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Articles Blog

Santiago de Compostela, Spain

Karyn Planett

Galicia’s Gateway

Look at a map of Europe. Now, if you draw a line directly west from the southwestern corner of France and another one directly north from Lisbon, they’d intersect just about in Ferrol, Spain. This busy seaport is in the upper left corner of Spain where the sometimes-brutal Atlantic reminds her 72,000 people that Mother Nature reigns supreme. Perhaps that’s the signature of Galicia, as this region is known. It’s home to a rugged people who live further from their country’s capital than from, say, France or even Great Britain. There’s an independence, the posture of someone isolated, almost hidden, from the powers that be. This leads to a bit more of a rogue lifestyle that seems palpable here.

Perhaps it’s curious that General Francisco Franco drew his first breaths of life here in 1892, and then went on to rule the entire country with such a heavy hand. But that was then and this is now. And now it’s your turn to explore this chiseled chunk of Spain.

You’re Not The First

No, certainly not. Fishermen were evidently the first to set down their roots here. Well, before that there was an Iron Age settlement in the area. Nonetheless, Ferrol is tied to the sea and the name “Ferrol” is believed to stem from the Spanish word for lighthouse. It’s long been noted for shipbuilding and as an important naval base. Visitors, however, tend to spend their precious hours exploring nearby villages as well as one of Europe’s most iconic destinations, Santiago de Compostela.

So, let’s start with that famous destination. For those who don’t know, Santiago de Compostela is one of the most important sites in Christendom. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and traditional travelers make their way there annually. The centerpiece is the soaring cathedral, one of the world’s most spectacular, that dates back to 1060. Its stature, with its “Torre de la Carraca” and “Torre de la Campanas” paired towers, serves as a guide both physically and metaphorically for thousands of Christian pilgrims who wend their way through surrounding hills along well-worn paths, along the “Way of St. James” or the “Camino de Santiago.” They often carry with them shell-adorned long walking staffs. Many are Catholic, many not but all are drawn from around the world along hundreds of miles including those who trek some 650 miles from France. The truly devoted spend a full month doing so, even more. Communities en route often offer complimentary housing in support of these pilgrimages.   

At the end of their journey, there stands the famous cathedral.  Facing Obradoiro Square, this shrine to the apostle St. James looms powerfully. It was he who played such an important role here. For that, his ashes are buried in a silver urn within and his tomb is on view.

On A Smaller Scale

Galicia boasts an offering of dramatic beaches as well as a string of small villages that reveal a glimpse into this unique life. Betanzos is considered one of the finest, with an Old Quarter rich with typical architecture and lifestyle. Noted for its galleria balconies, it’s a photographer’s delight. A walk along the town walls and a visit to the Church of San Francisco, considered classic Mendicant style, are a must.  

Then there’s Coruña, also known as la Coruña and a Coruña. Here, there are more gallerias so typical in northern Spain. It’s also famous for its Tower of Hercules. Many historians believe it’s the oldest Roman lighthouse in the world, dating back to the 2nd century AD (some experts think even back to the 1st century AD). The structure is considered Antiquity’s sole lighthouse that remains operational to this day.  

Food and Wine

Face to the sea (Atlantic and Bay of Biscay)… there must be fabulous seafood in Galicia. Locals love goose barnacles called percebes and scallops known as vieiras. Craggy terrain… there should also be spectacular wines. The whites, including DO Rias Baixas, DO Ribeiro, DO Monterrei and others, are award-winners.  Dairy herds… you know the cheese is phenomenal. Favorites include Tetilla, San Simón and Ulloa. Meat eaters enjoy a typical beef stew known as carne ó caldeiro. A true specialty is a traditional hot drink famous in Galicia called queimada. It’s a mixture of flaming orujo gallego (a hot hot hot spirit) combined with lemon and sugar.   

So, it’s time now to savor all this perhaps while nestling down with something written by the winner of the 1989 Nobel Prize for Literature, Camilo José Cela. He was born in this area in 1916 and featured his impressions of his surroundings in his works. Fans consider The Family of Pascual Duarte his most famous novel. For his work, King Juan Carlos of Spain granted him the respected title of Marqués de Iria Flavia. Your days of exploring Galicia will draw to a close and maybe it’ll be time for you to pen your own first great novel.