The Ribeira Sacra is a land marked by the two great rivers that shape it, as well as by the faith and spirituality that still surrounds the many monasteries scattered throughout its beautiful landscape.

Inhabited since ancient times, its rich history, stunning nature and delicious cuisine are a sure bet for the senses.

The monastic expression in stone
blesses the tranquillity of the village...
The roads kneel down
Embracing the cruceiro* in a blue eternity
of stone and sky.
      Luís Amado Carballo.

Day 1

We begin our journey in the town of O Saviñao in Lugo, where we learn about one of the many religious buildings that have given this land its nickname of 'Sagrada' ('Holy'): the Monastery of Santo Estevo de Ribas de Miño.Built in the late twelfth century, it is one of the most impressive examples of rural Galician Romanesque. Its location – on a steep bank of the river that bears its name – required the construction of a crypt in order to give it more elevation, resulting in it appearing to be suspended over the vineyards. Its delicately chiselled granite façade recalls the work of Mestre Mateo on the Pórtico da Gloria.

 

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Still within the municipal limits, we'll visit the church of San Paio de Diomondi. Of legendary and mythical origin, it joined the Benedictine Order in the tenth century. On 22 and 23 August, the devote invade the parish to celebrate the Remedios pilgrimage. Besides the religious ceremonies and petitions to the Virgin, they also take the opportunity to indulge their palates with a delicious lunch in a centuries-old carballeira (oak grove) a few metres from the church.

Following the course of the River Miño, we arrive at the church of San Martiño da Cova. This is a late thirteenth-century Romanesque church that was part of the monastery of Santo Agostiño. This beautiful building houses paintings depicting the Holy Trinity. From here, we can also start to enjoy some of the stunning views of the rugged landscape surrounding the church, but first we still need to walk a bit. After hiking a trail through some thick vegetation, we arrive at the Cova viewpoint where we have a superb view of the River Miño meander, known as the Cabo do Mundo (Edge of the World). Here is where the meandering river changes direction in the midst of a great calm. After carefully descending a steep, narrow trail surrounded by terraces, we now arrive at the Cova's river beach that we could see from San Martiño. It's a lovely place to spend a warm summer's day protected from the wind by the untamed wilderness.

Day 2

On our second day, still close to the bank of the River Miño, we head to the town of Panton, with a rich historical heritage and stunning natural surroundings. Our first stop will be the Cistercian convent of Santa María de Ferreira, still inhabited by a small community of nuns. Take a leisurely look round the inside their church, where you can appreciate the Mudejar influence or the mediaeval carving of the Virgin and Child. Don't leave before you've sampled the almond sweets made by the nuns and decide whether they are indeed worthy of their great reputation as pastry chefs.

We move on now to the tenth-century church of the former monastery of San Miguel de Eiré. A rather peculiar late twelfth-century church – with strong ties to Castilian Romanesque – has been preserved from the mediaeval structure. It's very curious that, from the outside, the lookout tower seems to divide the church into two parts: the part that is human and the part that is divine. Don't miss out on the paintings on the inside dome and its Christ Pantocrator.

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We now head for the church of Santo Estevo de Atán, which was part of the monastery founded by Bishop Lugo Odoario in the eighth century. Severely damaged during Muslim raids, it was rebuilt between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Its pre-Romanesque carved shutters are the church's most characteristic feature. Step inside to see the spectacular pictorial ensemble, including the Annunciation, San Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, before continuing on our journey to visit the twelfth- and thirteenth-century church of San Vicente do Pombeiro.

Lastly, on this journey through the heart of the Ribeira Sacra we'll visit the town of Carballedo. Hiking up a steep trail, we'll come upon the church of Santo Estevo de Chouzán, declared a Historic and Artistic Monument in 1950. This church was moved stone by stone in 1962 to prevent it from being submerged by the waters of the Belesar reservoir. Paintings depicting the Last Judgment can be seen inside. Revel in these almost-magical surroundings. Take a short stroll and listen to the rustle of the wind in the trees and the murmur of the waters.

Day 3

We'll start off the third day of our journey through the Ribeira Sacra by again following the River Miño to the town of Nogueira de Ramuín and then on to Os Peares, where the Miño's dark waters mix with the green waters of the River Sil.  We'll take local roads now until we reach the beautiful and impressive monastery of Santo Estevo de Ribas do Sil. Its current building dates from the twelfth century, although its origins stretch back to the tenth century. Located on the southern side of the River Sil, the monastery's building was completely renovated and has been part of the National Tourism Parador hotel network for a number of years. Its golden age arrived five centuries after its founding when nine bishop saints withdrew to the monastery.

