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Off the beaten track in Galicia: why I love Ribadavia and the Ribeiro
Where is the Ribeiro region?
Galicia in North West Spain is known to non-Spaniards, if they are familiar with it at all, as part of Green Spain, that region which extends all along the Atlantic north coast to the French border, where a wetter, more temperate climate and lusher scenery replace the searing heat and bare plains of the inland sierras or of the south. But even those who can locate Galicia accurately on a map tend to think only in terms of the cathedral and ancient pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela or perhaps of the spectacularly beautiful coast-line some of which, sadly, has been subject to the same over-development as coasts further south. However the bit of Galicia that for me captures all of its magic in miniature lies to the south west deep in the interior: it's the tiny district of the Ribeiro and its capital, Ribadavia, which lies at the confluence of two rivers, the Miño and the Avia and has a beautifully preserved medieval quarter. So why do I love this area so much?
Location of the Ribeiro
Rolling green hills, crystal clear rivers and vineyards
I love the scenery: the green hills, covered by ancient forests of native oak, pine and chestnut, the crystal clear water of the dozens of rivers and streams that rush over granite beds but above all I love the vineyards. Wherever you go you are surrounded by these and they bear no resemblance to the flat expanses you might see in California, Australia or Argentina or France. The vines here grow on granite terraces built centuries ago to level out the hillsides that slope down to the rivers Miño and Avia. As one wine-maker said: here we grow grapes ‘al borde de lo imposible’ – at the edge of the impossible. If I had to make comparisons I would say that the Ribeiro resembles a cross between Tuscany or Umbria and Ireland.
Traditional architecture and ancient wine villages
I love the beautiful old pink granite buildings – like the monasteries of San Claudio and Melón with their cloisters - or the ‘casas rurales’, some of which were ‘pazos’ - mansions built by the wine-producing nobility several centuries ago which have been lovingly restored and converted into small and cosy country hotels. And the way that strange shaped rocks are built into houses and vineyards as if they are an integral part of them.
I love the sense of going back in time that you get wandering through old villages with streets so narrow that you can´t get down them in a car or maybe you can but you do so at your own risk. Many of these retain vestiges of a former age in the form of medieval stone crosses or churches, wash houses and ‘hórreos’. Peculiar to Northern Spain, the latter are small stone ‘houses’ complete with slate roofs which stand on stilts to protect the farmers’ grain.
Ribadavia's medieval quarter
I love sitting in Ribadavia’s attractive and historic main square, watching the ‘Gallegos’ enjoying themselves. Like most Spaniards they do their socialising in public here rather than behind closed doors and the price of a coffee or a glass of wine, at around a euro, is so cheap that, in spite of ‘la crisis’, they can still afford to do so. Most important of all, and in spite of its cobbled streets and plethora of medieval churches and other ancient buildings, I love the fact that Ribadavia is a working town, not a tourist destination. In spite of the 20,000 plus day trippers, mainly Spaniards, it receives every year, it makes few concessions to tourism – you won’t find tacky souvenir shops here.
I love the eclectic mix of goods and produce on sale on market days which take place twice a month. This includes local produce, cured meats such as whole hams and cheeses, but also agricultural and wine-making machinery and stills for making your own spirits or liqueurs – ‘aguardientes’. On market day and every Sunday and public holiday or fiesta you can watch whole octopus being lifted in and out of the huge oil drums in which they are cooked and, if you are feeling brave, taste it.
I love the local fiestas which occur here with amazing regularity as even the tiniest village has at least one a year, the firecrackers let off to announce them, the local brass band which provides the accompaniment and which has won Galicia-wide prizes, the religious processions with their somewhat tacky plaster casts of saints or other venerated figures. Ribadavia is also home to higher profile fiestas and events such as its Feria del Vino (wine fair), Fiesta de Historia (History Festival) and its Muestra Internacional de Teatro (international theatre festival). The last two in particular attracts visitors from all over Galicia and beyond. Whatever the event you are welcome to join in along with the locals just as if you were one of them.
Wines of the Ribeiro
And, of course, last but not least my husband and I both love the Ribeiro wine, especially the crisp, dry, aromatic whites. In our opinion these are far superior to the much better known albariños from the Rias Baixas area of Galicia which so far, admittedly, have been marketed and promoted rather more effectively. We adore buying our wine direct from the bodegas, many of which have spectacular views over the valley and are housed in beautiful buildings made from the local granite and topped by terracotta roof tiles. But what I really, really love most of all about this experience is the opportunity to share in the pride and passion with which the wine-makers here speak about their wine and their heritage – this lovely part of Galicia.
How easy is it to visit Galicia?
So now that I’ve convinced you that the Ribeiro is more than worth a visit what about the practicalities? You can fly to a number of different airports: Ribadavia can be reached by car from Vigo, Santiago de Compostela and Porto in Portugal in an hour (Vigo) or two (Porto). If you are going to be seeing more of Galicia you might want to fly from a bit further afield such as La Coruña. You can also get to Ribadavia by train from Madrid, and by bus from Santiago, Pontevedra, Vigo and Ourense. However if you want to see rural Galicia which, for me, is the real attraction, the simplest way is to hire a car. That way you can explore the countryside in a leisurely way at your own pace. As long as you avoid the cities, driving here is not difficult or daunting even for those, like me, who are not used to driving on the right hand side of the road. If you have no Spanish or organising the trip sounds a bit challenging, private or tailor-made tours are increasingly available, especially those with a wine focus. An Google search will throw up a number of options.
How about booking accommodation?
Galicia, like some other parts of Spain, has perhaps been a bit slow in wising up to the Internet and the possibilities this offers for marketing and promotion. However hotels and restaurants are increasingly appearing on TripAdvisor and Booking.com which makes things much easier. If you are aiming to experience the true spirit of Galicia you should probably choose a ‘casa rural’ such as a restored ‘pazo’ or a monastery with views overlooking the vineyards. On the other hand, if you prefer somewhere in Ribadavia itself, simple guest-house accommodation and a range of self-catering apartments is available here. Another option is the spa hotels or ‘balnearios’ which are located in idyllic riverside settings and base their services around the natural hot springs dotted around the countryside here.
What about the language?
Although most people born and bred in Galicia speak gallego, which is a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, they are equally at home in Spanish or ‘castellano’. In the larger places, hotels or tourist information offices there will usually be some English speaking staff and some of the bodegas are starting to offer English speaking visits. English is also spoken in Ribadavia’s own small Tourist information Office where I volunteer and not just by me! Elsewhere you should be able to get by with phrasebook Spanish or maybe a little French. If you speak even a bit of Spanish your efforts will be much appreciated by the locals and richly rewarded in terms of the enjoyment you will derive from your trip.
Is it expensive?
Accommodation is available to suit all budgets and compared with the coast, for example, you will be pleasantly surprised by how little it costs to have a drink or eat out. The cheapest way to do the latter is to follow the example of the locals and have your main meal of the day at lunch-time, choosing from a set menu, 'el Menu del Dia', which will cost about 10 euros including wine and coffee. These tend not to be available in the evening but you won’t need more than a snack or a couple of tapas after a substantial three course lunch.
You can read more from me about Ribadavia and the Ribeiro in travel articles on MyDestinationGalicia, TripAdvisor, GoSpain and the Guardian. In addition Ribadavia’s Tourist Office has a Facebook page in English, Galicia wine and go, which provides regular updates on events and activities in the area. .