A Trip Through Old Spain

Don Harris | January 2004

Following this route we revisited some of our favorite towns of Andalucía before heading north along the Portuguese border in Extremadura. We turned west to the Celtic lands of Galícia including the pilgrimage city of Santiago de Compostela and along the Cantabrian coast to Asturias (where the Reconquista began in the 8th century). We headed south to León driving through a breathtaking mountain pass in the Picos de Europa lingering in the pilgrimage villages and the forgotten medieval towns of Castilla. Finally, we relaxed in the sublimely peaceful Avila and thence to iconic Toledo.

Day 1 - Arrival in Sevilla

Rent a car at the Sevilla Airport to be returned to the Barajas Airport in Madrid. Drive east to Carmona and stay at Casa de Carmona: an amazing 16th century villa, complete with sun swathed patios. Attentive service, lots of ambiance, with a true eclectic Andalucian feel and excellent cuisine by hotelier Felipe Guardiola. On the other hand, you might choose the stunning Parador built on the site of Pedro the Cruel’s fortress in Carmona. More conventional but an architectural jewel.

Day 2 - Pueblas Blancas/White Cities

Drive to Arcos de la Frontera and visit the 15th century Castillo de Arcos. After lunch, drive along the countryside to El Puerto de Santa María and you can visit the Osborne sherry Bodega – Bodega de Mora. As an alternative, you can take ferry across the bay to Cádiz. Stroll around this ancient walled city, founded three thousand years ago by the Phoenicians. Some of the freshest fish you will ever enjoy. El Faro restaurant is an institution, and there are many impromptu restaurants grilling the day’s catch.

Day 3 - Sherry Towns

One of my favorite bodegas is the Pedro Romero Bodega in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, which also has marvelous barrels of sherry vinegar. To get there from Carmona, take A-4 exit 44 at Las Cabezas de San Juan following on to Rt A-471 via the flamenco towns of Lebrija and Trebujena. In neighboring Jerez de la Frontera you might also enjoy González Byass bodega, makers of Tio Pepe. My favorite boutique bodega is Gutiérrez Colosía located by the ferry slip in El Puerto de Santa María. Our warm and gracious friends, Carmen and Juan Carlos, are dedicated creators of the finest boutique sherries.

Day 4 - Sevilla

Drive to Sevilla and park the car in a underground parking lot near the cathedral plaza. Walk to the Cathedral of Santa María de la Sede (Sevilla Cathedral), the largest Gothic cathedral in the world and burial place of Christopher Columbus. The Giralda Tower, intended to be a minaret before the Reconquista, makes an interesting climb. It is wide enough to ride up on a horse (not recommended).

Proceed to Alcázar. This fortress is adjacent to the Cathedral and it is a beautiful medieval Islamic palace showcasing a unique fusion of Spanish Christian and Moorish architecture. It was initiated by Pedro the Cruel using the same architects who designed the Alhambra in Granada – I think of the Alcázar as “Alhambra Light”, having much the same feel without the crush of the crowds. Stay at Parador Zafra Hermán Cortés in Zafra, which is about an hour and a half drive north from Sevilla. You will enjoy staying in a perfect castle, although it is now surrounded by the town. Across from the parador there is the beautiful understated terra cotta ceramics by María Vinagre.

Day 5 - Hervás to Salamanca

In Mérida, find the tasteful Museum of Roman Antiquity and an intact Roman theater. Then, drive to Garrovillas de Alconétar, a remote town which is an “off the beaten track” treasure. Lunch at Candelario, a picturesque city considered by many to be one of the most beautiful towns in Spain. Proceed to the monastic village of Hervás: founded by the Knights Templar in the 12th century.

When you arrive at the stately city of Salamanca, don’t miss the classic Plaza Mayor and the University square. Stay at the Palácio de Estéban Hotel: modern, yet tasteful hotel with an attentive staff. It is located next to the Plaza Mayor and the old and new Cathedrals.

Day 6 - Salamanca to Verín

In the morning, take time to visit the Salamanca Cathedral. Then, proceed to the famous Cathedral of Zamora, whose unique dome is in displayed in many art history books. There are over 27 Romanesque buildings in Zamora, making up the largest concentration in the world. Drive to Verín and visit Monterrei Castle: an attractive castle on a hill overlooking the parador. There is a guide until 6:00 PM and also an interesting small museum. Stay at Parador de Verín. This hilltop Parador is an oasis of peace and tranquility 1.86 miles outside the market town of Verín. It overlooks the Monterrei valley with Portugal just 12 miles to the south. Delicious cuisine and warm hospitality.

