Ribeira Sacre – Canyons, Cloisters and Clinging Vines

Tucked away in the south east corner of Galicia is the Ribeira Sacre, which translates as the sacred riverbanks. It’s a region rich in religious buildings and vertiginous vistas where heroic viticulture takes place on the steep southern slopes, in order to produce a unique selection of wines. The grapes are nurtured by the warmth of the sun and the humidity produced by the rivers. Although today the sun is blocked completely by the thick low lying mist in the valleys.


While I’m waiting for it to clear, I decide to learn about the local wine by visiting the Wine Interpretation Centre in Monforte de Lemos. Enthusiastic Beatrice gives me a private English language tour of the Centre which is an exposition based on the five senses. Clearly the designer was very artistic given the way the information is presented, including a river of wine bottles and a wall of photographs representing local culture. The tour finishes in the wine shop where I get to sample one of the local red wines. It’s a blind tasting and could even be the same wine which was chosen by President Obama to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month last year.


As the sun begins to burn through the mist, I head south to the Sil River. Passing over the hills to start my descent into the valley, I am greeted by the most spectacular view of the river where a pleasure boat is cruising far below. The terraced slopes are filled with lines of vines whose leaves are starting to turn to autumn colours. The harvesting of the grapes has already been completed and the wine is now fermenting in the nearby bodegas. On the opposite side of the canyon, I can see my next stop, the village of Castro Caldelas, with its castle keep and church bell tower.


After lunch, I explore the village. The castle is closed but the surrounding old village streets are interesting and when I reach the church, in the cemetery at the edge of the cliff, I discover a narrow flight of steps leading up to the bell tower. The view from the top is magnificent but I nervously check my watch for fear of being deafened by the bells.






The afternoon finds me winding my way through the forested southern slopes of the canyon. A detour down the side allows me to visit the Santa Cristina Monastery, long abandoned and now only a ruin. Apart from a few local men collecting chestnuts, I have the place to myself. The empty rooms are dark and damp. There’s no view, only endless oaks and chestnut trees. It’s not a place to linger and another monastery beckons.

The Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil Monastery was built in the 12th century but eventually fell into ruin until it was recently restored as a luxurious Parador. It’s a huge complex of 3 cloisters, each representing a different architectural era (Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance), 4 wings and the large Romanesque church.

Finally, I reach the point where the River Sil merges with the River Mino. What I find there is a huge hydroelectric plant and a dam, which I have to drive across to reach the town of Os Peares. Hydro power is not the only renewable energy source in the region. The hills along the Mino valley are dotted with huge wind turbines. This region is green in more than one sense and, given the lack of good information about the region, it is a rare, undiscovered gem.


A Pilgrim’s Purpose

In the Middle Ages, half a million pilgrims travelled to Santiago de Compostela, Galicia, Spain. Now about 200,000 people walk, ride or cycle the Camino de Santiago each year, not only one but many routes, which end in the city.

Many people are true devout Catholics who walk the route as penance for some sin, or in search of an answer to their prayers, a solution to their problems or a miracle cure for an illness. Of course, some are just tourists lured by the promise of stunning scenery, romantic Romanesque churches and great Galician gastronomy.


Pilgrims have been walking to Santiago de Compostela ever since the remains of the apostle James were found by a hermit called Pelayo in 814 AD. Although James was martyred in Palestine around 45 AD, it is said that angels guided his body to Galicia in a stone boat which landed at Padron, 21km from Santiago. All rather convenient for the Catholic church of Spain, during the dawn of the Reconquista against the Muslim Moors.

In 1589, when Drake attacked the Galician coast, the sacred bones were hidden away, so well in fact that they remained lost until 1879 when a cathedral workman stumbled across them – another miracle!


The building of the cathedral was paid for from annual taxes imposed on the people of Spain by Ramiro I of Asturias after St James assisted in the defeat of the Moors during the battle of Clavijo in 844. The original 9th century basilica was superseded by the 11th – 13th century cathedral and an 18th century Baroque façade which hides the delicately sculptured Portico de Gloria by architect Maestro Matteo. However, today’s pilgrims are welcomed only by the site of two huge scaffold towers which block the main entrance – what a disappointment!

