were bloody conflicts between brotherhoods and kingdoms. Like today, the area was untamed and a bit unruly. Galicia was awarded autonomous status in the 16th Century with the Audencia Nacional, and nowadays, there’s a call for becoming an independent kingdom. Old habits die hard, I guess.

Must-sees: I should really start this section off with must-eats, rather than must-sees. Galicia has a wealth of regional dishes and a thriving tapas culture in its larger cities, so I’d wholeheartedly suggest fasting before heading up there. I’m serious.

typical food in galicia

Let’s start with the seafood. Galicia’s home to 1,500km of coastline, so mussels, crabs, octopus and the much-heralded percebes, or goose barnacles, are prominent on menus. Round up some friends and split a mariscada.

Then there’s the cheese. From smoky San Simón from Lugo and the boob-shaped queso de tetilla, you’re likely to skip dessert (unless you get a slice of Tarta de Santiago, an almond-based cake). Pair it with a crisp but sweet albariño wine which also matches nicely with seafood. Don’t miss Galician-raised beef, pimientos del padrón and collared greens.

Galicia

The majority of the region’s big sites are clustered around the coastal areas, particularly Coruña, Vigo and ancient tourist hotspot, Santiago de Compostela. Inland, the population is more sparse, though there are highlights in natural spaces, sacred areas and larger capitals.

Starting with political capital Santiago de Compostela: the ancient stone streets and cathedral where the remains of Saint James are reputedly buried, many tourists come to Santiago for a taste of Galicia. This UNESCO World Heritage City boasts a number of sites, a train station and an international airport, in addition to being the end of the Pilgrim’s Route to Santiago (though many pilgrims choose to travel to Finisterre). Read my posts about Santiago here.

A Coruña, nicknamed the Crystal City is nearby and sits on the end of a peninsula. Famous for its beaches and galerías (and, uh, the flagship Zara), it’s a bustling city that merits a day. Visit its beaches, the Torre de Hercules lighthouse and Cerro de San Cristóbal for views of the bay. Read more about Coruña here.

islascies3

Vigo is another large city, situated on one of the rías, is famous for its oysters and is the gateway to the Islas Ciès and Portugal to the south. It’s nearby to the much talked about Islas Ciès and its gorgeous beaches.

Inland, Lugo boasts sweeping farmlands and humble hamlets, and the capital retains its medieval city walls, which can be visited. You can also find the Praia As Catedrais – considered one of the most beautiful in Spain – in this province, just a taxi ride away from Ribadeo. Scattered around the region are celtic ruins, great hiking trails and roadside stone churches and cruceiros. Being a near-perfect marriage of sea and land, your time in Galicia should be spent outdoors (so long as the rain holds off!).

My take: My first taste of Galicia was a milanesa from fabled tapas bar La Bombilla in La Coruña.  We ordered enormous croquetas and juicy hunks of tortilla, served to us on plastic plates by seriously rotund women who had probably spent the better part of their lives in that kitchen. Everyone seemed…happy. Maybe it’s because they were eating and drinking, because I was grinning right along with them. Because, Estrella Galicia.

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I actually credit Galicia with opening up my severely limited taste palate to seafood. I swallowed mussels and octopus at an alarming rate that weekend. The rain held off so we could wade into the frigid waters at the Playa del Orzán, and we sipped gigantic and cheap rum and Fantas at dimly lit alternative bars. I vowed to come back, and soon after, I swapped a teaching position in the islands to return to Galicia. It rained all summer. I loved it.

For five continuous summers I risked the rain for three or four weeks in Coruña, and it’s quickly become one of my favorite cities in Spain. So many of my most treasured Spain memories – watching Spain win the World Cup in 2010, staying out all night at the Saint James Feast in Santiago, walking the Camino – have taken place out here.

Doing the Camino de Santiago through Galicia

Seriously – my ideal Spain is a hybrid between vibrant Andalucia (and its weather) and offbeat Galicia. 

Have you ever been to Galicia? What do you like (or not) about it?

