A Leisurely Drive Through the Middle Ages in Spain

One of Spain's most important pieces of funerary sculpture at the Cathedral in Sigüenza: the page of Isabel the Catholic

One of Spain’s most important pieces of funerary sculpture. Sigüenza Cathedral: the page of Isabella the Catholic

By Jean and Peter Richards

A leisurely drive through rural Spain became a week-long trip through the Middles Ages with modern amenities.

We were easily seduced to rest in historic castles, convents and palaces, sip drinks in courtyards and savor the sweets of the cloistered religious after days driving on sunlit plains, within deep gorges and over the twisting roads of the hills.

On the roads less traveled, from aristocratic Lerma to the cliff-side Cuenca, ancient rocks glinted in the sun and loomed under the moon. Spring blossomed in April abundance in fruit orchards as shepherds drove sheared herds along grazing routes granted by right centuries ago.

Would Don Quixote  have been confused or wold he have charged?

Would Don Quixote have been confused or would he have charged?

Don Quixote’s ferocious giants morphed into sleek white wind farms in La Mancha – a rare reminder of modernity in a land that values its traditions and history.

Preserved stone villages perched on precipices often seemed deserted on arrival, but a welcome waited inside assadores, tavernas and bars where even the recipes for some offerings harkened back hundreds of years.

It was a journey marked by recognition of an extraordinary continuity of efforts in Castille-Leon, Castille-La Mancha and Aragon to preserve the architectural remains of a past riven by invasion, plague and all manner of upheaval by re-invigorating them as villages made viable by historical significance.

Parador at Lerma in ducal palace

Parador at Lerma in ducal palace

We began at the Parador de Lerma, a 17th century palace built by the local duke for the pleasure of his king and transformed into a state-run hotel a decade ago. The palace dominates the town and draws its people toward it for its courtyard lounge, market in its plaza and adjoining arcades of shops and cafes.

With clocks advanced to summer time, an early evening arrival left plenty of daylight to amble the streets and enjoy the architectural sights. We bought tasty bonbons and Easter almonds at the turn table window concealing the cloistered Poor Clares.  darkness fell.

Spain dines later than most of Europe. Some of the 93 Paradores have very good restaurants, but we prefer assadores where grilling is practiced with skill.

Delectable sweetbraeds at Casa Anton, Lerma

Delectable sweetbreads at Casa Anton, Lerma

Parador receptionist Arturo Yubera pointed us in the direction of Asador Casa Anton at Calle Vera, 5. He called ahead and said Anton would be opening at 9:10, not at 9 and only had lamb chops and sweetbreads that night. We were the first into this charmingly rustic, high ceilinged little room seating not more than two dozen at checkered cloth covered tables and on narrow benches along walls adorned with photographs of his customers. Anton swiftly placed a plate of shaved Queso Manchego drizzled with olive oil and a basket of bread on the table with a bottle of light red wine and disappeared into the kitchen. Soon a platter of a dozen grilled lamb chops was brought with a soup bowl of salad greens in a sharp vinaigrette. The first bite of the suckling lamb chop was fresh, sweet and wonderful. Then we asked for molejas – nuggets of sweetbreads cooked quickly so that they were sweet and soft in the center and bordering crunchy on the outside.

You don’t have to be a chef to cook great food,” Peter said as he tucked into the sweetbreads. There was no frill here, just perfectly cooked fresh food prepared by a semi-balding master in mid-life. We ate more than we should have and enjoyed every bit including the Nestlé ice cream stick offered for dessert.

Out for a stroll in Covarrubias

Out for a stroll in Covarrubias

No morning in Spain should start without freshly squeezed orange juice to which Spaniards often add sugar. We like it plain with coffees and a sweet bread. Thus fortified, we took Señor Yubera’s other suggestion and headed for Covarrubias, a beautifully compact medieval town of 640 inhabitants about 23 kilometers from Lerma in the juniper laden valley of the Arlanza river. Covarrubias rightfully prizes its Castilian architecture. It’s also a designated zone of protection for vultures, but we saw only storks on their mansion-sized nest.

