Today, one of the things I value most about travel is being surprised. In fact, before starting an adventure, I avoid looking at photographs or videos of the destination I’m going to visit. I want to know as little as possible about what I’m going to find. And that’s how I discovered, in some of those places, unexpected little jewels.
That is precisely what happened to me when I visited the Monastery of Oia, or, if we get formal, the Royal and Imperial Monastery of Santa María de Oia.
This monastery hides a great amount of secrets, fruit of having lived a good number of different lives and having had an equal number of functions. Monastery, defensive post, school, residential house or prison are just some of them.
I must emphasize that, although the monastery contains a disproportionate amount of stories and anecdotes, the visit dazzled me, in large part, by the good work of Xoán, the guide who accompanied us during the visit. He showed me that there is nothing like loving a place to know how to transmit it with the necessary passion to enchant the visitor. He’s going for you, my friend!
How to get to the Monastery of Oia
As with the vast majority of small villages and parishes in the Rías Baixas region, the best way to get to Oia to visit its monastery is in your own car.
However, if you don’t drive or are a fervent fan of public transport – I am – you should know that the XG-382 bus leaves from Vigo and has two stops, 7 and 11 minutes respectively, from the monastery. However, the journey takes about 85 minutes. Patience and good handwriting, because the reward is worth it. Not in vain, the Monastery of Oia was declared an Asset of Cultural Interest in 1931.
History and visit of the Monastery of Oia
We parked our car near the atrium of the monastery on a hot September afternoon. During this week in which we traveled through the Rías Baixas, we had to ask ourselves several times if the Caribbean was still in its place or if someone had shaken the ball of the world with all its forces and now Galicia was in those parts.
We walk through the atrium under a sun of justice, admiring, to our right, the front facade of the church that is attached to the monastery.
In front of us, a small door opened into a stone wall, giving access to the imposing Monastery of Oia, built in the twelfth century and the only monastery of the European Cistern that lies on the shores of the ocean. The good guy from Xoán was waiting for us there with a broad smile that, as we later learned, was overflowing with knowledge.
The artillery monks
Xoán knew how to catch us quickly with the story that told us as soon as we passed the light proceedings of the presentations. The thing started with a: “Did you know that the monks in this place were shooting cannon shots at pirate ships coming up the bay?
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It was not necessary to verbally express our ignorance of that fact, our face said it all.
Yes, from practically its origins, the successive kings who granted privileges and concessions to the monks of the monastery demanded that it be armed and, later, artillery. In fact, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, some ex-soldiers from the different Spanish thirds ended up serving as artillery monks.
The reason for this demand was the monastery’s border position with Portugal and the frequent incursions by pirate ships of different nationalities.
Among the battles and skirmishes fought by these artillery monks, the one of 1624 stands out, when they put in flight five bassels of Turkish pirates and Berbers. After this feat, King Philip IV granted the title of Royal and Imperial to the monastery.
The “Rapa das bestas” and wine
From the beginning of the 13th century, Xoán told us, the monks of Oia dedicated themselves to the care of the wild horses that inhabited the meadows of the adjacent mountains that had been granted to them in property.
This special breeding brought with it certain traditions that are still maintained today in the celebration of the cultural festival of “A rapa das bestas”. This festival takes place in several Galician municipalities and consists of shaving the manes and tails of the wild horses that still live in the area, as well as deworming them and healing their wounds. After this ritual – in which each animal is cared for so that they are not frightened -, the horses are returned to their natural habitat.
Another Cistercian custom that has had an impact on the history of Oia and its surroundings is the introduction of vine cultivation, as the monks had learned in the French abbeys of the order. Thanks to it, today we can taste tasty wines under the Denomination of Origin Rías Baixas.
Xoán also showed us the entrance to the garden that the monks cultivated. These travelling monks had visited countries as far away as Australia in search of medicinal plant species and other secrets they could bring to Galicia.
Disentailment and abandonment
As we walked through the beautiful cloister of the Monastery of Oia, Xoán told us how the place had fallen into disgrace at the beginning of the 19th century. The culprits were the Napoleonic invasion, first, and the famous disentailment of Mendizábal, later.
From 1838, the church was designated as the parish seat by the bishop of Tuy, but the monastery began an endless journey of change of ownership that continues to this day.
During these almost 200 years, the Royal and Imperial Monastery of Santa María de Oia has been a Jesuit school, prison during the Spanish Civil War and even the private residence of wealthy families. Finally, there have been projects to convert it into a hotel, but much remains to be done in this uncertain area.
Renovation of the Monastery of Oia and its use as a cultural space
As Xoán told us while watching the sheep graze quietly in the backyard – it is their sustainable way of lowering the lawn level – laudable maintenance and renovation work has been carried out on the monastery in recent years.
The product of so many changes and different lives, the Monastery of Oia has become a fascinating and chameleonic place, giving rise to numerous stories and its use as a cultural space with tradition.
Timetables and guided tours
The best way to get to know all the hidden secrets of the Monastery of Oia is to take a guided tour of it. Also, I recommend that you ask for Xoán.
Timetables: you can consult the official website of the Real Monasterio de Santa María de Oia to check the timetables at all times, but there are usually guided tours on weekends: two in the morning and two in the afternoon. In addition, on Mondays there is an accompanied visit (which is not guided) free of charge.
Prices: the guided visit to the Monastery of Oia costs 5€ per adult, 2,5€ for children from 8 to 14 years of age and free for children under 8 years of age.