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Monforte de Lemos

Fertile land of the aristocracy

Monforte de Lemos is the heart of the beautiful Ribeira Sacra wine region as well as the city of some counts whose turbulent tenures earned it a place in the history of Galicia.

Plan your visit to Monforte de Lemos

There are a lot of things to see in Betanzos, a town which merits a relaxing visit, since there are numerous paths which allow you to explore the beautiful urban center. Unless you visit on one of the holidays which we discuss in the “What to see” section of this page—in which case participation in the festivities is the main activity—Betanzos is a destination that can be toured in just one day. One of the draws of this place is its geographic location, since there are numerous other nearby destinations where you can spend the rest of your trip. First, for those who are not satisfied with Betanzos’ high-quality buildings, characterized by Gothic architecture and a medieval feel, nearby Pontedeume (the Andrades’ other stronghold and the stage of the Irmandiño Wars) is a great complimentary destination. Those who are looking for an urban setting may choose the nearby city of A Coruña. You can experience an authentic Galician seaside environment in the beautiful port town of Cedeira, less than an hour to the north by car. Another excellent option for a daytrip is to head to Pontedeume and from there visit the important natural park of the Fragas do Eume, the site of the Caaveiro and Monfero monasteries. Those who visit during the summer can enjoy numerous beaches along the Ares River and the Betanzos River and take a swim in their cool waters. Our pages about eating and sleeping in Betanzos make it easy for you to find establishments with local flavor.

Want to discover this place?

The history of Monforte de Lemos originated on San Vicente Hill, a vantage point named Castro Dactonio by the Romans which had previously been inhabited by the Lemavi people (“inhabitants of fertile land”). The name Monforte derives from the Latin mons fortis (“strong hill”). In medieval times it was a fortified city, built around a Benedictine monastery and a castle belonging to the Castro family, located on a hilltop and surrounded by a defensive wall with watchtowers scattered throughout. A group of Jewish people settled there and established their own neighborhood, where the home of the Gaibor family still stands. In 1328, Alfonso XI created the Earldom of Lemos for the Castro family, and under Henry IV, the title became hereditary in perpetuity. Due to his harsh treatment of the tenant farmers, the Count of Lemos was attacked by the rebels in the 15th-century Irmandiño Revolt but he ultimately suppressed the uprising.

In the early 17th century, the seventh Count of Lemos, Pedro Fernández de Castro, rose to prominence and occupied important positions in the Court, patronizing writers such as Lope de Vega, Góngora, Quevedo, and Cervantes. He donated his personal collection of religious art to the city, which today can be seen at the Monforte Museum of Religious Art. In 1777, when the Castro family line died out, the earldom was absorbed into the Duchy of Alba. In 1808, the abbot of San Vicente organized the Junta of Monforte in opposition to the French troops. The city became a center for arms manufacturing and military recruitment, for which reason it was destroyed by the invaders in 1809. The town was revived by the opening of the Madrid-A Coruña railroad line in 1883. Two years later, King Alfonso XII granted it the title of city.

When you visit Monforte de Lemos, you’ll be transported back to another time. The tour of the city has a medieval feel from beginning to end. Beginning your visit at the fortress on top of Monte Forte (San Vicente Hill), you’ll be overcome by the beautiful views of the Lemos Valley. Large sections of the old defensive wall (13th-15th centuries) remain intact, including three towers and three entrances to the city.

A notable part of the castle remains is the keep, which is well-maintained and has a refurbished interior. This was the most important building in the castle, as it was here that the ceremonies joining the lord and his vassal were held. It is 30 meters high, 13 meters wide, and has walls 3 meters thick. It was damaged during the Irmandiño Revolt but was then rebuilt. Medieval theater performances are also held in the tower during the months of July and August.

Nearby the tower are the Benedictine Monastery of San Vicente del Pino and the Count’s Mansion. The monastery is among the oldest in Galicia, dating from the 10th century (although the present-day building was completed around 1600). Architecturally, it has a variety of styles: the plaza, façade, and cloister are in the Neoclassical style; the temple has a Renaissance façade and a Gothic interior; and the quire and the organ inside the church are in the Baroque style. The monastery houses valuable images of Saint Anne with Mary and the Christ Child. The mansion used to be the feudal residence of the Count of Lemos and was rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1672. Since 2003, both buildings have devoted space for the Monforte Parador.

