Friday, 4 March 2011

Galicia (Spain). Part 1: from blue flags to green pastures

Galicia, Spain, blue flags, green pastures, canyons, gorges: cañón del Sil, Sil canyon
The canyon of the river Sil
As most of you already know, I'm Spanish. But that doesn't mean that I'm from the land of paella. I grew up in Northwest Spain, in Galicia, an unspoilt region hidden in the top left corner of the Iberian Peninsula, just above Portugal. In fact, I grew up not far away from the border with Portugal, in a seaside town called Vigo.

Galicia is a land proud of its culture, language, food, wine and Celtic heritage and an area of huge diversity. From the Atlantic Ocean coast, dotted with blue flag sandy beaches, to ancient rolling mountains with stunning views of blue bays and green valleys. From quirky villages to granite-clad cities and from deep river canyons to spa towns with thermal waters. This is Green Spain at its best.

On the road

Galicia is perfect for a road trip, try driving from Vigo to Verín taking as many detours as you wish to admire the views and sample the local fare. The motorway itself has fabulous views but it's worth getting off it and checking out Ourense, taking a river cruise through the canyon of the river Sil and, seen as you're there already, why not make a night of it and stay at an old monastery turned four star parador nestled (and I don't use the word lightly) in a mountain and surrounded by trees?

On arrival to the Parador de Santo de Estevo, previously an immense Benedictine monastery, I recommend an afternoon coffee (they'll probably bring you some bica with it, it's a delicious sponge cake typical of this area, think of it as "sweet tapas"). The Parador has an enormous breakfast buffet and a beautiful restaurant serving exquisite dinners, we stayed a couple of nights and had dinner there both evenings. Don't forget to bring a swimming costume for the beautiful spa and make sure you try the outdoor hot tub. The next day you could go on to Verín, famous for its carnival, medieval castle, mineral springs (make sure you stop at Cabreiroá to drink some straight from the spring, it's naturally slightly fizzy and it's delicious) and, despite not being anywhere near the sea, their perfectly cooked octopus.

Galicia, Spain: from blue flags to green pastures. Galician food: bica. Traditional cake.
Coffee and bica at Parador de Santo Estevo
From Vigo, you could also choose to drive south following the Atlantic Ocean down to the Val Miñor and its famous microclimate (whatever the weather in neighbouring Vigo, you can rest assured once you get to this beautiful valley the weather will be even better). Then on to Baiona to visit the replica of one of Christopher Columbus' renowned caravels, La Pinta, which arrived with the news of the discovery of the Americas on March 1st 1493 (yes, us Galicians were the first to find out). After a walk round Baiona's charming streets and a visit to its Parador, keep driving south along the coast to watch the waves kiss the shore (on a stormy day the waves are gigantic and, rather than kissing, they fight the rocks for space with impressive results). The locals say that if you point your finger right out to the Ocean here you will be pointing to New York!

Galicia, Spain: from blue flags to green pastures. Parador Santo Estevo, Ourense.
Parador Santo Estevo's courtyard

After driving a few more miles down the coast with the ocean on your right and the mountains rising on your left. You will arrive to A Guarda, where you can visit archaeological treasures in the Celtic village of Santa Tecla before crossing south of the Miño River to Portugal, this is one of the most beautiful natural borders you will ever see. Once in Portugal there is plenty to see but don't forget to turn the car round again and drive in a northerly direction from Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, with its world-famous cathedral and grey stone streets bordered by ancient arcades and shrouded in the mystery of the superstitious Galician fog.
Galicia, Spain: from blue flags to green pastures. Val Miñor seen from O Cortelliño. El Val Miñor desde el Cortelliño.
Val Miñor seen from O Cortelliño.

Whether you drive north or south, east or west, you will have to park the car and travel by sea to visit one of Galicia's best kept secrets, Islas Cíes, an island paradise just a short boat ride away from either the harbour of Vigo or of Baiona. Whether you get there on the bus-boat or on a rented yacht, it's not to be missed, so much so that their main beach headed The Guardian's list of top 10 beaches of the world in 2007. But beware, this haven is zealously protected and, as the nature reserve that it is, access tends to be limited to Easter week and the summer months.

Galicia, Spain: from blue flags to green pastures. Sunset over the Cies Islands, Atlantic Ocean. Puesta del sol, Islas Cíes, Playa de Patos.
Islas Cíes seen from Praia de Patos
There is a lot more to see and do in Galicia, this is just a tiny sample. One thing is clear, whether you want a beach holiday, a cultural break, an urban escape, a rural retreat or a luxurious spa, you will most definitely find it here.

Make sure you read Galicia (Spain). Part 2: Food and drink for the gourmet traveller
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