Spain captivates millions of visitors a year with its stunning cities, endless beaches and welcoming weather. But even this most popular of European countries still provides opportunities for discovery, as Jon Yeomans found out.
The interior of Spain is one of Europe’s most remote regions – two hours’ drive from the coast can land you in the middle of a timeless world. Here are some top tips for discovering Spain’s hidden gems:
The city of Albarracín clings to a craggy mountaintop, a huddle of soft, pink houses embraced by the arms of an ancient wall. Approaching from the road below, my first glimpse was through fleeting trees and shafts of sunlight. A sudden bend in the track brought me into clear view of the city – a higgledy-piggledy warren of winding streets and picturesque houses.
The city is nothing less than a perfectly preserved medieval film set, brimming with lanes and narrow, car-free roads. The streets twist and turn as they slope up into the town. In the blazing heat, the buildings leant forward to shade the alleyways, funnelling me inexorably towards the main square. The Plaza Mayor was fringed by a handful of pleasant bars – the perfect place to enjoy a beer and a plate of migas, a local delicacy comprised of breadcrumbs fried in oil and garlic, mixed with jamon and chorizo.
A walk further uphill took me to the 16th-century cathedral and the medieval church of Santa Maria. Each turn of the road brought another stunning view of the town. The walls of the Alcázar fortress, dating from the 11th century, rise over the shoulder of the mountain that overlooks the city. Down below, the Guadalaviar River brushes up against the town, glinting murky green against its lush banks.
Eating and Sleeping in Albarracín
Visitors to Albarracín will find their stomachs well catered for in the bars around the Plaza Mayor. A short walk away on Calle Chorro, the Rincón del Chorro specialises in roasted meats, steaks and migas. The Hostal de los Palacios boasts a restaurant and terrace with fine views, as well as clean, cheap rooms. The three-star Hotel Albarracín is centrally located with well-appointed rooms housed inside a former palace. Down the hill, the Hotel Posada El Rodeno offers standard two-star accommodation, while the official youth hostel is the Rosa Brios.
South of Albarracín, my journey took me past the Universales mountains, which contain a hunting reserve home to deer and wild boar. The area is popular for camping, hiking, climbing, cycling and horseriding. A couple of miles from Albarracín, I stopped to check out a series of cave paintings dating from around 7,000BC.
My next stop was the castle of Peracense, a huge ruin on a rocky outcrop overlooking a wide plain. Built in the distinctive red stone of the area, the castle dates from the 12th century. Scrambling up the ramparts, I was treated to a vast vista of sky, cliffs and the valley below.
Arriving in the town, you cannot help but be struck by its distinctive church towers and imposing cathedral. The city is best known for its UNESCO-listed examples of Mudéjar architecture. This unique offshoot of Islamic art was developed by Muslims living under Christian rule following the reconquest of Spain.
Diving into the side streets, I caught tantalising glimpses of Teruel’s prime Mudéjar sites – the cathedral of Santa Maria and the twin towers of San Salvador and San Martin. These almost identical bell towers loom large over the town.
One of the city’s essential sites is the mausoleum of the Lovers of Teruel. In the year 1217, a poor young man named Diego professed his love for Isabel, the daughter of a wealthy noble. Isabel’s father disapproved of the match, so Diego pledged to make his fortune and return within five years to claim her hand. Alas, he came back a day late, and saw his love married to another. Isabel’s refusal to grant Diego one last kiss led to his death of a broken heart. Isabel visited her lover in the church of San Pedro and belatedly granted him his final kiss; moments later, she too was dead.
Eating and sleeping in Teruel
El Pecado de Eva near the Plaza del Torico offers good-value drinks and tapas, as well as traditional Aragonese garlic soup. Nearby, the Taberna Donosti provides hearty meals and drinks.
Teruel’s prime accommodation is to be found at the Parador de Teruel, part of Spain’s network of hotels housed in historic buildings. The Parador’s grand interiors are complimented by an enormous pool and a fine restaurant. Elsewhere, the three-star Hotel Oriente offers good-quality rooms a short walk from the old town, while the Hospederia El Semanario provides solid accommodation in a former Jesuit college dating from the 18th century.
Teruel is connected to the capital of Aragon, Zaragoza, by four daily trains. The A-23 Autovia Mudéjar connects the city with Valencia in one direction and Zaragoza in the other. If you are renting a car, the journey from the coast takes approximately two hours. The bus journey from Teruel to Madrid takes four and a half hours; there is a minimum of three buses a day, operated by Autocares Samar. There is one bus a day between Teruel and Albarracín.