In the northwest corner of Spain, far from the definitive cityscapes of Barcelona or Madrid and a world away from the ubiquitous Mediterranean beach fronts of the Costa del Sol, the vast expanse of Galicia has long been one of the cultural and historic quirks of the Iberian Peninsula.
Jutting out westwards onto the Atlantic seaboard of Portugal and northwards into the wild Cantabrian Sea of the Bay of Biscay, this verdant and fertile province of undulating green hills, vineyards, low mountain massifs and dramatic ocean rias has come to dominate just under 30,000 square kilometres of territory inland, along with great swathes of Spain’s northern and western coast.
Santiago de Compostela
For many visitors to Galicia today, the region is recognisable as the home of the grand culmination of the so-called Way of St James – the most travelled historical pilgrimage route perhaps in all of Europe. This is found at the great architectural UNESCO sites of Santiago de Compostela, where the magnificent Old Town and Cathedral complexes still bear all the hallmarks one would expect of a once-formidable centre of continental migration.
The Rise of Galicia
But, while the stories of Galicia’s rise to power and prestige is firmly in the province of the early middle ages, its beginnings as a cultural centre apart from Spain proper lie far further back in time. As attested by the ancient geographer and lexicographer Strabo, tribal groups of Iberian and Germanic people lived here long before the Romans arrived, while the latter established a cemetery for Roman frontier fighters stationed in Gaul and Iberia in the area that’s now modern day Santiago de Compostela. What’s more, later on, when Galicia started to show signs of shouldering its way to the forefront of European religious culture, at a time around the 11th and 12th centuries, there’s evidence to show a whole plethora of other cultural influences were making their mark on the region.
These influences range from pseudo-Christian religious cult followings to the raiding parties of Scandinavia that definitely more than once made sorties into the rias, coastal towns, and even major city centres of Galicia between the 9th and 13th centuries AD. Today, it’s precisely this curious historical path that has given the region a certain nuanced character and standalone identity that’s noticeably different from the rest of Spain.
Galicia vs. Spain
Indeed, not only do the people here largely speak Galician instead of Spanish (it’s estimated more than 50% of locals speak only their native Galician, while only as many as 15% are bilingual in Spanish and the regional vernacular), but there have been concerted efforts by political parties in modern times to assert the sovereignty of the region as a separate entity entirely away from the political unity represented by Madrid.
This all means that Galicia offers something of an altogether unique Spanish experience. In culture, climate, politics, architecture, geography and human heritage it has come to represent an enclave of separatism and difference that’s at once intriguing and thought-provoking. But more than that, the region is also a veritable gem in the crown of the Spanish state for its wealth of historical interest and magnificent line up of natural wonders, from the winding ria waterways of the north-western coast, to the legendary hot springs of the interior hills.
Islas Atlanticas National Park
Of these, perhaps the most-visited is the Islas Atlanticas National Park. While it’s the only officially designated national park to fall solely in the boundaries of the Galicia region, it can be found lulling in the Atlantic swells just off the coast of Sanxenxo. The park itself is noted for its magnificent beaches and coastal walking paths, often said to remind visitors of the rugged coastlines of southern Ireland, or the open sand stretches of South Wales.
Many other visitors make the trek to Galicia in search of the region’s famous gastronomy. It’s said that the fishing towns of the Cantabrian and Atlantic coast here kick up some of the best and freshest produce in all of Europe, while the king prawns and lobster crabs are famed for their succulent flavour. What’s more, Galicia has also moved to establish its own viniculture, and today a number of wineries here are known for their production of whites and sparkling wines that rival even the iconic regions of Southern France.
Hailed as Green Spain for its largely untapped array natural wonders and lush, verdant backcountry, the region of Galicia remains something of a hidden gem for visitors looking to avoid the much-trodden route along the Mediterranean coast of southern Spain, while for foodies and culture-lovers it’s a veritable hotpot of interesting delights!