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Castilla y Leon
There are nine separate provinces in Castilla y León: Ávila, Burgos, León, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid and Zamora
The Autonomous Community of Castilla y León is the largest of Spain’s administrative regions, and to give an idea of its size it occupies 18.6% of the country’s total land area and is considerably larger than Austria. Within this huge region there are nine separate provinces, each with its own capital city: these are Ávila, Burgos, León, Palencia, Salamanca, Segovia, Soria, Valladolid and Zamora.
It is a region of contrasts in terms of where the 2.5 million inhabitants live. The nine provincial capitals and Ponferrada (in León) are home to 45% of them, but in total there are 2,247 municipalities in Castilla y León. Many of these are extremely small in terms of population: in fact, only 43 have more than 5,000 inhabitants and 87.6% are home to under a thousand.
This vast region occupies most of the north-west of Spain, although it doesn’t reach the coast, and most of it consists of the wide high-altitude plain (800 metres above sea level) of the Duero basin. The mountains in the north, east and south collect rainfall and all of the provincial capitals stand on rivers flowing towards the Atlantic in the West, via Portugal. These same mountains are home to ski resorts in the winter, the highest point of Torre de Cerredo reaching 2,650 metres above sea level: the climate here is classified as “continental Mediterranean”, and although the summers are hot the winters can be very hard.
This demanding climate has been the backdrop to a history which has left the region with an extraordinarily rich cultural heritage: no other region in the world can boast more than the eight World Heritage Sites in Castilla y León. Two of these are prehistoric (the archaeological site of Atapuerca, where remains of some of Europe’s first human inhabitants have been found, and the cave paintings at Valle de Côa y Siega Verde), and two more date from the period when Spain was dominated by the Romans: the Roman Empire left a great legacy in the area, including not only the UNESCO-named sites of the old city of Segovia (including the aqueduct) and Las Médulas (an area mined for gold by the Roman colonists), but also the “Via de la Plata” road from Astorga to Mérida and the ruined city of Clunia, in the province of Soria.
Even before the Romans arrived this area was at the heart of Celtic civilization in the Iberian Peninsula, a fact to which the magnificent 2nd-century-BC Bulls of Guisando (in the province of Ávila) bear testimony, and after the decline of the Roman Empire and centuries of Visigoth domination the Moors invaded in the 8th century, spreading their influence as they did in most of the rest of the country.
However, the Reconquista began earlier in the north-west of the peninsula than in more southerly regions, and Moorish influence in this part of the country was relatively short-lived. By the 11th century the area was under Christian rule, with the twin kingdoms of León and Castile gradually becoming united by a series of political marriages and treaties until they were officially merged in 1301. The medieval period supplies Castilla y León with its other four Wórld Heritage Sites: the 11th and 12th century walled city of Ávila, the spectacular Gothic cathedral of Burgos, the historic city of Salamanca (home to one of the oldest universities in Europe) and the Camino de Santiago, which runs through the three northernmost provinces of León, Palencia and Burgos.
The tourist attractions of the region are by no means limited to these eight locations, though. It has been calculated that as many as 60% of Spain’s official “Items of Cultural Interest are in Castilla y León, including 400 old towns and cities, 500 castles and thirteen cathedrals. In addition, there is a greater concentration of Romanesque art and architecture, dating from the first three hundred years of the second millennium AD, than in any other part of Europe. Other examples of popular destinations for visitors include the town of Lerma, in the province of Burgos, which is home to a series of 17th century monuments built by the Duke of Lerma, and rural tourism is increasing in the mountain areas, which are home to wolves and even bears.
Of course gastronomic tourism is another constant in all of Spain’s regions, and Castilla y León is no exception. Among the specialities here are cured ham, cheese (especially in Burgos), suckling pig (Segovia), lamb, garlic soup and the fascinatingly named “patatas a la importancia”, which consists of potatoes fried in egg and flour before being boiled with a spicy sauce including paprika, garlic, saffron and white wine. This simple food is indicative of the region’s status as “the granary of Spain”, with large fields of cereal crops growing throughout the central plateau, including wheat, barley, rye and oats. Among the region’s many wine-growing protected denominations are those of Ribera del Duero, Rueda, Toro and Bierzo.
