Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron (La Rioja), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

As has been said before, it is not often we revisit places during these Tours but we were always going to return to Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron and Vanya’s “best ever boutique hotel”, the Hotel Teatrisso, with it’s distinctive themed rooms and the wonderfully warm welcome provided by it’s owners Laura and Jose Angel. During our first visit, last September, we stayed in the studio suite ‘Africa’. We promised then we would return and that our next visit would be over a weekend so as to enjoy the hotel’s evening activities. We took the last available room; a charming attic room the ‘Salon de Baille’ (the Dancing Room). The hotel was full except for this room because the owners were to host a wine tasting dinner on the Friday evening and a “Teatrisso Night” on the Saturday.

Laura and Jose Angel, owners of the Teatrisso.

A couple of slightly ‘different’ photos I took of the hotel’s interior.

And so to the wine tasting. Headlining as the ‘Battle of the Wines’ this was wine tasting with a difference. Estela Lecea, the granddaughter of the founder of Bodegas Lecea, has travelled extensively throughout South America and was keen to share her experiences and compare two wines produced by Isabel Nicul in the Casablanca Valley in Chile with two produced by the Bodegas Lecea in the San Asensio area of La Rioja. Each of the wines were paired with gourmet tapas prepared by Teatrisso’s very own Jose Angel and it was a fascinating evening (notwithstanding my limited understanding of the Spanish language) with both wine and food proving amazing. Nevertheless, there was an easy winner – a sensational red Rioja produced by Bodegas Lecea named ‘Parabolas para Volar’ (literally ‘Parables to Fly’ which is the title of Estela’s book about her travels). This was a 100% garnacha rioja, limited edition wine (just 500 bottles), which was complemented with a ‘Casserole of Iberian Pig Cheeks glazed in Red Wine and served with Potato Parmentier’. Wow!!

By local standards the winning wine was not cheap but nothing could have stopped me buying some (three bottles) and Vanya and I determined there and then to visit the Bodega in San Asensio the very next day.

Left: A flyer advertising the ‘Battle of the Wines’. Centre: The battle is underway in the hotel’s old cinema with Estela Lecea presenting . Right: The ‘Casserole of Iberian Pig Cheeks glazed in Red Wine and served with Potato Parmentier’

Beanie was as interested in events as anyone.

The winning wine and my favourite, Parabolas para Volar.

Things just couldn’t get much better. There was second function organised for the Saturday night. Termed the ‘Teatrisso Night’, it was a celebration of the owners having bought and converted a rather dilapidated 16th century merchant’s house (which had subsequently served as a 1920’s cinema, theatre and dance hall as well as being a barracks for Italian soldiers during the Spanish Civil War) into the lovely boutique hotel it is now.

The Teatrisso Night commenced with a brief wine tasting session in the hotel’s wine cellar where we were introduced to a very pleasant local rose wine (rosada in Spanish). The main events followed which were (a) a powerpoint presentation by Laura, who gave us a brief history of the building and outlined how she and Jose Angel went about transforming it and (b) a small banquet prepared by Jose Angel of 6 gourmet tapas, each with an appropriate local wine. I think I floated up to our bedroom at the end of the evening.

Left: Another flyer, this one advertising the Teatrisso Night. Right: Sampling the rose wine in the cellar. Did I mention that there is a fresh water spring in the wine cellar?

A couple of the gourmet tapas prepared by Jose Angel. His food was seriously good although I couldn’t quite manage the Bacalao (Cod). It was simply too strong.

Four photos of slides from Laura’s presentation. These were photos of the building prior to the restoration. What they have achieved is amazing.

There’s more about Cuzcurrita and the Teatrisso in an earlier blog (Tour 6 in 2022). I’ll end this particular entry with a few more photos taken from on or around the Plaza Mayor.

I had the bar on the main square to myself this visit. The bar down by the bridge over the Rio Tiron was busier but the village band was practising there. I’ll let you know!

Left: The village church,the Parroquai di San Miguel Arcangel, from the main square. Right: The same church from under the 15th century road bridge across the Rio Tiron.

The last time we visited Cuzcurrita I never got to see inside the church. It was the same again this time. We’ll just have to try again (next year?).

Meanwhile, more wine tasting in San Asensio tomorrow.

Haro (La Rioja), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

It was with some reluctance that we left Penafiel and made our way to Haro. We had enjoyed our four days there and would have stayed longer but for the dogs being booked in to see a vet in Haro (rabies top-ups) and, besides, Vanya had reserved us a room at her favourite hotel just down the road in Cuzcurrita de Rio Tiron for two days.

Vanya has a soft spot for Haro, more so than me. I think Haro is an increasingly tired looking town and needs a facelift but it remains one of those places we are happy to come back to because we love the Barrio de la Estacion wine village. This really is the wine capital of the Rioja Region and it wasn’t long before we were back in the wine village, sitting outside Bilbainas (Vanya’s favourite bodega in Haro), enjoying their wares and purchasing more of her favourite sparkling wine. From there we moved to the CVNE Bodega such that I could sample their reds. We’d not visited CVNE before but I was not disappointed and, after sampling a Gran Reserva, I was happy to buy a few bottles. The Van is filling up.

The Compania Vincola del Norte de Espana (CVNE) and their Gran Reserva. Needless to say, Vanya stayed with their white Rioja – Monopole.

Hitherto we have favoured the old part of Haro, around the Plaza de la Paz, not least because of the cafe bar and pinchos culture which surrounds the area (and, yes, we enjoyed that once again) but this visit we spent longer in the more developed part of the town over by the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de La Vega. Most visitors intent on checking out the churches here favour the Parroquia de Santo Tomas (the Parochial Church of Saint Thomas) which dominates the old town but I consider the Basilica far more interesting and it’s altar is truly beautiful.

