Straddling the provinces of Lugo and Ourense in the middle of Galicia sits La Ribeira Sacra, one of Spain’s least known and most mysterious areas. Its rivers, Miño and Sil, which meet at the region’s heart, mould the landscape, gouging out vast canyons and vertiginous valleys. Thick green forests frame these rivers and hide medieval monasteries, whose presence gives the area a sort of hushed spirituality. The valley slopes are lined with centuries-old terraced grapevines. To visit the Ribeira Sacra is to visit a different Spain, a quieter, greener country, and a world away from its crowded Mediterranean beaches too.
Eighteen monasteries hide in the Ribeira Sacra’s steep, forested escarpments. While achieving a full ecclesiastical sweep would be difficult on a short trip, there are three monasteries you should make an effort to see.
First, the famous 10th-century Benedictine monastery of Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, which sits on the confluence of the Miño and Sil rivers. Perhaps its most impressive feature is the cloisters, each of which has a different architectural style. Santo Estevo was recently restored and converted into one of the best paradores in Spain (see below) and has its own restaurant.
Nearby is Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil (open to all). Enveloped by trees and shrubs, this 10th-century Benedictine monastery sits in the forest like an abandoned fairytale. It fell from being one of the most important monasteries in the area, when it was built, to being used as a cowshed in the late 19th century. Nonetheless, the mixture of renaissance, gothic and Romanesque styles, cast in ancient grey stone, and lost in the mysterious silence of the forest, is something worth experiencing.
The Sil Canyonv
This gorge stretches for 50km across the region. Its scabrous walls rise, in some parts, 500 metres from the river below, and are packed with olives trees and grapevines. It is, without doubt, one of the most impressive places in Galicia, and Spain. If you enjoy panoramas, head to the town of Parada de Sil, where you will be able to see the Balcones de Madrid, the most rugged and precipitous part of the gorge. If you are looking for a different perspective, the canyon can be explored by boat: from pleasure cruise to kayak. Many companies offer this (€12 for a 75-minute trip, catamaranesribeirasacra.com), but if you want a more exclusive experience, it might be worth a visit to the Alguiera vineyard (see below), which provides private cruises from its bodega.
One dish that is exclusive to the Ribeira Sacra, and specifically to the town of Taboada, is caldo de osos (bone broth). In this small town, they even dedicate a party to the dish every year in February. It is essentially a stew of chickpeas and potatoes enriched with a pig bone broth. Although it is mainly in restaurants in winter and early spring, it can still be found in the summer months. Failing that, drop in for classic regional fare at Os Pendellos (Galician beef, octopus and mini-scallops €10-22 a head) in Chantada.
Galician beef is famous throughout Spain, and O Grelo (dinner from €30 a head), a stylish restaurant in Monforte de Lemos, serves entrecot de ternera gallega al queso tetilla (€17.80), a ribeye cooked in a local cow’s milk cheese. If that doesn’t take your fancy, try the percebes (goose barnacles). Shaped like a mini pig’s trotter, they look strange, but are as delicious as any other shellfish.
Where to stay
Slightly cheaper is the Rectoral de Castillón (doubles from €63.50 B&B) in Santiago de Castillón. This a medium-sized hotel, set in a traditionally styled 18th-century house. All the rooms are comfortable and simply decorated. It has a good restaurant and local dishes such as octopus and empanada , pastry stuffed with meat or fish. The hotel also has a living room with an open fire, a library and a garden.
FlightsEasyJet flies from Gatwick to Santiago de Compostela, Ryanair flies from Stansted, and British Airways from Heathrow. Vueling Airlines flies daily from Gatwick to La Coruña.
WeatherThe Spanish think of Galicia as their rainy region, but that’s compared with some other regions’ 12-month-long summer, says the Galicia Guide. It has a mild oceanic climate, with significant variations from the coast to inland, and summer highs can reach over 30C.