Galicia was one of the central points for Western European Megalithic Culture (8000-2000 BC), and physical remains are still visible today. Nonetheless, Galicians trace their cultural ancestry back to Celtic tribes which began to settle around 1000 BC. Celtic Civilization in Galicia had its heyday between 600 and 25 BC, up to when Galicia fell under the power of the Roman Empire. Still, a weak Romanization meant the consolidation of a hybrid culture, bearing strong Celtic traits.
Galicia is considered "the first country in Europe", following the establishment of the Swabian Kingdom in 411 AD. The Swabian dynasty lasted until 585, when it was replaced by the Visigoth dynasty. With the Muslim occupation of southern Iberia from 711 and the subsequent dismantlement of the Visigoth Empire, Galicia began to consolidate itself as one of the main Christian Kingdoms in Medieval Iberia, namely thanks to the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.
Galicia was annexed to Castile (Spain) in 1486; this was the beginning of the so-called "Dark Centuries" (Séculos Escuros). Since then, Galicia has attempted to regain its independence or achieve greater autonomy up to this day. Galicia only lost its formal denomination of "kingdom" in 1833. There was a failed attempt to proclaim a Galician Republic in 1931.
Since 1981, the 'Galician Statute of Autonomy' grants Galicia extended autonomy within the framework of the Spanish State. Galicia has its own national parliament, president and symbols, although it is curtailed from international representation. Many Galicians claim for a greater autonomy or even independence; others are happy with the current arrangements.
Galicians take great pride in their cultural heritage and architecture. You will find plenty of good examples of this by just 'getting lost' in any Galician city, town or village. Santiago de Compostela is a must, but it is also a good idea to wonder off the tourist track, as this is safe, unexpensive and highly rewarding. Furthermore, Galicia is well-known for its splendid landscapes, ranging from spectacular sea views to mountain areas.
The local language is Galician, a romance language very closely related to Portuguese. In fact, many linguists consider it and Portuguese to be dialects of the same language, though Galician's pronunciation and written form is more influenced by Spanish. Galician has unique colloquialisms and traces of former cultures, using a number of pre-Indo-European, Celtic and Germanic words not found in standard Portuguese.
Galician (or Galego) is Galicia's primary language. Both Galician and Spanish are official in Galicia, as recognized by the Spanish Constitution and the Galician Statute of Autonomy. Though it is slightly less common in the cities, Galician is understood by the vast majority of the population, and Spanish can be spoken by virtually everyone (although it is heavily influenced by the Galician accent and vocabulary). Travelers will have no problems communicating in Spanish, and can easily make themselves understood in standard Portuguese.
After the arrival of the Castilian nobility towards the end of the Middle Ages, Galician disappeared from the public eye and was preserved only privately. It was only in the 19th century that Galician started to be reclaimed in all areas of everyday life. Today, children are taught both Spanish and Galician in school, and the majority of the population speaks Galician normally, although that varies depending on the location.
Young people study English at school, so they should have at least some basic knowledge of that language. The odd person may speak some French or even German (expatriates especially).
The territorial organization of Galicia is quite complex, and, as a visitor, you will not need to know it in detail, but bear in mind that Galicians have an unique spatial perception regarding their surroundings and settlement pattern. For example, there some 317 municipalities in Galicia (concellos or concelhos), and 53 small regions called comarcas or bisbarras. Furthermore, the 317 concellos are also subdivided into a number of parishes (parroquias), and parishes may contain a number of lugares (settlements). Galicians may refer to these jurisdictions when mentioning their locality, especially in rural areas.
Yet, Galicia is also divided into four bigger provinces. These are:
Probably the best option if coming from abroad. Galicia has three international airports (A Coruña, Vigo and Santiago de Compostela), of which the main one is at the capital, Santiago de Compostela. This airport (called Lavacolla) connects Galicia with a number of European cities, such as London, Dublin, Frankfurt, Liverpool, and Rome. There also are flights between Vigo and Paris and Brussels, and A Coruña and Lisbon and London. There are plenty of flights to a number of Spanish cities and the odd charter flight to South America.
Road communications from and to Galicia are quite good, with plenty of motorways connecting Galicia with Spain and Portugal.
There are routes from Portugal and cities in Spain (best one is probably from Madrid), although the service is slow and the choice of times is not the best. The introduction of a high-speed train due in (approx.) 2018 will come to drastically ease train access: There will be fast connections from and to Madrid and, later on, Lisbon and Porto. There's a narrow gauge link between Ferrol and Asturias, operated by FEVE.
Although you cannot travel directly from the UK to Galicia by ferry, you can get pretty close by taking the ferry from Plymouth to Santander (Brittany Ferries) or Portsmouth to Bilbao (P&O Ferries). LD Lines has also launched two routes from the UK (Poole) to Santander and Gijon, which are about 3.5 hours away by car from Galicia's main city Santiago.
Santander is in the region of Cantabria on Spain's northern coast. It lies between Galicia's neighbour Asturias and the Basque country. Bilbao is a bit more faraway but still worth the trip following all the coastline from the Basque country to Galicia.
