Under most circumstances, if a stranger asked me to wake up at dawn and spend the morning inspecting algae with him in the icy waters along a treacherous shoreline called Costa de la Muerte (Coast of Death), I would politely decline. But this invitation comes from Antonio Muiños, the Galician seaweed guru known for enlightening Ferran Adrià and other top European chefs about the gastronomic and nutritional virtues of kombu, wakame and sea lettuce. (Muiños harvests the aquatic plants and ships them fresh overnight, via UPS, to his clients’ kitchens.) So I’m in. We meet near the Galician port city of La Coruña and drive west, taking a dirt road to a rocky headland where we don wet suits and snorkel masks before wading into the Atlantic Ocean. From above, not much is visible except some jagged brown stones, but when we drop below the surface, there’s an astonishingly vibrant seascape whose beauty rivals that of a Caribbean reef. Bright purple tendrils sway next to pulsating thickets in multiple shades of red and green, and as we swim around, Muiños prods me to touch and even taste the different species.
“It’s another world, no?” says Muiños, grinning as he drops clumps of wakame into a mesh bag. “You’d have no idea this was right here, unless someone told you.”
The same might be said about Galicia, the out-of-the-way corner of northwestern Spain, bordered by Portugal to the south, that, much like Muiños’s underwater wonderland, is packed with surprises, highly underappreciated and (often) very wet. With its Celtic history and mist-laden valleys, the region—roughly the size of Maryland but with a much smaller population of under three million—has more in common with Brittany or Wales than with the Costa del Sol, making it a safe haven for anyone leery of Iberian travel clichés. There are few signs of gazpacho, flamenco, sangria and paella. There’s a notable absence of matadors and corrida posters, since bullfighting has never caught on. And there’s rarely much traffic, even in summer, since most tourists still gravitate to the more accessible and reliably sun-baked spots east and south.
Galicia is rolling hills draped with patchwork fields of green, craggy granite cliffs looming over vacant beaches and the occasional bagpipe player. (The Celts arrived in the centuries before Roman rule, and the local version of the bagpipe, called the gaita in the Galician language, is one of their most visible legacies.) There’s also an increasingly diverse sprinkling of Michelin-starred restaurants and luxury lodgings—signs that Galicia may not remain a tourism underdog forever.
Galicia’s most famous attraction is its capital, the city of Santiago de Compostela, whose dazzling cathedral, home to what are believed to be the remains of St. James the apostle, marked its 800th anniversary last year as a mecca for religious pilgrims. Most travelers to the region end their journeys here after weeks of trekking along ancient trails of the Camino de Santiago and sleeping in rustic refugios along the way. I, rather shamelessly, begin my trip here, having arrived at the Santiago airport on a flight from Barcelona. The city’s well-preserved medieval core, despite being packed with jubilant foreigners in Gore-Tex hiking gear, is an unexpectedly enchanting place, not least because the crowds are actually part of its appeal. Among the peregrinos, or pilgrims, are groups of hardy nuns and Boy Scouts, along with plenty of outdoorsy atheists. Virtually all of them are visibly awestruck by the cathedral—one of Europe’s most impressive, boasting fine examples of everything from early Romanesque sculpture to flamboyant Baroque trimmings, some covered in moss. I walk in as about 20 priests are celebrating the daily pilgrims’ mass, a standing-room-only service where piles of backpacks lean against the Gothic pillars. Inside the confessional booths along the walls of the main nave, five more priests sit awaiting sinners, with handwritten signs touting their fluency in German, English, Italian or, in one case, Hebrew.
Santiago is banking on a very big future, as evidenced by a controversial $540 million cultural complex just outside of town: the strikingly undulating Ciudad de la Cultura de Galicia, designed by Peter Eisenman and now partially open after years of delays (of the six planned buildings, two are already open, including the library). But the town’s main draws are still within a few blocks of the cathedral, including one imposing landmark: the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos. This luxury showpiece in Spain’s network of historic paradores is one of the oldest hotels in Europe, having originally opened as a shelter for pilgrims in 1509 and operated as a hospital and inn until its conversion to hotel only in 1954. The 137 high-ceilinged rooms, decorated with a mix of somber antiques, plush sofas and canopy beds, are spread around four colonnaded cloisters; when I lose my way to or from my room (everyone does), plaques marking the former sites of the jail and the leech tank help guide me back. Hotel director Julio César Castro Marcote says he’s been seeing more and more affluent types among the pilgrims arriving in Santiago. “Now you have CEOs doing the Camino, or part of it,” he says. “They’ll stay here at the end, sending their luggage two weeks ahead.” On their first night in town, the majority will also head a few doors down for dinner at Casa Marcelo, whose $100 tasting menu includes a truly perfect bonito tuna with membrillo de tomate and other refined takes on traditional fresh-from-the-boat Galician cuisine.
