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.

St. Anthony’s pig, unravelling the mysteries of the Sierra de Francia

The greatest mystery of the Sierra de Francia surely has to be why this beautiful region of mountains and picturesque villages where time seems to stand still, is named the Sierra de Francia. Curiously, it’s located close to Portugal, but absolutely nowhere near France. The truth (most probably) dates back to the 8th century. French knights under Charlemagne fought Muslim forces here, an area already home to French immigrants displaced by the Islamic conquest.

Legend has it that it was one of Charlemagne’s knights who found a statue of the Virgin Mary on the summit of Peña de Francia, the striking 1,723 metre mountain that soars over the surrounding countryside. Whatever the truth, this is truly a region of mystery and myth. For centuries, this secluded area was largely isolated from the rest of Spain. Life in the half-timbered villages nestling in the mountains and wooded hillsides seems little changed by modernity.

Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Views from the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The Black Madonna, Virgen de la Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Described as one of Castilla y León’s “best-kept secrets”, visiting the Sierra de Francia was something of a whim. It was so hot in Salamanca we thought this mountainous region 80km to the south might provide some respite from ferocious temperatures. It didn’t, but a few days exploring the region’s villages and vineyards made us glad we’d made the trip to this less visited part of the country. We were staying in the village of Mogarraz, but headed first to the Peña de Francia.

The drive to the Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, a sturdy looking church sitting on top of the mountain and containing a revered Black Madonna, is dizzying. The hairpin bends are severe, the drops off the side of the mountain deeply alarming, but the views are magnificent. We parked just beneath the dramatically located church, and walked the last short section. We seemed to have the mountain and church to ourselves.

The church, and accompanying cloister, was built by Dominican monks specifically to  house the statue of the Virgin of La Peña de Francia. The current statue was carved in 1890 but contains the remains of the original statue, which legend has it was found on the mountain in 1434 but stolen and badly damaged in the 1870s. We left the church and took in the panoramas, spotting mountain goats running across the rocks below. We could also see our next destination, La Alberca.

This charming village is the gateway into the heart of the Sierra de Francia, it gets its fair share of tourists but still feels low key and traditional. As we entered the narrow cobbled streets we passed a shop selling all manner of pig products. The pig is almost as revered as the Virgin of La Peña de Francia in these parts – the village has a statue to El Marrano de San Antón (The Pig of St Anthony). I can say with certainty that I have met St. Anthony’s pig.

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

This intriguing tradition dictates that one ‘lucky’ porker gets to roam the streets of the village being fed and cared for by the residents. The pig is set free on July 13th and, for six glorious months lives high on the hog. The pig’s luck runs out on January 17, when it’s raffled for charity. We were entering the Plaza Mayor when a man walked past with St. Anthony’s pig and proceeded to lovingly wash it in a water trough. No one seemed to find this strange.

The man then walked away and, for reasons best known to itself, the pig attached itself to us. Perhaps it sensed that we were its ticket to safety, and it followed us for several minutes. This was quite unnerving, especially as we approached the edge of the village. Would we have to take it to Galicia with us? Would we have to return it afterwards? Would it invalidate the car insurance? Thankfully, it decided to explore an alleyway and we made our escape … a luxury not afforded to St. Anthony’s pig.

Salamanca, ancient history in The Golden City

Salamanca feels old. Walk around the beautiful historic centre of the city and you’ll find yourself wandering ancient streets, between buildings that date back to the early 12th century. These include the University of Salamanca, one of Europe’s oldest, which was granted its charter in 1218. Salamanca has been around for way longer than that though. It was already important and rich enough for Carthaginian general, Hannibal, to put it to the sword in 217 BC.

Hannibal’s defeat, the destruction of Ancient Carthage, and the the rise of Rome, saw Salamanca become a strategic Roman trading centre. Sitting on the Ruta de la Plata, along which silver from the north flowed to Sevilla, it grew wealthy. The Roman bridge, that has spanned the River Tormes for over 2,000 years, is just one of the highlights of a visit to Salamanca. It seems remarkable that, in the 21st century, you’re able to walk across a perfectly functional Roman bridge.

