Heading off the beaten tourist track to uncover the hidden wonders of Spain’s Castilla y León region, Carolyn Moore discovers it’s far from grim up North.
Like many Irish tourists, I firmly believed I knew what Spain had to offer as a holiday destination. After many childhood summer holidays spent enjoying the sparkling pools and spongy, manicured lawns of various Costa-based resorts,
plus a couple of grown-up city breaks, I had crossed Spain off my to-do list, chalking it up as to-done.
But as I recently discovered, Spain’s largest geographic region is also, largely, its most undiscovered, and with Iberia Express operating twice weekly flights from Cork to Madrid until September, there’s never been a better time to head north of Spain’s capital and explore the cultural and gastronomic delights of the Castilla y León region.
While our natural sun-seeking inclination has a tendency to draw us south, hiring a car to venture north of Madrid is to discover an untouched region drenched in history, loaded with authenticity, and dotted with picturesque towns, with nary an Irish bar or a full English breakfast to be found amongst them.
Bordered by Portugal to the west, and Basque country and Rioja to the east, the nine provinces that make up Castilla y León are home to more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other region in the world — eight in total, including the old town of Segovia and the 2,000-year- old aqueduct that looms over it as a lasting testament to Roman ingenuity (it defies belief that it was constructed entirely without mortar) and the strong sense of history prevalent throughout
Just an hour from Madrid, passing under the archways of the aqueduct is like stepping back in time, and exploring the cobbled streets of Segovia, with its fairytale buildings and numerous pretty parks, is a popular daytrip for Madrileños looking to escape the bustle of the big city.
In the shadow of the aqueduct, one of Segovia’s most popular restaurants offers the first indication of Castilla y León’s gastronomic obsession with all things pork, and while Mesón de Cándido’s theatrical presentation of its house speciality — a suckling pig so tender it can be broken into servings with a plate — may seem tailor-made for tourists, a quick auditory survey reveals it is not heaving with camera-wielding Americans, but with local families.
Wandering though the city is an Instagrammers dream, as every little laneway delivers a tableau of crumbling charm and faded elegance. Amongst the elaborately embossed building facades that signify the Arab quarter, stopping at
an elevated viewing point reveals surrounding countryside that’s a walker’s paradise; while a further amble takes you through the town’s picturesque Jewish quarter.
Even in a city rife with 15 th century buildings constructed by the merchants that controlled its once prosperous textile industry, Segovia’s majestic Gothic cathedral stops you in your tracks. Its golden-hued exterior set against a clear blue sky is breathtaking, and you can simply take it in while enjoying a coffee in the bustling Plaza Mayor or take time to explore its various chapels.
Equally stunning is the Alcázar of Segovia. If it looks straight out of a fairytale, that’s because it’s rumoured to have been Walt Disney’s inspiration for Cinderella’s castle, but unlike Disneyland’s iconic structure, this is the real deal.
Its unique shape — reminiscent of the bow of a ship — combined with the cathedral’s spire — the mast — and Segovia’s elevated position have lent this incomparable town its nickname, “The Stone Ship”, as it appears to sail through the surrounding landscape.
Further north, the city of Burgos enjoys slightly more recognition as one of the main stops on the famous Camino de Santiago, but it too retains an authentic charm. Catering to pilgrims since the Middle Ages, it has a long tradition of
hospitality, and though larger, busier and more modern than Segovia, a little exploration finds it nonetheless rich in the same architectural gems, with a similar dedication to relaxed, fine dining.
There is no better way to experience the gastronomic variety of the region than by sampling local tapas, and while pork is still a mainstay — with each town’s take on Northern Spain’s black pudding, Morcilla, appearing on every menu —
lamb is the star of the show in Burgos. Always less than one month old, delicate suckling lamb is served with a leg tag to indicate that it is born and bred of Castilla y León.
Pulses too find a place on the table, with locally grown beans and chickpeas prepared in Castilian soups and smoky chorizo stews. Even in this meaty region, vegetarian options are available on request, though they may be as simple as grilled vegetables in fruity Spanish olive oil, or pickled white asparagus salad.
Thanks, no doubt, to the international flavour of the pilgrims passing though, Burgos has a vegetarian restaurant — Gaia — located just behind the Plaza Santa Maria, over which towers the famous Gothic Burgos cathedral. Another UNESCO World Heritage designation, the cathedral holds the tomb of legendary El Cid, the region’s most famous and fearless warrior.
Following the boundaries of the old walled and gated city, coffee shops dotted along tree-lined prominades offer perfect vantage points for observing the relaxed flow of this vibrant city, and a statue of El Cid presides over the busy bridge that connects the modern suburbs with the old town of Burgos.
On one side, the unmistakable smell of roast lamb wafts across Freedom Square from the renowned Ogeda restaurant, and a royal palace where Ferdinand and Isabella received Christopher Columbus in 1497 after his second expedition is
now the world’s most elegant working bank; while on the other sits the decidedly modern Museum of Human Evolution, which catalogues the ongoing excavations at Atapuerca, a UNESCO heritage site 16 km from Burgos, where some of the world’s most significant human fossils have been found.
Outside the city, the tranquil and fragrant Cartuja de Miraflores monastery is home to both exceptional work from one of the region’s most significant 15th century sculptors, the Flemish Gil de Solé, and an order of silent Carthusian
monks who produce the rose oil that perfumes the air; while a brisk walk uphill from the cathedral will afford you spectacular views over Burgos from the ruins of the old castle.
Continuing along the Camino de Santiago, east of Burgos sits the city of León, where you’ll find one of the gems in Castilla y León’s heavily bejeweled architectural crown. The Hostal de San Marcos, quite simply one of the most stunning places to dine or stay in Northern Spain, has had a fascinating and varied history since it was commissioned as a military base by King Ferdinand in the 16 th century. Now operated as a Parador — an historically significant building converted for use as a hotel or restaurant — lunch and a tour of its chapel and cloistered courtyard are a must.
Like the rest of the Castilla y León region, León is rich in charm, both historic and contemporary. Set within Roman walls, the old town offers winding streets studded with the brass shell emblem that signifies the Camino; cultural gems like the 11 th century frescos in the Museo Panteon San Isidoro — which UNESCO has christened the “Cradle of Parliamentarism”; and eclectic streetscapes where a Gaudi palace leads the way to the Gothic Santa Maria de León Cathedral. Known as The House of Light thanks to its dozens of original 13th to 15th century stained glass windows, it’s contemporary counterpoint, the colourful, modern, paneled exterior of the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo, sits on the outskirts of town.
Leaving León, the route back to Madrid passes through the province of Valladolid. Once the capital of the Castilian court, the area remains studded with castles and forts, and, encompassing Rueda, is also renowned for its wine.
For a fascinating and delicious break on the three hour drive, stop for a wine tasting (the driver has to spit!) at the family owned Yllera winery (pre-booking is advised, see grupoyllera.com), which produces over 4 million bottles of wine per year.
After a visit to their modern manufacturing base, it’s on to the cool, cavernous, labyrinthine cellars where countless barrels of Grupo Yllera wine are aging to perfection. Having existed 20m below the scorching earth of Valladolid for hundreds of years, lunch in these ancient surroundings, where history meets modernity, is unforgettable.
Simple but exceptional, deliciously off the beaten track, it’s the perfect way to wrap up a visit to the hidden gem that is Castilla y León.
For more information, see www.turismocastillayleon.com
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved