A Cathedral of the Sea: Praia das Catedrais
I never realised how diverse Spain would be. All my life, I have only known the deep south and the Mediterranean Coast, both of which are mostly dry, yellow, and dusty in summer. But Galicia, in the country’s north western corner, is a different story altogether.
The landscape here is green and lush, with dramatic coastlines covered in thick carpets of wild blackberries and purple heather. Dreamy estuaries with small hamlets along the shores which look as if the clocks go differently here. Remote sandy beaches, seemingly untouched by civilisation.
Drive on the highways and you will mistake it for a much more temperate place – our native Germany comes to our minds more than once. After a couple of scorching hot weeks in the south of Spain we are pleasantly surprised by this verdant scenery.
Beach of the Cathedrals, a photographer’s dream come true
We leave the motorway for a quick stop at a beach called Praia das Catedrais, or Beach of the Cathedrals. To us, it’s an unknown destination, little talked about in the English speaking world. So you can imagine our surprise when we pulled up to a carpark full of cars and hundreds of Spanish families.
The more, the merrier, we think and set off to explore this magical part of the Galician coast.
The cliffs here near Ribadeo (province of Lugo) are some 30 metres tall, yet they stand no chance against the relentless forces of nature. With the tides comes the push and the pull of the waves. They slowly eat away the solid rock of the land, eroding the coast to form some of the most amazing structures in the world.
The fantastical name Praia das Catedrais does do it justice – the way the rocks dissolve over time turns them into surprising and extraordinary shapes that resemble the great architectural works of humankind. Arches and bridges that seem to defy gravity in the most precarious ways, vaulted caves and mazes of stone pillars that stubbornly hold onto their foundations against the odds.
It is a beach that is not so much for sun bathing or swimming. Rather, it is a photographer’s paradise with many different angles and perspectives that are in continuous change in accordance with time, tide, and season. And it is more: It is an adventure playground for those who love to explore a natural beach with all its hidden corners and secret unknowns. Perfect for families, explorers, nature lovers.
Praia das Catedrais (also known as Playa de las Catedrales in Castilian Spanish) is so popular that you have to reserve your entry before you visit. I don’t know about this prerequisite when we arrive but I am shown a website on my mobile phone where I can sign up for a visit instantly. Not a big deal as entry is free but it’s better to register on a computer as the form requires a lot of information. With the paperwork done and the booking number obtained I am allowed to pass.
I take the steps down to the beach and join the hundreds of visitors who explore the beach at low tide.
The sand is firm and white under my shoes, and for a minute I ponder whether I should take them off to feel the cool sand between my toes. Everybody around me seems to have already done so, but since I don’t want to leave my shoes behind and I cannot carry them and take pictures at the same time, I decide to keep them on. The sand is so firm that my feet are not sinking in, it is just a matter of getting around the big puddles that have formed everywhere.
These puddles are of course a big hit with the families. There are children everywhere, happily playing in the shallow pools that are filled with warm, pristine sea water. For them, these pools are perfect, safe and clean. Even though there are hundreds of people on the beach, it is not too difficult to explore the place without the feeling of being in a crowd.
Naves among stones
The further I go the more caves I find. They are higher than me, with the two sides of walls meeting at an angle that does indeed remind me of the great Gothic cathedrals of England and France. I go inside some of them, hear my breathing echo from the walls, smell the faint memory of the ocean. Some of the caves are very deep, and when you go further you will find yourself in total darkness. An unnerving feeling, in particular when you are alone.
The rocks closest to the water are encrusted with millions of black mussels. They are tiny, little baby mussels and hold onto the surfaces like alien flowers from another world. They are a reminder that the water will return sooner rather than later, turning these fantastical caves into submerged tunnels of no return.
Behind the sea caves there are naves between the rocks, deep gorges that take you further and further into a labyrinth of sand and stone. In some places, water trickles down these steep surfaces, providing perfect conditions for green mats of sea weed that grow on the rocks like a carpet. Surrounded by these enormous cliffs, I feel rather small and insignificant, so I return to the more populated parts of the beach, the grottos.
Grottos with a touch of mermaid colours
These are pretty little corners of deep water pools that extend all way into the caves. Families explore these grottos together, swim all the way to the back of the cave, climb onto ledges, take photos of themselves in the stunning scenery. When the light is just right, the water has a turquoise hue to it, with the white sand on the bottom shimmering through to create a palette of mermaid colours.
The children wade through the water, chase each other around the rocks. It’s a magic wonderland made with nature’s very own toolbox: sand and water, darkness and light.
For a moment I regret not having taken my swimsuit and a towel with me. The fun that radiates around these kids is infectious. Their laughter resonates in the century old cavities, their enjoyment seems so pure and real.
But it doesn’t really matter. The beach can be enjoyed in many different ways, and for me it’s the happiness that comes from seeing such a beautiful place that has been formed by nature over millions of years.
Beach of the Cathedrals – does this place take you closer to God? If you believe that there is a superior being, then there is no better place to feel the presence of supernatural powers than here. The never ending play of the tides, the erosion of seemingly indestructible stones over millennia, the enormous dimensions of the cliffs make it very clear just how insignificant we are in the great scheme of things.
To reserve a free ticket to Playa de las Catedrales, click here. Don’t forget to sign up for each person individually.