Camino Secrets – Part 4
Without leaving mainland Spain, the region of Galicia is as far from the tourist-packed Costas of the Mediterranean as it’s possible to be. People choosing to holiday here are looking for more than sun and sangria: Galicia has a rich history and strong culture. To fully appreciate this diverse region, finding a base in a central location is an important factor.
“Campo Verde is ideally located for those seeking the best of both worlds – rural tranquillity and urban amenities.
Excellent road communications make it easy to explore all the major tourist areas in Galicia and Northern Portugal.”
Today’s excursion will test this claim.
Even in the height of summer, touring in Galicia and Northern Portugal is a driver’s dream – stress-free motoring on traffic-free highways.
Once again our tour began from Campo Verde, our luxury farmhouse rental in the sleepy village of Vilatan. After joining the main road we headed towards Ourense, capital city of the only landlocked province in Galicia. Climbing out of Ourense we joined the A52, (Autovia de Rias Baixas) following signs to Vigo. The road climbs high into the mountains, affording brief glimpses of the great river Miño as it snakes its way silently towards the Atlantic. It’s a spectacular drive on silky-smooth tarmac.
At Ribadavia we exited the motorway and followed signs to Portugal and the market town of Melgaço. Our route from Spain into Portugal followed the Camiño Xacobeo Miñoto-Ribeiro, a lesser known tributary route of the Camino de Santiago from Portugal into Spain. This stretch of road winds its way through ancient forests, twisting and turning as it hugs the contours of the river valley. Eventually we reached the small market town of Melgaço.
Once a year, on the last weekend in April, the population of this sleepy, mountain town mushrooms in size. Melgaço is at the heart of the Alvarinho wine growing region and as such hosts the annual Alvarinho wine fiesta. Tens of thousands flock here from both sides of the border to taste this deliciously crisp and fruity white wine. One of my personal favourites is Quinta de Melgaço.
For the rest of the year, Melgaço reverts back to it Medieval roots, centered on a 12th century castle and tower. Narrow streets, lined with picturesque cottages, wind their way through the old town leading to the castle. The tower, now a museum, affords visitors a panoramic view of the town and the surrounding countryside and for an admission fee of one euro, is well worth a visit.
There are two other museums of note: the Solar do Alvarinho (wine museum) where visitors can sample different Alvarinho wines and the Museu de Cinema de Melgaço (museum of cinema): established by the French film critic Jean Loup Passek, he gifted his extensive collection of cinematic objects to the municipality.
Depending on the time, you may wish to stop for lunch, if so I can highly recommend Restaurante Chafarix, (Praça Amadeu Abilio Lopes, Melgaço +351 251 403 400). They serve an extensive range of traditional Portuguese dishes. For lovers of a fine steak, why not try contrafilé (tenderloin of beef) accompanied with a glass Pomares, a delicious red wine from the Douro valley.
As tempting it was to stay for lunch, we decided to continue on to the next stop on today’s tour; the town of Monçāo. Its population has been in decline since the early 1960’s, a fact reflected in some of the towns more neglected properties. It’s not to everyone’s taste, but I love the contrast between pristine renovations and crumbling wrecks, it’s so typical of many Portuguese towns.
Monçāo sits on a hillside overlooking the river Miño. The views, both upstream and down, are beautiful. It also has the distinction of lying roughly equidistant between Melgaço, on the Camiño Xacobeo Miñoto-Ribeiro, and Valença on the Camino Portugués. Travellers on the latter have the option to continue on the Camino Portugués to Santiago de Compostela or travel upstream along the river Miño and join the Camiño Xacobeo Miñoto-Ribeiro into Ribadavia and on to Santiago that way.
Wandering around the old town will undoubtedly build up an appetite and I know just the place to silence a rumbling stomach. Pizzaria Don Genaro (Rua Doutor Jośe Luis Dias, 4950-473 Monçāo +351 251 652 487). There are other, more traditional restaurants in the town; but if you enjoy a great pizza, this is the place to eat; and the selection of desserts is mouthwatering. The house vino verde is fresh, light, and crisp: an excellent accompaniment to pizza or pasta.
Having satisfied our hunger we moved on to our final destination of the day, the fortress town of Valença: last stop along the Camino Portugués before crossing the river Miño into Spain.
Every Wednesday, hundreds of nomadic traders descend on this Portuguese border town to sell their wares at a huge open-air market. From the hill overlooking the market, the covered stalls look like an enormous Bedouin camp; on bright sunny days, this vast expanse of tethered white tarpaulins comes alive as it shimmers in the breeze.
However; Valença has much more to offer visitors than a large market. The town developed around the Roman road connecting Braga with Tui. Confirmation of this can be seen today in the Roman milestone marking a distance of 42 miles (XLII) from Braga. Originally named Contrasta, (meaning, ‘village opposed to another’ in this case Tui) it was renamed Valença in the 13th century by King Alfonso III. Its main attraction is a 14th century hilltop fortress, staring across the river Miño at the town of Tui in Galicia. Due to its location, and military significance, the fortress has seen a great deal of action: most recently during the Napoleonic invasion in the 19th century.
Today the fortress is a thriving tourist attraction: a bustling, busy town packed with shops and restaurants. Within its walls are a number of interesting historical monuments including several churches. The Iglesia de Santa María de los Ángeles (Church of Saint Mary) dates back to the 13th century and is well worth a visit.
My advice would be to drive into the castle and park within its walls. Driving through the imposing, yet narrow, medieval gateway is a challenging and interesting experience; some might go as far as to say hair-raising.
Before long it was time to head back home. Rather than retrace our steps, we drove down to the river and crossed the old international bridge. Built in 1879, this iron bridge was a collaboration between Spain and Portugal. After crossing the bridge turn right and follow the signs for Salvaterra. The road follows the course the river Miño upstream, meandering through vineyards of Albariño grapes. From Salvaterra there are signs for the A52 leading back to Ourense.
Having treated ourselves to a bottle of Quinta de Melgaço Alvarinho earlier in the day, I popped the cork later that evening and we settled down to a well earned rest.
Copyright © 2009 Craig Briggs
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