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

Visiting Spain’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Spain is home to a whopping 44 UNESCO World Heritage sites, including historical, cultural and archealogical gems, third in number of sites only to Italy and China. Without knowing it, I ended up in eight of those 44 in 2013, plus the Old Cities of Dubrovnik (Croatia) and Kotor (Montenegro), and my Christmas trip meant revisiting the Old Towns of Salzburg and Vienna and checking out Schönnbrun Palace (Austria), taking a boat trip down the Wachau Valley and visiting the Abbey of Melk (Austria), and walking around the Buda Castle area (Hungary). Of 981 around the world, it’s a very small sliver of them.

It all started with Nina, a Croatian from Split who hosted me while Couchsurfing in Zadar, Croatia, whose dream was to work for UNESCO. While I’m no Gary Arndt, who is on a mission to visit all 981 of them, I’m always delighted to discover that I’m visiting another. As a history lover interested in culture and language, I’ve tried to work the sites into my trips. Given Spain’s political and historical landscape over the last two millennia, it’s no surprise that it boasts nearly four dozen sites, with many more in contention (this also makes visiting them quite easy!):

February: Historic Center of Córdoba (1984)

If you’ve taken high school Spanish, chances are you learned early on about the horseshoe spires of the Córdoba Mosque (in my case, it was plastered on the inside cover of my Paso a Paso 1 book). As a center for learning and once the largest Moorish city in Europe, Córdoba’s former glory is evident in the collection of buildings in its historic center, along with the countless contributions to science, medicine and art that the cordobeses made under Moorish rule. The area is easily walkable.

At less than an hour by bullet train, Córdoba makes an excellent day trip from Seville, and while you’re there, be sure to try its gastronomical claim to fame, too: salmorejo and flamenquínes.

Read more: The Little Sister of Seville

April: University and Historic Precinct of Alcalá de Henares

Again, if you’ve taken high school Spanish, you’ll be familiar with the goofy character of Don Quijote, an aging Spanish knight who goes on a quest to defend the plains of Castilla from the bad guys (which are windmills, by the way) and win the love of the maiden Dulcinea. Written by Miguel de Cervantes over 400 years ago, this story remains one of Spain’s best-known and timeless pieces of literature.

Cervantes was born and raised in the city of Alcalá de Henares, near Madrid. This city was planned as a university city by Cardenal Cisneros, who would later become infamous during the Spanish Inquisition rather than for creating a model for future universities and their town-gown relations.

My sister-in-law, Nathàlia, lived and studied in Alcalá before moving to Dublin with her husband (and the Novio’s younger brother), and she invited me out for a day. We toured Cervantes’s boyhood home, learned the history of the university through a guided tour and even got to see a dying breed in Spain: free tapas with your drink.

Read more: The Historical Sites of Alcalá de Henares

June: Doñana Park (1994)

As one of Spain’s few biological sites, Doñana National Parks is one of the largest in Europe and touted for its diversity of biotopes and animal life. Located along the banks of the Guadalquivir and extending all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, it’s also believed to be the site of Atlantis.

Read more: A Horse Lover’s Guide to Andalucía

July: Torre de Hércules (2009), the monuments of the Kingdom of Asturias and the Camino de Santiago (1993)

The Torre de Hércules is the city symbol of La Coruña and the world’s longest functioning lighthouse. Built in the 1st century in Greco-Roman style, it’s one of Spain’s latest additions to the list. The lighthouse can be visited and climbed for 3€, though you can admire it from afar, too.

After spending the month in Coruña, Claudia hosted me in Oviedo. Back when the Moors took over all of Spain, the Virgin Mary appeared to Don Pelayo in Covadonga and ordered him to conquer Spain. He became the first king of the Reino de España in the earl 8th Century, and asturianos retain that their small patch of land, surrounded by the Picos de Europa, is the only real Spain that exists. The Pre-Romanesque churches make up part of the city’s heritage, built in the 9th century above the city. Entrance is free, but be prepared to take the bus out of town.

One of my best memories from the year was walking the Camino de Santiago with my friend Hayley. We did 14 days and 325km on the century-old pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of Saint James are said to rest. I had been to the city half a dozen times, but arriving on foot after so many steps made the Plaza del Obradoiro more special. I only walked 40 kilometers on the French Route, but the tentative list of World Heritage sites include the Northern and Primitive routes. 

