Mendigorria (Navarra), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

We were heading for Huesca City in Aragon but on the way decided to overnight at Mendigorria on the banks of the River Arga in Navarra. The campsite there (Camping Errota – El Molino) has everything you would expect of a four star resort (including a climbing wall, squash court and mini golf course to say nothing of it’s two swimming pools and restaurant bar). I went for a swim in one of the pools but it was seriously cold and, understandably, Vanya did not want to know.

The village of Mendigorria is visible from the campsite and I took the time to have a wander around the village but, it is a quiet little place of less than 1,200 people and it didn’t take long because, leaving aside the views from the promenade at the top of the village and the ruins of the Roman city of Andelos, there is next to nothing to see or do (and, frankly, even Andelos offers little of interest – only a footprint of the town remains).

I passed three churches in the town, all of which were locked shut, and one bar which was also closed (but which in any event and, unusually for Spain, didn’t allow dogs). We’d eat in the camp restaurant that evening.

No, Mendigorria proved a disappointment but, hey, Huesca City would more than make up for that.

Haro (La Rioja), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

This was our fourth time in Haro. It is one of Vanya’s favourite places in Spain. I’ve always been rather ambivalent about the town but I thoroughly enjoyed this visit – I am definitely warming to the place. It isn’t very large (just 12,000 people) but there is a real energy about it.

After settling in at Campingred de Haro (I think Campingred may have taken this site over quite recently) we made our way up to the centro historico and the Plaza de la Paz. We thought to secure a table in one of the old town pinchos bars and watch Spain play Croatia in their opening game of the UEFA European Championship finals.

Imagine our surprise when upon arrival in the square at about 7pm we found some kind of festival in full swing. We had arrived in time for the Haro Civil War Festival with three brass bands competing to see who could play the loudest and longest and attract the most dancers. Honestly, the town was more interested in the band war than the national football team’s opening game. As the evening progressed and increasing numbers of people arrived to enjoy the festival, the town became louder and more rambunctious with everybody enjoying the revelry (or should I say rivalry?) but; for all that the place was never threatening – everybody remained in good humour as they drank, danced and followed the bands as they weaved their raucous way around the old town.

Needless to say, we had a late night. We managed to eat a little and drink a lot and we even managed to catch a few minutes of the football. Spain won 3-0 but very few of the locals in Haro seemed to care.

I was up early the next morning. It was a Sunday. I knew it was Sunday because the local Mercadona (the nearest you will get to a Waitrose in Spain) was closed but; no matter, I required only bread and milk (easily available in Haro even on a Sunday morning) and I was left with sufficient time to revisit the Basilica de Nuestra de la Vega just the other side of the Vega Gardens. I took few photos during this visit (see the blog posted during Tour 7 if it’s photos you want). It was enough just to sit for a moment and enjoy the peace and splendour of this magnificent church.

After a late breakfast we spent what remained of the day down at the Barrio de la Estacion. This part of Haro is where many of the larger Bodegas are located. It is named after it’s railway station which was built in the late 19th century to connect Haro with the Bordeaux wine trade. I should explain that in the late 18th century French vineyards were devastated by a phylloxera epidemic and looked to La Rioja to supply wine. Haro rose to the occasion with the bodegas in the barrio being built not long after.

We started at Bodega Balbainas, that’s Vanya’s favourite, because of their sparkling white wine (Lumen). Bodega Balbainas were the first to establish themselves in the Barrio de la Estacion and first to produce sparkling wine in the whole of La Rioja (that was in 1913). It came as no surprise therefore to learn they are also the biggest wine producer in Haro with 250 hectares of vineyards.

Most of our time that day, however, was spent in my favourite bodega in Haro, the Muga. They produce some good white wines (there is absolutely nothing wrong with white Rioja) but it is their reds I favour most, particularly their Seleccion Especiale. It costs a little more but it is truly excellent. We spent a great afternoon on the Muga courtyard nibbling away at the local cheeses and sampling some fine wines. Vanya might well favour Balbainas over the Muga but, going forward, she’ll be more than happy at the thought of another such afternoon at Muga.

That night, still very tipsy, we made our way back to a bar on the Plaza de la Paz to watch another football match. This time it was England’s first game in the finals of the European Championships and they were drawn to play Serbia. Thank goodness for the wine because it was an awful game which England only narrowly won (1-0). Still, with the other two teams in their group drawing, they are currently top the group.

