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.

Valfarta (Aragon), Spain July 2021 (Tour 4)

Back to Spain. Drove back down from Andorra via La Seu d’Urgell (stopping at the supermarket to pick up some food – No really, it was just food this time – don’t forget that Andorra is duty free) and then on through Catalonia to Aragon and the very small village of Valfarta.

On the way to Valfarta we paused briefly at Coll de Narga by the Oliana Reservoir (the Panta d’Oliana); as much for photos and to break the journey as anything. This place is renowned as a climbers paradise (witness the 27 crags) but it is also known as the last area on Earth to be inhabited by dinosaurs, some 65 million years ago. We didn’t visit it but there is an area open to the public here called the ‘Mirador del Creataci’ where you can see dinosaur footprints, fossilised plant and animal remains and dinosaur nests and eggs (including the largest dinosaur nest in Europe, belonging to a titanosaurus).

Vanya chose Valfarta as an overnight stop on our way to Logrono and, while it is quite remote and there’s little to see or do in the village itself, it worked well for us. It’s dirt cheap and very clean with friendly management and all the facilities you need (and more) and; it is situated right next to the village swimming pool and just 5 minutes walk from the village bar – restaurant. You couldn’t ask for more.

Alquezar (Huesca, Aragon), Spain – September 2020 (Tour 3)

Vanya chose our next stop and a great one it was too. We intended stopping for a single night but quickly added a second.

The camp site she chose was Camping Rio Vero and as the name suggests it sits on the Rio Vero, one of many rivers in the Sierra de Guara – a small mountain range that runs parallel with the Pyrenees. The site is at the end point of the Rio Vero Canyon and the owner has strategically dammed the river to create two small natural swimming pools at each end of the camp. With it being sunny and the temperature hitting the high 20’s it wasn’t long before our two dogs were in the cool crystal clear pools and we were of a mind to do the same once we had gathered sufficient courage to enter the cold mountain water (perhaps in the morning?).

This area being loaded with rivers and streams it came as no surprise to learn the camp site could organise canyoning and rappelling in any number of local gorges and Vanya and I were both up for it until we were told it would be a full day affair and we would have to leave the dogs behind. Some other time perhaps.

The next morning, after an early breakfast and instead of canyoning, we elected to walk the dogs some 4-5 kilometres along the old road to Alquezar; have lunch at the village and; return by way of the river bed. I had been told by the campsite owner it was possible to walk along the riverbed all the way from the village back to the campsite and that the experience and scenery would be well worth the effort. Both these points were confirmed by the tourist board office in Alquezar.

The walk along the old road to Alquezar was easy and within an hour we entered the village and what a place! Beautiful!

The Moors built a fortress there in the 9th century and it wasn’t long thereafter before houses were being built around the base of the fortress (the Arabic word for which is Al Qasr) and that is how Alquezar came to be. Christians took the town from the Moors in 1064 and over a period of time the fortress or at least part of it was converted to a collegiate church, the Colgiatte Church of Santa Maria la Mayor. Just down from the collegiate a newer church, the Iglesia Parroquial de San Miguel Arcangel, was built between 1681 and 1708 and both buildings very much command the village.

Alquezar is a small village of little more than 300 people and despite being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998, I am delighted to report that it has not yet been overrun by tourists. In fact it was not at all busy as we arrived.

Almost all of the village is pedestrianised and it is a warren of narrow winding lanes with all the houses made of the same rose coloured limestone, brick or mud. Many of the lanes are covered with passageways as inhabitants extended their homes for more space.

We have seen a great many wonderful medieval villages during this tour (both in Spain and France) but what sets this one apart are the uniform pink buildings and panoramic views over the Rio Vero Gorge. There are fine viewing points all over the town and especially from the collegiate church / castle but my favourite is from outside one of the restaurants that we passed on our way into the village and we returned there for lunch.

