Galicia: The Spain Chaos Forgot
While there´s nothing quite like discovering another 14th century cathedral nestled amongst the narrow, winding streets of a tiny village, if you spend long enough in Spain you´ll likely find that you´ve got tapas coming out of your ears, wine through your pores and that all of these little villages start blurring into one.
This is the time to discover another side of Spain. A side that will make you pause and ask: “Hang on, where am I again?”. That is until you walk into another tapas bar because, let´s be honest, they´re something that you´ll never escape in this beautiful green country. Green?! Let´s go to Galicia…
Galicia, Spain´s most north-western “autonomous community”, boasts vineyards, rural guest houses, village festivals, bush walks, country charm and, of course, regional tapas. This is the place to escape the hordes that descend on Spain´s main centres and enjoy a more simple, natural and contemplative part of the country.
Esposende, Ourense Province
On a flying visit, it was late in the evening when we pulled up to our 15th century rural house in Esposende – more a collection of houses than a village in Galicia´s southern Ribeiro region, within the Ourense Province. Despite the hour, we were greeted with warmth, enthusiasm and a bottle of local white wine, already opened, but which we were instructed to finish in the central patio of the house. Done.
Arriving somewhere new in the evening is always interesting as the morning view will inevitably be a surprise. When I opened the wooden shutters of my room in Casa dos Ulloa the vineyards, an old lady peering out the window of an old country house and the larger, neighbouring town of Ribadavia were spread out below, with country sounds of birds, farm dogs and morning fireworks celebrating a nearby village festival. It was green, varied and alive.
A simple but traditional breakfast of toasted fresh bread, olive oil, pastries, syrup-like coffee and fresh orange juice was served with the same view, in an intricately decorated dining room. We were one of only two groups in the house. This is certainly not a tourist hub.
Grapes have been grown in the Ribeiro region since the Roman times, and by the 9th century wine was being exported around Europe. This is one of the most historical and notable wine growing regions in Europe, currently producing some of the best wines in Spain, so it was only natural that a stay here should commence with a wine tour right after breakfast, at the small ecological vineyard neighbouring my rural retreat.
Operating out of another 15th century building, Adegas Aurea is currently one of only two ecological wineries in the Ribeiro region. This is a small business, run by the same family for generations, with Magdalena, our tour guide, taking care of the daily operations until external help arrives to assist with the grape picking in September. Being a small vineyard, the tour is in-depth and we were shown all the steps, pipes, barrels, thermometers and even the bottling machine in rooms kept cool by the heavy, ancient stone walls. Magdalena enjoyed the wine tasting with us on a balcony overlooking the valley. One red and three white wines are produced from 4.5ha of grapes, mainly varities I´ve never heard of – mencía, sousón, albarinño, loureira and Treixadura – a grape particular to the Galician region. The result is different, refreshing. If I had room in my backpack I would have bought a bottle.
Ribadavia, Ourense Province
While certainly not the most picturesque of Spanish towns, Ribadavia, just down the road from Esposende, has attracted people since the time of the Celtics due to the beauty of the region and richness of the land. Why bother visiting though? For a start, it´s different. The Avia river, joining Ribadavia with neighbouring villages, makes for a lovely walking or running route, and there´s something to be said for strolling through a town´s historic area and coming across an 11th century Jewish church. For a New Zealander, so unused to such history, it´s a tough job to comprehend that those same stones have been in place for so long.
Lunch in the Plaza Mayor – the main town square – turned into a three-hour affair, and with good reason. With no other tourists around, the square was quiet, as locals also enjoyed long, slow lunches. The Spanish are good at taking their time with their food and drink, enjoying long conversations after their meals and never (actually never) feeling pressure from a waiter to consume more or leave. The temperature was creeping into the mid-30s (better than the 39 degrees a few days earlier, we were constantly reminded), leaving few alternative options in a town far from the beach. And, with the 10€ menú del día (menu of the day), we were given a bottle of red wine, bread, three abundant courses, and coffee. It took a while for the sautéed mushroom and ham, baked fish and traditional custard (natillas) to digest in that heat.
In the neighbouring village of Melón a clearly-marked bush walk will have you climbing alongside a river dotted with waterfalls and swimming holes. From afar, the bush appears sparse, but at times I felt like I was home in New Zealand, surrounded by dense trees, ferns and even gorse! Just 45 minutes one way, plus time for a dip in the refreshing water, this would have been a great place for a slow picnic. Clearly a popular spot with locals, people were sprawled out on the large, flat rocks like the lizards you see so frequently in these hotter months.
Vigo Beach, Pontevedra Province
Looking out to the Atlantic Ocean, Galicia´s western coast doesn´t provide the warm waters of the Mediterranean but, all the same, the beaches get jam-packed as locals and tourists alike escape the rising summer temperatures. Vigo beach, just an hour from Esposende, is a long, white-sand beach, backed by green hills, and one of the most well-known and popular of the region. The water was clean (a point to note – subsequent posts to come!), the views of the surrounding rugged coastline and islands were pretty, and the beach-front restaurants offered good food and awesome views to accompany a jug of sangría. Galicia is known for its seafood, and there is plenty on offer in the coastal towns.
The “proper” thing to do in Vigo is to catch a ferry to the Cies Islands – just off Vigo beach. Although we (perhaps foolishly) didn´t make it to these islands it looks like they´re well worth the effort. Industrial Vigo city itself seemed quite missable.
Santiago de Compostela, La Coruña Province
In our tight schedule there was only room for one evening in the World Heritage city of Santiago de Compostela, although no doubt it deserved much more. This beautiful city is the destination point for the thousands of pilgrims who walk all, or part, of the Camino de Santiago, which has paths reaching out in various directions throughout Spain. The city was almost a shock after our previous days in the countryside – bustling with university students, waiters loitering in front of bars, live street bands and trekkers bearing blisters.
But, like any popular tourist destination, this is a hot spot for a reason – an electric atmosphere, attractive countryside and dozens of impressive, historic buildings of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture. The ornate granite cathedral is particularly impressive with a very detailed façade. Each block boasts numerous tapas bars and the prices are noticeably higher. A beer or wine usually comes accompanied by a house tapa – as in, you get what you are given. Pigs ears. With paprika. I ate them. Not all of them, but I gave them a go! The parts without a lot of cartilage were actually ok…
Galicia is a region that deserves exploring given its diverse beauty. There are few areas in the world where you can move so seamlessly from bush to beach, hills to valleys, to beautiful towns, fantastic food and ancient ruins. It is different, varied and beautiful. Yes, it´s still Spain, but it´s another side of a country whose reputation of bull-fighting, sangria and flamenco can often hide it´s other treasures.
Things to note:
- We stayed three nights in Esposende and found this to be a comfortable base to move around the region, without having to change hotels every night. However, any small town would probably serve this purpose.
- Esposende is a 5-6-hour drive from Madrid.
- A rental car is a must to be able to fully explore this region.
- Local festivals usually take place in June-July, with 25 July being the main festival of Santiago de Compostela.
- There are rural houses, many of them historic buildings, dotted all over the places. These provide a very different experience to a traditional hotel and are worth looking for. I used booking.com.
- Towns, accommodation and points of touristic interest are generally well marked. Get local information and tips from your hotel.
- Main highways/motorways linking cities are of good quality although many have tolls. Local roads are windy but beautiful and very manageable.
Posted on 27/07/2013, in Spain and tagged Atlantic Ocean, Avia, Esposende, Galicia, Ourense Province, Ribadavia, Ribeiro, rural house, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, vigo, wine. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.