Pontevedra, Galicia’s pedestrian paradise

We didn’t have enough time to do justice to the vibrant and historic city of Pontevedra, but in the time we did have it quickly became clear that this was not a typical city. Not because of its glorious medieval old town, or its picturesque 18th century district, not even because this was where Christopher Columbus’s flag ship, the Santa Maria, was built. The thing that sets Pontevedra apart (and which plenty of other cities could learn from), is that the heart of the city is car free.

The pleasure of strolling Pontevedra’s centre contrasts sharply with almost any other similar sized city I’ve visited in Spain (or most other countries). The air smells fresher; absent of engines and horns the historic core is unusually quiet; and the many public spaces are relaxing places for people, not for parking cars. The benefits of this forward-looking urban planning extends way beyond pleasing tourists. After years of decline, Pontevedra’s centre is thriving as people move back to live there.

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Napoleonic memorial, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

We’d arrived early after driving along the coast from Cambados. The route is beautiful but the narrow roads around the peninsular were heaving with traffic. A colleague who is originally from Pontevedra tells me that in the peak summer season things regularly grind to a halt along these roads. We parked in one of the underground car parks that have replaced on-street parking, and set off to explore, popping up in a park next to a monument commemorating the resistance to Napoleonic France.

We wandered into Pontevedra’s old town, where several attractive medieval squares are linked up by narrow streets blissfully free of traffic. There are numerous churches dating from the medieval period, including the lovely Basílica de Santa María a Maior, which was built by the donations of fishermen and shellfish collectors to protect them from the perils of the ocean. Many of the other churches were built by medieval guilds, including ironworkers and shoemakers.

So much for the devout though, Pontevedra was also home to pirates, most famously, Benito de Soto. It’s hard to take this feared pirate seriously given that his ship was called Burla Negra, or the Black Joke. That name belies the ruthless and bloodthirsty reputation of De Soto, even to his contemporaries. Most notoriously, he captured the English ship Morning Star and, to cover his tracks, murdered its crew and locked others in the hold to drown as the ship sank.

Luckily, some of the survivors managed to escape, repair the Morning Star and make it to safety. This would come back to haunt De Soto when his ship ran aground and he was captured entering Gibraltar. Aged 25, he hung from the gallows in Cadiz. Legend, or at least the tourist board, would have it that his former home in Pontevedra was a hiding place for treasure. As we walked around, the legends of the city seemed to still be alive as we passed old palaces and historic town houses.

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Napoleonic memorial, Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

Pontevedra, Galicia, Spain

When we’d first arrived, the streets were very quiet, but as it approached lunchtime the town started to get busier. Small squares were converted for al fresco dining and there was a buzz in the air. We were driving to Leon the same day, a journey of over four hours. We found a table under an umbrella in a small square and ate a leisurely lunch before one final stroll through the ancient city. Like everywhere else in Galicia, Pontevedra was a place we decided we’d need to visit again.

Galicia’s wild Atlantic Coast to Muros

The wild, wind-swept Atlantic coast of Galicia is a truly exhilarating place. It’s home to some of the finest beaches in the entire country, often with a backdrop of forested hills. The waters that crash into the rocks and cliffs are clean and clear, but also chilly, going on frigid. Perfect for cooling off in fierce August temperatures. Best of all though, this coastline is dotted with picturesque port towns and fishing villages, that serve up some of the finest seafood in Europe.

We’d lost track of time while watching dolphins on Playa de Lariño, and had to make a quick dash towards the bustling fishing town of Muros in search of lunch. This historic little place was crowded with people all converging on its restaurants with much the same idea. We were late and a couple of places had already stopped serving, but we eventually found an outdoor table in the main square amongst Spanish families happily enjoying their summer holidays.

Playa de Larino, Galicia, Spain

Playa de Larino, Galicia, Spain

Harbour, Muros, Galicia, Spain

San Pedro Church, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Harbour, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Pulpo Gallego, Muros, Galicia, Spain

We ordered up some specials of the day, traditional local dishes fished out of the cold Atlantic waters: razor clams, scallops and Galicia’s most famous food, Pulpo Gallego. Galician octopus cooked with olive oil and sweet Spanish paprika, served with potatoes and fresh bread, is simply delicious. Especially washed down with a glass of Albariño. It was one of those perfect lunches, and it ticked off one of my foodie bucket list items: Pulpo Gallego served on a wooden board on the Galician coast.

