Life on the Far Edge

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Destinations, July 1997

Life on the Far Edge

Tromping about on Spain's unique western shore, where fjords abound and vino is a breakfast staple
By Bruce Schoenfeld

Carnival in Rias
Come for the seafood. Stay for the bagpipes and jigs.

Mix Celts, kilts, and squid and you have the makings of the festival season in Rías Baixas. The Galicians may not be quite as wildly innovative in their entertaining as their Basque neighbors, whose festivals involve such icebreakers as running with the bulls, tossing huge boulders, and playing musical chairs on horseback. But the coastal folks do know how to throw a good party.

And most of their celebrations involve food. At the biggest, the October seafood festival in O Grove, fresh shellfish is sold at hundreds of stalls for ridiculously low prices — a large helping of steamed mussels, for example, goes for about $1.30. Other vendors provide plenty of regional wine. Later in the year, visitors can mix religion and lunchtime at the sausage festival in Orense, 65 miles east of Vigo, which pays homage to a local saint.

Summer travelers, meanwhile, can attend a genially bachannalian wine festival in Cambados, near Pontevedra, in August, a hot pepper festival in Padrn that same month, or a celebration of all things octopus in Vilanova de Arousa in late July.

But perhaps the truest representation of the spirit of Rías Baixas comes this month in Cambados, during the annual fiesta of San Beniti±o de L‰rez. Part religious rite, part street dance, it begins with the parading of an image of St. Benedict and ends with Galicians dressed in kilts playing bagpipes. Jigging to the music is encouraged. Plates of steamed octopus follow. For information about other festivals in the Rías region, call the Tourist Office of Spain at 213-658-7193.

The road runs out at the town of Corrubedo. You park the car there, walk past the battered lighthouse and over the granite rocks stacked against the Atlantic, lift your eyes above the churning foam, and gaze onto a gray-blue ocean horizon that seems to mark the edge of the world. For much of recorded history, in fact, this stretch of Spain's west coast — the rough-hewn estuaries known in the Galician language as the Rías Baixas ("BYE-schuss") — was the edge of the world. The nomadic tribes that crossed Asia and Europe, most notably the Celts, ended their journeys here. They could go no farther. Finisterre, these travelers named the rocky, windswept cape nearby: World's End.

With the European discovery of the Americas in the fifteenth century, this dramatically beautiful stretch of Spain's Galicia region lost its geographic distinction. But it hasn't lost its symbolic title: By Western European standards, the Rías region is still the end of the earth. In the second most touristed nation on earth, it remains little known, especially to travelers from overseas. Galicia, after all, has few of the high-rise hotels and other tourist facilities of the Costa Brava and Costa del Sol (though the region is justly famous for its seafood and its odd, anomalous bits of Celtic culture). Rías Baixas may in fact be the last, best stretch of undeveloped beachfront in Western Europe.

Five Atlantic rías — Galician for "fjord" or "inlet" — make up the Rías Baixas, deepwater fingers that poke into the body of the Iberian Peninsula. Each differs from its neighbors in geography, history, and character: One is famous for its long tradition of smuggling; another, for its way with saut‰ed squid. But all share malt-colored sand, granite cliffs, sheltered harbors, and just enough rough water to entice boardsailors and paddlers. Don't bother dusting off your Spanish textbook before arriving, however. Galician, kin to Portuguese, is the language of choice and, in the smaller villages, is the only language spoken or written on road signs. Do plan on dawdling. The Rías area is compact enough to be seen in a week. But to sink fully into the Galician way of life, consider emulating the blissed-out college students who rent cheap rooms here and stay the season, bodysurfing or kayaking by day and eating lobsters and clams each night.

Ría de Baiona

The Pinta sailed into Baiona's harbor on March 10, 1493, to herald Columbus's discovery of the New World. That's about the last time the locals were really part of the world scene. Today Baiona, a squat beachfront town of two- and three-story buildings strung out over a handful of streets backed up against a steep hill, is quiet, almost soporific. The beach known as Praia Am‰rica, a crescent of sand a few miles north of town, is especially placid, perfect for afternoon siestas. Praia Ladeira, closer in, is better for active types, with fine winds for sailing. You can rent equipment at the Monte Real Club de Yates (011-34-986-35-52-34), which contributed Spain's entry in the last America's Cup competition.

For the greatest beach solitude, however, follow the two-mile walking path that runs behind the local Parador, a chain of government-run hotels. A series of hidden, pocket-size beaches fronts the Atlantic just below. Clamber down to any that appeal: Under Spanish law, all beaches are public and landowners must allow access.

