Deep in Galicia, the river Sil squiggles through a canyon with walls up to 500 meters high. Somehow the Roman settlers discovered that the steep canyon walls produced excellent wine, as long as one had the energy and perseverance to maintain the vine plants required. It seems that not only winemakers liked the Cañon del Sil, as there are a number of hermitage monasteries scattered along both riverbanks. Oaks, chestnuts, ferns, and even Galician pine make the Sil river canyon lush surroundings for hiking – as long as one can keep up with the changes in altitude.Along the cliff edge there is also a viewpoint curiously named Balcones de Madrid, even if one cannot see Madrid from it. With a little help from Google I pulled up stories about women choosing the viewpoint to see off their trader husbands traveling to Madrid: they had to climb down the canyon on one side, cross the river by boat, and climb up on the other side. Although whether it were the women or the men who built the laid rock walls still remains a mystery to me.(Galicia, Spain; September 2019)
In the middle of the forest lies yet another over thousand years old monastery. Galicia is practically littered with these cute resting places for body and soul.
The Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil was first annexed to the Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil monastery (now a fabulous Parador). Later, when the Spanish government carried out a lengthy confiscation and resale of various religious assets around the country (for varying reasons, during nearly two centuries), both monasteries ceased their spiritual operations.
In a way it is unfortunate, as I am sure the Benedictine monks (and perhaps a limited amount of lucky visitors) would have continued to feel contented in this charming little monastery, for another thousand years.
(Galicia, Spain; September 2019)
Hiking in Galicia feels a little like what I presume hiking in Middle Earth (or of course New Zealand) would be. Lush, green forests, small streams, rounded boulders, and mountains everywhere.It is as if one could expect the head of a little gnome peeking from behind the rocks lining the path. Alas, the only unusual thing we saw today was a flower growing right out of the ground. Without stem or leaves. As if the ground itself were in bloom.
(Galicia, Spain; September 2019)
Galicia is old Celtic country, with druid customs. Such as cooking up firebrew or queimada in the middle of the night, throwing in both spices and secret ingredients as well as empowering it with a druid spell.
The incantation that gives queimada its power is impressive and nearly impossible to remember word-for-word: a seemingly endless litany of evocations directed at spirits, crows, witches, demons, Satan, and even the scent of the dead and “the mutilated bodies of the indecent ones”. Fortunately the aim is not to conjure up these evil forces but to banish them away as the boozy brew is consumed in the proper way.
For sure, Galicians are no sissies.(Parador Santo Estevo, Galicia, Spain; September 2019)
Deep in the mountainous Ribeira Sacra forests, by the Sil river canyon, stands a thousand-year-old monastery. There are stone cloisters, a green courtyard, and a stately chapel. Outside lie chestnut groves and hazelnut groves, where wild boar dig and grunt at night. The views from the guests’ lounge balcony are spectacular.And it gets better still: to become a guest here only requires checking in at the reception desk, as the monastery Santo Estevo is today a Parador, or government-run hotel. There is a small but lovely spa which feels welcoming after a day or sweaty traipsing around the Sil river valley hiking routes (of which there are many – and they’re mostly long!). Staying at Santo Estevo does not mean staying in moldy cold rooms, sleeping like a dusty bottle of wine on a wooden shelf. The rooms are fabulously spacious, with wooden window shutters and luxurious bathrooms. Eating at Santo Estevo does not mean chestnut mash and gravy from old wooden bowls, but a first-class al fresco dining experience, as the night descends over the valley and the moon rises above the mountaintops. (Parador Santo Estevo, Galicia, Spain; September 2019)
Born in 1495, the university of Santiago de Compostela is one of the oldest still functioning universities in the world. Initially it was the local archbishop Fonseca who thought that knowledge should be properly cultivated in his local hoods. And so he opened his swanky family palace to serve students and education. That was obviously not good enough as he ended up founding an entire university. The Fonseca college is still functional today – and a charming place to visit.
(Santiago de Compostela, Spain; September 2019)
Tired trekkers stumble into the main cathedral square from a side street. In twos, threes, and sometimes alone they throw down their packings, with scallop shells on string tinkling, before seating themselves on the cold cobblestones. Dusty shoes come off. Hats are pushed back. Many lie down for a nap in the shade. As the day grows warm the square fills up with exhausted pilgrims who have made it all the way.The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St James, ends in front of the Santiago de Compostela cathedral. Why do people walk for weeks, often all the way from the South of Spain, Portugal, or France, to sit down on a church square in a small Spanish city? It is hardly to go inside to worship what is believed to be the remains of the saint James. Perhaps some walk in order to rediscover their Christian faith. Or to just jump off from the daily squirrel wheel to reflect on life and bearings. And perhaps some do it for health, because one can only earn the certificate of the compostela after walking for at least 100 km, on an official route. And the popular route from France, across the Pyrenees, is around 800 km of step-after-step. Walking the Camino requires organizing, following the route, staying at official lodges overnight, and collecting stamps on a pilgrim’s passport. And choosing the right season and route, as the number of pilgrims has more than doubled in the past 10 years. Now it easily tops 300,000 pilgrims per year – and everybody needs to eat and sleep somewhere every day.
(Santiago de Compostela, Spain; September 2019)
Next to Bologna, Santiago de Compostela has been another happy surprise this summer, stemming from absolutely no plans to visit, and therefore absolutely no expectations. The cute, maze-y little old town, the interesting surprises (fountains, ice cream parlors) behind every corner, and a lovely green park make spending a day or two in Santiago a pleasure.And the food. Who knew. While I am on a nearly vegan diet at home, in Santiago I devoured mussels in all shapes and sizes, freshly made with garlic, butter, and herbs. And octopus. And fried green pimiento peppers. And cheeses. And wonderful Ribeiro region white wines.
Santiago de Compostela is home only to some 100,000 inhabitants so it is walkable. And probably very liveable, as well. Twenty-four hours in this city was not quite enough and so this lovely place certainly goes on my “cities to return to” list.(Santiago de Compostela, Spain; September 2019)
In the middle of the forest there was a crystal clear river, straddled by an old stone bridge. There was river water welling up through a small fountain in the stone wall. And an ancient, weather-blackened monastery. Absolutely in the middle of nowhere. I hear it is more than a thousand years old.
Galicia is full of small and sometimes surprisingly large monasteries scattered about the forests and mountainsides. As I stood on the tiny inner courtyard overlooking the Eume river valley I could not help but wonder how and why sites for monasteries were once chosen. Was it the result of a spiritual experience of the founder, on-site? Or simply strategic, to keep an eye on the locals? In any case it must have been incredibly difficult to start from scratch, and not just carry up and install the granite bricks, but to create an infrastructure with water and food delivery to uphold survival of sometimes dozens of monks.(San Xoán de Caaveiro, Fragas do Eume, Spain; September 2019)
September is still summer in Spain. Even in the fragas, the old-growth forests of the cool, rainy Northwest. Walking in a fraga is like walking in a fairytale forest overgrown with old oaks, chestnuts, and ferns; with mosses covering the trunks and and lichens dangling from the branches. The water is pure and cool. I heard the Eume river is home to hordes of trout. This is probably what much of the Atlantic coastal forests looked like, before the industrial revolution. Fortunately bits and pieces are still conserved in Galicia.
(Fragas do Eume; Spain; September 2019)