The mark of their presence remained on the Cloister of Bishops, where their graves are located, and on the monastery's coat of arms, which includes nine mitres. The monastery, which has a beautiful Baroque façade, also has elements of other artistic styles that were the results of the successive modifications that coexist here: Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.  Don't miss the opportunity to visit the inside of the building and discover its secrets. One of the most interesting features inside the church is the stone altarpiece, where the hand of some disciple of Mestre Mateo is clearly present. Among the monastery's best-preserved areas is the kitchen with its large central stone lareira (hearth), and the grand staircase next to the gate, covered with a beautiful ribbed vault and decorated with nine Catherine windows.

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Santo Estevo hosts a huge magosto (chestnut festival) on the Sunday closest to 11 November, where short work is made of roasted chestnuts from local trees along with the new wine from the area. Commonly heard during the party is the following saying: “Cávame tarde, bímame cedo e pagareiche o que che debo, díxolle a viña ao labrego”  ("Hoe me late, come back and hoe me soon, and I'll pay you what I owe, said the vineyard to the peasant").

We're going to move away now from the river guiding us. Once we've arrived at the town of Esgos, we'll find the first traces of Christianity in Galicia in the monastery of San Pedro de Rocas. If you're in the mood for a walk, hike the Camiño Real (King's Way) that goes from the town to the church, over trails replete with local plant life and that years ago connected the villages in the area. This stroll prepares us for the spiritual halo that surrounds San Pedro, a place chosen centuries ago by anchorites for retirement, prayer and penance. The inside of this church – carved out of solid rock – houses a treasure that awaits your discovery: the so-called Beatus Map, unique in Europe. It shows the dispersion of the apostles of Christ across the world as they preached Christianity. When you enter the church, it feels very much like being in a primitive cave. The space is invaded by shadow and stony silence. Surrounding the church, you will discover anthropomorphic gravestones, whose magical patina is the result of the stone, the accumulated rainfall and lichens. Near these graves, look for the miraculous fountain of San Bieito. It is said that its water can cure warts and smooth away wrinkles

The next monastery we'll visit is the monastery of Santa María de Xunqueira de Espadañedo. After the renovations carried out on these walls over the course of more than 800 years, the highlight of this visit is the Romanesque church with its neoclassical façade and a simple but beautiful cloister in which, with a bit of exploration on your part, you can find three rather peculiar sundials

We now focus on searching out the best example of monastic Renaissance art in Galicia, the monastery of Santa María de Montederramo. Founded in the first half of the seventh century by Benedictine monks, it soon became part of the Cistercian Order. Especially beautiful is the lower cloister or inn, built in the sixteenth century. Take your time strolling about without feeling as though you're being watched by the human heads carved on the medallions.

Just over ten kilometres from this monastery you'll find one of the largest birch forests in Galicia. This tree was used to make farm tools and the very typical clogs, quite practical for walking on the muddy roads. And, if it happens that your visit to the area is around 12 October, don't miss the opportunity to attend the Festa da Carne (Meat Festival). This is a historical legacy of the Feira dos Bois (Oxen Fair). This great gastronomic gathering celebrates Galician beef cooked caldeiro (stewed with potatoes, olive oil and paprika) style, accompanied by other local products

On the way to our next religious enclave, don't forget to stop and feast your eyes on Nature's handiwork in the canyon of the River Mao with its impressive waterfalls. Following a narrow road full of curves, we arrive at Parada de Sil, which has the steepest and most rugged canyons anywhere in the Ribeira Sacra. If the day is clear, many viewpoints will allow you a glimpse of several towns in the Ribeira Sacra Lugo as a backdrop in the landscape. The best known are "Os Balcóns de Madrid" ("the balconies of Madrid") from which we can see spectacular canyons as we hang over the void – that is, if you're not afraid of heights.

Ending the day, and back on the banks of the River Sil, we'll continue on under a canopy of chestnut trees until we reach the monastery of Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil. Nature has taken over this almost-legendary place. In the middle of the thicket, you'll find a relatively well-preserved architectural ensemble, a refuge of monks and others members of religious orders in times past. Go down the wooden walkway and find the nearly-hidden church. If there are any, take the opportunity to open some "hedgehogs" and gather up a bag of delicious chestnuts. Peace and quiet are the hallmarks of this place that will most certainly leave you deeply impressed. Inside the the twelfth-century church there are some interesting Renaissance murals depicting various saints. The beauty in the simplicity of the shapes contrasts with its spectacular Catherine window that allows light to penetrate the interior. Other striking features are the bell tower, which serves as a watch tower with its unusual pyramid shape, the cloister and the gravestones of the first abbots. Just as attention-getting on this visit are the imposing viewpoints for observing the deep River Sil.

We take leave of the Ribeira Sacra with our spirits at peace after our visit to its magical mountains, where wilderness and faith coexist in perfect harmony. Guided by the banks of the River Miño or navigating the canyons of the River Sil, we have discovered places inaccessible by land where authentic mediaeval gems are hidden among the terraces that make this land a place very close to paradise.

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