Camino Secrets – Part 1
During medieval times, El Camino de Santiago or The Way of St. James was one of the most popular Christian pilgrimages. From the Middle Ages onward the popularity of the route declined, reaching a low point of less than 1000 annual pilgrims during the late 70’s and early 80’s. Since then, the pilgrimage has undergone an international revival; today the route attracts almost 200,000 participants every year.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll be uncovering some of the Camino’s secret places: those, ‘off the beaten track’ locations overlooked by many tourist guides. The starting point for all my discoveries is the sleepy village of Vilatan, in the province of Lugo. Here you’ll find the luxury farmhouse rental, Campo Verde: quality accommodation for the discerning traveller. Its central location provides the ideal base from which to explore Galicia and northern Portugal.
My first outing takes me 18 km from Vilatan, to Monforte de Lemos: the gently beating heart of the Ribeira Sacra wine region. Monforte is located along The Winter Way of the camino: a route favoured by pilgrims during the winter months to avoid the snow covered peaks around O Cebreiro. With a population of under 20,000, the town of Monforte is in fact a city: an honour bestowed on it by King Alfonso XII in 1885.
The city skyline is dominated by the Torre da Homenaxe or Homage Tower, built between the 13th and 15th centuries. In its shadow, local peasant farmers swore an oath of allegiance to their rulers the Counts of Lemos; giving the tower its name. Next to this stands the Palace of the Counts of Lemos and the 17th century monastery of San Vincente do Pino. After years of neglect, both these buildings were restored and opened in 2004 as the(Luis Góngora e Argote s/n, Monforte de Lemos +34 982 418 484).
Below these impressive monuments lies a labyrinth of narrow streets and paved alleyways that form the old town. Head for the 16th century Romanesque bridge and take a seat outside the café bar Cantón de Bailen (Pza Dr. Goyanes +34 982 405 004). Enjoy a mouth watering array of traditional and regional tapas and a glass of local wines. My choice would be Peza do Rei Blanco. Made predominantly from the local Godello grape, it’s a refreshing young white wine with a hint of green apples and a touch of candied lemon. It’s an excellent accompaniment to a thick wedge of freshly cooked tortilla.
On the opposite side of the bridge, which spans the river Cabe, is the convent of the Clarissa nuns: a working convent that houses the Museum of Sacred Art. This collection of religious artifacts is regarded as one of the best in Spain and underlines the importance of the town during the Middle Ages.
But perhaps Monforte’s most architecturally impressive building is the 16th century college of Nuestra Señora la Antigua, known locally as El Escolapios. Designed by Jesuit priests, the central part of the college is dedicated to a high domed church. Today, the former sacristy is home to a small museum of fine art including paintings by Goya.
Later that evening, I head for(c/duquesa de alba 62, +34 982 402 747). Manuel, the owner and head chef, welcomes each guest personally and provides an excellent selection of regional and international cuisine. The perfect place to indulge in Galicia’s famed beef. Fillet steak cooked al punto with fois gras and accompanied with a rich port sauce: a fitting end to my first adventure.
Craig Briggs 2013
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