A plaza apart: Taking a road trip through Castilla y León
On a road trip through Castilla Y Leon in the north west of Spain, Tony Bailie roams through ancient libraries, bustling plazas and ponders on the carving on a cathedral door of a monkey eating an ice cream
IT’S like something you might see in an Egyptian tomb, a hieroglyph carved into a wall or onto a piece of papyrus – a figure with a human head, the body of a bird and the hooves of an animal.
But this is in a Christian church, parts of it ancient. Iglesia de la Magdalena is just one of 23 Romanesque churches in Zamora, some of them dating back to the 12th century.
It is a city of two halves, narrow streets running from the cathedral and hilltop castle, through the the central Plaza Mayor and opening out into a more modern Spanish regional capital.
The remains of a Roman bridge traversing the El Rio Duero give an indication of how long Zamora has been a strategic settlement.
The cupola of the cathedral is Byzantine, although other parts are Romanesque, gothic and neo-classical. The tower dates to the 13th century.
The altarpiece is the work of painter Fernando Gallego and and set in the centre is an ornate choir with carved stalls. An adjoining museum has a superb collection of Flemish tapestries from the 15th and 16th centuries.
Zamora is a provincial capital in Castilla y Leon, in the north west of Spain and lies close to the border with Portugal.
You will see conch-shell wearing pilgrims pass through here on the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, not the better-known route which runs from France across the north of Spain to the Galician capital, but one which runs from the south of Spain.
The Camino route also passes through Salamanca. The brickwork in the city’s central Plaza Mayor is sandstone, giving it a golden hue when the sun shines on it, with the ground floors used as municipal offices and commercial premises while the upper floors are the residences of the moneyed classes.
But the plaza is also a venue for protests, concerts, book fairs and generally just hanging about at one of its numerous cafes and watching the world go by.
Salamanca is a university city and there is a young vibe about the place. The university was established in 1140, making it the oldest public university in Spain.
The intricately hand-carved facade is a work of art and you could spend hours gazing at it - many do, trying to spot a frog sitting on a human skull. It is said that new students who spot this will pass all their exams.
The original lecture halls are built around a cloister, with the subjects of the lectures inscribed above their doorways - ‘Eloquence’, and ‘Theology’ among them.
Inside some of the halls the original wooden desks and narrow benches have been retained and it is remarkable how little natural light comes in, with students of old dependent on candles: however, the wealthy ones used to just stay in bed and send their servants to take notes for them.
On the second floor is a library of 60,000 antique books and manuscripts, the world’s first public library. The penalty for those who failed to return borrowed items was harsh – excommunication.
Salamanca has two cathedrals, the old one and the new. The older one was started in the 13th century. The new one is a mere 500 years old: started in the 16th century it took 220 years to build.
Its walls were restored in 1992 and as well as traditional Christian symbols there are carvings of a wolf, the symbol of Salamanca, a lynx to highlight the dangers of species extinction, an astronaut to symbolise man’s achievements in the 20th century and a monkey eating an ice cream. Go figure.
The people of Valladolid will tell you that they speak the purest form of Castilian Spanish and that it is the best place to learn the language (but then I was told the same thing in Zamora and Salamanca).
It is a city whose attractions are not as obvious, but while less ‘touristy’, Valladolid has an impressive history and was the Spanish capital between 1601 and 1606.
Its Plaza Mayor (another one) has its origins in the 16th century after a fire destroyed its former market place.
Close by is the Cervantes Museum, located in a house where the author of Don Quixote lived in the year 1605. He was arrested as a suspect after one of his enemies was found murdered in the street close to his house.
Valladolid's showpiece attractions are its 15 century university buildings with Gothic buttresses and arches. Again it is built around a cloister, combining Gothic, baroque and renaissance features.
The carved stone facade of Colegio de San Gregorio is as much a work of art as the wooden sculptures and altarpieces collected inside. Built around a courtyard of twisted columns and leering gargoyles, it includes pieces by Juan de Juní and a disturbingly lifelike sculpture of a crucified Jesus by Gregorio Fernández.
It’s all about the aqueduct in Segovia, although don’t let this 2,000-year-old piece of Roman architecture fool you into thinking that this is one-trick destination.
The aqueduct was built to bring fresh water to the city from the mountains located 15 kilometres away, using 20,000 stones and incorporating 167 arches.
But Segovia has a much more layered history and later centuries saw the Arab Moors occupy the city, leaving their mark on its architecture. There was also a thriving Jewish community, but they, along with the Muslims, were given an ultimatum in 1492 by the ‘Reconquista’ (reconquering) Catholic monarchs to either convert or leave.
The meandering Calle Juan Brava, takes you on a trip through the epocs, past St Martin’s Square, also known as the Mermaid’s Square (spot the mermaids), Plaza Mayor (yes, I know) and to the cathedral.
With an 88 metre bell tower it is a much more austere affair than than most others in Spain. The street continues along, with a few name changes on the way, to Segovia’s second highlight, the Alcazar.
The word Alcazar comes from Arabic but the site has been a military vantage point since Roman times. Twenty-two kings lived in this castle over the centuries. Surrounded by a moat, with turrets and drawbridges it was used by Disney as a model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Inside, throne rooms have been recreated, ornate ceilings hang overhead and a climb to the top of the tower is rewarded with a landscape of the rolling plains and the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range.
Los Zagales de la Abadia, Calle Pasión, Valladolid
Taking the humble tapa to new heights. Sniff the aroma from a smoking glass before letting the flavours of baby squid come to the fore and draw out an after-taste with a shot glass of pimiento sauce. A half-smoked cigar in a splay of ash is actually a combination of anchovies, dried tomatoes, pasta and sesame seeds.
El Rincón de Antonio, Rúa de los Francos, Zamora
Fine dining with regional produce from the Zamora region - a chickpea stew with garlic and wild mushrooms was a surprise highlight, as was beef in mushroom and red wine sauce. Don’t miss the selection of goat and sheep cheeses with a glass of Toro red wine.
Mesón Cándido, Plaza Azoguejo, Segovia
This is more old school – ornate decoration, views over to the aqueduct and the region’s signature dish of suckling pig.
There are daily flights to Madrid from Dublin with Ryanair and Aer Lingus.
Budget around €180 for a mid-range car hire for four days (though there are cheaper options).
There are regular and fast train services to Zamora, Salamanca, Valladolid and Segovia from Madrid.