Galicia (Galician: Galiza) is both an "autonomous community" and a "historical nation" in northwestern Spain. The capital is Santiago de Compostela. Galicia is a coastal region well known for its mild climate and distinct geography, with many peninsulas and rías (fjord-like inlets) giving the region a long coastline and a strong relationship to the sea.
Cities & towns
- 1 Santiago de Compostela is a magificent historic city and UNESCO World Heritage site, with the cathedral as its crown. It's the culmination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, but you don't need to hike here clacking a scallop to appreciate it.
- 2 Tui is a sleepy old town with a fortified cathedral overlooking the bridge across the Miño river to Valença in Portugal. It's an intra-Schengen border with no formalities but adjust your watch if you've crossed.
- 3 Baiona is a resort popular with pilgrims on the Portuguese branch of the Camino de Santiago. On 1 March 1493 this town was the first to hear of Columbus' crossing of the Atlantic, as the Pinta limped into port. There's a replica of the ship.
- 4 Vigo is a mix of old and modern industrial. This is where Laurie Lee first "walked out one midsummer morning" in 1934, to document a pre-war Spain that was rapidly disappearing.
- 5 Pontevedra is the picturesque capital of Pontevedra province and of Rias Baixas region. The city is an internationally recognized model of urbanism for its pedestrianization and quality of life. At the mouth of the ria is the isle of Ons.
- 6 Combarro on the coast just west of Pontevedra has a picturesque old town, and inland are dozens of hórreos: grain stores on stone stilts to keep the rats at bay, characteristic of rural Galicia.
- 7 O Grove is a coastal town with good beaches and seafood. Inland is the heart of the Rias Baixas wine region.
- 8 Muros is a village on the north coast of Ria de Muros e Noia. It has a nice old centre, a bustling port and fresh seafood. Come this way to reach Monte e Lagoa de Louro nature reserve.
- 9 Fisterra is better known by its Castilian Spanish name of Finisterre, "land's end", as in the shipping forecasts. The name applies both to the fishing village and rugged headland, with a restless Atlantic slapping against the boulders. Pilgrims to Santiago often add the 100 km trail to reach here.
- 10 Ourense is a provincial capital, with an old quarter and medieval cathedral. A scenic drive goes down the river canyon to Ribadavia.
- 11 Ribadavia is a quaint old town with a dilapidated castle and a beautiful old centre, with the Plaza Mayor and 1000 year old Jewish quarter.
- 12 Lugo is enclosed by a remarkably intact 2 km Roman wall, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- 13 A Coruña is Galicia's largest city, with the world's oldest functioning Roman lighthouse, the Tower of Hercules. Across the ria north is the port of Ferrol.
- 14 Ribadeo is the easternmost town along the Galician coast, a small resort where the river marks the border with Asturias. It's a good place to take a break while travelling between Ferrol and Oviedo.
- The Rías Baixas (lower rivers) is the collective name for the four deep river valleys flowing into the Atlantic along the Galician west coast, and their surrounding countryside. From south to north these are Ría de Vigo, Ría de Pontevedra, Ría de Arousa and Ría de Muros e Noia. Geographically a "ria" is a river valley that has sunk and become inundated by the sea. (So these rías don't include the River Minho further south, marking the border with Portugal.) The attractive rugged coastline supports fishing and tourism, while inland is the Rías Baixas Denominación de Origen winegrowing region. Its best known product is Albariño white wine, dry & crisp, going well with fish, shellfish and chicken.
- Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park (Parque Nacional de las Islas Atlánticas de Galicia) includes the islands of Cíes in the Ría de Vigo, Ons off Pontevedra, Sálvora off Arousa, and Cortegada just offshore from Carril near Arousa.
- The Rías Altas (upper rivers) are similar valleys flowing out on the northern Bay of Biscay coast. They're smaller and less touristy (though with good surf in parts), but with a series of fishing ports, from A Coruña through Ferrol east to O Barqueiro, Viverio and Ribadeo.
