2019, a German year in review

Berlin has now been home for 18 months and, as 2019 trundles towards its inevitable conclusion, reflecting back on the previous 12 months this has been a year dominated by discovering more about Germany. We’ve interspersed our time with trips to other places, but mostly we’ve been trying to make sense of the place in which we live. This has not been without its challenges.

Even amongst Germans, Berlin is considered a grumpy, often hostile, city. At a micro level, it still feels like we’re scratching the surface of understanding this city. A little contradictorily, at the macro level it’s a welcoming and inclusive place. As the Brexit deadline rapidly approaches, that’s something for which we may soon be very grateful.

Berlin, Bowie’s ‘cultural extravaganza’

In the 1970s, for David Bowie, Berlin was “the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.” A divided city at the centre of the Cold War, it fostered an alternative, Bohemian culture. Thirty years after unification, that legacy continues to inspire the modern city, but today ‘Bohemian’ has been replaced by ‘Startup’, and gentrification is everywhere. This though remains no ordinary city, and one that it takes effort to know … a journey we’re still on.

Berlin Street Art

I’ve posted many times about the street art scene in Berlin. I don’t pretend to know it well, I just see it everywhere. There are signs of creeping corporatization in street art, but the sheer number and diversity of street artists is extraordinary, and something to celebrate. As I’ve said before, when it comes to street art, Berlin is the gift that keeps on giving.

Celebrating a centenary of Bauhaus in Dessau

100 years of Germany’s most celebrated artistic movement seemed like a good reason to make the trip to Dessau, the home of Bauhaus. Despite the anticipated celebrations, this former GDR city felt unprepared for the predicted tourist onslaught – several of the houses were being repaired and the new museum was scheduled to only open after the anniversary year was over. The idea of German efficiency died that day.

Phoenix from the flames, Dresden

Dresden, famed capital of Saxony, is a place where the ghosts of its legendary history are never too far away. It’s near-miraculous that the city built by Augustus the Strong is still standing – or rather, was rebuilt, Phoenix-like from the flames of the devastating bombing raids of 1945. A fantastic trip was crowned with a visit to nearby Meissen, home to Augustus’ porcelain factory.

Spreewald, the spiritual home of the gherkin

The Spreewald, an hour or so south of Berlin, is famous for its watery landscapes and the quality of its pickled products – pre-eminent amongst which is the gherkin. They are one of the few East German products to survive reunification. The epicentre of the gherkin area is the attractive village of Lehde. Known as the ‘city of punts and pickles’, it comes with a fabulous open air museum to Sorbian history and culture.

Tbilisi

I’d been planning a trip to Georgia for as long as I can remember, but I was still blown away by its capital, Tbilisi. An ancient city at the crossroads of cultures between the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia, all these influences have combined to create a fascinating and vibrant capital. Decades of communist rule – the birthplace of Joseph Stalin is nearby – may still haunt the city, but this is a place firmly looking to the future.

The High Caucasus

Breathtaking in every sense of the word, Georgia’s High Caucasus region is one of the most dramatic and beautiful places ever I’ve visited. A unique culture exists amongst mountains and valleys dotted by ancient villages with their iconic watchtowers and isolated monasteries. The Kazbegi region, an area of myth and legend, is a perfect place to first experience this culture – it’s easily accessible from Tbilisi.

Exploring the streets of Amman

It was a case of third-time lucky for me in Amman. I’d passed through the city twice before but had failed to spend any time there. This time I only had a day at my disposal, but it was enough to explore some of the ancient wonders that have survived centuries of civilisation. Not only that, I got to eat some of the best food the city has to offer, and discovered the street art boom that is transforming the bleak cityscape.

A Warsaw Weekend

I’ll be the first to admit that I was surprised by just how vibrant modern-day Warsaw was. I may still have had images of the bleak communist city, but by the time I left after an incredible few days exploring its neighbourhoods and visiting its museums, my opinions had been completely changed. It’s made me want to explore more of Poland which, given that it’s only 80km away from my front door, should be an easily kept New Year resolution.

Galicia’s ancient vineyards and wild coastline

Galicia was a revelation. A region of Spain that felt a million miles from the flamenco and Mediterranean beach resort stereotype. The wild Atlantic Coast, with its historic towns, rugged beaches backed by forested hills, and world famous seafood, combined perfectly with the mountainous interior of the Ribeira Sacra – on the steep limestone hillsides of this spectacular region are ancient vineyards first planted by Romans.

A Sierra de Francia hideaway

If there’s a place in Spain where I could happily drop out of society for several months, it would be the gorgeous Sierra de Francia. Rolling wooded hillsides dotted with red-tiled villages connected by walking trails are accompanied by legend and myth in a region that is just being discovered by the outside world. The tradition of St. Anthony’s pig is just one reason for a visit.

Tunisia, a desert road trip remembered

I had a serious car crash in Tunisia, which resulted in me hanging upside down, the car on its roof, in the middle of the desert. This though wasn’t the most remarkable thing that happened. Out of nowhere three Tunisian men appeared and pulled me from the wreck. They called the police and an ambulance, one even came to visit me at my hotel to check that I was OK – I was fine, if a little bruised. That’s everything one needs to know about the hospitality of Tunisians.

Pilgrims and Roman history in ancient León

León’s Cathedral is extraordinary. If you saw nothing else of the city, this massive hunk of stone standing in the centre of a huge square would alone be worth making the trip. Impressive from the outside, it’s when you step through the arched doorways that the building reveals its true glory. Nearly 1,800 square metres of stained glass await inside, most of them originals dating back centuries. Illuminated by a powerful sun, the light in the building is spellbinding.