Want more Spain? Andalucía | Aragón | Asturias | Islas Baleares | Islas Canarias | Cantabria | Castilla y León | Castilla-La Mancha | Cataluña | Extremadura

Spain Snapshots: The Medieval City of Mondoñedo along the Camino de Santiago del Norte

Leaving Lourenzá at just past 7am, we’d have a two hour hike before reaching Mondoñedo, where we’d agreed to meet Iván, Claude and Sandrine for breakfast. While we’d stop and feed our bodies whenever we felt hunger pains or a bit of weakness, this day was different – we’d need to double our intake of toast and coffee for a three-hour hike straight upwards into Gontán.

Not only was this the day we had to climb a mountain, but also the day we couldn’t lose MC. Hayley and I both cried silent tears to ourselves from pain, from frustration, from just needing to let out what our emotions were trying to say. It was a long day, and a pivotal one during the trek, where I nearly broke the promise I made to myself to walk every goddamned step to Santiago by checking bus schedules.

As we descended the lush valley into the small city of Mondoñedo around 9am, I took a misstep and felt a weird pain creep up my left calf. Remembering my years as a gymnast, it felt like tendonitis. I grasped at it in pain, trying to sooth the sore area by walking on on my heels and pulling out my mobile to check bus times out of the city.

Mondoñedo is one of the original capitals of the Galician kingdom and a city with more than 900 years of history. Its most famous landmark is its cathedral and rectory, known as a catedral arodillada for its squat spires. It was breathtaking and the backdrop for a lively market that morning under a soaring sun.

Climbing straight out of the city, we turned around to glimpse the village as the sun began to burn off the mist that had become synonyous with our mornings along the Camino. Thankfully, leaving Mondoñedo was quicker than savoring the entrance to it.

In the nearly six months it’s been since we reached Santiago on foot, but the quick stop in Mondoñedo has stayed with me, both for the views and the valley, as well as the day I decided to grit my teeth and prove to myself that I could handle an uphill climb, both mentally and psychically. 

Have you been to the Lugo province? 

Spain Snapshots: Playa de las Catedrales, Galicia

After my disappointing jaunt to the ‘Most Beautiful Village in Spain,’ I had even higher expectations for the ‘Most Beautiful Beach in Spain,’ Playa As Catedrais. Arriving to Ribadeo, the first town in Galicia along the Camino de Santiago del Norte, we were exhausted and our muscles needed relaxing – we raced to the pilgrim’s inn on the quay for a bed in the small, cramped place.

Crossing Puente dos Santos, a 600m-long bridge over the Eo River (lo juro), we got a first glimpse of Galicia from the road. The town spilled down a gentle slope towards the Ría and out to the sea, and the pilgrim’s inn was located right on its banks, next to a private beach.

After a splurge on lunch at La Botellería, Iván woke me up from a deep sleep, and we caught a cab with Sandrine and Mikel towards the beach. Iván had called the local government to see when the tide would roll out, allowing us to walk along a pristine beach that spends half the day covered in water.

Walking down a set of aluminum stairs, the flat, horizontal beach stretches out before you. The waters were calm, so we waded out into the surf to rest our aching feet for a while. Being on the Cantabric Sea, the water was freeeeeeezing, but it’s honestly the best thing for your feet after 130km.

Las Catedrales, or As Catedrais in local tongue, is actually called Praia de Aguas Santas, but the soaring rock formations and arches appear to be flying buttresses. When the low tide is in, shallow pools form under the rocks and you can see mussels and goose barnacles growing along the crags. The whimsical rocks have been carved by years of erosion from the wind and salt water, and half of the beach gets covered up in high tide as proof!

If you go: The beach is a 13€ cab ride from Ribadeo’s town center and the albergue. Be sure to check when low tide occurs, as this is when you can see the rock formations from below. There are lifeguards, a full-service restaurant and a souvenir shops located at As Catedrais.

What’s your favorite beach in Spain? Beach season may be over, but visiting in winter means fewer crowds and cheaper food!

Roots&Boots: Santiago de Compostela’s Pilgrim Hostel

The elation of arriving to Santiago de Compostela after 200 miles and 14 nights alternating between pilgrims inns and pensiones was only met with the elation that we’d have a place to rest our heads. We took rounds of photos in the Plaza del Obradoiro, packs over our heads, sunbursts creeping in our shots.

