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.Read More
Week before Lent: Carnaval Particularly lively in Ciudad Rodrigo, when the Carnaval del Toro (carnavaldeltoro.es) sees bull-running and bullfights in the streets and squares.
Semana Santa (Holy Week) Easter is even more fanatically observed here than in most areas – celebrations take place in all the big cities, particularly Valladolid, León, Salamanca and Zamora, including hooded penitents and processions of holy statues.
Pentecost (7th Sun after Easter) Week-long Feria Chica in Palencia.
Corpus Christi (2nd Thurs after Pentecost) Celebrations in Palencia and Valladolid; the following day, the festival of El Curpillos is celebrated in Burgos.
First two weeks of June: FIACyL Salamanca’s International Arts Festival features street concerts, urban art, DJ sets and neighbourhood events.
June 11: Fiestas de San Bernabé Logroño’s festivities run for a week around this date.
24: Día de San Juan Fiesta with bullfights and dance in León and more religious observances in Palencia. The following week there’s a big fiesta in Soria.
29: Día de San Pedro Burgos starts a vibrant two-week fiesta, when gigantillos parade in the streets, and there are concerts, bullfights and all-night parties. Also big celebrations in León, while in Haro (where festivities started on the 24th) there’s the drunken Batalla del Vino.
Aug 15: Fiesta de la Assumption Colourful festivals in La Alberca and Peñafiel.
Aug 16: Día de San Roque Fiesta in El Burgo de Osma; also bullfights in the wooden plaza in Peñafiel.
Last week Aug: Fiesta de San Agustín In Toro, with the “fountain of wine” and encierros.
Sept 8: Fiesta Virgen de la Vega First day of the fiesta in Salamanca, beginning the evening before and lasting two weeks, as well as the famous bull-running in Tordesillas.
Sept 21: Día de San Mateo Major ferias in Valladolid and especially Logroño, where the Rioja harvest is celebrated with a week’s worth of hijinks.
It often seems like there’s part of a pig, sheep or a cow on every plate in Castile – steaks can be gargantuan, the traditional roast meats, found everywhere, are cochinillo (suckling pig), lechazo (lamb) and cabrito (kid), while hearty Castilian appetites think nothing of limbering up first with a thick sopa castellano, usually containing chickpeas or white haricot beans, both staple crops from the meseta. In Salamanca province, jamones (hams) and embutidos (sausages) are at their best; in Burgos it’s morcilla (black pudding) that’s king. If you’re feeling faint at the thought of so much meat – and Castilian menus can, truth be told, get a little monotonous – then the legendary tapas bars of León and Logroño ride to the rescue, where bite-sized morsels, from cuttlefish to mushrooms, offer a change of pace and diet. Only really in La Rioja does the traditional, heavy Castilian diet give way to something lighter and more varied. The rivers that irrigate the vines also mean freshwater fish, particularly trout, while La Rioja is the one part of the region where the contemporary Spanish foodie buzz has scored a real foothold.