León and the legend of ‘Saint’ Genarín

León is a city that sticks in the memory. In my case, less for its monumental cathedral or glorious Plaza Mayor, than for the traumatic experience of trying to park a car in our hotel’s underground car park. I’ve experienced Spanish garages before. They seem to follow a universal design: small, cramped and intended to separate you from your hire car rental deposit. It’s no way to introduce yourself to a new city, especially a city as fascinating as León.

León was the final stop on our way back to Madrid from Galicia. It wasn’t a particularly convenient stopover, but we’d heard glowing reports and made the detour. I’m glad we did. The long drive from Pontevedra meant we arrived in the late afternoon, just as temperatures were beginning to drop. It was perfect for a stroll through the narrow streets of the old city – the Barrio Húmedo – with stops for a drink and tapas in a couple of lovely plazas.

A Lion in Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Plaza del Grano, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

This is a city of squares. The most splendid is the Plaza Mayor with pleasant cafes and bars. Nearby is the Plaza San Martin, so chock full of tapas bars a substantial bar crawl is possible without ever leaving the tiny square. A short stroll away is the picturesque, Plaza del Grano. An ancient cobbled square, it’s also home to the 12th century Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Mercado, the oldest church in Leon named for the market that once took place here.

Today, you’ll find a few tapas places. We sat down and ordered a couple of drinks as we watched the comings and goings in the square. There was a hostal on one side, and periodically ‘pilgrims’ from the hugely popular Camino de Santiago passed through on their way to rest up after an arduous day of hiking in Spain’s fierce August heat. As I sat with a cold beer, I reflected on the madness of hiking at this time of year regardless of your faith.

The sun was starting to set by the time we wandered, a little unsteadily, out of Plaza del Grano. We made for the town’s outstanding sight, the Catedral de León. We planned to visit the following morning when sunlight would do justice to its monumental stained glass windows. There was a vibrant buzz in the square surrounding the cathedral as people headed out for an evening stroll and some tapas – this is a town that prides itself on both its nightlife and food.

We joined the throngs of people meeting, greeting and eating, and ended up in a web of narrow streets surrounding the Plaza Conde Luna. The town was pulsating and the tapas bars were heaving. We squeezed in where we could to try the local specialities, including a morcilla (blood sausage) stew. It looks like something you might cross the street to avoid – you’d definitely avoid stepping in it – but it is absolutely delicious with a glass of Tempranillo.

Plaza del Grano, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Mercado, Leon, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The carnival atmosphere helped explain one of León’s most famous tales. This relates that, after a night of revelry on 30 March 1929, a very drunk local man named Genaro Blanco was relieving himself against one of the city’s ancient walls when he stumbled in front of León’s first ever garbage truck. He died instantly. The truck was the pride of the town and the incident became famous. So famous, that it’s still celebrated today.

In March, revellers parade the streets carrying a statue of Genaro in vague mockery of Semana Santa. Cigarette in his mouth and a bottle of orujo brandy in his hand, the procession circulates through the city to arrive at the very spot where he died all those years ago. Here the crowds perform the “Burial of Saint Genarín”. It may sound crazy, but 15,000 people show up for this event. I like the idea that an early contender for the Darwin Awards is suitably honoured.

Roaming the Sierra de Francia to San Martin del Castanar

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.

Villanueva del Conde, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Villanueva del Conde, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Villanueva del Conde, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

San Martín del Castañar, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Villanueva del Conde, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

Mogarraz, say you and your Spanish eyes will wait for me*

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.

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Mogarraz, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

St. Anthony’s pig, unravelling the mysteries of the Sierra de Francia

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.

Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Views from the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

The Black Madonna, Virgen de la Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

Sanctuary of the Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

St. Anthony’s pig, La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

La Alberca, Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon, Spain

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.

Salamanca, ancient history in The Golden City

Salamanca feels old. Walk around the beautiful historic centre of the city and you’ll find yourself wandering ancient streets, between buildings that date back to the early 12th century. These include the University of Salamanca, one of Europe’s oldest, which was granted its charter in 1218. Salamanca has been around for way longer than that though. It was already important and rich enough for Carthaginian general, Hannibal, to put it to the sword in 217 BC.

