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June 25, 2017

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Pillars of strength

Tour Spain's Castile and León and take in an ancient history that's still very much part of everyday life

Going out for lunch on a Saturday is a big deal in Spain. In the region of Castile and León, north of Madrid, sleepy towns suddenly come alive with crowds of socializing locals. Wine barrels put to use as outdoor tables fill narrow streets lined with eateries; inside the busy restaurants, bow-tied waiters dart through throngs of patrons with carafes of vino blanco and tinto, or balance platters of lamb and suckling pig, hooves and snouts bobbing above the hubbub.

Families congregate, old friends meet and lovers twine their glasses through the early afternoon — often in settings that come with exotic extras, as I learned on a weekend stopover in Aranda de Duero, the main town in Castile’s Ribera del Duero wine region.

Navigating a bustling lagar (a restaurant with its own winery) after a little too much house red, I located discrete stairs that I thought would lead to my destination. I headed down the steps and, a minute later, was standing amidst a series of dimly lit chambers and tunnels.

A poster on a sloping cavern wall told me that I was 12 metres below the El Lagar de Isillia restaurant (Calle Isilla 18, Aranda de Duero; lagarisilla.es) in a sizeable cave-complex carved from bedrock 800 years ago to make and store wine. (The “wine cave” is now a tourist attraction.) As I stood there, absorbing it all, an elderly Spaniard appeared from one of the subterranean corridors.

“The servicios are upstairs,” he said in slow Spanish sensing my confusion. “No restaurants with caves in your country?”

Regional delights

As you might expect, there are umpteen reasons why Castile and León will never be mistaken for Canada. For one, there’s the Spanish habit of dining late — lunch at two; dinner at 10 — and enjoying life earlier. Wine bars open well before convenience stores.

The scenery is also arrestingly alien: an arid landscape of big skies and bare hills dotted with vineyards and groves of strange pines and firs, bushy and round like deciduous trees. On my recent visit, I often glimpsed old monasteries and castles off the sides of quiet highways, ancient reminders of Castile and León’s biggest asset: the centuries of history and tradition that still inform daily life there.

Castile, and the smaller state of León it absorbed in 1301, was originally the richest and greatest of the medieval kingdoms that combined to form Spain. It was the Castilian queen, Isabella I, who sent Columbus to America; the language we call Spanish is the Castilian dialect gone global. Filled with monuments of its past, Castile’s realm remains a big region even in a rental car, taking up a large inland chunk of north-west Spain that runs to Portugal’s border, most of it enjoying a sunny year-round Mediterranean climate. Spring and fall are the best times to visit.

Today, Castile and León’s attractions include 300 castles, scores of historic churches, palaces and plazas, and many towns and cities celebrated for their Roman, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Three are UNESCO recognized: the ancient centres of Ávila, Segovia, and Burgos, which prompted my visit.

Recreational opportunities abound ranging from hiking trails made by medieval pilgrims to excellent golfing. When you factor in the region’s gustatory charms (international expos regularly call Castilian ham the world’s best) and celebrated wine-makers (prized reds from vintners like Emilio Moro and Vega Sicilia fetch over $200 per bottle), it’s easy to see why locals here relish life.

Built to last

I began my own visit at Castile’s southern border, driving an hour north of Madrid to see the walled medieval town of Ávila, supposedly founded by Hercules, the ancient hero.

A hilltop town that’s still circled by a 12-metre-high stone wall with 90 towers topped by round turrets, Ávila remains as spectacular now as it must have been in the Middle Ages. Its wall is one of the few that’s still intact in Europe and it turns vivid flame-colours at dawn and dusk, offering endless possibilities for photographers. You can walk on large sections and climb the towers, too.

Within the ring of walls, Ávila’s original centre spreads across 31 hectares, a compact area filled with beautiful Romanesque and Gothic architecture. Even my hotel, the four-star Parador de Ávila (2 Marqués Canales de Chozas; parador.es/es/parador-de-avila; doubles from €80 per night), was historic. A parador is a kind of luxury hotel located in a castle or palace. Many, including my own lodging, now belong to Spain’s best hotel chain, Paradores de Turismo de España, founded by King Alfonso XIII, no less, in 1928.