Even the food snobs of Catalonia and the Basque country will generally admit that Galicia has the best seafood in Spain, which is served at its freshest along the rugged coast. In summer, the holiday crowds tend to cluster around Pontevedra, near the southern border; I, instead, head west from Santiago to the less-developed Costa de la Muerte, where the rocky shoreline and rough seas have caused many a shipwreck. At first I’m duly skeptical about the coast’s melodramatic name, assuming it had been coined by an overzealous tourism official, but shortly after turning onto a deserted single-lane road, I drive past the barely marked, hauntingly windswept Cementerio de los Ingleses, a burial ground for the crew of a British ship that crashed upon the rocks here in 1890. (Further proof the coast’s name is real: This year there was a Miss Coast of Death beauty pageant.)
The Costa de la Muerte is also known for its bounty of the prehistoric-looking crustacean called the percebe, or goose barnacle, a local delicacy that sells for up to $60 a pound. While I’m wandering around the relaxed fishing village of Muxía, I meet Ramón Villela Martínez, one of Galicia’s renowned percebeiros, the tough guys who make their living in the storm-slashed seas prying the shellfish from rocks using knives and crowbars. The tastiest, chubbiest percebes are found in the most wave-battered and hard-to-reach places. Looking out at the sunny and calm coast today, Martínez, who can earn upwards of $400 a day selling his catch, says not to be fooled; the job is just as hazardous as I’ve heard. “Muchos,” he adds when asked if he’s known any percebeiros and local fishermen who’ve lost their lives at sea. “Muchisimos!”
Martínez, like most Galicians, is nothing if not friendly and hospitable, and within an hour, the handsome 50-year-old Muxía native has introduced me to his wife and daughter, walked me around the village, bought me a beer at the fishermen’s bar and invited me to the annual Fiesta de las Sardinas, a village cookout later that evening. There, the all-local crowd chomps on just-caught jumbo sardines while an eight-piece Celtic band, dressed in identical orange T-shirts instead of traditional white blouses, plays Galician folk songs. My first chance to actually eat percebes will have to wait until the next day, at lunch in the town of Muros, where I discover that they pretty much taste like they look (texture: rubbery; flavor: ocean-y). Basically they’re boiled in water and served plain, without any sauce or seasonings. More instantly likable are some of the classic regional dishes from the boisterous tascas lining the port: pulpo a la gallego, slices of octopus sprinkled with olive oil and paprika; and a truly showstopping lubina (sea bass) seasoned with little more than salt, which I’m served at a nondescript joint the next day. These specialties, along with others, like the famous pimientos de Padrón (small green peppers fried in olive oil), exemplify Galicia’s gloriously unfussy cuisine—a style that works only in a place where the raw materials are close to perfect.
For Galicia’s current generation of contemporary chefs, the challenge is to preserve the freshness and simplicity of the classic regional cuisine while refining it in creative ways. “In Galicia we have the best products, but we’ve often destroyed them on the stove,” says Luis Veira, who earned his first Michelin star two years ago at the sleek Alborada in La Coruña. Veira heats all his shellfish below the boiling point, and he rejects such dubious Galician traditions as cooking potatoes and octopus simultaneously in the same water. “You can’t tell your grandmother not to do that, when she learned it from her own grandmother,” he says. Veira’s gastronomic menu makes a convincing case for sophisticated simplicity, beginning with a playful tray of “snacks” that includes fried corn cones stuffed with foie gras, followed by crayfish panko with soy mayonnaise; both are best with a bottle of Albariño, the crisp local white.
Inland from La Coruña are some small winemaking regions and, east of the cities of Lugo and Orense, a series of little-explored valleys dotted with gurgling streams and crumbling granite homes—many grouped in clusters so small that they barely qualify as hamlets, let alone villages. The lodging options here consist mainly of casas rurales, Spain’s answer to country bed-and-breakfasts (see “Galicia Details”), where rustic charm often comes at the expense of soundproof walls and WiFi access. Across the landscape are quirky landmarks such as ancient stone hórreos, or granaries, which look like churches for medieval munchkins, elevated on thick stone stilts and adorned with crucifixes. In these areas you can drive for miles without passing another car.