Hannibal’s defeat, the destruction of Ancient Carthage, and the the rise of Rome, saw Salamanca become a strategic Roman trading centre. Sitting on the Ruta de la Plata, along which silver from the north flowed to Sevilla, it grew wealthy. The Roman bridge, that has spanned the River Tormes for over 2,000 years, is just one of the highlights of a visit to Salamanca. It seems remarkable that, in the 21st century, you’re able to walk across a perfectly functional Roman bridge.

Salamanca, Spain

Roman Bridge, Salamanca, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

Convento de San Esteban, Salamanca, Spain

On the city side is a statue of Lazarillo de Tormes, the main character from Salamanca in an anti-clerical 16th century novella banned by the Spanish Inquisition. We strolled across it under a fierce sun, people cooled off in the water below and lazed on the river beach. On the opposite side of the Tormes a pleasant park provides views back to the city and over the cathedral. On a peaceful morning, the city reflected in the water, it’s gorgeous.

We crossed back on the Puente de Enrique Estevan and walked uphill to the Convento de San Esteban. This ornate 16th century monastery is most famous for having housed Christopher Columbus. He lived in Salamanca between 1486 – 87, when defending his idea of sailing west to find the Indies against Salamanca’s scholars. In the early evening sunlight, the facade glows golden. In this light, the city’s many sandstone buildings earn it the nickname, The Golden City.

Leaving the church behind we wandered upwards past the cathedral to the university, weirdly serene outside of term time, and on to the delightful Casa de las Conchas. This palace is named after the 300 scallop shells that decorate the facade, and is the former home of Rodrigo Maldonado de Talavera, a member of the Order of Santiago. No prizes for guessing the symbol of the Order. You see the scallop shell everywhere in this part of Spain – it marks the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela.

Despite a reasonable smattering of tourists, especially older Spanish tour groups, the city has the feel of an open air museum when the students aren’t around. We made our way through streets empty of traffic and people, and marvelled at the ornate facades of historic churches and palaces. It’s not just history on offer here though, Salamanca’s reputation for mouth-watering food is well known. Excellent tapas bars serve delicious regional wines, and there are a clutch of top notch restaurants.

Salamanca, Spain

Roman Bridge, Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Salamanca, Spain

Iglesia de San Millán, Salamanca, Spain

Casa de las Conchas, Salamanca, Spain

For all its fine dining, the signature dish of Salamanca is the humble hornazo. A baked pastry traditionally filled with ham and egg, It’s now offered with a variety of fillings – including, whisper it, vegetarian options. It’s a great snack to take on long car journeys. The local wines were just as eye-opening as the food, and we sampled several grapes that we’d never previously come across. The rufete wines of Bodega La Zorra were a firm favourite.

Our final night in the city saw us in the buzzing barrios of Garrido and Buenos Aires, renowned for their nightlife and plethora of tapas bars. During term time, the streets in these interesting neighbourhoods are packed with students. Even though it was much more slow paced when we were there, we enjoyed an evening searching out the best tapas places. History is all well and good, but no one comes to Spain without plans to sample plenty of local delicacies.

Hot and bothered in Salamanca, Spain’s ‘Golden City’

Our only previous visit to Salamanca was almost twenty years ago. It’s a visit I can only recall with the foggy vagueness that a couple of decades in time and space will allow. Memory isn’t helped by the fact that the one thing I recall only too clearly, was that we arrived on a Friday evening and the whole town seemed to be in fiesta mode. Large and youthful crowds thronged the streets and plazas, eating and drinking. Music filled the air in the exquisite Plaza Mayor.

Caught up in this exuberance, we joined in with the festivities until well into the early hours of the morning. The resulting hangover severely curtailed our sightseeing plans for the following day. I’m certain we visited most of the important sights, but I have almost no memory of what we did or where we went. While I’m not proud of our lack of self restraint, the upside was that this trip to Salamanca was like visiting a town we’d never been to before.

