The Maestrazgo Mountains

A Trip to the Mountains

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

A fine excursion from Madrid passes through a wonderful mountainous area that is also rich in history.  We travelled first toward Zaragoza on the N-II, turning south just before Calatayud (although this riverside city is worth a visit), into regions where the Moors were widely settled, and for a long time.  This history is evident in the Mudéjar architecture, marked by beautiful patterns of brickwork, often on very elegant towers.  On the way to Calatayud we passed Medinaceli, a fine town on a hill, which itself is an attractive stop, and the beautiful early-Gothic Santa María de Huerta Monastery.

As we started late we pressed on to Daroca, a walled town (with a medieval music festival in early August) for lunch; this, for us, meant looking at several fine old Romanesque churches, and then taking tapas in a neighborhood bar, with some of the robust red Careñina wine of the region - which even in recent times might not be served to women, as ladies were not supposed to take strong drink!  Then we turned east, heading for Alcañiz.  Along the way we passed the birthplace of Goya, the remote small town of Fuendetodos, with a museum in the family home; seeing the place and the terrain is helpful in understanding the lonely landscapes of his paintings.  Another stop at Belchite, where the old town was destroyed in the Civil War, and then a new town was built, but the wreckage left as a memorial.  Such devastation is almost unimaginable even after you have seen it: an entire cathedral and surrounding houses destroyed, not by bombs dropped from planes but just by the fury of the fighting on the ground.

In Alcañiz, a pleasant town of Moorish origins, we booked in the Parador, once the castle - scene of one of those rare occasions when all the parties decided how to transfer power rather than fight, and so known as the Concordia.  It occupies a lovely hilltop spot (the nice thing about converted castles is that you always know where the hotel is when you drive into town!) with only 12 rooms (and of those numbers 1 and 9 are the largest and with best views).  Excellent food here, especially the trio of cold soups, including a melon soup we went back for the second night.  The bar has a terrace on the castle gardens.

From Alcañiz we drove out into the mountain ranges named the Maestrazgo, for the leaders, or maestres. of military-religious orders which held sway in the Middle Ages.  They are wildly beautiful, and barely inhabited now.  Indeed, there appear to be more vultures, which are protected in this area, than people.  But the land is inhabited, however sparsely, and century after century people have eked out a living on this very poor terrain.  Terraces march down the steep slopes, with rock dividers made by piling up in dry-masonry the hundreds and thousands and millions of rocks littering the scanty earth.  Flocks of sheep (always with a goat or two included, apparently to help keep the sheep in order) are in evidence, but almost no cattle.  Each fenced area has a small hut made of the same stones, formerly a useful place to wait out the rains, and probably still the same for trekkers.  The road is of very good quality, if you overlook the fact that the builders did not appear to think that guard-rails were required, although the slopes drop hundreds of meters straight down along most curves.  Fortunately the absence of traffic reduces stress!

On our first day drive we took our lunch in a small, beautifully preserved, town, Mirambel.  The largest population sector was definitely sheep, and as we ate our tapas in the bar (Las Tejas) we heard them bleating as if they were right outside, or even underneath our feet, and as it turned out that was exactly the case; the shepherd was bundling his flock into the pen underneath the building.  The setting was otherwise peaceful; as we entered music of the medieval era (songs of Alfonso the Wise) was playing and there were thought-provoking citations about music pinned up on the thick adobe walls.  Lunch was quite cheap, except that the husband of the woman who runs the place is a painter, and we exited with three oil paintings!  (The nearby town of Cantavieja also offers a good restaurant, Buj.)

Another fine day trip lies east, with the focal point Morella, another castle town with a view looking over hundreds of square kilometers.   There was a music festival taking place here and so the town was crowded, but it was splendid all the same.  The spectacular castle is one of those military edifices that appears to be hewn out of the solid rock crowning the heights.  The Mediterranean, 60 km away, could be made out as a shimmery haze.  Every six years (Y 2000 was one) the town has a major festival, the Sexenni, at the end of August - reservations far in advance for lodging here during the festival would be advised.  (The Cardenal Ram and the Rey Don Jaime are two appealing choices.)

