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Spain> Treasures off the Beaten Track


A Karen Brown Recommended Itinerary

Treasures off the Beaten Track

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This itinerary starts off in New Castile, traverses Aragón and winds up in Barcelona, the sophisticated seaside capital of Catalonia. Most of the route, as its name suggests, takes you to areas not so commonly frequented by foreign tourists, and should appeal to those of you who are anxious for a more intimate taste of Spain. It heads east through New Castile, which holds in store the beautifully rugged Cuenca Range; and Cuenca, one of Spain's most enchanting medieval towns, famous for its "hanging houses." Then the route continues on to Aragón with its small, earth-colored, hidden villages nestled in gorgeous, scenic mountain valleys or in the midst of olive groves and vineyards. It is easy to understand why these are considered some of the most ancient settlements in the country: the medieval and Moorish past is evident at every turn.

Starting in the 11th century, Aragón began to expand its dominions. Within three centuries, it included parts of southern France, Catalonia, Navarre, and all of southeastern Spain, Sicily, and Naples. Thus, when Ferdinand II of Aragón married Isabella I of Castile (which included the eastern half of Spain) in 1464, the modern nation-state was born. No longer so extensive, the old kingdom is now characterized mostly by agricultural activity. The final stop, Barcelona, provides considerable contrast: it is Spain's second largest city and one as glamorous and worldly as any in Europe.

Almost all tourists fly into or out of Madrid when visiting Spain. After a few days enjoying this lovely city, many then drive on to Barcelona, another of Spain's jewels. It is possible to take a freeway most of the way from Madrid to Barcelona-possible but not very interesting. This itinerary outlines a much more engaging way to make the journey from Spain's largest to its second-largest city. By following this route, you enjoy some fabulous sights that are truly "off the beaten track." For more in-depth suggestions on sightseeing in and around Madrid see Madrid and More.

RECOMMENDED PACING: This itinerary links Madrid and Barcelona. Cuenca, a fascinating cliff-top town, merits an overnight stay. Plan on spending one night in Teruel. If you want to linger to explore the Monasterio de Piedra Park, stay for a night in Nuévalos. One night is suggested for Alcañiz before heading to Barcelona.

Make your way to the southeast side of Madrid and head out of town on the A3 freeway (which becomes NIII when you leave the city). Continue through Arganda del Rey, then wind through lovely scenery to Tarancón, a little country town with a Gothic church and a mansion built by Queen María Cristina. As you drive, you get a strong feel for one of Spain's major geographical features, the central meseta, or plateau. The drive east between here and Cuenca is one of the loveliest in Spain-through pretty rolling hills of wheat and sunflowers contrasting with pale, golden hay fields.

Cuenca was originally constructed on the top of the cliff. This is the part known today as the old town, the area of most interest to the visitor. The best way to reach this district is to turn sharply right just after you cross the river as you head into town following the pink signs for Casco Antiguo. The road climbs steeply and enters a small plaza through a massive stone gate. Park here and explore this engaging town by foot.

Once you are in the old town ask for directions to the hanging houses (casas colgadas), seemingly perched in midair at the edge of the cliff. Inside one of these ancient structures, in impressive and tasteful surroundings, is Spain's most important Museo de Arte Abstracto (abstract art). The extensive collection of Spanish masters is a must to visit. Also situated in one of the old, cliff-top houses is the restaurant Meson Casas Colgadas. If it is not mealtime, you still might want to stop for a cool drink and to savor the views over the ravine. The very best place to photograph these old houses is from the middle of the footbridge that leads to the parador.

The Gothic cathedral, parts of which date from the 13th century, is a highlight of the town: be sure to go in to see the elaborate interior. The treasury, Museo Diocesano, is also worth a visit-among other works of art, there are two paintings by El Greco. Sit in the lively Plaza Mayor to soak up the typical Spanish flavor of the town and save some time for a leisurely walk through the picturesque streets and alleys of this old quarter.

When you are ready to leave Cuenca head north on CM2105 into the Serranía de Cuenca a vast mountainous area dissected by two gorges. After 23 km you come to the viewpoint Ventana del Diablo which gives you a fabulous view of the gorge. A few kilometers further on, turn right for the 5-kilometer side trip to the Ciudad Encantada (Enchanted City) where the limestone has been eroded into shapes that resemble (with a bit of imagination) buildings, animals, and monsters. You buy your ticket from the booth and follow a well-marked footpath for about an hour through the interesting rock formations.

Join up again with the CM2105 going east through Uña, a village beneath towering cliffs, and La Toba, at the end of a lovely turquoise reservoir that sits beneath the cliffs. Follow the meandering Júcar River and watch carefully for the right-hand turn signpost for Teruel. This narrow road climbs up the Puerto de El Cubillo Pass into the Montes Universales. This scenery is wonderful, with pine trees lining the narrow road and the sharp gray mountain crests in the distance.