We would have liked to stay on in Haro not least because on June 29 the town holds it’s annual wine fight against the neighbouring town of Miranda de Ebro but, sadly, we have to be back in the UK by 1 July. I posted some detail of the wine battle on this website during an earlier visit to Haro (see Tour 6) but, in a nutshell, all those wishing to participate in the event dress completely in white except for a red sash and then throw buckets of red wine at the opposition (although you can also drink the wine). The wine is provided free by the local bodegas in a number of lorries which each contain as much as 20,000 litres of wine. As the song by Hot Chocolate goes – Everyone is a winner, baby!

Not sure where our next stop will be. We’ll find out tomorrow.

Vega de Espinareda (Castile y Leon), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

Within a couple of hours of driving from Monforte de Lemos we arrived at our overnight stop (Camping Rivera del Cua) in the village of Vega de Espinareda.

Vega de Espinareda is a small village of some 2,000 inhabitants in the Province of Leon in the Region of Castile y Leon. There is very little of interest to see or do either in or around the village but I wasn’t too bothered about that because it had been a long day given the drive from Oia and our stop at Monforte de Lemos. I was happy to go for a brief wander, buy some essential foodstuffs from the local store and then head back to the Van chill over a glass of wine or two.

The only building of any significance is across the river on the other side of the village. It was once a Benedictine Monastery (the Monastario de San Andres) and it looks to have been deserted for some considerable time (as has the school just behind it). Both buildings have been vandalised. There are signs up on the monastery which suggest that the local junta is awaiting funds from the EEC with which to renovate the building and I have since seen a video on Youtube (made 3 years ago) which supports this suggestion but, nothing positive seems to have been done.

I’ve not been able to find out much else about the monastery other than (i) it was once a very prosperous concern and; (ii) this building is a third reconstruction dating from 1780 (the first having been built as long ago as the 9th century) and; (iii) the monastery complex included both a convent and a school (with the school closing in 1995). It is sad to see such an impressive complex falling into such disrepair.

The only other point off interest in the village is the old bridge over the river but I cannot tell you much about that either.

Haro tomorrow!!

Monforte de Lemos (Galicia), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

We were headed east to avoid the rain which would soon hit Galicia and after driving up and through the spectacular Sil River Canyon we stopped at the small city of Monforte de Lemos in Galicia’s Lugo Province for a bite to eat and a short wander.

Monforte de Lemos proved a bit of a revelation. Dominated by the Monte de San Vicente with it’s old Castle Keep, Palace of the Condes and hilltop Monastery of San Vicento do Pino (now a Parador Hotel), Montforte de Lemos is a deserving capital of the Ribeira Sacra – an area known for it’s wine and monasteries. I’m jumping ahead of myself, I know but; I discovered that the Mencia grape is grown here and this grape is generally used to produce quality red wines which go perfectly with a peppered steak or even chicken fajitas, to say nothing of Ossau-Iraty cheese. Yes, we stopped for something to eat and I sampled the wine and some cheese (Queso Idiazabal from Spain’s Basque Country) and I am wholly converted but; sorry, back to the city of Monforte de Lemos.

Upon arrival, we chanced upon the very last parking spot near the Parque dos Condes. This is a delightful municipal park in the centre of the city with a small lake, tiny pedestrian bridges and very pleasing gardens. It’s also close to what is perhaps the most imposing building in the city – the Nosa Senora da Antigua which is a school, church and museum combined; inside of which are various ‘sacred art’ paintings by the illustrious Domenikos Theotokopoulos (the artist better known as El Greco). Impressive is an understatement.

We wandered the city centre for the best part of an hour, passing over and under the 16th century Ponte Vella as we did so, and marvelling at the total lack of tourism, before settling down outside a tapas bar on the Praza de Espana for some food and that delicious wine I have already mentioned.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time before tourism takes off. There is already a camino here, the 267 kilometre Camino de Invierno (the Winter Way). To be fair, this route to Santiago (from Ponferrada) has been in use since the Middle Ages but has largely been forgotten. It was used by pilgrims during the winter to avoid the heavy snowfalls on the mountain pass of O Cebreiro that walkers of the Camino Frances would otherwise encounter.

The final word on Monforte de Lemos has to rest with the local wine… Lol.