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral roof, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

If that seems like an exercise in making the best of a bad lot, our previous experience also set a high bar for our expectations of the city. This time though, we were visiting outside of the university term time, and Salamanca’s big student population definitely added a vibrancy to the city of 20-years ago that we didn’t feel this time around. That, at least, meant we saw most of the things we’d planned to see and have total recall of the experience.

We arrived in Salamanca after driving from Madrid. I’m always surprised, and secretly delighted, by the fact that once you get out of Madrid the roads of Spain seem to be empty. The soaring temperatures meant that we had to deploy the air conditioning for most of the trip though. In the real world we don’t own a car, so I didn’t feel too bad about this, but it was hard to shake the feeling that we were contributing to the climate crisis.

Salamanca sits at an altitude of around 800 metres, which should make it cooler than the plains to the south. Not this year. The mercury was pushing mid-30sºC every day, and in Salamanca’s tightly-packed streets the heat was pretty oppressive. This is the sort of climate that led to the invention of the siesta, and adopting an early morning, late afternoon sightseeing routine, punctuated by power-napping, wasn’t a hardship.

We started our explorations in what is considered by many to be the finest plaza in the whole of Spain, the Plaza Mayor de Salamanca. Famously built to host bull fights, it’s the town’s 18th century centrepiece. It would probably be in my top three Spanish plazas, but it faces stiff competition from Cordoba’s Plaza de Corredera and the Plaza Mayor in Madrid for top spot. It’s still magnificent, and best experienced in the early evening when it comes alive.

Escuelas Mayores de Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

Cathedral, Salamanca, Castile and León, Spain

We had a lazy, and a little overpriced, lunch at one of the many restaurants on the plaza before exploring the streets towards the Catedral de Salamanca. These streets are crammed with Gothic palaces, intimate squares, atmospheric lanes, ancient churches and dozens of tapas bars. It’s hard to get a sense of the true size of the cathedral from the street, it’s best seen from across the River Tormes, but the sheer bulk of it is clear from walking around it.

It was roasting in the streets so we popped inside to take advantage of the cool interior and to explore the 1,000 year history of the building – actually two cathedrals side-by-side. There’s an entry fee, but you get an unintentionally hilarious audioguide in the price. The newer Gothic cathedral is impressive, but the older Romanesque cathedral has more atmosphere and interesting wall paintings. A clamber up to the roof for views over the town brought us to ‘siesta time’.

A Spanish Roadtrip, Castilla y Leon and Galicia

It’s fairly normal to select a holiday destination based on the prospect of warm, sunny weather. The effortless combination of historic cities, natural beauty, excellent food and a seamlessly endless supply of blue skies, are just some of the many reasons Spain is a favourite destination. There are occasions when less is more though. Temperatures during our visit to Spain this summer were so hot that we ended up changing our plans and visiting ‘cooler’ parts of the country.

Madrid was like a furnace. As was the lovely university town of Salamanca, where we spent our time seeking out the shade in historic streets and plazas. The heat was just as intense during a few days exploring the spellbinding landscapes and beautiful villages of the Sierra de Francia. We hoped the hills would provide respite from the heat. No such luck. In the end the long drive to the Galician coast via the Ribeira Sacra was our only option. This proved to be an inspired choice, even if not an intentional one.

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Muros, Galicia

Sierra de Francia, Castilla y Leon

Praia de Carnota, Galicia

Ribeira Sacra, Galicia

Galicia is absolutely fabulous. The magnificent landscapes of the Ribeira Sacra took us completely by surprise. As did the ancient winemaking traditions and grape varieties at welcoming vineyards, which often came with the option of having a lunch of delicious local specialities. Throw in picturesque villages, interesting small towns, an occasional castle and a couple of centuries-old monasteries, and I can see us returning to Galicia with monotonous regularity.

We based ourselves in Parada de Sil. This tiny village sits above the River Sil where the reservoir of Encoro de Santo Estevo creates an expanse of water that adds extra drama to the landscape. It’s also close to the beautiful Mosteiro de Santa Cristina de Ribas de Sil, a 12th century ruin peacefully set amidst thick woodland. It was the perfect place from which to explore the region, although when we woke on our first day to find mist and light rain it seemed our search for cooler weather had backfired.