To get around Baiona, you won't need automotive transport. Your feet, and occasionally your thumb, will take you almost everywhere you'd want to go. But if you do have a car, don't miss the Zona Recreativa Chan de Lagoa, a park about three miles out of town. To reach it, turn left south of the Parador and follow the steep, rugged road, its curves offering panoramic vistas of the harbor. The road soon plunges into a forested area often immersed in morning fog, seemingly more Scottish than Spanish (no wonder the Celts felt at home here). Watch the woods closely for herds of wild horses. Arrive on a Sunday during the summer and you'll probably stumble upon a curro, a uniquely Galician display of manliness in which the horses are rounded up, wrestled to the ground, shaved of their manes (with points awarded for the best razoring), and then released to regrow their hair for the next festival.

To stay overnight in Baiona, try the Tres Carabelas (011-34-986-35-54-41), a clean, cheap pension conveniently located a block off the harbor, within stumbling distance of a string of memorable bars. Doubles are about $50. But skip the rudimentary $3 breakfast of shrink-wrapped baked goods in favor of any of the local caf‰s. And for dinner, El Tunel, down the street, has the best of the local small, succulent Atlantic lobsters, usually for less than $10.

The Lay of the Land
Getting There: Iberia Airlines (800-772-4642) is your only choice for direct travel to Galicia. It offers daily flights from New York to Vigo or Santiago de Compostela (Galicia's largest city) via Madrid for a midweek fare of about $975 in the high season. On weekends, the high-season fare from New York is about $1,030; from Los Angeles, about $1,270.

Getting Around: To explore the Rías Baixas, you'll probably want a rental car. Hertz (800-654-3001) and Budget (800-472-3325) have offices at the airports in Santiago de Compostela and Vigo. A Fiat Brava will cost about $150 for a week. To reach the Rías from Santiago, drive 22 miles west to Noia. (The road is rough; expect the trip to take at least 45 minutes.) From Vigo, drive about 15 miles south to Baiona or about 20 miles north along the coast to Pontevedra. Buses also link Santiago, Vigo, and Pontevedra. For information and schedules, call the Castro Mil bus company at 011-34-986-37-34-11 in Vigo.

Buy a road map before setting out — but be aware that most printed place names will be in Spanish, whereas signs in the Rías region, especially in the more remote areas, will be in Galician. The differences, luckily, are slight. Remember that the Spanish playa and the Galician praia both mean "beach," and you'll do fine. — Claire Martin

Ría de Vigo

The largest fishing port in Spain, Vigo is a good base for exploring the coast to the north and south. If you're staying here, get up early and walk to Rua Tefilo Llorente for the breakfast that's said to keep the locals virile: fresh raw oysters, direct from the 6 a.m. fish auction, washed down with that morning staple, Albari±o wine. Thus fortified, you're ready to wander. The local beaches are south of the city. Avoid the nearest, Samil, which in the summer is often overrun by Spanish tour groups. Another few miles south, the white-sand beach at Canido curves enticingly along the coastal road and plays host to much smaller crowds. Down the road, on the other side of a clump of rocks from the better-known Praia de Patos, is the tiny Praia de Prado. Beloved by bodysurfers and kayakers, its surf is reliably choppy but also cold. Wear a wetsuit. Afterward, head back downtown for lunch at Bar Casa Machina. Try the fresh choko, a type of squid, served in its own ink for $5, or a ration of clams or mussels for $4.

In the afternoon, take the strikingly modern Puente de Rande bridge, Spain's Golden Gate, from just outside Vigo to Cangas. Watch for a sign that says CAMPING LIMENS; then make a left and follow a dirt road to the water, where you'll find Praia Santa Marta, a secluded cove ringed by trees, with the remnants of an old fishing boat pulled up onto the sand. It could be Barbados without the conch shells. An enterprising young man known only as Antonio rents sailboards and small sailboats (prices are negotiable). In summer, you can take a ferry from Vigo to the Illas Cíes, where four lighthouses, pristine beaches, and a small campground share space with Celtic ruins and a nature preserve. The number of people allowed on the islands is strictly limited, so space on the ferries, especially on the last boat back, fills quickly. Arrive, and leave, early.

Ría de Pontevedra

Pontevedra, with its narrow, cobbled streets and heavily shellacked balconies, is one of the most charming cities in Spain. It's also the place to try the newest, oddest recreation in the area: barranquismo (from barranco, "gorge"), which consists of climbing steep hills, sliding down mud and waterfalls, then climbing back up and doing it again. To try your hand — or back — at the sport, visit the Estadio da la Juventud on Calle Padre Fernando Olmedo; you'll usually find at least one young barranquismo enthusiast there who'll be happy to serve as your guide and coach.

For a more commonplace diversion, certified divers can explore the wrecks of merchant ships in the ría, all of them teeming with marine life. Nautica Janeiro (011-34-986-84-59-67) rents gear and arranges tours. Boardsailors also do well here: The wind off Praia de la Lanzada, at the extreme northern lip of the ría, produces surf of preternatural potency. A local tale holds that women having difficulty conceiving need only wade in waist-high, lift their skirts, and let the force of the waves do what their husbands have been unable to do.