Next stop, the campsite at Vega da Espinareda in Castile y Leon Region. Haro beckons.

Tui (Galicia), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

We’re still at Camping O Muino up on the coast near Oia but we took time out to do a round trip of some 60 miles to the small Galician city of Tui (Tui in Galician & Portuguese; Tuy in Castilian Spanish).

Tui is a city of some 15,000 people sitting on the River Mino directly opposite Portugal’s Valenca de Minho. A metal road and rail bridge (the International Bridge) connects the two towns and it can be walked across although, I didn’t know that at the time or I might have crossed the river for a look at Valenca. No, that’s not true. The star attraction of Tui is it’s magnificent 11th-13th century Catedral de Santa Maria de Tuy and I was determined to see it above all else.

Built on the city’s highest point in a mix of Romanesque and Gothic styles, it is a well preserved fortress cathedral complete with battlements and crenellated towers. The oldest sections and the imposing entrance are Romanesque but most of the exterior walls are in the Gothic style.

There is a 5 Euro entrance fee, which I think is waived for ‘pilgrims’ travelling to Santiago, but I wasn’t going to complain about the price. A very informative audio guide explaining some of the architecture and the history of the cathedral came with the entrance ticket.

Inside the cathedral is beautiful and there is so much of interest that my time there simply flew by. I’ve never been particularly interested in relics and/or church museums but the cathedral holds so many relics that the Chapel of Saint Telmo, in which they are held, is more often than not referred to as the Chapel of Relics. I found the small museum more interesting than the Chapel of Saint Telmo not least because, in addition to displaying the usual church treasures such as processional sceptres, chalices etc, there are two ‘sanbenitos‘ on display. Sanbenitos I was informed are penitential garments worn by alleged heretics who were prosecuted by the Inquisition in the 17th century.

My favourite parts of the cathedral are, without any doubt, the 12th century Chapter House and, especially, the 13th century Gothic style Cloisters. They are truly magnificent. A very pleasant surprise was the narrow staircase off of the Cloisters which leads up to the battlements and spectacular views across the River Mino towards Portugal’s Valenca.

Some photos: The first two (of the north entrance) were taken from above the Cloisters where Vanya and our two dogs were waiting patiently for me to finish in the cathedral. The dogs saw me but Vanya didn’t.

These next two photos show the well kept cloister gardens…

… and these show the magnificent Cloisters themselves…

In the nave are two enormous richly decorated 18th century Baroque organs, partly hidden by huge buttresses installed to reinforce the cathedral walls. The second of the photos below is of the altarpiece in the Chapel of Relics.

I spent a great deal of my time in the cathedral admiring interesting detail that seemed to be everywhere…

… and simply appreciating the views across the River Mino from the cathedral battlements…

After my somewhat extended visit to the cathedral we did a quick tour of the old town…

… and then paused for lunch at a cafe bar, El Cielo, before heading back to Oia.

I’ve mentioned previously that, given the current interest in caminos and the money they generate, it is only a matter of time before almost every city, town and village in Spain has a Camino running through it to Santiago. It came as no surprise therefore to learn that a second, shorter ‘Portuguese Camino’ now wends it’s way from Tui to Santiago. It matters not that Tui is in Spain and not Portugal; only that it borders Portugal and, most important, it is more than 100 kilometres from Santiago (116 kms to be precise) and so ‘pilgrims’ making the walk qualify for a pilgrim’s certificate. It’s happening sooner than I thought…

Baiona (Galicia), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

Baiona (Bayona in Spanish) is one of the prettier and more interesting medieval port towns to be found on arguably the most beautiful part of Spain’s coastline – The 300km stretch of cliffs, coves, beaches and crystal clear waters that forms Galicia’s south west coast of Rias Baixas. This area contains no less than 55 blue flag beaches, 5 of which are to be found in Baiona itself. Small wonder that the town’s population of less than 12,ooo swells to over 50,000 during the summer months of July and August.

We were lucky to find a parking spot on the Avenida Playa Ladeira next to the long fine white sandy beach of the same name and, from there, we walked along the Paseo Maritimo de Baiona towards the old town. This path takes you past the smaller but no less pretty Santa Marta Beach to the harbour and then on to the Fortress of Monterreal which is itself surrounded by four more glorious beaches; the A Ribeira and the A Barbeira (both soft white sandy beaches) on the east side of Monterreal and; the Praia dos Frades (a fine pebble beach) and the A Concheira (a wilder rocky beach) to the west and favoured by surfers.