Looking from Jardines de La Vega towards the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de La Vega.

… and the inside of the Basilica with a detail from the Altar.

That ceiling in the Basilica is something else.

Okay, so the main entrance to the Church of St Thomas and it’s altar are also pretty impressive.

Left: That’s the Church of St Thomas as seen from the Jardines de La Vega and Right: there’s the same church as seen from an almost deserted Calle Santo Thomas.

The other very impressive aspect of this newer part of the town is the Mercado adjacent to the Jardines de La Vega. It is not a particularly large supermarket but in terms of content it is one of the best in this part of Spain and comes as close to a Waitrose as you will get here.

In terms of what there is to see and do in Haro, I’ll not risk repeating myself here but will, instead, refer you to the previous blogs I have written about the place. You need only search ‘Haro’. However, I will add that despite it’s tired appearance (Please, give it a facelift!), Haro remains a pleasant town to visit and we will continue to return.

Sepulveda (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

The best day yet of Tour 7.

Today was about visiting the small town of Sepulveda and, if time and energy permitted, the nearby Ermita San Frutos in the Hoces Del Rio Duraton National Park. Both places were recommended by the owners of Camping Riberduero as ‘go to’ places in the area.

Hidden within the dramatic canyons of Las Hoces del Río Duratón National Park, Sepúlveda is one of the prettiest villages in the province of Segovia and another great find.

We entered Sepuldeva from the east and stopped in a sizeable car park just off Calle Alonso VI. I subsequently learned that the prettiest approach into the town is from the south along SG-232, which route takes you past the Mirador de Zuloaga and it’s grand view of of the town clinging to the side of a particularly deep canyon formed by the Rio Duraton. That might be worth remembering for the future.

From the car park we walked along Calle de Alfonso VI and through the main gate, El Puerto del Ecce Homo, (which is actually an arch with the alternative name of El Arco del Ecce Homo – Remember, this is Spain) into what I shall call the Upper Town. The Upper Town is mostly residential although, just inside the arch, there is a hotel and a museum (the Museo de Los Fueros) and towards the top of the town, almost at it’s highest point, there is a fine church (the Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena or, in English, the Church of Our Lady of Pena). This church is perched at the very edge of the canyon and has spectacular views. It is also the starting point for a series of great walks but, more about those in a moment.

The entrance to the Upper Town, the Arco del Ecce Homo O Puerta del Azogue, sounds most grand but it is a very plain entrance into what was once the walled part of the town.

Vanya and I wandered around the Upper Town for a while before making our way to the Church of Our Lady of Pena. This church dates back to the 12th century but, for all that, it is not the oldest church in Sepuldeva. This particular honour goes to another not so attractive church in the Upper Town – the 11th century Church of El Salvador.

Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena at the top of the town. The Canyon is directly behind the church.

Inside the Church and…

… outside the Church. I believe I have mentioned before that (figuratively and literally) Vanya is not into churches.

I digress slightly but, later in the day, some time after lunch and having escorted Vanya and the dogs back to the Van, I returned to the Upper Town and embarked on a final brief explore – walking on past the church, through the Puerta de la Fuerza and down into the canyon to the Rio Duraton. It was good exercise and made for a couple of reasonable photo opportunities.

Left: Looking back, above the canyon, to the Iglesia de la Virgen de la Pena Right: The route on through the Puerta de la Fuerza would take me down to…

… the Puente Picazos. It was a warm walk back up to the top of the canyon.

So, back to the town. Immediately after visiting the Church of Our Lady of Pena, Vanya and I returned through the Upper Town to the Arco del Ecce Homo and along Calle Barbacana to the main part of Sepulveda which I shall refer to as the Lower Town.

The Lower Town is where most of the action is and where the majority of the 1,000+ inhabitants live. Calle Barbacana leads to it’s centre, a couple of small squares (Plaza del Trigo and Plaza de Espana) where, as we arrived, a farmers market was just closing. We checked out the market and then tarried outside a bar on the square(s) under the Clock Tower and watched the stallholders slowly and silently pack away their unsold produce and depart. At midday or thereabouts, Sepulveda is one of those slow sleepy towns where it feels quite normal to build an appetite by simply lazing around over a cup of coffee and watching others go about their business.

The Clock Tower with, behind it, La Muralla de Sepulveda (part of the old fortress walls which used to separate the Upper Town from the Lower Town) and on the top right of the photo is the of the Church of El Salvador.

Having developed a healthy appetite we moved just around the corner to the pretty Calle Lope Tablada de Diego and at the restaurant El Figon de Ismael we were persuaded by the proprietor to try the local speciality, Cordero de Lechal – a nice little lamb dish she said.

The Calle Lope Tablada de Diego where we found the El Figon de Ismael Restaurant

On the left is the entrance to the El Figonde Ismael (with our hostess in the background) and on the right is the wine we enjoyed, a local Rueda. Now mark my words, we will all be hearing more about Rueda. Currently it is largely unknown outside of Spain but I suspect it will soon become very popular.

And there’s our food, the local lamb dish known as Cordero de Lechal and that’s the chef in the background.

One of the things I really like about the Spanish (and the French too) is their enthusiasm for good food. We British are obsessed with the weather and talk about it all the time, even to complete strangers. The Spanish and the French are much the same about food but “a nice little lamb dish”? There was nothing little about this particular meal. It could have fed four, not two, but having said that, this was slow cooked suckling lamb – melt in the mouth meat and crispy golden skin – and seriously good. We coped. Even Vanya who is not all that fond of meat, especially lamb, was impressed by the food. And the local Rueda was equally sound. Unfortunately, the Balbas Bodega would not be open until the next week or we’d have popped in on the way back to Penafiels and bought a few bottles.