Cresting the pass, watch for a monument in the meadow to your left. It marks where the Tagus River begins its long journey to the Atlantic through Toledo and Lisbon in Portugal. It is amazing to see that this important river's origin is a tiny spring flowing out from under a pile of rocks. Continue winding amidst marvelous scenery with expansive views of the valley. Skirt the little town of Royuelo and the river gorge to the spectacularly situated little mountain town of Albarracín. Designated a historical monument by the national government, this whimsical town looks as if it were carved into the living rock below the ruined castle whose towers reach toward the sky.

Albarracín is a medieval gem with narrow, twisting, cobblestone streets (almost exclusively pedestrian) and ancient brick, stone, and wooden houses whose roofs practically touch each other over the tiniest alleyways. The atmosphere cannot have changed much over the past several hundred years. The handsome cathedral, with its collection of 16th-century Brussels tapestries, is interesting to visit, and it is fun to explore the numerous ceramics shops selling their locally made wares.

A half-hour drive finds you in the industrial city of Teruel. Surrounded by the gorges of the Río Turia, it is rich in Mudéjar monuments. Mudéjar is the style created by the Moors who continued to live in Christian-dominated areas even after they were reconquered. The Moors remained in Teruel a particularly long time, hence the prevalence of the style here. Five Mudéjar towers, detached belfries with obviously Oriental ornamentation, are spread around the old town. The 13th-century cathedral has a coffered ceiling painted with scenes of medieval life. One of the five towers is the belfry for the cathedral.

Next to Iglesia de San Pedro (which has another of the towers as a belfry) is the Funerary Chapel of the Lovers of Teruel. The legend of Isabel and Juan Diego, who lived in the 13th century and who died of grief at being unable to marry because of her father's disapproval. They were buried in a single grave and their remains are on display here in a glass coffin topped by an alabaster relief of the lovers reaching out to touch hands. To visit the chapel, ring at a nearby door (indicated by a sign) and someone will come down to open it for you. (Tip a couple of euros.)

Just east is the triangular Plaza del Torico (baby bull), a popular gathering place with a tiny statue of, logically enough, a baby bull in the center.

When you are ready to move on, travel north on what must be one of Spain's best country roads (N234) towards the tidy farming center of Monreal del Campo, at the foot of the Sierra Menera, and bear left by the impressive, tiny fortified town of Pozuel Del Campo with its crumbling walls and huge, imposing church. Continue to Molina De Aragón, an ancient, pre-Moorish village, once a hotly disputed strong point between warring Aragón and Castile. Perched above the town is a dramatic, red-tinged fortress surrounded by extensive crumbling walls and several restored towers, of which one, the 11th-century Torre de Aragón, is a national monument. This fortress was one of several, including Sigüenza and Alarcón, which served as a second line of Christian defense during the Reconquest.

Turn north in Molina de Aragón, first along a flat road through farmland, then on a more scenic drive through rugged countryside toward Nuévalos, and the Monasterio de Piedra, a monastery founded in 1195 that was by the 18th century a vast monastic establishment. You can tour the older portion of the buildings: the chapter house, the refectory, the Cistercian monks' cellars and the kitchen that was allegedly the first place in Europe where drinking chocolate, from Mexico, was prepared. A hotel is located within the monastic buildings-see listing. Surrounding the monastery is a lush park watered by the river that flows through the grounds in capricious ways, forming waterfalls and pools of great beauty. Be sure to visit the series of waterfalls La Caprichosa (the whimsical lady) and the 52-meter Cola de Caballo (horse's tail)-you can see both from a vista point and from underneath in the Iris Grotto. In contrast to the rushing cascades, the lake properly carries the name of Mirror Lake, a truly spectacular natural sight. Buy a ticket at the entrance and follow the arrows for an unforgettable stroll.

Nearby the pretty little town of Nuévalos sits in a valley at the head of a vast reservoir surrounded by the deep-red hills. (Scenery lovers should take a side trip to the spa of Jaraba, reached by going south to the tiny village of Campillo de Aragón and turning right. You have a 12-kilometer drive through a red, green, and gold patchwork quilt of fields as you go over the Campillo Pass, then you descend into steep canyons lined with dark-red cliffs. This is a dramatic excursion.)

Leave this gorgeous setting by heading northeast to Calatayud. Drive through alternately dusty gray plateaus and deep-red earth planted with fruit trees, vines, and olives, along with occasional hay and wheat fields. Calatayud is built up against a hillside, crowned by the minaret of an old mosque and the ruins of the Moorish Kalat-Ayub (Castle of Ayub). You might want to stop for a closer inspection of the Mudéjar tower sitting impressively atop its rocky ridge above the hillside covered with tiny houses. You can see the castle on the mountain well before you reach the town, but it blends in so well with the stone ridge that you may not notice unless you are watching for it.