Inside awaits a grand, silver-clad high altar, also partially obscured by scaffolding. A 12th century statue of St James adorns it and pilgrims queue to climb the stairway, kiss the statue’s robe and receive a holy card (proof of their pilgrimage). In the crypt below, St James’ remains are kept in a shiny silver reliquary behind a locked grate for safe keeping.


I attend the pilgrim’s mass at midday, where a mixture of pious elderly Spaniards, youthful multicultural backpackers and inappropriately-dressed American tourists repeatedly stand and sit, and stand and sit for the hymns, prayers and sermons given by red-cloaked Catholic priests and a harmonious nun. There must be over 400 people in attendance and the collection bag looks very weighty indeed. No need for a tax when the daily donations are so forthcoming. The botafumeiro hangs limply above the altar. Today it will not swing wildly in great arcs along the transept, dowsing devotees with perfumed incense. This spectacle only occurs on Friday at 7.30pm,or when someone privately pays the €350 for the honour.


I pay €6 for the privilege of visiting the cathedral museum. It allows me access to the large cloister and several floors of exhibits, including the library filled with ancient encyclopaedias and religious manuscripts, such as a 12th century illuminated Codex Calixtinus, the world’s first travel guide about the pilgrimage route. There are also some interesting tapestries by Rubens and Goya on the top floor, along with a lengthy stone balcony which overlooks the Prazo do Obradoiro (square of works), the 18th century Pazo de Rajoy (now the town hall), the Colegio de San Jeronimo and the 16th Century Hospital Real (originally a hospice for sick pilgrims but now a five star Parador).

My visit to Santiago de Compostela feels fraudulent. Although I have passed along much of the Camino on my travels: St Jean-Pied-de-Port, Roncevalles, Pamplona, Burgos (The French Route); San Sebastian, Bilbao, Santillana del Mar (The Northern Route); A Coruna (The Maritime Route), I have not walked “The Way”. And I don’t think watching the 2010 film by Emilio Estevez counts either. However, Santiago de Compostela is an interesting city to visit, with a spiritual and friendly vibe due to all the devotees passing through. I leave with a feeling that my soul has been nourished, and with a small tarta de Santiago to nourish my body.


Meeting a Pilgrim at The World’s End


I have driven to the furthest point west on the Spanish coast, or so most people believe. Actually, Cabo Tourinan, 20km further north, claims that record.

Along the way, I see several walkers with large backpacks, wooden walking sticks and plastic capes shielding them and their belongings from the unpleasant weather. For most pilgrims, their Camino finishes at Santiago de Compostela, but many continue on to the coast and Cabo Finisterre (The World’s End).


I feel like a fraud, driving up in my motorhome, and I respectfully watch as a small, bald, bespectacled man takes selfies in front of the ancient 15th century stone cross. He calls me over and asks if I can take a photo for him. I’m happy to oblige and congratulate him on the successful completion of his journey. Amazingly, I discover that Jin (an American Korean) has walked from St Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela in only 34 days, a journey that takes most people at least 6 weeks. Although he freely admits to catching the bus from Santiago to Finisterre on account of the bad weather.


We walk separately past the bar, the Parador and down to the lighthouse and simple symbolic concrete cross beyond. There is a large pile of ashes near the cross where pilgrims have burnt the clothes they wore during their trek. Other mementoes lie scattered around it: a lonely boot atop a rock, a fluorescent green compass and piles of scallop shells, the symbol of the Camino de Santiago.

I offer Jin a lift back to town but he declines, preferring to walk. I respect and admire his stamina, right to the very end. We take a selfie together and go our separate ways.


Costa Da Morte – Coast of the Dead

There are many reasons that the Galician coastline between A Coruna and Muros is named for the dead.