The weather in Galicia can be very changeable – it didn’t get to be this green without a decent amount of rain. Luckily, when the sun reappeared it not only stayed with us for the rest of our trip, it also revealed the glorious countryside of the Ribeira Sacra at its verdant best. It would have been easy to stay where we were, but we really wanted to get to Galicia’s wild Atlantic coast for an invigorating dip in the chilly waters, and to its famed Albariño wine producing region.

We drove cross-country along minor roads, with occasional spectacular views, to reach the historic town of Cambados. From where we explored north along the coast to Carnota, one of the most spectacular beaches in the region with a backdrop of forested hills. We saw dolphins leaping as they chased fish at the Praia do Ancoradoiro, and ate pulpo a la gallega in the lovely fishing village of Muros. This Galician-style octopus, is a delicacy along this sweeping coast.

Cambados, Galicia

Praia de Carnota, Galicia

Albariño, Cambados, Galicia

Salamanca, Castilla y Leon

Church of Nuestra Señora de la Peña de Francia, Castilla y Leon

Parador de Santo Estevo, Galicia

The final days of our trip upon us, we headed south to Pontevedra, a town with a long maritime history. During the Spanish Golden Age it was a major port, and this is where Columbus’ flagship, the Santa María, was built. Today, it’s equally well known for taking the radical step of pedestrianising its entire city centre, which makes it one of the best places in Spain to explore on foot.

Maybe we’d had too much sun but, for reasons that still remain fuzzy, our chosen route back to Madrid took us first to León. We spent a couple of nights in this extraordinary place, before heading south again. It involved a couple of long drives, but the Catedral de León alone is worth making the trip to this greatly underrated city. León receives a fraction of the tourists you might expect in such a beautiful city.

The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso

The fountains in the grounds of the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso must be something special. When we bought our tickets, the woman who sold them to us made a big deal of telling us that the fountains, in all their magnificence, would be working at 5pm. I suspect that she was being sarcastic. It was 10am and, even if we weren’t flying back to the Netherlands before the water started flowing, the likelihood of anyone spending seven hours wandering around the palace and grounds in anticipation of the fountains, seemed far fetched.

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

It was the first of several disappointments. Between the over-officious security guards who surreptitiously but very conspicuously followed us from room to room, and the gardens that were still clothed in their winter attire, La Granja de San Ildefonso might have ended up being an underwhelming experience. Luckily, the setting of the palace in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the extravagant Baroque architecture and the simply extraordinary gardens surrounded by extensive forests, more than made up for it.

Although it was founded in the mid-15th century as a summer retreat for Henry IV of Castile, the town of San Ildefonso only became the grand royal playground of Spanish monarchs in 1720. It was Philip V, the first Bourbon King of Spain, who bought it with the plan of building a summer palace that would rival the glories of Versailles where, as the grandson of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV, he had been born. At immense cost to the public purse, that is exactly what he did, build a palace renowned throughout Europe.

The palace began life as a ‘simple’ cool summer retreat from the furnace-like heat of Madrid, but it ended up the home of the Spanish government for several months each year. It was repeatedly expanded and the nearby town grew to accommodate all the courtiers, civil servants and diplomats that trailed behind the royal household. Military barracks and vast stables were added, and even a royal glass factory was built in the town. Today, wandering the sleepy streets of San Ildefonso is almost as interesting as the palace itself.

The drive from Segovia to reach San Ildefonso took less than half an hour, although the satnav on our hire car did it’s best to make even that journey a Kafkaesque experience. We found somewhere close to the palace to park and, after fighting our way through an enormous school group, bought our tickets and passed through security into the palace interior. It’s certainly not one of the grandest palaces I’ve ever seen, but the interiors on the first floor are interesting, with ceilings covered in beautiful artwork.