Galicia was one of the central points for Western European Megalithic Culture (8000-2000 BC), and physical remains are still visible today. Nonetheless, Galicians trace their cultural ancestry back to Celtic tribes which began to settle around 1000 BC. Celtic Civilization in Galicia had its heyday between 600 and 25 BC, up to when Galicia fell under the power of the Roman Empire. Still, a weak Romanization meant the consolidation of a hybrid culture, bearing strong Celtic traits.
Galicia is considered "the first country in Europe", following the establishment of the Swabian Kingdom in 411 AD. The Swabian dynasty lasted until 585, when it was replaced by the Visigoth dynasty. With the Muslim occupation of southern Iberia from 711 and the subsequent dismantlement of the Visigoth Empire, Galicia began to consolidate itself as one of the main Christian Kingdoms in Medieval Iberia, namely thanks to the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
Galicia was annexed to Castile (Spain) in 1486; this was the beginning of the so-called "Dark Centuries" (Séculos Escuros). Since then, Galicia has attempted to regain its independence or achieve greater autonomy up to this day. Galicia only lost its formal denomination of "kingdom" in 1833. There was a failed attempt to proclaim a Galician Republic in 1931.
Since 1981, the 'Galician Statute of Autonomy' grants Galicia extended autonomy within the framework of the Spanish State. Galicia has its own national parliament, president and symbols, although it is curtailed from international representation. Many Galicians claim for a greater autonomy or even independence; others are happy with the current arrangements.
Galicians take great pride in their cultural heritage and architecture. You will find plenty of good examples of this by just 'getting lost' in any Galician city, town or village. Santiago de Compostela is a must, but it is also a good idea to wonder off the tourist track, as this is safe, unexpensive and highly rewarding. Furthermore, Galicia is well-known for its splendid landscapes, ranging from spectacular sea views to mountain areas.
Spain is divided into provinces; those within Galicia are A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense and Pontevedra. Attractions within each province are listed under their main city. It is worth travelling some distance to avoid hearing a Galician expound on the distinction between its 137 concellos, 53 comarcas or bisbarras, and innumerable parroquias (parishes) further divided into lugares or settlements.
The local language is Galician, which is sometimes referred to as a dialect of Portuguese influenced by Spanish spelling, and the differences between the spoken languages are often blurry for outsiders. Galician has a somewhat different accent from standard Portuguese and has unique colloquialisms and traces of former cultures, using a number of pre-Indo-European, Celtic and Germanic words not found in standard Portuguese.
Galician (or Galego) is Galicia's own language. Both Galician and Spanish are official in Galicia, as recognized by the Spanish Constitution and the Galician Statute of Autonomy. Galician is understood by the vast majority of the population, and Spanish can be spoken by virtually everyone (although it is heavily influenced by the Galician accent and vocabulary). Travellers should have no problems communicating in Spanish or in standard Portuguese.
After the arrival of the Castilian nobility towards the end of the Middle Ages, Galician disappeared from the public eye and was preserved only privately. It was only in the 19th century that Galician started to be reclaimed in all areas of everyday life. Today, children are taught both Spanish and Galician in school, and the majority of the population speaks Galician normally, although that varies very much depending on the location.
Young people study English at school, so they should have at least some basic knowledge of that language. The odd person may speak some French or even German.
Santiago de Compostela (aka Lavacolla) is the best connected, with budget flights from several European cities including London Stansted STN, Dublin, Frankfurt, Liverpool, Istanbul and Rome.
A Coruña and Vigo have flights by Iberia to Madrid, and by the budget airline Vueling to Barcelona.
Road communications from and to Galicia are quite good, with plenty of motorways connecting Galicia with Spain and Portugal.
There are routes from Portugal and cities in Spain (including overnight sleeper cars to Madrid and Barcelona), with domestic routes in the process of being upgraded to high speed tracks. Service from Vigo to Porto takes just over two hours, while the fastest train to Santiago to Madrid takes about 5½ hours. When high-speed trains are launched, there will be fast connections to and from Madrid and intermediate points. High speed connections to Lisbon and Porto have been discussed but no work has begun. There is a narrow gauge link between Ferrol and Asturias, operated by FEVE.
