A TIMELESS LAND OF CONTRASTS
I want to take you on a historical, culinary, and sensorial journey across the diverse landscapes of one of the most breath-taking areas of Spain. We’ll visit the birth of the river Duero in the north-west and head across to the rugged Tierras Altas of windswept villages and ichnites in the east. We’ll take brisk strolls through the lands of cereals, pine forests and sunflowers in the central parts and explore the fertile banks of the river Duero of vineyards, wine caves and castles in the south-west. If ever there was a most underrated part of the world, it is Soria - Soria, the province, that is. The capital of the province, also called Soria, has its own far share of alluring sites in the form of museums, parks, squares and religious monuments, but the province of Soria, located in the region of Castille and Leon, is something to definitely write home about – which is what I have done on many occasions.
If you jump in a car in Madrid and head north, you can be in the city of Soria in two and a half hours. This will take you up through the southern border of the province to the village of Medinaceli; the three-gated Roman arch can be seen perched high on the hill before you wind your way up into the historic centre. The famous Muslim warrior Almanzor had his headquarters and later died and was buried here during the Islam conquest. The medieval castle, Gothic Colegiata de Santa Maria and the panoramic views make the short detour worthwhile. Now it’s time to hit the highway through 40km of flat dry Castilian landscape and cereal fields to Almazán.
Let’s stop awhile in Almazán to stretch our legs and have a drink in the Plaza Mayor. There’s the wonderful 12th century Mudejar-Romanesque church of San Miguel or the Hurtado de Mendoza Palace with its Renaissance façade to admire from your outdoor seating. Pick up some paciencias - traditional biscuits made from egg whites, from one of the bakeries while you’re there (so-called “patience” for their teeth-breaking consistency – best to suck on them than chew.) But let’s keep moving. So much to see, so much to do.
We’re going to get off the freeway now and head north-west a little to the municipality of Quintana Redonda. The villages here are all but deserted during the winter months. They come alive in summer when families who long ago moved to the cities, return to the ancestral home with their children and grandchildren. Soria is the least populated province in Spain and one of the most elderly. The municipality of Quintana Redonda is made up of 11 villages with a permanent population of less than 500. Many of the buildings are crumbling and in disrepair and modern agricultural machinery is stored alongside rusty farm tools in abandoned sheds. Oh, and the trains don’t pass through very often. But there are wonderful walks and if you’re feeling energetic, climb the Sierra of Inodejo from the abandoned village of Monasterio for breath-taking views over the forests and fields, because what the villages may lack, the landscapes more than make up for.
Forgive me if I wax too lyrical but I truly love this part of Soria, mostly because it reveals a unique character in every season. In summer the pine forests are a perfect place to cool down, preferably next to a fountain whose constant flow of fresh spring water attracts wildlife as well as the occasional local. The sweet piney smell oozes out of the trees as a sticky golden resin and the white sap prized by the resineros. This traditional trade was forgotten for many years but has made a comeback in this part of the province. The bark is stripped back to the capillaries and the thick white fragrant sap left to drizzle into a small black plastic pot over the next few days. In the past they used ceramic pots whose broken remains can still be seen around the forest. The derivatives of resin are used as additives in medicines, printing inks, tyres, paints, cosmetics and more.
Then there’s the smell of wood smoke in the deserted shepherds’ hut during the autumn months as the red peppers are roasting slowly over an open fire and the light rain patters outside. This is the time to go hunting for saffron milk caps, parasols and thistle mushrooms and if you’re lucky, find a morel or inky cap hidden beneath the fiery orange, yellow and red leaves. Autumn is certainly the best time for foraging – late blackberries and thyme in the abandoned villages, walnuts, almonds and chestnuts if you know where to go.
Spring is the season for lambs and calves, busy birds nesting, rushing rivers, vivid green fields, long bike rides and picnics; summer is a chorus of insects and long dry wheat and barley stalks, endless sunflowers, deer tracks in the mud after a storm, and sleepy dogs. Winter is frost on bare red fields, icy puddles on silent country roads, visible breath, and hot chocolate with churros.
Anyway, we have spent too long here. Time to move on. Driving a little further west we come to the fortified medieval village of Calatañazor. This is a delightful place to wander around admiring the ancient houses, conical chimneys, cobbled stones and castle, some of which can be seen in Orson Welles' 1966 movie 'Chimes at Midnight'.
The prominent rollo (scroll) in the centre of the main square was a common spot to flog and torture the unfortunates, and leaving their dead bodies tied to the column was a deterrent to any visitor with mischievous motives. These days it's simply a great spot to sit and appreciate our more modern justice system.
Heading south, we come to Burgo de Osma. We are in the land of the castles! During the reconquest, drawn out between the 8th and 15th centuries, Castille and Leon was an integral part of the country as Christians and Moors battled it out over who would control the northern kingdoms. Control of the lands flowed back and forth over the ‘Line of the Duero’ - referring to the river that cuts the top third off from the rest of the peninsular - but the line was finally claimed once and for all by the Christians in the 11th century. El Burgo de Osma and its close neighbour, the City of Osma, sit on this frontier and their rich cultural history is visible in the convents, seminaries, churches, university, Cathedral of the Assumption, main square, Arab watchtower and of course, the castle.
From here, other noteworthy castles to visit are those of Gormaz, Berlanga de Duero and Carancena. Caracena is especially worth the half hour drive south from Burgo de Osma for the small village’s medieval architecture, the castle ruins and the exquisite Romanesque Church of Saint Peter with its rare, twisted column. The nearby Caracena canyon is jaw-dropping and offers long walks surrounded by towering walls of stone.
A little further south is the Tiermes Archaeological Site and Museum for anyone interested in Soria’s Celtic history and in learning more about their heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful fight against the Romans in the Celtiberian Wars. It is also interesting for the houses, thermal baths, passageways and tombs that were carved into the red sandstone by the Romans, as well as their aqueduct and impressive water supply system.