After a mixed platter of starter size dishes and a couple of beers it was time to head down into the Rio Vero Gorge and make tracks downstream to our camp site. It started off quite well with Vanya managing her fear of heights (although she did complain a bit) as we very slowly descended the dirt track road to the bottom of the gorge. A footbridge at the bottom marked the start of our river walk…

The dogs very quickly took to the water. Vanya followed a little later holding her handbag clear of the water and muttering incessantly about how cold the water was but, otherwise, it seemed to be going quite well. Then the water got a little bit deeper and somewhat rockier and, if you believe her, colder…Well, I’ll let the photos do the talking…

Forget the pictures. It is not in my best interests to show more or relate further on this matter. It will suffice to say that the wade went on for a while longer and Vanya’s humour darkened as the day progressed but we all made it back safe and sound…

…and we’re heading for the coast tomorrow – a place called L’Escala. She’s always in a better frame of mind when at the seaside.

A final photo (not mine) of Alquezar…

Anso (Huesca, Aragon), Spain – September 2020 (Tour 3)

Cannot believe I have never heard of Anso. Vanya found it although after the drive up she probably wished she hadn’t.

We left Hendaye later than anticipated and headed across to Spain by way of Saint Jean Pied de Port and the D128 / N135. Our original plan had been to stay at a small campsite up in the Pyrenees so that I could do some hill walking but within an hour or so of reaching the place we changed our mind and decided to make for the Yesa Reservoir instead. That’s one of the advantages of van life – total flexibility.

Almost 10 kms long the reservoir is known locally as the Sea of the Pyrenees and we thought it could be a nice place to swim and catch some rays and; it would have been except there is no official campsite in the immediate vicinity and we couldn’t wild camp for lack of water (we have been driving on minimal water for days) and food (we hadn’t passed a decent sized shop since crossing the Pyrenees).

After a short stop at the Reservoir taking the obligatory photos / videos, we started googling for an alternative campsite and it was then that Vanya found a small site up at a place called Anso.

The Yesa photos were taken near Embalse De Yesa and it was from there that we programmed the Satnav to take us to Anso. The route took us via the N240 past Sigues to the A1602 (the Ruta de los Valles Occidentales de Aragon) and what a final leg that was!

Following the Rio Veral for much of the way the A1602 is a single track road that clings to the steep craggy side of the Rio Veral Gorge and snakes around and sometimes through numerous rocky outcrops that tower over the fast flowing river below. Progress was slow because I couldn’t help stopping to take in the sights. What started off as thickly wooded hills gave way to some amazing mountain scenery. There were knife edge arretes, cavernous drops down into the gorge and some amazing rock sculptures caused by the erosive effect of wind and water on the mix of soft limestone and hard granite that form this part of the Pyrenees. I just had to pause to take these sights in.

And Vanya? It will suffice to say she was not happy. She hates heights. Just as well it was her who chose our destination or I would have been in deep trouble.

All too soon we arrived at our destination but Anso itself was a revelation. It is a remote traditional stone built village resting on the banks of the Rio Veral in the Western Aragonese Pyrenees and it is stunningly beautiful – Uno de los Pueblos mas Bonitos de Espana.

The next day I set off on a bit of a walkabout. I had no idea where I was going but Anso sits within the Valles Occidentales Natural Park and I was spoiled for choice. Everywhere you look there are U shaped valleys, leafy forests, mountain lakes, rivers and waterfalls and, best of all, lots of limestone peaks.

The area is supposedly teaming with chamois, fox, wild boar and the odd brown bear. The odd brown bear!!! Mostly however it is about birds here. It is an ornithologists paradise. Leaving aside the alpine birds (too many to mention and, to be honest, I could barely tell one from another) there are numerous raptors (i.e. vultures, kites and eagles). I was lucky enough to stumble on a bird watchers hide and the check charts inside helped me identify three different species of vultures (Griffon, Bearded and Egyptian Vultures) and two of kites (the Red Kite and the Black Kite). I missed out on the Golden Eagles.

It was an easy decision to stay on here for three nights. The campsite bar helped as well inasmuch that it was the cheapest we had happened upon – 3.60 Euros for a large beer and a wine.