Covering the Monte Boi promentory, an area of some 18 hectares (that’s more than 25 football pitches), the Fortress of Monterreal is one of Spain’s larger fortifications. Construction began during the 12th century but it took more than 400 years to complete. The walls and three remaining towers are in remarkably good condition and this is due in part to some of the battlements being restored as recently as the 1960’s when a decision was made to convert a large part of the fortress into a Parador. For the uninitiated, Paradors are a chain of 3 to 5 star hotels established as part of a government initiative to accommodate tourists and travellers while at the same time showcasing Spain’s culture, nature and/or gastronomy. Currently, there are more than 100 such hotels dotted across Spain with more than half of them located in historical buildings (usually castles or monasteries). This was the second Parador I was able to access during this tour, the other being in Ciudad Rodrigo.

It is possible to walk the walls of the castle but a more rewarding walk is the 2 kilometre Paseo de Monte Boi which loops all the way around the fortress and provides access to the promentory’s four beaches (already mentioned) and it’s numerous rocky coves. There are many rest areas and viewing points along the walk and the views towards the Cies Islands are splendid.

Other points of interest during the walk around the Paseo de Monte Boi include the Tourist Information Centre, the Parque da Palma and, alongside the park, the Entre Dos Mundos Monument (Encounter Between Two Worlds Monument) which commemorates the arrival of the Pinta in Baiona on 1 March 1493 after it’s return to Spain following the discovery of the New World. The Monument depicts the meeting of the two different cultures (the Old and the New Worlds) and it was created in 1993 to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Pinta in Baiona

One more interesting feature visible from the Paseo de Monte Boi and open to the public is a life size replica of the caravel La Pinta which together with the Santa Maria and the Nina were the three ships which formed Christopher Columbus’ expedition of 1492 in search of the New World. La Pinta was captained by Martin Alonso Pinzon who, tragically, died within a month of his return to Spain.

It was time to eat. We set off back down the Paseo Maritimo and, ignoring the more expensive bars and restaurants on the seafront, we looked to eat in the old centre of the town which is to be found directly behind the grand parade (the Avenida Monterreal). The old town isn’t very large but, there are numerous authentic tapas bars sprinkled among the Galician terraced houses which line it’s narrow streets and lanes.

I wish I could remember the name of the first tapas bar we stopped at because not only did they follow the time honoured tradition of supplying a free tapas with every drink purchased but; they served up the best pulled pork sandwich I have ever eaten. Of course they also offered my favourite, the Galician Octopus (Pulpo a Feira) and a wide variety of other mouthwatering tapas, including Gooseneck Barnacles (Percebes), Padron Peppers (Pimientos de Padron) and Galician Pie (Empanada Gallega). Because I would be driving again later in the day I had to limit myslf to the one small beer but, otherwise… well, this area is the home of Albarino wine.

Thoroughly revitalised, Vanya and I had time for a further short wander around the old town. I’ve said previously in this website that Vanya is not into churches (neither figuratively nor literally) and so I was left to visit some of the town’s religious buildings. These included the 16th century Santa Casa de Misericordia, the 1695 Saint Liberata Sanctuary, the nearby 13th century Collegiate Church of Saint Mary (built by Cistercian monks) and the 13th century hermitage of Santa Marta (which had to be rebuilt after being destroyed by no less a person than Sir Francis Drake in 1585).

The most interesting was the small Santa Casa de Misericordia de Baiona which, as we arrived, was celebrating it’s 450th anniversary (1574 to 2024)

The final word in this post must go to the beautiful Cies Islands which, sadly, we were unable to visit because dogs are not allowed on the island. Baiona is an access point to the Cies Islands during the summer months, running ferries to the three islands of Monteagudo, Faro and San Martino. I cannot tell you much at all about the islands but they are now part of a protected area (the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park) renowned for their natural beauty (the Guardian newspaper considers Rodas Beach to be the best in Europe while the Sunday Times considers it to be one of the best in the world). Access is limited to 2,000 people per day with tickets having to be bought in advance from an official website. It is possibe to camp on the archipelago (at an official site) but otherwise visitors can only stay the day. I’ll not say anymore about the place until I’ve been there.

