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.
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.
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.
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.
The unspoiled frontier town of Ciudad Rodrigo – 90 km southwest of Salamanca, astride the road to Portugal – is worth a detour even if you don’t plan to cross the border. It’s an endearingly sleepy place which, despite an orgy of destruction during the Peninsular War, preserves a rather austere castle (now a parador), a handsome Plaza Mayor and quiet old-town streets full of Renaissance mansions. It’s also still completely encircled by impressive walls and ramparts, and the thirty-minute walk around (and on top of) them is the best way to get an overview of the whole town.
There is not a great deal of things to do in Ciudad Rodrigo apart fom exploring the history that lies here and wandering the charming streets. The main site is quite possibly the Santa Maria Cathedral, with Gothic, Roman and Plateresque elements in its architecture. Look out for the grotesque figures carved by the famed Rodrigo Aleman.
Given its history, it’s perhaps surprising that there’s much left to see of Ciudad Rodrigo at all. Ciudad Rodrigo was a crucial border point in the Peninsular War, guarding the route between Spain and Portugal. The town fell to the French after a fierce fight in 1810, but was later re-taken by the British in 1812 following a devastatingly rapid siege (cannonball dents are still visible above the doorway on one side of the cathedral). A triumphant rampage of looting followed, and when order was restored, the troops paraded out dressed in a ragbag of stolen French finery – a bemused Wellington muttering to his staff, “Who the devil are those fellows?”
The protected mountain region of the Sierra de Francia marks the southern region of Salamanca province, with the most obvious target the captivating “national monument” village of La Alberca. It makes a good walking base for the surrounding hills and valleys, notably the stunning Valle de Las Batuecas, with its isolated monastery and ancient rock art. There are daily buses to La Alberca from Salamanca, but the area is otherwise best explored by car, in which case you’ll also be able to make a half-day’s circuit via the equally venerable hill-town of Miranda del Castañar.
Zamora, 62km north of Salamanca and only 50km from the Portuguese border, is the quietest of the great Castilian cities, with a population of just 65,000. In medieval romances, it was known as la bien cercada (the well-enclosed) on account of its strong fortifications; one siege here lasted seven months. Its old quarters, still walled and medieval in appearance, are spread out along the top of a ridge that slopes down to the banks of the Río Duero, crossed at its widest point by a lovely sixteen-arched bridge. The city’s surviving Romanesque churches are its most distinctive feature, while the beguiling streets and squares of the old town make for an attractive overnight stay. When it’s time to move on, the obvious routes are east to Valladolid, with a stop in the small town of Toro, or north to León, via Benavente and its parador; Bragança, the first main town over the border in Portugal, is just over 100km away on a good, fast road.
The Río Duero long marked the frontier between Christian and Arab territory. It meanders right across central Castile, between Zamora and Soria, with the eastern section in particular, from Valladolid, marked by a series of spectacular castles and old market towns, some restored as tourist attractions, others crumbling to dust. This part of the river is also at the heart of one of Spain’s greatest wine-producing areas, the Ribera del Duero. It’s a fine route to follow by car (N122), stopping off for lunch in rustic posadas and for walks in the beautiful surroundings. You can make the trip by bus, but if you do, realistically, you’ll only be able to see the major towns of Peñafiel and El Burgo de Osma.
There’s more of the almost absurdly picturesque Río Duero scenery at El Burgo de Osma, once a very grand place boasting both cathedral and university. Today, there are gleaming town walls, a lovely riverside promenade and ancient colonnaded streets overhung by houses supported on precarious wooden props. It’s quaint and gorgeous in equal measure, and while the dominant cathedral is the only actual sight, the town rewards a leisurely stroll up the arcaded main street to Plaza Mayor. On summer nights, as the temperature drops, the families of El Burgo use the main square, with its cafés and tree-shaded benches, as playground, exercise yard and social club. Out of town, there are easy drives to all sorts of fascinating destinations, from canyon park to mighty fortress, which makes El Burgo well worth a night’s stay.