Despite the influx of tourists, Muros still feels like an authentic Galician port town. We strolled down the promenade alongside a harbour housing fishing boats and pleasure boats, their brilliant colours illuminated under a hot sun. Away from the water, narrow alleyways climb up the hillside between tightly packed houses. We wandered aimlessly amongst the deserted streets, until we emerged close to the 13th century Church of San Pedro.

The port is still deep enough for fairly large boats and fishing remains one of the main industries of the town. We were there on a Sunday and most boats were very firmly in port. Muros is a tiny place that would be a perfect base from which to explore further along this beautiful coast, but after an hour of wandering the streets and harbour we’d run out of areas of town to investigate. We jumped in the car and set off back towards Cambados.

Deciding to take the long route back, we followed the winding coast road to Noia. A typical Galician fishing town, Noia boasts a massive road bridge that cuts across the estuary, providing great views over the water before depositing you onto another peninsular. We passed numerous horreos, traditional grain stores that have become a symbol of Galicia. It’s remarkable so many have survived into the 21st century, but they are topped with crosses for extra protection.

Muros, Galicia, Spain

San Pedro Church, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Muros, Galicia, Spain

Horreo gain store, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Harbour, Muros, Galicia, Spain

Galician coast, Galicia, Spain

We realised that if we continued along the coast as planned, we’d arrive in Cambados sometime around midnight. We didn’t want to miss more delicious seafood and wine tasting at the Vinoteca Ribeira de Fefiñans, so took a quicker route back. The next day we’d leave for Pontevedra, our final Galician destination before heading inland to the cathedral city of Leon. It would be hard to leave the glorious Galician coast behind, but we were already planning our next visit.

Carnota, dolphin spotting on the Coast of Death

Our first sight of Carnota’s majestic sweep of sparkling golden sand was breathtaking. High in the hills above the ocean, the panoramic views were little short of spectacular. Even for Galicia, which has more than a few magnificent beaches, Carnota is epic in its size and beauty. It was early morning, and the sea mist that has probably contributed to the name of this coastline, was rolling off the water. It was a dreamlike scene. We set off down the winding mountain road, keen to feel sand between our toes.

We didn’t have enough time on this trip to truly explore the Costa da Morte, to give it its Galician name, and this day trip from Cambados was for research purposes. We’ll definitely be coming back. It’s utterly beguiling. Our satnav had taken us on a strange inland diversion, guiding us through the forested hills behind Carnota to the Mirador Paxareiras. We’d passed through more of Galicia’s lush countryside before we came to the stunning finale of our journey.

Carnota, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Carnota, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Punta Lariño lighthouse, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Carnota, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Carnota, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Carnota, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

On a sunny day and under a blue sky, the moniker of the ‘Coast of Death’ might seem a little overwrought. To fully understand how it gained such infamy, I guess you’d need to see it during one of its frequent storms. The Atlantic is an unforgiving ocean, and this coast has a treacherous reputation for good reason. Thousands of ships have been lost along this coastline, driven onto hidden rocks by fierce storms. Not all shipwrecks were caused by storms, however.

This is a region of myth, legend and folklore, and stories tell of ships being lured onto the rocks by locals. One peculiar story tells of torches attached to the horns of cows to confuse unsuspecting sailors and lead them to their death. Small boats would launch from shore and scavenge cargo from the wrecks. Even when not lured to their terrible fate, shipwrecks could expect little from those on shore. One, the Priam, had its entire cargo of gold and silver watches stolen.

Many of the ships that were wrecked along this coastline were British, and it was the British who first coined the name, Coast of Death. This was later picked up by Spanish media in Madrid. The name stuck. Our thoughts were as far from such terrible deeds as you can get as we walked through the low dunes behind Carnota beach, it was simply magnificent. On the beach, the last wisps of sea mist were rolling across the sand as the sun broke through the haze.

