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.