Coasting Galicia – a scenic seafood sojourn

By | Category: Travel destinations
the coastline of Galicia

the coastline of Galicia

Galicia has some of the best seafood in the world. Combine this with an ancient cultural heritage that includes both Celtic and witchcraft traditions, and a landscape of stunning rías (the fjordlike inlets that slice up the coasts). Then add a generous sip of crisp, local albariño wines and you have one of Europe’s most fascinating and tasty destinations.

Fly-drive or car ferry from Portsmouth to Santander in northern Spain, are good options for getting here – a car is very handy to reach many of Galicia’s charming coastal villages and remote inland outposts. Being of the (fool)hardy kind, myself and a friend instead opted for driving all the way from London, something that led to endless hours, even days, of “are we there yets”. Finally, stopping at a petrol station in rural Spain to fill up, I spotted a man and his donkey walking towards a pump at a leisurely pace, as though intending to fill up the burro as well – we had arrived.

Galicia, nowadays a place with an air of quiet prosperity in many parts, was long considered a rural backwater – a place of coarse farmers inland and weather-beaten fishermen along the coast. From the 17th century onwards many impoverished Galicians emigrated to the Americas, both North and South, while those who stayed behind saw the region periodically suffer severe hardship, not least under late dictator Francisco Franco, himself a Galician. The language, gallego, as well as many of the Celtic and Pagan festivals, were banned for decades, but in recent years there’s been a great resurgence of all things Galician, not least the culinary traditions.

horreo

horreo

My personal one-week mission on this Galician adventure was to sample some fine seafood and local whites, made from albariño grapes, maybe with some orujo, a grape-based spirit, thrown in. Although there are plenty of excellent meaty dishes inland, Galicia is best known for its seafood and what better place to try it than along the rías? Our home for the week was the tiny, old village of Combarro, on the Ría de Pontevedra, formerly a fishing village, these days a bit of a tourist attraction. Combarro is one of Galicia’s more traditional villages, its quaint alleys way too narrow for cars and – the main attraction – it’s home to a large number of hórreos, typical storehouses built on stilts or pillars, raised above the ground. Not so much used for storage anymore as for decorative purposes, these picturesque little huts are found in most people’s gardens and along the seafront in Galicia and Asturias.

The grandly named Rua do Mar brings new meaning to narrow alleyway, as it snakes its way through the village, lined with bars, restaurants and a myriad souvenir shops, selling everything from postcards and fridge magnets, to laughing witches on brooms and large bottles of homemade orujo – mixing the tacky and the tasty. It leads out onto a rather large, empty plaza, separating the old village from the more modern part. Along the plaza, facing the sea, there are several unassuming restaurants, one of which is A Feira. The décor might leave something to be desired – plain bordering on the scruffy, may well be an apt description – but this turned out to be a genuine treasure. Pulpo a feira, known as pulpo a la gallega, elsewhere in Spain, is Galicia’s signature dish and this place does “fair-style octopus” to perfection. The pulpo is happily boiling away in cauldrons in full view of the salivating diners, then cut up with a pair of sharp scissors, placed on a wooden plate, generously drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and paprika and listo – it’s ready to eat. So delicious was this simple dish that we returned time and again to the humble plaza eatery and despite trying the same dish at various other establishments, this remained the clear winner in the pulpo stakes.

mussels

mussels

The variety of seafood in Galicia just seems to be greater and tastier than anywhere else in Spain – before the end of the week we had sampled, not just octopus, but mussels (Galicia is one of the world’s largest exporters of these little molluscs and they are farmed along the coast), queen scallops, cockles, clams, razor clams, oysters, chipirones (baby squid), prawns, langoustines and more. O Piorno, a restaurant along Combarro’s main seafront boulevard, specialises in rice dishes and their seafood paella left us groaning and holding our stomachs in the best possible way – too stuffed for words.

Combarro is a busy little place – the fiestas were in full swing; local witches, John the Baptist and Christopher Columbus were all being well and truly celebrated long into the night – peaceful and quiet it certainly wasn’t. That said, the fiestas did mean that everywhere was open for business. Combarro might be a tiny place, but in summer it’s blessed with a wide variety of restaurants and bars. It would have been ever so easy to just fulfil my munching mission here and never venture further, but what’s the fun in that when there’s an entire coastline full of goodies to sample? After a few days’ grazing we hopped in the car, following the Ría de Pontevedra heading west, past colourfully painted house, well-kept gardens and quiet coves, to the Ría de Arousa, further north, and onto the small town of Cambados.

Goose-necked barnacles

Goose-necked barnacles

I had stopped in Cambados some six years previously and much to my delight, the same seafood restaurant I visited back then, Posta do Sol, was open and still looking tremendously quaint and homely with an abundance of lace from curtains to table cloths. The owner sauntered up to us and presented us with the English menu… Oh dear. I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so intrigued by any menu before or since. How about some “muffed snuff” or “muffed to the plate” and “muffed to the Galician”? Google translate gone mad, perhaps? Looking at the Spanish menu, these dishes appeared to be referring to some kind of fish. I never did get any wiser – as “muffed snuff” didn’t sound very appetising, my friend and I instead opted for the expensive, somewhat offensive-looking, but delectable, goose-necked barnacles. These crustaceans live attached to rock surfaces under water and a very hard to pick, hence the expense.  Whatever you do, break them open by pressing downwards on the shells, not upwards, or you may find yourself covered in green goo, as I realised too late. The salty-goodness taste of the sea is worth the hassle, particularly if washed down with a refreshing local albariño wine from nearby Fefiñanes bodega. The vineyard is open to visitors and they offer tours and wine-tastings.

For our last day in Galicia, a foodie boat trip seemed an excellent option. Ría de Pontevedra is home to mussel, scallop and oyster farms that can be visited from the comforts of a specially design vessel with large underwater viewing windows. The trip to the bateas, the floating rafts where the seafood is farmed, proved interesting and very tasty – an endless supply of mussels and albariño was included in the ticket price – but we could perhaps have done without the blasting disco music, in-between the factual explanations. The Spanish families seemed to love it, though, leaving me with one of the loudest, most lasting memories of Galician seafood sojourn.

a harvest platter of Galician seafood

a harvest platter of Galician seafood

How to get there:

There are currently no direct flights from the UK to Vigo, the nearest airport to the area visited, but Vueling, Ryanair and Iberia  fly to other parts of Galicia. It’s also possible to fly to Porto in Portugal. The car ferry from Portsmouth to Santander is another option.

For further information about Galicia, click here.

Story and images  © Anna Maria Espsäter

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