Carnota beach is 7km long, and we strolled for an hour before cooling off in the waves and resting on the sand. It’s fair to say the waters of the Atlantic are not warm, but they are exhilarating. Waves here can be large and powerful, as one crashed into me I swear I saw fish swimming through it. Bizarrely, we’d come completely unprepared for a day at the beach, not even towels. After a couple of hours enjoying a largely empty beach we headed south.

Dolphins, Playa de Lariño, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Dolphins, Playa de Lariño, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Carnota, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Playa de Lariño, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Carnota, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

Playa de Lariño, Costa da Morte, Galicia, Spain

We were going to Muros for lunch, but first we stopped off at Larino Beach, this proved a wise choice. As we lay on the sand gazing out to sea, a Bottlenose dolphin pod started to frolic in the water. They put on an acrobatic show: leaping, spinning and enjoying themselves in front of awestruck people on the beach. It’s a reminder of the diversity of this coastline, which has four types of dolphin, porpoise, orcas and sightings of five types of whale.

The Coast of Death is very much alive.

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.

Ribeira Sacra – mountains, rivers and beautiful views

Our time in the Ribeira Sacra came all too quickly to an end. We spent our final day in this magical region meandering mountain roads, past improbable vineyards clinging to near-vertical hillsides. There really is something special about the area. I grew up in the natural beauty of a National Park, and the Ribeira Sacra has beauty to spare. Plus it has spectacular wines, which you’d never get in the north of England. I may just have found my ideal Spanish region.

We found it quite easy to get lost on the forested, winding roads above the Sil Valley. Passing through several small hamlets without signs of human habitation, we made our way to the market town of Castro Caldelas. Driving upwards around hairpin bends, we glimpsed the town’s most famous feature, the Castelo de Castro Caldelas, looming above us. The castle sits at the top of the town which, itself, sits on an easily defended hilltop.

Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Monastery of Santo Estevo, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Monastery of Santo Estevo, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Castro Caldelas, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Castro Caldelas, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

The old part of the town surrounding the castle is a pleasant maze of cobbled streets and sturdy stone houses with wooden balconies. We pottered around and discovered the cemetery, which came with a pretty church and atmospheric old grave stones. It also came with views over the surrounding countryside. To get the best panoramas in town though, you have to pay the €2 fee to enter the 14th century castle and climb to the ramparts.

Not long ago, the Castelo de Castro Caldelas was little more than a ruin, its renovation is perhaps a sign of the growing reputation and tourist pulling power of the region. I appreciated the effort because the views are stupendous. We found our way to the car and headed back to Parada de Sil. Whether we liked it or not, in the morning we had an early start on our way to Galicia’s Atlantic coast. A journey that would take us through more beguiling landscapes.

Our destination was the small, historic port town of Cambados. We were desperate to see the ocean and splash around in the chilly Atlantic waters off the coast, but decided to visit the town of Ourense and the Romanesque Monastery of Santo Estevo en route. Leaving Parada de Sil in the sun, mist clung to the surrounding hills. We passed through wooded areas until an area of moorland near to Mirador de Cabezoás gave us amazing views.

The sun was also shining on the Santo Estevo Monastery, and the thick forests that surround it, when we arrived. Legend has it that the origins of the monastery date back to the 6th century, but what you see today was built over six hundred years between the 12th and 18th centuries. I suspect that the monks who lived in this magnificent building didn’t observe a particularly austere lifestyle. They’d probably feel at home if they returned today.

Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Castro Caldelas, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Castro Caldelas, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Castro Caldelas, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Castro Caldelas, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

The monastery has been transformed into a luxurious parador. Judging by the cars in the car park, this is a retreat for the well-heeled. The cloisters and church are open to the public, and you can grab a coffee in the cafe, but there’s not much else to detain you. We were soon back on the road to Ourense. A friend had told us this was a lively and fascinating town, but after a short exploration of dirty streets rammed with traffic, we decided to keep going to the coast.