Let’s follow the river Duero back up, this time to San Esteban de Gormaz, continuing our journey along a route that has become synonymous with its delectable red wines. The Ribera del Duero route continues into the provinces of Segovia, Burgos and Valladolid where the extreme climates and rich clayey limestone sand has been appreciated for 2000 years of wine making, since the Romans perfected the skill first introduced on the peninsula by the Phoenicians. The village of San Esteban is crowned by a castle in ruins but carved into the soft sandstone hill are dozens of underground cellars and wineries.
Excavated between the 10th and 18th centuries, these well-hidden cellars are given away by the chimneys that protrude up out of the rock - an indispensable addition that allows lethal gases produced by the fermenting grapes to escape. Apparently, the wine makers would go down with candles to see how much oxygen remained in the cave. This winemaking tradition goes back to medieval times; the caves were an ideal way to keep a constant and cool temperature of 15-18º C all year round, and although there are about 300 catalogued caves that still exist, they are no longer used for wine production.
Now, most families use them as an oversized cool room and have renovated the outsides of the caves with BBQ areas and patios for summer fiesta socialising. Nearby are the prehistoric rock carvings and paintings of Cueva de las Salinas.
Ok, we’ve stocked up on wine at a few bodegas along the river Duero and now it’s time to head back to Burgo de Osma to take the road up to the village of Ucero. Its commanding castle, with its remaining keep and defensive walls is worth a quick visit but the real reason we’re here is for the canyon.
The canyon of Río Lobos is made up of spectacular limestone walls shaped by the river Lobos over millions of years and now is a popular place for hikers and those who just want to visit the pretty Romanesque hermitage of Saint Bartholomew. The monumental cliffs are home to a variety of birds of prey, especially the griffin vulture which can usually be seen surfing the air currents above.
Time to head north-east via Abejar and Molinos de Duero because we’re going to see where this great river Duero begins. There are some incredible, yet strenuous, walks up the mountains of Urbión, and whether you intend to reach the peaks or only go as far as the glorious glacial Laguna Negra (Black Lagoon), the views will take your breath away.
The Urbión mountain range separates the provinces of Burgos, Soria and La Rioja and are covered in snow from October to May. The best time to climb is in the summer when the mountains are covered in pink heather and buzzing with insects.
Leave the car at Tres Fuentes and walk the 8km to the summit that stands 2228m above sea level. Halfway along the dirt trail that runs through forests of Scots pine, you can take a detour to the Black Lagoon and then an alternative route through some stunning scenery to the peak. Once arrived, panting but exhilarated, 400 metres more will take you to the birth of the river Duero, just a trickle seeping through the rocks at this point before flowing down the mountains, absorbing streams along the way and finally turning into the life-giving source that runs all the way to Porto in Portugal.
In winter, the Santa Inés Snow Point attracts visitors who enjoy skiing, sledding and snowmobiling and in summer the Cuerda del Pozo reservoir is the place for water sports and enjoying a sandy beach in the centre of the country. The dam was created on the now abandoned village of La Muedra and when the water is low, you can still see the bell tower of the church!
Fifteen minutes drive further north along a narrow mountain road, past pine forests and more amazing views, you'll come to the lovely little stone village, Montenegro de Cameros. It's not advisable to try the trip in winter, but in spring the blossoms are blooming, the snow is melting and the village is picture perfect.
Exhausted yet? Back in the car, we’re heading east to the Highlands, famous for their unforgiving climate and dinosaur ichnites. The Tierras Altas are rugged rolling hills of sparse vegetation and even sparser populations. It takes a tough character to carve a life out of these hills, suffering bitter winds and sub-zero winters.
The stone villages still house some hardy folk, and the seasonal grazing of sheep continues today. Oncala is a great place to pick up some sheep milk cheese and from there, it’s a quick 6-minute drive to El Collado where you can stock up on embutidos – cured pig meat sausages.
The roads wind through a cold dry landscape that exudes a timeless sense of struggle. This prehistoric quality is increased on seeing the numerous ichnites found around the valleys. You can visit them in Los Campos, Villar del Río, Santa Cruz de Yanguas, and Bretún on the Route of the Ichnites. Fuente de Magaña boasts the largest dinosaur replica in the world at 32m long and 8m high. It’s an apatosaurus if you’re interested.
If ichnites are not your thing, the Tierras Altas offer Romanesque architecture, medieval villages and many fabulous hiking trails through ravines and rivers. There is also the fiesta of Paso del Fuego in San Pedro de Manrique where they walk on hot coals the night of San Juan, and the Acebal de Garagüeta is the largest holly wood in Europe!
From here, let’s mosey back down to Soria city, stopping off at Garray to absorb some more local history at the Archeological Site of Numancia - the excavated necropolis of the Celtiberians that has given historians so much information on the rich culture and history of this province. There is a re-enactment of the Roman siege of Numancia every first Saturday of August, and to learn more about the Celtiberians, head over to the Numantine Museum in Soria city. Oh, and while you’re in the city, please don’t forget to visit the outdoor cloister of the monastery of San Juan de Duero – the monastery is no longer there but the remains of the cloister are a brilliant example of Castilian Romanesque architecture from the 12th century and if you're in town during Easter week, you'll be treated to colourful processions and calanda drumming.
Everywhere you go in Soria there is something to see and do. Whether you’re into nature, history, architecture, food or culture, Soria has it in abundance. The same could be said about all of Spain, but if you’re planning a trip anytime soon, don’t forget to visit the lesser-known province of Soria!
Note: If you'd like to see more photos of the places mentioned here, go to Photo Albums - Landscapes; Villages; History and Architecture.