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The Monasteries of A Coruņa Province

The mountain would become very sad. At the beginning of the 1950’s, someone came up with the unfortunate idea of moving the Baroque facade of the church of Monfero to a new church in La Coruña. And it was true, the mountain would have become very sad, as Don Ramón Otero Pedrayo, the great writer from Ourense, wrote.
The desecration never took place though, and today, Monfero, together with the magnificent church and monastery of Sobrado dos Monxes and the surrounding ruins of the church of San Juan de Caaveiro, are the three destinations on a monastic route through the interior-eastern part of the province of La Coruña, which also boasts as a bonus a superb nature reserve: the woods and rocky crags of the Eume.

The three monasteries, which stand at the foot of the mountains which cross Galicia from north to south, known as the Dorsal, are far well off the beaten track. Sobrado dos Monxes and Santa María de Monfero are two of the thirteen monasteries founded by the Cistercian monks in Galicia between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Sobrado was, in fact, the second to be built and is the largest of all of them.

In the tenth century, San Rosendo laid the first stone of what would become the monastery of the Order of San Agustín. Today, its extensive ruins are known simply as the Monasterio de Caaveiro, famous for its location on a rocky headland above the creeks of the Eume River, tucked away in one of the most beautiful nature reserves in Galicia. There is no question that the monks were adept at choosing places where their prayers would reach Heaven more quickly.

Sobrado dos Monxes
Running from the south to the north, the route starts in Sobrado dos Monxes, the capital of a municipality of three thousand inhabitants.

The village can be reached in three different ways, depending on where you set off from. You can take the C-540 Betanzos to Melide road - in very good condition, incidentally - to As Corredoiras and then another 9 kilometres along a B-road. The second option is to go via Teixeiro, the capital of the municipality of Curtis along the N-634.
This is the best road to take if you are coming from Santiago (which is on the same road), or from the north of Galicia (by the N-VI until just after Monte Salgueiro and from there to Teixeiro, 6 kilometres along a B-road). Finally, if coming from Lugo you take the N-VI to Guitiriz to join up with the N-634 to Santiago.

Sobrado is an agricultural village in the interior of Galicia, which grew in size alongside the monastery, at the foot of the Bocelo hills and the Cova da Serpe sierra and by the small lake which is the source of the Tambre River. The white-robed Cistercian monks remain there to this day, protected from all the vicissitudes of 853 years of history. Thanks to a donation from Fernán Pérez de Traba, they founded the monastery in the twelfth century, building on a family monastery which had been in existence since the tenth century. The Monasterio de Sobrado extended its power over a large part of the present-day province of La Coruña and even controlled priories in Portugal.

Great changes and additions to the monastery would come during the period of its greatest glory, particularly the seventeenth century, but the Desamortización (the sale of church lands) in 1834, proved to be just as much a death knell for the Cistercians as it was for other abbeys. The monks left, the lands were sold, the villagers made off with the stones and the jewel of a building ended up in ruins. Rebuilding began in 1954 and today the visitor can stand back and marvel at the spectacular results.

Rebuilding work involved not just the stones. It was also spiritual. The monks returned in 1966 and there is currently a community of 25 of them. Without losing sight of their rules and their calling, they have decided to enter the modern economy unreservedly by buying scanners for their library and making Galician their official language - a response, it is said, to their surroundings. They run a livestock breeding centre and their own milk business - with 115 Friesian cows -and even make hamburgers and run a hostel with 20 beds.

Visits (weekdays from 10.30 to 1300 and from 16.15 to 18.15; Sundays and holidays from 12.15 to 13.00 and from 16.15 to 18.15) begin in the seventeenth century Claustro de los Peregrinos (the Pilgrims’ Cloister), where the main flight of steps known as A Maristela - the name of the Virgin who presides over it - begins. Next to it is the Claustro de los Medallones (the Cloister of the Medallions, thirty six in all), which was built in the second half of the eighteenth century. It leads to the beautiful and secluded kitchen and to the chapter house, a superb and majestic replica of the twelfth-century original. You then come to the magnificent church with its cruciform plan, half barrel vault and three naves which reach a height of 35 metres in the dome.
Pedro Monteagudo built the characteristic ashlar facade at the end of the seventeenth century. The choir of the High Altar (from 1606) was transferred from Santiago Cathedral, not without controversy, in 1974. To the right is a highly decorated Renaissance sacristy, with a dome supported on pendentives in the form of scallop shells, and to the left, the exquisite, pure Baroque, Rosario Chapel, the work of Domingo
de Andrade, the great Galician architect of the seventeenth century who left his indelible mark on Santiago de Compostela.

Next to it is the chapel of San Juan Bautista, a Romanesque construction which has survived from the early days of Sobrado dos Monxes.

The Way of Monfero
Moving directly up the map, you leave for Teixeiro along the N-VI, on the way to La Coruña, and immediately come to Monte Salgueiro. From this junction of huge discos frequented by lorry drivers, a road in good condition leads to Monfero - some 18 kms away - through mountainous and desolate countryside; home, it is said, to many boars and wolves.
From the tiny village of Monfero (seven parishes which do not even make up 3,000 people), a tarmac road - 2 kilometres long - leads to the church of Santa María de Monfero and the ruins of what was once a superb monastery with two cloisters. There were once plans to restore the building but they hardly got off the ground.

