Food, wine, travel, music
Rias Baixas is a fascinating area to visit. In the north west of Spain, part of Galicia with some Atlantic coastline, there are terrific places to stay, great land and seascapes and vineyards worth visiting, or least seeking out their wines while there. As train and bus services are not comprehensive, you need a car to get around. This allows some pottering in the deep valleys of the rias, estuaries which run many kilometres inland and have deep gorges lined by lush vegetation provided by the contrast of rain and an average of over 2,000 hours of sun in the year (Ireland gets something over 1,400, though not this year I expect!). The area is exposed to Atlantic weather patterns so there is no guarantee of heat. The June week of my visit wasn’t wet, but very windy. Bring a raincoat in all seasons.
The best and most interesting accommodation to be found is in the state-run converted monasteries, convents, palaces, castles, fortresses and manor houses known as Paradores. Their offerings are variable and costs vary too, especially from season to season. Food in the area is superb, centred on fresh fish and a wonderful variety of tapas using local vegetables, fish and meats.
Santo Estevo parador
This unique 10th century converted Benedictine monastery on the side of the hills dipping into the Miño and Sil Rivers was our favourite of the trip. Some rooms have river views, others border the three glazed gothic cloisters which surround a pretty courtyard with a fountain. There is a spa and gardens for quiet moments. It was almost disappointing not to hear Gregorian chant, or see monks sailing by in flowing habits. There is a sense of peace here, so it’s not a place for noisy children or anyone looking for action.
Modern finishes work well and help to soften the austerity of the past. It’s a cool building, so bring a cardi. Good service is not over the top, but genuine, and there is that slightly monastic feel of nothing wasted (no takeaway toiletries) in decent sized bathrooms.
Good food (roast kid is a speciality) has imaginative touches, yet holds on to a good basic use of local, seasonal ingredients. All of this makes the journey to this inner part of the region worthwhile. Which is just as well as there isn’t much nearby. Ourense is the closest city and can be difficult to navigate. Tiny hillside vineyards are steep and treacherous, the roads narrow all the way.
Take a catamaran launch along the river, through a deep gorge flanked by dramatic dark green, lush vegetation. It’s easy to overlook the turning so listen carefully to directions of how to get to the jetty. We took three and half hours to do a ten minute journey. The ferry needs to be booked in advance and doesn’t run every day, though I expect someone would take you out if you booked well in advance. The hotel will do that for you.
In Baiona the parador is all about the views. The sound of thundering waves will put you to sleep – or you can close the windows if they keep you awake. The rooms are spacious with good bathrooms. There is no extra charge for breakfast in bed, and is worth ordering to relax for longer and take in the views. Baiona marina is busy. In general the food is touristy and nothing special. Go to back streets and don’t be afraid to sit at plastic laminated tables to get the best of what Spanish tourists eat. Better still, buy delicious food in the market and have a picnic.
Cambados is charming, like an old English village, well maintained with stone walls and plenty of pedestrianised areas. The seafront is not so impressive, a bit muddy and uncared for. Stop in the centre for lunch in any of the good, small restaurants and cafés. Spider crab is the speciality, along with empanadas and more fish. “Sole with scallops, and potatoes with everything”, they say. Visit the Fefinanes bodega to taste some of the best Albarino of the region. See Bring on the Albarino on this blog.
Santiago de Compostela is where you are likely to land if travelling by air or your goal if walking the pilgrim route. Its cathedral of heavy marble, limestone and granite pillars and arches dominates the city. Baroque, Romanesque and Gothic influences work at times against each other to form an ornate building rarely seen empty with queues of pilgrims kissing statues on the altar at the end of their long pilgrimage. A large thurible swings widely and up into the air in a joyous expression of a happy religious experience. There are masses to enjoy with singing when pilgrim groups and individuals’ names called out to announce the completion of their tough walk.
Like the cathedral, the Parador is extremely opulent, with over the top velvet flourishes, lots of cushions, a good shower, but a disappointing breakfast offering.
Wine bar O Beiro on rue Raina near the cathedral was one of our favourites. It sells food and wine to take away, with tapas served at the back of the bar. They serve the Fefinanes Albarino (see my wine notes) there. I bought superb chorizo made from the top quality pata negra pigs, delicious tetilla cheese and manchego, It’s a family business. Pepe Beiro and his son are enthusiastic, informed, and there is no hard sell.
Lizarrán Santiago Rua das Orfas 25 at the edge of old town had terrific pinchos, which you pick from trays, handed around. Keep the cocktail sticks to show how much you owe for your selection. All tempting and delicious. It’s all too easy to over-eat, but you can call it supper and stay on. We tried two wines by the glass from DO Ribeira Sacra. Olodio was a gamey and meaty, with a truffly nose and flavour, fruity too with a tannic finish and delicious with the pinchos. The second Vina Mezquite from the smaller Bodega en Lobios Sober Amandi, was truffly, meaty, even better than the first. Wine was served in generous, tulip shaped glasses. They don’t rush you, but are quietly efficient. They know their business.
Lorna Roberts is the expert on parador choices. Worth contacting at: www.lornarobertsholidays.com