Arbo is one of those unique places in Galicia, Spain, framed by vineyards, manor houses and the swirls of the Minho river waters; at that spectacular border between Spain and Portugal that has marked the life of Galician and Portuguese people. So spectacular that in 1957, Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, and Frank Sinatra came here to film The Pride and the Passion, a film about the occupation of the Napoleonic troops.
But, going back to point, if this place is so beautiful, how come you never heard of it (until now)? Well, simply put, because it is one of the best-kept secrets of Galician foodies, who have made us believe that there is only lamprey in Arbo, and there’s more, much more:
1.- Well, Lamprey
If you have never heard of lampreys before Game of Thrones, you should know that this “thing” is a vertebrate from over 3000 years ago that, just like salmon, lives in the open seas all of its adult life, to go back to the rivers where it was born, to spawn.
But it is not a “food” that you will love to see: a long being without jaw but a circle of teeth and a blood-sucking tongue, that feels like coming from a horror movie. A “vampire” that feeds from the blood of big fish and mammals but is also one of the favorite foods of foodies around the world (they eat it in Holland, France, UK, Spain, Portugal…) They even say that Richard I from a surfeit of lampreys (truth is that he was poisoned but it is a good fact to understand how important this dish was).
Lampreys are so important here in Arbo, that they are part of the local flag and coat of arms. And, I would even say that most of the travelers that come to this place by the Minho river, come to visit a vineyard or to eat lamprey (when not both). And that is exactly what my family used to do when I was little: once a year, at least, my father would take us to those restaurants where cooking lamprey was an art and eating it almost religion.
But, why in Arbo? Because here lampreys are fished almost at the spawn point (a few kilometers away is the first dam of the river, stopping them to go further up), so lampreys are fitter and have a stronger taste and consistency. Plus, their fishing method is sustainable and artisan.
I must admit that my father was never able to pass on this passion (probably because we all had our own passion). And, while he ordered a traditional “lamprea a la bordalesa” (lamprey cooked on its own blood) we went for lighter options or chose something else. But, what would happen if I had to choose now?
For this trip, we got together a diverse mix, from true lamprey devotes to total newbies and some like me who had tried it before but were not true fans. We tried it all the ways we could and these were the results:
- First timers enjoyed the grilled lamprey (we had it at Casa Pazos) and the one in empanada (we had it at Casa Barcia), probably because it has softer tastes, followed by the dried one with salad and the fried one. Lovers of stronger tastes enjoyed traditional lamprea a la bordalesa and the one with snow peas (we had them at Os Pirús).
- And, what about me? I keep my favorites and would stick to the dried one (easier to find now than it was back in the days) but also enjoyed the bordalesa ones, lighter than I remembered so, Should we give it a second chance? We should give it a second, a third and even 5.
Note: The best season to eat lamprey is January to April to have it fresh (fried, grilled or bordalesa) but you can have the dry one all year long.
Where to eat lamprey in Arbo
With such an unique dish, eating in Arbo is a must-do everyone should do in Galicia. But if you ask me about where you should eat, almost every corner has a good place to try (even if you are not planning to have lamprey) but we went to (and enjoyed):
- Os Pirús, half way between the Centro de Interpretación Arabo, the train station, and the international bridge. Lamprey on all of its sorts and a classic for those lamprey-addicts that keep the secret of Arbo to themselves.
- Casa Barcia, next to the station. A classical spot where we had empanada and dried lamprey, but also traditional Galician tapas like fried squid, croquetas and tortilla.
- Casa Pazos, right outside Arbo, is a traditional restaurant that also has some rooms to rent and where you can taste fresh lamprey to its best. They also have other foods like free-range chickens (that they grow themselves) or goatlings from the nearby mountain of San Fins.
2.- Learning about the fishing arts of lamprey
But the fun part is not just eating lamprey, but exploring a bit more, and one of the best things you can do, especially during lamprey season, is learning about the fishing arts that bring lampreys to our tables.
There are almost as many ways to fish lampreys in the world as rivers where they grow. From those where they “hunt” them with spikes, to places where they go by boat with nets or places where they throw big fishes so they get lampreys while eating. But here in Arbo, they keep a unique tradition (some say it dates back to the Romans) that uses river flows to catch lampreys while going up the river.
