15 February 2018
ACE staff member Ollie Kenzie has been visiting one of Europe’s lesser-known regions, Galicia in northern Spain, boasting ancient pilgrim routes, Roman ruins and a regional culture and landscape unique in Spain.
Many ways, one destination
Galicia remains relatively unpolluted and, as one of the more forested areas of the country, its landscapes are generally different from what is commonly understood as a Spanish scene.
As our aeroplane circled around Santiago de Compostela’s small airport I was initially struck with just how geographically different this corner of Spain is.
Dense forests and bright green hills stretch away as far as the eye could see inland, dispersed at points by lush vineyards and brought to a dramatic halt by rugged coastline.
This verdant landscape is owed somewhat to Galicia’s reputation for being exceptionally rainy.
However, don’t let this put you off – the Galician city of Lugo receives approximately 1000mm of rainfall a year, on a par with popular holiday destinations in the UK such as Cornwall and Devon.
Additionally, Galicia has an exceptionally mild climate for its latitude and an average high in October of 18.1ºC (64.6ºF) feels very pleasant.
Most importantly, these climatic conditions help support over 2,800 different plant species and give Galicia its aforementioned wonderfully green landscapes and forests.
Once touching down, Santiago’s bright and airy airport also impresses and in particular how quiet it is.
The Atlantic ocean at La Toja
Admittedly, with only around twenty daily flights in autumn, this is a very peaceful time of year in a comparatively less well-travelled part of Spain, the luggage carousel had hardly whirred into action before it spat out its last luggage item and ground to a halt.
Soon enough I was on a bus southward towards my first night’s stay on the island of La Toja, and a thick and low lying sea fog swallowed up the coach on our descent to the coast – much to the annoyance of our enthusiastic tour guide who had promised excellent sea views.
Galicians have a strong bond with the sea and are particularly proud of their seafood, as well as their dramatic Atlantic coastline, not least the stunning Praia de Augas Santas, ‘Beach of the Holy Waters’, where natural arches and caves carved out by the ocean have afforded the beach its touristic name ‘Beach of the Cathedrals’.
The main part of my journey, however, required some one hundred and seventy miles of travelling before reaching the Catedrales beach on Galicia’s northern coast, as I traced parts of the ancient pilgrim routes known as the Camino de Santiago.
Spire of Lugo Cathedral, Galicia
One thing I wasn’t so aware of was the multiplicity of ‘official’ routes available to pilgrims dependent on their place of origin.
The Camino Franco starts in France, the Camino Portugues in Portugal and so on, but there are also a number of other routes, including the Camino Primitivo, or the ‘old way’, of which the ancient city of Lugo is a highlight.
The city is remarkable on two fronts; firstly, for its classical remains. The Roman walls are almost entirely extant and encircle the old town. It is similar in feel and name to the Tuscan city of Lucca, where its own walls dating from the eighteenth century are also used by local people to enjoy a quiet stroll or cycle or indeed as a means of getting about town, all the more impressive at Lugo however, due to the antiquity of the masonry.
Ollie joined the ACE marketing team last year after finishing a postgraduate degree in Greek Archaeology.
"With a wider interest in architectural history, this part of Spain has so much to offer with a beautiful combination of verdant landscapes and stunning architecture. It’s been a joy to work with this subject matter, encouraging cultural exploration, and promoting these sites and others around the world to ACE participants is a real privilege."
The so-called domus mithras is a comparably remarkable piece of archaeology and sheds real light on everyday life in the Roman empire. The underground causeways in this purpose-built museum are atmospherically lit and provide a wonderfully tangible guide through what would have been the doorsteps and streets of Lugo two-thousand years ago.
Secondly, Lugo’s baroque cathedral and surrounding squares are a real treasure, not least for the church’s altar piece, shielded behind glass on three sides to preserve its colour and magnificence.
Façade of Lugo Cathedral, Galicia
The journey north to Lugo had been extraordinarily pleasant, intermitted by rests at various Pazos, the Galician name for a small aristocratic home or country house. The Pazo de Señorans, a large country estate with its own winery, played fantastic hosts for dinner one evening.
Another glorious visit was to the Pazo Faramello, twenty kilometres from Santiago de Compostela. A fast-flowing brook has carved out a steeply sided trough in the hillside and beautifully nestled into it are the garden and house of Faramello.
As Frank Lloyd Wright put it,
No house should ever be on a hill or on anything. It should be of the hill. Belonging to it. Hill and house should live together each the happier for the other.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Paella served at Pazo de Señorans
Indeed, the house at Faramello feels part of its hill and the associated and now defunct printing press is slowly being reclaimed by stream and forest, with wildflowers and trees clawing the buildings toward the undergrowth, a stark contrast to the terraced French garden above.
Pazo de Faramello, Galicia
I spent the evening on the banks of the River Eo, which dramatically draws the border line between the states of Galicia and Asturias and the view from our hotel was unrivalled.
Further into Asturias, you can wend your way to Oviedo another stunning city complete with Gothic cathedral and the atmospheric treasury of Cámara Santa.
The Archaeological and Fine Art museums are worthwhile visits here and the number of Oviedo’s pre-Romanesque churches, such as San Julián de los Prados, are not to be missed.
The town of Ribadeo, still a working fishing and industrial hub provides a convenient base for exploring but the wonderful monasteries at Santa Maria la Real de Obona and Santa Eulalia de Boveda are the main attractions on the Asturian side of the border, before moving on to the ancient city of Lugo, or visiting the small and picturesque cathedral city of Mondoñedo.
A quiet street in Mondoñedo, Galicia
The spires and towers of the Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela, are visible from some miles away and are surely as welcome a sight for the pilgrim as they are for the discerning cultural traveller.
Dominating the heart of the old town is Compostela’s stunning cathedral and the associated monasteries, buildings and houses surrounding it all together a UNESCO World Heritage site.
From the outside, its ostentatious Baroque façade dominates the central square but the biggest impact is reserved for the interior, where Romanesque columns and arcades meet baroque furnishings and chapels.
The cathedral’s façade and towers are currently undergoing major restoration work, in one of the largest projects of its kind in Europe, at an estimated cost of €3.7 million. Watch video >>
The ongoing work barely detracts from the spirituality of the place, if not a little distracting to the eye, and the aims of the restoration are successfully showcased in the adjoining museum.
Bell tower, under restoration, Santiago de Compostela
The restoration of Mestre Mateo’s Portico of Glory, widely regarded as a medieval masterpiece, is particularly impressive, alongside an enjoyable collection of textiles in the cathedral’s permanent collection, with tapestries by Rubens, Teniers and Goya.
Compostela’s architectural delights don’t end there, with a multitude of fine churches to explore as well as the enchanting cloisters and courtyards of the University of Santiago de Compostela, founded in 1495, the Convent of San Francisco – now the Hotel Monumento San Francisco – which dates to 1214, and the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, built by the Catholic monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabel in 1486 as a hospice and hospital for pilgrims, and is now maintained as a luxury hotel.
Traditional houses in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
Together with its own art and architectural treasures, Compostela provides a good base to explore the coastal city of A Coruña, famous for its Roman lighthouse, or the nearby cathedral city of Pontevedra.
The real joy of Santiago de Compostela, however, is its charming evening atmosphere. Relaxing with wine and tapas, in the early autumnal light that sets the buildings alight with a sumptuous deep yellow, the perfect foil for a day of wondering amongst ancient monasteries and exploring the city’s unique religious and cultural heritage.
View across the River Eo into Asturias from Ribadeo
Posted in: Tours