Some of Spain’s most celebrated red wine comes from the demarcated region of Ribera del Duero (wriberadelduero.es), including the country’s best-known and most expensive wine, Vega Sicilia. Around 170 wineries are found along the Duero, with many of the bogedas concentrated between Peñafiel and Aranda del Duero, 40km to the east. If you’d like to make winery visits (not all are open for tours, including Vega Sicilia), the comprehensive website is a good place to start – some wineries require advance reservations, though many have shops that are open to casual buyers mornings and afternoons. Bodegas Alejandro Fernandez makes its fabulous Tinto Pesquera at Pesquera de Duero, 4km north of Peñafiel, while the acclaimed Señorio de Nava (senoriodenava.es) is based at Nava de Roa, 13km to the east.
SORIA is a modest provincial capital of around 40,000 – an attractive place, despite encroaching suburbs, and the inspiration behind much of Antonio Machado’s best-loved verse (the Seville-born poet lived here from 1907 to 1912). It stands between a ridgeback of hills on the banks of the Duero, with a castle ruin above and a medieval centre dotted with mansions and Romanesque churches. You can see all the sights easily in a day, but a quiet night or two has its attractions, especially if you use the city as a base to explore some of Castile’s loveliest countryside. The Roman site of Numancia, in particular, is an easy side-trip, while to the northwest rises the Sierra de Urbión, the weekend getaway of choice for Soria’s inhabitants.
One of Spain’s most famous wine regions, La Rioja takes its name from the Río Oja, which flows from the mountains down to the Río Ebro, the latter marking the northern border of La Rioja province (lariojaturismo.com). Confusingly, the demarcated wine region and province are not quite the same thing, since many of the best vineyards are on the north bank of the Ebro, in the Basque province of Araba – Alava in Castilian, the so-called Rioja Alavesa. Nevertheless, the main wine towns are all in La Rioja proper, starting with the enjoyable provincial capital, Logroño, which is a great place to spend a couple of days eating and drinking. The province is traditionally divided further into two parts, with the busy little wine town of Haro being the mainstay of the Rioja Alta. This makes the best base for any serious wine touring, though there are casas rurales in many of the surrounding villages, too. It’s also here, west of Logroño, that the Camino de Santiago winds on towards Burgos. East of Logroño is the Rioja Baja, the southeastern part of La Rioja province, which has quite a different feel – there are vineyards, but the main attraction is following in the footsteps of La Rioja’s ancient dinosaurs.
Logroño is the hub for all local bus and train services, but if you want to do any more than see the towns of Nájera, Haro and Calahorra, it’s far better to have your own transport, as connections to the smaller villages are rarely convenient for day-trips.
Around 18km from Nájera (a little further from Santo Domingo), the stone village of San Millán de la Cogolla serves as gateway to the magnificent twin mountain monasteries known as Yuso and Suso. You can see these easily as a half-day diversion from the main Rioja route, while a third monastery, Valvanera, lies further south, off the LR-113, the trans-mountain road that provides a dramatic journey south and west between Nájera and Salas de los Infantes (90km; 2hr drive). This twists ever higher up the glorious, lush valley of the Rio Najerilla, hugging the sides of the huge hydroelectric Mansilla dam, before careering across the bare uplands of the Sierra de la Demanda to cross into Castilla y León. The route makes a great roundabout approach to Burgos, and you’ll emerge close to the equally magnificent monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos.
The immense lower Monasterio de Yuso dominates the valley, built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to house the relics of the crowd-pulling sixth-century saint, San Millán. It’s at the centre of some fairly big tourist business, with one wing of the monastery housing a four-star hotel, a couple of big restaurants and enough parking to accommodate the entire Spanish nation, should it choose to all come at once.
The much older Monasterio de Suso lies a few hundred metres up in the hills, hidden from public view. You’re taken up by shuttle bus to see the beautiful, haunting building, the original site of Millán’s burial before he was sanctified in 1030 and later transferred down the hill into surroundings more in keeping with a patron saint.