Then we headed for Teruel, along an even wilder road through the Maestrazgo, by turning off the N211 at the Ejulve exit in the direction of Cañada de Benatanduz.  The road twists through the mountains, offering at each turn increasingly spectacular views that culminate in the Organ Pipes of Montoro, huge crags rising over the river (apparently a grand place for the more daring mountain-climbers to practice).  Lunch followed in Villarluengo at the bottom of a gorge, in the Hostal de la Trucha, formerly a paper mill; we had a three course meal (mine freshly caught trout stuffed with mountain ham and sautéed) including wine and coffee for about $10 each.  The terrace was crowded with small boys, and the inn and its surroundings would be recommended for families who have children who need to let off steam without bothering the other guests.

Teruel has five beautiful Mudéjar towers; we especially liked the one that seems to be leaning as much, if not more, than the Tower of Pisa.  You can ascend one and look out over the town’s red roofs (careful not to stay too long and get caught next to the bells as they ring out the hour!).  The cathedral is famed for its wonderful painted ceiling or artesonado.  Under another tower is the church with the tombs of Los Amantes, Spain’s Romeo and Juliet, whose funeral sculptures lie with their hands stretched out and just-not-quite-touching for the rest of time (the curator also wants you to stoop and look at their mummified remains below, but I closed my eyes).

The real treasures in this area are two enchanting towns 40 kilometers southeast of Teruel, which host a music and theatre festival in early August.  They have twin names, Mora de Rubielos and Rubielos de Mora; Mora has a grand castle, and Rubielos is altogether special, filled with 16th-century mansions with worn coats of arms, and surrounded by thick walls.  We wandered into the Renaissance town hall (on the principle that an open door should be entered), where an exhibition of paintings had just closed; the manager came down the stairs and insisted on opening up again so we could see it (I think he was the father of the painter).  We wandered through the town to the Portal del Carmen, where there was a restaurant of the same name, described as “pleasant,” and “serving simple fare.”  But what understatement!  Imagine an ancient convent, with three sides of the cloister converted to apartments, and on the fourth side the restaurant (on the ground floor, with rooms to let above).  Lunch is taken looking into the courtyard, with sunlight playing through the leaves while the fountains provide soft music.  And the wonderful food!  Three courses with wine, dessert, and after-coffee for around $17 each.  Next time we might try rooms at the inn; we were glad we had only to drive slowly back to Teruel, where we appreciated the pool at the Parador (but ensure you have a room away from the noisy main road on which it is located, and don’t forget mosquito spray).  From Teruel it’s a short drive to Cuenca and its fine Parador as part of a longer trip, or a longer drive back to Alcañiz on the main road, or up to the N-II and to Madrid.   On the way to Cuenca you will pass through the Sierra de Albarracín, and the town of the same name, a charming medieval place with several pleasant modestly priced small hotel.  If you avoid coming here on a summer weekend, you’ll enjoy it tremendously.

Practicalities:  In Alcañiz, the Parador is at the top of the hill; 978 83 03 66.  You can’t miss Mirambel’s Las Tejas.  Buj is on Avenida Maestrazgo in Cantavieja (978 18 50 33).  In Morella, the Cardenal Ram is 964 16 00 00, and the Rey Don Jaime at 964 16 09 11.  Both run around 9000 for a double.  La Trucha in Villarluengo is 974 77 30 08.  In Rubielos, the Portal del Carmen, 974-80-41-53.  Albarracín: hotel Los Palacios: 978-700 327, and the Casa de Santiago, in a building once the property of the Knights of Santiago, 978-70  316.  The Posada del Adarve (978 70 03 04)  and the Dona Blanca (978 71 00 01) also small hotels, testify to the growing popularity of this destination.  Country Code for Spain - dial 34.

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