Puerto de Vega is a delightful little fishing port

Galicia – Ourense, the North Coast and Santiago de Compostela

In Part 1, we described our exploration of Galicia’s Atlantic coast and lovely old towns of the wine-growing Rías Baixas region in the south. Our journey now continued along the River Miño to the provincial capital of Ourense and then up to the Bay of Biscay, before finally reaching Galicia’s most important city, Santiago de Compostela.


The lovely town of Ourense is an absolute gem and just a short drive through hills and pastured valleys from the ancient town of Ribadavia, where we had completed the first part of our Galician adventure. This little-visited inland city sits attractively above the River Miño, close to the Portuguese border. Ourense’s name is almost certainly derived from the Roman name for the town, Aquae Urentes (warm waters), after its many hot springs. Its huge cathedral, dedicated to St. Martin, dates back to the 12th century, is built in a Romanesque/Gothic style and soars above the narrow pedestrian streets of the old town. Its interior is long and gloomy and the chief object of veneration is a rather spooky figure of Christ, made of fabric, with real hair and wearing a purple and gold skirt!

The treasury has an impressive array of religious objects, the most interesting of which is an ornate gold cross supported by two angels playing the bagpipes. The bagpipes (locally called Gaitas) are played throughout Galicia, as they are in northern Portugal – a clear indicator of the Celtic influence in this region.

The old town has several open squares – the largest of which is the Praza Maior, surrounded by attractive arcaded houses. The Igreja de Santa María Madre was our favourite building. This beautiful baroque church possibly housed the city’s first cathedral and has well-preserved Romanesque columns.

We had intended to complete our walking tour of Ourense by plunging into the warm public outdoor pool at the famous Burgas, the thermal springs where the city was born. However, we were defeated by Galicia’s notoriously fickle summer weather, which arrived in the form of a violent thunderstorm and torrential rain.

Puerto de Vega and the North Coast

Driving in Galicia is a joy. The roads are good and the motorways remarkably clear of traffic, so the two-and-a-half-hour journey to the north coast through hilly wooded countryside was an absolute pleasure.

Our destination was Puerto de Vega, which although technically just inside Asturias, the neighbouring province, has all the same characteristics as Galicia’s rocky Bay of Biscay coastline – including the murky weather which prevailed throughout our stay.

Puerto de Vega is a delightful little fishing port, with a sheltered harbour and a cluster of good fish restaurants serving the ‘catch of the day’. There were very few foreign tourists, just Spaniards who were clearly appreciating the superb seafood on offer.

As we strolled back to our guesthouse after a dinner of succulent grilled Merluza de Plata (silver hake), we stopped to listen to a local lady sitting on the harbour wall singing folk songs. She sang unaccompanied and her beautiful haunting voice echoed off the nearby cliffs. Clearly some fine musical traditions linger on in this part of the world.

Perhaps Puerto de Vega’s most endearing attraction is the Capilla de la Atalaya, the Fishermen’s Chapel. This little place of worship is perched on a headland above the town, has magnificent views and an unusual altar shaped like a prow of a ship. There are other interesting places along the coast, notably Navia with its beautiful town centre, and Tapia de Casariego, a popular fishing village right on the Galician border. Puerto de Vega’s best beach is the Playa de Frexulfe, particularly favoured by the surfing fraternity.

One of the chief attractions of this lovely north coast was the total absence of mass tourism. The locals are happy to keep it to themselves!

Santiago de Compostela

Some call Santiago de Compostela “the true capital of Spain”. Maybe that is an exaggeration but everyone agrees that Galicia’s capital is a remarkable place. It has an extraordinary history, outstanding architecture and for a millennium, following the discovery of the alleged tomb of Santiago (St. James the Apostle) in the ninth century, has been an important centre for religious pilgrimage.

Since then, pilgrims have flooded into Galicia and continue to do so in huge numbers. They follow the ‘Camino de Santiago’, a network of ancient pilgrim routes across Europe, the most famous of which is the Camino Francés, which stretches over 800 kms from near Biarritz. Some set out on the Camino for spiritual reasons, others find spiritual reasons on route whilst the remainder just enjoy the exercise of a strenuous long distance walk. St. James is Spain’s patron saint and is a much-revered figure. His remains are believed to lie under the cathedral and legends abound as to exactly how they arrived in Galicia. The old city centre is charming, with narrow pedestrian-only streets and numerous religious buildings, the best of which is the Monastery and Church of St. Martin Pinário. However, it is the magnificent cathedral that is the magnet for all pilgrims and tourists and it totally dominates the whole town.

Work began on the cathedral in 1075 and it has continually been enriched ever since. The spectacular baroque front with its twin towers, facing the spacious Praza de Obradoiro Square, was built in the mid-1700s. Unfortunately during our visit, many of the cathedral’s finest elements were covered in scaffolding, as major renovation works were under way.

Each of the four main squares around the building was packed with pilgrims, tourists, souvenir sellers and street artists – even a man playing a didgeridoo! It was a strange mixture of religious devotion and carnival, but not offensive, just a joyous celebration of life.

Thousands more people were inside the cathedral and here we found the ambiance more sombre, as pilgrims quietly awaited the mid-day religious Mass. A long queue of people trailed around the high altar, waiting to visit the crypt below the altar, which houses St. James’ relics – the final destination for all those foot-weary pilgrims.

There was much to see and learn and we lingered long into the afternoon, soaking up the atmosphere and examining some of the cathedral’s rich ornamentation associated with the symbols of St. James and his disciples.

Whilst Santiago was unquestionably the highlight of our visit to Galicia, we enjoyed every moment of our stay. The people were generous and friendly, the coastline beautiful, the rural landscape attractive and the seafood outstanding. We had also discovered that there were many historical and cultural links with Portugal including the language. As our taxi driver said to us as he drove us to A Coruna Airport for the flight back to Lisbon, “the Portuguese are our brothers”. We think he’s right!

We can highly recommend Casas Cantabricas (www.casas.co.uk), the travel agent that organised our Galician tour. Our guesthouse accommodation was outstanding and they provided excellent route maps and tourist information.

By Nigel Wright
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Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal eleven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

Ourense Cathedral soars above the town’s narrow streets
The Igreja de Santa María was our favourite building in Ourense
Puerto de Vega is a delightful little fishing port
The Playa de Frexulfe is Puerto de Vega’s best beach
Sunset on Galicia’s lovely north coast
St. Martin’s Monastery is one of the city’s best buildings
Many of the Cathedral’s best elements were unfortunately covered in scaffolding

There were queues of people at the attractive Cathedral entrance
The Cathedral had rich ornamentation associated with St. James
The fisherman’s chapel has an altar like the prow of a ship
The old city centre of Santiago is charming