Back in Pontevedra, bathe more conventionally at Parador Casa del Barn (about $107; 011-34-986-85-58-00), a converted sixteenth-century pazo, or manor house, with a flower-filled courtyard and spacious rooms. Skip the overpriced restaurant typical of most Paradors and head instead around the corner to Casa Fidel O'Pulpeiro, a traditional pulperia, or octopus joint. The purple limbs will be pulled steaming from copper pots, sliced, and handed to you hot. Toast the moment with the coarse red wine of the region, drunk from chipped white ceramic bowls capacious enough to require two hands — the perfect pick-me-up after a day of sliding down waterfalls.

Ría de Muros e Noia

The most northerly of the rías, Noia was named in honor of Noah, whose Ark purportedly landed nearby — and the local fauna, such as sheep, do outnumber the human population. The naked, jagged coastline is usually deserted, despite some of the highest sand dunes in Europe. The clearest sign of long-term human habitation is up the road, a few miles south of the town of Porto do Son, where the Castro de Baro±a, the ruins of a 4,000-year-old Celtic village and castle, loom near the Atlantic. A stone pathway well worn with ruts from Celtic chariots leads to the stone remnants. Just beyond, in almost whimsical juxtaposition, is one of the area's rare nude beaches.

To make exploring Noia easier, rent bicycles at the language school Escuela Iberica (011-34-981-82-01-30). Then cycle the flat roads of the coastline or head up almost any road leading away from the water. Soon you'll be pedaling up gently rolling emerald hills, past villages lined with spare stone cottages and peopled by fair-haired, freckled Galicians — a little bit of Ireland on the Spanish coast.

The Witches of Baixas
What is it about Galician women?
"My grandmother [lived] in a supernatural world in which everything was possible and where rational explanations were totally lacking in validity ... . A friend said: 'Then your grandmother must have been Galician, because she was crazy.'"
— Gabriel García Marquez

To fully absorb the atmosphere of the rías region, you first must understand the reputation of its people. Galicians, especially the women, are the mystics of the European coastal world. Galician men, perhaps in defense, are famous for being domineering: The region produced Francisco Franco as well as the family of Fidel Castro. But its from its women that the rías derives its particular character. Their notoriety as suspected meigas, or witches, dates at least to the 1600s, when Turkish sailors invaded near Vigo and massacred the local men. One widow, said to be versed in the hallucinogenic properties of wild thistle, gathered the women for a bonfire-lit memorial. The nervous Turks concluded she'd cursed them and responded by burning her and several other women at the stake. To no avail: The soldiers were driven out of Galicia. And the power of the rías women was established for perpetuity.

Today, visitors will find Galician witchcraft for sale at almost any trinket shop. Look for the ceramic amulets of a hand with thumb outstretched. The hand, it's said, summons magical powers. For about a dollar, you can take one home and practice driving off invading Turks yourself, whatever form they take. — B.S.

Ría de Arousa

The most crowded and developed of the rías, Arousa is also perhaps the most aptly named. As modern Spain's drug-smuggling capital, its nighttime beachfront activity typically involves torchlit cargo transfer. But if you avoid the ugly condos, the mansions ceded in recent years to drug overlords, and the seamier areas of the waterfront, ría de Arousa is fascinating and even charming.

The area also provides some of the best cycling in all of rías Baixas, being flat, wooded, and relatively windless. The O Grove peninsula, at the mouth of the ría, has especially fine routes. You can ride for miles from one crescent of soft sand to another, cooling off in the chilly Atlantic waters. Rental bikes are available from Ciclo Motos in town ($10 per day; 011-34-986-73-21-51).

O Grove is also the ideal starting point for a kayaking expedition around the inlet to the town of Cambados. From there you can traverse open water to the Illa de Ons, a wild, uninhabited island, or stick closer to shore and glide through the Ensenada de O Grove, a marsh thick with birds and wildlife. To rent a kayak, call Jesus Lopez, owner of the grandly named Maritimo Deportivo y Cultural Breogan (011-34-986-73-14-15).

But the best part of ría de Arousa is well outside town, at the opposite end of the inlet, where obliging Galicians have created one of coastal Europe's most unforgettable sights. To find it, drive to the town of Ribeira and follow the signs to the Mirador ("viewing point"). Soon you'll be on a winding, cliff-hugging, To Catch a Thief-style road, where eucalyptus trees eventually give way to scrub brush populated by scruffy bands of sheep and wild horses. Park at the Mirador and climb the steep rock steps to the top of the highest hill. There all of Ría Baixas opens majestically beneath you, a sweeping vista of jagged, bone-colored rock, foaming water, dove-gray sands, and deep-green inland hills. A breathtaking way for the world — or at least a continent — to end.

Bruce Schoenfeld is the author of The Last Serious Thing: A Season at the Bullfights (Simon & Schuster).

Illustrations by Christian Clayton

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