Galicia isn't quite a separate country, but this distinctive northwest corner of Spain, separated from the rest of the nation by both geography and culture, is a far cry from stereotypical Spanish images.

The regional capital, Santiago de Compostela, is world-famous: an enchanting city whose soaring Romanesque cathedral is the ultimate goal of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Dig a little deeper and you'll discover a region that uniquely blends modern Spain and Celtic roots, complete with its own language and cultural flavour.

Galicia is a fascinating secret waiting to be explored.

The fertile green landscape of Galicia © tichr / Shutterstock
The fertile green landscape of Galicia © tichr / Shutterstock

Cliffs and capes

Entering Galicia across the hills that divide it from the arid plains of Castile, your first surprise is the countryside: it's green, gentle and threaded by rivers. Then you reach the coast. Galicia's 1200km shoreline frequently rears up in some of Europe's most awe-inspiring cliffs and capes – as at Cabo Ortegal, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Bay of Biscay, or Cabo Fisterra on the savagely beautiful Costa da Morte (Coast of Death, named for the hundreds of ships that have foundered on its jagged shores).

Between the lighthouse-crowned capes, the coastline penetrates inland thanks to a series of rías. The inlets along the west-facing coast, named the Rías Baixas, stretch up to 30km inland, while those along the north-facing coast, the Rías Altas, are generally shorter but backed by more dramatic scenery.

San Andrés de Teixido village nestles in green countryside on the dramatic coastline near Cabo Ortegal in the Rías Altas © John Noble / Lonely Planet
San Andrés de Teixido village nestles in green countryside on the dramatic coastline near Cabo Ortegal in the Rías Altas © John Noble / Lonely Planet

The coast is strung with hundreds of mostly sandy beaches, ranging from the glorious 2km sweep of Praia A Lanzada to remote cliff-foot coves such as Praia do Picón.

It's a superb coast for meandering. The many scenic marked footpaths include the recently inaugurated Camiño Natural da Ruta do Cantábrico running 133km from Ribadeo to O Vicedo. There's surf too: Praia de Pantín hosts a World Surf League event every August/September. Wetsuits required – this is the north Atlantic!

Several archipelagos off the Rías Baixas comprise Galicia's only national park, the Parque Nacional de las Islas Atlánticas de Galicia. The park's jewel is the vehicle-free Illas Cíes, a bird sanctuary where you can walk to panoramic viewpoints and laze on gorgeous, lagoon-backed Praia das Rodas.

Praia da Mar de Fora beach near Fisterra on the Costa da Morte © John Noble / Lonely Planet
Praia da Mar de Fora beach near Fisterra on the Costa da Morte © John Noble / Lonely Planet

Europe's best seafood

Thanks to all that coast and dozens of fishing villages, Galician markets and tables are loaded with seafood whose variety, quality and freshness have few serious rivals in Europe. You never dreamed octopus could taste as good as it does in pulpo á feira – tender slices of tentacle sprinkled with olive oil and paprika. You can find this quintessential Galician dish elsewhere in Spain, where they call it pulpo a la gallega, but it never tastes half as good outside Galicia.

There's a multifarious variety of crabs, good fresh fish and masses of shellfish. The most prized delicacy is percebes (goose barnacles), courageously gathered from wave-lashed rocks by specialist percebeiros. Percebes bear a disconcerting resemblance to claws – you hold the claw, twist off the other end and eat the succulent bit inside.

Galicia is also famed across Spain for the quality of the meat from its rich inland pastures. And it isn't resting on the laurels of its top-class ingredients: a generation of 'Nova cociña galega' chefs are concocting innovative taste sensations in restaurants all around Galicia. Try Abastos 2.0 and O Curro da Parra in Santiago de Compostela, and you'll find others listed at Grupo Nove (nove.biz).

Fishermen work on their nets in the harbour at Fisterra on the Costa da Morte © John Noble / Lonely Planet
Fishermen work on their nets in the harbour at Fisterra on the Costa da Morte © John Noble / Lonely Planet

Wines of the Galician soil

Galician wines are not (yet) as well known as some other Spanish wines but they are enjoying a big resurgence – and they're perfectly suited to Galicia's cuisine and ambience. Best known are the fruity albariño whites of the Rías Baixas DO (Denominación de Orígen) – whose attractive little 'capital', Cambados, was chosen as 2017's European City of Wine (facebook.com/Cambados-Ciudad-Europea-del-Vino). But you shouldn't miss the rich mencía reds from the precipitous hillsides of the Ribeira Sacra DO, or the whites of Ribeiro. Many Galician wineries welcome visitors for tastings and/or tours.

Art in stone

No whitewashed villages here. In these damp northern climes it's pure natural stone that stands up best to the elements. (Yes, Galicia's rainy reputation is justified – but you could easily strike a warm sunny spell, and if you don't, the rain showers will often be spaced between sunny intervals.)

Two millennia ago, Galicians fortified the Roman town of Lucus Augusti (today Lugo) with a 2km circuit of stone walls and 85 towers that still stands strong today. Some 800 years ago a stonemason, known simply as Maestro Mateo, carved the portico of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with 200 biblical sculptures that add up to one of the greatest works of Romanesque art. There's barely a village anywhere that isn't adorned by a little old stone church. Centuries-old manor houses dot the countryside, and some of them are now among Galicia's most delightful places to stay.

The roadsides are liberally decorated with pretty, carved-stone wayside crosses known as cruceiros – a distinctive Galician art form that reaches its highest expression in the 19th-century Cruceiro de Hío, delicately sculpted with key Christian scenes from Adam and Eve to the crucifixion. Stone grain stores (hórreos) on stone stilts are another picturesque feature of the countryside – the biggest hórreo, at Carnota, is 34.5 metres long.

Celtic hill-fort village on Monte de Santa Trega in Galicia's far southwest corner © John Noble / Lonely Planet
Celtic hill-fort village on Monte de Santa Trega in Galicia's far southwest corner © John Noble / Lonely Planet

A different people

Galicians think of themselves as Celts, distinct from other Spaniards, tracing their origins to a wave of migration from the east in the first millennium BC, and earthwork forts from that period, known as castros, dot the landscape. Scenic Monte de Santa Trega in Galicia's far southwest corner offers the most spectacular examples of these relics.

The Galician language, galego, is, like Portuguese and Castilian Spanish, a Romance tongue derived  from the colloquial Latin spoken in Roman times – but it also includes many words of non-Romance, Celtic origin.

The flower of Celtic culture today is Galician music, led by the bagpipe (gaita). Top pipers such as Carlos Núñez and Susana Seivane are Galician folk heroes. The skirl of busking bagpipers swirls around Santiago de Compostela's grand square, Praza do Obradoiro, daily. For memorable Galician folk jam sessions dive into Santiago's Casa das Crechas on a Wednesday night. And if you're here in mid-July, you can head to the Rías Altas for the four-day Festival Ortigueira, bringing together musicians from all over the Celtic world.

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