Amongst ancient Roman vineyards in the Ribeira Sacra

Standing on one of the vertigo-inducing narrow terraces that have been painstakingly carved into the hillsides of the Ribeira Sacra, hundreds of metres above the River Sil in the gorge below, gives you a tiny glimpse into what it takes to produce a bottle of wine in this mountainous region. These terraces are responsible for some of Spain’s most distinctive wines, and they all have to be worked by hand. Some mountain goats would think twice about clambering around these hillsides.

The extraordinary gorge, carved over millennia by the River Sil, creates microclimates that combine with slate and granite soils to provide perfect growing conditions on the terraces for the region’s grape varieties. The vertiginous slopes of the Sil Valley mean that mechanisation is virtually impossible. Planting, tending and harvesting these vines is backbreaking physical work. So inaccessible are some plots of land, that it’s easier to use boats on the river to collect the harvested grapes.

Vineyards and the River Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards and the River Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards and the River Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards and the River Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

The vineyards have played a critical role in shaping the landscape here for over 2,000 years, ever since the Roman’s arrived in search of gold and added the Ribeira Sacra to their possessions in 29 BC. The largest gold mine in the Roman Empire was discovered nearby at Las Médulas. The ridiculous terraces of the Ribeira Sacra were constructed (by slaves) to provide wine for settlers, and the many Roman legions who kept the gold safe.

We were headed to the village of Doade, where we’d have the opportunity to try first hand the end product of over 2,000 years of viticulture. The Adega Algueira vineyard sits down a dirt track and we’d booked a wine tasting followed by lunch at their lovely restaurant. First, we had to get there. The bodega sits on the opposite side of the River Sil and there’s only one road bridge. As we drove on winding lanes we had spectacular views across the valley.

It’s a breathtaking landscape that forces frequent photo stops and detours to viewing points. We were so lost in its glories that we were almost late for the tasting – that would have been a mistake. We had an enlightening trip through the facilities before the sommelier, Fabio, talked us through the tasting. There is no doubt that these are wines made not only by hard work on the terraces, but also with love and skill in the bodega.

These vineyards have been reborn in the last thirty or forty years, but the whole wine industry in this region has risen phoenix-like on more than one occasion. The Dark Ages, the decline that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe, saw the vineyards fall into disuse. They were revitalised by the arrival of monastic orders between the 9th and 12th centuries – there are eighteen monasteries in the area.

Adega Algueira vineyard, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Adega Algueira vineyard, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Adega Algueira vineyard, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards and the River Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Vineyards and the River Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

The vineyards flourished until vine disease and the Spanish Civil War devastated the area’s economy. That’s how things remained until a few daring souls decided to revive the terraces and reinvent the legendary wines of the Ribeira Sacra four decades ago. It has not been easy work, plots of land had to be cleared and the terraces rebuilt, new vines planted and nurtured, and years passed without a single bottle of wine.

Perseverance seems to be the byword of a region that has bounced back from social, political and economic disaster over the centuries. The region isn’t as accessible as many others, and most people bypass it en route to Santiago de Compostela on one of the pilgrim trails. That relative isolation surely won’t last for much longer, especially when wine as good as this is on offer.

Off the beaten track in Galicia’s glorious Ribeira Sacra

Galicia is rightly famed for its natural beauty, and for having some of the Spain’s most dramatic and craggy coastline, lashed by wild Atlantic Ocean waves. Less well known, but equally dramatic, is the spellbinding beauty of the Ribeira Sacra in Galicia’s interior. Some of the most underrated wines in the whole country are produced from the vines that cling precariously to the steep slopes of its river gorges. Pretty, isolated villages dot a rugged landscape, which is home to ancient monasteries and castles.

This north-western corner of Spain is also renowned for cooler temperatures and for some of the wettest weather in the country. Basically, Galicia is damp. After suffering through Spain’s intense summer heat, this seemed very attractive. First though, we had to get there. The drive from the Sierra de Francia to the gorgeous Sil Valley is a journey that makes you realise the true size and diversity of Spain – I could have sworn we were in the Scottish Highlands at one point.

River Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Parada de Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Mosteiro de Santa Cristina, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain#

Mosteiro de Santa Cristina, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Playing to the regional stereotype, as we drove parallel to the Portuguese border into Galicia, the weather changed from deep blue skies to grey cloud. A light rain fell as we stopped in the tiny village of Parada de Sil. After the plains of Castilla y Leon, it felt like a different country. One unchanged for several centuries. We’d booked a room online and totally lucked-out. The Reitoral de Parada is a converted monastery, we were their very first guests and were given the only suite.

Exciting as staying in a centuries-old monastery is, we had far more pressing concerns. We’d been driving for hours, we were hungry and it was well past lunchtime. Would there be anywhere still serving food? We found a restaurant at the top of the village known for its regional specialities that did lunch until 4pm. We settled in for one of the best meals of our trip. This bit of Galicia is famed for game, beef and lamb, as well as a range of unique wines. It was a lunch that required a snooze afterwards.

The cold and damp seemed to be staying with us when we woke up the following day, but luckily the sun made an appearance in the mid-morning and didn’t leave us again. Clear skies overhead, we set off to explore this extraordinary region. The landscapes of the Ribeira Sacra are breathtaking, no more so than the views across the River Sil on the way to the Mosteiro de Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil. The short 4km journey from the village is punctuated by magnificent vistas over the river.

The ruined 9th century Mosteiro de Santa Cristina, with a 12th century church, is set evocatively in dense woodlands above the river and comes with a small cloister. This is one of eighteen monasteries and hermitages that were founded in the region between the 8th and 12th centuries, from which the area takes its name. In Galician, this is the Sacred Shore, and these religious communities developed the vineyards that are now beginning to attract international attention.

Parada de Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Parada de Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Parada de Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Parada de Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Parada de Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

Parada de Sil, Ribeira Sacra, Galicia, Spain

We pottered around the monastery, before heading eastwards towards the tiny village of Doade. A right turn in the village takes you to Adega Algueira, a vineyard making exceptional wines, where a fascinating tour and tasting can be followed by lunch at the bodega’s restaurant serving local specialities. The food and wine were magnificent. It’s a short journey of around 30km, but narrow winding roads and the need to stop every few minutes to take in the views meant it took us an age to get there.

Roaming the Sierra de Francia to San Martin del Castanar

The Sierra de Francia is a remarkable region of steep, forested hills and a scattering of sleepy, picturesque villages of half-timbered houses with red tile roofs. Exploring the region along narrow, winding roads comes with sudden spectacular views as you make your way between villages. It’s a region that underscores the extraordinary diversity of Spanish landscapes. In an isolated area, an influx of French migrants centuries ago still seems to influence the architecture and cuisine.

This is Spain, but not the Spain of tourist brochures. It’s cliche, but spending time in the tranquil villages of this beautiful region really feels like you’ve left much of the modern world behind. Outside of the cold winter months and the searing heat of summer, I can easily imagine spending a few months walking trails, eating hearty foods and sampling some of the best undiscovered wines in Spain. A few days isn’t enough to get attuned to the pace of life, especially the erratic restaurant hours, but we’ll be back.

Villanueva del Conde, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Villanueva del Conde, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Villanueva del Conde, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

We left Mogarraz, where we’d spent a couple of easy-going days, en route to the north west and the Atlantic coast of Galicia. First though, we had some villages to explore amongst the green hills. The plan was to have lunch in the tiny village of Villanueva del Conde, and then visit a small winery to try some more regional specialities. We badly misjudged our visit. Not one cafe, bar or shop in the village was open, and apart from a friendly dog, there wasn’t a living soul to be seen.

Even with a map we couldn’t find the winery, and there wasn’t a single, helpful signpost to be found. After a couple of incredulous circuits of the village, we set off for a slightly larger village, San Martín del Castañar, where we hoped to find lunch. The road skirted along a ridge above the valley, the views were tremendous. In San Martín del Castañar we struck metaphorical gold, an open restaurant – found down a narrow street, a gang of elderly residents were arguing animatedly outside.

