In Mogarraz, you are never alone. There are few places in this beautiful village of half-timbered houses where the eyes of villagers, past and present, aren’t watching over your every movement. This though, only adds to Mogarraz’s many charms. Paintings of former and current residents hang from buildings above narrow cobbled streets. They are the work of artist Florencio Maíllo, who had the idea to turn photographs taken of villagers in 1967 into a poignant and haunting tribute.
The paintings have transformed the village into an open air gallery, and much of their poignancy comes from the fact that the majority are based on photographs used on national identity cards. Spain, still under the Franco dictatorship, was liberalising its economy, but this region of the Sierra de Francia suffered high levels of poverty. Many residents had few options but to leave in search of a better life, often to countries in Latin America. To do so, they required official identity documents.
Three hundred and eight-eight photographs were taken in 1967, for a village this size it must have been devastating to lose so many people. While there is something uplifting about the paintings, there is also, and I might be over-romanticising, a deep and abiding sense of loss in the faces of people forced to abandon their homes, friends and families. Even without the paintings, Mogarraz would be an enchanting place to stay. With the paintings it’s like no place I’ve ever visited.
We arrived in Mogarraz on a quiet winding road from La Alberca. The two villages are less than 10km apart but, with a reasonably active imagination, it’s easy to grasp that only half a century ago the journey between them must have been an arduous one. It’s the same throughout the region, small hamlets, some with castles, while joined by good roads today, would have been like travelling to the other side of the world in centuries past.
Our first task was to find the apartment where we were staying. We had some vague instructions, which quickly proved inadequate. Luckily, this is a friendly place and a couple of enquiries later we were opening window shutters and looking out over the rooftops of the village to the surrounding countryside. It was absolutely beautiful. It was also getting late for lunch, and in villages as small and untouristed as this, the chances of missing out on food are very real.
The village is known for cured meats, but this region is also famed for hearty lamb and beef dishes. Mogarraz also sits in the middle of the Denominación de Origen Sierra de Salamanca, a relatively new wine region that specialises in the Rufete grape. As chance would have it, and I insist to this day that it was chance, the La Zorra vineyard is based in the village. We’d first tried their distinctive wines in Salamanca and hoped to take a tour and do a tasting. Sadly, it was closed during our stay.
We stayed in Mogarraz, taking occasional trips through attractive landscapes and picturesque villages, but this is a relaxed village where you can just stop and catch your breath from the modern world. Things move at a slower, more human pace here, and that is something to embrace. The Sierra de Francia is the opposite of the Spain seen in the vast grandeur of cities like Salamanca, where past glories are writ large. Here lies a largely forgotten history, one of isolation, poverty and struggle.
This seemed to me to be the Spain of British novelist Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, a first-hand account of Spain in the year before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. It may be a bit ‘Boy’s Own Adventure’, but Lee doesn’t shirk his duty to describe some of the darker episodes of his journey across a country about to be plunged into war and dictatorship.
* A lyric taken from Spanish Eyes, a song written by German musician Bert Kaempfert in 1965 and recorded by many people over the decades since. A sorrowful song of loss, it seemed appropriate.