One of the greatest pleasures of travelling to a foreign country, especially in Europe, is eating (and drinking) out.
Of course the new cuisines begging to be sampled are a big attraction and often part of the fame of a city or region. But for me, taking part in the “terrace” culture that seems to be ubiquitous in mainland Europe is one of my favourite travelling activities.
Thanks to good, warm weather along with beer being listed on menus as refrescos – i.e. soft drinks – Spain is one of the best countries in which to do this.
Venturing to the lesser visited Galicia, I was looking forward to interspersing my cathedral visits with an espresso here and a cerveza there. One of its main products being fish and seafood, I was also eager to sample the various fruits of the sea that this corner of Spain has to offer.
As it happened though, our Galician gastronomical experiences were somewhat varied.
Day 1 – Paella
Paella is probably the most well-known of Spanish dishes. Although the “national” dish of the Mediterranean region of Valencia, the various corners of Spain have included paella as a restaurant staple.
Arriving in Santiago de Compostela late in the evening, we were spoilt for choice for where to cenar – that is to eat dinner.
The main street of the historical centre of Santiago was a Little Mermaid graveyard with mounds of shellfish, upturned octopuses (octopi?) and whole fish staring at us from every restaurant front. Add to this tanks containing lobsters and crabs so large that they’d made Sebastian feel insecure, this was all a bit too much pressure for our first night.
Eventually we settled on somewhere. Having only ever visited Spain in the summer and even then the south or an island, this chilly Atlantic night in March wasn’t the best environment for the al fresco dining that I was used to. For this reason, sitting inside seemed somewhat alien – and like grandma’s kitchen.
Not to be dismayed, our colossal pan of saffron-flavoured rice, langoustines, clams, squid and eight-legged friends was much more tasteful than the decor. It was also here that I was educated on what the black lines running down the backs of shellfish actually are. Thankfully a bottle of the local Albariño wine took the edge of this shitty discovery.
Day 2 – Cake by the Ocean
Okay. We were 60km from the ocean but I couldn’t resist the opportunity for such a title. In Spanish terms we were relatively close to the sea as the local food attested.
After a breakfast of disappointing chocolate con churros that is worthy of a blog of its own, and the visit the cathedral described in my last post (read it!), an aimless wander around the centre of the city lead us to a welcome surprise discovery.
Up a hill behind said cathedral, we stumbled upon some interesting flowers. The flowers were outside a hotel. The
hotel had a bar and a verdant jungle of a garden.
The Hotel Costa Vella gave me the Spanish experience I was craving. A small beer known as a caña accompanied by free crisps and olives followed by an apple tart, sat in a garden overlooking Santiago’s centrepiece! Although I admit it would have been nicer if the weather were a little warmer…and a lot less rainy…we
had finally achieved the goal of eating and drinking a la terrazza.
Day 2 – Santiago’s Number 1
When my boyfriend who I had practically dragged to Galicia to satiate my appetite to travel had realised that we’d pretty much exhausted the very few attractions of Santiago de Compostela, he resorted to taking matters into his own hands. And thank God (and Saint James) he did.
While I took an impromptu nap in our hotel room at the San Martin Pinario monastery, he called to Tripadvisor for some suggestion. And so we ended up deciding to book a table at the city’s number 1 rated restaurant.
Although booking a table in this quiet, residential part of town was not necessary in the end and the place opened in true Spanish style 10 minutes after our reservation time, when we entered the cosy courtyard of O Sendeiro, it already felt like he had made a good choice.
One of the defining aspects of the Tripadvisor reviews was the friendliness of the English-speaking staff. Although I would normally avoid somewhere that boasts speaking English as a unique selling point like the plague, the man who served us must be recognised as the friendliest waiter in Spain. His English was excellent, but he allowed me to practice speaking Spanish and he even made time for me to interrogate him on the practicalities of living in a region where most people use Castillian Spanish and Galician as everyday languages.
He recommended wines – which is how we ended up returning to England with local red wine Mencia instead of the already-famed Albariño (probably how I convinced my boyfriend to come to Galicia in the first place) and he offered us a pre-appetiser for free.
O Sendeiro was also where I took my chance to try the local dish pulpo à feira. Basically a plateful of very very salty, thinly sliced octopus tentacles sprinkled with an orange spice. Followed by the thickest piece of meat I’d ever seen and a chocolate mousse dessert, paying around 60€ total for 4 courses and a bottle of wine for two people did not make a big dent in the budget either.
Just when we thought we’d met the nicest person of this trip, we made our way closer to our hotel in the historical centre and found ourselves at a bar where I managed to have the longest conversation in Spanish in my life. The waiter, who we discovered (en Español of course) was originally from Argentina, gave us his view of Galicia from an immigrant’s point of view. And it was largely centred on the food.
Before I continue, I must come out. I can’t hide it any longer. I’m a smoker. Luckily Europe does not want to banish me to a leper colony as much as it feels the UK (or God help me, the US) does. Another part my love for eating outside in Spain is that no one bats an eyelid when you light up and bars here are much more accommodating to people who want to enjoy a cigarette rather than smoke in the snow out of addictive tendencies.