The closest ferry connection from the UK is from Plymouth to Santander in Cantabria, by Brittany Ferries taking 22 hours twice a week. They also operate the route from Portsmouth to Bilbao further east.
RENFE runs trains in and out of Galicia's major cities and many smaller ones. The RENFE website provides all travel times, and tickets can be purchased online. There may not be many trains each day, but the speed of travel improved in the 2010s. For internal trips in Galicia, the A Coruña-Vigo line (north to south along the Atlantic coast) is the fastest and most efficient. The new high speed link (AVANT) connecting Ourense, Santiago and A Coruña has been partially completed. FEVE's narrow gauge line covers the north coast from Ferrol to the border with Asturias.
There are bus companies that will take you to virtually anywhere in Galicia, and indeed in and out of Galicia. You will have to get yourself acquainted with these at the local bus station (there is one in each city and town), as there is a large number of possible routes and combinations. To the uninitiated, this can be confusing in the beginning.
Renting a car is always a good option. Since it is not that common in Galicia, this keeps the price of renting relatively low. Diesel fuel is cheaper than gasoline, and the few toll roads can be relatively expensive but avoidable if traveling short distances. Roads are generally in good condition, though small mountain towns may have narrow, unmarked roads. Motorway driving might be fast but not vicious. Radar ticketing machines are common along motorways but are signaled in advance. Indications in rural areas may be scarce, and the Galician settlement pattern and method to name places can be confusing. A GPS will help to solve all these problems.
- Entroido - The origins of the Galician Entroido has long been debated. The events date back to pre-Christian times. Some have related the celebration to ceremonies the ancient Romans would perform for the god, Saturn. Today it is strongly Christian. Each year, in February or March, major cities in each region began the festivities. There are similarities and differences in each regions celebrations. People from the different villages surrounding the city come together to eat the freshly cured jamon from the recent matanzas. There is often a procession through the cities. Representatives from each of the area villages will follow each other down the streets, playing a percussion rhythm that identifies their town. Children and adults dress in costume for this event. The kind of costume, and the behavior of the character, varies from region to region. These characters usually dance through the crowd hauntingly, trying to scare the bystanders. The characters include the Cigarróns, Pantallas, Peliqueiros, Xenerais, and Correos. The Xenerais are known for their singing, and often go door to door. The Peliqueiros carry whips and are recognizable for their large and ornate masks, representing different animals such as a cow, donkey, or rooster. You can also expect to find different kinds of performances, including satires of things that had happened over the previous year.
Way of St. James - a pilgrimage (with various routes) to Santiago de Compostela, where it is said that Saint James is buried within the cathedral.
If you like eating, maybe you'll never come back from Galicia. You will find seafood and a wide range of products made from pork-- the whole animal is eaten, even the blood. Galicia is definitely the place to go if you like seafood and fish, since Galicia is by itself a world fishing power (for example, almost half the mussels in the world are 'harvested' in Galicia).
- Marisco The best seafood in Spain is served in Galicia. Don't miss the "centollo", "nécoras," and "percebes". The mussels are superb, and various types of shrimp and prawns can be found at any seafood restaurant or seafood market.
- Almeixas a Mariñeira or Almejas a la Marinera – Clams prepared with wine, olive oil, and "pimentón" (paprika).
- Empanada - a mixture between a pizza and a meatcake. Empanadas have a wide variety of fillings from tuna fish to beef to octopus.
- Polbo á feira – octopus prepared with oil, salt and hot paprika - surely the best octopus you'll ever find.
- Caldo galego is a "poor mans stew" from Galicia. It's not extravagant, but extremely satisfying and useful for combating the cool dampness of the region.
- Bacallau ao alvariño is a fabulous cod dish that is worth trying.
- Pimientos de Padrón are green chili peppers, picked early so that only a few in each batch are spicy; these are eaten sautéed with salt (see drink section)
- Raxo – stewed meat pieces, generally made of pork loin which might have been stewed with onions or red pepper or in cream.
