Les Trois Escargots

A growing family of snails.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Walking in Courel, Galcia

The car hire desk at Santiago airport issued us with a brand new Citroen C4 (only 7 km on the clock) and Albane found the deserted walking staff of a pilgrim, so we were set for the hills in fine form. We were headed east towards the isolated region of Courel. Keen to slip into the Spanish way of life, Dad and Tom stopped at a bar en route for an Estrella Galicia, the local beer. An hour later we stopped for the set three course 'menu del dia'. Dad looked like Christmas came early when the waitress put a bottle of cold red wine in front of him and told him it was included in the 8 euro price.

Albane decided on a shady siesta after lunch and the rest of us walked a fisherman's path along the river Ulla. Tucked in the bottom of a narrow wooded valley, the water twisted between rocks and over waterfalls. On the way back to the car, a bright green snake slithered across the path in front of us. We drove south towards the Ribeira Sacra, a wine-producing region, and stayed the night in a restored stone house.

We ate in a small room with dark wood and a huge open fireplace. Lit by three lightbulbs with filaments like butterfly antennae, we ate locally cured meats, fresh cheese and steaks of young Galician beef. The elders drank the local wine.

We detoured via the deep gorge of the Rio Minho, its steep slopes covered in vineyards, before a long drive on narrow, tight roads to the heart of Courel. The brand new car felt more like a liability as we swung round the blind bends and into nasty potholes. The scenery changed from a flat landscape of fields into the more satisfying cleft of a mountain valley. We passed a vast slate quarry and climbed every further into the Courel range.

Late in the afternoon, we walked a path following the Rio Pequeno upstream and through the forests of Sweet Chestnuts for which Courel is best known. They were planted to protect the villages from wind, for firewood and for the chestnuts which were the staple food. Smoked in small stone buidlings dotted in the woodland, they were essential for surviving the winter in a region where roads did not arrive until the second world war. The path marking was useless, as was our map, and we got totally lost. We were eventually forced to retrace our steps.

It was a long drive to our B&B, bu the old woman welcomed us with fried fish, wine and small glasses of the local firewater. Tom took to the rough stuff, preferring it to the smoother more refined version. Our last day's walking didn't start until 3pm with Suso acting as our guide. We crossed the main ridge, hitting 5000 feet (I think) before descending steeply through Sweet Chestnut forest. The mix of small hay fields, grazing animals, managed woodland and steep valleys was lovely. A glimpse into the past.

We spent the night in a small, restored village which was pretty, but which lacked soul (as well as people). After a short walk to strech the legs, we headed towards Lugo, stopping for lunch in a village on the walker's motorway which is the Camino de Santiago - a queue of people shuffling their way west. We preferred the quiet authenticity of Lugo and its Roman walls; a 2 km circuit for runners and the less serious - we watched a woman in tight lycra smoking her way round the walls, a mobile phone clamped to her ear.

On the last morning, we wandered round the fruit, vegetable, meat and fish markets of Santiago. Like happy tourists, we bought cheese, honey, cured ham and chorizo. A good trip with a mix of walking and seeing Galicia. The next destination could be Somiedo (see next blog entry).


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