The bar, whose name escapes me, was one in a long line of eating and drinking establishments along one of the narrow lanes of historic Santiago. As there is no room for a true terrace in front, the most forward part of the building had had its window panes removed to get around laws banning indoor smoking. While the interior was protected from the elements (and the fumes) by glass doors, it was a wonderful experience to drink even more local wine, eat free tapas and smoke with my boyfriend, without having to put our coats back on to walk outside.
And this brings me onto another example of the laid-backness of Spain when it comes to voluntarily poisoning your body. While in the United Kingdom, wine must be measured to the milliliter so that you can “monitor” your drinking while you get completely legless, in Spain, just pour it in. Ordering two glasses of wine here will actually result in you seeing the bottle (a luxury in Britain as you’d have to buy the whole thing to see it) and they just pour you a glass. There’s no such thing as small or large, and no such thing as single and double spirits for that matter!
Of course the next day, we weren’t able to easily blame the headache on 6 250ml glasses of red wine because God knows how much we had. A much better way to live.
Day 3 – Siesta Starvation
On the one hand considered part of the laid back Spanish life, on the other impacting Spain’s reputation for being a nation of lazy people, the siesta is a quirk of life here that is well known to foreigners.
Having previously visited major tourist centres and big cities where a complete shutdown between 2pm and 4pm is impossible in the modern world, I was not at all prepared for a whole city to close all of its doors for the afternoon.
As you know, we’d already seen everything in Santiago de Compostela and so we decided to go even more out of the way and take the train to the capital of the Rias Baixas region of Albariño fame. According to Lonely Planet “Pontevedra is an inviting, small, riverside city that combines history, culture and style…” Yes, there is some history here and it has its photo opportunities but Lonely Planet may have been a little over generous in its description. At least those travel writers are doing their job properly.
After a walk in the completely wrong direction, we finally found our way into the centre of Pontevedra where we were greeted by a few old buildings, ruins and, most invitingly, cafes and bars opening out onto broad plazas. Discovering that most of the places listed in the travel guide were closed (some permanently) we had no other choice to fill our time with a square-side beer and more free tapas. Not the worst thing in the world considering the weather had somewhat improved.
Believing we should probably spend our time a little more wisely, it was time for another wander but eventually hunger and the realisation there are only so many times you can circumnavigate a church set in.
Sadly in Pontevedra 4pm is the time when all restaurants close their kitchens before reopening for dinner at 8. To give them a little credit, they continue to serve beers and coffee but not wanting to fan the flames of the stereotype of the drunken British tourist, I needed to eat something before I passed out!
Naturally it was at this time when we actually noticed the many great places to eat that we had so easily overlooked earlier and eventually we found somewhere with a closed kitchen that was willing to serve us empanadas. In this case, a dry piece of cardboard with a nondescript filling. I was starting to get moody.
Thinking heading back to the main square of Praza da Ferrería would be our best bet for me to avoid a hunger-related rampage, a bocadillo, similar to what we might know as a panini, outside the very same bar where we had sat with a beer 2 hours earlier prevented my mood from turning ugly.
There were so few people around that I found it hard to consider Pontevedra a city, let alone “a lively base[…]abuzz with shops, markets, cafes and tapas bars.” Needless to say, it was time to return to the slightly busier Santiago for the final culinary experience of our trip.
Day 3 – Borracho!
As I write, I am realising that I’m talking about drinking on this trip an awful lot. I need to tell you all that we were not borracho (i.e. drunk) the whole time but maybe this is why I don’t like to rent cars when I go abroad.
Anyway, on our first evening we noticed a rather grand looking Art Deco-clad restaurant in the Old Town with a relatively affordable menu and we decided to ear-mark this as our final night treat before we returned home. Oh what a mistake.
We had found the wonderful O Sendeiro on Tripadvisor and matching with the online reviews we had a great time. Why on Earth didn’t we consult the internet when it came to Cafe Casino?!
Yes, the decor was interesting and the food wasn’t terrible but we had clearly fallen into a tourist trap. Everyone dining there was not Spanish and the staff were a little free with their menu suggestions, clearly hoping hungry travellers and pilgrims would just say si and worry about what they’d actually ordered (and the cost thereof) later.
The most noteworthy and embarrassing moment at Cafe Casino though came towards the end of the meal. When asked by the horrifically rude and muttering waiter if we wanted desserts of coffee, we decided that we were full and would rather finish our bottle of wine. To which he tutted and walked away muttering again. One word stood out from his muttering…borracho! He saw us as drunk British tourists!
Maybe this is a very British point of view but one bottle of wine between two people over the course of a meal doesn’t constitute irresponsible drinking in my eyes. Clearly an opinion not matched by Cafe Casino.
Feeling dissapointed to say the least, we went for more wine at our favourite location – unfortunately minus the fat Argentinian from the previous night. And the wine helped us to forget the waiter’s opinion of us.
Didn’t I say that Galicia offered a varied gastronomical experience? I left satisfied with what they served. I tried their famous octopus and the local wine (did I mention that?). One thing that I passed on though was Santiago’s almond cake. But I’m okay with that.
Galicia may be known as being a playground for foodie tourists but I can’t help thinking that the other regions of Spain have much more to offer when it comes to food and drink.
One thing’s for sure, I will now be more careful about believing what I read about food in travel guides.