Salamanca, Spain

Roman Bridge, Salamanca, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

Convento de San Esteban, Salamanca, Spain

On the city side is a statue of Lazarillo de Tormes, the main character from Salamanca in an anti-clerical 16th century novella banned by the Spanish Inquisition. We strolled across it under a fierce sun, people cooled off in the water below and lazed on the river beach. On the opposite side of the Tormes a pleasant park provides views back to the city and over the cathedral. On a peaceful morning, the city reflected in the water, it’s gorgeous.

We crossed back on the Puente de Enrique Estevan and walked uphill to the Convento de San Esteban. This ornate 16th century monastery is most famous for having housed Christopher Columbus. He lived in Salamanca between 1486 – 87, when defending his idea of sailing west to find the Indies against Salamanca’s scholars. In the early evening sunlight, the facade glows golden. In this light, the city’s many sandstone buildings earn it the nickname, The Golden City.

Leaving the church behind we wandered upwards past the cathedral to the university, weirdly serene outside of term time, and on to the delightful Casa de las Conchas. This palace is named after the 300 scallop shells that decorate the facade, and is the former home of Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, a member of the Order of Santiago. No prizes for guessing the symbol of the Order. You see the scallop shell everywhere in this part of Spain – it marks the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.

Despite a reasonable smattering of tourists, especially older Spanish tour groups, the city has the feel of an open air museum when the students aren’t around. We made our way through streets empty of traffic and people, and marvelled at the ornate facades of historic churches and palaces. It’s not just history on offer here though, Salamanca’s reputation for mouth-watering food is well known. Excellent tapas bars serve delicious regional wines, and there are a clutch of top notch restaurants.

Salamanca, Spain

Roman Bridge, Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Iglesia de San Millán, Salamanca, Spain

Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

For all its fine dining, the signature dish of Salamanca is the humble hornazo. A baked pastry traditionally filled with ham and egg, It’s now offered with a variety of fillings – including, whisper it, vegetarian options. It’s a great snack to take on long car journeys. The local wines were just as eye-opening as the food, and we sampled several grapes that we’d never previously come across. The rufete wines of Bodega La Zorra were a firm favourite.

Our final night in the city saw us in the buzzing barrios of Garrido and Buenos Aires, renowned for their nightlife and plethora of tapas bars. During term time, the streets in these interesting neighbourhoods are packed with students. Even though it was much more slow paced when we were there, we enjoyed an evening searching out the best tapas places. History is all well and good, but no one comes to Spain without plans to sample plenty of local delicacies.

Hot and bothered in Salamanca, Spain’s ‘Golden City’

Our only previous visit to Salamanca was almost twenty years ago. It’s a visit I can only recall with the foggy vagueness that a couple of decades in time and space will allow. Memory isn’t helped by the fact that the one thing I recall only too clearly, was that we arrived on a Friday evening and the whole town seemed to be in fiesta mode. Large and youthful crowds thronged the streets and plazas, eating and drinking. Music filled the air in the exquisite Plaza Mayor.

Caught up in this exuberance, we joined in with the festivities until well into the early hours of the morning. The resulting hangover severely curtailed our sightseeing plans for the following day. I’m certain we visited most of the important sights, but I have almost no memory of what we did or where we went. While I’m not proud of our lack of self restraint, the upside was that this trip to Salamanca was like visiting a town we’d never been to before.

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral roof, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

If that seems like an exercise in making the best of a bad lot, our previous experience also set a high bar for our expectations of the city. This time though, we were visiting outside of the university term time, and Salamanca’s big student population definitely added a vibrancy to the city of 20-years ago that we didn’t feel this time around. That, at least, meant we saw most of the things we’d planned to see and have total recall of the experience.

We arrived in Salamanca after driving from Madrid. I’m always surprised, and secretly delighted, by the fact that once you get out of Madrid the roads of Spain seem to be empty. The soaring temperatures meant that we had to deploy the air conditioning for most of the trip though. In the real world we don’t own a car, so I didn’t feel too bad about this, but it was hard to shake the feeling that we were contributing to the climate crisis.

