When we packed our lives, dog and key kitchen utensils into the back of a 4 x 4 to travel around Europe, the one thing that kept us doing through the long months beforehand (other than gin) were the endless planning sessions.
The more maps, travel magazines and pointless conversations the better as we debated the best way to get down to our first base in Portugal. We were looking for somewhere to wind down - a seafood haven with a beachy backdrop and a vineyard or two to keep us topped up.
We'd been dreaming of Northern Spain since dipping our toes with a trip to the foodie mecca of San Sebastian.... but we wanted more. More seafood, more beaches, more wine and more for our money.
Bags packed and car loaded we zipped down through France and started to wind our way along the north coast. As this is the greenest part of Spain, and we are notoriously unlucky with weather, we didn't book too much in advance giving us the flexibility to chop and change with the wind and the freedom to uncover a few unexpected gems. Here are a few of our faves...
1. The Beaches of North West Galicia.
Hands up - I'm super fussy when it comes to beaches. I put this down to living in Antigua and being really sand-spoilt although truth told, I've always been a beach brat and regularly turn my nose up at seaweed strewn stretches... so standards are high.
We travelled to the Viveiro/O'Vicedo area of Galicia on a whim as there isn't a huge amount written about it. The conspiracist in me thinks this is all part of a cover-up to keep the best bits of Spain for the Spanish, as it's got some of the most beautiful beaches which have yet to succumb to any kind of mass tourism.
Praia de Xilloi is one of the best. From the fine pale sand shelving into crystal clear water; to the lush green backdrop; and a proper local beach bar serving up scallops in the shell and a crisp dry white for lunch.
We had the whole beach to ourselves for a good couple of hours while the locals busied themselves preparing Sunday lunch. This was no dry roast dripping in gravy... but wonderfully fresh fish cooked on open flames served with delicious looking salads, stews and aromatic veg.
After lunch we hit the road and headed to our next beach stop Playa de Arealonger which, while a little less charming, was still a great find. We wondered along mesmerised by the kitesurfers before coming around the headland to a beautiful strip of sand.
If you're into beaches then another great spot is Playa de Area just the other side of the Ria de Viveiro - a gorgeous long stretch of sand with the same beautiful clear water.
2. A fabulous hotel - Pazo de Trave
If you're visiting Northern Galicia and looking for a great place to stay then we'd highly recommend Pazo de Trave which is located down a winding lane 5km outside of Viveiro.
Set in an old manor house, this absolute gem is run by a fantastic team who are genuine and thoughtful along with providing a great service. We were made to feel welcome from the moment we stepped inside, so much so that we instantly booked another night.
We were shown to a couple of rooms - both lovely and chose one overlooking the garden and pool. With nothing else nearby we were expecting to be stung at dinner, but instead were offered a 3 course menu del dia with coffee and wine all for €15.
After a good night's sleep we ate breakfast on the lawn and were surprised with a wonderful spread of meats, cheeses, local specialities, homemade jams, bread, cakes, eggs and coffee.
It's really charming place, devoid of frills but all the better for it, particularly as it's an absolute steal at €50 night*!
3. Drinking Albarino in Cambados
Venturing west into the Rías Baixas, we knew we were onto a good thing when the landscape became dominated by vines. While there are the neatly arranged vineyards you'd expect from one of the country's most active wine producer's, all the terraces and gardens of private houses are also covered, giving the whole area a really beautiful green backdrop.
Cambados is a small coastal town with winding backstreets, little squares and interesting buildings... but the best thing about Cambados, has got to be the delicious crisp Albarino that flows like water.
With plenty of bodegas offering a generous glass for around €2, it is the perfect place to spend a lazy couple of days meandering around getting increasingly lost (and caring increasingly less). Our favourite area was up through the backstreets past the parador on your right and keeping the sea on your left where there were plenty of fantastic restaurants offering plates of delicious garlicky clams and local specialties such as smoked cod carpaccio and local sausage.
While we love a lunch, the town comes alive at night with people wondering between restaurants and bodegas, sometimes with a bottle in hand just to sit in the square and watch the world go by.
Our advice - don't assume that the wine is a tourist rip off when you see offers in the local shops and wine bars. It's much better value than the supermarkets for a really good quality wine.... something we learnt the hard way ;(
4. Thermal baths, more wine and riverside ramblings in Ribadavia
Don't you just love it when a plan comes together (cue evil plan laugh), and stumbling across this medieval town in the heart of inland Galicia was definitely one of the unexpected highlights of our trip.
With a decidedly dodgy looking coastal forecast, we looked inland and booked a couple of nights in Ribadavia based purely on a great looking Air BNB. Driving though the hills, we found ourselves in a lovely little medieval walled town built around the banks of a river.
You could easily spend a morning wondering around the town, stopping for coffee before settling into a long lunch in the square. Then walk it off in the afternoon, dropping down to the river bank for a nice long amble past the free flowing water on one side and local vines and farmland on the other.
Ribadavia serves as the capital of the Ribeira wine route meaning that not only is the countryside surrounding the town full of beautiful vineyards of all shapes and sizes, but the bodegas in town are also full of their magnificent produce.
You can pick up a bottle of Ribeira from almost anywhere - including some great locally produced small batches bought from the roadside as you venture slightly out of town.
The natural hot springs at Termas Prexigueiro are about 10 mins out of town and are a circuit of Japanese inspired pools of varying temperatures set in the middle of a forest. Less of a tourist attraction thank you'd expect, with a few locals and even fewer out-of-towners enjoying the therapeutic benefits of the hot spring water. Entry was around €5 - but take your own towels and flip flops to save on the extras.
5. San Sebastian
It's tricky to talk about Northern Spain without at least mentioning San Sebastian as it feels like a rite of passage for anyone passing through.
It really is a great place for a long weekend with three fantastic beaches, a buzzing old town packed full of pintxos bars, great shops, lovely walks and a brilliant thermal bath complex right on the beach - perfect to rejuvenate after a long trip (or long lunch).
The highlights for us were, of course, the pintxos bars where they take bitesize eating to the next level and serve up combinations that wouldn't be out of place in a michelin star.
We didn't even attempt to eat in a proper restaurant and feasted on the most incredible plates of seared tuna, clams, beef cheeks and wagyu sliders for two days straight.
You need some dutch courage to get up to the bar in some of the places, as it doesn't do to be shy, but just ask for a couple of their recommendations and you won't be disappointed.
We walked off the excess by climbing up to the fort on the top of Monte Urgull. As views go it was a decent one, but it was just really good to stretch the legs and walk off some wine.
We stayed 5-10 mins walk away from the old town just across the river by Zurriola beach, which is a nice little neighbourhood in it's own right with plenty of great breakfast stops, cafes and bars. It's got a laid back feel to it and it far less hectic than it's neighbour.
Last but not least... the cheesecake.
Now this really is a rite of passage and I'm sure is at the top of everyone's list but you really must dive in to La Vina for a slice of their famous baked cheesecake. I'm not even a big desert fan but I'd walk back there now for a slice of that vanillary deliciousness. One plate serves two... unless you've walked from home ;)
And our travel essential...
Marketing ploys aside, we genuinely couldn't have done without this cashmere throw... I mean I guess we could've asked for blankets, but who wants some natty old hotel blanket when you can be wrapped up in cashmere ;)
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