Day 7 - Galícia

Ourense has a cathedral built in 572 AD. The sculpture over the west door tympanum is virtually a replica of the one Portico de Gloria at the cathedral in Santiago, as it comes from the same artist, Maestro Mateo. In many ways it is even more striking because some of the original paint remains on the figures. Then, drive to San Cristóbal de Cea to visit the famous bakers. The bread is touted to be the greatest bread in the world. It is baked in a wood fired oven in each baker’s home. They begin their day at 3AM, and do not take the last loaves out of the oven until 4 PM!

While waiting for your fresh baked bread, which will be ready later in the afternoon, visit the neighboring Monasterio Santa María Mayor de Oseira. During the Middle Ages this vast monastery controlled a large area. Within the monastery is an impressive Cistercian chapel. The Monastery supplied the flour for the bakers of Cea. Upon arrival at the monastery you will be greeted graciously by one of six monks. On the tour the guide showed us the scriptorium. We met two monks who worked together to illustrate Bible passages for the internet in the same room where for centuries manuscripts were copied by hand.

Return to the baker in San Cristóbal de Cea to pick up fresh bread and drive a few minutes to Parador de los Reyes Católicos in Santiago de Compostela where you will spend the next two nights. Erected as a hospital / shelter for pilgrims by Queen Isabel and her husband Fernando, it is a magnificent building, filled with priceless artifacts. Worth every dime (or is it a peseta).

Day 8 - Santiago de Compostela

Start your day visiting the major pilgrimage destination since Middle Ages: the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Lunch at the Parador restaurant. Another great place to have lunch – or dinner – is Don Quixote restaurant. To get there, continue down the hill from the parador, turn right and soon you will find the restaurant, recommended by the Ramón the parador conserje. He was right: we feasted on amazingly fresh seafood from the local area cooked artfully. My favorite dish is the steamed berberechos - tiny clams.

Day 9 - Lugo to Cangas de Onís

Lugo is a remarkable walled city where you can can walk around the stone battlements. I find the Municipal Market a lot of fun with seafood so fresh it is still wiggling, and bowers of fresh greens and vegetables, not to mention loaves of Pan Gallego – Galician bread with its crunchy crust and a glutenous interior filled with holes.

Drive north about an hour to have lunch in Ribadeo at the Restaurante San Miguel which overlooks the boat harbor. There its excellent food is attentively served. Proceed to Cangas de Onís (2 hours from Ribadeo). The ancient site of civilization since the time of dolmens Visigoths which was the nexus of resistance to the Moors. In the hills the shepherds here make a precious Gamaneo sheep’s milk cheese. Stay at Parador Monasterio de San Pedro de Villanueva: an amazing 12th century stone structure located by a running brook where the sportsmen come to try their luck. There is a new section of rooms which are fine in every way; but if you want to treat yourself, ask for one of the suites located inside the old monastery. They are beautifully appointed and it is quite a treat to fall asleep hearing a bubbling brook outside your window.

Day 10 - Cangas de Onís and Environs

Visit the shrine of Covadonga, one of the most sacred places in Spain. Tradition says it was here that the Christian mountain warriors of Astorias, led by Don Pelayo, defeated the Moors for the first time. Proceed to Villaviciosa and visit Salvador de Valdediós popularly called “El Conventín”. Seven bishops consecrated the church in 893 AD. It is the last great work of the Asturian architecture.

After finishing our visit to the building we walked over to a tiny roadside restaurant where we encountered the world’s most gigantic tortilla española. It could have easily served 10 people. When I asked for a smaller version, the cook shook his head and told me this was the only size he knew how to make! But the price was right, so we shared the tortilla with a family at the next table! You might like to try it. Also in the town of Villaviciosa you will find the Iglesia de Santa María de Oliva, built after 1270 AD. On the south portal you can see unusual hunting scenes carved on some of the capitals.

Day 11 - The Amazing Riaño Gorge Route to León

Start your day visiting the outdoor market featuring handmade Gamaneo cheese and breads in Cangas de Onís. Then, drive to León via the breathtaking route N-625 – Sierra de Riaño gorge. On the way, in Gradefes, take time to see the beautiful Convent/Church de Santa María la Real.

Continue driving to León via San Miguel de Escalada, built by Mozarabic craftsmen who led the Moorish kingdoms to the south, and stay at the Hotel Real Collegiata San Isidoro, but be forewarned – it is a puzzle to find since some of the streets are reserved for pedestrians only. We ended up calling the front desk and he guided us to the free parking by the hotel.

