Top tapas and the original Zara store on a tour of Galicia

You never wait long to hear the sound of champagne corks popping in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia, Spain’s coastal north-western province.

In the main square, Praza do Obradoiro, footsore pilgrims crack open bottles of bubbly, swelled with a palpable sense of pride that they have just completed the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route.

We are not pilgrims but tourists on a two-day break to Galicia to soak up its culture and cuisine. 

End of the world: Cabo Finisterre is Spain’s very own Land’s End with the grassy peninsula offering sweeping views across the island 

End of the world: Cabo Finisterre is Spain’s very own Land’s End with the grassy peninsula offering sweeping views across the island 

We arrive too late for the midday Pilgrims’ Mass when a priest announces the nationalities of pilgrims who have reached their destination. 

On special occasions, visitors can see eight priests swing the 12st botafumeiro, the world’s largest incense-burner, in a 215ft arc.

Inside the cathedral, the apostle’s silver casket holds the remains of Saint James. The city has been an important pilgrimage site since the remains of Saint James (Santiago in Spanish) were discovered here in the 9th Century.

The cathedral, with a soaring granite facade added in the 18th Century, takes pride of place in the city’s main square, but in Santiago you are never far from architectural delights.

The nearby parador (government-owned hotel) in the main square is as gorgeous as the cathedral. Santiago’s Parador Hostal Dos Reis Católicos is one of Spain’s most beautiful paradors, and a tourist attraction in its own right.

Place of worship: Santiago de Compostela cathedral is the reputed burial place of Saint James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus

Place of worship: Santiago de Compostela cathedral is the reputed burial place of Saint James the Great, one of the apostles of Jesus

Away from the main square are Romanesque churches and ornate Baroque edifices, many belonging to the 500-year-old university.

From Santiago we head to La Coruña, 45 miles north. Here are pilgrims of another kind: fashion disciples with a different penitential garb in mind.

The high street fashion brand Zara started life here, and is the city’s greatest success story.

The high street fashion brand Zara started life here, and is the city’s greatest success story. The first store, opened in 1975

The first store, opened in 1975, is located at Calle Juan Flórez. The humble townhouse of the brand’s founder Amancio Ortega still stands.

As early evening darkness falls we wander through the main square, the Plaza de María Pita, a large porticoed plaza full of tapas bars and cafe terraces. It is named in honour of a local fisherwoman who fought off an attack by Sir Francis Drake’s hordes of English privateers in 1589. There’s a statue to her opposite the elegant three-domed Palacio Municipal.

Many tourist sights in La Coruña seem to commemorate fighting the English, although we experienced a warmer welcome.

The statue of María Pita should also include an octopus: in La Coruña, it is not just a speciality but an obsession. There’s an octopus sculpture on the waterfront, and everywhere sells Galicia’s signature dish ‘pulpo a la gallega’ – boiled octopus sprinkled with paprika and olive oil.

Street view: There is an abundance of choice when dining out in Santiago

Street view: There is an abundance of choice when dining out in Santiago

La Coruña is a large, industrial fishing port and Galicia’s seafood, in particular chipirones (baby squid), beberechos (cockles), navajas (razor clams) and percebes (goose barnacles), is regarded as the best in Spain.

‘We sell to the best restaurants in Madrid and Barcelona but keep an awful lot for ourselves!’ a grinning waiter tells us.

At La Cerveceria, a lively beer tavern with a huge ceiling, we nibble on tapas – croquettes with air-dried beef, pimientos de padron and tortilla patata that oozes eggs, potatoes and olive oil. There’s also every schoolboy’s favourite, tetilla cheese, named because it resembles a woman’s breast.

We forgo a bottle of crisp and fruity white Albariño from Galicia’s Rías Baixas area for some Estrella Galicia, La Coruña’s signature beer.

We are told the tavern sells more beer than anywhere else in Spain but that might possibly be because it only sells beer.

In the morning, we stroll through the old town, the cobbled lanes meandering up until we reach the tranquil San Carlos Gardens. There are panoramic views of the city’s setting, flanked by water on a spur of land which pokes east and then north into the Atlantic.

We head towards Cabo Finisterre, Spain’s very own Land’s End, and the headland at the Torre de Hércules, a stone square-sided lighthouse dating from Roman times, near the northern tip of the peninsula.

The Romans called Galicia Finisterra and thought it was the end of the world.

A couple of thousand years later, Pablo Picasso lived in La Coruña for several years as a child when his family arrived from Malaga in 1890. The artist nicknamed the lighthouse the ‘Torre de Caramelo’ because it reminded him of his favourite brand of confectionery.

The sound of any champagne corks popping here will be blown out to sea on this wind-buffeted coastline.

TRAVEL FACTS 

Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.com, 0330 159 7000) offers crossings from Portsmouth and Plymouth to Santander or Bilbao. 

Prices start from £294 each way for a family of four taking a car and including an en suite cabin. 

Vueling Airlines (vueling.com) flies daily from Heathrow to La Coruña from €115 (£96) return. 


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