It is a view that demands to be unpacked before my suitcase. On one side, a haystack, an orange tree dripping with fruit, a vineyard, vines trained high on granite posts, and behind, a hillside thick with pine and eucalyptus woods. On the other, a wild expanse of dunes and beyond them, a glimpse of water, still as oil, inky blue in the evening light.
Glance at Galicia on a map, high in a northern corner of the Iberian Peninsula, and you’ll see a ragged chunk of Spain’s west coast, above the Portuguese border, stopping just shy of Santiago de Compostela. This, its capital, sees a steady beat of footsteps drum through as they reach the finale of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. A more lightly trodden path, I’d been told, was the one taken by clever Madrileños who, for years, have spurned the charms of Ibiza, Saint-Tropez and Mykonos in favour of a summer spent in Galicia’s Rías Baixas.
Rías Baixas is the term for the five estuaries that probe their way inland from west to east like crooked fingers, their digit-like shape giving rise to the legend that God leant his hand here, resting after the labours of Creation. The Rías are sheltered by a series of islands – the Cíes, Ons, Sálvora and other small atolls – creating a deliciously mild pocket where lemons, figs, palm trees and cacti flourish.
Asking my best-connected Spanish friends, I identified a clutch of Rías Baixas devotees: the fashion editor and several stylists on Spanish Vogue had been visiting since their teenage years, a former director at Manolo Blahnik and the current Spanish president, Mariano Rajoy, were also Galicia groupies. British architect David Chipperfield had long been a fan, having built a cool little bolthole in remote Corrubedo more than a decade ago, a town with the edge-of-the-world feeling of a Cornish fishing village.
There was also enticing talk of superlative seafood and wines, and some of the best beaches in Spain. It was high summer. While the rest of Europe headed south, my plan was to swim against the current to the Rías.
From the summit of Carnota, looking south, the five Rías shimmered in the sun, the estuaries snaking in from the sea like a collection of giant lakes scattered along the coastline. Out in the sea, the Ons and Cíes archipelagos were dark, brooding shapes floating on a late-summer heat haze.
Five days, five estuaries. I traversed the Rías’ intricate topography, from calm inlets flanked by citrus orchards to the wilder waters of the open ocean. Each Ría has its own distinct character. The most northerly, tiniest and rarely visited is Ria de Corcubión, the thumbprint of the divine hand. Moving south there’s wild Muros y Noia and Arousa, the richest in seafood and hidden islands, while the Ría de Pontevedra contains the region’s charming capital city. The southernmost, Ría de Vigo, is wider than a mile and harbours the biggest secret of all: the magical Cíes islands, home to the prettiest beaches you’ve never heard of.
The one pleasantly old-fashioned seaside town, Sanxenxo, atop the Ría de Pontevedra, is an agreeable place to hang out for a day or two. But a stronger suit were the little towns, plump with history, and the regional hub, Pontevedra, a lovely provincial city that’s not so much a symphony in stone as an operetta, with plentiful outdoor terrazas for sipping local wines. And what wines they are. In Albariño, the Rías Baixas possess one of the world’s finest whites, a fragrant, mineral-rich wine that perfectly partners the area’s excellent shellfish – mussels, clams, octopus and scallops from its cool waters.
The Ría I fell hardest for was Arousa and the Salnés county behind its southern shore, with its rural charm, farming villages, the commercial towns of Vilanova and Vilagarcía, stone-built heritage sites such as Cambados (the self-styled ‘capital of Albariño’) and the pretty fishing village of Combarro. It had islands in the stream; the fortress-like Rúa and the Areoso atoll, with sands so white and waters so pinky-blue you could half-close your eyes and imagine yourself in the Caribbean.
It also had two hotels well worth a visit. One was Quinta de San Amaro in the village of Meaño, tucked into a valley carpeted side-to-side with Albariño vines. A 14-bedroom spot with a pool and restaurant, it channelled a colonial-meets-casa-rural feel. The courtyard was a riot of hydrangeas (Galicia’s omnipresent flower) and bright arrangements of pumpkins and lemons against granite walls.