It seems it was the Normans, in one of their Galician raids, who razed to the ground the monastery that once stood in Monfero before the Cistercians founded their own with the help of Alfonso VII and Doña Berenguela. The early-Romanesque church was knocked down in the seventeenth century, and the new one erected shortly after.

The scriptorium used for the transcription of parchments and books and the library were renowned throughout the land, according to Hipólito de Sá, the researcher who knew everything there was to know about monastic life in Galicia, but the expulsions of the last century led to the monastery being abandoned and looted.

The church, with its majestic Baroque, ashlar facade, with four adjoining columns and two pilasters, windows and unfinished tower, is open to the public on Sundays and religious holidays and during services. It has a cruciform design and a single nave. The magnificent octagonal dome is worthy of special note and there are also four tombs for members of the ubiquitous Andrade family, with that of Nuño Freire or ‘Mao’, as he was also known, among them.

The Baroque decoration in the Capilla de los Forasteros (‘the Strangers’ Chapel’, where monks from outside the community said mass) behind the altar, is also worth a look. In the northern arm of the transept is the altar of the Virxe da Cela, widely revered in the region for curing head pains and nerves. The romería (a religious procession to a holy shrine) is held on the first Sunday of July.

Restoration work on the cloisters hardly began. The first, at the entrance, is Renaissance and the second, by Juan de Herrera, is also Renaissance with ogival vaulting, although the second floor is an eighteenth-century addition. A third cloister was left half-finished at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

The medieval atmosphere is complemented by a wonderful touch of nature when you walk through the woods of the Fragas do Eume Natural Park and find, on a superbly sited headland, right in the middle of the woods, the Monasterio de San Juan de Caaveiro, or, to be more precise, its noble ruins, which have an unusually mysterious air about them, surrounded by oaks, birches and the sounds of the river.

6 km along the AC-151 from Monfero, there is a turning to the right onto the AC-150 which goes on to Taboada (3.5 km away) and to Pontedeume (12 km away). From Taboada you take a short cut to go in search of the Eume River and almost immediately find ourselves deep in the woods.

But before you follow the water, you can’t leave Taboada until you have visited the castle belonging to the Andrade or the Torre de Nogueirosa, an extremely well-preserved stone fortress built in the fourteenth century. It is a symbol of the absolute power of the Andrade, the feudal lords of the whole area, and a superb viewing point for the Betanzos and Ares estuaries. The four-sided tower, 10 metres wide and 20 metres high, is still standing today as does part of the outer area. It is not particularly difficult to get inside, but access to the tower is far less easy and is not recommended. It is one of the few castles to survive the popular uprisings of the fifteenth century.

Caaveiro. The rocky crags of the Eume
After this pause, and already on the banks of the Eume River, you come to the fishing reserve of Ombre, an idyllic spot where the river is hemmed in by steep slopes which are inaccessible to all intents and purposes because of the rampant vegetation growing on them.
The reserve, with many footbridges and pathways, extends for 8 kilometres, with a little road - built in November 1995 and in dreadful condition - running alongside it. If you are a keen photographer, it is a good idea to bring lots of film because the scenery is stunning. A few kilometres more, with the river to the left, and you come to the end of the journey with the road ending on a bridge. A bar-steakhouse appears and it’s time to leave the car to walk up to the monastery ruins or to begin walking a beautiful trail.

The 77-kilometre long Eume, runs down from the Forgoselo sierra. In its last 20 kilometres it spectacularly winds its way between granite slopes which have been greatly eroded through the centuries, particularly by the large reservoir which dams the waters 16 kilometres before it empties out into the sea. The almost-sheer sides are covered with oaks, hazelnut trees, willows, birches, alders, holly trees and, to the dismay of ecologists, eucalyptuses. There is, in total, an area of 9,000 hectares of coastal woodland, home to otters, mountain cats, wolves and badgers.

On the remains of an old monastery, San Rosendo founded the Monasterio de San Juan de Caaveiro in the tenth century. The Benedictines lived there for two centuries and it was later home to the Regular Canons of San Agustín. As the monastery lay in Andrade territory, the possessions of the monastery were frequently plundered.

The monastery, erected in an idyllic place to aid reflection, was abandoned at the beginning of the nineteenth century and restoration work culminated with the reopening of the monastery in 1896. It was abandoned once more, however, and today, despite being a monument of historical and artistic significance, it is slowly falling into disrepair again.

Entrance to the monastery is by a flight of steps and an unusual door - with the bell tower and the royal coat of arms of Castille and León above it - which opens onto the atrium adjoining the apse, which is, incidentally, very large considering it situated on such uneven land. The three double-semicircular-archivolt Romanesque windows separated by two adjoining columns are worthy of mention. The monastery was built to a simple design, with a barrel-vaulted nave. The views these ruins afford are unforgettable. More adventurous walkers can have a look around in the two underground passages hewn out of the granite, some of which contain the cells.

A trail starts at the bridge, and runs along the right hand side of the river and into the wood for a distance of 2.5 km. It leaves from a road which goes down to the hydroelectric power station in As Neves, a kilometre before.

There is a story that one day San Rosendo committed an indiscretion when exclaiming during a storm: “What a dreadful day!”. Repenting his irreverence with the sky immediately, he threw his abbots ring into the Eume and asked God not to return it to him until he had forgiven him for his sin.
Seven years later, the brother cook found it in the stomach of a sea-trout. The penitence seems a little excessive, but the clever pretext for San Rosendo to stay in Caaveiro is absolutely unique.

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