The Sierra de Francia is a remarkable region of steep, forested hills and a scattering of sleepy, picturesque villages of half-timbered houses with red tile roofs. Exploring the region along narrow, winding roads comes with sudden spectacular views as you make your way between villages. It’s a region that underscores the extraordinary diversity of Spanish landscapes. In an isolated area, an influx of French migrants centuries ago still seems to influence the architecture and cuisine.
This is Spain, but not the Spain of tourist brochures. It’s cliche, but spending time in the tranquil villages of this beautiful region really feels like you’ve left much of the modern world behind. Outside of the cold winter months and the searing heat of summer, I can easily imagine spending a few months walking trails, eating hearty foods and sampling some of the best undiscovered wines in Spain. A few days isn’t enough to get attuned to the pace of life, especially the erratic restaurant hours, but we’ll be back.
We left Mogarraz, where we’d spent a couple of easy-going days, en route to the north west and the Atlantic coast of Galicia. First though, we had some villages to explore amongst the green hills. The plan was to have lunch in the tiny village of Villanueva del Conde, and then visit a small winery to try some more regional specialities. We badly misjudged our visit. Not one cafe, bar or shop in the village was open, and apart from a friendly dog, there wasn’t a living soul to be seen.
Even with a map we couldn’t find the winery, and there wasn’t a single, helpful signpost to be found. After a couple of incredulous circuits of the village, we set off for a slightly larger village, San Martín del Castañar, where we hoped to find lunch. The road skirted along a ridge above the valley, the views were tremendous. In San Martín del Castañar we struck metaphorical gold, an open restaurant – found down a narrow street, a gang of elderly residents were arguing animatedly outside.
A delicious bowl of homemade gazpacho and a plate of the region’s famed jamón with its delicious nutty flavour later, we headed back into empty cobbled streets in search of the village church, which is just a short stroll away from the remains of a former castle. The castle is little more than a partially reconstructed tower, but they’ve turned the surrounding grounds into a biosphere and gallery (unsurprisingly closed). There’s also a small, pretty cemetery next door.
The most interesting feature of the town though, is the rustic bull ring in front of the castle and next to several houses. This is the furthest point in the town and, with little else to explore, we made our way back under a hot sun, past stone houses without a flicker of life, and into the central plaza. It was clearly siesta time for the three hundred or so residents, and we headed back to the carpark at the entrance to the village.
We took one last look across the tiled roofs and rolling wooded hills and jumped back into the car. During the couple of hours we’d been away, the interior had transformed into an out of control sauna. We really had to find cooler climes. Our onward journey was to be a long drive into the heart of the amazing Ribeira Sacra, where the relentless heat would finally ease up a little, and we would discover yet again the extraordinary diversity of Spain.