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.