A Guarda & Oia (Galicia), Spain June 2024 (Tour 9)

We had missed the daily ferry across to A Guarda and so drove alongside the River Minho and crossed into Spain using the bridge at Vila Nova de Cerveira. It took a little over half an hour to reach A Guarda using this route.

Initially, we planned on staying in A Guarda for a couple of days (with a view to catching up on some chores) but the campsite proved a disappointment and so, after just the one night, we moved a few miles further up the coast to a superb campsite at Oia – Camping O Muino. It was just as good a base from which to visit the Galician towns of Baiona and Tui and the campsite had all the facilities we needed and more.

There was time enough for me to explore A Guarda (also known as La Guardia) before we moved on to Oia.

A Guarda has a strong fishing heritage but, as is the case with so many coastal towns in Spain, fishing is gradually giving way to tourism. The town’s once large deep sea fishing fleet is considerably reduced in size and it includes more coastal vessels where the focus is towards shellfish. That’s not so bad, with A Guarda having become very famous for it’s lobsters. Please don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting tourism is a problem in A Guarda. It strikes me as a very unspoiled authentic Spanish coastal town. Except for walkers and cyclists travelling the Portuguese Coastal Caminho to Santiago (the route takes these ‘pilgrims’ across the River Minho by ferry from Caminha in Portugal to A Guarda in Galicia and then on to Santiago) we saw nothing to suggest tourism will become a problem. Of course things might be different during the July-August holiday season.

Guided by Rachel Lugo’s travel blog ‘nuncasinviaje.com‘ (which I stumbled upon while browsing the internet) I was able to make the most of my short time in A Guarda. I didn’t see everything but I spent an enjoyable 2-3 hours wandering the town using her post as an impromptu travel guide. It is the ruins on the nearby hill of Monte De Santa Tecla (or Mount Santa Trega in Galician Spanish) which most excite me. The hill is just 341 metres high but it boasts some of the best views in the area and was once topped by an ancient (pre-Roman) hilltop settlement. The site has not been fully excavated but a section of circular stone houses on the way up suggests that the settlement once housed anything up to 5,000 people. At the very top of the hill is a restored hermitage and a network of paths and viewing points.

The remainder of my time in A Guarda began with a wander around the harbour area. Thereafter I sought out a couple of the better known churches in the town (the Igrexa Convento de San Bieito and the Igrexa Parroquail de Santa Maria) before walking north along the coast towards the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Oia.

Built between 1558 and 1561, the Igrexa Convento de San Bieito on Saint Benedict’s Square was a Benedictine convent until 1984. Part of it has since been converted into a 2 star hotel and restaurant. I was able to gain access to the church but elected to give the hotel a miss…

I was unable to gain access to the Church of Santa Maria da Guarda…

And neither was I able to enter the Royal Monastery of Santa Maria de Oia.

We were able to get into Camping O Muino. and what a result that proved to be. We stayed for three days, using it as a base to explore the area and for chilling. Outstanding campsite.

Caminha (Norte), Portugal June 2024 (Tour 9)

En route back into Spain (we were now heading for Galicia) we paused at the small coastal town of Caminha in the very north west of Portugal.

Caminha is an old fishing town of some 16,000 people on the Minho Estuary (which separates Portugal from Spain) and it is directly opposite our next destination of A Guarda in Galicia. It’s on the Coastal Caminho route to Santiago and, while being visited by an increasing number of ‘pilgrims’, it remains a fairly quiet little town outside of the holiday months of July and August.

It has the most northerly beach in Portugal, the Foz de Minho, which wraps around the left bank of the estuary and leads south to the Camarido Beach; so allowing visitors the option to swim in the River Minho or in the Atlantic Ocean. The best beach in this area, especially for surfers, is the Moledo Beach which is just a bit further south of the Camarido and a little to the north of the resort town of Vila Praia de Ancora. One other beach in the area worth visiting (and which is protected from the often strong winds blowing in from the Atlantic) is the Azenhas River Beach in the town of Vilar de Mouros on the banks of the River Coura. This latter beach also offers great photo opportunities with it’s watermills.

