Straddling the provinces of Lugo and Ourense in the middle of Galicia sits La Ribeira Sacra, one of Spain’s least known and most mysterious areas. Its rivers, Miño and Sil, which meet at the region’s heart, mould the landscape, gouging out vast canyons and vertiginous valleys. Thick green forests frame these rivers and hide medieval monasteries, whose presence gives the area a sort of hushed spirituality.
And then there’s the wine, the area’s most famous export. The valley slopes are lined with centuries-old terraced grapevines. To visit the Ribeira Sacra is to visit a different Spain, a quieter, greener country, and a world away from its crowded Mediterranean beaches too.
What to see
Eighteen monasteries hide in the Ribeira Sacra’s steep, forested escarpments. While achieving a full ecclesiastical sweep would be difficult on a short trip, there are three monasteries you should make an effort to see.
First, the famous 10th-century Benedictine monastery of Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, which sits on the confluence of the Miño and Sil rivers. Perhaps its most impressive feature is the cloisters, each of which has a different architectural style. Santo Estevo was recently restored and converted into one of the best paradores in Spain (see below) and has its own restaurant.
Nearby is Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil (open to all). Enveloped by trees and shrubs, this 10th-century Benedictine monastery sits in the forest like an abandoned fairytale. It fell from being one of the most important monasteries in the area, when it was built, to being used as a cowshed in the late 19th century. Nonetheless, the mixture of renaissance, gothic and Romanesque styles, cast in ancient grey stone, and lost in the mysterious silence of the forest, is something worth experiencing.
Perhaps the oldest monastery in the area is San Pedro de Rocas . Thought to have been founded in the sixth century and excavated from the surrounding rock, San Pedro offers few of the architectural flourishes you will see in the region’s other monasteries, but its importance is greater than its primitive appearance suggests. The church, which forms part of the monastery, is said to be one of the oldest known Christian temples.
The Sil Canyon
This gorge stretches for 50km across the region. Its scabrous walls rise, in some parts, 500 metres from the river below, and are packed with olives trees and grapevines. It is, without doubt, one of the most impressive places in Galicia, and Spain. If you enjoy panoramas, head to the town of Parada de Sil, where you will be able to see the Balcones de Madrid, the most rugged and precipitous part of the gorge. If you are looking for a different perspective, the canyon can be explored by boat: from pleasure cruise to kayak. Many companies offer this (€12 for a 75-minute trip, catamaranesribeirasacra.com), but if you want a more exclusive experience, it might be worth a visit to the Alguiera vineyard (see below), which provides private cruises from its bodega.
The Ribeira Sacra is one of the few places in Europe that grows its grapes in conditions that people are now calling “heroic viticulture”. This term refers to the difficulty that producers have when cultivating their grapes on the dizzying slopes. Hundreds of metres above the valley floor, planted on narrow, precipitous terraces, oenologists often need a lift system to get grapes to the road. Nonetheless, it is a problem winemakers here have faced for over 2,000 years; viticulture in the Ribeira Sacra dates back to Roman times.
The first place to stop for good wine is Adega Algueira. On the banks of the Sil river in a faux-monastic building, the Adega Algueira vineyard (bottles from €30) is one of the most well known in the area. In its red, it uses little-known grapes such as mencía and merenzao, and in whites the better-known albariño and godello. Last year its top-of-the range mencía was awarded 95 points by critic Robert Parker, the second highest score in the region. The bodega has a restaurant, and a tour and tasting can be organised by calling in advance.
Second on the list should be Adega Ponte da Boga (bottles from €10). Founded at the back end of the 19th century by a prominent local family, Ponte da Boga fell into decline in the late 1970s and was left abandoned for almost 30 years. However, in 2005 the vineyard was bought by new owners, and quickly became one of the premier bodegas in the region. Like Algueira, Ponte da Boga focuses on using indigenous grapes. Its Ponte da Boga Expresión Gótica 2012 red, which combines mencía, merenzao, brancellao and sousón, is particularly highly regarded. Guided tours with tastings can be organised seven days a week between 10am and 1.30pm, and from 3pm to 7pm. It is recommended to phone in advance, especially for larger groups.
Where to eat
Although the interior is less famous for its gastronomy than the coast, finding good things to eat is not difficult.
First we start with a classic. Although we’re inland, polbo á feira – octopus with potatoes, olive oil, salt and paprika – is a must. The interior provinces of Lugo and Ourense are famous for their octopus cooking, which makes the Ribeira Sacra, slap bang in the middle of both, the best place to sample the dish. In the town of Monforte de Lemos try Mario (polbo á feira from €8, turismo.gal), a popular spot for locals and visitors alike.
One dish that is exclusive to the Ribeira Sacra, and specifically to the town of Taboada, is caldo de osos (bone broth). In this small town, they even dedicate a party to the dish every year in February. It is essentially a stew of chickpeas and potatoes enriched with a pig bone broth. Although it is mainly in restaurants in winter and early spring, it can still be found in the summer months. Failing that, drop in for classic regional fare at Os Pendellos (Galician beef, octopus and mini-scallops €10-22 a head) in Chantada.
Galician beef is famous throughout Spain, and O Grelo (dinner from €30 a head), a stylish restaurant in Monforte de Lemos, serves entrecot de ternera gallega al queso tetilla (€17.80), a ribeye cooked in a local cow’s milk cheese. If that doesn’t take your fancy, try the percebes (goose barnacles). Shaped like a mini pig’s trotter, they look strange, but are as delicious as any other shellfish.
Where to stay
Parador de Santo Estevo (doubles from about €85 room only, parador.es) is a wonderful place to stay. It has all the modern amenities and is in one of the most beautiful architectural structures in Galicia, in the middle of one of the most secluded and impressive natural environments in all of Spain. There is nothing not to like about this place. It has a restaurant and a spa, and is close to many excellent hiking routes.
Slightly cheaper is the Rectoral de Castillón (doubles from €63.50 B&B) in Santiago de Castillón. This a medium-sized hotel, set in a traditionally styled 18th-century house. All the rooms are comfortable and simply decorated. It has a good restaurant, serving wines from the Ribeira Sacra, and local dishes such as octopus and empanada, pastry stuffed with meat or fish. The hotel also has a living room with an open fire, a library and a garden.
EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Santiago de Compostela, Ryanair flies from Stansted, and British Airways from Heathrow. Vueling Airlines flies daily from Gatwick to La Coruña.
The Spanish think of Galicia as their rainy region, but that’s compared with some other regions’ 12-month-long summer, says the Galicia Guide. It has a mild oceanic climate, with significant variations from the coast to inland, and summer highs can reach over 30C.