Road Trip Through Galicia
We had heard so many great things about Galicia before starting our trip; the land of padron peppers, seafood so good and varied that the rest of Spain talks about it wide-eyed, clog-donned country folk with bagpipes, old fisherman, green hills, rugged coast, hearty stews, and pilgrims coming from all directions on the Camino de Santiago. On our eight-day road trip we saw a little of these things, but we also saw and learned so much more than the typical stereotypes we have of Galicia. This is because rather than see the most popular towns across the northern coast leading down to Santiago de Compostela, we did an alternative, less-discovered route that pleasantly surprised us and allowed us to be the only tourists in almost every place (which is why we got invited into four different homes by strangers who were excited to see foreigners in their parts, one of which is chronicled in the previous post about Gallegos).
Our road trip started with a pit stop in Leon, about 2.5 hours north of Madrid, famous for its incredible Gothic cathedral, and for good reason. It was already raining there, setting the unrelenting weather trend for the next five days of our trip. But that didn’t dampen our awe at seeing this cathedral. From the outside we could see the elegant flying buttresses, soaring up like the delicate but strong bones of a rib cage to support the immense height of the church walls made up of huge panels of stained glass. After seeing so many Romanesque churches with their fat, comparatively stumpy walls and small windows, it is truly amazing to see the architectural feat of an immense vertical space, a giant roof hundreds of feet above your head seemingly supported by delicate, light-filled glass. And all this done with the technology of 700 years ago. This cathedral showcases the beautiful stained glass by keeping the rest of the cathedral simple– no fancy, baroque altar or paintings everywhere…all eyes up.
After a delicious lunch where we fell in love with roasted leek salad, we continued on to our pension in Orellan, a town of maybe eight houses nestled on a grassy mountain ridge below Las Medulas national park. This was our home base for the next three nights, from which we explored a half dozen beautiful villages in the rain, ate delicious food, and life slowed down. There was also a hippy commune down the road, where we escaped from the rain and enjoyed a beer by the fire in a bar crafted entirely from wood (including the homemade wooden espresso machine!) by its Humboltesque owner, Salva.
Las Medulas would have been stunning in the sun, but it was still beautiful in the rain. While its famous red, jutting rock formations look as natural as something you’d find in Arizona or Utah, it’s actually an ecological disaster due to human exploitation– it just happens to be a beautiful one. During the Roman empire they needed copper to make one of their coins, so they chose this group of red mountains and completely blasted them apart by bringing in water through aqueducts from miles away and releasing it into tunnels dug into the mountains creating enough pressure to break them apart. Pretty impressive, although an intrusive and destructive way to extract a little of what you actually need…
Other highlights from this portion of the trip include walking around Balboa and Villafranca, beautiful villages that still have examples of the old type of circular dwelling called a palloza, with stone walls and a thatch roof. (Speaking of roofs, all the houses in this region have a roof made up of layered slabs of slate, which looks stunningly black and slick in the rain.)
We also trespassed onto a beautiful property guided by the rainbow in the photo below and ended up being caught by the proud owner who then spent an hour walking us around the property, the wine facility and pepper roasting factory. His name was Prada, and we enjoyed seeing his face plastered over everything: the golf cart, the walls, the labels for the roasted peppers, etc.
On the fourth day we moved camp to a town in southern Galicia, near the border of Portugal. This town was even smaller and, in fact, didn’t really have a name. But 20km down the road was Celanova where the transvestite nun story in the previous post took place. The day after that happened, we drove up to Santiago de Compostela, one of the world’s five main Christian pilgrimage destinations. All throughout our trip we found ourselves on roads and paths marked with the yellow seashell, but being winter still, there were very few pilgrims walking the hundreds of miles in the cold. Thus, we pretty much had the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela to ourselves, where we could see the “remains of St. James” (chances are the discovery of his remains in northern Spain was a convenient way to bring Christians to a fairly unpopulated region that the Catholic church needed to defend as the boundary between the Muslims who had gained control of everything south). But true or not true, it was cool being in a cathedral that had seen so many millions of pilgrims pass through it over the years paying homage to their faith.
The next day we were ecstatic to see the sun shining for the first time. We got an early start to explore the other direction, crossing over the northern border of Portugal to its only national park. The pictures say it all, so I will just say that it was beautiful, quaint, and perfectly pleasant.
The sunny weather continued the next two days, putting the Galicians who had suffered through six weeks straight of rain into a great mood. We drove across the border again to a picturesque town called Valença, with a beautiful river running through it and lots of cute shops. Then we followed the river to where it empties into the Atlantic, in the Spanish town of La Guardia. Here we indulged in a Albariño wine and a mariscada, a platter of a dozen types of fresh shellfish, including fresh scallops, nécoras, zamburiñas, santoyo, buey de mar, razor clams, two types of shrimp, and this amazing little critter called a santiaguiño. After our feast, we hiked up a big hill at the mouth of the river and got a fantastic view. On the way home we stopped in Bayona where we got on board Columbus’ Pinta, impressively small and insecure looking to have crossed the ocean and back. We watched the sun set before heading back to our inn for our last night.
The next morning we packed up to drive back to Madrid, making a worthwhile stop in Allariz, one of the most quaint little river towns I’ve ever seen. We walked along the cool river and the cobblestone streets before making our way to the public market. Here we stopped at a microbrewer’ s stall who brews the first good, hoppy beer we’ve had in Spain. We tried all three kinds while he sliced us thick pieces of salami, cheese, and empanadas. We ended up buying a case of it to take home with us, which we dip into any time we’re sick of pilsner. Energized by the good conversation and the sunny weather, we had a pleasant four-hour drive back to Madrid.