There’s another wonderfully sited monastery, the Monasterio de Valvanera, 35km further south of San Millán de la Cogolla (and a 5km detour off the LR113 mountain road). If anything, the location is even more dramatic than Yuso and Suso – sited 1000m above a steep-sided valley, with the tidy terraces of the Benedictine monks’ vegetable gardens below. It’s worth stopping briefly for the views – there’s a bar and restaurant and some simple accommodation here – and to experience a monastic retreat with none of the crowds of more renowned counterparts.
Forty kilometres from Logroño, Calahorra is the main town of La Rioja Baja, the southeastern part of the province. After the wine towns of the Rioja Alta it’s a disappointment, and there’s no pressing need to stop, though its parador brings some out this way. However, Calahorra does offer an attractive back-country route to Soria, via Arnedo, 12km southwest of town, where the scenery suddenly changes from cultivated flatland to vivid red rock, punctured by hundreds of caves, both natural and man-made, used in the past as houses and hermitages. From here – past attractive riverside Arnedillo, until reaching the tiny valley-bottom village of Yanguas, 30km southwest – the LR115 makes a twisting journey through the narrow Río Cidacos gorge, before climbing up over the bare tops for the sweeping run into Soria, another 50km to the south. It takes a couple of hours all told from Calahorra to Soria, though it’s much the best idea to break in the middle at Enciso for a spot of dinosaur-hunting. A hundred and twenty million years ago (in the early Cretaceous period), the southeastern part of La Rioja was a steamy marshland where dinosaurs roamed, leaving their footprints in mud that later fossilized, and you can spend an enjoyable day in the area tracking the tracks.
Cosecha (which literally means “harvest”), when used on its own, refers to young wines in their first or second year, which tend to have a fresh and fruity flavour – you’ll also see these wines advertised as the vino de año. Crianzas are wines that are at least in their third year, having spent at least one year in an oak cask and several months in the bottle. Reservas are vintages that have been aged for three years with at least one year in oak; and gran reservas have spent at least two years in oak casks and three years in the bottle.
Wine is at the very heart of La Rioja’s identity (wriojawine.com), and few people will pass through without wanting to visit a bodega and taste a few vinos. In Haro, there are a dozen bodegas within walking distance of town, most clustered around the train station – they offer daily tours (usually in English in the mornings), but you have to make a reservation (Haro turismo can advise about current tour times). Some are free, some charge €3–5 for tours and tastings lasting from ninety minutes to two hours. Scores of other wineries lie within half an hour’s drive of Haro or Logroño, and tend to be open for drop-in visits without appointment. They’ve all got wine shops attached, and some have excellent restaurants. A good target is the striking village of San Vicente de la Sonsierra – you’ll see its hill-top church and castle on the drive across to Haro – which has no fewer than sixteen wineries in the vicinity, while some of the most celebrated vineyards lie close to the town of Laguardia, 19km northwest of Logroño or 26km east of Haro, in the Basque Rioja Alavesa region.
Bodegas Bilnaínast 941 310 147, wbodegasbilbainas.com. One of the oldest bodegas in Haro, established in 1901, home of the classic Viña Pomal wines and their flagship contemporary label, La Vicalanda.
Bodegas Muga t 941 311 825, wbodegasmuga.com. Muga has a good visitor centre in Haro where you can learn about its painstaking traditional methods, such as using egg whites to clean the wine of impurities.
La Encina, Bodegas y Viñedos t 941 305 630. Just to the north of Haro, overlooking the river at the pretty village of Briñas, is this classy, minimalist winery making wines under the Tobelos name.
López de Heredia t 941 310 244, wwww.lopezdeheredia.com. Stand out attraction at this Haro winery is the eye-catching Modernist wine shop designed by Zaha Hadid.
For the very fittest of the pilgrims, it was one day’s walk (50km) southwest of León to the next major stop at ASTORGA. The town has a long history – originally settled by the Romans (of whom many traces remain), sacked by the Moors in the eleventh century, then rebuilt and endowed with the usual hospices and monasteries, but as the pilgrimage lost popularity in the late Middle Ages, Astorga fell into decline. These days it’s a bustling, if small, provincial capital that once again places much emphasis on the pilgrimage, full of footsore hikers and Santiago souvenir shops, not to mention an incongruously grand cathedral and an even more out-of-place modernista bishop’s palace, the latter now used as a museum dedicated to the camino.
