Area: Southern Teruel. Route: Teruel-Albarracín-Rubielos de Mora. Distance: 310 kilometres. Glory at the sparkling architecture of Spain’s coldest city and wander the narrow streets of a picture-postcard village that could have been designed by Walt Disney.
In the southernmost province of Aragon, Teruel city is only a couple of hours away from bustling Valencia and the shimmering beaches of the Costa Azahar, but a world away in temperament. Within a few kilometres, the landscape can change from rolling Cotswold Downs to ragged Lake District peaks – with a lot of non-British equivalents in between.
Architecturally Teruel is a little gem, renowned for having some of Spain’s most beautiful examples of Mudejar structures. Mudejar emerged as an architectural style on the Iberian peninsula in the 12th century as a result of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures living side by side. It is characterised by the use of brick as the main material. Unlike Gothic or Romanesque, Mudejar did not involve the creation of new shapes or structures but rather reinterpreting Western styles through Muslim influences. It is accepted that the style was born in Toledo, as an adaptation of architectural and ornamental motifs, although it became most highly developed in Aragon, especially in Teruel.
It is characterised by an extremely refined and inventive use of brick and glazed tiles, especially in belfries. Tiles are often cobalt blue and white, although a lustrous green predominates in Teruel. Look for airy patios with a fountain or tiled, reflecting pool and repeated motifs like square flowers and eight-pointed stars rather than faces and images. Teruel’s most glorious examples are the towers of San Pedro, San Martín, El Salvador and the Cathedral. El Salvador’s is the only tower that can be ascended. From the first floor of the Café El Torre next door you get an unusual, wonderful view of the tile-work glistening above.
Santa María Cathedral has a beautiful belfry but it’s worth paying the couple of euros entrance fee to have a gander at the ceiling of carved panels painted in polychrome wood with images that represent Teruel life in the Middle Ages. You need to get there just as the guide begins her description (in Spanish) when the ceiling is illuminated – the light goes out when she moves on to the next part of her tour. If you want a quick chat with the man upstairs, it’s free before 11am.
The gloriously rich brick-and-tile designs are the jewels in the city’s crown, enhanced in their settings by the delightfully florid examples of modernista art, the Catalan equivalent of Art Nouveau.
On top of a pillar in the historic centre, the Plaza Torico, sits the symbol of Teruel, El Torico, a statue of a bull atop a fluted column. Given the Spanish propensity for big and bold in public sculpture, it comes as a shock to see how small the “little bull” actually is (the suffix “-ico” is a common diminutive).
The buildings that surround the triangular plaza are a mix of architectural styles, with stout columns and tiny narrow streets leading off, enticing you to discover more hidden corners.
Legend has it that in the 13th century two young people, Diego de Marcilla and Isabel de Segura, fell in love and wanted to marry. Isabel came from wealthy stock, but Diego was skint and her parents forbade the match. In a magnanimous gesture of a sort, Isabel’s father gave Diego five years in which to make his fortune and establish a name for himself. At the end of this time he returned to Teruel a wealthy man, only to find his bride-to-be already married to a local nobleman. Poor young Diego died of a broken heart and Isabel, full of despair at his death, snuffed it the following day. You can see the couple, forever linked by alabaster hands, in the cloisters of the church of San Pedro. In true fairy-tale style, the story of the Spanish Romeo and Juliet has been made into a film. Sadly, the Plaza de los Amantes alongside the church that dedicates their love must be one of the ugliest in Spain.
If you want to take something home, pick up a couple of bottles of the cheap but excellent Campo de Borja wine from the Aragon region, but for a real bit of giddy gastronomy nip into Martín Martín, just opposite the defunct Mercado Municipal at the top of Calle Joaquín Costa. In one of the strangest combinations you will come across, it’s a pickle, cake and sweetie shop. The former are sold loose from about 50 big ceramic pots, or in tins and jars from a mouth-watering selection on shelves behind the counter. On the other side of the shop are containers of lollipops, liquorice sticks, jelly things, crunchy what-nots, twists and twirls of all sorts. Plus a nifty selection of dried fruits, biscuits, cakes and nuts. An adult and children’s edible heaven.
Instead of taking the road direct from Teruel to Albarracín, make the slight detour into the Sierra de Jabalón via Bezas (A1513) and the Espacio Protegido Pinares de Rodeno and its Neolithic rock paintings. (Teruel province makes much of its prehistoric heritage and, if you can’t see the dinosaurs in real life, you can at least visit a whole theme park designed around their existence on the edge of Teruel.) Rodeno takes its name from the reddish rock in the area that contorts into strange formations.
The road through the Espacio is a delightful wander through pine trees with long vistas of cornfields snaking off into the distance. Nothing prepares you for Albarracín though, with its narrow streets terracing up the hillside and the casas colgadas, houses with wooden balconies precariously hanging over the streets below.When Walt Disney had Mickey Mouse running around medieval streets in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, he must have conjured up the idea after a visit to Albarracín. This mountain-top village’s streets are so narrow that neighbours can not only shake hands from their windows but probably share the same curtains.
Albarracín, on a rocky outcrop above a meander of the river Guadalaviar, has been classified by UNESCO as a monument of world interest. Stand in the centre of the Plaza Mayor and in a 360-degrees turn you’ll see a town square almost as it would have looked in the 16th and 17th centuries — without the cars of course. The buildings have been tidied but not tarted up and the streets that radiate off at odd angles are like cobbled, stone-and-iron canyons, up steps, around sharp bends, down tiny alleyways, where even in the height of summer the sun never reaches.
The magnificent mansions — and there are a surprisingly large number of them — date from the 17th century, when the town experienced rapid economic growth thanks to the raising of cattle and wool exports. That faded during the 18th century, leaving the town virtually moribund until a few years ago when the tourist industry brought a new lease of life.
If you are a fisherman you may like to chance your line in the Guadalaviar, where the national trout fishing championships are held every year. The surrounding Sierra de Albarracín is a walkers’ and naturalists’ paradise, while you can hunt wild boar in the Montes Universales National Game Reserve.
(Read more about Albarracín below.)
If you want to see “genuine Spain” as distinct from the purple-prose “real Spain” beloved by travel and estate agents, take a slight detour through Cella on your way back to Teruel. In a complete contrast to Albarracín, the village wins no prizes for beauty. Half-finished houses are scattered among disreputable-looking farm buildings surrounded by ancient equipment and newly laid-out patios share ground space with half-heartedly cultivated plots, with the pulping factory on the outskirts belching out fumes. It sounds totally anti-touristic, and it is, but it’s worth passing through just for the fun of it.
Skirt Teruel and take the road for Corbalán and Allepuz, the A226, which wends its way through beautiful rolling countryside, interrupted only by scattered farmhouses, many in ruins but some still with the curious steeple-like towers seen on early buildings in the region. After Allepuz (blink and you’ll miss it) you can stay on the main road to Cantavieja or Mirambel, another couple of must-see mountain villages. Skiers should take a right just after you leave the village on a country road pointing towards Valdelinares, one of the two ski centres in Teruel, the other being Alcalá de la Selva.
You feel as if you are driving through somewhere untouched since Noah was a lad. On the outskirts of the few villages you pass are rows of pajares, one-storey stone sheds the villagers use to store grain and keep rabbits in. Some are being bought up to make rural homes, although you’ll need a lot of building experience and a good bank balance to tackle them.
You begin to realise just how cold Teruel province can get when you see the pistes at Valdelinares where, even in mid-April when coastal types are having their first tentative toe-dipping in the Med, the mountainsides are covered in snow and villagers are scarved-up when they nip out for a loaf.
Drift on, past Linares de Mora, with its ancient arched entrance to the village and the church spire rising over the narrow streets, down to Rubielos de Mora, not to be confused with Mora de Rubielos, its next-door neighbour and poor relation in the architecture stakes, bonny as it might be in its own right.
Some claim Rubielos de Mora is as lovely as Albarracín. It is one of those wonderful Spanish villages that seem forever set in Sunday afternoon mode. In the narrow, twisting medieval streets within the walls of the historic centre you may see the occasional granny pulling a wheelie basket and you know it’s rush-hour when a cat gets up to stretch its legs after a doze in the sun.
The size of the village belies the fact that it was once one of the most important religious centres in Aragon, with not just one but two convents, one of which is still home to five monjas clausuradas, elderly nuns who never leave the confines of the convent.
Enter through either of the 14th-century portals, of Carmen or of San Antonio, and you enter a time warp where grand mansions and stunning casas señoriales (noble houses) fill the squares. Not all past visitors are held in high regard to judge by the red paint daubed on a plaque on a modernista façade in the Plaza del Carmen — the lettering commemorates the visit of Generalísimo Franco.
An amusing detail on a couple of large houses, long corrugated plaster ribs, isn’t a regional architectural oddity. It was a way wily householders stopped the local lads using their walls for an impromptu local handball game that left marks all over a nicely painted house front.
If you feel in need of relaxation after all this beauty, you can nip over the border into Valencia, to Montenejos, and soak in the natural hot water springs or while away an hour in its famous spa. Take the CV20 to return to Valencia from Montenejos or A515 from Rubielos, which joins the N234.