A delicious bowl of homemade gazpacho and a plate of the region’s famed jamón with its delicious nutty flavour later, we headed back into empty cobbled streets in search of the village church, which is just a short stroll away from the remains of a former castle. The castle is little more than a partially reconstructed tower, but they’ve turned the surrounding grounds into a biosphere and gallery (unsurprisingly closed). There’s also a small, pretty cemetery next door.

The most interesting feature of the town though, is the rustic bull ring in front of the castle and next to several houses. This is the furthest point in the town and, with little else to explore, we made our way back under a hot sun, past stone houses without a flicker of life, and into the central plaza. It was clearly siesta time for the three hundred or so residents, and we headed back to the carpark at the entrance to the village.

Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Villanueva del Conde, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

We took one last look across the tiled roofs and rolling wooded hills and jumped back into the car. During the couple of hours we’d been away, the interior had transformed into an out of control sauna. We really had to find cooler climes. Our onward journey was to be a long drive into the heart of the amazing Ribeira Sacra, where the relentless heat would finally ease up a little, and we would discover yet again the extraordinary diversity of Spain.

Mogarraz, say you and your Spanish eyes will wait for me*

In Mogarraz, you are never alone. There are few places in this beautiful village of half-timbered houses where the eyes of villagers, past and present, aren’t watching over your every movement. This though, only adds to Mogarraz’s many charms. Paintings of former and current residents hang from buildings above narrow cobbled streets. They are the work of artist Florencio Maíllo, who had the idea to turn photographs taken of villagers in 1967 into a poignant and haunting tribute.

The paintings have transformed the village into an open air gallery, and much of their poignancy comes from the fact that the majority are based on photographs used on national identity cards. Spain, still under the Franco dictatorship, was liberalising its economy, but this region of the Sierra de Francia suffered high levels of poverty. Many residents had few options but to leave in search of a better life, often to countries in Latin America. To do so, they required official identity documents.

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Three hundred and eight-eight photographs were taken in 1967, for a village this size it must have been devastating to lose so many people. While there is something uplifting about the paintings, there is also, and I might be over-romanticising, a deep and abiding sense of loss in the faces of people forced to abandon their homes, friends and families. Even without the paintings, Mogarraz would be an enchanting place to stay. With the paintings it’s like no place I’ve ever visited.

We arrived in Mogarraz on a quiet winding road from La Alberca. The two villages are less than 10km apart but, with a reasonably active imagination, it’s easy to grasp that only half a century ago the journey between them must have been an arduous one. It’s the same throughout the region, small hamlets, some with castles, while joined by good roads today, would have been like travelling to the other side of the world in centuries past.

Our first task was to find the apartment where we were staying. We had some vague instructions, which quickly proved inadequate. Luckily, this is a friendly place and a couple of enquiries later we were opening window shutters and looking out over the rooftops of the village to the surrounding countryside. It was absolutely beautiful. It was also getting late for lunch, and in villages as small and untouristed as this, the chances of missing out on food are very real.

The village is known for cured meats, but this region is also famed for hearty lamb and beef dishes. Mogarraz also sits in the middle of the Denominación de Origen Sierra de Salamanca, a relatively new wine region that specialises in the Rufete grape. As chance would have it, and I insist to this day that it was chance, the La Zorra vineyard is based in the village. We’d first tried their distinctive wines in Salamanca and hoped to take a tour and do a tasting. Sadly, it was closed during our stay.

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

We stayed in Mogarraz, taking occasional trips through attractive landscapes and picturesque villages, but this is a relaxed village where you can just stop and catch your breath from the modern world. Things move at a slower, more human pace here, and that is something to embrace. The Sierra de Francia is the opposite of the Spain seen in the vast grandeur of cities like Salamanca, where past glories are writ large. Here lies a largely forgotten history, one of isolation, poverty and struggle.

This seemed to me to be the Spain of British novelist Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, a first-hand account of Spain in the year before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It may be a bit ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’, but Lee doesn’t shirk his duty to describe some of the darker episodes of his journey across a country about to be plunged into war and dictatorship.


* A lyric taken from Spanish Eyes, a song written by German musician Bert Kaempfert in 1965 and recorded by many people over the decades since. A sorrowful song of loss, it seemed appropriate.