Three Memorable Medieval Towns in the Heart of Spain

Over a small hill, this stunning vista of Alarçon looms

Over a small hill, this stunning vista of Alarçon looms

By Peter and Jean Richards

Our recent trip through Castile and Aragon in Spain left us with particularly vivid memories of three wonderfully preserved medieval towns. In retrospect, they merged in our minds as the visual trinity of the trip.

The street that greets you at Covarrubias' main gate

The street that greets you at Covarrubias’ main gate

Covarrubias is on the Arlanza River, just a bit more than 23 kilometers (14½  miles) on a fairly straight road from Lerma, where we had just spent the night in ducal splendor at the extraordinary Parador there. The desk clerk asked if we had planned a side trip to Covarrubias. Truth to tell, we had never heard of it. He suggested it was well worth the time. We are grateful to him for that.

The town, a designated conservation area since 1985, was one of the first to be reconquered from the Moors in the late 9th century. It has 640 residents, but obviously there are many houses that are second homes. We saw here what we observed in a few other locations in high elevations: make-shift boards or fitted metal inserts on the front door, about two-feet high, to keep the heavy winter snow at bay.

The Doña Sancha house, oldest in Covarrubias

The Doña Sancha house, oldest in Covarrubias

The town is extraordinarily well kept, neat and orderly. There are a large numbers of early timbered buildings. Overall, it has a pleasing visual continuity and reflects the pride of its residents and property owners.

We spent a pleasant two hours wandering around, seeing most of the sights suggested to us by a very helpful young woman at the tourist office located right inside the main gate next to which there is a small parking area.

A lovely corner of Covarrubias

A lovely corner of Covarrubias

Alarçon, even more diminutive, has only 182 permanent residents (less, according to some sources). Set on a little promontory above the Júcar River, it is one of the most tranquil sites we have visited in our travels. It was captured by Christian forces in 1177 from the Almohads.

Entrance to Alarçon parador

Entrance to Alarçon parador

Our route here was advised by Penelope Casas, whose excellent book Discovering Spain is almost flawlessly reliable despite being two decades old. She said, “You are not likely to find a more sensational setting, nor a place that reflects a greater peace.” We were leaving Cuenca on the way to Teruel, and Alarçon was an easy diversion from that route (about 83 kilometers or 52 miles from Cuenca)

Marinated partridge

Marinated partridge

At the top of the town is the castle, dating from the 8th century, transformed with transcendent taste into one of the smallest Paradors in the national chain. It has just 14 rooms and very good kitchen. We had a finely prepared luncheon of local specialties including morteruelo and marinated partridge.

View  of fortifications over the rooftops of Albarracin

View of fortifications over the rooftops of Albarracin

Albarracin, in Aragon, was, if possible, even more alluring. With easy access from Teruel, we headed there one our way to Soria. The town is 35 kilometers (22 miles) from the Teruel parador, mostly along a somewhat quirky tertiary road, the A-1512.

Stairs lead of a steep street in Albarracin

Stairs lead up a steep street in Albarracin

Declared a Monumento Nacional in 1961, the town of 1075 surrounded by stony hills, sits in a natural amphitheater in the Sierra de Albarracin. It is perched on a steep outcropping above the Guadalaviar River, and, like many small historic places now, automobile access is restricted to residents. We went past the town, under an overpass, and turned sharply right and upwards into a parking area that gave us easy access to the town.

This was another gift from Casas, who in a lyrical description to the town, describes its “enchantment.”

“Albarracin has a Moorish flavor that casts a spell. Crudely cobbled streets are dim and winding, and there is a hush broken only by the sound of rushing water. High walls and tightly grouped houses envelope you in the medieval atmosphere of a fortified town.’ she writes.

Twisted beam on house in Albarracin

Twisted beam on house in Albarracin

Besides soaking up the rugged beauty and authentic atmosphere, we also found a nice shop with locally made sausage at fair prices (El Andador, calle La Catedral, 4) and a welcoming place for lunch (La Taberna at Plaza Mayor, 6.) where we enjoyed the best sopa ajo I have ever had, superior tapas (tortilla, setas, crispy pork rinds) and a really good chocolate cake.

View of Albarracin

View of Albarracin

© Copyright 2013 by Peter and Jean 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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