For a start, it is dotted with dolmens, ancient burial chambers, dating from almost 6000 years ago. Between Baio and Serramo there is a signposted “ruta de dolmens” and I start with the most well preserved specimen in the area, the Dolmen Dombate. It is housed in a glass-walled visitor centre which, according to the signs, is only open from Friday to Sunday. It is Thursday but the security guard seems happy for me to go inside and have a look, reminding me not to use the flash on my camera. The dolmen is unimpressive compared to the Tables des Marchands in Brittany and looks slightly fake. It can only be viewed from a distance, which is most disappointing as I had read that the interior has an engraving of a ship. I contemplate asking the guard if I can have a sneeky peek but he seems keen to leave and have his lunch. I try to find the Pedra Cuberta, a dolmen with a 6m long chamber, but the “ruta de dolmens” follows narrow farm roads with no place to park a car, let alone a motorhome!


The next day brings me to the Axeitos Dolmen, which is situated in a park not far from the village of Olveira. The site is deserted and I approach the dolmen along a path lined with oak and pine trees. The wind is strong, causing me to be bombed with acorns and pine cones. It’s possible to get up close and personal with this example, I can even venture inside. If there were any carvings they have long been eroded by the elements and covered with green lichen. Earlier, I had come across a petroglyph, hidden behind a supermarket. At first it just looked like a pile of rocks, covered in leaves and lichen, but then I saw it, the faint outline of a circular pattern, and I was excited.


2000 years later, Iron Age fortified settlements were built along the coast. I discover the ruins of the Barona Castro in the most spectacular setting, on a promontory jutting into the sea below the Barbanza Mountains. The signed footpath takes me through a pine forest and then out onto the granite slabs which form a treacherous road down to the settlement. However, as I leave the shelter of the forest, I am most literally blown away by the stormy winds. The rain stings my face and the ruins are almost obscured by the sea spray. I might be British and therefore used to such inclement weather, but I’m not suicidal. I opt to view the site from a safe distance. Besides, it has apparently been “touched up” for the tourists and reconstructed to better simulate the original features.

During the Middle Ages, fortresses and defences were built at some of the inland towns and villages. Mens has a fine example of an ivy-clad castle with a tiny Romanesque chapel, supposedly linked by an underground tunnel, and at Vimianzo, a 16th century castle has been turned into an art gallery and exhibition space for traditional crafts. Others have been transformed into expensive, luxury Paradors.


It’s not hard to forget the dead in these parts. There are many 12th century churches and stone crosses, as well as the modern-day cemeteries. Even the 18th century horreos (granaries) are adorned with crosses. The coastal rocks have caused many shipwrecks over the years from Armada warships, fishing trawlers and large tankers. Also, many people have drowned while swimming in the treacherous waters.

The 19th century Napoleonic Wars bought foreign soldiers to the region and battles resulted in many casualties, including Scottish General John Moore, who was killed by a cannonball during the battle of Elvina on 14th January 1809. He is remembered by a memorial in the San Carlos gardens in A Coruna.


Finally, the 21st century brought an environmental threat to the coast and death to much of the marine and bird life as well as major disruption to the fishing industry, the main economic lifeline of the region. On the 19th November 2002, the “Prestige”, a Greek oil tanker, broke up off the Spanish coast and spilt 63,000 tons of oil. Even today we fill the seas with rubbish that won’t decompose. A short walk along the beach at Boiro found it littered with plastic disposable lighters, shoes, a comb, plastic bottles, bottle tops and a dead seagull, all washed up after the recent storm.


The Tower of Hercules

The Tower of Hercules is the oldest working lighthouse in the world. Built by the Romans in the 2nd century, it has been protecting ships from the rocky shoreline around A Coruna for thousands of years.

It doesn’t look much like a Roman construction but that is because of the 18th century surrounding walls, which have served to protect it, and the modern electrical beam which can be seen from 32 miles away. Originally, the light would have been produced by a huge oil lamp projected onto a parabolic mirror. The fuel would have been transported up to the top of the tower by an external ramp, which is still represented in the more recent exterior stonework.


