Join Spain’s green party
Jewish history, fine food and great architecture are all on offer in Spain’s north-west.
The riverscape at Ribadavia in Galicia in the far north-west of Spain
Five hundred years after the golden age for Spanish Jewry
was brought to a brutal end by the Inquisition, it is touching
to find at least one long-gone community immortalised, albeit in pastry.
In fact, many kinds of pastries and desserts are still being faithfully turned out according to centuries-old Sephardic recipes at La Tafona de Herminia, a bakery in the tiny town of Ribadavia which proudly identifies itself with a Magen David.
Ribadavia is a jewel in the crown of Galicia, a relatively undiscovered province of Spain in the extreme north-west corner of the country.
Most famous for beautiful coastal scenery and surprisingly grand
cities, Galicia keeps Ribadavia —which is somewhat off the beaten track — under its hat. It does feature, however, in an official brochure about Jewish Spain, The Routes of Sepharad, and the local tourist office is thrilled to meet Jewish visitors and talk them through the tiny heritage trail.
This includes the site of a synagogue used by residents who were primarily vineyard owners since Ribadavia is in the heart of Galicia’s wine country.
Long disused, there is no building to visit, but the little Plaza de Magdalena, where the Jewish vintners once prayed, is a charming spot, and it is delightful to wander the surrounding lanes, where some of today’s residents have affixed stars of David as a sign of respect to the original occupants.
Ribadavia, which also has a small hotel (the Plaza on the main square, with a pleasant restaurant in which to enjoy an alfresco lunch), and a bridge (affording a beautiful riverscape and view of the town), sits between Santiago de Compostela and Vigo, each of which could detain the visitor for a couple of days apiece.
Santiago made its name on the unlikely myth that the apostle James was ferried all the way from Jerusalem in a stone boat and was buried nearby. According to the myth, his ninth century grave was discovered by a religious hermit who followed a compostella, or guiding star.
But although modern-day pilgrims do still make their way to the astonishing gothic pile of a cathedral named for St James — aka Santiago — this is a university town, and predominantly a place of young people.
Franco Street is lined with restaurants, of which the buzziest and nicest is the Terraza de 42. This is a modern offshoot of the well-regarded Meson de 42 down the road, which seems rather gloomy by comparison, though they share the same menu. The food — as in everywhere I tried in Galicia — is simply delicious.
While the observant will have to eschew the seafood for which the region is famous, and the huge ribs of beef and veal for which it is almost as renowned, there is almost always sea-bass or sea-bream on the menu and a variety of other fine, fresh permitted fish.
It would be a shame to leave Santiago without a wander round the colourful covered market in the old city, presided over by tough old matrons who have shlepped their cheeses, honey and vegetables from the countryside to sell here, before leaving for Ribadavia en route to the sea at Vigo.
This lively port is a different kettle of fish, so to speak, from Santiago, but equally delightful.
More young people, more buzz, but a much more urban setting, Vigo is a prosperous city where people seem to hang out from afternoon into the wee small hours. A drink on one of the many convivial plazas is recommended, followed by dinner at the crazy-busy Rias Baixas on the Rua Argentina, where more delicious fish — with and without chips — is on the menu.
As everywhere in Galica, delicious local white wine is available from about £6 a bottle to wash it all down.
Vigo is also a great jumping-off point for the fishing villages of the west Galician coast, of which Camarinas is a pleasant place to stop for a lunch of the freshest catch imaginable.
But some of the most dramatic scenery — characterised by beautiful forests which suddenly give way to coastal vistas — is on the northern coast.
Here the lunch stop of choice would be the elegant little beach town of Cedeira, while Betanzas and Pontedueme are also worth a stop and a stroll.
To explore these northern villages, La Coruna — which also has an international airport — is the best base. Named City of Glass for its thousands of multi-paned windows, this is a town of enormous sophistication and class. It has the Hesperia chain’s flagship five-star hotel, the Finisterre, which offers a really splendid breakfast and is a cut above the chain’s mid-range offerings in Santiago and Vigo.
Back from the villages, La Coruna’s big-deal square is the Plaza de Maria Pita, lined with restaurants housed in strangely identical conservatories.
It is handsome enough by day, but a far more atmospheric place to stroll in search of a restaurant is the buzzy Calle Franja, leading off the square. Here, the Meson do Pulpo is well worth the (longish) wait for a table. There are no queues, however, before 9.30pm, shockingly early for dinner by Spanish standards.
While flights from London serve both Vigo and La Coruna (and it makes no sense to backtrack), those with seven to 10 days to spare can enjoy the most rewarding odyssey, crossing the entire north coast from San Sebastian or Bilbao — known as “Green Spain” — enjoying what may be the most picturesque coastal motorway in the world.
Bilbao and San Sebastian are both real foodie towns, but the former enjoys better access from the UK. In Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim and the nearby Museum of Fine Arts, it also has world-class galleries, plus a lively Old Town packed with tapas bars (head for the award-winning Gatz), and a delightful river walk.
A great hotel from which to enjoy the river on one side and a lovely park on the other is the glamorous Sheraton, which has a superb cutting-edge restaurant in Aizian. Next door, in the Convention Centre, is the equally fabulous Etxanobe and — heading out of town — it would be well worth making a long lunchtime stop at Azurmendi, situated in a local winery at Larrabetzu, near the airport. All of these — the last two boasting a Michelin star — produce food, including permitted fish and vegetarian dishes, to knock your socks off.
It is possible to make Galicia from Bilbao with just one overnight stop, ideally in Oviedo located midway and a handsome town which retains a few relics of ancient Jewish life. But if you have the time, it seems silly to resist an earlier stop — without even leaving the highway — in Santander, which metamorphoses astonishingly from never-ending port to glamorous fin de siecle resort. Santander offers both a magnificent grande dame wedding cake of a hotel (the art nouveau Real with its endless lounges and hilltop terraces), and a destination restaurant, the Cenador de Amos, in an elegant palazzo in the hills at Villaverde, well worth the half-hour drive from town.
Iberia (0870 609 0500; www.iberia.com) serves Bilbao, Vigo and La Coruna via Madrid from around £90 one-way; Clickair (00 800 254 252 47; www.clickair.com serves each of those cities direct from London from £25 one-way. Hesperia Hotels (0870 225 4134; www.hesperia.com) offer double rooms at the Peregrino in Santiago from around £68 per night; at the Hesperia Vigo from around £52 and at the Hesperia-Finisterre in La Coruna from around £78, all with breakfast. Lastminute (0871 230 0670; www.lastminute.com) offers doubles at the Husa Real in Santander from £123; Sheraton Bilbao (0034 94 4280 000; www.sheraton-bilbao.com) from £80 per night. Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk) offers car hire in Spain from £17 per day. More info at www.spain.info; 020 7486 8077
Jewish Northern Spain
A large community grew up in the Middle Ages in Oviedo, where the Jew Mari Xabe held high office. A plaque in the Campoamor Theatre commemorates a Jewish cemetery on the site, and there is another demarcating the limit of the old ghetto in the Plaza de Juan XXIII.
Wine-growers, traders, craftsmen and physicists as well as money-lenders prospered in Ribadavia right up to the 17th century
The historic centre of Ribadavia consisting mostly of the Jewish quarter has been declared a national monument