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
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.
The article 'In Aragon, the villages time forgot' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.