Salamanca sits at an altitude of around 800 metres, which should make it cooler than the plains to the south. Not this year. The mercury was pushing mid-30sºC every day, and in Salamanca’s tightly-packed streets the heat was pretty oppressive. This is the sort of climate that led to the invention of the siesta, and adopting an early morning, late afternoon sightseeing routine, punctuated by power-napping, wasn’t a hardship.

We started our explorations in what is considered by many to be the finest plaza in the whole of Spain, the Plaza Mayor de Salamanca. Famously built to host bull fights, it’s the town’s 18th century centrepiece. It would probably be in my top three Spanish plazas, but it faces stiff competition from Cordoba’s Plaza de Corredera and the Plaza Mayor in Madrid for top spot. It’s still magnificent, and best experienced in the early evening when it comes alive.

Escuelas Mayores de Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

We had a lazy, and a little overpriced, lunch at one of the many restaurants on the plaza before exploring the streets towards the Catedral de Salamanca. These streets are crammed with Gothic palaces, intimate squares, atmospheric lanes, ancient churches and dozens of tapas bars. It’s hard to get a sense of the true size of the cathedral from the street, it’s best seen from across the River Tormes, but the sheer bulk of it is clear from walking around it.

It was roasting in the streets so we popped inside to take advantage of the cool interior and to explore the 1,000 year history of the building – actually two cathedrals side-by-side. There’s an entry fee, but you get an unintentionally hilarious audioguide in the price. The newer Gothic cathedral is impressive, but the older Romanesque cathedral has more atmosphere and interesting wall paintings. A clamber up to the roof for views over the town brought us to ‘siesta time’.

A Spanish Roadtrip, Castilla y Leon and Galicia

It’s fairly normal to select a holiday destination based on the prospect of warm, sunny weather. The effortless combination of historic cities, natural beauty, excellent food and a seamlessly endless supply of blue skies, are just some of the many reasons Spain is a favourite destination. There are occasions when less is more though. Temperatures during our visit to Spain this summer were so hot that we ended up changing our plans and visiting ‘cooler’ parts of the country.

Madrid was like a furnace. As was the lovely university town of Salamanca, where we spent our time seeking out the shade in historic streets and plazas. The heat was just as intense during a few days exploring the spellbinding landscapes and beautiful villages of the Sierra de Francia. We hoped the hills would provide respite from the heat. No such luck. In the end the long drive to the Galician coast via the Ribeira Sacra was our only option. This proved to be an inspired choice, even if not an intentional one.

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Muros, Galicia

Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon

Praia de Carnota, Galicia

Ribeira Sacra, Galicia

Galicia is absolutely fabulous. The magnificent landscapes of the Ribeira Sacra took us completely by surprise. As did the ancient winemaking traditions and grape varieties at welcoming vineyards, which often came with the option of having a lunch of delicious local specialities. Throw in picturesque villages, interesting small towns, an occasional castle and a couple of centuries-old monasteries, and I can see us returning to Galicia with monotonous regularity.

We based ourselves in Parada de Sil. This tiny village sits above the River Sil where the reservoir of Encoro de Santo Estevo creates an expanse of water that adds extra drama to the landscape. It’s also close to the beautiful Mosteiro de Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, a 12th century ruin peacefully set amidst thick woodland. It was the perfect place from which to explore the region, although when we woke on our first day to find mist and light rain it seemed our search for cooler weather had backfired.

The weather in Galicia can be very changeable – it didn’t get to be this green without a decent amount of rain. Luckily, when the sun reappeared it not only stayed with us for the rest of our trip, it also revealed the glorious countryside of the Ribeira Sacra at its verdant best. It would have been easy to stay where we were, but we really wanted to get to Galicia’s wild Atlantic coast for an invigorating dip in the chilly waters, and to its famed Albariño wine producing region.

We drove cross-country along minor roads, with occasional spectacular views, to reach the historic town of Cambados. From where we explored north along the coast to Carnota, one of the most spectacular beaches in the region with a backdrop of forested hills. We saw dolphins leaping as they chased fish at the Praia do Ancoradoiro, and ate pulpo a la gallega in the lovely fishing village of Muros. This Galician-style octopus, is a delicacy along this sweeping coast.

