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.