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Amid the clamour of modern Spain, a world away from the Spanish stereotype of sun, sand and sangria, the stone-built pueblos (villages) of Aragón capture the spirit of the country’s epic historical past.

The ancient kingdom of Aragón — together with that of Castile — gave power and prestige to the Christian Reconquista, forcefully confirming Spain’s Christian identity in the late 15th Century. The town of Sos del Rey Católico, in Aragón’s northwest, set the stage for this stirring tale in 1452, as the birthplace of Fernando II of Aragón, the male half of one of history’s most famous double acts. Four decades after his birth, the Spanish Monarchs – Fernando II of Aragón and Isabel I of Castile – brought an end to seven centuries of Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula.

The village where Fernando II’s picaresque life began is a symbol of the countless small settlements that represent the traditional heartland of Spanish heritage. Draped along a ridgeline from where it surveys the surrounding plains, Sos del Rey Católico at once resembles a fortress from more historically uncertain times and a Tuscan hill town bathed in honey-coloured stone. Its quiet byways rise steeply from the valley floor, snaking along the contours of its narrow perch and rising to a summit where castle and church stand sentinel like icons of Ferdinand II’s battle to secure Catholic supremacy.  

Aside from the grand sweeps of Spain’s history, Aragón is dominated by a geography that is almost continental in its variety. In the far north, valleys, deep and verdant, cut far into the Pyrenees. The mountain range shelters forgotten streams and terracotta-roofed hamlets, then rises in steep, forested hillsides to become some of Europe’s most shapely peaks. Inaccessible for much of the year, these villages – among them Torla, Echo and Ansó – are sturdy mountain refuges at the mercy of the capricious moods of the Pyrenean climate, even as flowers cascade from balconies to lighten hardy local spirits.

Where the Pyrenean foothills descend – sometimes abruptly, sometimes gently – away to the south, towns like Aínsa have scarcely changed since medieval times. Cobbled together in uneven stone, Aínsa has a colonnaded public square, fine views north towards distant peaks and just two streets that rise and fall in subtle shades of multicoloured stone offset by gentle interplays of light and shadow.

Before Aragón levels out, Alquézar is a pyramid-shaped, defile-top village and one of the canyoning capitals of Europe, while the isolated backcountry of El Maestrazgo is truly one of Spain’s most delightfully forgotten corners. Where the horizonless meseta (high plateau) of central Spain takes hold, Fuendetodos (the birthplace of Goya in 1746) and Daroca (encircled by hilltop castle ramparts) serve as reminders that Aragón has always played its part in the onward march of Spanish history.

But in Aragón’s deep south, it is Albarracín that stakes the strongest claim for the title of Spain’s prettiest village. Once the capital of an 11th-century Islamic state, later the scene of an independent Christian kingdom on the cusp of Aragón’s historical domain, Albarracín is an enchanted blend of earthy red, pink and terracotta set against dark stone and bouldered hillsides. The daily onslaught of summer day-trippers notwithstanding, there is something timeless about this place, never more so than when the sun dips behind the castle ramparts and envelops the village in a silence broken only by soft footfalls on cobblestones.

 

© 2011 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘In Aragon, the villages time forgot’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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