The northern coast of Spain is famous for the Way of St James, a network of pilgrims’ ways, and it has a wild austerity to its landscape that is literally miles away from the sunny resorts of the south. But there is an undeniable beauty here, and beyond the famous Camino de Santiago trail, which ends at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, there are other jewels to visit, one of which is the port of A Coruña.
I found myself here to visit a Peter Lindbergh exhibition, in a purpose-built space on the docks. It had been brought to the town by Marta Ortega, now the chairwoman of Inditex, the fashion company behind Zara, which was founded by her mother and father, Rosalía and Amancio, in 1975. Zara’s first store was here, and its headquarters is situated just out of town. It is Marta Ortega’s stated aim to establish A Coruña as a new European cultural hub over the next few years.
But even before this happens, there is a lot to recommend the place. Not least, the excellent cuisine – from tapas in old town backstreets to great restaurants. Árbore da Veira on Monte de San Pedro is a one-Michelin star restaurant that specialises in seasonal cuisine, does great fish, and has a fine tasting menu. La Taberna de Miga in the Praza de España has a lovely bar and stone-walled dining rooms where you can eat really good updated traditional Galician bistro food. The Estrella Galicia brewery is here too, founded in 1906. Unsurprisingly, the beer flows freely around the bars and restaurants of the city, and at the Estrella de Galicia brewery-restaurant you can get the liquid unpasteurised, fresh from the source while you enjoy a meal.
A visit to the Torre de Hércules (Tower of Hercules) is a good way to stretch your legs. It’s the world’s oldest working lighthouse, a Roman construction from the first or second century AD that is now a Unesco World Heritage Site. Another sight worth checking out is the glass balconies (or galerías) that adorn many buildings. They line the Avenida de la Marina, for example, and are enclosed structures that allow the residents to experience great light while being sheltered from the weather. The decorative effect they have is spectacular, and has led to the city acquiring the nickname “Glass City”.
Even before Marta Ortega gets stuck in with her programme for A Coruña there are plenty of things to do here for those in search of culture: the Museo de Belas Artes da Coruña with its Goya sketches and works by modern artists from Galicia, as well as 16th- to 20th-century paintings (European and Spanish); and the Museo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (Museum of Science and Technology).
But the real joy is to be had by wandering the streets and taking in the atmosphere and the sights, such as the huge María Pita Square, named for the local heroine who defended the city in 1589 from the English Armada. This features the impressive City Hall, while nearby is the baroque Church of Saint George, the scene of Spain’s first same-sex marriage, in 1901 (one half of the couple took on a male identity). There are beaches too, Orzán and Riazor, bordered by a long promenade. This makes A Coruña ideal for those who fancy combining a city break with a little sun, sea and sand – or even surf.