IberiaNature A guide to the natural history of Spain
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Lake Sanabria

Lake Sanabria is the largest lake in the Iberian Peninsula. (Altitude: 990 m. maximum depth: 51 m. Surface area 3,187,500 m²). It was formed by glacial action, though the local legend claims a more colourful origin.

On a cold wintery day, a man arrived at the village of Valverde de Lucerna. He was starving and asked for something to eat, but the menfolk told him to be gone. They did not want his kind in their village. Some women baking bread took pity on him and gave a few crusts. He bade the women to take to the hills. Then he took his staff and drove into the ground commanding water to rise from the hole. Out it gushed, flooding the village and drowning all the men. The waters continued to rise until the lake was formed. All that remained of the village was the roof tip of the bakery, which now forms the little island in the centre of the lake.

The area around Sanabria is a frontier between Atlantic and Mediterranean ecosystems. The existence of peat bogs (turberas) is particularly interesting in the Iberian context. The lake's immediate surrounding area is seriously affected by the spread of chalets and all the trappings of mass tourism in the summer
Short description from April 2006

The hordes come here in the holidays but on this Easter Saturday the rain kept most of us away. We were close to a drier Spain, but Sanabria felt like Wastwater in the English Lake District, only its cliffs are not yet screes. There are more imposing. Ribadelago, the village at the far end of the lake was almost new. A few old buildings remain huddled around a roche montanee. Franco had opened a hurriedly built dam upstream from here. On 9th January 1959, torrential rain caused the dam to burst A wall of water that swept down the head valley. The deluge lasted for 14 minutes and reached nine metres in height. 144 people were killed. Only 28 bodies were ever found. There are a number of simple monuments around the village. The tragedy was widely reported in the world's press.Later we moved on up to La Laguna de Peces in the Sierra Cabrera above Santabria. A biting rain and wind made the dammed tarn seem all the more dramatic, the sides still clad in places by banks of ice. Along the path we saw wolf droppings and tracks, perhaps made by a pack on their way to Galicia.

Lake Sanabria disaster - 9th January 1959

Thunder in the Ravine Monday, Jan. 19, 1959  Time Magazine  

The peasants of northwestern Spain tell a legend about Lake Sanabria. At its bottom, they say. lies the village of Villa-verde de Lucerna. It was drowned a long time ago. when Jesus, dressed as a pauper, came begging alms and the villagers turned him away. Only a few women who gave him bread were saved, as well as the oven in which the bread was baked -and the oven survived as a small hermitage on the western shore of the lake near the village of Ribadelago.
One night last week all was quiet in Ribadelago. In the tavern men were playing cards. At the church Father Plácido Esteban-Gonzalez ? had just arrived on his motor scooter from the provincial capital of Zamora. An electrician named Rey was working late in his shop. Shortly after midnight the lights in the village flickered out. At the tavern, irritated cardplayers lit candles, went on with their game. Suddenly, a distant, muffled roar was heard. To woodcutters in the mountains, it sounded like a "great stampede." To one villager, the noise resembled "a continuous dynamite blast." Father Placido went worriedly into the street, as did the electrician and some of the men from the tavern.
The thunderous rumble came from up the valley, where, three miles distant and 1,690 ft. above them, the Tera River, swollen by a fortnight of rain, was held in check by a stone and concrete dam built two years ago. The only explanation of the now deafening thunder was that the dam had burst. Electrician Rey scrambled up the church tower, began ringing the bell in alarm. Father Plácido started waking his neighbors. Some few fled with him across the only bridge and climbed the opposite hillside. Others raced to the church tower or to high ground.
A wall of water, with the weight of 230 million cu. ft. behind it, came surging down the narrow ravine, smashed into the village in a wave 20 ft. high. The stone bridge was swept away. The church was cut in two, and only the tower remained standing. All but 25 of the town's 150 houses were wiped out.
Slowly, the flood subsided and lost itself in the waters of Lake Sanabria. On the surface floated the bodies of men, women and children. Dead cows, pigs and chickens were mingled indiscriminately with tree trunks, telegraph poles, rooftops, household goods. A man caught in his home floated to safety on the inflated rubber mattress on which he was sleeping. The innkeeper, who escaped to the hillside, went back to empty his cash register and was drowned. Just before the water hit, an elderly couple dashed back for their life savings. They disappeared. Of the village's 500 inhabitants, 201 were drowned or missing, and rescue workers estimated that the toll would pass 250.
This time the legendary oven hermitage of Villaverde de Lucerna was not spared; it too was swept away.