Hidden Spain: Ribeira Sacra, the Secret of the Monks
A deep gorge crosses the land. At the top, Romanesque monasteries watch the horizon and a bunch of viewpoints offer magnificent views. Looking down, oaks, chestnuts and vineyards cover the stepped hillsides.
Everything in Ribeira Sacra invites one to breathe, relax and feel alive.
Let me show you why Ribeira Sacra is a candidate to be listed as Cultural Landscape World Heritage, and a perfect destiny for a retreat travel.
It’s one of the less known beautiful places in Spain.
Ribeira Sacra means the sacred banks of the river. In fact, the magic of this land turns around 2 main rivers: Miño and Sil.
River Sil carves during its last 35 kms granite walls as deep as 600 Mts in some areas. Then, it runs into River Miño, near Os Peares. The natural force of river Sil is soothed by a few dams, making pleasant boat trips possible – a wonderful way to discover the canyon.
A complete route in the region should include: monasteries, viewpoints and nature, vineyards, traditional towns and local cuisine.
How many days? Consider at least 5.
The Viewpoints to admire Ribeira Sacra
We can count at least 36 amazing viewpoints where to admire the Ribeira Sacra.
They are distributed all along the two main rivers: Miño and Sil.
It could take you a while to stop at every viewpoint, that’s why it’s a good idea to pick a bunch of them, especially if you are visiting Ribeira Sacra for a short period of time.
These ones below are my favourite ones:
- Cabo do Mundo and Cabezoás, the first one above the most famous meander of River Miño, the second one watching another meander, of river Sil, in this case.
- Pena do Castelo, A Capela and As Penas de Matacá, showing the best views over the cultivated terraces and the river.
- And the trendy ones: O bambán do Solpor and the one in Terra Brava Wineries. These are two swings with views, a delight for instagramers and bloggers. The one in Terra Brava Wineries is the only private one, only accessible as part of the visit to the wine cellars.
And the points of view
How many places did you visit from different heights? You can do that on Ribeira Sacra!
From top to bottom:
- Fly over the vineyards, with the sunrise as a witness. Jump into a hot air balloon and float over the landscape. There are three companies offering this incredible experience that will take you on a flight for about an hour.
- Drive up and down along the mountains, stopping at the viewpoints and immersing in the scenery.
- Get a boat ride. Navigate the water of River Sil, or Miño. A pleasant travel among damns will be perfect at sunset. Companies operate at one and other side of the main rivers.
The monasteries around Ribeira Sacra
The area is considered the main concentration of rural romanesque in Europe, with 85 romanesque monasterios, 18 of which you can visit.
Why so many, and what was the purpose of building them?
The fertile lands, the mystery, retreat and peace of the area attracted monastic orders from the beginning of Cristianity. We can now follow their footprints trying to find the same pleasure in such a serene retreat.
Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil and San Pedro de Rocas are the most remarkable monasteries, the “must see” of the region.
Santo Estevo is placed in the heart of Ribeira Sacra, and was one of the most powerful monasteries in the area: nine bishops decided to spend their last days in it.
It preserves a baroque façade, a church with a romanesque apse and three cloisters of different periods: Renaissance, Romanesque and Gothic. The monastery is nowadays a luxurious hotel (it belongs to the prestigious Spanish Paradores hotels chain), where you can eventually stay.
Book at night at Santa Estevo here.
Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil is one of those magic places that will remain in your memories. Surrounded by a chestnut forest, this monastery, built on the latest XI century, stands above a meander of Sil river.
San Pedro de Rocas (Saint Peter of the Rocks), it looks like being smelt on the rocks. It was probably one of the first places were the lonely life of eremites became a community life.
The vineyards in Ribeira Sacra
Ribeira Sacra lives with and for the wine. The Romans found gold in these lands, but left us something in exchange. They probably combined the indigenous grapevines with the mediterranean ones, obtaining better vines. What is more, it is said that the Caesars demanded those wines. The tradition continued with the monks improving and promoting the wine activity, cultivating rough pieces of land, at angles of 50 to 85%. Some of them are still only accesible by boat. Wine cultivation became the economic source in those times, what still is.