Aside from the typical Spanish three-course menu it's quite usual to take raciones of food. Keep in mind that raciones might be quite big and sometimes they were thought to serve two persons, so you might want a smaller one – these are announced as tapas or media raciones. In many bars in Galicia you will get a small tapa for your drink, too. Thus, bar hopping can also be an alternative for taking a series of small meals.
Galicia also has a lot of good desserts. The various bakeries and pastry shops throughout the region have delicious pastries and cookies. Churros are common throughout the region. While in Santiago de Compostela, look out for a tarta de Santiago, an almond cake with the Galician Cross (also known as the Cross of Santiago) drawn into the icing. Also look out for "filloas," which are similar to crepes and often filled with sugar or custard cream.
The main drink is locally produced wine, often homemade, but Licor Café (coffee liquor) is a main choice for those who want something stronger. Be careful, although Galician people are very friendly, severe ingestions of this liquid could cause a problem. Also try Queimada, a drink traditionally made by mixing aguardiente (a strong liquor made from grapes), coffee beans, lemon rinds, and sugar and then setting it on fire. Usually, the person who makes the drink says a spell in the Galician language that wards away evil spirits.
Estrella Galicia is the local beer. It's not bad for the price, but the real "estrella" (star) is their Special 1906 batch. Try it with a plate of "pimientos de padron" (lightly fried peppers...most of them are mild and very flavorful, but even though all look the same, some are extremely hot! It's like Russian Roulette for your taste buds). Keep your drink handy and partake with a few friends.
The most famous wine in Galicia is Albariño, one of the best, if not the best, white wines in Spain. Also readily available are Ribeiro (white), Godello (white), and mencía (red).
Galicia is in general a safe place to visit. Observe the usual caution in larger towns and cities. Of all larger cities, Lugo, Pontevedra and the capital - Santiago de Compostela - are probably the safest. Having said that, you will be perfectly ok in any Galician city just by using your common sense, and you will probably feel safer than in most Western European cities.
Drug trafficking and drug-related activities and crime are not uncommon. However, this seldom transpires beyond some areas and rarely affects the occasional tourist.
For all emergencies (ambulance, fire brigade and police) dial 112.
Galician people are normally welcoming and like to have the occasional chat with visitors but, paradoxically, they also have a reputation for being reserved people. Indeed, their confidence may be hard to earn in the beginning, but if that is achieved, they will be open and honest with you. Address people politely, even in a formal way if necessary, as this will always cause a first good impression and will open many doors. Also, remember that your word is your reputation (especially in rural areas). Do not promise anything or do not 'give your word' if you are not intending to fulfill it. Spoken agreements may be as binding as written ones for everyday issues to the eyes of a Galician (namely, in rural areas).
Galicians often like to exchange stories, where you may find yourself doing most of the talking. Yet, locals will indeed enjoy that with some amusement. Do not expect to master the Galician conversational code in just a few days. There is an intricate combination of idioms, gestures, and silences, too. The fact that you don’t know it, or that you use a different one, is what Galicians often find interesting in visitors.
If offered a gift of similar, you are not to accept it straight away. A polite refusal is expected. Take it, eventually, if insisted upon; you are not necessarily expected to give anything back. Do not decline invitations for food or drink after a first of second polite refusal, especially in rural areas, as this may be considered rude. If you absolutely do not wish to eat or drink what you are offered state medical reasons (a white lie), as that will indeed be respected by your Galician host. If you produce a gift do not expect something in exchange immediately; the 'favour/gift-trade' in Galicia also has its own code and you may be retributed in time, or if you ever go back.
Do not openly discuss financial issues in public gatherings as a general rule. Try to avoid talking about money or ask about money or finances, unless you are conducting a specific business. Avoid talking about politics even if you think you know Spanish politics. Party and personal loyalties in Galicia work in a completely different way. The issue of Galician and Portuguese being one language should also be avoided unless you know very well the person you are talking to and have some background knowledge. The Galician situation is radically different to the one in the Basque Country or Catalonia for that matter; it is full of grey areas.
Respect local customs and traditions; do not mock superstitions regardless how strange they may seem to you. Galicians may tell you it is all "nonsense", but they still will not like you judging them.