Located just 350 meters (and downhill!) from the magnificent square, Roots&Boots hostel was to become the roof over our heads that night. A cross between a pilgrim’s inn and a hostel, the owners converted a gorgeous four-story casa señorial, or a state house, into a hostel complete with intricate woodwork, creaky floors and a huge outdoor terrace with bean bag chairs.

Admittedly, Hayley and I spent very little time in Roots&Boots because we had a beautiful, compact city to enjoy and a dozen other pilgrims to meet for a goodbye beer.

What I liked

The common areas and bar – For me, a hostel must have comfortable common areas with wi-fi. Since Roots&Boots is in a huge house, the yard is equally as large, with couches, tables and plenty of grass to read or check your email. They’ve also got a bar that serves breakfast for 2€, beers for 1,50€ and enormous bocadillos for 2,50€. The staff even let us use the space after we’d checked out, and we had lockers to store our bags until our late flight out. Roots&Boots also has a huge kitchen with a parrilla in the garden with enough room for many guests to eat comfortably.

The location – Roots&Boots is located adjacent to the beautiful Alameda park and has priviledged views of the cathedral through the alleyways. If you want to be close to the pulse of the city and all of its sites without dealing with the tourists, the hostel can’t be beat, and the prices are on-par with any hostel in the area.

The staff – The three people we came across at the front desk were beyond friendly – they gave us our room early, let us shower the following day after we’d checked out and even gave us leftover shampoo to use.

What didn’t work for me

The hygiene sheets: Alright, I get that the hygiene sheets are the best for combating against bed bugs and smelly pilgrims, but come on! For 15€ or 17€, I think I deserve a clean set of cloth sheets and to have someone put them on the bed for me. What’s more, there were rooms upstairs with real sheets, so what gives?

The lack of bathrooms: When we got to the hostel around 11:30a.m., our room was ready, but I had one order of business: use the facilities. Unfortunately, there was a severe lack of aseos in this hostel. We had to wait to shower, wait to pee, wait to brush our teeth, wait to change. In a hostel that has four floors and four dozen beds, four bathrooms doesn’t cut it.

The specifics

Like any hostel, Roots&Boots offers free wi-fi, lockers, city maps and a fun mix of travelers. There’s also a few computers to use with printers on the second floor. Rates vary by season and type of room, which are bunks of 4, 6, 8 or 10 beds. Expect to pay up to 17,90€ per person per night in the high season for a bed in a shared room.

I used the site Your Spain Hostel to look for and book a room, an excellent resource that focuses on all types of lodging in Spain, from hostels to paradores. Its easy-to-use interface makes searching for a room or bed beyond simple, and the site offers discounts on for groups, as well as vouchers for saving on tours, breakfasts and rentals.

You can find Roots&Boots at Rúa Campo do Cruceiro do Gaio 7, near the Alameda park. Call them at  699 63 15 94 or shoot an email to  info@rootsandboots.es.

My stay was provided by Your Spain Hostel after my long walk on the Camino. But don’t worry – my post is as real as the sore muscles after 200 miles.

Seville Snapshots: Un Poquiño da Coruña

Galicia, the region resting quietly above Portugal, is one of my favorite parts of Spain. Just this week I turned in my final project for my master’s, said adiós to my mom until Christmas and flew up to La Coruña, where I’ve spent the last four summers eating octopus and drinking yummy Estrella Galicia working at a summer camp (for real, I work my culito off!).

Coruña is a mid-sized town on the coast, sitting on a peninsula that stretches between a cresent beach and a bustling port. It’s often called the Crystal City because of the way the sun hits the large windows and the glimmer it leaves on the cool water of the Cantabric. I love its food, its people, its singsong language, and it feels like a second home to me.

After I spend three weeks at camp as the Big Bad Boss Lady (while eating at La Bombilla, drinking crisp Albariño wine and hanging out on the pebbly Orzán beach), I’ll join my friend Hayley in Asturias and walking 200+ miles along the coast and back to Galicia on the Camino de Santiago. I’m doing it for charity, so if you’re keen, read my reasons for walking or follow along on twitter and instagram at #CaminoFTK.