The €6 entry fee was worth every cent, and came with an audioguide. Even before we entered though, the exterior carvings of devils doing terrible-looking things to earthly sinners helped get us in the right mood. The cathedral dates back to the 10th century, although most of what you see today is 14th and 15th century, with some add-ons. It’s remarkable the cathedral has survived, especially when you consider that ill-judged additions in the 16th century almost brought it crashing down.

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Convento de San Marcos, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Town Hall, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The cathedral’s history dates much further back than the 10th century though, all the way to 74 AD. In that year, a Roman legion founded León, and on the current site of the cathedral they built baths. Making this a spot that has been used to ‘cleanse’ humanity, one way or another, for close to 2,000 years. Keeping with the religious theme, we set off through the new town to the equally impressive-looking Convento de San Marcos.

Now a luxury hotel, it was undergoing restoration so we admired it from the outside and then took a stroll along the river. It was August and there was hardly any water, but the landscaped river bank was shady and cool. I imagine that’s a relief for all those who traipse through the Plaza de San Marcos en route to Galicia on the French branch of the Camino de Santiago. There is a nice statue in the middle of the square of a pilgrim, shoes off, gazing at the convent.

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Street art, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Basílica de San Isidoro, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Convento de San Marcos, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

León is an important staging post on the pilgrim route, and receives thousands of sore-footed travellers every year. A tradition established centuries ago which now seems to appeal as much to outdoor enthusiasts as the devout. We did see a couple of people for whom devotion seems to have slipped into mental illness. Jerusalem syndrome may be alive and well on the Camino. It certainly appeared that people in the town understood the symptoms, helpers were quickly called.

Back in the centre of the Old Town, Barrio Húmedo, we found an outdoor table with views over the 11th century Basílica de San Isidoro for lunch. This former monastery is built on the ruins of a Roman temple and, while the church is still a church, it’s now also an upmarket hotel. Here, in a city where people rest after trekking across Spain as part of their religious devotions, religious institutions are being preserved by converting them into hotels for those same people.

Casa Botines, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Gaudí statue, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Street art, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Casa Botines, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Cathedral, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The Basílica is the final resting place to numerous Kings and Queens of León, it’s also where Saint Isidore of Seville’s relics were buried. Much more importantly though, this was the home to the Cortes of León of 1188, believed to be the first example of a parliament in modern European history. All of which has led the local authorities to brand León as the ‘Cradle of Parliamentarism’.  After lunch we wandered around the streets until we came to the Casa Botines.

This odd looking building was designed by Antoni Gaudi, whose famed architectural style was really toned down for this project. Despite his relatively short time in León, Gaudi’s fame has warranted a statue outside Casa Botines. He sits sketching, while above him St. George slays a dragon on the facade of the building.

León and the legend of ‘Saint’ Genarín

León is a city that sticks in the memory. In my case, less for its monumental cathedral or glorious Plaza Mayor, than for the traumatic experience of trying to park a car in our hotel’s underground car park. I’ve experienced Spanish garages before. They seem to follow a universal design: small, cramped and intended to separate you from your hire car rental deposit. It’s no way to introduce yourself to a new city, especially a city as fascinating as León.

León was the final stop on our way back to Madrid from Galicia. It wasn’t a particularly convenient stopover, but we’d heard glowing reports and made the detour. I’m glad we did. The long drive from Pontevedra meant we arrived in the late afternoon, just as temperatures were beginning to drop. It was perfect for a stroll through the narrow streets of the old city – the Barrio Húmedo – with stops for a drink and tapas in a couple of lovely plazas.

A Lion in Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Plaza del Grano, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

This is a city of squares. The most splendid is the Plaza Mayor with pleasant cafes and bars. Nearby is the Plaza San Martin, so chock full of tapas bars a substantial bar crawl is possible without ever leaving the tiny square. A short stroll away is the picturesque, Plaza del Grano. An ancient cobbled square, it’s also home to the 12th century Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Mercado, the oldest church in Leon named for the market that once took place here.

Today, you’ll find a few tapas places. We sat down and ordered a couple of drinks as we watched the comings and goings in the square. There was a hostal on one side, and periodically ‘pilgrims’ from the hugely popular Camino de Santiago passed through on their way to rest up after an arduous day of hiking in Spain’s fierce August heat. As I sat with a cold beer, I reflected on the madness of hiking at this time of year regardless of your faith.

The sun was starting to set by the time we wandered, a little unsteadily, out of Plaza del Grano. We made for the town’s outstanding sight, the Catedral de León. We planned to visit the following morning when sunlight would do justice to its monumental stained glass windows. There was a vibrant buzz in the square surrounding the cathedral as people headed out for an evening stroll and some tapas – this is a town that prides itself on both its nightlife and food.

We joined the throngs of people meeting, greeting and eating, and ended up in a web of narrow streets surrounding the Plaza Conde Luna. The town was pulsating and the tapas bars were heaving. We squeezed in where we could to try the local specialities, including a morcilla (blood sausage) stew. It looks like something you might cross the street to avoid – you’d definitely avoid stepping in it – but it is absolutely delicious with a glass of Tempranillo.

Plaza del Grano, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Mercado, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The carnival atmosphere helped explain one of León’s most famous tales. This relates that, after a night of revelry on 30 March 1929, a very drunk local man named Genaro Blanco was relieving himself against one of the city’s ancient walls when he stumbled in front of León’s first ever garbage truck. He died instantly. The truck was the pride of the town and the incident became famous. So famous, that it’s still celebrated today.

In March, revellers parade the streets carrying a statue of Genaro in vague mockery of Semana Santa. Cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of orujo brandy in his hand, the procession circulates through the city to arrive at the very spot where he died all those years ago. Here the crowds perform the “Burial of Saint Genarín”. It may sound crazy, but 15,000 people show up for this event. I like the idea that an early contender for the Darwin Awards is suitably honoured.

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.