But if there’s one part of Galicia where the lack of crowds is most perplexing—and most welcome—it’s in the Rías Altas, the dramatic stretch of seaboard northeast of La Coruña. I begin near Pontedeume at Casa do Castelo de Andrade, a 300-year-old farmhouse that’s now a fetchingly rustic B&B whose owner seems to know every secret cove within a 50-mile radius. Northeast of here lie dozens of the best beaches in Spain, alongside gentle river estuaries that emerge from deep valleys, as well as southern Europe’s tallest seaside cliffs, more than a third of a mile high. The Rías Altas is also a traditional hotbed of black magic and other forms of Celtic paganism. This part of the coastline has only one tourist trap, the cute stone village of San Andrés de Teixido, where souvenir stalls sell miniature figurines of buck-toothed gremlins. For a more authentic sampling of ancient Gallego superstitions, talk to just about any local over the age of 60. In the quiet port town of Cedeira, I meet a hotel owner named Manuel Pita, who recalls his mother’s frequent consultations with the local meiga (the Galician term for “witch”). “Every single thing the meiga predicted, it always came true,” Pita says. She once had a vision of Pita taking a long journey to a faraway place across the sea and starting a successful business. That place, it turned out, was Paramus, New Jersey, where he opened a Spanish fish restaurant called El Cid.
At some point another meiga must have cast a spell on this intensely scenic stretch of coast, creating a force field to keep the summer crowds away. Otherwise, why else, on a warm, mostly clear day—in southern Europe, in August—am I able to wander around several seriously magnificent clifflined coves and see no signs of human life, except maybe a couple of nudists, or a few surfers, or a camper van with German license plates? At the Playa de Picón, a local woman walking with her daughter smiles at my incredulity—“ I know, no one who’s not from here can ever believe it,” she says—then suggests that I hike down a trail to the beach one cove over, which is even more pristine.
Galicia’s rough-hewn charms don’t come without some baggage. A golden brown tan is hard to come by, and for some travelers, the Erin-go-Bragh weather might be a deal-breaker: Even on a sunny summer day I found myself lunching on an outdoor terrace in a wool sweater. (“But don’t forget, the unpredictable weather is what has saved this place from becoming Marbella,” a Madrid college student tells me in the lovely port of O Barqueiro. “In Spain, it’s almost mathematical; the more sun there is, the bigger the crowds—always.”) Also, large parts of Galicia didn’t escape the uncontrolled building spree that scarred so much of Spain in recent decades, so the scenery is generally more spectacular when seen from the hiking trails than the roads, which are sometimes lined with utility wires, wind turbines or new (read: ugly) homes.
Then again, Galicia’s lack of prepackaged preciousness only increases the sense of satisfaction of coming upon, say, a circuit of abandoned medieval monasteries nestled within a thick chestnut forest. In the space of about an hour, near Parador de Santo Estevo, I toured three of them, including Galicia’s oldest, dating back to 573 a.d. At all three sites I was alone. At least I thought I was until, at the last stop, a strange voice called out, “Hola.” Then a woman emerged from a side room and just looked at me.
I’m not necessarily claiming that she was a Galician ghost, the widow of a 19th century percebeiro lost at sea. But it did seem strange that there was no car in the parking lot except mine and that, after greeting me, the woman didn’t utter another word. I walked around the corner to admire an abbot’s tomb, and when I came back, she was gone.
Casa do Castelo de Andrade A lovely 300-year-old farmhouse turned B&B, near Pontedeume. $ Rooms start at $135; Lugar do Castelo de Andrade, Ponte-deume, La Coruña; 34-981/433-839; casteloandrade.com.
Hostal de los Reyes Católicos Over 500 years old and aging well. Rooms start at $240; 1 Plaza de Obradoido, Santiago de Compostela; 34-981/582-200; paradoresofspain.com.
Parador de Santo Estevo This restored monastery makes a good base for exploring the eastern valleys. Rooms start at $250; Monasterio de Santo Estevo, Nogueira de Ramuín, Orense; 34-988/010-110; paradoresofspain.com.
Alborada The Michelin-starred standout presents traditional dishes in new ways. At 25 Maritimo Alcalde Francisco Vazquez, La Coruña; 34-981/929-201; restaurantesalborada.com.
As Garzas The top table on the Costa de la Muerte, overlooking rocks where locals gather seaweed at low tide. At Porto Barizo, La Coruña; 34-981/721-765; asgarzas.com.
Casa Marcelo Chef Marcelo Tejedor is an early pioneer of New Galician cuisine. At 1 Rúa Hortas, Santiago de Compostela; 34-981/558-580; nove.biz.
Solla Another Michelin-starred favorite, from Galician innovator Pepe Solla. At 7 Avda. Sineiro, Pontevedra; 34-986/872-884; nove.biz.
On the Costa de la Muerte, head to windy Reira and Area de Trece. On the northern coast, try surfer-friendly Pantín; cliff-backed, private Picón; or just about any sandy spot between Cedeira and the Bares peninsula.
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