The technique seems easy: by the riverside, you will find different stone walls (some date back to the XII Century), that create fast waters at the center and slow waters on the sides and between the walls. These slow waters are the ones that lampreys prefer to use.
And between those walls, they place the “biturón”, a conical net that catches them at night (yes, they are considered vampires for they teeth and because they are more active by night) without killing them.
These wall structures are called pesqueiras, are private and only certified fishermen can use them, so I recommend you to visit them with one of them so they can show you how and why they still use this method, risking their lives at night walking on slippery stones and keeping this method sustainable. For this, contact the Tourist Office and the Arabo museum, they can arrange a visit for you.
3.- And how they get here, at the Arabo center
Another option, if weather is good enough or you didn’t have time enough to arrange a visit to the pesqueiras, is to visit Arbo’s old school, now Interpretation Center for wine and lamprey Arabo.
This small museum is a great starting point to understand the role of lamprey and wine in the history of Arbo, and the role of Arbo in the history of Spain: from the Roman and Celtic remains to the rebellion against the French, the Portuguese migrations… The building shows the evolution of the village and how they got to have up to 400 pesqueiras at this area of Minho river.
You will find here different panels, museum pieces and maps, but if you are interested in learning more about the life cycle of lampreys, go up to the top floor for a very interesting video that shows how they are born in this area of the river, go down to the open seas and come back to die (and breed).
when is it the best time to visit arbo?
If you want to taste fresh lamprey, then you need to be there from January to April for lamprey season, but if you want dried lamprey or are looking for those beautiful river landscapes, any season is a great season.
And if you want to add a little partying to the mix, Arbo is great on:
- the fourth Sunday of April (this 2019 is 26th, 27th and 28th) you will find the Fiesta de la Lamprea party (Lamprey food festival which has been declared of touristic interest) and the Arbomostra, where the winemakers and food lovers gather for the food, the music and the fun.
- the first half of August, the dried lamprey food fest or Fiesta de la Lamprea Seca
Plus, it can be really interesting to go there when the Brotherhood of the Lords of Saint Lamprey gets together to celebrate lampreys (and eat). One of the key acts of this “pilgrimage” is below the international bridge over Minho river, where they free a living lamprey so it can tell other lampreys to go up there. They also send a message inside a bottle (but we know they shouldn’t so please don’t promote that).
4.- Go wine tasting
Since you will be visiting the Arabo house, center of interpretation of “wine and lamprey”, a great idea would be to join a wine tasting there. Why? first, because as I have told you before, this is a great wine region and, second, the Arabo keeps wine from every wine producer in the area for wine tasting (and as a wine library whatever that means).
Arbo belongs to the Rias Baixas designation of origin, subarea of Condado. They have 11 producers of albariño and condado wines. You can taste most of them at the restaurants in the area, but you can also go wine tasting at several producers:
Marqués de Vizhoja, for example, offers tastings including a visit to their manor house (some interesting items there, including stone pools to keep lampreys alive) but also As Laxas, Casa Grande de Almuiña and some others have them too. Just remember that you always need to book in advance for this.
5.- Walking through the paths of fishermen
There are some amazing hiking routes all along the Minho river, but the ones in Arbo are especially beautiful. They are not the most difficult ones in the area, but not the easiest either, so go prepared for the landscapes and the for the walking.
The most beautiful? It is hard to choose, but the Sendeiro dos Pescadores route and the Sendeiro das Pesqueiras route, both of which go along the river between Spain and Portugal, are stunning. They have been graded of medium-high difficulty, but on the other hand, you will find different lookouts, the pesqueiras structures and a traditional forest along the way. The Sendeiro das Pesqueiras is shorter (900 meters one way) and the Sendeiro dos Pescadores is longer (7 km, one way).
The easiest one? Sendeiro do Rio Miño-Deva. It starts near the international bridge and goes up two rivers (Minho and Deva) between old watermills and traditional forests, to finish at one of the most beautiful places in the area: the romanesque bridge at Mourentán (more info below). It is 1.5 kilometers one way.
Extra: there is a round route called Sendeiro da Moura that departs from the romanesque bridge at Mourentán and goes through the inner Arbo area. It goes through some very interesting places, such as an abandoned town or some petroglyphs and lookouts.
