The foundations of modern Spain were laid in the kingdom of Castile. Stretching north from Madrid, and incorporated within the modern comunidad of Castilla y León (turismocastillayleon.com), it’s a land of frontier fortresses – the castillos from which it takes its name – and a vast, fertile central plateau, the 700- to 1000-metre-high meseta that is given over almost entirely to grain. Beyond the historic cities, huge areas stretch to the horizon without a single landmark, not even a tree, though each spring a vivid red carpet of poppies decorates fields and verges. The Río Duero runs right across the province and into Portugal, with the river at the heart of one of Spain’s great wine-producing regions, Ribera del Duero; another, more famous wine region lies to the north in the autonomous comunidad of La Rioja, whose vineyards line the banks of the Río Ebro.
It was Castile that became the most powerful force of the Reconquest, extending its domination through military gains and marriage alliances. By the eleventh century, Castile had merged with and swallowed León; through Isabel’s marriage to Fernando in 1469 it encompassed Aragón, Catalunya and eventually the entire peninsula. The monarchs of this triumphant age were enthusiastic patrons of the arts, endowing their cities with superlative monuments, above which, quite literally, tower the great Gothic cathedrals of Salamanca, León and Burgos. These three cities are the major draws of the region, though in Valladolid, Zamora and even unsung Palencia and Soria are outstanding reminders of the glory days of Old Castile. But equally in many lesser towns – notably Ciudad Rodrigo, El Burgo de Osma and Covarrubias – you’ll be struck by a wealth of art and architecture that’s completely at odds with their current status.
Outside the main population centres, the sporadic and depopulated villages, bitterly cold in winter, burning hot in summer, are rarely of interest. That said, there are a few enclaves of mountain scenery, from the Sierra de Francia in the deep southwest to the lakeland of the Sierra de Urbión in the east. Moreover, the wine region of La Rioja has charms that go way beyond its famous product – the likeable provincial capital of Logroño is known for its lively tapas bars, while high in the Riojan hills are unsung mountain villages and monasteries that reward the intrepid driver.
The final feature of the region is the host of Romanesque churches, monasteries and hermitages, a legacy of the Camino de Santiago, the great pilgrim route from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. It cuts through La Rioja and then heads west across the upper half of Castilla y León, taking in the great cathedral cities of Burgos and León, but also many minor places of great interest, from Frómista in the central plains to Astorga and Villafranca del Bierzo.