The Miño River slices through a land of mystery. La Raya (The Line) is the land of green light and shade between Galicia and Portugal strewn with Romanesque castles and bursting with history and legend
Locals will say that no one knows who the islands belong to, those green stains on the river’s surface.
They also say that no one knows where Galicia starts or where Portugal ends, or who owns the waters that flow between these Siamese twins, these two separate kingdoms that once were one.
But the river meanders along in sweet oblivion - it knows nothing of kingdoms, of borders. Its waters are clear, dark and cold, as tortuous as the history of the land they run through.
Even so, the Miño is king on both banks of this fortified freshwater frontier, rich in borderland mystery, glory and smuggling tales.
The truth is that the people who live here don’t talk about ‘a border’ - they just call it La Raya (or A Raya in Galician). A shadowy line keeping them apart while all the while their hearts and language pull together.
On one side they speak the music of Portuguese, on the other the similar but more restrained Galician. The Arrayanos, the border peoples, are all too aware that they live ‘on the edge’, on the line separating reality from desire.
Twin towns rise up on opposite banks of the Miño, as if one were the other’s reflection brought to life out of the water. Towns built in direct confrontation, like Tui and Valença do Minho, Caminha and A Guarda, O Seixo and Vila Nova de Cerveira, Monçao and Salvaterra. Wherever the Spanish built a castle, the Portuguese built one too.
This river and these castles mark out one of the least border-like borders in a country otherwise defined only by sea and mountain. Nature keeps apart what humans would bring together and humans bring together what nature tries to keep apart.
But the threat from Valença Castle has long since fizzled out, even though its cannons still point lazily towards Spain.
Beside the old bridge a new modern, international one has been built. The long lines of drivers crossing into Portugal to shop, pass by people going the other way onto Galician soil to eat pulpo a feira, Galician-style octopus cooked in paprika.
Galicians and Portuguese alike go down to their own side of the river to fish along the well-worn border for the few lampreys in one of their last remaining habitats.
The fish is ugly, strange looking, and is cooked in a sauce made from its own blood. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, it is one of the region’s most delicious and sought-after delicacies. If you have never tasted lamprey pie (empanada de lampreas) you haven’t lived or, even if you have, you need to live a little more.
But the jewel in the region’s crown is the river, carrying you through La Raya’s tortured land. The Portuguese say that the wandering Miño has one adulterous affair after another with Galicia, enjoying good food, the best beds in country inns and romantic pleasure along its philandering course.
Its journey starts before the grandeur of Tui and Valença, it begins with the love affair between Caminha and A Guarda, kept apart by the emerging Atlantic.
There is no bridge for the lovers to meet on but a ferry brings the Spanish village to her Portuguese lover across the mouth of the Miño, from where you can sense America. Or at least if you look with the eyes of one of the many women whose hearts have flown there with sons, daughters or husbands in search of a better life.
Rising up above A Guarda is the Monte de Santa Tegra, restored prehistoric Celtic settlement, offering a view of almost the whole Miño Valley. If you let your eyes wander along the river you will see Tui, where you would sell your soul to savour Ribeiro wine in the shade of its Gothic cathedral, standing so serious and defensive, more like a fortress than a place of worship.
Taking you beyond Valença and Tui are the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that starts in Portugal and the Roman road that Tiberio Claudio had built to connect Braga, now in Portugal, with Astorga, the Asturian capital of the time.
Thankfully, Monte de Aloia is also here, one of Galicia’s five nature reserves, otherwise our soul might smuggle itself over to Portugal, in search of chocolate and oil as the Spanish did after the war.
The Miño - feudal lord
It is said that the river and the profusion of castles and monasteries have created a ‘feudal system’ among the people of La Raya, who answer only to one master, the Miño.
He is a master of few words, gently flowing down from Salvaterra, from where the dueña de la sal de la tierra (the wine) looks fearlessly across at Monçao on the other side. Because this land is home to only one wine, Albariño on this side of the line, and Alvarinho just across the bridge.
In Monçao, the Romanesque Lapeo Tower looks nostalgically across the water at the Galician vineyards. In this Portuguese town is the Brejoira Palace, one of the fairytale palaces you might stumble across along the border.
In its woods and gardens the ghost of Deu-la-Deu, heroine of bygone wars, tears her hair out at the sight of so so many happy Spanish tourists, especially Galicians from Salvaterra who act as though they were on home territory, after all this time and so many wars.
Both sides had their heroines. So many women as leading actors in so many early ‘westerns’. There is the story of the Melgaçao castle, upriver and right on the dividing line. They call this castle the Castro Laboreiro and along with the whole of Melgaçao it fell into Castilian hands in the war waged between Castile and Portugal, sometime around 1388, although no one remembers the exact date.
The Castilian heroine was called La Arrenegada (The Renegade) by those on the other side, sworn enemy of Inés Negra, the woman sung about in Portuguese folk songs.
Joao I’s people had laid siege to the castle and so, in an attempt to save lives and spare human suffering, Inés challenged Arrenegada to a hand-to-hand fight. The winner would decide her own people’s fate.
So the story goes, Inés won the fight by pulling all of La Arrenegada’s hair out, and the beautiful city of Melgaçao was handed over to the Portuguese and Galicia stayed on the Spanish side of the river.
And it is on this side of the river that we will stay too. With the Miño, the Arrayanos, and the pulpeiras gallegas, the octopus bars known and loved along both sides of the river, where they smash the beast’s tentacles against the copper cooking pot. Once it has been crushed it becomes putty in the cook’s hands and she transforms it from a Kraken-like sea-monster into a River Miño delicacy.
Galicia has that special something - even when you leave she’s still with you. A special something that chases after you, no matter how far away from the border you go, she reaches far beyond the borders of shadows and nostalgia and even when you are back home she has somehow slipped inside you.
The only way to stop her eating away at you is to go back to Salvaterra and drink a fine wine with the pilgrims on their way to Santiago. This is a journey without end because there were so many pretty things to see at the border that it changed course and stretched along the banks of the Miño, where the slate tiled roofs and the willows hanging from the monasteries plot with the water to keep you captive in this green and very pleasant land.