Where to sleep in Arbo
Just as there are many options for food in Arbo, there are also a few B&B that will help you explore the area easily. We stayed at Casa Cruceiro at Barcela, right outside Arbo village. They offer some rustic and comfortable rooms with a nice meeting room where they serve a very nice breakfast (we spent all day going from one spot to the other so we didn’t have much time to enjoy it more). But there is an additional reason to stay there: the house holds the peto de animas (I tell you more about it below) at one of its walls.
6.- The romanesque bridge of San Xoán of mourentán
At the end of the hiking route of Minho-Deva you will find one of the photo icons of Arbo: the bridge of San Xoán (st. John) of Mourentán. This bridge, of just one eye, has on one side an old watermill and on the other a sawmill, next to a river beach that creates a relaxing landscape to enjoy after the route.
But this is not just a beautiful place. This spot was also an important place for the history of Arbo: in 1809 the local villagers fought against Napoleons’ army here. They tried to stop the french invasion with their farming tools, but all of them died (the French outnumbered them) but they keep the memory as they were some of the first towns to oppose.
You can also go there by car (not cross it over) following the signs from Arbo village (or your GPS.)
7.- Arbo village
I’ve already told you about some must-visits in Arbo village, such as the Arabo, but you shouldn’t stop there. Take a walk through the main square and the train station neighborhood.
Back in the times, the station area was the hotspot of modern life in Pontevedra, helping some of their villagers to build great fortunes importing (or smuggling) products and fashion from France. Today, there are a few restaurants there worth visiting, such as Casa Barcia which I told you about before.
The architecture here is different from what you will find at other parts of Arbo village: two story buildings with dormer windows, wooden structures and closed balconies.
8.- And surrounding Arbo
Right outside Arbo, on your way to 2 of my recommendations above (eating at Casa Pazos and sleeping at Casa Cruceiro) you will see Barcela. This small village is worth stopping by.
But, why? Because you will see many unique things there:
- On one side, the peto de animas on the wall of the B&B house, holds an embossed cross made of stone with a colorful altarpiece that shows the souls in the purgatory (including a bishop…) It is from the XVIII Century and it always holds corncobs and other farm products, placed there by the villagers asking for a nice harvest for the year.
- A lamppost (we didn’t find out what it was used for)
- A Calvary with 3 crosses and a cruceiro cross from the XVIII Century too.
- A chapel from the same time (we couldn’t go in, but it might be worth checking)
Also, you will find many manor houses at Sela, Cequeliños, Barcela… many of which have been transformed into Bed & Breakfast. At Sela, there is also a river beach and an interesting chapel.
How to go to Arbo
If you are driving to Arbo, the best route is through the highway that connects Vigo and Madrid, then following the signs towards Arbo and Melgaço. Another rout is going up to A Cañiza and then 15 kilometers by the local roads to Arbo.
If you prefer to use public transport to visit Arbo, there is a direct train from Vigo twice a day and a direct train from Ourense (Empalme) also twice a day. The train takes a bit more than the car (1 hour and 10 minutes aprox.) but goes by the river most of the way, so it has some amazing views guaranteed.
Besides all of the above, there are several ideas to add to the mix: active sports (bikes and rafting are key here, with some of the best fast waters in Spain), archaeology, gold mines (Romans took all the gold, but still)…
So, do you have enough reasons to add Arbo to your wish list? I think you do. This is just a sample of what we found in a weekend exploring the area, imagine all that can be nearby!
What else to visit around Arbo
On the other side of Minho river, you will find beautiful Melgaço with its tower and the Cinema museum or the Smugglers museum. Not far from Melgaço is the door of the Peneda-Gerés park and the quirky town of Castro Laboreiro. To the other side, you will find Monçao village and its hot springs.
On the Spanish side, it is worth taking a trip to Mondariz-Balneario (and its hot springs) or Ribadavia (with its castle and the Jewish heritage.)
About this trip:
The trip was organized by Concello de Arbo DMO along with a series of activities, accommodation and dining providers mentioned in the article. As always, all posts are written according to my experience and opinion. Feel free to ask any questions about it