And so it was that, after a great start to the day in Sepulveda and well fed, we made for the Ermita San Frutos (that’s Fructos in English); a long abandoned hermitage in the Hoces del Rio Duraton Natural Park. The hermitage is only about 10 miles from Sepuldeva but it is a slow 10 miles because much of the journey is along a bumpy dirt track road and the last kilometre has to be walked.

Honestly, if you’re ever in this part of Spain, you have to visit the ruin. The first sight you get of the hermitage is from a view point just a couple of hundred meters from the car park and it’s setting is truly spectacular. If you don’t fancy the walk to the ruin itself, you’ll not be disappointed with what you see from the view point.

Ermita San Frutos from the viewpoint. It’s an easy walk around to the hermitage but you will be watched, if not followed, by many Griffon Vultures. This area is home to the largest concentration of vultures in the world – 600 pairs.

San Frutos, Patron Saint of Segovia was born in the 7th century into a wealthy Visigothic family. When his parents died he and his brothers, Valentin and Engracia, distributed their inheritance amongst the poor and, seeking complete solitude, retired to separate caves in this area which is now part of the Hoces del Rio Duraton National Park.

Tradition holds that the three brothers remained in these caves for many years until the Moors invaded the area. Valentin and Engracia were caught and martyred by the Moors. Frutus survived his brothers but died of natural causes not long after at the age of 73. Legend has it that a number of locals, seeking to escape the Moors, made their way to where Frutos lived but were followed there by Moorish soldiers. Frutos drew a line in the earth and asked the soldiers not cross it. When the soldiers ignored him and crossed the line, the earth miraculously opened up and swallowed them. The Moors did not bother Frutos again.

The existing hermitage was built on top of a small church in 1076 and was occupied by Benedictine Monks through until 1836. To access it, you have to cross a narrow bridge which was built in 1757 over a large crack in the rock. It is said this crack, known by some as ‘La Cuchillada’ and by others as the ‘Slash of San Frutos’, is where the Moorish soldiers fell to their death.

Just after the bridge and in front of the entrance to the hermitage, forged on a stone pedestal, is a large iron cross with seven engraved keys that correspond to the seven gates of Sepulveda. This cross was raised to commemorate a great pilgrimage to the hermitage in 1900. 

I could have sat amongst the ruins of the hermitage for quite a while. It was so peaceful. One thing I couldn’t help but notice, however, was that some of the headstones in the small graveyard at the back of the hermitage look very new. Curious.

Of course, it is the natural splendour surrounding this place which takes the breath away. The views in every direction are wild and spectacular and I must therefore end this entry on Sepuldeva with a couple more photos of the countryside.

Cuellar (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

Today started with us once again taking the Van out for a trip, this time to Segovia which is one hours drive south of Penafiel. I’d researched the city some time before and it looked to be worth the journey… the Aqueduct, the Alcazar Fortress, the Cathedral, etc. All looked very interesting and then we arrived… and the place was crammed with tourists; busloads of them, hordes of people everywhere. We made my way through the city towards one of the larger car parks recommended in the Park4night App but by the time we arrived both Vanya and I had lost all interest in the place. We were almost relieved to find the car park overflowing and made a decision there and then to move on. And so it was that we came to Cuellar.

Cuellar is a town of a little less than 10,000 inhabitants as opposed to Segovia’s 50,000+. As we arrived and parked up, the town looked almost deserted. Okay, so it was early afternoon and, as I mentioned in my notes on Penafiel, this is ‘real’ Spain and very little happens during weekday siesta time in real Spain. We set off for a short explore and to get some lunch.

We entered old town Cuellar through the San Basilio Arch and immediately stumbled upon two of the town’s most prominent landmarks, the Castle (it’s more of a Palace) and the San Martin Church. Cuellar Castle was built early in the 13th century although most of the current structure dates from the 16th century when it was home to successive Dukes of Alburquerque. They lived in the castle for centuries until moving to Madrid. The French army occupied the castle during the Peninsular War and looted it as the Duke of Wellington’s army approached. Wellington himself stayed at the castle for a number of weeks, as did a French General before him – General Joseph Hugo – the father of the novelist Victor Hugo.

For a while the castle remained empty but in 1938 it was transformed into a prison for political prisoners by Spain’s then ruler, General Franco, and it remained a prison until 1966. Since then it has been beautifully restored by Spain’s Ministry of Fine Arts and is now a museum.

Cuellar Castle

Not far from the castle is the 12th century Church of San Martin. It isn’t the most remarkable of Cuellar’s churches (The Churches of San Esteban and San Andres are far more impressive) but San Martin is now home to the Mudejar Art Visitor Centre and inside there is a light and sound show about Mudejar Art and the Christian, Jewish and Arab cultures.

It took a while but we eventually found a small bar/cafe in the old town which was open (they take siesta time very seriously here in Cuellar). Sadly, it was one of very few places in Spain which do not admit dogs and we had to eat at a table outside. That wouldn’t ordinarily have troubled us but Cuellar sits at almost 900 metres above sea level and it was blowing a bit of a hooley at the time.

That settled it. It was time to make our way back to Penafiel and we were both agreed that in the morning we would talk to our hosts at the campsite as to where we should visit next. They got it so right with Pedraza.

Pedraza (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

Pedraza de la Sierra (to use the villages’s correct name) is to be found some 50 miles south of Penafiel in Segovia Province in the Region of Castile y Leon. It is one of Los Pueblos Mas Bonitos de Espana and it is one of the best kept secrets in Spain. The village was recommended to Vanya and I as a place to see by the owner of our campsite in Penafiel and we decided upon a day visit in the Van.

It’s a small fortress village (less than 400 inhabitants) with just one narrow entrance. All of it’s buildings date back many hundreds of years (there is not a single modern building in Pedraza) and it is considered to be the best preserved medieval village in the whole of Spain. You’ll get no pushback from me on that point.