We will visit Vilar de Mouros some time in the future, ideally at the time of it’s annual music festival which in the past has hosted acts as diverse as Bob Dylan, Cure and U2 but, I was talking about Caminha…

We parked up on a large open car park by the harbour and entered the old town via the Praca da Conseilheiro Silva Tores. This plaza, more of a circle than a square, is the prettiest part of the town. It is dominated by a clock tower (the last of thirteen towers which used to connect the now mostly dismantled town walls) but, it also contains various other interesting features including (a) a very attractive town hall building; (b) a beautiful 16th century church, the Igreja da Misericordia (which was built as a spiritual hostel and hospital for pilgrims on their way to Santiago) and; (c) an impressive 16th century ornamental fountain designed by Joao Lopes.

The Terreiro Fountain designed by Lopes is actually one of three identical fountains (the other two are to be found in nearby Viana do Castelo and in Pontevreda over the border in Galicia). The Caminha fountain was initially located in the Norte village of Moledo but was moved to Caminha early in the 19th century.

The little Igreja da Misericordia (Church of Mercy) is something else. Inside, it is stunning…

The Praca da Conseilheiro Silva Tores is the beating heart of Caminha and it was strangely stirring just sitting in this lively little plaza over a couple of cups of coffee absorbing the mood of the town. I think we both would have been happy to sit a while longer but we had made the decision to reach A Guarda in time for dinner.

After an hour or so, Vanya moved to check out a couple of the local shops (she is anxious to acquire another, larger, cork handbag for which this area is rightly famous) while I went off to look at the Igreja Matriz de Caminha (the Matriz Church of Our Lady of the Assumption). This 15th century church, made of granite and protected by what remains of the city’s granite walls, is supposedly beautiful inside. Sadly, it wasn’t open during the period of my visit but I was able to enjoy some quite exceptional views across the estuary from the walls.

Another interesting sight we stumbled across is the railway bridge over the River Coura (which runs into the River Minho). Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (he who designed and built the Eiffel Tower in Paris) designed and built this bridge. Until then I had no idea that he designed such structures but within a few days I was to stumble over another such construction of his.

We came into Norte this time around primarily to avoid the wet weather which was beginning to threaten Spain. We are really pleased with that decision. We encountered some wonderful places and will definitely return (probably as soon as next September) and; if we return to this particular area, I would be keen to visit Vilar de Mouros and, especially, the Serra D’Arga. The Serra D’Arga is an 825 metre hill with spectacular views, waterfalls (the Penas and the Pincha) and windmills.

On to A Guarda…

Gelfa & Ancora (Norte), Portugal June 2024 (Tour 9)

We overnighted at a campsite (the Sereia de Gelfa) in the tiny hamlet of Gelfa, just two miles or so from Vila Praia de Ancora. We were considering staying a couple of nights with a view to exploring some more of the Norte Region but the campsite proved such a disappointment with neither the bar nor the restaurant open that we decided to move on after just one night. The campsite reads very well in it’s brochures and it may be entirely different during July and August but, until then, forget it – none of the facilities were open while we were there.

Still, there was time for me to walk a couple of kilometres to Restaurante Camarao and then on along a wooden coastal path towards Vila Praia de Ancora but; after getting close enough to see it appears to be little more than a beach resort, I gave up and returned to the Camarao’s bar for a quick beer.

Ancora is a favoured stop on the Camhino Santiago from Oporto but, while it may appeal to tired and/or hungry pilgrims en route to Santiago, it didn’t appear to have much of interest to me. Of course I may be doing the place a disservice and will consider take a closer look at the town when we return to Norte in September.

Onwards to Galicia in Spain.

Viana do Castelo (Norte) Portugal June 2024 (Tour 9)

Known locally as the “Jewel of the Costa Verde” the small waterfront city of Viana do Castelo is easily recognised by the magnificent 20th century white church (the Santuario de Santa Luzia) up on the nearby 228 metre hill of Monte de Santa Luzia. This church, inspired by the Sacre Coeur in Paris, honours Saint Lucy the Patron Saint of Sight which is most apt given the splendid views on offer from the top of the church both over the city and the surrounding area.

Our route into Galicia was taking us along Portugal’s coast road, through Viano do Castelo, when we noticed the Santuario and what looked like some kind of festival taking place down near the harbour. We parked up alongside a number of other vans down at the port (there was plenty of space) and set off for a quick look. Had we known that Viano do Castelo is one of the largest cities in the north of Portugal with a significant sized population and a history of shipbuilding and industrial fishing, we would in all likelihood have kept driving and given the place a miss because we tend to favour the smaller quieter places. We’re both so glad we didn’t! Our all too short stay in Viano do Castelo proved utterly charming, interesting and enjoyable and; yes… we had caught the last day of a week long local festival known as the Santos Populares but, more about that later.

