Castile Leon: A Spanish alternative

IN THESE needy times, you can be forgiven for hunting down value when booking a holiday.

Castile Leon: A Spanish alternative

Enchanting visitors with its medieval landscape and mouth-watering gastronomy, the region of Castile Leon (Castilla y León in Spanish) in Spain is exactly that; a bargain where each barrio reveals wonders to a curious traveller. During peak summer heat, the region is also cooler. Nonetheless, it enjoys good temperatures well into the autumn and is perfect for those booking a later break.

The north western region, on the doorstep of Madrid, offers holidaymakers the lure of ancient castles, gothic cathedrals and sites where Spanish writers of the golden age perfected their craft. You can marvel at, or stroll along, the top of the towering walls of Avila, take in the historic surroundings of Salamanca’s university, the third oldest in Europe, or just let your senses follow the seductive smells of Iberian hams and queso, escaping from tapas cafes in the winding backstreets. Indulging in high street shopping (relatively cheap for Irish visitors) in both cities is also rewarding.

Irish travellers are familiar with the packed seaside resorts of southern Spain. Castile Leon and its surroundings offer a refreshing alternative.

Known as the land of the castles after the fortifications built by the Christians to defend against invaders in the eight and ninth centuries, the mountainous region remains intrinsically Spanish.

Prosperity from agriculture and industries in the region is offset by high unemployment (one in three young people are out of work). Nonetheless, financial hardship is not evident among the bustling student night life, particularly in Salamanca.

Indeed, due to Spain’s misfortunes there’s a wealth of bargains to be had.

If that’s not enough, you are doing your bit spending tourist euros in a fellow bailout country.

Direct daily flights run from Dublin to Madrid (visitors from Cork will need to transfer) and from there it is a short trip by road to Avila (1½hrs) and to Salamanca (2½hrs). Travel options from the Spanish capital also include rental cars, buses and trains.

One detour before heading west is an overnight visit to Alcalá de Henares, 15 kms east of Madrid’s international airport. This UNESCO World Heritage city is best known as the birthplace and homeland of Miguel Cervantes, the 16th century author of Don Quixote.

Highlights in Alcala include the birthplace of Cervantes, whose tale about the adventures of a knight and his squire is credited as being the first modern novel. The house exhibits elaborately designed editions of Don Quixote, traditional life then and even an ancient ‘birth chair’ (not the one Cervantes was born on). Entry into the house is free and there are audio guides for hire. Other must-sees include climbing to the top of the Torre Santa Maria at the main square for views towards Madrid, a visit to the nearby ‘Cervantes’ museum and a walk in the university quarter. The latter includes an ornately decorated auditorium where the King and Queen of Spain present the Cervantes prize for literature every year on April 23, the anniversary of the author’s death. Outside is a wall of metallic reliefs of the heads of recipients who have claimed the prize over the decades.

Visitors should also stop by the city’s old palace where explorer Christopher Columbus had his first meeting with Queen Isabel, who later financed his trip that led to the discovery of America.

And if the history and culture becomes too much, Alcala has the longest porticoed main street in Spain where craft, wines, olive oils, and literature fill shop windows. You can also sit back and people watch at the main square surrounded by Renaissance buildings. For the hungrier, several medieval-looking taverns nearby offer tasting menus which include stuffed croquets (a local speciality), selections of cheeses and meats and reasonably priced main courses.

Heading west to Avila, Spain’s highest city, the roads are well sign posted. Approaching the walled city feels like arriving on the set of Braveheart. Sometimes called the town of stones and saints, Avila is surrounded by three-metre thick walls which have 87 towers and nine gates. Shops and even a pub are built into it.

Construction of the wall began in the 11th century to defend against the Moors. And nothing beats a guided-walk around its perimeter at night when the 15-metre high walls are lit up.

The city was home to St Teresa in the 16th century, a reformist Spanish nun remembered for her mystical and feminist writings. Pilgrims today still flock to the city where some of her relics remain, including her right ring finger and visitors can see the huesos de santos or bones of the saint.

A main attraction here is Avila’s Cathedral. Its façade features 95 white limestone carvings, including depictions of those being sent to hell or heaven. Inside there are nine chapels, stunning alabaster tombs and elaborate stained glass windows. Interesting artifacts on view behind the sacristy also include the skulls of two saints, contained inside wooden busts.

But the real treasure of Castile Leon is the bustling medieval city of Salamanca. Its full magic is realised gazing around the majestic Plaza Mayor, in the centre, where students dash around the arcaded square and sweet smelling coffee shops are abundant.

Take a tour of the old and new cathedral, where brides-to-be seeking a blessing still bring eggs to the nuns.

An interesting feature outside the Catedral Nueva is a statuette of an astronaut and even a monkey with an ice cream, carvings added in recent years to the walls of the Gothic structure. Elaborately decorated stone tombs and frescoes are worth a visit inside. The cathedral houses the oldest church organ in Europe. A tour of the university is also recommended, which includes Spain’s oldest library and a giant colourful fresco of the zodiac signs. When your feet tire, restaurants dotted around the cobbled streets offer generous portions of hams from the region, local wines and a fusion of artisan deserts.

The genuine Spanish culture and cuisine can become a little overwhelming. But if that’s what you’re after, Castile Leon has some real gems for the curious and appreciative traveller.

A half or full week trip to the region is reasonable in cost, rewarding and leaves the visitor wanting more.

Flights

There are no direct flights from Cork to Madrid. However, a number of connections through Amsterdam, London and Dublin are possible. Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Iberia run daily flights to the Spanish capital from Dublin. Flight costs vary and while expensive in August, fall off in cost for September and further into the autumn.

Accommodation

An alternative but more reasonable way to travel around the region is by staying in Spain’s Paradors, many which are converted monasteries or castles. There are 90 of the unique and historical lodgings around the country, with attached restaurants serving up fresh local and traditional foods. Prices vary, depending on location. In Salamanca, the Parador is perfectly pitched on a hill overlooking the old city. Enjoy the views by the poolside or from some of the 66 rooms. Its restaurant offers toston or roast sucking pig, farinato or Iberian sausages and almond macaroons among some of its dishes. Accommodation prices range from €68 midweek to €105 on the weekend per night per person. Expect to pay more during peak summer months.

When to go

The region is cooler than most parts of Spain. This is perhaps why it is popular in the hot summer as evident from Spain’s own holidaymakers who go there. Festivals to catch in Salamanca include the six day long Sahagun, to mark the city’s patron saint, which is celebrated with fireworks by the River Tormes. La Mariseca, in August, is also a colourful occasion to visit Salamanca when a Spanish flag is placed on the highest point of the city’s square. This initiates the start of the bullfight festival.

Shopping

While bargain hunters can avail of cheaper prices in high-street clothes shops like Zara, the adventurous consumer will be mesmerised by the variety of meats, cheeses, jams and craft that can be brought home. The winding streets of Salamanca and Avila both allow for intriguing shopping hunts. Olive oil, soap and wine sellers are also in abundance in the region.

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