From here drive southeast on the N234, passing the dramatic ruins of a castle above the little village of Maluenda, then drive through Velilla, Fuentes De Jiloca, and Montón, all picturesque villages hugging the hillside above the lush Jiloca River valley. As you leave Montón, notice that the vines begin to be replaced by fruit trees on the red landscape.

Turn right on N330 to reach the town of Daroca. This beautifully situated medieval town is still enclosed by crumbling 13th-century walls with 114 towers. Park near the first gate you come to and take time to stroll along the Calle Mayor, visit the church of Santa María church, and the Plaza Mayor (NO DATA AVAILABLE. PLEASE RECHECK YOUR CODE.) (NO DATA AVAILABLE. PLEASE RECHECK YOUR CODE.) (NO DATA AVAILABLE. PLEASE RECHECK YOUR CODE.).

Back on N330, drive northeast over the winding Puerto de Paniza Pass. As you descend from the pass, you come to Cariñena, a little town famous for its wine.

Head east on the A220, driving through seemingly endless vineyards on the gently undulating, reddish-brown hills. A short drive brings you to Fuendetodos, the birthplace of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes, one of Spain's greatest artists. The Casa Museo de Goya is definitely worth a short stop to see the simple house where he lived. The house is furnished with 18th-century pieces in an effort to re-create the way it must have looked when Goya lived there. You can even see the room where he was born. An admission ticket also gives you access to the engraving museum just up the street. (Closed Mondays.)

Continue east, through scrubby hills occasionally alternating with lush green vineyards, to Belchite, which was extensively destroyed during the Civil War (1936-39). The rebuilt town stands next to the ruins of the former one, a grim monument to the horror of that conflict. The old town soon appears on the right as you leave: an eerie moonscape of bombed-out buildings, houses, and church.

A short drive farther, after a stretch of pancake flat pastureland, lies Azaila sitting atop its rocky cliff. Turn right on the N232 winding up through the town for the drive to Híjar, another beautiful, small hilltop town overlooking the Martin River from behind its ruined walls. The terrain around the town changes to reflect the ravines carved by the river. From Híjar it is a short drive to Alcañiz.

As you enter town, you see the Parador de Alcañiz sitting high above the town. Part of the 12th-century castle was converted to a palace in the 18th century, and that part now houses the parador. Behind the palace the 12th-century keep, with its 14th-century frescoes, is open as a museum.

Wander down into town to the Plaza de España flanked by the Town hall (ayuntamiento) with a Renaissance façade, the arcaded 15th-century Lonja (trade hall) with its gothic arches, and the highly elaborate, baroque façade of the colossal Colegiata de Santa María (Saint Mary's collegiate church).

Head southeast on N232, then take N420 east towards Tarragona. As you leave Alcañiz, you see terraces of olive trees on the rolling hillsides. About 8 kilometers past Calaceite, at Caseres, you officially enter Catalonia. Since Catalonians speak (in addition to Spanish) their own language, Catalan, you find a number of words spelled differently from the way you may be used to (e.g., river is riu instead of río).

Nearing Gandesa, olive groves give way to vineyards. The town has been rebuilt since it suffered severe destruction during the Civil War and thus is a relatively modern town, at the end of a pretty drive. After crossing one of Spain's most important rivers, the Ebro, at Móra de Ebro, you arrive at the new town from where the best view of the old quarter, built right up to the river's edge on the opposite bank, is presented.

Now the grape dominates completely as you enter the rich wine-growing valley around Falset. The vast vine-clad hills are dotted with tiny villages that seem to float above the vineyards on their little hillocks. Look back as you leave Falset, for there is an enchanting view of the town.

The highway follows a winding downward course through a number of passes to Reus, the birthplace of architect Antonio Gaudí and also known for its wool weaving. The town is now mostly industrial and not particularly appealing to tourists. Just past Reus, join the A7 freeway for a short drive into Barcelona. For sightseeing suggestions, see Barcelona Highlights.

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A Few Nearby Hotels and Bed & Breakfasts:   List Them All

A Karen Brown Recommended Hotel / Inn Posada de San José
Cuenca, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain
€ 42-162

A Few Nearby Attractions:   List Them All

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[ icon ] Montón
Aragon, Spain
[ icon ] Fuentes De Jiloca
Aragon, Spain
[ icon ] Royuela
Aragon, Spain
[ icon ] Daroca
Aragon, Spain
[ icon ] Pozuel Del Campo
Aragon, Spain

A Few Nearby Restaurants:   List Them All

[ icon ] Posada de San Jose
Cuenca, Castilla-La Mancha, Spain
Spanish Cuisine
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