Cambados, Galicia

Praia de Carnota, Galicia

Albariño, Cambados, Galicia

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon

Parador de Santo Estevo, Galicia

The final days of our trip upon us, we headed south to Pontevedra, a town with a long maritime history. During the Spanish Golden Age it was a major port, and this is where Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María, was built. Today, it’s equally well known for taking the radical step of pedestrianising its entire city centre, which makes it one of the best places in Spain to explore on foot.

Maybe we’d had too much sun but, for reasons that still remain fuzzy, our chosen route back to Madrid took us first to León. We spent a couple of nights in this extraordinary place, before heading south again. It involved a couple of long drives, but the Catedral de León alone is worth making the trip to this greatly underrated city. León receives a fraction of the tourists you might expect in such a beautiful city.

The brilliance of Berlin’s Festival of Lights

Berlin’s Festival of Lights is a magnificent showpiece for the city, with some of the most iconic buildings used as temporary canvases for beautiful and inventive projections of light. Artists come from a variety of countries, and for ten days their work brings whole areas of the city to life at night. This year the festival celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, themed as Lights of Freedom. This is Berlin remembering it’s unification, with more than a passing nod towards the European Union.

Berliner Dom, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Berliner Dom, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

James-Simon-Galerie, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bode Museum, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

The organisers claim it’s the largest open-air gallery in the world and, with a massive two million plus visitors, it is certainly one of the most popular. If my experience at the Berliner Dom and the James Simon Gallery, both on Museum Island, is anything to go by, the 2 million mark will be easily surpassed this year. These are two of the best lights in the whole festival. The huge dome of the city cathedral becomes a canvas for a series of images, including one (tongue in cheek?) that says, “Let There Be Light”.

The park surrounding the cathedral was packed, and thanks to the weirdly hot weather people were camped out on the grass. A musician played street busker standards, and I couldn’t help a smirk when he launched into John Lennon’s anti-religion hymn, Imagine, with absolutely no sense of irony. Above us only light! I shuffled off through the crowds towards the James Simon Gallery, where a huge throng was gathered along the canal to watch a brilliantly animated light show.

Named after the 19th centuryJewish textile magnet and massive patron of the arts in Berlin, the James Simon Gallery is brand new and will serve as Museum Island’s visitor centre. Here, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem of Kuwait has funded an incredible 10-minute ‘light mapping’ animation that combines Arabic and Western cultural references, and shows some of the gems that reside within the museums that cast a shadow over the scene. Marilyn Monroe makes a surprise appearance.

I arrived as the final couple of minutes of the show played out, and then grabbed a good viewing spot to watch it all from the beginning. It really was fantastic, and is perhaps only rivalled for technical ability by the projections at Bebelplatz. That delight was on my way home, but first I visited the light shows on the Bode Museum, at the entrance of which was another busker strangely illuminated in the light. I walked along the River Spree, past the Berliner Dom and into Alexanderplatz.

Last year, this was one of the best light shows in the festival, this year it was more than a little underwhelming. I didn’t linger and headed towards the Nikolaiviertel quarter, where things were also a little disappointing. The evening was saved by the utter magic of the light displays in Bebelplatz. There are interesting static projections on two sides of the square, but the animated projection onto the Hotel de Rome was wonderful. It was a collection of different artists’ creations. You can vote for your favourite.

By the time I arrived in Bebelplatz the crowds had started to thin out, and it was a far more relaxing experience watching the displays. I’m glad I made this my last stop, the fabulous animations and single projections on the Hotel de Rome were worth the wait. As I wandered home under an almost full moon, I felt at one with the world. A lucky bonus projection awaited me though as I walked down a street close to my apartment. The Ministry of Justice was lit up with a 30th anniversary Berlin Wall projection.

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

Potsdamer Platz, Festival of Lights, Berlin, Germany

Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin

St. Hedwigs, Bebelplatz, Festival of Lights, Berlin