The Five Towns

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

The northwest corner of Aragón has a small treasure of towns, as yet unspoiled by huge waves of tourists (although increasing numbers of tourist buses from Germany and England suggest that the secret is out).  The centerpiece is Sos del Rey Católico, the birthplace of Ferdinand of Aragón.  Sos is one of the “Cinco Villas,” pueblos given the status of towns by Felipe V for their services to him in the War of Succession.  Sos has a very comfortable Parador and can be the home base for exploration of the area.

A visit to this area from Madrid can be included in a trip by car to the Pyrenees, or to upper Aragón and its splendid Romanesque churches.  From Madrid, you’ll go out the N-II and exit at 271, direction Ricla, and up the A 121 to the N122, turn east and cross the Ebro (the road is now the A127).  Tauste, just ahead, is one of the Five.  The town lost most of its historic buildings as it grew, but has a splendid church with a Mudéjar brickwork tower from 1243.  Leaving on the A127, you follow the Arba river - and yes, out in the near-desert, you see rice plantations.  The first time we drove this road we simply could not believe it, but there they are. . . and later I tried some organic rice from this area, which was quite good!  You will also be accompanied by clouds of raptors, apparently eagles.  I am sure I saw more eagles in this short stretch of Spain than I have in the rest of my life.

Ejea de los Caballeros is the second Town.  It boasts a fortified Romanesque church of 1222, El Salvador, usually sporting a gigantic stork nest.  Just behind the church, Cuatro Esquinas is a good place for lunch.  Twenty-two km further along on the A127 is the third Town, Sábada.  Here is a very nice castle, the remains of a synagogue, and a second century tomb (along the road to Sos - marked).

Uncastillo and Sos lie ahead.  These two, in the hilly “Altas Cinco Villas” area, are the stars of the Five.  Uncastillo, like so many towns in this area, was founded as a fortification along the war-torn border of Aragón and Navarra.  Its proximity to the Somport stretch of the Camino de Santiago is attested to by 14 churches and ermitas; the principal one of these, Santa María, has a very fine carved portal and elegant tower.  After the middle ages, the town fell into economic stagnation, thus keeping its medieval appearance, and now is remaking itself as a pole of growth for regional tourism.  It currently boasts a posada in the Rusticae (Small Charming Hotels) group and a nice small restaurant, and several other lodging possibilities are being developed.  The San Martín church has been given new life as the “Centro de Arte Religioso del Prepirineo.”  A stop here is highly recommended; you see an interesting sound and light show, and treasures from churches all over the region are gathered in the church.  The streets of Uncastillo are most photogenic, full of houses adorned with carved coats of arms, and magnificent doorways and arches.  Penelope Casa’s book on Spain exclaims over the cookies from the village bakery - we found them to be very good, even though we were not sure that we were at the right bakery, so this is evidently a butter cookie town.

Around Uncastillo and Sos, the landscape is very pleasant, filled with various options for walking or driving in virtually deserted settings.  Along the Arba de Luesia river, for example, are lovely river scenes with waterfalls and pine groves in a natural area known as the Pozo Pigalo.  You can actually cross the mountain here, on unmarked and unpaved roads, if you have an all-terrain vehicle, and you will really get away from it all!  The Embalse de Yesa is just to the north, and from it flows the Canal de las Bárdenas, which you can follow on a provincial road, from Javier (home of the Jesuit order) to Cáseda and San Isidro to the west, and then back to Sábada, for another very scenic drive.  Both Uncastillo and Sos tourism offices can provide other suggestions.  There are several adventure tourism companies that will arrange a day of white-water rafting  or canoeing, trekking, and other nature sports.

And so we come to Sos.  When Ferdinand was born in 1452, his mother, Juana de Aragón, was a guest at the Saba Palace, where she was monitoring the war!  The modern parador commemorates the royal boyhood with a charming statue in the lobby, showing Ferdinand taking a tentative step away from his mother - into the cauldron of 15th century politics.  The center of the town is completely medieval, and walled.  Crooked streets lead eventually to the Ayuntamiento; on one side is the church of San Esteban, where Ferdinand was born.  The crypt is 11th century, and there are frescoes in the apses along with fine capitals .  Remains of the castle crown the town.  On all sides you hear little but the bleats of sheep or the clanging of cowbells.  You can relax and take it all in from the deck of the parador, built to blend perfectly with the setting.  It’s a modestly-sized parador with a pleasant dining room and lounge; rooms come with terrace or sitting area, and all appeared well supplied with view.  We found this to be one of the most enjoyable paradors, because of the simplicity, the quiet, and the splendid views.

Practicalities:

Ejea: Cuatro Esquinas, Salvador 4.  Un-castillo, Posada la Pastora, Mediavilla, 30, 976-679-499 central reservation 91 523 23 07, or rusticae@edigital.es.  Un-Castillo Bar-Restaurante, Plaza de la Villa, 24; 976-679-105.  Sos del Rey, Parador “Fernando de Aragón,” 948-888-011; Central office, 91-516 66 66; email to info@parador.es; see www.parador.es.  Naturra/Adventure travel: Murillo de Gallego, 974-383-091; Trazgo adventure travel, in Sos, 948-888-150. Country Code for Spain, 34.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.