It took us a little over an hour to get to Pedraza. We parked close to the village entrance at the Casa de Aguila Imperial (a learning centre, housed in the old Romanesque Church of San Miguel, which serves to promote and protect Imperial Eagles) and after a quick look around we made the short walk up to the village entrance (Puerta de la Villa).

The Puerta de la Villa is small and can admit only very small commercial vans.

Just inside the entrance to the village is La Carcel, a 13th century fortified tower which in the 16th century was converted into the local prison. It was used as a prison until near the end of the 19th century but is now a tourist attraction. For 4 Euros you can wander the gaol and get a sense as to what it must have been like to have been imprisoned there. To say it was cramped, primitive and inhuman is an understatement. In addition to the gaoler’s quarters and facilities (the only part of the building with any heating) there are two levels of dungeons; one for the most common criminals (male and female) and another (little more than a pitch black hole in the ground) for the ‘more problematic’ prisoners. There’s no doubt that the prisoners were subjected to all kinds of abuse given the stocks and shackles which can still be seen in the prison.

Left: La Carcel (to the right of the entrance to the town) Right: A prison visitor

Prison quarters (left for common criminals and right for problem prisoners)

After a good nosey around the prison, it took no time to walk Calle Real to the village’s main square (Plaza Mayor). The square is simply perfect; like a film set. Talking of which, the square and various street scenes in Pedraza featured prominently in Orson Welles favourite film ‘Chimes At Midnight’ (aka Falstaff) where Orson Welles played Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff.

This square is not as enclosed as the Plaza del Cozo in Penafiel but every bit as authentic (moreso actually) and this square too is adapted when required to hold bullfighting events.

I’ll not try to describe the square. Just take a look at the photos.

It looks hot on the Plaza Mayor but in May at 1,068 metres above sea level (that’s higher than most Munros), it was actually perfect weather.

All of the buildings on the square date back to at least the 16th century.

Originally a 12th century Romanesque church, much of the existing Church of St John the Baptist, on the south side of the Plaza Mayor, dates from the 16th century.

I think that must be the Ayuntamiento (the town hall).

The east side of the square with it’s two bars...

The only thing I would add regarding the square is; it should be mandatory to sit and enjoy a beer and the free tapas from one of the two bars there. We were lucky; we visited on a week day and the landlord and other locals in the bar were keen to engage with us. I’m not sure how it would be at weekends when, we were told, the place gets packed with tourists from Madrid.

… and there’s the entrance to the bar we chose and a pork tapas.

Two more views of the Church of St John the Baptist. The one on the left is from Calle Mayor which leads to the castle. The one on the right is from the Plaza del Alamo.

Having refreshed ourselves with a couple of beers and some tapas, we finished our visit with a walk through the village to the castle and then back through the Puerta de la Villa to the Van.

Pedraza’s Castle which was built in the 13th century but significantly altered during the 15th century. It is currently owned by the family of the Basque Country artist Ignacio Zuloaga. He renovated and lived in the castle until his death in 1945. The castle is now a museum / art gallery.

Typical street scenes in Pedraza…

… and that’s the way back through the Puerta de la Villa to the Van (and Penafiel).

One last note for the calendar. On the first and second Saturday of July every year, the village holds ‘La Noche de las Velas’. It’s a bit of a fiesta which sees the village lights extinguished for 24 hours and 55,000 candles lit in their place while the village celebrates life with a series of music concerts and flamenco dancing. You cannot just turn up for this celebration. Access is limited to 5,000 people who must apply online for tickets towards the end of May. Now that would be spectacular.

Penafiel (Castile y Leon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

I don’t know how it was that Vanya picked out Penafiel as our next point of call but I’m glad she did. We parked at Camping Riberduero on the edge of Penafiel with a view to staying a couple of days and then stayed for four. With the help of the Dutch owners of the campsite (they were a mine of useful information) we were able to maximise our stay in Penafiel and enjoy much of the surrounding area (most especially Pedraza, Sepulveda and the Hoces del Rio Duraton National Park). We’d have stayed even longer except that we were already commited to being in La Rioja by the end of the week.

Penafiel is a fairly small rural town of some 5,000+ inhabitants in the Valladolid Province of Castile y Leon. Although renowned for it’s 10th century limestone castle and extensive winemaking traditions, Penafiel is well off the beaten track and, nowadays at least, not a popular tourist destination. It wasn’t always so (in Medieval times this was a major city with no less than 19 churches) but it’s current smaller size and the absence of tourists suits us down to the ground.

The unusually shaped Castillo de Penafiel dominates the town.

Building of the existing castle (Castillo de Penafiel) commenced in the 10th century on a cigar shaped rock which overlooks Penafiel and the Rivers Duero and Duraton. Since then the castle has been significantly remodelled, mostly during the 14th and 15th centuries, to resemble a white 150+ metre long German Gothic Style Battleship. My first thought was to check out the castle. It’s an easy walk up to and around the outside of the castle with not too much exposure. However, mine is clearly not the customary approach because, after clambering over the outside wall and in, I almost frightened the life out of a couple who were already there having used the road up.

Nowadays, the castle is home to the Provincial Wine Museum which offers castle tours and wine tasting sessions at very reasonable prices but they were not open for business as I arrived. In fact, very few places are open in Penafiel during siesta time which, during the week, stretches between noon and 4pm. This is real Spain.

There are actually two lines of castle walls. I was able to climb the outer wall only.

It was an interesting walk both to and from the castle. The approach to the castle from the campsite leads across the Puenta de la Leona to the Plaza de Espana and it’s church, the Iglesia Santa Maria. It continues past the Torre del Reloj (the Clock Tower), which is all that remains of the old Romanesque Church of San Esteban, and then up the hill to the outer walls of the castle. This town side of the hill is dotted with what appear to be large chimneys. These are actually ventilation shafts for the many underground wine cellars in the area. The town is full of large excavated caves where wine used to be stored (and perhaps still is) because of the constant temperatures they keep throughout the year. If not properly ventilated these caves would fill with the poisonous gases which arise during the fermentation process.

