THE CITIES IN GALICIA
The cities in Galicia are both monumental and welcoming. Santiago de Compostela (the administrative capital) is the medieval centre. It has been declared Cultural Heritage of Mankind, and is the finishing point of the Christian pilgrims’ roads to the tomb of the Apostle St. James. A Coruña is the city of light and modern beauty, just as Ferrol, a traditional naval and military base, represents Neo-Classicism. We have referred to the Rías Baixas, which have two main centres of population: Vigo, looking out over the placid waters of the Atlantic, offering some of the best shellfish (Such as oysters), and Pontevedra, the end point of a long tongue of sea that stretches inland and merges with the waters of the River Lérez. Pontevedra is striking for its historical quarter, one of the most interesting in the whole of Spain.
Lugo and Ourense are the two main cities to visit inland. The former, as we have mentioned, is a living testament to its Roman past. Both are crossed by the mighty Miño river which, as it passes, leaves behind autochthonous forests with centuries-old oaks and chestnuts, which have been an inspiration on countless occasions for artists all over the world. Ourense is interesting for its Roman bridge, its thermal waters –hot springs– and the entrance portico to the Cathedral, known as the Porch of El Paraíso, by the Master-Sculptor Mateo.
A Coruña, with 250,000 inhabitants, is the second most populated city in Galicia. Known by the Romans as Brigantia, where they built the city's emblematic lighthouse: the Tower of Hercules, the oldest working lighthouse in the world.
A tour round the city's old quarter can start off from Plaza del Obelisco, in the centre, where you can appreciate the bustling local life while taking a walk along Calle Real and Calle Rego de Auga, the most traditional shopping streets, which run onto the magnificent Plaza de María Pita, where you can see the splendid, Art-Nouveau-style City Council Building. This square is a good base for exploring the old quarter, to discover A Coruña's most significant historical events, as the city's origins stem precisely from this area. Here, you can visit the Romanesque, 11th-century Church of Santiago, with Gothic elements from the 14th and 15th centuries; the suggestive Plaza de Azcárraga; the Collegiate of Santa María, built between the 12th and 15th centuries, very near the museum of Religious Art; or the square and convent of Santa Bárbara, which form a remarkably beautiful ensemble. Before leaving the old quarter, visitors should see the San Carlos Garden, beside the Military Museum and the Luís Seoane Foundation, a very pleasant, romantic park enclosed by an old defensive bastion that houses the tomb of General Moore, killed in the battle of Elviña during the French invasion. A visit is completed by the walk along the Avenida de A Mariña and its characteristic gallery-ornamented buildings.
Ferrol represents a perfect opportunity to discover an 18th-century city that is different from the rest of Galicia's cities. It is a fishing and industrial city, home to renowned sailors and soldiers. The sea is the soul of the city, which exists in symbiosis alongside it. It originated as a fishing village and, over time, became a city of great naval and military power, largely thanks to its natural harbour, one of the most sheltered and beautiful in the world. An ideal place to seek haven from the wild waters of the Atlantic, it is accessed past the surveillance of the Castles of San Felipe and A Palma.
The port, very near the Cruxeiras jetty, designed in the middle of the 18th century, where you can appreciate the characteristics of the period's military engineering, leads into Calle Espíritu Santo and the Plaza Vella, whose main features are the traditional homes with projecting galleries, so traditional in Galician cities.
One of Galicia’s most important tourist resources is for visitors to discover the cultural, artistic and monumental treasures in seven of the main Galician cities' old quarters: Santiago de Compostela, A Coruña, Lugo, Ourense, Pontevedra, Ferrol and Vigo; each one different and each with their own charm. Restoration work has made it possible to recover the value of our cities old quarters for tourism, exhibiting a combination of all architectural styles and one of whose main attractions is their own local residents.
A highly-recommended visit in Ferrol is the Arsenal, an impressive military complex built around 1750, which gives visitors some idea of the Navy's considerable importance in the city's construction. One of the most attractive urban features in the city of Ferrol is the A Madalena district, erected according to plans approved by Charles III in 1761, with a completely square layout, only interrupted by the Plaza de Amboaxe and the Plaza de Armas.
SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
Santiago de Compostela is Galicia's showcase. Capital city of the Autonomous Region, it is both traditional and modern. The tradition can be clearly appreciated in its cultural heritage, matched by few Spanish cities and which earned its designation as World Heritage by UNESCO in 1985, and in its association with the surrounding rural environment, allowing it to be defined, even today, as the most rural of all Galicia's cities.
Main features of Santiago's old quarter are the Praza del Obradoiro, surrounded by buildings steeped in art and history, such as the cathedral, the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, the University of Santiago Rectory and the City Council Building. Medieval in structure with additions from later periods, Santiago's old quarter consists of a network of streets, alleys and squares, dotted with monuments and making an extremely interesting visit. Key sights are the Plazas of A Quintana, O Toural, Azabachería, Cervantes and, among others, Calles Villar, Rúa Nova, Preguntoiro or Xelmire.
