Las Rías Altas and Las Rías Baixas

The Costa Verde reaches along the north coast into Galicia more or less as far as the headland, Estaca de Bares. Here the coast starts its zig zag passage southwards first through the Rías Altas and then the Rías Baixas (Upper and Lower Rías) to Portugal. In some areas, this lengthy stretch of coast is known as La Costa del Marisco (Shellfish Coast) owing to the abundance of all kinds of shellfish. In general, however, the name does not appear to have caught on beyond Galicia.

The two Rías --Altas and Baixas-- make up the wildest stretch of coast in Spain, with sweeping windswept bays, hidden coves and a spectacular, jagged shoreline whose granite cliffs are lashed by the Atlantic. The ancients believed that its westernmost point, Cabo Finisterre (Cabo Fisterra in Galician) was the end of the world, and it might well seem so not only because of its geographical location but also because of its brooding wildness. Add to this the frequent drizzle and the wail of the gaitas (native Galician bagpipes) and you have the makings of the melancholy so often attributed to the Galicians.

The coast from La Coruña (A Coruña) to Finisterre is known among locals as La Costa de la Muerte (A Costa da Morte: The Coast of Death), a reflection on its inhospitable nature with numerous ships having run aground or been shipwrecked.  It frequently brings death, too, to a special breed of fisherman, the gooseneck barnacle hunter.  The barnacles (percebes in Spanish), once a local delicacy, have now been “discovered” and bring high prices in restaurants throughout Spain, especially at Christmas.

The choicest barnacles (they are actually very small crabs that cling to the rocks) are found where the coast is at its wildest and the waves at their highest, and to add to the difficulty harvesting is done during the winter months. A few perceiberos go out in boats, but the majority are lowered down the cliff faces by a rope tied around their waists, while watchers on cliff tops keep an eye on the waves.

The barnacles can be collected only at low tide but since they are extremely difficult to prise free from the cliffs and the best are found deep in crevices or under rocky outcrops, even the best fishermen sometimes get careless and end up being battered against the razor sharp rocks by incoming waves. As a result most accidents are fatal. (For an interesting article on collecting barnacles in Galicia, see http://www.ottopohl.com/Stories/2001_Stories/NYTbarnacles.htm)

The rías are the most characteristic feature of this coastline.  They are fjord-like estuaries formed from half submerged valleys and are rich in crabs, lobsters, oysters, mussels, cockles and scallops. A number of factors have also made the rías ideal for large scale shellfish farming, especially of oysters and mussels: they are shallow, warm up easily and receive a constant supply of fresh, mineral rich Atlantic water.

The scallop has as special place in Galician lore.  Medieval pilgrims, on reaching Santiago de Compostela, could buy a scallop shell and fasten it to their hats as proof that they had completed the journey.  By the 12th century the natural shell could be replaced by a jade or metal copy.  An alternative was to continue to Finisterre and pick a scallop from the shore.

The popular French dish Coquille St Jacques –scallops au gratin— is an adaptation of a Galician delicacy.  Nowadays Coquille St Jacques is sometimes prepared with potato which, being a New World vegetable, would not have been used before the 16th century.

The population of Galicia is largely concentrated along the coast, and the wealth of the province has depended mainly on the sea.  The Galician fishing fleet is the largest in Spain, and the Spanish fleet the biggest in Europe.  The two largest ports, Vigo and La Coruña (A Coruña) are located respectively in the lower and upper rías.  With a population of 295,000, Vigo is Galicia’s largest city and Spain’s most important fishing port.  La Coruña is a close second.  Spaniards are amongst the world’s biggest consumers of fish, and both ports are connected to major Spanish cities, especially Madrid and Barcelona, by rapid, modern transport systems.

The very size of the Galician fleet and the depletion of fish stocks in large parts of the world’s seas means that Galician boats now operate almost world wide.  This, however, has brought its own problems: increased competition from other fishing nations, accusations of trawling in other countries’ territorial waters, alleged breaking of quotas etc.  In 1977 the creation of a common European fishing policy and the extension of territorial waters to 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) hit the Galician fleet hard.  Spain’s entry into the European Union (EU) in 1986 did not really improve matters, and there have been numerous skirmishes with French, English and Irish fishermen.  Still, with an estimated 400,000 people in Galicia dependent on fishing and its spin-offs –boat building, canning, food processing —the stakes are high.  There is some recognition that with diminishing stocks and fierce competition everywhere, the future is uncertain and the fleet will have to be reduced.   With little other alternative and few prospects of other work in Galicia, young Galicians (Gallegos) are doing what Galicians have traditionally done in hard times: they are emigrating, mostly to South America.
A very interesting and informative article on Galicia may be found in http://www.departures.com/luxury-vacations/galicia-discovered