Nacho Salcedo, the quinta’s co-owner, had a busy life in Madrid until his partner, a gallego, persuaded him to leave the rat race and put down roots in the Rías. ‘When we bought the property, it was like Angkor Wat,’ he told me as we admired the estate’s ancient stone granary or hórreo. Such buildings are ubiquitous symbols of rural life here, but this one had been cunningly made over as a beautiful chill-out room; glassed in on both sides, it was the tailor-made setting for a crisp sunset G&T. Bronzed couples unfurled by the pool, occasionally raising their heads to cast a glance over vineyards where blue-clad farmers worked their way along the rows. La Quinta wasn’t raucous, but somehow felt all the better for it.
There was more of a buzz at Novavila, a few minutes’ drive from Salcedo’s place. This exquisite little hotel in Meis is owned by dapper young local José Luis Vilanova and is a collision of Galician country architecture with the more stylish end of contemporary European design. Tom Dixon lamps, a Campana Brothers umbrella stand and armchairs by Spanish designer Antonio Moragás are on loan from Vilanova Peña, his mother Carmen’s cult furniture shop in nearby Ribadumia. He paints a picture of a summer scene with a glossy crowd guzzling white wine on the terraces of Pontevedra or partying at Sanxenxo’s open-air Dux club.
Perhaps an even better choice than a hotel is to stay in one of the area’s glorious villas such as Casa Minerva, a Seventies beach bar transformed into a low-slung modern beach house. Owned by Rupert Wakefield, an ex-ad-man from London, and his wife, Galician interior designer María Moreno, it stands within a pebble’s throw of sweeping Aguieira beach on the Ría de Muros y Noia – one of the least explored estuaries. Wakefield told me his guests were mainly German but that, increasingly, a peppering of clued-up Londoners were arriving.
A little further south, between Ribeira and Pobra do Caramiñal, on the north side of the Ría de Arousa, lies another remarkable property, Castro Baroña. Designed by architect Iñaki Leite in a take-no-prisoners modernist style, it has vast sliding-glass windows that show off the water in widescreen. The house is filled with hand-crafted wonders: furniture and shutters made of eucalyptus wood upcycled from bateas (mussel-farming platforms), leather door handles, and steel staircases made by local artisans. It was thrilling to pad around, nosing into concrete-clad bedrooms, and then potter along the tiny beach below the house.
I drove to Cambados for a day, where I sat in Plaza de Fefiñáns – surely one of Spain’s most attractive squares, an open-air drawing room in warm, grey stone – and drank a glass of wine made at the palace across the way. At the Fundación Manolo Paz, a sculpture park where artist Manolo Paz exhibits his monumental works, stone menhirs stand sentinel in a pine-filled garden poised above an inlet of the Ría de Arousa. His work, which has been shown at MoMA in New York, speaks of Galicia’s deep relationship with granite and the Celtic roots of this Atlantic culture.
Another day was spent with Adrian McManus, a Galician resident who runs Northwest Iberian Wine Tours, taking visitors deep into the terroir, from artisan bodegas to château-like pazos. Our wine safari covered some of the most forward-thinking Albariño producers, as well as the semi-clandestine world of the furanchos, rustic operations that serve their own vintages alongside plates of home-style food. At O Tio Benito in Barrantes, where we had lunch of clams and octopus and sipped wine from old-fashioned bowls known as cuncas, McManus reminisced about landing in Galicia two decades before, when he looked at Pontevedra and said to himself ‘this is the place’.
After four days here I was closer to understanding why people wax lyrical about the Rías, but it was during my last stay, at the Areas Beach House, a big villa outside Sanxenxo, that everything came into focus. It is owned by Sagra Maceira, a London-based gallega who used to work for Manolo Blahnik and has been coming to Sanxenxo all her life. Areas is perched on a slope, with gardens and balconies staring directly out to the Atlantic, and sunsets that are a fiesta of blazing colour. The house is Galicia-meets-the-Hamptons, a breezy mix of primary colours on a background of dazzling white. As we sat on the terrace, fashion designer Ester Jiménez, Maceira’s sister-in-law, told me about the three-day birthday bash Sagra had recently thrown for her Californian husband. ‘The Americans flipped out over the Rías Baixas. It was the food mostly, and the wine, of course. And the beaches, and the quality of life – I hope you’re going to the Cíes Islands?’