The ground floor is less interesting – the rooms come with life-size statues, too many of which are plaster cast replicas – and we passed through quickly hoping to get into the gardens before they were flooded with schoolchildren. If the interiors are somewhat disappointing, the massive gardens really aren’t. The walk along the central avenue behind the palace passes a cascade of fountains (not working until 5pm) to a viewing point on a small hill. The views back to the palace are tremendous.

It was still early and there were few people around as we wandered lovely pathways through woodlands sprinkled with ornate fountains. Occasionally, we were given vistas down tree-lined avenues to snow-capped mountains in the distance. We eventually made our way back to the palace and went into the town to find somewhere for lunch. There was a small market but the town was still very quiet. It’s hard to believe this was once the epicentre of Spanish government.

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso, Spain

San Ildefonso, Spain

San Ildefonso, Spain

Sierra de Guadarrama, Spain

Sierra de Guadarrama, Spain

We had to get back to the airport for our flights, but our route wound steeply upwards on hairpin bends through the Sierra de Guadarrama, until we eventually reached the ski resort of Estacion Puerto Navacerrada. Here, on the boundary between Castile y Leon and Madrid, we admired the views back towards this fantastic Spanish region and made plans to come back.

Unearthing ancient history in beautiful Segovia

If the quiet nighttime streets in Segovia’s medieval heart are anything to go by, most people seem to visit this magnificent town on day trips from Madrid. During the day the streets buzz with activity, and tour groups crowd into the 12th century Alcázar, around the square beneath the monumental aqueduct, and through the narrow lanes that connect the two. At night though, the town has a different personality, the streets empty and the sound of footsteps on cobbles can be heard echoing in alleyways.

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

I’m glad we spent a night here, it allowed us to get a sense of the rhythm of life in the town. Perched high on a rocky outcrop and surrounded by walls and medieval gates, Segovia is an historic gem. By the time the Romans arrived around 80 BC, there had already been a settlement here for 700 years. When the Roman Empire disintegrated in the 5th century, they left behind the extraordinary aqueduct that is still the most impressive feature of the town.

Moorish invaders captured Segovia in the early 8th century, ushering in three hundred years of Islamic rule. It was recaptured by Alfonso VI of León and Castile in 1079, part of the centuries-long Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsular. It was shortly after this that Segovia’s other major attraction, the Alcázar, was built over the original Moorish fort, which in turn had been built on top of the Roman fort. It was to become one of the principle royal residences of Castile.

The Alcázar was the site of one of Spain’s foundational moments in 1474, when Queen Isabella I was proclaimed Queen of Castile. She would go on to marry Ferdinand II of Aragon, uniting Spain’s Christian kingdoms politically. Together they completed the reconquest of Spain from the Moors, and then commissioned Christopher Columbus to discover the Americas. The slightly odd Central European spires that adorn the Alcázar today, were added by King Philip II when he married Anna of Austria. Presumably to make her feel more at home.

We started our day with a walk through the quiet streets to the Plaza Azoguejo, over which towers the 28.5 metre high aqueduct. It truly is an amazing sight, not to mention an incredible feat of engineering. The whole thing stretched for 16km, delivering water from the River Frío into the heart of Segovia, and didn’t use any mortar or cement. We walked under the main arches of the aqueduct and then turned up some steps to follow the route it takes through the town.

It’s majestic and a little surreal, people’s houses co-exist ‘cheek by jowl’ with the arches as the aqueduct cuts through sleepy neighbourhoods. We strolled the full length of the remaining structure before wandering back downhill to the historic centre. We popped into the Mesón de Cándido, one of the town’s most famous restaurants, for a drink and then headed back through the town towards the Alcázar. Things were busier now, with plenty of tour groups milling around, but it’s fairly easy to lose the crowds if you avoid the main streets.

The Alcázar is a fantastical building, all narrow towers and pointy turrets, which is said (probably wrongly) to have been the model for the original Disneyland castle. We went to buy our tickets and the man behind the counter asked if we were European Union citizens. “Yes”, we said, “from the UK.” He gave us a pitying smile and said, “It’s free for EU citizens, but not for you for much longer.” Yet another reminder of the loss every British person will suffer when Brexit happens.

