In the southwest corner of Galicia from Monte Louro to the mouth of the Mino River at the Portuguese border, the Rias Baixas unfolds her charms of sparkling blue and shades of green. Blue of the fjords (rias) and green of the vineyards and corn fields. Fishing villages dot the coast and pontoons of oyster and mussel beds thrive in these cold Atlantic waters. This area is defined by the richness and variety of natural surroundings, it is the countryside fusing amazing layers of history, incredible beaches, large pine and eucalyptus forests, and vineyards: producing my favorite Albarinos. Interestingly there are no large cities (the biggest being Vigo with a population of only 300,000) small towns are the norm. There are so many hidden gems if you take the time to explore.
Due to its climate, the area really enjoys an almost mild Mediterranean weather with wet winters, but rarely do the locals see freezing temperatures. This green corner of Galicia has an enormous wealth of botanicals, a variety of palm trees, lush gardens, and fruit trees. It is poetically known as where a thousand rivers flow. The largest is the Mino River which delineates the border with Northern Portugal. But probably most would say that its main treasure is its seafood!
People here insist this is the best seafood in the world harvested from calm pristine waters that is exceptionally rich in marine life and its 3,000 floating raft hatcheries for succulent mussels and oysters. By boat, on foot, diving or clinging to rocks the daily catches are harvested and rushed to the markets, restaurants or even canneries. Here you appreciate the freshness of the recently caught fish (75 different varieties) and the intense flavor of the shellfish. Whether eating oysters along the vibrant Calle de las Ostras in Vigo or a beachside chiringuito; local chefs work hard to make the main ingredients stand out, using simple recipes that highlight the natural flavors, rarely is any condiment served except for lemon. Whether you opt for grilled sea bass, spider crabs, brown crabs, lobsters, Galician style octopus or grilled scallops, each mouthful will transport you to the very essence of Galicia.
In 2007 an inventory estimates that the Galician coast has 316 archipelagos, islets, and freestanding rocks. Among the most important of these are the archipelagos of Cíes, Ons, and Sálvora. Together with Cortegada Island, these make up the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park. Large cresent pristine beaches like the very long Playa de A Lanzada, the famous Playa America, or Playa Barra are just examples. They stand out for the stunning beauty, with fine white sand and crystal waters, very similar to the beaches of the Caribbean. The main difference is the fact that its waters are much colder.
The Ons archipelago, formed mainly by the Ons and Onza islands, is located at the entrance of the Ría de Pontevedra. And the magnificent panorama of the sublime Cies Isles is in the Bay of Vigo. Originated by tectonic movements, the islands are part of a mountain range that sank into the sea several million years ago. Currently the archipelago is completely uninhabited. It is a natural paradise with virgin beaches, dune systems and pure nature, and only accessible by boat.
The Rias Baixas also shelters monumental castles and fortresses called Castros sitting high on hilltops or sea cliffs so that they could see enemies advancing by land or sea. This is an ancient land settled by the Celtic tribes called Gallaeci – thus, a land with many red heads, bagpipes, mystical rites, folkloric and spiritual heritage. There are hundreds of ancient standing stone monuments like portal tombs, and megalithic burial mounds that were erected during the prehistoric period. Amongst the best-known are the dolmens of Meixoeiro and de Axeitos and menhirs like the Lapa de Gargantáns, also commonly found in Ireland. The history of this land goes back to Neanderthal – the Romans arrived in 19 BC and so on.
My favorite part of their history is that it was Columbus’ La Pinta arriving here in 1493 in the first European port (Baiona) in order to announce the New World’s discovery! Martín Alonso Pinzón, the Spanish navigator and explorer who sailed with Christopher Columbus in his first travel to the New World, in 1492, as the captain of La Pinta. Today a replica is moored in the harbor of Baiona.
Interestingly he brought the first potatoes, tomatoes and corn from the new world – whether you believe it or not these potatoes, tomatoes and corn taste differently than those grown elsewhere in Europe.
While I was recently there, I had the pleasure of dining at Relais and Chateaux Pepe Viera Restaurant. Set on a high forested perch above the charming old town of Sanxenxo and the air is filled with the scent of eucalyptus and the sea. The address is called Camiño da Serpe (or snake’s trail) though you really don’t need a 4 x 4, these are steep hills to climb. The property itself is snuggled into the land, truly in tuned to nature. Super modern but lots of glass to highlight the magnificent views and sense of place. This two-star Michelin, plus a Green star for sustainability is built around the chef's deep passionate knowledge of Galicia.
You are personally met as you come into the parking lot, welcomed and escorted to the garden for an introductory drink of homemade apple and ginger kombucha and amuse bouche. You are encouraged to explore the gardens bounty. This is a nod to green mosaics of the small plots that assured Galician family's survival over the centuries. Following you are taken through the restaurant on to another patio overlooking the Rias to scan the menu. The weather was so fantastic I stayed there for several appetizers. Dining at Pepe Viera is experiential, you need to enjoy the moments, the courses, the drama, the show and interaction with chefs, sommelier, and staff.
This is a chef that has traveled the world and has come home, fine tuning his cuisine, that of Galicia. I think he says it best: “Galicia’s history is linked to the trajectory of our cuisine, which also constitutes the argument of the history in dishes of ‘A ultima cocina do mundo’. There are four axis in which our circle of history turns and is enclosed:
Ø We recovered forgotten foods of traditional gastronomy.
Ø We rescued and reinterpreted the recipes and traditional dishes.
Ø We experimented with culinary techniques of our ancestors.
Ø We converted our gastronomy in a narrative based on Galician immaterial patrimony.”
I will link this back to La Pinta’s bounty of tomatoes, corn and potatoes…
People from this area know that these ingredients even after 530 years have maintained their authentic flavors. A tortilla de patatas tastes totally differently in Galicia, it's those potatoes! Chef Pepe Viera takes pride in this, one of my courses was Chula, a fluffy fried dough made of that special sweet corn. And as a puree under a beautiful scallop. Another was the amuse in the garden, dried intense tomato pulp wrapped around herbs and seaweed like a sushi roll. But it was the seafood that takes center stage here. After a dozen courses matched with spectacular wines of the Rias Baixas. This exploration of culture and cuisine was one of the most outstanding and memorable meals of my life. There just a handful of things that make all the difference in outstanding places, open hearted hospitality and the passionate attention to details. This was over the top!
Restaurante Pepe Vieira | «A última cociña do mundo" Relais and Chateaux (13 rooms available)
La Quinta de San Amaro another excellent property a few minutes away.