Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain

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Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain

Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain

With its many inlets and pretty harbours, this unspoilt corner of north-west Spain is a delight for cruisers. Daria Blackwell explores Galicia.

Dreams of white sand beaches fringed weather with granite boulders warmed by the Galician sun finally took flight. We departed from Crookhaven in Ireland at the break of dawn with a westerly wind of 12-15 knots. This provided us with the ideal conditions for a swift passage southward and across the Bay of Biscay.

It certainly was fun surfing along at nearly 10 knots. It was the first time we had covered 200 miles in a day in Aleria, our vintage Bowman 57 ketch. Since the was so cooperative we decided to bypass La Coruna and Finisterre, heading directly to the rias where we would begin our cruise southward with a fleet of 60 boats taking part in the Irish Cruising Club Rias Baixas (pronounced Bishash) Rally.

We reached the Real Club Nautico Portosin (RCNP) in the Ria de Muros e Noia, a total of 504 miles, in exactly three days, arriving at 0600 in mystical morning fog, along with the entire fishing fleet of the region. We then spent two months cruising the rias of Galicia.

Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain

Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain
Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain

Photo: Jam World Images / Alamy

Switching over from foul weather gear to shorts, T-shirts and sandals was no problem, but needing jumpers and jackets at night caught us by surprise. The weather in Galicia is not as hot as we expected, nor is the water warm. Being on the north-west coast of Spain, Galicia has an Atlantic maritime climate, more like Ireland than the Mediterranean coast or Spanish interior.

Walking the streets of Portosin and exploring the small town’s environs was a joy. Tapas bars served the crisp white albarino wine of the region and we found the freshest seafood. It was easy to slip into the local rhythm. We rode our bicycles to the fine white sand beaches flanked by granite boulders and tiptoed gingerly into the frigid waters. We visited Santiago de Compostela, a magnet for tourists and pilgrims, especially in the summer, but well worth a visit.

Every day more Irish boats sailed in to the marina, the starting point of the rally. We wondered how 60 boats could be accommodated in the four ports in the four rias (estuaries) we were to visit, but it worked as easily as a child’s puzzle. The marinas had everything arranged for us and knew exactly where every boat would be placed on arrival.

The marineiros who handled the lines were good natured and helpful, but most only spoke Gallego (the language of the region, a derivation of Spanish and Portuguese) and communication was difficult.

We were soon on our way to the next ria, but as the events were spaced three days apart, we had plenty of time to meander, finding anchorages and interesting villages to visit along the way. We stopped in Muros, an ancient town north-west across the estuary from Portosin, and experiencing a resurgence due to a new marina.

Narrow alleys lead up the hill to a church built like a ship with more statues in it than we’ve ever seen. The festival of Our Lady of Carmen takes place in July and we had heard the fireworks and music when back in Portosin.

Ideal cruising

Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain

Malaga Port Cruising

In the rias, navigation was relatively easy except when passing between the barrier islands and rocky outcrops, which requires extreme caution. The region is blessed with inlets and dotted with inviting harbours and villages. As in Scotland, we could weigh anchor in one harbour, stop in another for lunch, and continue on to a marina in a third village for the night.

It makes for ideal cruising and, unsurprisingly, is a destination for charters as well as a favourite for staging when sailing across the Atlantic. We got lazy about pulling up sails between some destinations, but there were days when the wind was just too good to pass up a more lengthy passage. Team Mapfre has its base in Sanxenxo and could be seen putting its Volvo 65 through its paces.

In the Ria de Arousa, the largest of the rias, we made for A Pa do Caraminal, avoiding giant mussel rafts en route and anchoring off the marina in sheltered waters. Galicia is one of the world’s largest producers of mussels.

The rafts are everywhere, but it was easy to manoeuvre among them with their anchor chains hanging straight down from the rafts. There was an international gathering of yachts in every harbour with Irish, British, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, and Spanish flags flying.

Festival day

Caraminal is a lovely old town, with a tree-lined waterfront avenue, restaurants lining the harbour, and meandering alleys leading up past walled estates to the old church overlooking the harbour. A footpath runs the entire length of the harbour parallel to the popular beach.

From there we took a tour of Granbazan vineyards, the largest producer of the crisp albarino wines for which the region is known. It was interesting to see the unique style of parra – a pergola trellis system of vine growth for maximum sun exposure and ventilation.