To visit a Ribeira Sacra winery is absolutely necessary to understand the way of living of the locals. There are many small wine cellars, family businesses, distributed in the three wine areas: Amandi, Ribeira do Miño and Ribeira do Sil.
Just pick one (or two, or three), and let your senses go.
The traditional towns of Ribeira Sacra
Are there big cities in the area? Fortunately not, so tranquility is guaranteed. But there are three towns and a city you should visit.
Monforte de Lemos
Being node of rails, made Monforte a city. It is located in the geographical center of Ribeira Sacra, a good choice to stay in and plan day trips from there. Don’t leave the city without walking along River Cabe and discovering the Galician Escorial: Nuestras Señora de la Antigua, the old castle and the Tower keep.
Portomarín is an important village on the Way of St. James. I use to say that the Way works as the railway for rural towns: it makes life to flourish. People open small restaurants, hotels, shops. Some cities and villages appeared during the Middle Ages because of the Way.
But, pay attention: the Portomarin you can visit nowadays, that’s the new town. The old one is submerged under the waters of the reservoir. The main buildings, including the church of St. John, were previously moved, stone by stone, to its new location.
A traditional town with some romanesque treasures. The main square is surrounded by traditional houses with wooden balconies and porches. If you are lucky enough to visit Chantada on a Fairy day, 5 or 21 of every month, you will be immersed in an authentic experience: the market as in the old times.
A bunch of romanesque churches will complete the visit: the churches of San Salvador of Asma, Santa María of Pesqueiras, or Santa María of Nogueira.
Castro Caldelas watches River Edo from the top of a hill. To reach the castle, placed in the center of the village, you’ll need to walk up winding cobbled streets lost in time. And once again, feel lucky to be here.
The nature in Ribeira Sacra
You will soon discover that Ribeira Sacra is a paradise for ramblers.
There are many incredible walking trails in the area. You can follow anyone near your hotel, but I would like to recommend three ones:
- Santa Cristina Trail (you can find it as PR-G 98), circular, with great views of the river Sil canyon and cultural patrimony.
- Belesar vineyards trail ( PR-G 183), easy and short trail crossing vineyards.
- River Mao canyon trail (PR-G 177), my favourite trail. Circular trail that demands some effort, but is completely worth it.
Gastro tourists could choose Ribeira Sacra only as a gastro destination, and be gratefully surprised by the quality and variety of the local dishes and wines. But even if you are not a gastro tourist, you will need to eat between one outing and another.
Meat lovers would be in so luck here. Best quality pork (shoulders, ham, chorizo), veal (T-bone steak, sirloin), goat meat, big and small game hunting are offered on its tables. Naturally, all of these meats, usually roasted, pair perfectly with the local red wines of Ribeira Sacra.
If you enjoy fish, trout’s are caught locally, but there’s also a deep tradition to eat European eel and octopus A Feira (Galician style).
Locals gather excellent mushrooms and chestnuts in the forests and prepare delicious garnishes with them. Chestnuts are a common ingredient in the dessert recipe books, sometimes combined with honey and cheese.
Try Bica de Trives or Bica de Castro Caldelas. Bica is a traditional moist sponge cake prepared with pork butter. You can have it as a breakfast or as a dessert, going with coffee liquor – an ancient tradition in the area.
Sleep with the serenity of a monk
There is an amazing range of unconventional accommodations in Ribeira Sacra.
What about sleeping in a former monastery? Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil is a spectacular former monastery reconverted into a 4 stars hotel.
Or in a winery? Rectoral de Anllo offers the possibility to relax surrounded by vineyards.
Or in a former rectory? Reitoral de Chandrexa is an ecological cozy rural hostel, with only 3 bedrooms.
Besides, there are plenty of rural authentic accommodation, a wide range where to pick.
Ribeira Sacra is one of the most complete destinations. Experienced travellers will still find it astonishing. It will leave you with a full stomach, a smile in your lips and a satisfied heart. I promise. It happens to me every time I visit.