By Jean and Peter Richards
Spain has always been full of surprises for us.
Some of the best places are not in the top tier of tourist attractions, and we are now well past the main circuit in this country we have come to love. The people are almost always friendly, cheerful and helpful. The landscapes are varied and can be terrifyingly steep as well as mesmerizingly flat. The food – fresh fish, beautiful little chops, hearty soups and bountiful salads – tastes good, is served without pretension and seems incredibly reasonable to us.
Often it is the place that is barely mentioned by travelers or guides which turns out to be a treat. So it was at Zamora – a city of 63,000 people, 2,100 feet above sea level in Castile. We expected a commercial-industrial city of the plains but we did not know that the city has a splendid Medieval center, several Romanesque churches, an important and
beautifully preserved collection of Flemish tapestries and an old-fashioned, pleasant, white-tablecloth asador where the cooking was matched only by the service and price. It was actually exciting to enjoy the kind of simple eatery devoted to local traditions that was once found all over Europe.
The Parador de Zamora, a palace on the site of an old Muslim citadel, is the place to stay or to start a visit to the old quarter. Stop at the desk for a map and advice, perhaps, from Senõr Zacarias Baz Antón, the head of reception and an enthusiast for his hotel and his city.
Step out into Plaza Viriato where the sight of the leafless plane trees some call “Burgos trees” evoke Jean Dubuffet’s monumental “Group of Four Trees” in New York. The limbs of the white-barked trees in Castile are grafted together to provide a canopy in summer, but seem at their sculptural best in Spring.
It’s a short stroll along the hilltop from the Parador to the cathedral along beautifully tended streets of well-conserved buildings interspersed with Romanesque church facades most accurately described by Penelope Casas as so austere that they “spurn even the figurative carvings that are typical of the Romanesque, opting instead for an utterly minimalist approach.”
The late Mrs. Casas, a writer who introduced many Americans to the authentic tastes of the Iberian Peninsula, has accompanied us on every one of two dozen trips to Spain in her 1991 non-cookbook, Discovering Spain. Twenty seven years later, it is still relevant and some of the phone numbers are still good. Without her, we might have overlooked Zamora.
Twelfth century Santa Maria Magdalena on Rua de los Francos is magnificent in the simplicity of its facade ornamented only by its pleasingly proportioned portal. The interior, as happened so often, was unfortunately embellished later.
A very good coffee was had at Depico Teo on Calle rua los Notarios, 3, a bar that was just opening at 11.
We bid good day to Senior Herminio Ramos, a teacher and community activist remembered in bronze along the way to the Church of San Pedro and San Ildefonso, another fine example of the plain and simple Romanesque.
The 12th century cathedral with its commanding position, square tower, exuberant Byzantine style fish-scaled dome and Romanesque facade on the south has a large and impressively two-stage carved choir, many chapels and a museum with a collection of colorful and intense 15th century Flemish tapestries, four of which depict the Trojan War
An enormous silver processional monstrance is the “No. 1” item on the museum audio guide and there is a huge silver altar in a side chapel of the church which is completely Spanish in taste and smithery.
It was very pleasant walking around the compact Medieval area, enjoying its patches of mid-April flowers and sitting on its plentiful wooden and stone benches. Only creeping graffiti cast a pall on an otherwise perfect day. Such destruction of what others find beautiful is unconscionable and apparently beyond the interest or abilities of authorities to curb.
Finding a good restaurant is as much risk as reward in travel. In decades of travel in Spain, we have found that the asadors, restaurants specializing in open hearth grilling or roasting in beehive ovens, can be exceptional.
The 2018 Michelin website recommendation of Asados Casa Mariano in downtown Zamora was a great choice. We were the first at 2 p.m. on a Saturday. Within a half hour, Mariano was running at a pace that would be frantic were it no so professionally controlled. No one missed a beat as the grillman stoked the roasting fire, filled its clay covered cavities with lamb leg quarters and handled the adjacent steak and chop grill symphonically. Waiters rarely had to wait more than a few seconds for their plates to come up in this quietly efficient dining room. The round-faced captain in his black tuxedo never lost his smile and completely professional attitude, quietly admonishing a waiter for having his apron askew, leading clients up a ramp to a room by walking backwards and just being helpful and pleasant as every table was filled.
White asparagus with pancetta came lightly gratinéed. Baby lamb chops, six in all, chuletillas lechales as la brasa, were sweet and perfectly a point as was the chuleta de ternera, a veal steak. The fries were crisp and fresh. With wine, water, cañas Zamoranas (the light, local cannoli) and coffee, the bill for two came to 68,50€ or $84.62. Our only regret was that we can’t be regulars at Mariano.
We would have stayed at the Zamora Parador had there been room but then would have missed the 70 kilometer drive across the legendary Castillian plains from Benavente where the town is forgettable and the Parador, though faded, is a comfortable hostelry with a fine view. The tower remaining from the original castle has an outstanding Mudéjar coffered ceiling worth a stop on its own. Follow it with a drink on the grassy terrace below taking in the snail-like designs on the ends of the turrets which inspire the name Caricol.
We wished that we had followed Mrs. Casas’ other recommendation in “Discovering Spain” and driven the 24 kilometers see the 7th century Visigothic Church rescued from flooding for a reservoir and rebuilt stone by stone at El Campillo in 1930. It is said to be so beautiful that it alone might justify a return to Zamora.
© 2018 by Jean & Peter Richards