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.