Thursday, 25 September 2008

El Bierzo

Between the dry brown plains of the Meseta and rainy, Pagan-rooted Galicia lies El Bierzo. Like an emerald chalice it is cupped by the Montes de León in the east and the Cordillera Cantabrica mountain range in the north and west. In the south, the Montes Aquilianos rise up in similar, steep-sided pyramids of glacial origin to close off the hollow. The rivers Sil, Valcarce and Cúa lead the mountain waters into the El Bierzo vineyards, cherry orchards and chestnut forests. This is a region famed for its gastronomy so the restaurants proffer smoked pork sausages and sweetbreads, salt cod stew, apple cake and chestnuts with everything.

Along the lanes from Ponferrada to Cacabelos the long strip allotments roll with giant misshapen pumpkins and early on Sunday morning old men have come out to fill wheelbarrows with their red peppers, orange squashes, green lettuces and creamy beets. A woman, her blue-patterned dress two stuffed ovals like a scarecrow, squats low on a stool to methodically strip ripe white beans from their poles.

The September days are warm and clear and the climate in El Bierzo is known to be mild, almost Mediterranean. Winters are gentle, in the lower valleys anyway, where there is little snow. Only on the tops of the encircling mountains do the inhabitants see snow for much of the winter; and in these days of road improvements El Bierzo is no longer cast into immobility by snow. Yet for all the evident natural riches and easy living in the late September sun, the Bierzo region has been a poor one.

Until the 1960s the villages saw rapid depopulation: not just dying villages but dead, deserted. People went to the cities or abroad to find work; and in truth they are still going. When price fluctuations in the 1960 and 1970s made coal and steel production around Ponferrada viable for the first time since the eighteenth century, it earned a certain insouciant wealth for that village, turning it into the lively, expanding town it is today. Not until the 1980s, though, did the wines of the region - decimated by phylloxera in the early twentieth century and later replanted - improve to the point of vying with the best Riojas for quality. A secret wine, virtually unknown outside Spain.

In the 1990s the fashion for eco-tourism turned a favourable eye on the Bierzo. Its long hibernation left the region rich in historical monuments and pristine natural beauties. The pre-Roman site at Castro de Chano in the north vies for attention with pallozas, the small thatched cottages like stone yurts where people and animals lived side by side. Romanesque chapels line the path to Santiago and we walk past waterfalls and natural swimming pools, chestnut and apple trees and across mountain sides of heather and blackberries. Despite all this it is really only the hamlets and villages along the Camino de Santiago that have managed to revive in their quiet, pilgrim-dependent way. A few kilometres each way in the hills the villages are still deserted except for the occasional renovated family farm used only for summer holidays from the city. The pilgrim Euro doesn't scatter far.

But in El Acebo, Cacabelos and Molinaseca, in Pereje or Las Herrerías and in O Cebreiro the cheap concrete streets of much of northern Spain have been replaced by new cobbles. The walls of houses are straight and the window frames noticeably solid, fringed by geraniums. Cafés can be comfortable, even stylish, with a flair for playing with the gastronomic inheritance of the Bierzo and whether is it the supremely gentle vegetarian host of the Trucha del Arco de Iris bed and breakfast in El Acebo or the Paraiso del Bierzo hotel and restaurant in Las Herrerías, we have encountered hospitality that is genuine and generous and delivered with a modern sensibility for history and natural riches.

23rd September 2008

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