It’s impossible to give a complete list of the thousands of places of interest in Castilla y León, but certainly no visit would be complete without seeing the old city of Salamanca, which underwent the influence of the twelfth century Renaissance in the same way as many northern European cities. As a result it boasts two cathedrals, one from this period and the other from the greater Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as the renowned university which was founded by Alfonso IX in 1218.
Similarly, Segovia is an absolute must. The best known monument in the city is the Roman aqueduct, but the whole of the old city centre is an absolute delight, including the spectacular 12th century alcázar, the cathedral and one of the jewels in the crown of the Parador hotel chain. In fact, there are 18 Paradors in Castilla y León, more than in any other region of Spain, most of occupying historic buildings, but surely none has more spectacular views than the one in Segovia. The splendor of the city is complemented by the beauty of the surrounding countryside, and a short drive out of the city to the south-east takes the visitor to the royal palace of San Ildefonso de la Granja and the ski resort in the Navacerrada pass, which leads into the region of Madrid. Similarly, heading north-east from Segovia is Sepúlveda, which has become a favoured destination for rural tourism.
The 11th-century walled city of Ávila is another obligatory visit, and again the surrounding countryside is full of hidden gems. One of these is the small town of Piedrahita, approximately 60km to the west of the provincial capital, where the town centre has changed little since the seventeenth century.
So rich is the architectural heritage of Zamora that it has been said that the whole city is a museum of Romanesque art, with the highlights being the 12th century cathedral, the Church of Santa María Magdalena and the castle. In the west of the province, on the border with Portugal, lies the Arribes del Duero natural park, which includes the picturesque medieval village of Fermoselle and the largest wolf population in Spain!
León, in the north, is geographically one of the most diverse provinces in the country, featuring high mountains, extensive plains, green valleys and thick forests. In the provincial capital the highlights of the historic city are arguably the Gothic cathedral and the Hostal de San Marcos, but there are a myriad of other churches and monuments both here and in the rest of the province, including the cathedral and Episcopal palace of Astorga.
Among Gothic cathedrals, though, none tops the one in Burgos. Construction on this masterpiece of European architecture began in 1221 and lasted until the late sixteenth century, and the number of visitors to the city is swollen by the fact that Burgos is a crucial point along the Camino de Santiago in the north of Spain.
Palencia is perhaps the least visited of the provincial capitals, but the province is as rich in history and cultural heritage as its neighbours despite the lack of outstanding monuments. In recent years the number of tourists visiting the city has been growing, though, as more and more people seek out the pleasures of a visit to the city which is overlooked by a twenty-one-metre statue of Christ, emplaced on a hill just outside Palencia itself.
Soria is equally historic but on a smaller scale. It was founded near the remains of the Celtiberian city of Numantia, whose inhabitants destroyed it rather than allow it to fall into the hands of the Romans. A host of twelfth century monuments and towns dot the province, including the monastery of San Juan del Duero, and the landscape of the province is simply breathtaking. The city is the smallest of the provincial capitals of Castilla y León, and the second smallest in Spain, in terms of population, while at the other end of the scale is Valladolid.
In the centre of the regional capital is the magnificent Plaza Mayor, matched in splendor perhaps only by its equivalent in Salamanca, and the old city also features not only the cathedral but also numerous other historic and religious buildings and the National Sculpture Museum. The cityscape is dominated by the Pisuerga and Esgueva rivers, and in hard winters Valladolid is often prone to flooding, but as in the rest of the region the rain collected by the mountains makes the province of Valladolid an extremely picturesque area to tour, and the whole of the province is steeped in history.
It’s hard to summarize a region so vast, in terms not only of the sheer area it includes but also of the items of cultural, historic and artistic interest which ensure a continually growing flow of tourists to Castilla y León. Only a brave man would recommend one part of the region over another, and perhaps the best piece of advice is to choose one of the provinces, explore, enjoy, and, above all, take your time!
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Castilla y León
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