Penafiel is located slap bang in the middle of Spain’s second largest wine producing region, the Ribera del Duero, where the focus is on producing quality red wines using the Tempranillo grape. Tempranillo is a relatively hardy grape which is better able to withstand the more extreme climates of the high altitude vineyards to be found in this area – long cold winters and hot dry summers. The better approved wines here are invariably 100% Tempranillo with Crianza wines requiring a minimum 24 months aging of which one year must be in an oak barrel; Reserva wines requiring a minimum 36 months aging with one year in a barrel and; Gran Reserva wines requiring at least 5 years aging of which two years must be in oak barrels.

Left: That’s the Clock Tower in the background with a ventilation shaft in the foreground. Right: Several more ventilation shafts fill the hillside.

I returned to town using the castle road, pausing for a glass of wine on the way, and then it was back to exploring. My focus during what remained of the day was towards the Dominican Monastery of Saint Paul (Convento San Pablo) and the elusive but wonderful Plaza del Coso.

I came across the Convento San Pablo first. This Dominican Monastery was built as a fortress in the 13th century but converted into a monastery some time during the 14th century. From the outside the monastery is a strange looking and not very attractive building, an unusual mixture of stone and brick. On the inside, it is something else…

Convento San Pablo – a not particularly attractive mixture of stone and brick although, to be fair some of the Mudejar architecture which was added to the original structure is appealing.

A simple enough entance and central nave

… but with a quite stunning Spanish Renaissance chapel built in 1536

Inside the monastery there is an impressive cloister area but otherwise all is rather simple by Roman Catholic standards… until you see the 16th century funerary chapel of the Infante Don Juan Manuel, Lord of Panafiel. Beautiful.

It took me a while to find the Plaza del Coso. There are just two entances to this large rectangle which is almost wholly enclosed by private houses – a single vehicle entrance from the north and a small gated pedestrian access from the south. I could be forgiven for not immediately recognising the pedestrian access because the gate (which looks like nothing other than the entrance to a garage) was closed. No matter, I persevered and eventually found my way on to the Plaza.

The Plaza is special. Except for the two entrances already mentioned, it is entirely surrounded by three or four storey medieval houses almost all of which have beautiful wooden balconies stretching the whole length of the building on every floor above ground level. These balconies are converted during the Fiestas de Nuestra Senora and San Roque (and at any other time when the situation requires it) into boxes from which those with viewing rights can watch the local bullfights… because this Plaza doubles as a bullring.

Talking of viewing rights, I should explain that since Middle Ages to this day the town council in Penafiel has the right to auction off any room with a window or balcony overlooking the bullring to the highest bidders for the period of the bullfights. Amazing but true.

The first photo of the large rectangle which is the Plaza del Coso (taken from up on high) is clearly not mine but the others are. The second photo is of the single road in the town which leads into the Plaza.

This first photo shows the pedestrian access to the Plaza. As I arrived, workers had just finished installing the wooden bullring which is erected as and when the townsfolk require. We learned later in the day that a festival was planned for the weekend which would include bull-running.

That’s how the Plaza looked like as I walked across it. You can tell it was siesta time.

I’m not into bullfighting unless it be limited to the type that is practised in Provence, where the bull is not harmed – see Saint Remy de Provence blog from May 2023. In Provence, brave athletic ‘rasateurs’ compete against each other, using skill and agility, to collect as many ribbons as possible in as short a time as possible from between the bull’s horns (without getting hurt). Having said that, I think I would have enjoyed attending the bull-running in Penafiel which was scheduled for the following Saturday.

Teruel (Aragon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

We continue to potter around Aragon and the area continues to amaze us. We had not heard of Teruel but with it being just 25 miles east of Albarracin we thought we’d check it out and have lunch there before heading across to La Rioja.

Teruel, capital of Teruel Province, is a relatively small city (less than 35,000 inhabitants) but despite it’s limited size it is packed with places of interest and beauty. Given that it was a major Moorish city, it comes as no surprise to see so much Mudejar architecture but the quality of that architecture is as good as anywhere in Spain. The cathedral tower, together with the towers of San Salvador, San Martin and San Pedro are rare jewels and have rightly earned Teruel recognition as a World Heritage Site.

Parking our Van close to the city’s railway station, we made first for the nearby old town and came across the Escalinata del Ovalo. Built in Mudejar style, this grand old staircase was actually built in the early part of the 20th century but it’s mix of bricks and tiles is remarkable and a fine introduction to the more genuine Mudejar monuments in Teruel. I walked it with Nala. Vanya and Beanie took the elevator.

Teruel’s grand staircase (Escalinata del Ovalo) which connects the railway station with the old town.

The carving at the top of the Escalinata del Ovalo depicts a scene from the legend of the Amantes – more of that below.

The top of the staircase is just moments from the first of Teruel’s Mudejar Towers, the Torre de El Salvador. Unlike the stairs, this beautifully coloured bell tower, decorated with patterned tiles, is original Mudejar architecture. The Tower was closed to the public as we arrived or I would have climbed it for the views over the town.

These photos of the Torre El Salvador are not mine The photo on the left was taken before the Tower’s restoration in the 1990’s when it was faithfully restored.

The San Martin Tower is similar to the El Salvador but (supposedly) a little less spectacular. I can’t say that I noticed any significant difference between the two except that it was easier to take photographs of San Martin Tower because it isn’t situated in such a built up area.

San Martin Tower.

Another “must see” sight in Teruel and yet another impressive example of Mudejar architecture is to be found in the largely Gothic Catedral de Santa Maria de Mediavella. The roof especially is made in Mudejar style. The cathedral was built in the 12th century in a Romanesque style but received a Gothic-Mudejar makeover in the 13-14th centuries and was transformed into the building it is today.