Covarrubias, like other places we visited on this trip, demands visitors leave their vehicles beyond the town walls; a demand enforced notably in larger cities like Valladolid where traffic police patrol with determined dedication and tow trucks sit ready.

St. Onophrius

St. Onophrius

Valladolid may have charms which eluded us, but just to see the elegant portal of Collegio San Gregorio and the important museum of 13th to 20th century religious sculpture within was worth the detour. Saint Onophrius in hairy glory, Saint Peter in silken riches and the prone Marques de Villa Franca del Bierzo were memorable in this well explicated collection of unusual continuity and breadth. The double arcaded cloister is magnificent as are some of the coffered ceilings. Thanks to a tip from a museum employe, we had a fine lunch of Castilian cocido at Las Brasas de San Gregorio just across the way and down the street with wine, water, bread and dessert for an unbelievable 10€ each.

The Parador at Tordesillas, a mansion in a park-like setting outside of town, is showing some signs of the economic downturn visible throughout our journey, particularly on roads. We hardly saw a vehicle en route to Penafiel, drawn not by its castle but the restaurant in its shadow – Asados Mauro (Travesía de Atarazanas, 6) recommended on the often interesting Via Michelin travel website.

The best lamb chops ever — from month-old sucklilngs

The best lamb chops ever — from month-old sucklilngs

We were the first for lunch well after 2 p.m. and people kept coming until 4 p.m. This is a family run place renowned for its sucking lamb roasts and chops, a cheerful granddaughter told us in English. The chops of a one month old suckling were, hands down, the best we have ever eaten. Had we not been driving, we might have sampled from the serious wine list, but not the sought after Vega Sicilia, modestly priced at 900 €.

Spring unfolded along the SO145 and CM110 where Zubaran and Valasquez would have recognized the contrasts of threatening cloud and bright light in the sky.

We passed through Aranda de Duero — one minute coursing carefully through a flooded road (no policed hysteria here, just the assumption that drivers are intelligent enough to manage) – and not long after we were high on an arid plain, a plain that seems endless until an enormous lake appeared at Linares del Arroyo where a lone fisherman cast his line.

Parador at Sigüenza

Parador at Sigüenza

The coppery canyon at Sierra de Pela was a grand sight as we wound toward Sigüenza to spend the night in its spectacular Parador, a 12th century Arab fortress built on Roman foundations, destroyed by fire during the Civil War and re-built on orders of Franco as an hotel. Sigüenza’s knights are long gone, but their shining armor stands sentry at an entry level salon. Next to Room 239 is a little iron door through which a balcony view of the Romanesque chapel can be seen, but only by those thin enough to get through the door.

Cloister, Sigüenza Cathedral

Cloister, Sigüenza Cathedral

Sigüenza is steep and not for the feeble. It’s main sight, the cathedral, is an easy walk down from the fortress. The road up can be a trial, but not as serious as the one suffered by Isabella the Catholic’s page who died in 1486 during the conquest of Granada. He lies in sculptured splendor in a chapel of the cathedral. The effigy can be seen on the 4€ tour. The sacristry by Covarrubias has a fabulous ceiling filled with hundreds of uniquely carved heads, cherubim and florets.

Sigüenza provided the opportune setting in which to sample the fabled Medieval migas – bread crumbs, crisply fried and seasoned with what is available: herbs, bits of vegetable, meat, spices and olive oil. This dish, which can be quite tasty, has sustained generations of Spaniards in times troubled and good.

So-called hanging house sat Cuenca

So-called hanging houses at Cuenca

Cuenca is famous for its hanging houses. The cliffside houses don’t really hang over the gorge; a few porches do. The parador in a 16th century convent has the best view. The town, reached to by way of a trussed walkway above a small river and a steep climb, is worth a brief stop for the cathedral flooded with natural light.