Have you ever been to Galicia? Check out my related posts on Coruña if you’re interested in all things gallego, and consider visiting this little-known region.

Camping on the Islas Ciès of Galicia

Julie and I had set out from Coruña after a two-day search for a tent. I have to admit that I’m much more of a luxury Spanish villa type of girl, but the prospect of camping on what has been called the Most Beautiful Beach in the World had me willing to sleep on the hard ground in the cold on the middle of an island in the Atlantic.

Oh, I’m also a mountain girl, for the record.

When my pulpo-guzzling, beach-loving friend mentioned the Islas Ciès, a small archipelago whose only residents are seagulls, I wasn’t immediately keen. Her father’s house on the port of nearby La Coruna was as close as I needed to get to the water because I am a chicken (tuna?) when it comes to getting my hair wet and swimming in the ocean.

The following week, we were on a ferry from Vigo, Spain to Cangas across the river mouth and onto Playa de Rodas with little more than our swimsuits, a towel and some snacks.

The boat docked in front of a small bar and restaurant 40 minutes later. The archipelago is comprised of three mountainous islands, the two northernmost joined together by a sandy bar and jagged rocks. Playa de Rodas, which the Guardian UK called “The Most Beautiful Beach in the World” the year earlier, was nestled between the two, idyllic and blocked from the harsh atlantic waters on the other side of the islands.

Not three minutes after we’d waded from the boat onto dry land, we’d already stripped off all of our clothes. Out came the towels and reading material, the plastic bottles of tinto de verano and all of my qualms about having gone to the beach in the first place.

We spent the rest of the day exploring smaller, beaches tucked away in small, rocky coves and paths that lead up the crags and to clandestine lighthouses. The crescent of white sand was dotted with colorful umbrellas and beach babies, while the bay was full of small yachts bobbing gently against the tide. The squalls off the Atlantic are broken up over the craggy rocks, meaning we had a day of glittering sunshine and occasional breezes.

My phone rang. The campsite had been calling me all day, but our lack of a tent meant we were going to have to slip in after the sunset and find a bar spot of land in between the packed-in tents and call it a night. While we watched the sun sink down behind the ocean, I hatched a plan.

We walked over to the bar on the island, ordered two beers and a plate of fried squid legs and I asked to speak to the owner. I explained that we had been robbed when we fell asleep on the train, and that our tent has been stolen. He told us there were no physical structures on the island, save the bar/supermarket, the lighthouses and the park warden’s cabin. He promised to try and find a few blankets.

Julie and I huddled together for warmth, splitting the last few sips of wine as we sat on a park bench, the lights from Vigo shimmering on the water. A voice came from behind us.

“Are you the girls who had their tent stolen?”

Turns out, the owner of the bar mentioned to the owners of the camping that we were the delinquents who hadn’t checked into the camping that afternoon. They sent their son to hunt us down. I figured we’d be facing some sort of fine, but the boy whose name but not sculpted biceps has long been forgotten invited us to his tent. Sunburnt and with sore muscles, Biceps had a tent with two rooms and a queen-sized bed for the two of us.

The following morning, we woke up with Biceps, who was off to man the camping himself. We unzipped the screen, letting the light breeze in as our bare feet dangled over the end of the mattress. The rest of our day was filled with hiking, random rendezvous with other sevillanos and a shaky ride back to the mainland, leaving behind the gorgeous stretch of beach.

If you go: The Islas Cies can only be reached by boat from Vigo, Cangas or Baiona. Prices and hours will vary, so confirm online. There’s just one place to stay overnight, the Camping Islas Cies (7,90 adults, 8,50 per tent). Reservations should be made before reaching the island through telephone or the website, and the campsite is open from March 1. There are basic facilities for washing up, a small supermarket and a restaurant, but anything you take onto the island must also be carried off.

This is my entry to the March 2013 Carnival of Europe hosted by DJ Yabis of  Dream Euro Trip with the theme “Beaches.”

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