A couple of photographs of the outside of the Catedral de Santa Maria de Mediavelle de Teruel…

The cathedral is stunning from almost every vantage point and nowhere more so than on the inside of the building where there are a number of important religious paintings, a 16th century wooden Baroque altarpiece and a particularly outstanding coffered Mudejar ceiling. Designed by Mudejar artists in the 13th century, the 32 metre long vaulted ceiling has detailed Islamic style carvings of medieval scenes and figures and has been referred to as the “Sistine Chapel” of Mudejar.

… and a photo of the inside of the ceiling.

The final Mudejar Tower, built very much in the style of the San Salvador and San Martin Towers belongs to the church of San Pedro and this is worth visiting to see it’s ceiling alone but there’s another reason to visit San Pedro’s. It has a famous legend which is worth following up on – the Legend of the “Amantes” or the “Lovers of Teruel”.

The ceiling of San Pedro’s

I’m aware of two different versions of the legend and both bear some similarity to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. There are probably many more versions but the one I favour is as follows:-

In 1217, Juan Diego Garces de Marcilla and Isabel de Segura lived in Teruel. They were lovers. Diego was a second son and as such unlikely to receive much of an inheritance while Isabel was the only child of a very wealthy nobleman by the name of Don Pedro de Segura. Despite their deep affection for each other, the romance between Diego and Isabel was doomed unless Diego could prove to Don Pedro that he was worthy of his daughter. Diego persuaded Don Pedro to agree to the marriage if he could win fame and fortune within a five year time frame. Promising Isabel that he would return to marry her, Diego then went off to war to win the required fame and fortune.

During the following five years Isabel heard nothing from Diego but she waited patiently for him; turning down countless suitors and frustrating all efforts of her father to marry her off to another. Meanwhile, Diego was caught up in the war against the Muslims to the south. He failed to return to Teruel before the end of the fifth year and Don Pedro wasted no time in arranging an alternative marriage for his daughter which took place immediately the five years was up.

Diego returned from the war rich and famous but he was too late. Isabel had been compelled to marry a man from nearby Albarracin just two days earlier. Devastated, Diego went to Isabel and begged, “bésame, que me muero” (“kiss me, for I am dying”). Isabel refused, saying she was now a married woman. He asked a second time for a final kiss but again she denied him and Diego died at her feet, there and then, of a broken heart.

At Diego’s funeral the following day, in total silence, Isabel arose from her seat in the church, walked to Diego’s open coffin and gave him in death the kiss she had denied him in life. She then fell dead. Much moved by Isabel’s expression of love, the families agreed to bury the two lovers side by side in the Church of San Pedro.

An alabaster statue of Diego and Isabel in the Church of Saint Pedro over the spot where their bodies are interred.

Anyway, after a pleasant walk around a most interesting city, we made our way back towards the small Plaza del Torico. We’d passed through there earlier in the day while exploring the old town and it seemed a very popular square and an ideal place to stop for a pinxtos lunch. The plaza is home to quite a few cafe bars and the one we stopped at did a pretty good “Delicias de Teruel”. This translates to “Delicacies of Teruel” and it comprises Teruel’s own Serrano Ham with warm toasted bread and a fresh tomato jam. Needless to say, we enjoyed it with a glass of the local wine.

Plaza del Torico is named after a small sculpture of a bull (the emblem of the city) which sits atop a tall column in the centre of the square but one could be forgiven for overlooking the almost pocket sized bull on a square that has an impressive fountain and some really progressive looking buildings. The most thought provoking of these buildings is the Casa de Tejidos El Torico (which houses the Caja Rural De Teruel). Tejidos is Spanish for fabrics (or weaving) but I think a more appropriate name would be the Casa de Josiah Wedgwood. The facade to the building is not made of porcelain but you cannot tell me that those blue and white colours are not pure Wedgwood…

Casa de Tejidos El Torico aka the Casa de Josiah Wedgwood

There’s another square, Plaza Juderia, where there appeared to be a few decent looking cafe bars serving the local ham but they will have to wait until we next return to Teruel. Certainly, I would be keen to return to this lovely little city. I would like to climb one of those beautifully decorated towers for a closer look and I would like to walk the 16th century aqueduct (Acueducto de los Arcos) which connects the historic old town to the more modern part of the city in the north. The aqueduct is visible from many parts of the town but I simply didn’t have time to find the approach to the lower level walkway.

We’ll be back.

Albarracin (Aragon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

I like Albarracin. It’s another unique rural village full of character and allure. Vanya didn’t find it so pleasant but that was in part because her hip has been playing up and the village sits atop a near vertical cliff face with a great many slopes and steps (which made it difficult for her to get around) and in part because it sits at 1200 metres above sea level and was quite cold at night (the temperature went down to just 2 degrees centigrade which didn’t please her). Having said that, we would both highly recommend visiting Albarracin.

Perched on a rocky hill high above the Rio Guadalavier in a natural bowl in the mountains of Aragon’s Teruel Province, Albarracin ranks amongst the most beautiful of all the ‘Puebla Mas Bonitas d’Espana’. It was once the capital of a Moorish Kingdom (a Taifa) and is one of the best examples of a ‘Mujedar Town’ anywhere in Spain. Mujedar refers to the group of Muslims who stayed on in Spain after it was reclaimed from the Moors by the Christians. It is also a term for Mudejar art and architecture which is an attractive blend of Spanish and Islamic art.

Albarracin clings to the steep sides of a rocky crag. Above it, safeguarding the southern and western sides of the village, are a series of high castle walls some of which date back to the 10th century. The other two sides of the village, the northern and eastern sides, are protected by a deep ravine formed by the Rio Guadalavier.

