Ourense is surrounded by mountains on all sides. These mountains have isolated the province from the more populated coast and the fertile lands of the central meseta. Until a modern highway was built in recent years linking Ourense with Vigo in the west and Benavente in the east, the only viable way for people to enter or leave the province was by railroad. Even along the southern border with Portugal, mountains have kept the two cultures relatively separated. Only through the valley of Chaves has there been a historical entryway into Portugal.
The old monastery of Las Ermitas, located near Viana do Bolo, Province of Ourense (Photo by Ray Vogensen)
The principal river system is the Miño-Sil, the fertile valleys of which produce corn (maize) and grapes for wine. Due to the many rapids these rivers are not navegable, but they have been harnessed for hydroelectric power. The Sil flows through a deep canyon and has become a sought-after tourist site for its river cruises and spectacular views.
The Limia (in Portugal called Lima) is an important river that begins north of Xinzo da Limia and flows south towards Portugal. The Tâmega, another important Portuguese river begins north of Verín.
The mountainous terrain and isolatation have kept the province economically backward and caused massive emigration to the rest of Spain and to the New World. There is some wine production along the Miño valley and near Verín. There is also considerable pig breeding and potato growing, especially around the area of Xinzo da Limia, in the drained lakebed of Antela, which until the 1960s was the larges fresh-water lake in Spain.
Industries include chemical manufacture, milk production, water bottling near Verín, and clothing manufacture near the capital city of Ourense. One of the largest poultry processing companies is also located in the industrial zone near that city.
Although not a major tourist center, tourism contributes somewhat to the economy: the spectacular scenery of the river valleys attract holidaymakers, there are several preserved medieval towns (Allariz and Ribadavia), and Manzaneda, north of Ourense, is the site of one of Spain's better winter skiing resorts.
The provincial capital, Orense, is the only large centre, and the population of the province is predominantly rural.
Of the province's population of 343,768 (2002), three-tenths live in the capital Ourense. There are 92 municipalities in Ourense. Other than the capital the most important are Verín, Ribadavia, Allariz, A Rua, Carballiño, and Xinzo de Limia. See also List of municipalities in Ourense.