” Castile has no coast, so tourists in search of a beach leave it alone…. Castile is almost overlooked. If Spain is hard, extreme, hot, cold, empty, then Castile is more so.” Christopher House – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’
A few weeks after returning from Castilla-la Mancha to the south of Madrid we were going back to Spain and this time to Castilla y Leon to the north of the capital. We had been here in March this year to Ávila and Segovia but this time we were going further north and west, flying in to Valladolid and staying in the small city of Ciudad Rodrigo.
We had been looking forward to this because Castilla y Leon is as far away from the coastal strip as it is possible to get and is home to half of Spain’s cultural heritage sites including seven UNESCO World Heritage treasures, over two hundred castles and eleven magnificent cathedrals. It is the birthplace of the Spanish language, which after Chinese and Hindi is the third most common language in the World just ahead of English.
We had a late morning flight and as we flew south across Spain the clouds increased and there was nothing to see until we began to descend toward Valladolid where they began to break into various patchy fragments and below us we could see large colourful fields, russet, grey, cream and yellow broken now and again by bottle green forests, shimmering blue lakes and occasional villages with ochre tiled roofs.
Valladolid airport is only small with limited facilities but there was a sign apologising for this and promising imminent improvements. We collected a steel grey Seat Ibiza from the Avis rental car office and set off immediately on the two hundred-kilometre drive to Ciudad Rodrigo.
There were plenty of things to stop and see along the way but it was mid afternoon and we were in a hurry to get to our destination so we took the Autovia de Castilla and with virtually no traffic to share the road with had an easy journey all of the way.
We were crossing the Meseta, the great central plain of interior Spain, which at two hundred and ten thousand square kilometres makes up forty percent of the country and has an average altitude of six hundred and fifty metres. It is split in two by the Sistema Central, the Guadarrama and Gredos mountain ranges, creating Old Castile to the north (Castilla y Leon) and New Castile to the south (Castilla La Mancha). The northern ‘submeseta’ is the higher of the two at over eight hundred metres and coming from below sea level in Lincolnshire I worried that we might require oxygen cylinders.
After about half way we passed by Salamanca and we could see its golden coloured cathedrals standing proud and high above the city and after that the landscape began to change (I say cathedrals because Salamanca has two, an old one and a new one that are joined together into one massive structure). We left behind the pretty coloured fields and entered a different environment of green fields and woodlands and more and more livestock.
After a couple of hours of really enjoyable motoring we came to Ciudad Rodrigo, which is the last city in Spain before reaching Portugal, a fortress city built to protect the western border of the country and as we approached we could see the walled city and its fortifications standing on a rocky outcrop in a commanding defensive position.
I knew roughly where the hotel Molina de Águeda was and as we kept an eye open for directions Kim had one of her navigational fluke moments and spotted a half hidden sign that signposted our destination. As we pulled into the car park there were a few spots of rain but it came to nothing and there were blue skies above us as we unloaded the car and went inside to reception. It was a very nice hotel indeed located in an old water mill on the river Agueda, elegantly refurbished and surrounded by woods and we had a good room on the front with a nice view of the river and the old city about a kilometre away.
As a consequence of a severe Atlantic storm we woke to a hissing wind and dark scowling clouds that the mountains of Portugal had failed to detain storming in from the west. It was mean and moody but there was no rain so that was a bonus. From the hotel balcony it was possible to appreciate just what a land of contrasts Spain really is.
This was about as far away from the traditional view of Spain of the holiday brochures as it is possible to get and it was different too from our visit the previous month to Castilla-la Mancha. Here we were getting close towards green Spain in the north with more small farms, livestock, deciduous woods, fast flowing rivers and Portugal just twenty-five kilometres away, which was where we planned to visit later.
After breakfast it was still misty so we were forced to abandon our plans to return to Ciudad Rodrigo for blue-sky photographs and set off instead to visit the historical city of Salamanca. Because it was earlier than we had anticipated we decided to take a scenic route rather than the direct Autovia de Castilla. Leaving the city for the last time we took the road signposted towards Béjar in a southeasterly direction towards the Gredos mountains and in particular the Sierra de Francia, one of the ranges belonging to the Sistema Central, the mountain range that separates Spain in two.
At first the road was long and straight as it cut through a flat landscape of livestock farms and woods that were slowly beginning to emerge from the swirling mists of a November morning. As we drove through a succession of quiet towns the sun began to poke through and the sky started to turn blue. After a while we hit the edge of a national park with pine covered mountain slopes and then deciduous woods of alder, oak, pine and ash in splendid autumn finery that made it look like a field of gold. The road became more difficult as we entered a series of hairpin bends with glorious views over the valleys and mountain passes below.
I had miscalculated the driving distance towards our turn for Salamanca and we seemed to keep going forever but the journey and the scenery was magnificent and another valuable Spanish geography lesson. Eventually we reached the road junction we were heading for and turned northeast towards Salamanca. At first the road continued to twist and turn but after a few kilometres we dropped quickly back down to open range and the agricultural plain and started to pick up speed and make good progress.