Over the centuries, three different fortresses have been built into the castle walls. The one at the top of the hill in this photo is the 12th centurey Torre del Andador, a Muslim Watchtower.

Two views from the Torre del Andador

Today’s Albarracin is actually a heavily restored version of the village which was badly damaged during the 1936 Civil War. When the war ended, the local authorities rebuilt the shattered houses according to centuries old traditions and plastered the walls with a red clay mix to give the place a uniform pink hue. This initiative has clearly paid off as, these days, the village’s principal income is from tourism although; there were few tourists around during our stay.

The Calle de Don Bernardo Zapater leads past the Albarracin Hotel towards the village’s main square and town hall (the Ayuntamiento de Abarracin). From this small attractive cobbled and very uneven square, various narrow lanes radiate off into the village. The whole village is a maze of steep twisting lanes and alleys (many of them cul de sacs) and hanging, crooked houses with wooden balconies some of which appear to tumble into each other.

A legend surrounds one of the more impressive buildings in the town – an old medieval defence tower known as the Torre de Dona Blanca. Dona Blanca was a princess, the youngest sister of a King of Aragon and she was extraordinarily beautiful; so much so that her brother’s wife was jealous of her and had her seized and imprisoned in the tower when she was passing through Albarracin on her way to Castile. Dona Blanca was never seen again but legend has it that she died alone in the tower and the villagers believe that every full moon in the summer, when the bells of the church of Santa María ring at midnight, the figure of a grieving woman (the spirit of Doña Blanca) can be seen wandering through the city.

Torre de Dona Blanca

Towards the top end of the village is a Roman Catholic Cathedral (the Cathedral of El Salvador). It was built in a Romanesque-Mudejar style on the site of an old mosque some time during the 16th century. Next to it is the Dolz del Espejo (the Bishop’s Palace) which was built at much the same time but was altered considerably during the 18th century. Unfortunately, both buildings were closed while we were there. I do like the tiles on the cathedral’s belltowers!

Two views of the belltower of the Cathedral of El Salvador.

This photo captures the bell towers of the Church of Santa Maria (in the foreground) and the Cathedral of El Salvador (in the background)...

but these two are my favourites – looking down on the town from the Moorish Watchtower.

I was going to write about some of the village’s history, which in parts is very bloodthirsty (especially just after the Caliphate of Cordoba was dissolved and Albarracin was ruled by the 20 year old Abu Mohamed Hudail ben Jalaf ben Lubb – although things got even worse under his son Abdel Melic) but instead, I’ll leave it at that…

Ainsa (Aragon), Spain May 2023 (Tour 7)

And so we made our way to Aragon and the small mountain village of Ainsa, in the north of Huesca Province. Having not seen very much of Aragon during previous tours (just Alquezar, Anso and Valfarta) we thought to spend a few days in the Region before moving on to La Rioja and Castilla y Leon.

Our route took us via the Embalse de Mediano (Mediano Reservoir). The village of Mediano was completely submerged in 1969 when General Franco authorised the creation of a reservoir in the area. The inhabitants had to leave their homes as the flood started (the reservoir was opened without warning) and then watch them disappear below the waters. This story very much reminds me of Riano over in Castilla y Leon which we visited in 2021.

The turqouise of the reservoir water was beautiful. The picture of the Mediano Church (great photo) is not one of mine. This was taken when the reservoir was much depleted by drought. Ordinarily only the belltower of the church is visible.

The village of Ainsa (it is a small town really with just over 2,000 inhabitants) is located at the northern end of the Mediano Reservoir at the confluence of the Rivers Cinca and the Ara. It is close to three National Parks, the Ordesa y Monte Perdido, the Sierra y Canones de Guara and the Posets-Maladeta and in a great hillwalking area. I recently read about an interesting one day hike which takes in Ainsa and two other local villages, Torla Ordesa and Broto, and passes under a fairly large waterfall too.

Our campsite was within easy walking distance of Ainsa and after parking the Van and ensuring Vanya and the dogs were comfortable I went off on an ‘Explore’ making my way over the bridge across the River Cinca and into the more modern commercial part of the town before turning right onto the Avenida Pirenaica and then up the hill towards the old town.

From the bridge there are some fine views north towards the Pyrenees but I was more interested in seeing the medieval part of Ainsa and as I climbed the hill up into old town, it was the local hill, Pena Montenesa, which dominated all.

The first photo of the distant Pyrenees was taken from where the Van was parked. The other photo was from the bridge over the River Cinca. The tallest mountain in the photo (on the extreme left) is Mount Cilindro which at 3,325 metres is one of the tallest in the Pyrenees, just 79 metres lower than Mount Aneto.

Pena Montenesa, 2,295 metres high, is much closer and dominates the village.

It is the beauty of the old town that helped Ainsa gain admittance to Los Pueblos mas Bonitos de Espana – the list of ‘Spain’s Most Beautiful Villages’. The old town’s shape is not unlike that of Dozza, another hilltop ‘village’ we visited in Italy three years ago – it takes the form of a spindle; stretching the whole length of the hill and with two tapering ends. Ainsa’s main gate is at the southern end of the hill and a 12th century castle stands at the northern end. Two narrow cobbled streets of hewn uneven stone houses and shops (Calle Mayor and Calle de Santa Cruz) run inside castle walls along each side of the village from the south gate northwards to a large square (the Plaza Mayor) which in turn leads to the castle entrance.

Left: Heading north along Calle de Santa Cruz towards the castle. Right: Heading south along Calle Mayor towards the south gate.

I entered the old town via the eastern gate. Three of the existing five gates into the town date back to the 11th/12th century and the eastern gate is one of them. The view from this particular gate across to the Pena Montenesa is something else.

Pena Montenesa as seen through the eastern gate to the old town.