Read more: Sunset at the Torre de Hércules, the Pre-Romanesque Churches of Oviedo or What the Camino de Santiago Taught Me

August: La Lonja de la Seda of Valencia (1996), the Old Town of Santiago de Compostela (1985)

After reaching the Plaza del Obradioro in Santiago de Compostela, Hayley and I had just one idea: celebrate with a glass of wine in the city’s famed parador. In the two days we spent in Galicia’s crown jewel, we did little else but wander through the city’s lichen-stained limestone buildings and toast to an incredible journey. Must-sees include the gargantuan cathedral and resting spot of Saint James (you can also hug him behind the altar), the square in front of its facade, the sprawling Alameda park and the numerous bars along Rúa do Vilar.

Later that month while attending the tomato-slinging mess that is La Tomatina, Kelly and I visited the Lonja de la Seda, a tribute to Valencia’s history as a merchant port on the Mediterranean. Erected in the 15th century, the building’s great halls and chapels now provide a glimpse into the trade life through its Renaissance decoration and Gothic architecture. 

Read more: La Lonja de la Seda or the Serendipity of Traveling in Galicia

My hometown pride: the Cathedral, Alcázar and Archivo de Indias of Seville (1987)

La Hispalense is not without its own UNESCO World Heritage site: thanks to Seville’s role in the discovery and exploration of the New World and its enormous Gothic cathedral, these buildings and the Alcázar gardens form the historical complex at the heart of the city (and every touristic plan). Moorish influences on the buildings are testament to the city’s long and varied history, and the buildings are all still used today: the Archivo de Indias houses important documentation pertaining to the New World discovery, the Cathedral is the seat of the Archdiocese of Seville, and the palace plays host to the Royal Family when they comes down South.

This, of course, has not been without controversy. UNESCO considered stripping the honor from Seville when the city went ahead with plans to build the Torre Pellí, which became the tallest building in the city after the Giralda owned it for a millennium.

Read more: Spain Life: Reales Alcázares

How many of Spain’s 44 sites have you visited, and which are your favorites? I’m hoping to make it to Baeza and Úbeda and Teide this year, with a repeat in Cáceres and Mérida.

Eating Coruña: The City’s Best Restaurants

Galician food makes my heart flutter – the piping hot pimientos del padrón, raxo smothered in roquefort sauce, fresh-caught shellfish displayed  in every window of every bar on every street.

There are two reasons I spend my summers in Coruña, crossing my fingers that there will be little rain: one is because it’s way cooler, and the other because the food is incredible.

Even though I spend the majority of time eating in the camp cafeteria, the other teachers and I get the chance to actually go out and get some good food in our bellies. Before I tell you where, you need a primer in typical coruñés fare:

polbo a la feira – boiled octopus served over boiled potatoes with olive oil and paprika

navajas – razor clams that are pan seared and often served with lemon

pimientos del padrón – flash-fried green peppers. As the saying goes, some are spicy, others are not

empanada gallega – a pasty, most often stuffed with tuna or ground beef with peppers and onions

percebes – goose barnacles. I didn’t like them on my first run and now love them!

raxo – marinated pork loin, typically served with potatoes

zorza – spicy ground pork, treated with paprika and marinated in other spices

queso tetilla con membrillo – creamy ‘tit cheese’ served with a quince paste for dessert.

La Bombilla

Javi picked us up from the airport high above Coruña’s city center and promised us a surprise. We elbowed our way up to the counter, toasted to new friendships and chose tapas of off the short menu – tortilla, milanesa and croquetas the size of a baseball. La Bombilla, with its turn-of-the-century-esque bar and cheap thrills (aka tapas for just a euro apiece), is a staple in Coruña and one of my favorites. Locals sidle up to the bar at seemingly all hours of the day, so be sure to arrive early for lunch or dinner, or you’ll be forced to grab a plastic plate and find a place to sit on the ground outside. Calle de la Galera, 7

update: I read the sad news that La Bomilla will be closing on December 30th. Rumor is that it will re-open, but likely without the same encanto. Really bummed I didn’t get one last giant croqueta.

O Renchucho de Mayte

Far and away my favorite in Coruña, this little corner bar is always packed for its cheap, home-cooked food and exceptional service. You can’t miss the raxo con roque or the crispy calamares, and the bar now features takeout, too. I am a sucker for their croquetas and cheese, and the tapas are generous and inexpensive. The bar is closed Sundays. Portico Andrés, s/n

The cafeteria at the Yacht Club with no name

Oftentimes, a menú del día, the Spanish equivalent of a three-course meal, is too much for me to eat. But everytime I’m in Coruña, I’ll skip breakfast in favor of the views of the port and across the bay to Santa Cristina beach from the yacht club. While the food is often billed as generic (think caldo gallego or a mixed salad for firsts), it’s served fresh and in heaping portions. What really makes the meal is the atmosphere, with the sea breeze ruffling your napkin and the sun peeking around the enormous glass building. Located in the Club Náutico on Avda. del Puerto.