En route to Astorga, romantics will want to make the slight diversion off the highway to the small town of Hospital de Órbigo, 36km southwest of León. It was here, legend has it, that in 1434 Don Suero de Quiñones, a jilted knight, defeated three hundred men in a jousting tournament at the town’s famous twenty-arched medieval bridge. Standing on the beautifully restored bridge today, it’s easily imagined – astride a horse, furious at the world, picking off all-comers with a whacking great lance. And as only foot traffic is allowed, the long, cobbled bridge is still one of those places where the Camino de Santiago really reaches back into history, with knots of hiking pilgrims crossing all day, falling gratefully into one of the small cafés at the Astorga end of the bridge.
Astorga is the traditional market town of the Maragatos, a distinct ethnic group of unknown origin, possibly descended from the Berbers of North Africa, who crossed into Spain with the first Moorish incursions of the early eighth century. For several centuries, they dominated the Spanish carrying trade with their mule trains. Marrying only among themselves, they maintained their traditions and individuality well into recent decades. However, apart from the locally famous Maragato cocido – a typically hearty stew made with up to seven types of meat and sausage, plus chickpeas and cabbage – their only obvious legacy to Astorga is the pair of colourful clockwork figures dressed in traditional costume who jerk into action to strike the hour on the town-hall clock in Plaza Mayor.
A fascinating side-trip from Astorga takes in the improbably pretty village of Castrillo de los Polvazares, considered to be an archetypal Maragato settlement, and now zealously preserved as a local heritage showpiece. There’s basically one long main cobbled street, and a small, stork-topped church, with the rest being a charming collection of eighteenth-century, russet-coloured stone cottages flaunting window boxes and signs advertising honey (miel) for sale. Only residents can drive in (there’s a car park by the bridge at the entrance to the village), so catch Castrillo at the right time – traffic free, and only the cobbled footfall of pilgrims to disturb the timeless scene – and it resembles nothing so much as a Hardyesque Wessex village. There are several cafés and restaurants, and three or four places to stay if you fancied a quiet night out of town instead.
At first sight, the heavily industrialized, bowl-shaped valley centred on the large town of Ponferrada seems to have little to offer, but the mountainous terrain of the Bierzo has scenery as picturesque as any in Spain. The town itself sums up this dichotomy, dominated by its outlying industrial concerns and spreading suburbs, yet with a charming, unspoiled old quarter, through which trudge weary pilgrims girding their loins for the mountains to come. Old and new towns are separated by the Río Sil, spanned by the iron bridge that gave Ponferrada its name, above which loom the high walls of the impressive castle.
Twenty kilometres southwest of Ponferrada lie Las Médulas, the jagged remains of hills ravaged by Roman strip-mining. Nine hundred thousand tonnes of gold were ripped from the hillsides using specially constructed canals, leaving an eerie, mesmerizing landscape reminiscent of Arizona, peppered with caves and needles of red rock. Just outside Carucedo (on the N536), the road splits, with the right fork leading 3km up to the village of Las Médulas. This is a pretty place of restored stone houses, climbing roses and spreading chestnut trees set behind the largest rock outcrops, with a gaggle of studiously rustic cafés and bars that caters for day-trippers.
The last halt before the climb into Galicia, Villafranca del Bierzo, 22km from Ponferrada, was where pilgrims on their last legs could chicken out of the final trudge. Those who arrived at the Puerta del Perdón (Door of Forgiveness) at the simple Romanesque church of Santiago could receive the same benefits of exemption of years in Purgatory as in Santiago de Compostela itself. The town itself is quietly enchanting, with a jumble of old-town streets, slate-roofed houses, encircling hills, cool mountain air and the clear Río Burbia providing a setting vaguely reminiscent of the English Lake District. The historic pilgrim connection makes it a great place to stop for the night, with plenty of reasonably priced accommodation and a multitude of restaurants offering good-value pilgrim menús.