The greatest mystery of the Sierra de Francia surely has to be why this beautiful region of mountains and picturesque villages where time seems to stand still, is named the Sierra de Francia. Curiously, it’s located close to Portugal, but absolutely nowhere near France. The truth (most probably) dates back to the 8th century. French knights under Charlemagne fought Muslim forces here, an area already home to French immigrants displaced by the Islamic conquest.
Legend has it that it was one of Charlemagne’s knights who found a statue of the Virgin Mary on the summit of Peña de Francia, the striking 1,723 metre mountain that soars over the surrounding countryside. Whatever the truth, this is truly a region of mystery and myth. For centuries, this secluded area was largely isolated from the rest of Spain. Life in the half-timbered villages nestling in the mountains and wooded hillsides seems little changed by modernity.
Described as one of Castilla y León’s “best-kept secrets”, visiting the Sierra de Francia was something of a whim. It was so hot in Salamanca we thought this mountainous region 80km to the south might provide some respite from ferocious temperatures. It didn’t, but a few days exploring the region’s villages and vineyards made us glad we’d made the trip to this less visited part of the country. We were staying in the village of Mogarraz, but headed first to the Peña de Francia.
The drive to the Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, a sturdy looking church sitting on top of the mountain and containing a revered Black Madonna, is dizzying. The hairpin bends are severe, the drops off the side of the mountain deeply alarming, but the views are magnificent. We parked just beneath the dramatically located church, and walked the last short section. We seemed to have the mountain and church to ourselves.
The church, and accompanying cloister, was built by Dominican monks specifically to house the statue of the Virgin of La Peña de Francia. The current statue was carved in 1890 but contains the remains of the original statue, which legend has it was found on the mountain in 1434 but stolen and badly damaged in the 1870s. We left the church and took in the panoramas, spotting mountain goats running across the rocks below. We could also see our next destination, La Alberca.
This charming village is the gateway into the heart of the Sierra de Francia, it gets its fair share of tourists but still feels low key and traditional. As we entered the narrow cobbled streets we passed a shop selling all manner of pig products. The pig is almost as revered as the Virgin of La Peña de Francia in these parts – the village has a statue to El Marrano de San Antón (The Pig of St Anthony). I can say with certainty that I have met St. Anthony’s pig.
This intriguing tradition dictates that one ‘lucky’ porker gets to roam the streets of the village being fed and cared for by the residents. The pig is set free on July 13th and, for six glorious months lives high on the hog. The pig’s luck runs out on January 17, when it’s raffled for charity. We were entering the Plaza Mayor when a man walked past with St. Anthony’s pig and proceeded to lovingly wash it in a water trough. No one seemed to find this strange.
The man then walked away and, for reasons best known to itself, the pig attached itself to us. Perhaps it sensed that we were its ticket to safety, and it followed us for several minutes. This was quite unnerving, especially as we approached the edge of the village. Would we have to take it to Galicia with us? Would we have to return it afterwards? Would it invalidate the car insurance? Thankfully, it decided to explore an alleyway and we made our escape … a luxury not afforded to St. Anthony’s pig.