If you want to get a real feel for the beauty, grandeur, and historical significance of Spain, the huge bustling cities like Madrid and Seville may not be the best places to do so. The authentic charm of the country lies not in the glitzy main attractions, but in the humble side-trips that most people never bother to see. Spain is full of tiny little enclaves, peaceful hamlets that range from ancient to modern. In most cases they’re only a few hours away from the main tourist cities you may be visiting.
Beauty and History: Andalusia
One of the most beautiful regions of Spain is known as Andalusia; it is home to gypsy performances, raucous music, stunning architecture, and many historical gems. Granada, the birthplace of the famous palace known as the Alhambra, is located in Andalusia. What many travelers may not know is that Andalusia is also home to smaller, equally beautiful villages that have somehow been forgotten. One of these villages is Almonaster la Real in a region known as Huelva.
Almonaster la Real
When first approaching this quaint village, visitors will see expansive woodland and distinctive orange tile roofs that make up much of Spain’s architecture. Almonaster la Real, like many other locales in the country, was once Muslim territory. As Spain shifted back into the hands of Catholic monarchs, the Moorish handiwork was altered to suit Spanish purposes. This may not be the most famous of cities, but it is certainly worth a visit. Make sure to see the beautiful church known as La Trinidad (the Trinity), known for its lovely white-and-red facade and elegant bell tower.
While visiting the back roads of Andalusia, prepare to gasp at your first glimpse of Capileira. This Spanish village was once a haven for Moorish colonists who were not allowed to practice their faith and observe their culture within the boundaries of nearby Granada (Spain is filled with stories of the conquerors and the conquered, and Capileira is a good place to learn some of this valuable history). Capileira is a lovely place full of history and intrigue. Stand at the foot of the hills and peer at the city sitting far up on the hilltop, with clusters of modest white homes and perhaps a church here and there.
Capileira’s natural setting also entices visitors. Mountains and forest, seeming not to belong to Spain, surround the village, making it cozy, protected, and somewhat mysterious. Once inside the village visitors will notice the tiny alleys offering striking views. Plaza Calvario is a tiny stone platform where performances are sometimes held. From here houses with quaint wrought-iron balconies are visible, and the beautiful but ominous mountains looming in the distance.
Beyond the Land of the Gypsies
Once you’ve explored Andalusia, the rest of Spain lies ready for discovery. Calatanazor in the region of Soria is a terrific place to escape the hubbub. It seems that nearly every building is made of natural elements; houses and churches are constructed of handsome stone, giving the village a decidedly medieval feeling. Calatanazor too was once ruled by Muslims and those who visit will hear of various places in the immediate vicinity that are associated with these former rulers.
For Spanish history buffs who happen to be interested in battlefields, consider the place known as the Valley of Blood where echoes of battle still ring though more than a millennium has since passed. There is no doubt that the village is old; the stone ruins and cracked facades attest to this fact. It’s a great place to go to escape Spain’s heat and excitement, and to reflect on the common, everyday lives of medieval villagers.
Religion and Architecture in Guadalupe
The village known as Guadalupe is another perfect destination for those who want to discover the real Spain. Soon after arrival in the city, you’ll notice a monastery rising from the streets; its exterior is a mixture of plain and fancy. Plain stone makes it humble, but the extensive stonework, etching, and design makes it nothing less than elegant.
This place is special; not a tiny town, but yet not a big city, Guadalupe seems caught in the middle. It is surrounded by fields, watched over by mountains, and open under the sky. There is a shrine in the city dedicated to the Virgin of Guadalupe; people of the Catholic faith or those interested in religious history will enjoy this attraction.
For those with an architectural eye, balconies (some covered with carefully-arranged flower displays) abound. A quaint fountain is found here, a colorful storefront there. The chapel near the monastery is a fantastic work of art; a typical Spanish terra cotta roof falls in place with medieval arches, scrollwork, pointy turrets, and every manner of decoration imaginable. The only thing this facade is missing is the stained glass for which other cathedrals are famous.
Spain keeps getting prettier as you explore further. Near Segovia is a place known as Pedraza. Sloping hills are home to ruins, and further up is the village, surrounded by an old wall and capped with typical Spanish homes. There is much medieval flavor here. The Church of San Juan has obviously seen quite a few years; its humble design is topped with a simple but beautifully-arched tower.
Pedraza has many places like the Church of San Juan to sit and reflect on the different faiths and cultures that shaped Spain. While ambling through Pedraza’s streets, try to notice an arched door completely covered with rusty spikes. This is actually part of the old castle and it obviously warns visitors and townspeople alike not to get too close.
The main bulk of the castle is very plain, made of weathered stone, but it is beautiful to look at. Small rounded towers are built directly into the castle wall, and an old wood fence encompasses the area. Make sure to spend enough time at Pedraza to see as much as possible. Spain will leave an imprint you’ll not soon forget, and don’t be surprised to realize that the places that stay strongest in memory are the little-known villages.