Galicia Guide | 3 Days of Pilgrimage to Canyons, Shrines and Undiscovered Mountain Bike Lines
A ride through history and myth in a region the Romans thought was the edge of the world...
“For me it’s hard to know where Galicia ends and reality begins."
We’re being guided around Santiago de Compostela by Maria-Antonia Santiago, a woman whose six sisters were also all called Maria, and who shares her surname with the city she lives in, the capital of Galicia in northwestern Spain.
The history of Santiago is infused with folklore, myths and spiritualism wherever you turn. At its heart stands the Cathedral of Santiago, where it is believed the apostle of St. James has been buried since the first century.
The story goes that after he died St. James’ remains were taken to Galicia to protect them from the Romans – who dared not take on the fierce local Celts living in Santiago. A shepherd was then guided to the burial site by the light of a star in 813AD, and reported his discovery to a bishop, who informed King Alfonso II. In honour of St. James, a church was built on the spot where his remains were found, and this ultimately led to the construction of the current cathedral in 1075.
The pilgrimage which culminates at the cathedral, known as the 'Way of St. James', is now one of the most famous spiritual journeys the world over, and has been completed in mass numbers ever since the early Middle Ages.
When we arrive at the central plaza in Santiago after a weekend exploring the hills of the region on mountain bike, we find the cathedral on our left, the “oldest continuously operating hotel in the world" behind us, the parliament to our right and a stunning university building in front. It’s quite the site.
A glance around the square highlights how prominent the pilgrimage to Santiago remains in the modern age. Tour guides lead huge groups waving flags from Panama, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ukraine, Brazil, Cabo Verde and beyond.
There’s even been a film released about the pilgrimage called 'The Way', written by Emilio Estevez of ‘Mighty Ducks’ fame and starring his father Martin Sheen. Type the word “pilgrimage" into Google and Santiago de Compostela is literally in the example sentence.
We’ve been on quite the journey of our own to get here, though it was less a pilgrimage than a hunt for the undiscovered – a journey through the beautiful backcountry of Galicia, sampling their ever-growing network of mountain bike trails along the way.
A late arrival on day one saw us smuggle into a small hotel in Meaño, Pontevedra for the night, 45 minutes' drive from Santiago de Compostela airport.
We woke up to find the darkness of the night before had transformed into a beautiful Galician valley in one window and a row of traditional Spanish houses and churches in the other. We also found both of those windows drenched in enough rain to flood the River Thames.
When most people think of Spain they think of perfect beach holidays and the 12-month summers of the south. Galicia on the other hand very much has four seasons, and you can often experience all of them in one day. It’s known as the “rainy region" in the rest of Spain, but it’s worth putting that into the context of the rest of the country. Summer temperatures in Galicia will often pass the 30 degree Celsius mark; you just might get a random rainy day to go along with your six days of sun. Anyway, if the reason for the rain is the rolling hills and coastlines of the region, it’s hardly a big price to pay.
Pontevedra, the province where we stayed on our first night, actually has a micro-climate which we’re told tends to keep it hot and dry during the summer months, but our luck seemed out on the opening day. Or so we thought. Our guide Guti was rather less concerned, jumping in the car, loading up the bikes and driving us half an hour to some trails where it wasn’t in fact pouring with rain. Although the dirt underfoot was rather damp, the sun was actually shining. Apparently escaping a downpour with a short drive is fairly common practice in Galicia.
We followed a track which took us through the fauna and flora of Pontevedra, culminating in a new trail which rises from a main road to the stunning Mosteiro de Santa María da Armenteira – an active monastery dating back to the 12th century. It’s not much of a fun trail to climb up, but it’s a hell of a track to go back down – natural rock sections and roots galore shine out all the way, and if you keep your eyes peeled at the trailside you’ll even see some bonus loops that will eventually bring you back to the main trail.