We parked up on the commercial docks close to what looked like a hospital ship. It is named the ‘Gil Eannes’ and, amongst other things, it did serve as a type of hospital ship. After being built in the city’s shipyard during the 1950’s, it served as a general support vessel and icebreaker to Portugal’s ‘White Fleet’ of trawlers which fished for Cod in the North Atlantic off of Newfoundland and Greenland. After being decommissioned the ship was returned to Viano do Castelo and converted into a combined museum and youth hostel.

Drawn by church spires (they are a great aid to navigating cities) we made our way t0 Viano do Costelo’s well preserved medieval centre, the large and wholly pedestrianised Praca da Republica. This picturesque plaza is a large rectangle; edged by numerous 16th century buildings including the Pacos Municipais (the city hall) and the Igreja da Misericordia (which so far as I am concerned is the most beautiful of the city’s churches and outshines even the local 15th century Cathedral). The plaza contains a large 16th century fountain (Chafariz), a few small shops, cafes and restaurants (not forgetting a highly regarded Costume Museum) but it was a restaurant I needed (it was late in the morning and we’d not yet had breakfast) and so; after a quick look at the Igreja da Misericordia (the Saint Mary the Great Cathedral was almost entirely covered in scaffolding and closed), we settled down at one of the plaza restaurants (the Sancho Panza) for brunch.

Just a quick word on the Igreja da Misericordia or Church of Mercy. The original 16th century church was in such disrepair by the end of the 17th century that it had to be rebuilt. Work started early in the 18th century and the current church, with it’s Baroque style interior and impressive blue azulejos (tilework), is truly magnificent and well worth the one Euro entrance fee.

The food at the Sancho Panza Bar-Restaurant was the best of the trip so far with Vanya and I both agreeing the prawns (described in the menu as shrimps but the size of langostines) were the best we have ever tasted. I also enjoyed a bowl of Panadinhos de Porco (breaded pork) and I even ate some of Vanya’s salad. We were impressed with everything about the Sancho Panza. We sat at a table just outside the restaurant but a visit inside revealed a much larger place than expected, including a bar and an open kitchen. The service, as well as the food, was excellent and the price was very reasonable. I’d eat there again.

After brunch we made our way through various winding lanes of the old town (holding properties as diverse as fishermen’s cottages, smart art-deco town houses and elegant mansions) towards the Santiago de Barra Fort where the final day of the annual Santos Populares Festival was still in progress . The ‘popular saints’, by the way, are Saint Anthony, Saint John and Saint Peter.

Many of the streets in the old town reflect the wealth of a country which, largely through the efforts of it’s seafaring explorers, become a world power during the 15th & 16th centuries. These explorers include Magellan who both orchestrated the first circumnavigation the world and himself navigated a ship around Cape Horn and into the Pacific Ocean; Bartolomeu Dias who first navigated the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean; Vasco de Gama who subsequently sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and became the first European to sail to the Indian Sub-Continent and; Pedro Avares Cabral who is credited with being the first European to discover Brazil. Between them these explorers helped create one of the world’s greatest international trading communities.

We entered the Santiago de Barra Fort the City’s fort in time to enjoy the last day of the Santos Populares Festival. Music and dance, especially Portuguese folk music and ‘fado’ (particularly soulful, mournful & moving performances) fill the days of the festival; with the highlight being the “Marchas Populares” where neighborhood groups vie with each other and showcase creative dance routines.

We couldn’t stay too long but we wholly enjoyed sitting, drinking freshly made lemonade while a local pipes and drums band entertained us with a repertoire of Moorish music. They made for a very enjoyable and interesting day and I swear one chap on the bagpipes could successfully audition for the Red Hot Chilli Pipers.

Heading back to the Van I received a very pleasant surprise. We passed near a multilevel road and rail bridge over the River Lima (with trains using the lower level). This bridge was designed and built in 1878 by no less an engineer than Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (he of Eiffel Tower fame). At the time, I was unaware Eiffel designed bridges but within the next couple of days I would stumble across yet another (see post for Caminha). They are really very distinctive lots of wrought iron.

Next stop was a small campsite in the tiny hamlet of Gelfa. We were heading for Galicia.