While most visitors to Galicia concentrate their attentions on Santiago and the coast, the interior of the region can be both spectacular and intriguing. The Romans were always more interested in mining gold from inland Galicia than they were in its coastline, and some remarkable vestiges of their ancient occupation still survive, including the terraced vineyards along the stupendous canyon of the Río Sil, and the intact walls of unspoiled Lugo. The obvious route for exploring the region is the one used by the Romans, following the beautiful Río Míño upstream, via towns such as Ribadavia and Ourense, and through the wine regions of Ribeiro and Ribeira Sacra.
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Set slightly back from the Miño atop a low hill, the historic core of OURENSE (Orense), one of Galicia’s four provincial capitals, is more attractive and personable than you might expect from the dispiriting urban sprawl that surrounds it. While not a place to spend more than one night – or to break a train or bus journey, as both stations are a considerable way out, across the river – the old quarter does at least offer a handsome and lovingly restored tangle of stepped streets, patrician mansions with escutcheoned doorways, and grand little churches squeezed into miniature arcaded squares. Its centrepiece is a squat, dark Catedral, an imitation of the one in Santiago, which contains a museum of religious odds and ends that’s not really worth bothering with.
A bewildering number of bridges cross the River Miño as it curves extravagantly through Ourense. The oldest is the thirteenth-century Ponte Romana, but the most visually impressive is the new Ponte Milenio, a futuristic road bridge with an undulating pedestrian loop that provides great views.
Cañon de Río Sil
Cañon de Río Sil
Inland Galicia’s most spectacular scenery can be admired not far northeast of Ourense, though it’s only practicable to explore this area by car, and you can expect the driving to be slow. Follow the N120 out of the city, alongside the Río Miño, and after 20km you’ll reach the confluence of the Miño with the lesser Río Sil. For roughly 50km east from here, the final stretch of the Sil is quite extraordinarily picturesque and dramatic, flowing through a stunning canyon known as the Gargantas del Sil.
This magnificent gorge is the heartland of the Ribeira Sacra wine region – the only place in Galicia that produces more red than white wine – and even where they’re all but vertical, the river cliffs are almost always terraced with grape vines. That phenomenal landscaping project was started by the Romans, and has continued for two millennia. A high mountain road climbs east from the N120 just before the confluence, then winds along the topmost ridge of the canyon’s southern flank, passing through a succession of lovely villages.
The oldest city in Galicia, and as “Lucus Augusti” the region’s first capital, two thousand years ago, LUGO is, these days, a small town that’s chiefly remarkable for its stout Roman walls. Rated as the finest late Roman military fortifications to survive anywhere, the walls with which the Romans enclosed this hilltop, overlooking the Miño river, still form a complete loop around the old town. Few traces remain of the 71 semicircular towers that once punctuated the perimeter; instead, a broad footpath now runs atop the full 2.5km length of the ramparts, so a thirty-minute walk takes you all the way around, to admire the city core from every angle.
Sadly, insensitive building and a busy loop road make it impossible to appreciate the walls from any distance outside, but the road does at least keep traffic out of the centre, which maintains an enjoyable if slightly neglected medley of medieval and eighteenth-century buildings. The most dramatic of the old city gates, the Porta de Santiago, in the southwest, offers access to an especially impressive stretch of wall, leading past the Catedral.