Church of San Benito
Camino Secrets – Part 7
Most people’s knowledge of the Camino de Santiago or Way of St. James is limited to the Camino Francés: an arduous trek from the French border to the city of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia. However; the routes to Santiago are as varied as the countryside they pass through: take the Via de la Plata (Silver Route) for example.
The starting point of this pilgrimage is the southern city of Seville in Andalusia. From there it passes through Zafra, Mérida, Cáceres, and Salamanca on its way north. At the city of Zamora, pilgrims have a choice, they can continue northward to Astorga or head northwest through northern Portugal; re-entering Spain near the town of Verin.
Verin forms the crossroad of three camino routes: Caminho Portugués de la Via de la Plata, Caminho Português do Interior, and an alternative route along the Camino Sanabrés. It’s also one of the focal points of our seventh tour to discover more of the camino’s secrets.
Once again our day began at the luxury farmhouse, Campo Verde in the sleepy village of Vilatan. After making our way to the main road we turned right and headed towards Chantada. From there we followed the N-540 and N-525 into Ourense.
We left Ourense and headed out along the A-52 in the direction of Madrid. This scenic motorway slices its way through the Galician countryside, climbing high into the mountains. After 54 km the highway begins its descent towards the historic town of Verin.
With over ten kilometres still to drive, the impressive fortifications of the castle of Monterrei were clearly visible: perched on a hilltop overlooking the town and surrounding countryside. The castle is the largest hilltop fortress in Galicia and during the Middle Ages was the seat of the lineage of the Dukes of Alba. Once in the town centre we followed signs for the Parador. A narrow road winds its way through vineyards as we climbed the hillside to this striking monument.
The castle is open from Wednesday to Sunday, 11 am until 2 pm and again in the afternoon from 5 pm until 8 pm. Like many tourist sites in Galicia this historic monument and museum are free to enter. The original fortifications were formed by three walled enclosures, all of which can be seen today. The most interesting of these is the hilltop complex which includes; the Renaissance Palace, the 15th century Torre del Homenaje (Homage Tower), the Torre de las Damas (Tower of the Ladies), the remains of the Pilgrims’ Hospital, and the Gothic Church of Santa Maria. Most of these buildings are credited to Sancho Sánchez de Ulloa, first Count of Monterrei in the 15th century.
The regularity of guided tours is rather hit and miss; but if you’re lucky enough to join one, the guides do their best to cover the most interesting parts of the narrative in English. The museum has a number of noteworthy exhibits but for me, the highlight of the castle was the tower. From ground level the climb was difficult and steep. As we neared the top the stairs became very narrow, the ceilings extremely low, and the light particularly dim; but the views from the top over the surrounding area are spectacular. It wasn’t until we made our way down that I noticed the masons marks, chiselled into the huge stone blocks; a feature worth looking out for.
Opposite the castle is the Parador of Verin (32600, Verin, Ourense +34 902 54 79 79). Despite its appearance, it’s a contemporary building built in the style of a Galician pazo or manor house. It’s also the perfect location to stop for lunch. For fish lovers I can highly recommend the Merluza a la Gallega: succulent pieces of hake cooked in a stew with potatoes, onions and garlic; and for dessert why not try the pancakes (filloas), delicious with chocolate ice cream. To accompany our lunch we ordered a bottle of Viña Verino from the Gargalo winery (Rua do Castelo 59, 32619, Verin, Ourense +34 988 590 203). Looking out through the restaurant window we could see the grapes ripening on the slopes below the castle.
After lunch we headed off to our final stop on the tour, Allariz. As we headed back along the A-52 towards Ourense we caught our first glimpse of the Real Monesterio de Santa Clara (Royal Monastery of St. Claire). Only from such a distance can the size and majesty of this medieval monastery be appreciated. It dates back to 1268 when Queen Violante, wife of Alfonso X ordered its construction.
Central to the town is the plaza mayor: an unsurfaced and disproportionately large open square. A tree lined avenue runs from an ornamental fountain across the plaza mayor to the church of San Benito. A network of cobbled streets, lined with quaint cottages, runs through the town linking a number of charming old churches. Without doubt, Allariz must be one of the most picturesque towns in the province of Ourense: a rewarding way to finish our drive along this part of the camino.
Copyright © 2014 Craig Briggs
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