It was after Guadalajara that civilisation disappeared and the big remoteness of Spain reared its glorious face again. A wet spring had left the fields green and strewn with wildflowers; poppies and broom. Everything splattered with reds, whites, purples and yellows.
The Tajo, Iberia’s greatest river, had cloven the land in two as the scruffy little outpost of Sacedón arrived. It was leading us to its source in the Sierra de Albarracín. Sacedón purred along as a scramble of dilapidated old streets, generic new builds, old people and crusty cars. Two churches and a hundred-year old bullring added a touch of interest.
Cuenca was skirted, before the road into the Serranía was taken. The Quixotic plains gave way to an ever-climbing, ever-changing chameleonic range of peaks and valleys. Ancient granitic outcrops and escarpments were sliced through with lonely winding roads where sporadic cars and spandex-clad cycling clubs slid passed rustic villages with names like Uña, Huélamo, Tragacete. And then the silent mountain road, unpopulated with cars that spiralled and zig-zagged its way up out of La Mancha and into Aragon. Despite the beauty and majesty of the range, the encroaching rain clouds that consumed the car, and the twists and turns of the road made my already cataclysmic post-Friday state of health somewhat more precarious.
The sierra smoothened out and the heat increased as we entered the slim and fertile Guadalaviar river valley. A veritable eden where pollen dustied and sparkled in the air and a bloom of green coated everything. Then the village of Albarracín arrived and pulled the breath from our lungs.
The ancient village of Al Banū Razín seemed designed to inspire awe. A compact medieval scattering of square houses painted honey orange, salmon pink, and dusty brown were glued to a cliff face that followed the meander of the river; simultaneously invoking Tudor England and some kind of adrift Marrakech. It was a place of mosaic-topped churches, crumbling fortifications, external wooden beams and the odd shock of colour; a duck-egg blue home or a wall covered in flowers. A place of views, from within looking to the old protective wall crawling across the immediate peak like a spine of some long-dead beast, or from without, looking down upon it, light molasses in colour, small and lonely.
After lunch the road fell into the flats near Teruel; endless horizons that ended in blue hills and a city that Spain once joked didn’t exist. Teruel no existe. It was my second visit to this diminutive and under-visited provincial capital and even though it didn’t have much to hold the attention more than a day, it was a calm and collected little place where we were happy to spend a night.
A small but astonishingly well-preserved collection of Mudéjar buildings gave Teruel something worth talking about. There were towers and staircases and a small but quite fine cathedral; complicated arrangements of bricks and coloured tile-work topped with Arabic domes and spires. The main square, with its generic restaurants, attractive buildings and little bull figure in the middle was a hive of activity as the sun fell and glinted off the cottony pollen in the air and made my red wine shine.
Teruel was already about as far as one could spiritually and infra-structurally be from anywhere in Spain, but it was time to head deeper. Time to head to an area where ‘off the beaten track’ wasn’t really a strong enough concept. Time to dive into the depths of the Maestrazgo.
The Maestrazgo is an old area. An ancient and desolate place of mountains that veer from incredibly fertile and verdant to intensely dry, scrubby and almost desertlike at times. A largely poor and agricultural region that the young population have left in order to find work and a future in the cities, the Maestrazgo has a ferocious but often poetic beauty to it.
Throughout the peaks and troughs, each turn of the road having its own geographical make up, the overwhelming sense is of fading importance. Once large and profligate honey-stone farmsteads now sit crumbling, roofs caved in and consumed with vegetation. Almost every hill and town is topped with the remnants of a Christian castle or tower. This was an area of war during the Reconquest. Now it is a slow-moving place of idyllically-placed villages that don’t see many foreigners.
Cantavieja, though sleepy and shut and only populated by old men on arrival, was the first village to extract gasps. A chicane valley pinballed away off two opposing escarpments. The village, a pretty one even by Spain’s high standards, sat on the edge of everything like some dab of stony, orange-tiled paint on a great green canvas.
Each valley in this area seemed to be granted just one village. The distances between these settlements were comparatively vast if compared to Britain’s seemingly constant stream of urbanisation. A whole panorama of nature that swallowed up one blip of humanity.
Next on the lonely road was cutesy Linares de Mora, plopped into its gulley like a bastard child of a Swiss chalet resort and a medieval Aragonese town. As usual one was greeted by the expected flurry of charming streets, little church and phantom castle. Friendly dogs scurried about as we took coffee at the one operating cafe, which also doubled as both bakery and charcuterie.
The repetition had become a picturesque process of village-hopping along a road apparently nobody wanted to use but us. Next on ‘the list’ were the odd twin towns of Rubielos de Mora and Mora de Rubielos.
Rubielos de Mora was characterised by a cluster of very pretty streets that were vaguely reminiscent of the houses found shimmying up to the Pyrenees. A quiet and dignified village that was far grander and more handsome than its remoteness belied.
Mora de Rubielos was less overtly pretty, but sported a hulking church and a somewhat absurd castle for its size. These villages were often the playthings and private hideaways of counts and marquises. Overly protected to keep away from prying eyes or aggressive forces, these villages had become an addiction to me. I wanted to see them all.
The day was ended at our second base, the grand and fine port city of Valencia where the balance between beach tourism, historic preservation, culinary emphasis and attractions had been balanced rather well.