The rumoured home of some of the world’s most pristine, beautiful beaches, guarding the mouth of the Ría de Vigo, the Cíes enjoy total protection as part of the Atlantic Islands National Park. There are no cars and nowhere to stay but a simple campsite.
The ferry pulled out of Vigo harbour on a morning simultaneously warm and crisp that carried with it a hint of summer’s end. We docked at a tiny harbour, and there it was, Praia de Rodas, a long arc of sand with the texture of soft brown sugar, the water blue as pharmaceutical glass, framed by a gentle landscape of rocks and farmland. A few little boats seemed to float in the celestial calm of the bay. There was no doubt in my mind that this place could hold its own among the finest beaches of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean.
I plunged into the unruffled water. The shock of the cold Atlantic came as a reality check: the Rías Baixas aren’t the Mediterranean or the Indian Ocean after all. But then neither would we want them to be. The whole point of Spain’s secret summer destination – the costa the crowds forgot – is that it happily refuses to be anything but itself.
Where to eat in Galicia
Restaurante Culler de Pau
The mesmerising views of the Ría from this minimalist dining room in Pontevedra compete for attention with Javier Olleros’ cooking. His dishes are a simple exaltation of local products: octopus caught on the rocks, with a garlic emulsion; hake with a citrus sauce and pickled seaweed.
Address: Calle Reboredo, 73, 36980 O Grove, Pontevedra, Spain
Price: About £75 for a six-course tasting menu for two
For modern tapas and great service, this Pontevedra basement-bar-restaurant is top-drawer. But the big attraction is its wine list, taking in great Albariños and a careful selection of fascinating wines from across the world.
Address: Rúa Michelena, 20, 36002 Pontevedra, Spain
Price: About £55 for two
Contemporary Galician cuisine, hitherto best represented by Pepe Vieira and Casa Solla (both near Pontevedra), now has another star in chef Yayo Daporta, who showcases original creations such as oysters with caramelised cauliflower and carrot vinegar at his slick restaurant in Cambados.
Address: Rúa do Hospital, 7, 36630 Cambados, Pontevedra, Spain
Price: About £75 for two
O Tio Benito
Head to ‘Uncle Benito’s’ in Barrantes for traditional cooking at its best. Choose from classic dishes such as salt cod, or a deeply savoury octopus and potato stew. Be sure to try the notorious local red, so dark it stains the porcelain cup it’s drunk from, as well as your teeth.
Address: Av. Bouza Martín, 4, 36636 Ribadumia, Pontevedra, Spain
Telephone: +34 986 710287
Price: About £35 for two
This family run marisquería in the diminutive port of Xufre on Arousa is well-known for its seafood – sardines, mussels and clams – brought in by the island’s own fishing fleet.
Address: Paseo do Cantino, 12, Illa de Arousa, Spain
Telephone: +34 986 551551
Price: About £50 for two
A converted salt warehouse right on the seafront in Corrubedo, this destination restaurant combines the virtues of a new-wave tavern, fish market and eco-deli.
Address: Travesía Torreiro 1, 15969 Ribeira, C, Spain
Telephone: +34 981 865128
Price: About £45 for two
Where to stay in Galicia
Areas Beach House costs from £6,900 per week and Castro Baroña from £2,950 per week; both sjvillas.co.uk (+44 20 7351 6384). Casa Minerva costs from £223 per night; gogalicia.com (+34 981 807604). Novavila costs from £135; novavilariasbaixas.com (+34 986 168 328). Quinta de San Amaro has doubles from £73; quintadesanamaro.com
This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller September 2017