In the lower part of town in Campo de la Compañía is a majestic monument: the School of Nuestra Señora la Antigua. Construction was begun by Cardinal Rodrigo de Castro in 1593. The building is in the Herrerian style (16th-17th centuries) with two perfectly symmetrical wings. In the middle is a church with a beautiful cupola topped by a roof lantern. It is possible to take a guided tour of the sacristy. Today, the building serves as the School of the Piarists and houses a museum with works by El Greco (1541-1614) such as San Francisco. The gardens outside of the building are also worthwhile.

Monforte belongs to the Jewish Quarter Network along with 25 other Spanish and Portuguese cities whose pasts are linked to the Sephardi culture. In Monforte, Jews lived alongside the rest of the population, so we do not have very precise information about their existence. It is known that many of them were craftsmen and distinguished scholars, such as the Gaibor family, whose home can be seen in the Jewish quarter of the city.

Over the Cabe River stretches the Puente Viejo (Old Bridge), which was originally built in Roman times and then rebuilt by Pedro Rodríguez Remberde in the late 16th century. It features six semicircular arches, two of which were covered in the refurbishments. On one side of the bridge is the Museum of Religious Art of the Convent of the Clares, the most noteworthy museum in the city due to the immense value of its collection, which is considered one of the most important in all of Spain. Consisting of sculptures, paintings, and liturgical objects such as reliquaries, processional pieces, and other religious ornaments, the most important pieces in the museum are Baroque religious works like Reclining Christ and The Immaculate by Gregorio Fernández (1576-1636) and Our Lady of Sorrows by the school of Pedro de Mena. The convent was founded in the 17th century by the Count of Lemos, who donated his personal collection of Spanish and Italian art.

When it comes to craftsmanship in Monforte, there’s Alfarería de Gundivós pottery workshop, which is housed inside a rectory and is under the direction of Elías Prieto, who revived this tradition. What makes their pieces unique is that they are fired outdoors instead of in an oven, with the result that they turn out black. The tour of Alfarería de Gundivós includes an exhibit of different kinds of jars, a museum with old ceramics, and live demonstrations. The workshop is open year-round.

Monasterio Benedictino de San Vicente del Pino

As Monforte is the capital of Ribeira Sacra, be sure to stop at nearby Sil Canyon which has overlooks that allow visitors to admire its grandeur. The best-known overlook is Balcones de Madrid. It received this name years ago because it was here that wives would bid farewell to their sailor husbands before they embarked on a long trip. No matter what their destination was, it was always said that they were “going to Madrid.”

Nearby the overlook is the important Monastery of Santa Cristina, declared a Bien de Interés Cultural (Asset of Cultural Interest) in 2008, which is notable for its grandeur and spirituality as well as for the beauty of the surrounding forests along the Sil River. It is a Benedictine monastery of unknown origins (most likely hermitical) with a magnificent church that exemplifies the splendor of the 12th-13th century Galician Romanesque style of architecture. The church—with a floor in the shape of a Latin cross, a single nave, a transept, and three apses—also has a Romanesque tower, something that is not very common in the Galician Romanesque style.

Ribeira Sacra produces some of highest-quality wines in Galicia. The vineyards are organized into a system of stone steps (called socalcos) which originated with the Romans. It is known that the Romans had a great appreciation for Ribeira Sacra wine; one of its variants, Amandi wine (which means “place worthy of being loved”), was brought to Caesar himself from Gallaecia. To learn more about the secrets of this regional wine, visit the Ribeira Sacra Wine Center in Monforte de Lemos.

Must-see

Dónde dormir en Monforte de Lemos
Colegio de Nuestra Señora la Antigua
Cañones del Sil

Basic facts

Coordinates

42° 30′ 59″ N, 7° 30′ 58″ W

Distances

Ourense 45 km, Lugo 66 km, Santiago de Compostela 117 km, Madrid 500 km

Parking

Easily accessible parking in the town and surrounding area

Altitude

402 m

Habitants

19 426 (2013)

Virgin of Montserrat patron saint festival (August 12-17), River Festival (last weekend in July), Lemos FanCine screens documentaries and films at the end of August

Wine festival (Palm Sunday), Renaissance fair (Holy Saturday)

Alfarería de Gundivós workshop (run by Elías Prieto), various vineyards in the area and throughout the Ribeira Sacra region


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