Historic Cambados, capital of Albariño country

The area surrounding Cambados is considered one of the best in the world for growing the grapes that eventually become Albariño wine. Here and there, small plots of vines are suspended over the ground on stone pergolas made of the same granite that makes the soils of the Rías Baixas perfect for viticulture. The vines have to be raised above the ground to ensure they receive an even amount of sunlight, and for the breeze to flow beneath to stop mildew in this rainy region.

Cambados is the capital of Albariño country, with many small producers making wines that you’ll rarely see outside of this region. It explains why this delightful small town is a popular base from which to explore the Galician coast.  As a result it has a plethora of fantastic restaurants and bodegas serving up local seafood – scallops, mussels, clams, fish and octopus – all washed down with a cold glass of Albariño. For centuries this area’s economy has been underpinned by fishing.

Praza de Fefiñáns, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Igrexa de San Benito, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Igrexa de San Benito, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Igrexa de San Benito, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Capela do Hospital, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

It’s not only good wine and seafood that attracts visitors though, Cambados has a long and storied history. Old streets lined by sturdy stone buildings, palaces, grand houses and historic churches, give a glimpse of the former prosperity of the town when it was still three distinct medieval villages: Fefiñáns, Cambados and Santo Tome. All three of which were home to aristocratic families, owners of much of the land in the area. It was only in the 19th century that the villages were merged.

The main avenue in the town runs from the Convento de San Francisco to the splendid Praza de Fefiñáns, the town’s main square with its prettiest church and home to the grand palace, Pazo de Fefiñáns. Dating from the 16th century, and expanded over the centuries, the palace belonged to the Viscount de Fefiñanes before it came into the possession of the Figueroa family in the 18th century. It’s remained in the family ever since. Today it’s known for quality Albariño wines.

We wandered up the Calle Real, past an imposing 17th century palace that’s now the town’s parador, and into a network of small, higgledy-piggledy streets filled with charm and former sailor’s cottages. Cambados isn’t a big place and we were soon outside the Church of San Benito in the main square. Go much beyond this and you’ll find yourself in the midst of vineyards. We decided to do the next best thing and settled down in the shade of a tree and had a glass of Albariño.

After a reasonable amount of people watching, we popped into the church with its big statues of someone (St. Benedict?), menacing modern-day visitors with a large wooden club. We’d have gone on a tour of the palace but the next one was the following day, so made our way back to the most southerly of the three original villages, Santo Tome. Here there are views across the bay from the small, sandy island of San Sadurniño.

Ruins of Santa Mariña Church, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Ruins of Santa Mariña Church, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Ruins of Santa Mariña Church, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Sea front, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Sunset, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

The tightly packed streets of this part of town were virtually deserted, despite it being still within the tourist season. We made our way towards one of the most evocative sights in the town, the ruined church of Santa Mariña Dozo, which also happens to be next to the wine museum. The 15th century church was abandoned in the 19th century and has fallen into disrepair. The roof has collapsed but the stonework still stands and the cemetery is still in use.

It’s all very picturesque, even if it’s surprising to find a church dedicated to the town’s patron saint in such poor repair. In the morning we’d be heading north to the Costa da Morte, or the Coast of Death. It seemed as good a reason as any to enjoy a sunset along the Cambados waterfront, followed by delicious seafood and, you guessed it, a glass of Albariño.

Galician nationalism and Albariño in Cambados

It was as we strolled through the pedestrianised centre of Cambados’ old town that we first heard a mournful wail wafting through the night air from a small park. We decided that either someone was playing the bagpipes, or the local psychopath was torturing a cat. We made our way towards the origin of this confusing noise which, to our delight, was an evening of music and protest held by Galician nationalists – bagpipes it was. Our arrival didn’t go unnoticed.

The group had brought food and plenty of booze for the event, and although they were packing up for the night, an over-friendly man made his unsteady way over and offered us a couple of beers. We were soon chatting about Scotland, a kindred Celtic country that has also modelled its most famous musical instrument on the octopus. It quickly transpired that we were on the opposite ends of the debate when it came to Brexit. To me it’s a disaster, to Galician nationalists it’s proof of what’s possible.

Harbour, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Pazo A Capitana, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Albariño, Pazo A Capitana, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Pazo A Capitana, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Convento de San Francisco, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Pazo A Capitana, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Galicia is one of those Spanish regions that has always been different. Its Celtic history stretches back over 2,500 years and, like the Basque Country and Catalonia, it has its own language. Strongly influenced by Portuguese, there are some Celtic elements to Galego, as it’s known. It was this lack of a ‘true’ Celtic language though that prevented Galicia from being accepted into the Celtic League. Not that this has stopped Galician nationalists from building their case on their Celtic heritage.

Spanish was forcibly brought to the region only in the 15th century, when Isabella I of Castile (she of Reconquista fame) subdued the local nobles and took Galicia for herself. That, and a stubborn resistance to being subsumed by another culture, might explain why Galego is still widely spoken alongside Spanish. Galicia gained ‘autonomous region’ status during the Republic in 1931, but Galician culture and language were crushed by Franco’s fascists. Ironically, Franco was himself from Galicia.

Galicia remained poor and underdeveloped under the Franco dictatorship, exploited for its natural resources – fish and hydroelectric power. Galician’s voted with their feet and moved to South America and other European countries. Since all political parties were banned, this was as close as people came to a political choice. Forty-four years after Franco’s death that legacy still remains. Despite advances, Galicia still has the feel of a backwater.

We arrived in Cambados, a historic port town that was once three medieval villages, after a long drive from the Ribeira Sacra. It was late-morning as we checked into the Pazo A Capitana, a 15th century manor house that has large gardens, vineyards and fruit trees. The vineyards provide the raw product for the delicious Albariño wines that are made on site. You’re given a complimentary bottle when you check in – best drunk sat in the courtyard next to the fountain.

Vineyards, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Pazo A Capitana, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Pazo A Capitana, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Granary or hórreo, Pazo A Capitana, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

Harbour, Cambados, Galicia, Spain

It was tempting to spend the day sampling wine, but it was lunch and Galician seafood is some of the best in the world. We hadn’t done our research on Cambados, and went towards the Santo Tome harbour hoping to find a few restaurants. We’d left it slightly too late and most places were closing. The workaday place that was open served up a fairly disappointing lunch. To compensate, we saw some historic buildings with scallop shells cemented into their walls.

We walked off lunch along the seafront, and finally discovered the beautiful Praza de Fefiñáns, a square with a 16th century palace and a 15th century church. Around this area we discovered a maze of streets filled with bars and restaurants. We’d struck Galician seafood gold.