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Alcázar, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Segovia aqueduct, Spain

Inside, the Alcázar is just as fantastical. The Hall of the Galley and Hall of the Kings, both have the most extraordinary ceilings, decorated with gold leaf and images of Kings and Queens past. We made our way around the building until we emerged into the sunlight outside the armoury. The views were spectacular, and it really gave us a clear idea of how the Alcázar is constructed on a cliff edge. All that history had given us an appetite, so we wandered back through the town to the Plaza Mayor for another tour around the tapas bars.

Segovia, Roman history and Golden Age glories

Our first sighting of Segovia was glorious. The magnificent city skyline, framed by the snow covered Sierra de Guadarrama, was breathtaking. Close up, the town becomes even more exquisite. As we drove into the centre in an attempt to find our hotel, we passed the ridiculously dramatic Acueducto de Segovia, a perfectly preserved Roman aqueduct that was built in the 1st Century AD, and has survived intact for close to 2,000 years. It’s an awe inspiring sight, that put me in mind of the Roman city of Jerash in modern-day Jordan.

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Roman aqueduct, Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Plaza Mayor, Segovia, Spain

Segovia cathedral, Spain

Segovia cathedral, Spain

If a 2,000 year-old aqueduct was the only reason to come to Segovia, it would be more than enough. But this town of fewer than sixty thousand people, punches well above its weight in many other ways. The whole of the medieval old town is an UNESCO World Heritage site. Segovia is a place that perfectly embodies the history of Roman, Moorish and Christian Spain, and the grandeur of the country’s Golden Age, beginning with the Reconquista and encompassing the discovery and conquest of the New World.

Walking the streets of the ancient centre between the turreted 11th century Alcázar, the 16th century Gothic cathedral and the 1st century aqueduct, is a little like being in an open air museum, only one with far more life. Despite its many historic monuments, Segovia during the day is a vibrant place with pleasant squares where families gather, and narrow winding cobbled streets that ring with the sound of voices. At night it was much quieter, the action transferred indoors to a selection of excellent tapas bars and even better restaurants.

Segovia is a weekend destination for Madrileños, and has fabulous places to eat its legendary food. This is the home of the cochinillo asado, or roast suckling pig, served with head and feet, and ‘carved’ using a plate. Not sure why, but that’s the way they do it in Segovia. Even more special though is the cordero lechazo asado, or the roasted leg of lamb. We ate this dish at La Concepción in the Plaza Mayor and it was truly delicious – they also do the finest carajillo I’ve ever had in Spain. Nobody comes to Segovia to lose weight apparently.

We were staying in the Hotel Convento Capuchinos, a former monastery and church that date from 1637. It was a fittingly historic place to spend the night and had views over the Río Eresma and valley below, including the 13th century Templar church of Vera Cruz. Built not long after the city had been captured from the Moors in 1079, it’s modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The day I made the effort to walk all the way down hill, and make the steep climb back up, to visit, it wasn’t open. This was a shame because the church was built, or so legend has it, to house a fragment of the cross that Christ was crucified upon. It was brought back to Spain from the Holy Land after one of the Crusades. Inside, the church is said to contain a unique chamber where new members of the Knights Templar would stand vigil, night and day, over this famous piece of wood as part of their initiation

We’d arrived in the late afternoon and once we’d found somewhere to park – always a challenge in medieval Spanish towns – we checked in and set off to unearth a tapas bar or two. Luckily for us, that is not difficult. The Plaza Mayor, which is dominated by the cathedral, has several good options running around the outside of the square. We started in one corner and worked our way around, stopping at places that looked good or had a crowd. We weren’t disappointed.

View from the cathedral, Segovia, Spain

View from the cathedral, Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

Medieval centre of Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

View over Segovia, Spain

Afterwards, we were just in time to clamber up the bell tower of the cathedral before it closed. The views were magnificent, the whole town was laid out before us, as were the same snow capped mountains that we’d driven through to get here. From our vantage point we planned the next day’s excitement and then went to see if we could book a table for dinner at one of Segovia’s most popular restaurants, Restaurante José María. The  cochinillo asado was calling to us.