The lighthouse on Cabo Vilán is in an impressive location

Galicia – The Costa da Morte, Rías Baixas and Ribadavia || Part 1

As a child I was intrigued by the names of the sea areas used in the BBC Radio Weather Shipping Forecasts. Most of these names, like Plymouth, Portland, Wight and Dover, could be found on a map of the British Isles, but I never discovered the whereabouts of the place bizarrely called Finisterre*. But now, over 60 years later, I have not only found out exactly where it is, but I’ve been there and even bought the T-shirt!

Cape Finisterre is a beautiful rock-bound peninsula on the wild Atlantic coast of Galicia in northern Spain. In Roman times, because it was just about as far west as you could travel on mainland Europe, it was believed to be the end of the known world – hence its distinctive name. This coastline, historically known as the ‘Costa da Morte’ (the Death Coast), was the first stop on our Galician tour.

Our 10-day circuit through this far-flung corner of Spain began at A Coruna Airport following a flight from Lisbon. It would continue to the wine producing area of Rías Baixas in the south, the River Miño and ancient city of Ourense, the scenic north coast on the Bay of Biscay and finally to the extraordinary pilgrimage town of Santiago de Compostela.

Costa da Morte

The attractive fishing village of Camariñas is at the heart of the Death Coast and has an attractive fishing harbour, excellent restaurants and a world-famous reputation for its intricate Bobbin Lace. The seas off its rocky coast are well named and have proved to be the graveyard for hundreds of ships over the centuries.

The sinking of the British vessel ‘The Serpent’ in 1890 at Boi Point was a particularly dark episode with only three survivors from its 175 crewmembers. The victims were buried nearby at what is now called ‘The English Graveyard’. This is also fine hiking country and there is a popular trail called the Maritime Route, which follows the coast between all the many lighthouses that have been constructed here over the years.

We visited Cape Vilán Lighthouse, just north of Camariñas, which is in an impressive location and home to an informative interpretation centre on shipwrecks, lighthouses and maritime signals.

But Cape Finisterre is the foremost attraction on this spectacular coastline. The sun was shining when we strolled with many other visitors to the lighthouse at the very end of its exposed peninsula. There were tourists from many nations, dozens of cyclists and hundreds of weary pilgrims arriving from Santiago de Compostela.

In recent years, the 90km walk from Santiago to the Cape has become a popular extension to the normal pilgrimage routes along the ‘Camino de Santiago’ through northern Spain. Fittingly, the clifftop is marked with two crosses and a splendid bronze sculpture of a worn out hiking boot.

Pilgrims in the past have burned their boots and clothes here to celebrate the end of their hike, but as this is now discouraged, they just leave clothing and other items at one of the crosses!

Rías Baixas

The Rías Baixas are a series of four estuaries on the S.W. Galician coast beginning just below Cape Finisterre and ending close to the Portuguese border. This is a region rich in marine life with some lovely beaches and is famous for its Albariño Wine (Alvarinho in Portuguese). There are thousands of vineyards, almost exclusively cultivating the Albariño grape, one that thrives in the warm moist climate and sea breezes. Its light acidity and strong aroma make it a perfect match for the region’s seafood cuisine. As in Portugal’s Vinho Verde region, the vines in the commercial vineyards are usually trained on high pergolas.

Our rural guesthouse was near the ancient municipality of Cambados, one of the most appealing of all Galician towns. After collecting a map at the helpful Tourist Information Centre, we strolled through the Cambados’s narrow streets, admiring the traditional granite houses, enticing restaurants and specialist wine merchants.

We enjoyed our morning coffee under the trees in the town’s main square, which is dominated by the lovely St. Benito Church and the bulky fortified structure of Fefiñans Palace. It was then just a short drive through an uninspiring strip development to the resort town of O Grove. Perched at the tip of a peninsula, it is a cheerful, modern resort with a fishing harbour and excellent restaurants, one of which more than satisfied our yearning for a local shellfish lunch.

We returned via Praia A Lanzada, a pretty and justifiably popular tourist beach, whose waters are said to boost female fertility – allegedly most effective on the night of June 23 when the swim must last exactly nine waves!


Our journey S.E. from the Rías Baixas passed through Vigo, Europe’s biggest fishing port. The destination was the pleasant valley of the River Miño, which for some of its length marks the border between Portugal and Spain. We were keen to visit the handsome riverside town of Ribadavia, centre of the Ribeiro wine region, and which produces crisp whites and slightly effervescent reds.

The town has a crumbling castle, a spacious central square and quaint narrow streets, and became famous for maintaining a sizeable Jewish population from the 12th to 16th century. Hebrew inscriptions can be seen on the houses and there is a pastry shop still using Sephardi Jewish recipes. It reminded us of the Jewish quarter in the village of Belmonte in Portugal’s Serra da Estrela, one of the many cultural similarities we noticed between Galicia and Portugal.

These striking similarities not only include the landscape, architecture and viniculture, but also the very nature of the people, their cuisine and their musical heritage. Therefore, we were not surprised to learn that around 1,000 years ago, the two countries were joined together as the ‘Kingdom of Galicia and Portugal’.

Both Portuguese and the Galician language (often called Gallego) are descended from an ancestral tongue spoken in this area of the Iberian Peninsula since the early Middle Ages. Although Spanish is used by most Galicians on a daily basis, Gallego is taught in schools, widely spoken and very close to modern Portuguese.

We were delighted to discover that throughout our journey, we could easily make ourselves understood by speaking Portuguese – in fact the locals welcomed it!

In Part 2, we continue along the Miño valley to historic Ourense, travel to the north coast and complete our journey amongst thousands of pilgrims in the stunning city of Santiago de Compostela.

* Sadly, the sea area known as Finisterre was renamed ‘Fitzroy’ in 2002 to avoid confusion with the smaller sea area of the same name used by the French and Spanish Meteorological Offices. Such a shame!

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.

Lovely St. Benito’s Church dominates the centre of Cambados

The old Synagogue in the Jewish part of Ribadavia
The spacious main square in Ribadavia
The waters of Praia A Lanzada are said to boost female fertility!
Cambados has many specialist Albarino Wine merchants
Pilgrims leave various items at the cross at the end of Cape Finisterre
The splendid bronze sculpture of a worn-out hiking boot
The lighthouse on Cabo Vilán is in an impressive location