Parillada Alcume

After all those rounds of pulpo and empanada, I need meat. When it comes down to it, I am a corn- and beef-fed Midwesterner, so I can’t pass up on a parrillada, or a restaurant where meats are grilled over open coals. I’d passed Alcume loads of times, as it’s just off the shopping district, but it wasn’t until a camp vegetarian suggested its mixed plate of meaty good that we decided to try it.

You know it’s good when even the veggie-lover wants to go. We often have to wait to sit down, particularly at the wooden tables outside, but filling ourselves to the brim with sausages and flank steaks makes it worth it. And it’s a lot easier to identify the parts than it is in the camp cafeteria. Calle Galera, 44-46

Pan de Lino

I heard a rumor that there were bagels in Coruña. I gasped, horrified that there would be a place that sells my favorite breakfast food in a small port city before my beloved Seville.

As it turns out, this was merely a rumor (though I did have a bagel sandwich in Cafetería Vecchio, near the Casino), but Pan de Lino’s inviting bakery counter, beautifully mismatched furniture and organic menu is a nice change from the old man bars I usually frequent. The service is terrible, but as long as you’re accompanied with friends and something delicious, you can let it go. Calle Rosalia de Castro, 7

O Mesón Galego

The cream of Galicia’s crop is, without a doubt, its shellfish. As has become tradition, we take our camp cash to the nearest marisquería for a mariscada, or a seafood smorgasboard. I’m sure there are places that are much better (and thus more expensive!), but we group into three and split a 46€ heap of shellfish with a bottle of crisp albariño wine. The kitchen is open, and you can watch the robust cook hack away at crab legs like it ain’t no thang. I’ve also had their pimientos and empanada and approve. Calle de la Franja, 56.

Asiayu Japanese Restaurant

I thankfully have a few friends in Coruña who are always quick to point out new finds and tear me away from Mayte and Bombilla. When Julie and Forrest discovered an all-you-can-eat sushi buffet next to the beach, half of the teaching staff went down to pig out on something other than carbs. The dinner menuú runs 13,95 plus a drink, and you can choose two hot plates in addition to everything that comes around the belt. The sushi was hand rolled right in front of us, but I was too busy pouting about sitting at the end of the loop and not being able to grab the fried sushi or the dumplings before the greedy hands of the other Ts got them (though this did distract them from my terrible chopstick skills). Calle Buenos Aires, 7 Bajo

There are loads of other places I’ve tried – a hidden Mexican joint with great margaritas, an Indian place with an affordable menú, nondescript holes-in-the-wall whose names I’ve long forgotten. Then there are the places I’d love to try, like Spoom’s creative cuisine. But, somehow, the appeal of one euro tapas, a sushi conveyer belt and the tried and true always win out. But really, I’ll go anywhere I see an upturned octopus in the window.

Have you ever been to La Coruña and have any places to recommend? 

Seville Snapshots: The Torre de Hércules of La Coruña

From nearly everywhere along the isthmus that makes up the city of La Coruña, one can see the lone lighthouse, standing guard against a rocky shoreline. This city symbol, which even appears in the city crest atop skull and crossbones and flanked by conch shells, is the longest-operating lighthouse in the world and now ranks as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

In a city with few historical sites to enjoy, the Torre is probably anyone’s first stop on a trip to Coruña, though I myself have only entered once. Climb the stairs up to the top daily from 9am in the summertime. Tickets are only 3€, and Mondays the visit is free.

Have you ever been to La Coruña? What are your favorite things to do?

Seville Snapshots: Coruña’s Blue Hour

Julie lead us out of the bar and out towards the ocean. Seeing the Riazor and Orzan beaches, which nuzzle up to the isthmus of the city of La Coruña, continually takes my breath away as I remember long days laughing in the sun, learning how to surf in the gentle waves and raucous night botellones with teachers during summers past.

The city sits on a peninsula on the northwest corner of the region in the northeast corner, meaning its days are long and bright – when it’s not raining, that is.

At nearly 11pm, there was just a thin strip of pinkish-golden light that faded into the horizon as the waves slowly lapped at the pebbly beach. “My dad calls this the hora azul,” Julie explained of her coruñés father. What a privilege to live just steps from a city beach and to be able to pop down when the weather turns nice.

We stayed for nearly ten minutes, watching the natural light dwindle as the streelights twinkled, reflecting off the bay. When the weather gets hot and sevillanos flock to their beach home, Coruña feels like my own.

Have you ever been to La Coruña? Seville has its own golden hour, when the sun sets over the Aljarafe and kisses everything with one last little effort at lighting up the city.

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.

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