Day 12 - León

In León, visit the Cathedral of Santa María de León, a classic gothic structure almost entirely enclosed in stained glass. On a sunny day it is dazzling to stand inside the church surrounded by such beauty! Close by is the Basilica of San Isidoro. Within it is the funeral chapel of the kings of León. The Royal Pantheon is one of the finest examples of surviving Romanesque murals in León. The columns are crowned with rare Visigothic capitals, with floral or historic designs. The 12th century painted murals are in an exceptional state of preservation and consist of an ensemble of New Testament subjects along with scenes of contemporary rural life.

Day 13 - León to Maderuelo

Drive from León to Burgos to tour its Cathedral. It is an exhausting three-hour tour but worth it. The amazing cathedral was built at the end of the gothic period and is endowed with extravagant chapels funded by the wealthy patrons of the era. The chapel at the west end of the cathedral attracts many of the devout because of its strikingly realistic depiction of Christ on the Cross. Then, visit the pilgrimage towns of Frómista and Carrión de los Condes on Camino de Santiago. You may well encounter modern day pilgrims who are making the 400 mile trek from France across northern Spain, as they have for over a thousand years.

Arrive at medieval walled village of Maderuelo with a population of only 156 people. Outside the walls of the town by the riverside is the Hermitage of Vera Cruz de Maderuelo with priceless mural covering its interior. At the café close to the hermitage you will find the man with the key hanging out with the young men of the town. Stay at Casa Maderolum. This is a B&B operated by a very cordial couple. There are practically no people in the town, and few signs – and not even a rooster can be heard. So be patient when you look for your lodging. Eventually someone will poke his head out of the doorway.

Day 14 - Ayllón

The village of Ayllón has a little more action if you are lucky enough to be there on market day. It is a lot of fun! The local hotel has a good dining room where we ate cochinillo (roast suckling pig). Tour the neighboring towns for a rural life-experience of yesteryear.

Day 15 - Maderuelo to El Burgo de Osma

Along the way from Maderuelo to El Burgo de Osma, drive up or climb around the windswept ruins of the imposing castle of San Estéban de Gormáz . Arrive in El Burgo de Osma and stay at II Hotel Virrey located on the Plaza Mayor of this ancient city of Castilla. The windows overlook the town square which is full of life. A perfect location if you are there during one of the ferias or Semana Santa. 

Day 16 - Peñafiel

In Segovia, dont miss the Alcázar of Segovia, a spectacular castle – some say it is the prototype for Disneyland. In the center of town you can enjoy roasted suckling pig or lamb in the shadow of a massive Roman aqueduct which cuts through the center of the city. After lunch, drive to Coca where there is one of the most intact castles in Spain. A word to the wise: the castle is windy and the guide loves to talk. Therefore, prepare yourself for an hour visit. If you are in a hurry be sure not to sign up to his leisurely, although informative, tour.

Day 17 - Avila

Drive to Avila: a sublime medieval city surrounded by walls. Tour the classic Basílica de San Vicente (a Romanesque church outside of the city walls) and the church the of San Pedro on Plaza de Santa Teresa de Avila. Stay at Palacio de los Velada. Without question this is the best hotel in which we stayed. It has a great ambiance, attentive service. It is located next to the cathedral and provides parking.

Day 18 - Avila to Toledo

Stroll the Zocodovar plaza in Toledo and visit the cathedral, especially noting the raridos behind the altar, and the hand carved choir stalls. Do not miss the Sacristy which contains over a dozen paintings by El Greco, as well as those by Zuberán. Stay at Hostal del Cardinal Toledo. Former residence of medieval cardinals and convenient located by the walls of the city. Beautiful rooms, modest price.

Day 19 - Toledo to Airport Hotel

Visit Hospital Santa Cruz Museum, a few stairs down from the Zocodovar main plaza. It has an tasteful collection of Spanish art through the centuries including the embroidered victory banner of the Battle of Lepanto. Everything is beautifully presented.

Then proceed to the Church of Santo Tomé which contains El Greco’s masterwork Burial of Count Orgáz. Try to visit it before the tourists flock in so you can have a little time to enjoy this world famous painting. On the streets of today’s Toledo you will recognize the expressive faces that El Greco painted centuries ago.

Drive to Barajas Airport (Madrid) and return the car. Stay overnight at Melia Barajas Airport Hotel – efficient and well run. It has service to and from the airport. We find it the perfect site to get our travel act together before heading home. Their fresh squeezed orange juice is a joy!

Day 20 - Leave Madrid