When we finally rolled up to the Mosteiro de Santa María da Armenteira, it should be no surprise that we were covered in mud. This was a slight concern however given that the monastery was packed out with people preparing a wedding for the afternoon to follow. Being a clumsy man at the best of times, it seemed like a bad idea to march into the church and risk covering all that sparkly white in dark brown, but thankfully one of the seven sisters who lives in the monastery welcomed us into the cloister to have a look round instead.
Construction of the cloister began in the late 1500s in stone and continued over the following century of the monastery, which is situated at the foothills of Mount Castrove, “an ancient pagan place of Spanish folklore and Galician Magic".
There’s quite the story surrounding the origins of the monastery. It’s said that San Ero, a knight of the court of Alfonso VII, founded it in 1150AD after receiving instructions in a dream from the Virgin Mary. Years later, Ero was walking through the forests pondering the afterlife, and asked the Virgin Mary to show him paradise. He found himself listening intently to the song of a bird, and when it had finished, returned to the monastery to find that all the friars he knew were gone, and had been replaced by new men. The legend says that actually Ero had become entranced by the song of the bird, and 200 years had passed by the time that he returned.
Near enough every monastery and ancient fort or relic in Galicia is subject to such folklore. We showered up after a day on the trails – the mountain bike network in Galicia wonderfully including various hostels and hubs where you can clean up free of charge – and headed off to our accommodation for the night. It’s quite possibly the most spectacular hotel Mpora has ever come across – Parador de Santo Estevo, a huge converted Benedictine Monastery hanging on the edge of the Sil River Canyon like something out of a Disney film.
Wondering around the premises of the sixth century monastery is like travelling through time. The baroque architecture is intensely dramatic, the Roman touches perfectly preserved and every single room looks out onto the Sil River Canyon. We woke up early to watch the sun rise along with the mist over the endless surrounding green.
Looking down at the monastery from the narrow road above it, you’d swear it was the only point of civilisation for miles, but it turns out to be the perfect starting point for another day on the trails. And there’s no signs of rain today. We pick up our bikes and soon find ourselves powering through the colourful planes of the Ribeira Sacra province in complete wilderness, past rolling hills, under fields of giant windmills in the Sil Wind Farm and all the time looking out over the entirety of the remarkable canyon walls and sparkling horizons of Ribeira Sacra.
Our climb peaked at 1,150m and descended to the viewpoints of O Picotiño and Cabezoá, looking out again on the Sil River Canyon but far from where we were situated in the morning. It’s got to be one the most scenic rides in Spain, with the gaping canyons and huge lakes on one side; vineyards running down their grassy walls and glowing rock covering the others, and the enormous windmills and endless greens of Galicia lining the backdrop of your view.
We roll down to the mountain to finish our ride with some rocks and roots that put the rear shock to good use before jumping on a small boat to sail through the canyon we’d just been riding above. The skipper is a local and serves up his own homemade wine in plastic cups we’re delighted to receive.
Our riding has been relatively relaxing but as scenic as it gets. Galicia has whatever you’re looking for on the bike, though. The trail network is enormous and only growing – and there’s everything from simple green trails to hardcore black runs amongst the 1000s of kilometres of options in the region.
The wine took the edge off the two-hour drive to Santiago and refreshed with a big eat - if you go to Galicia, you must try pulpo, an octopus dish served in oil, salt and paprika - we head off for our tour of the city with Maria the next morning. It’s hard to be anything other than zealous when you see Santiago up close. It’s like a town plucked directly from Game of Thrones – with huge, ancient stone buildings lining the streets and just as much magic in the air as any George R.R. Martin novel.
Before our tour of Santiago ends Maria tells us her favourite fable set in the city walls.
It is said that each year on 25 July – St. James’ day – when the city descends into an all-night carnival, the spirit of Queen Lupa, the most beautiful Queen in the history of Galicia, rises from her sleep to join the celebrations. And if you see her on the streets at any point in the night, you will be blessed with beauty for the rest of your days.
It seems to us that the spirit of Queen Lupa has been wandering much further than just the streets of Santiago though. The entire region is absolutely stunning - and the perfect reward for a pilgrimage of any kind.