The Parador de Ávila looked out from a 16th-century palace at formal gardens of hedges and roses; from its stone terrace, I could see downhill to an enormous gate in Ávila’s ramparts, opening like an eye on the landscape below.

Sixty-one kilometres northeast of Ávila, Segovia rises up between an arid plain and a mountain backdrop like a mythical city in the TV series, Game of Thrones.

Perched on a rocky crag beside the town, the Alcázar (Plaza de la Reina Victoria Eugenia; alcazardesegovia.com; admission €5) is undoubtedly one of the world’s grandest castles, its spires towering above battlements that thrust out like the bow of a ship over rugged cliffs. The royal seat of Castile’s kings in the age of chivalry, it’s open to the public from 10am to 7pm daily, April through September (10am to 6pm in winter).

Segovia itself long predates the days of knights in armour, as I found out in its historic centre, which is dominated by an enormous 2000-year-old Roman aqueduct that cuts the town in two and marches 16 kilometres into the countryside.

As tall as an eight-storey building, the aqueduct starts at springs by the Alcázar castle and stretches through Segovia’s main plaza. Its scale dwarfs the Mesón de Cándido (5 Plaza de Azoguejo; mesondecandido.es), a restaurant where I ate asparagus and suckling pig, a Roman favourite. Like the aqueduct, my meal was a spectacle: the waiters used the edges of heavy dinnerware to cleave apart tender carcasses, then smashed the plates on the floor, a longstanding tradition.

Recovering in the shadow of the aqueduct outside, I eavesdropped on an Irish visitor poetically describing how the stone-block structure talked endlessly at night when the wind echoed through its 166 arches like “teeth chattering with history.” More prosaically, a local Segovian reminded me that the aqueduct, though non-functional now, remains “future back-up.”

Blueberries and blood pudding

North of Segovia is the Ribera del Duero, the area of my lunchtime “cave encounter” and 2012’s Wine Region of the Year according to oenophile bible, Wine Enthusiast Magazine. (Consult the Wine Tourism Guide at riberate.com for more).

From there, a short detour west took me through The Golden Mile, a who’s who of well-known wineries that offer tours and tastings. Out in the hillside vineyards, I thought the tempranillo grapes looked like plump blueberries as I listened to Maria Escudero of the Abadía Retuerta winery (47340 Sardón de Duero, Valladolid; abadia-retuerta.com) explain the effects of soils and microclimates on vintages and varietals.

“The finished wine might have very different qualities,” Maria said. “That’s something you can experience right here, the variations in the wines from this slope to the valley down below.”

A few glasses later, the subtleties might have escaped my unrefined palate, but a dinner party back at L’Domaine (ledomaine.es; doubles from €230 per night), the winery’s five-star hotel in a renovated 12th-century abbey, certainly caught my attention. The staff were laying out a table in the stone expanse of the old chapel, an imposing setting of soaring columns and stained glass flickering with candlelight.

My final destination in Castile and León was the historic royal capital of Burgos, 244 kilometres from Madrid. Known for its savoury cuisine (the local blood pudding, morcilla, changes bad attitudes in a hurry), the city of 200,000 is home to a cathedral often considered the third grandest in Christendom after the Vatican and the Chartres in France.

Built over centuries in opulent Gothic style, Burgos Cathedral is a stopping point on the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. In 2012, over 270,000 hikers, religious and secular, passed through the city to complete the last 480 kilometres of their trek to a shrine of the Apostle St. James on Spain’s Atlantic coast.

Sitting by the Cathedral, I watched the sunburnt pilgrims come and go. Behind us stood El 24 de la Paloma (Calle Paloma 24; restauranteel24delapaloma.com), a contemporary restaurant in a 16th-century dining hall, a place where the great Spanish writer, Cervantes, once penned parts of Don Quixote — presumably between goblets of wine and heaping courses of Castile’s weekend meals. Listening to the restaurant’s clinking glasses and friendly clamour, I opened my notebook, and disappeared happily inside for lunch.

For more info on the region, visit Castile and León Tourism (turismocastillayleon.com).

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