Sailing Galicia: Combarro Ria de Pontevedra
Sailing Galicia: Combarro Ria de Pontevedra

The unique horreos, or granaries, dot the coastline at Combarro, in the Ria de Pontevedra, along with stone crosses. Photo: Age Fotostock / Alamy

The next day, we toured the boatyard at Xufre on the Illa de Arousa. It was the major festival day; the fishing fleet was dressed for a parade of ships and the town was closed. So we anchored off the beach just inside the Punta Caballo (where the lighthouse is now a high-end restaurant) for a quiet and peaceful night.

No visit to Galicia would be complete without a stop at the very charming town of Combarro on the Ria de Pontevedra. The new marina has a massive outer concrete pontoon with 3m of water at MLW. This is in contrast to the shallow depths shown on outdated charts, which had caused us to approach with extreme caution.

We were glad to have such good access to this viliña mariñeira or mariner’s little town. It drew us to stroll down its historic streets with its traditional Galician houses with covered porches, wraparound balconies, and tiny gardens and flower planters.

The granite streets wind along a rocky coast loaded with horreos (granaries), cruceiros (crucifixes) and shops and restaurants cut into the stone walls. The fleet of small fishing boats supplies restaurants with the fresh catch of the day. The food and wine were excellent, the atmosphere festive.

sailing galicia barra raft up credit daria blackwell

Raft-up in Barra, with Celtic Spirit as the anchor vessel, Aleria and Grand Slam tied alongside, and Papageno tied alongside Aleria

An epic rally

Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain

The following day we took part in a raft-up of Ocean Cruising Club (OCC) members’ yachts in the Ria de Vigo off the magnificent (and nudist) beach in Ensenada de Barra. Eleven yachts took part, four of which rafted together while the others anchored off. Twenty-six OCC members and crew were hosted aboard Michael Holland’s 72ft Celtic Spirit of Fastnet.

It was a brilliant evening, with the older salts advising the newer recruits about crossing the Atlantic and sailing around the world, as well as making the most of the Med. The final night of the Rias Baixas Rally took place in the spectacular setting of the Monte Real Club de Yates de Bayona.

The yacht club and marina are on the grounds of the 12th Century walled fort and castle, now an upscale parador state-run hotel. The panoramic views from the walk along the walls of the fort were stunning. The beaches lining the Ensenada de Baiona are first rate, with a bicycle and walking path running the length of the bay.

Sailing Galicia: Bayona
Sailing Galicia: Bayona

Bayona, with its pretty harbour and imposing fort at the outlet of Vigo Bay. Photo: LOOK Die Bildagentur der Fotografen GmbH / Alamy

We rode our bikes along the beaches and climbed to the Virgen de la Roca statue, which stands sentinel for mariners as they embark on their journeys. The facilities at the yacht club are unparalleled and the club now welcomes visitors. We enjoyed cocktails in the clubhouse grounds overlooking the marina and the closing dinner was at the parador. It was a fitting end to an epic rally.

Reverberating boom

Now we were on our own. We hopscotched our way north to the Ria de Corcubion in the shelter of Finisterre, where we spent five days at anchor. The ancient village of Corcubion sees few tourists and fewer yachts. There is no marina but the anchorage has good holding and shelter from the predominant northerlies in the summer. A few pilgrims stop in for a spell as they walk the obscure reverse Camino route from Santiago to Finisterre to see the end of the world.

We launched our dinghy and assembled our bicycles to explore. The charming winding granite stone streets, architecture and welcoming atmosphere combined to create an authentic Galician experience.

Sailing Galicia Aleria Bowman 57
Sailing Galicia: Aleria Bowman 57

Aleria, our sturday Bowman 57 ketch, makes the most of the conditions

Adjacent to Corcubion is Cee, a modern town with all the amenities you would need, including a giant supermarket. One morning, we were jolted from sleep by a reverberating boom. At noon, a second boom sent shock waves down our mast and hull and echoing off the hills.

This was soon followed by at least a dozen more explosions. We learned that the festival taking place was letting the world know it was open for business. That night we had the best seats in the house for the most spectacular fireworks display we’ve ever seen.

From Corcubion, we worked our way back to the Ria de Vigo where we had chosen the Punta Lagoa marina as Aleria’s winter berth. We took in the magical river and waterfalls at Ezaro and watched fishermen diving for scallops at Sardiniero before continuing on to visit each of the barrier islands that constitute the Parque Nacional das Illas Atlanticas. We had applied in advance for permission to anchor among the islands and now requested permission, via the internet as required, to visit on specific days.