RENFE runs trains in and out of Santiago de Compostela to all major cities in Spain and Portugal. The RENFE website provides all travel times. Expect long trips and not a great choice of times. For internal trips in Galicia, only the A Coruña-Vigo line (north to south along the Atlantic coast) can be considered as really effective, and the new high speed link (AVANT) connecting Ourense, Santiago and A Coruña. FEVE's narrow gauge line covers the north coast from Ferrol to the border with Asturias.
There are a number of bus companies that will take you to virtually anywhere in Galicia, and indeed in and out of Galicia. You will have to get yourself acquainted with these at the local bus station (there is one in each city and town), as they is a large number of possible routes and combinations. To the uninitiated, this can be confusing in the beginning.
Renting a car is always a good option, since it is not that common in Galicia hence this keeps the price of renting relatively low. Roads are good in general and driving might be fast but not vicious. Indications in local areas may be scarce and the Galician settlement pattern and method to name places confusing; yet, a GPS will come to solve all these problems.
Way of St. James - Traces the route of the apostle James.
If you like eating, maybe you'll never come back from Galicia. You will find seafood and a wide range of products made from pork-- the whole animal is eaten, even the blood. Galicia is definitely the place to go if you like seafood and fish, since Galicia is by itself a world fishing power (for example, almost half the mussels in the world are 'harvested' in Galicia).
Galicia also has a lot of good desserts. Churros are common throughout the region. While in Santiago de Compostela, look out for a tarta de Santiago (Cake of Saint James), a ground almond cake with the Galician Cross (also known as the Cross of Santiago) drawn into the icing. It's also relatively easy to find in the cities all along the Way of St. James.
-Pimientos de Padrón (see Drink section)
The main drink is wine, but Licor Café (coffee liquor) is a main choice for those who want something stronger. But be careful, although Galician people are very friendly, severe ingestions of this liquid could cause a problem. Also try Queimada (spirituous liquor with sugar burnt into a pot while a traditional spell is usually said).
Estrella Galicia is the local beer. It's not bad for the price, but the real "estrella" (star) is their Special 1906 batch. Try it with a plate of "pementos de padron" (lightly fried peppers...most of them are mild and very flavorful, but without distinguishing quality, some are extremely hot!). Keep your drink handy and partake with a few friends.
The most famous wine in Galicia is Albariño, one of the best if not the best white wines in Spain, followed by Ribeiro.
Galicia is in general a safe place to visit. Observe the usual caution in larger towns and cities. Of all larger cities, Lugo, Pontevedra and the capital - Santiago de Compostela - are probably the safest. Having said that, you will be perfectly ok in any Galician city just by using your common sense, and you will probably feel safer than in most Western European cities.
Drug trafficking and drug-related activities and crime are not uncommon. However, this seldom transpires beyond some areas and rarely affects the occasional tourist.
For all emergencies (ambulance, fire brigade and police) dial 112.
Galician people are normally welcoming and like to have the occasional chat with visitors but, paradoxically, they also have a reputation for being reserved people. Indeed, their confidence may be hard to earn in the beginning, but if that is achieved, they will be open and honest with you. Address people politely, even in a formal way if necessary, as this will always cause a first good impression and will open many doors. Also, remember that your word is your reputation (especially in rural areas). Do not promise anything or do not 'give your word' if you are not intending to fulfill it. Spoken agreements may be as binding as written ones for everyday issues to the eyes of a Galician (namely, in rural areas).
Galicians often like to exchange stories, where you may find yourself doing most of the talking. Yet, locals will indeed enjoy that with some amusement. Do not expect to master the Galician conversational code in just a few days. There is an intricate combination of idioms, gestures, and silences, too. The fact that you don’t know it, or that you use a different one, is what Galicians often find interesting in visitors.
If offered a gift of similar, you are not to accept it straight away. A polite refusal is expected. Take it, eventually, if insisted upon; you are not necessarily expected to give anything back. Do not decline invitations for food or drink after a first of second polite refusal, especially in rural areas, as this may be considered rude. If you absolutely do not wish to eat or drink what you are offered state medical reasons (a white lie), as that will indeed be respected by your Galician host. If you produce a gift do not expect something in exchange immediately; the 'favour/gift-trade' in Galicia also has its own code and you may be retributed in time, or if you ever go back.
Do not openly discuss financial issues in public gatherings as a general rule. Try to avoid talking about money or ask about money or finances, unless you are conducting a specific business. Avoid talking about politics even if you think you know Spanish politics. Party and personal loyalties in Galicia work in a completely different way. The issue of Galician and Portuguese being one language should also be avoided unless you know very well the person you are talking to and have some background knowledge. The Galician situation is radically different to the one in the Basque Country or Catalonia for that matter; it is full of grey areas.
Respect local customs and traditions; do not mock superstitions regardless how strange they may seem to you. Galicians may tell you it is all "nonsense", but they still will not like you judging them.