Just imagine how the medieval pilgrims felt when they topped the crest of what came to be known as the Mountain of Joy and caught their first glimpse of Santiago de Compostela and its cathedral, the shrine of Saint James (Santiago). It was the reward for a pilgrimage that entailed months of hardship. Over the last thousand years, this path has been trodden by millions. And they still come, motivated by faith, adventure or curiosity. Most make straight for the Plaza del Obradoiro, a space built on a larger-than-life scale, as if to imbue the new arrival with a proper sense of humility. Before him rises the Baroque façade of the cathedral, while to one side stands the Hostal de los Reyes Católicos, a hospice built in the 16th century to give shelter to the pilgrims. Today, as a luxurious hotel, it continues to provide comfortable lodgings to weary travelers. The dominant theme in this World Heritage City is granite, broken by splashes of ochre-coloured lichen, and the place would appear rather funereal, it is, after all, a city built around a grave, were it not for that other, human ingredient in the mix, accounted for not only by its numerous visitors but by the fact that Santiago is a university town, whose students ensure that evenings in this city are lively affairs, in which music, conversation and great food, especially shellfish from the Galician coast figure prominently.
This city's Roman heritage can be seen from any perspective. The city wall, the only complete Roman one to be conserved, designated World Heritage, has marked the city's historical development and continues to be the axis around which life in Lugo revolves.
The River Miño is associated with the city's origins and constitutes a fundamental part of Lugo locals' life as a walking and leisure area. The city is 2 thousand years old, founded in the year 14 B.C. as a Roman camp. It is the oldest urban settlement in Galicia, and in imperial times was designated centre of a Roman administrative district, one of the three that made up the province of Gallaecia.
Lugo's old quarter is enclosed within the boundaries of the wall, 2,140 meters long, and key sights in this monumental area include the Cathedral, the Episcopal Mansion, the Praza do Campo and a number of churches. Highly-recommended visits in Lugo are its Roman baths, the House of Mosaics and its Roman bridge, built in the 1st century B.C.
Lugo was the last major city the pilgrims came to as they crossed over into Galicia and neared their final destination. Lugo is famed for the Roman walls, officially declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which still encircle the city centre, and one of the most romantic experiences in Spain is to walk along the top, following the same path imperial sentries patrolled so long ago. A visit to Lugo is best enjoyed if it coincides with the colourful weekly market, when farmers bring in produce from the surrounding country, a land of rolling hills, grazing cattle and herds of free-roaming horses, a land of witchcraft, magic and mystery.
Ourense originated as a city of gold and water. That was how it was known by the Romans, founders of the early settlement, which they called Aquae Aurente, giving rise to the current place-name. It is also place of crossroads, where the River Miño defines landscape of a city that lies between coastal Galicia and inland Spain and has always sought to look outwards.
Ourense's old quarter is one of the largest of Galicia's cities and has recently benefited from an extensive programme to refurbish zones and buildings. The city's life unfolds in its older, monumental district, with barely a transition from its more modern areas. Possibly the busiest old quarter in Galicia, its key sights are the As Burgas hot springs, the Cathedral, the Plazas Maior, do Trigo, la Alameda do Concejo and do Ferro; and the Posío Gardens.
Pontevedra is the city that opens its province's interior to the sea. It is a crossroads in a privileged, strategic location, on the last bend of the River Lérez before it flows into the ria. This location gave rise to its Roman origins, next to a bridge that crossed a roadway joining Braga, Lugo and Pontevedra. Legends and traditions, however, tell that it was founded by the Greek hero Teucer, who took part in the Trojan War.
The city of Pontevedra's old quarter is considered to be the second most interesting in Galicia, after Santiago de Compostela. Integrated totally within the city and having benefitted from an extensive rehabilitation and refurbishment programme, it is almost entirely pedestrian. Pontevedra' old quarter comprises national monuments such as the Basilica of Santa María la Mayor or religious buildings like the Chapel of Las Apariciones, the Convent of Santa Clara, the Church of La Peregrina, the ruins of Santo Domingo and the Church of San Francisco.
Pontevedra's old quarter constitutes the finest example for understanding traditional urban structure in Galicia, which can be seen in its streets and squares such as Ferrería, Teucro, Leña, Verdura, Mugartegui or Méndez Núñez.
Vigo is a city associated with the sea. The sea has marked its origins, its history and its economy. It is a genuinely cosmopolitan city and the most populated in Galicia. It is entrepreneurial in spirit, with a great social life, giving rise to cultural and social trends that later spread to the rest of Galician as a whole.
Vigo's existence as a city is recent, as even well into the 19th century it was just another of the many sea ports that lay along the ria shores, but its origins date back into the mists of time. Within its mountainous frontiers, the district comprises over thirty Megalithic monuments.
Its old quarter is small but very attractive, and is undergoing refurbishment. A highlight is El Berbés district, a stepped ensemble of old fishermen's and craftsmen's houses, and back streets running down from the city centre towards the sea. A key sight in this area is the A Pedra Market. Around the urban area, Vigo conserves major historical sites of great beauty, like the hills of O Castro and A Guía, excellent viewpoints overlooking the city.
Outside the cities, Galicia conserves attractive old quarters in its towns, good examples of which include Allariz, Baiona, Betanzos, Cambados, Cangas, Castro Caldelas, Celanova, Combarro-Poio, Corcubión, Mondoñedo, Monforte de Lemos, Muros, Noia, Ortigueira, Padrón, Pazos de Arenteiro-Boborás, A Pobra de Trives, A Pobra do Caramiñal, Pontedeume, Portomarín, Ribadavia, Ribadeo, Sarria, Tui, Vilagarcía de Arousa, Vilalba and Viveiro.