We found the Illas de Cies fascinating with three main islands and several smaller ones. They receive more than a million visitors annually from one ferry operator alone. The long white sand beach with Caribbean blue waters was clearly their main attraction, but the walks out to the lighthouse and unusual rock formations far from the crowds were well worth it. The vistas around the rias and of the Atlantic were breathtaking.

Deserted village

The Illas de Ons have far fewer visitors and a smaller population. The walks to the lighthouse and blowhole were somehow less interesting topographically than Cies had been, and the village at the ferry terminal had several nice but crowded restaurants.

We found the Illa de Salvora most pleasing as it was quieter. We walked to the faro (lighthouse), then to the deserted village where pequeño wild horses roam free, and toured the chapel and its Castillo, which was once a fish salting facility and is now a museum. The lovely crescent beach overlooked by a mermaid carved into a stack of rocks was gone under the high tide when we returned.

Sailing Galicia: Salvora Mermaid Statue
Sailing Galicia: Salvora Mermaid Statue

The mermaid on the rock in Salvora keeps watch patiently

We allowed at least two days for each of the islands and nipped into the rias in between, visiting Santa Uxia de Ribiera, San Vicente, Cangas, Cambados and Vigo. At San Vicente I enjoyed the magnificent beaches while Alex crewed aboard Miss Demeana in the Classics Regatta, a favourite event of Juan Carlos, the former king of Spain.

In Cangas, we met up with friends and sampled more of the region’s wines. We roamed the perfectly arranged streets of Cambados, the albarino wine capital of Galicia with its large central square, castillo winery, large church and, of course, many wine bars.

We took a slip at the Real Club Nautico in Vigo right in the heart of the old city. There we were transported back to a different era of European distinction – with exotic plants and trees defining parks replete with fountains and statues.

The plethora of restaurants forced us to make choices for fine dining. To top it off, the super modern computer-operated laundromat made doing weeks’ worth of laundry a snap while topping up the food supply from the local supermarket.

One day, our friend Alberto Lagos of legendary Astilleros Lagos boatyard, offered to take us on a tour of the mountains bordering Portugal near A Guarda, where we were filled with awe by the stunning views overlooking the Rio Miño.

Sailing Galicia: Rio Mino Monte de Santa Trega a Guarda
Sailing Galicia: Rio Mino Monte de Santa Trega a Guarda

Stunning views of the Rio Miño from Monte de Santa Trega, near A Guarda. Portugal can be seen in the distance

We stopped at the impressive monastery of Santa Maria de Oia in the lovely village of Oia en route while Alberto regaled us with stories about growing up in Galicia and spending summers at his grandfather’s small hunting and fishing lodge on Cies.

Ría de Aldán

Sailing Galicia: Ría de Aldán
Sailing Galicia: Ría de Aldán

Our last stop before returning to Vigo turned out to be one of our favourites. We anchored in the Ría de Aldán for several days. The waters there were the warmest; as the shallow waters recede, the white sand heats up, then warms the water when it returns with the tide.

The aqua blues of the waters against the magnificent deep blue skies was akin to a Caribbean experience. We enjoyed cocktails at the beach bar and took the dinghy to the fine restaurant next to the slipway from where we watched the most impressive sunset of our stay.

A friend had told us about a magnificent cruceiro (cross) at the village of O Hio, up the hill from the harbour in Aldán . We were not disappointed when we saw the amazing history of Christianity carved into stone in front of the church on the hilltop with expansive views of the Ría below.

We were enchanted by this ancient land, its Celtic people. We thought two months would be too long, but it wasn’t nearly enough. Small wonder so many cruisers from Britain and Ireland are choosing to leave their yachts in Galicia for years of exploration.

About the authors

Daria and Alex Blackwell are members of Mayo Sailing Club, the Irish Cruising Club and the Ocean Cruising Club, of which Daria serves as rear commodore and Alex is rear commodore for Ireland. They are co-authors of Cruising the Wild Atlantic Way and Happy Hooking – The Art of Anchoring. They have completed three Atlantic crossings and spent a year in the Caribbean. They have cruised in Ireland and Scotland for the past few years and live in Westport, County Mayo.

First published in the November 2017 edition of Yachting World.

The post Sailing Galicia: Exploring the enchanting rias of North-West Spain appeared first on Yachting World.

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