Enchanting villages and towns, boundless nature
Spain, as Europe’s second most mountainous country after Switzerland, has a topography that hides many secrets and discovering these is one of the true pleasures of travelling in the vast interior of Spain. In terms of landscapes there is an incredible variety to be found, from marshlands to towering mountains, windswept coastlines to tranquil, flower-filled valleys and, throughout, a collection of historic villages and towns that are the thread in the fabric of this great nation.
The concept of belonging to one’s home village, town, province or region is still important in the Spanish mentality, and is known as la patria chica – “the lesser fatherland” would be an inaccurate translation of a phrase that is better understood emotionally than literally. People still think first of this and then of their nationality, and Spain’s regional differences are maintained by this way of thinking, differences that are, to the visitor, a constant source of surprise and most often, delight. There are few other European countries where there are not only four official languages (Castilian, Basque, Gallego, and Catalan) but also a great distinctiveness among the regions, giving the sense of almost moving between different countries when one travels between say Málaga and La Coruña, or from Valencia to Oviedo.
If these differences are palpable in the cities then in the countryside, where geography plays a more prominent role, they are even more visible. This kaleidoscope of landscapes and character can make Spain a challenging country to tackle, but endlessly satisfying once you start discovering it. One way to decide where to travel in rural Spain is to pick a favourite landscape and then head to wherever it is found. If mountains thrill you, then you are spoilt for choice: the Pyrenees, in the provinces Huesca, Lérida and Navarra, offer fantastic hiking and mountaineering; the Picos de Europa, which rise up dramatically from the Cantabrian coastline, are interspersed with beautiful lakes and rivers; and among numerous other ranges, the Sierra de Gredos stands out, for its proximity to the historic town of Ávila, its glacier lakes and extensive forests of pine and oak. At lower altitudes, too, a plethora of attractive landscapes are to be found. Just some of these are the salt lake of L’Albufera, south of Valencia; the steep-sided river valleys of the Natural Park of Arribes del Duero in Zamora; fishing villages, such as Llanes, set along the craggy limestone coast of Asturias; or, underground, caves and caverns like Altamira and El Soplao in Cantabria; and lush valleys, covered with wild-flowers in spring, such as those of Alcudia in Castilla-La Mancha or Jerte in Extremadura – famed for its cherry blossom.
Traditions, customs and cuisine vary just as widely and uncovering these, too, is an endeavour that pays ample rewards. A procession during Semana Santa (Holy Week) in a small town of say Castilla-León, and a Moros y Cristianos (“Moors and Christians”) battle re-enactment on the coast will each have its own distinct flavor. You will notice how manners differ from one region to another, the stereotypes of the loud, exuberant Andalusian and the quiet, melancholic Galician having more than just a degree of substance to them. And the variety in Spanish food is, of course, a whole book in itself, but by way of illustration the range goes from hearty stews of pulses and pork sausages, typical of the plains of the Meseta Central, to fresh salads of salt cod and tangy oranges served in the Mediterranean region. Wines and cheeses, elaborately named and categorised in France are, in Spain, often known simply as the local “vino tinto” and “queso” – the tacit assumption being that if we produce it here it’s good stuff and why would you want to look any further afield? – another manifestation of “la patria chica” at work.
If you are interested in seeing inside these many layers of Rural Spain, whatever your focus, do contact us and let us put together for you an itinerary that will bring you in touch with one of the most varied and intriguing countries in Europe.