Two more gates into the old town. The gate on the left is the south gate . The gate on the right is the entrance to the castle and the photo shows the view south across Plaza Mayor to the 11th century Parish Church of Santa Maria.

Turning right on to Calle de Santa Cruz, after entering the old town via the Eastern Gate, the first significant building to be encountered is the Parish Church of Santa Maria which sits at the southern end of the Plaza Mayor. Plaza Mayor is large cobbled market square surrounded by medieval arcaded buildings and it was this square that helped put Ainsa on the map after it was declared a National Monument in 1965. Santa Maria is an 11th century church built in the Romanesque style on the site of an old Moorish fortress as part of a christian defensive line to protect the village against the Moors.

At the northern end of the Plaza Mayor is the old castle. During the 17th century and at the expense of well over 100 private dwellings, the castle was extended into the citadel it is now. Of course much of the citadel fell to ruin when the old town was largely vacated during the 19th and 20th centuries but it’s footprint remains and it is possible to walk most of it’s ramparts which afford splendid views both towards the Pyrenees and back over the town.

One of the older buildings on the Plaza Mayor

I returned to the Plaza Mayor later in the day with Vanya and we enjoyed a couple of beers and wines outside one of the cafe bars before taking a last saunter around the Old Town as darkness descended.

The view from the Eastern Gate as we left was every bit as good as earlier in the day.

Collioure (Occitanie), France May 2023 (Tour 7)

Collioure is one of France’s best kept secrets. Nestled in a sheltered bay on the Catalan Coast with turquoise coloured waters and a dark green backdrop which are the Alberes Mountains, it’s a picture perfect little fishing town (anchovies) now given over to tourism (although only the French seem to know about it). It’s the smallest and most picturesque of the Cote Vermeille resorts and one of the most adorable coastal towns I have ever visited.

My first trip into Collioure saw me enter the town from the north. I walked the cliff tops from Camping Les Criques de Porteils, down onto the Plage de L’Ouille and then upwards and onwards past the CNEC military base (the Commando Training Centre) and into the town near the large fortress that is the Chateau Royal de Collioure.

The Knights Templar built the Chateau Royal early in the 13th century (1207?) and it was extended during the next 300 years, first by the Kings of Mallorca and then by the Spanish Hapsburgs. It is probably four castles in one now. I didn’t have time to explore the inside of the fortress on this occasion.

The Chateau Royal is on the left, towering over the Ansa de la Baleta Bay.

After gaining my bearings and taking numerous photos of the fortress and the 17th century Notre Dame des Anges church (i.e. the Church of our Lady of the Angels) – none of them very good – I followed a narrow path under the fortress walls and around the bay towards the southern edge of Collioure. I should say here that I didn’t see the church in it’s best light (it was covered in scaffolding, inside and out) but the Baroque interior is worth a look.

Left: The Bell Tower of the Church of our Lady of the Angels with the Saint Vincent Chapel caught behind it. Centre: The Saint Vincent Chapel photographed through a hole in the town walls. Right: The Church again with Lateen boats in the foreground.

This path under the fortress walls took me to another beach, the Plage de Port d’Avall (there are four or five small beaches in Collioure), and then on down the Rue Jean Bart to a terrific little bar with excellent views back across to the main part of the town.

That beach is the Plage de Port d’Avall and up on the hills behind is the 14th century Moulon de Collioure (a grain mill restored in 2001 and which is now used to produce the local olive oil) and yet another Templar Fort (Fort Saint Elme).

That’s the view of the church across the bay from the little bar I paused at and…

that’s a view from Fort Saint Elme (not mine – I gave up because the sun was simply too bright). The views from up on the hill are breathtaking.

Anyway, after refreshing myself with another (smaller) beer back at the bar I set off to explore the town itself.

The lanes behind the Plage de Port d’Avall are largely residential and the houses are invariably painted varying shades of red, orange and/or yellow and

… the buildings in the centre of Collioure, whether residential or commercial, tend to carry more vibrant colours and, by order of the town council, none may be painted black or white.

Some of the streets are truly striking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this particular area of the town is known locally as ‘La Petite Montmartre’.

Around 1904/1905 the artists Henri Matisse and Andre Derain were inspired by the light and colours of Collioure to create what subsequently became known as the fauvist style of painting – they used strong colours and fierce brushwork and sometimes even applied colour directly from the paint tube. These painters were considered wild beasts of the art world by certain critics and with ‘fauve’ being French for the ‘wildcat’, so the Fauvists were formed.

Examples of the Fauvism. On the left a painting of Collioure by Matisse (Les toits de Collioure) and on the right one by Derain (Charing X Bridge, London).

Unfortunately, Vanya was troubled with a sore hip during our stay in Collioure and couldn’t handle the walk into town. We therefore missed out on seeing the place at night but it has given us a reason to return – As if we needed one!

Of course, Collioure is in the former administrative region of Languedoc Roussillon (now part of Occitanie) and any visit to such an area has to include a trip to a local winery whether it be to the likes of Picpoul for a nice dry white or Banyuls, just to the south of Collioure, for it’s famous sweet wines. We broke with convention and sought out Les Vignerons des Alberes.

Waiting for our wine in Les Vignerons des Alberes, just outside Collioure. We bought almost 10 litres each of their red and white wines. Their more expensive red is sold in 3 litre boxes and is superb. We will be buying considerably more upon our return.

Yep. Collioure really did it for me and we will definitely return. The only thing I would do differently next time is (a) to take a meal in one of the three Michelin recommended restaurants on the seafront (La Balette has a Michelin Star but Le 5eme Peche and Mamma Les Roches Brunes look equally appealing) and (b) to continue the journey into Spain using the D86 road to Cerbere rather than the motorway. I suspect the coast road will provide some great photo opportunities.

And so onto Spain but, I’ll leave you with one more photo of this lovely town…