Nearby Alarçon, Visigothic Alaric’s town, is a site worth its stars. Should we ever have reason to retreat to tranquility, the 14-room Parador in a 8th century fortress would be an ideal refuge. Three agricultural experts apparently thought so, too. We found them hunched over computers in a corner of the bar’s dining area on arrival for lunch. They were working on a poultry problem; we were just hungry for the local perspective and lunch. “It’s bad, very bad,” one of the experts, a woman, said when we inquired about the economy. People, she said, survive by “working black.”

On the route between Alarçon and Teruel

On the route between Alarçon and Teruel

She wasn’t optimistic that things would change soon. They worked through while we worked on an 11th century favorite, morteruelo, a hearty pate of pork liver and other meats pounded by mortar into a paste; hot almond soup blended into fluffily whipped cream and a classic partridge marinated in vinegar, spices and herbs. A selection of sorbets surrounded by freshly cut fruit was a refreshing dessert. We were given a welcome reminder that guests at any Parador can receive a discount if they lunch at another the next day; the modest bill for this elegant repast was presented with a 15 percent reduction bringing it down to 69€. Even with the dollar at 1.30 to the Euro, lunch was a bargain.

The effort to keep non-residents from parking on streets in Teruel was so confusing that we forewent the city’s entombed legendary lovers, spent the night at the near-empty Mudejar style Parador on the outskirts of town and left the next morning. The 30 kilometer route to Albarracin was dotted with coppery sedimentary formations which conjured wonderful images of mushrooms, a Japanese teahouse and Superman.

The rock solid comic book hero was one of the only human forms seen as we passed towns, settlements and public works projects with no one in view. Many businesses were fenced off, devoid of employe vehicles and bursting with weed. It was a stark contrast to the heady days of the early 1990s when Spain’s ascendancy was robust and wonderful to behold.

Cathedral at Albarracin

Cathedral at Albarracin

Albarracin may be the most perfect Medieval village in a country whose provinces lay claim to many. We owe a debt to Penelope Casa who in Discovering Spain alerted us to this Moorish redoubt which she wrote “casts a spell.” Indeed, it does from the first view of its towers and long, semi-circular walls to its rough stone and half-timbered buildings and plaza views of the rushing Guadalaviar. It was pleasant to walk its narrow streets and lunch at the simple Taberna on the Plaza Mayor where the tapas and even the cakes are house made. Albarracin was a fitting coda to a seven-day journey through the Middle Ages, all within three hours drive of Madrid.

Processional sculpture at National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid

Processional sculpture at National Museum of Sculpture in Valladolid

Copyright © 2013 by Jean and Peter Richards

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About oldmainetravelers

The Old Maine Travelers are Peter and Jean Richards, who met more than a half century ago covering President John F. Kennedy on what would become his last trip to Boston.  They worked for many years as wire service and newspaper reporters and editors.  Peter did a nightly television show on WGBH, Boston, before he went into government in the administration of John V. Lindsay, mayor of New York City. After they moved to their brownstone in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Jean did a spell on Madison Avenue in the real “Mad Men” days and later became public relations officer at Chase Manhattan Bank.  Since 1973 they have worked together first as owners and publishers of a group of award-winning newspapers in Dutchess County, N.Y., and then as antiques dealers.  Now they are old and live on the coast of Maine and in the Southwest of France when not traveling further afield. In the red barn by their house in Damariscotta, Maine, they tend an antique shop specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture, metalwork and accessories, buying objects they know about and like and selling them from May to October to delightful people of obvious discernment and taste. In France, they live in an old stone house in the shadows of the remaining towers of an unfinished 17th century church and above Roman drains in a town along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostella. They love it — for its authenticity and abundant boulangeries.  The rest of the time they travel the world together seeing the sights, seeking out museums, stumbling into interesting conversations, savoring local specialties and otherwise bumbling along in their own style. For years they have sent article-length postcards to family, friends, fellow travelers and some media. Many of these will now be posted here.
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