The original architect of the tower, Caius Sevius Lupus from Aeminium, Lusitania (now Coimbra in Portugal) dedicated his work to the God Mars. So why is it known as the Tower of Hercules? It was actually King Alfonso X who connected the ancient myths of Hercules with the city of A Coruna in the 13th century. According to the legend, Hercules defeated the giant Geryon and buried his severed head, declaring that a tower should be built above it and a city established. He named the city Crunia, after a local woman who lived in the area and with whom he had fallen in love. His nephew, Hispan, then completed the tower and topped it with a light that would never be extinguished.

It’s 242 steps to the top of the tower and although the Roman lighthouse was 21m shorter it would still have been quite a climb to keep the lamp burning. Unfortunately, the view today is less than spectacular so I decide to stay at ground level and admire the unusual sculptures in the surrounding park.


Maria Pita – Heroine of A Coruna

The largest square in A Coruna is surrounded by busy cafes and bars, protected by arched porticoes, and overlooked by the monumental town hall. In the centre stands a statue of its namesake, Maria Pita who, up until 1589, was an insignificant wife of a butcher.

A few years before she became the heroine of the city, King Philip II of Spain decided to try and force England to revert to its Catholic faith. Queen Elizabeth I had recently beheaded Mary Queen of Scots, who Philip had hoped would claim the English throne, and in retaliation, Philip decided to assemble the largest fleet of warships in Spanish history with the main objective of invading England. However, Francis Drake heard about this plan and launched a counter-attack, sailing into Cadiz in 1587 and burning the parked fleet. Undeterred, a Spanish Armada of 130 ships set sail from A Coruna in July 1588 with 10,000 sailors and 19,000 soldiers on board. Following a fierce battle in the English Channel, the defeated Spanish had to circumnavigate the British Isles in order to return home to Spain. When they finally limped back into port they had lost half their ships and most of their soldiers.

Maria Pita

However, for Drake the fight was not yet over and he sailed 30 ships into A Coruna one night in 1589. Maria Pita spotted the fleet and raised the alarm, enabling the local citizens to resist the attack. She also, supposedly, captured Drakes flag and soon became the symbol of heroism in the city. Who says “girl power” is a 21st century invention?


Dinosaurs and Doc Martin

The Asturian coastline between Gijon and Ribadesella is known as the Dinosaur Coast. Not unlike the Jurassic Coast in the south of England, it is an area rich in fossils and footprints. I begin my search for dinosaurs at the Jurassic Museum, hidden in the pine forest above the town of Colunga. Soon I am surrounded by a stegosaurus, brachiosaurus and T-Rex, but this is no Spielberg movie and I seem to be the only living thing around except for the enthusiastic young man at the entrance desk. It’s a beautiful sunny day and I don’t really want to be inside a museum so I ask for information about walks in the area and am presented with a ‘field guide’ to the dinosaur coast with the suggestion that I visit the largest dinosaur footprint at neighbouring La Griega Beach.


The beach is quiet for such a sunny Saturday but it is October and the campsite closed two weeks ago. A wooden footbridge takes me across the estuary to a well-marked footpath which winds through the pine trees and undulates along the cliff top. Steps lead down to the beach and the huge dinosaur footprint preserved in a limestone slab. It’s actually a lot easier to see than I imagined and I try to conjure up the image of the massive creature that left its mark 200 million years ago.

From La Griega Beach I can see the small fishing village of Lastres, clinging to the cliff side. Once an important whaling centre, it is now more well-known for being the location of the Spanish TV series “Dr Mateo”, better known to the English as “Doc Martin”. (In fact, Doc Martin also has versions in France, Germany, Holland and Greece).


Although Lastres boasts steep, narrow, cobbled streets, it is not quite as picturesque as Port Isaac in Cornwall, but its new-found fame may encourage the locals to spruce it up a bit. The tourist office provides a themed map with a route passing all the main locations from the TV series. Dr Mateo’s house is really quite grand – apparently he’s just as grumpy as Doc Martin and also has a phobia of blood. I only wonder if the sarcastic humour of the English version translates into Spanish!

Doc MartinDr Mateo