Guide to Castilla y Leon
Castile y Leon is the magical “land of the castles” – a land which gave birth to Castilian and the Spanish language, the legendary hero El Cid and Saint Teresa of Avila.
It’s a place where ancient history, myth and legend have become so interwoven over the centuries that it’s sometimes hard to separate the facts from the fairytales.
It’s a fact that Walt Disney used Segovia’s fairytale Moorish fortress as the inspiration for his famous Sleeping Beauty castle. And it’s also a fact that the region is home to a province which boasts more medieval castles than anywhere else in Europe.
It’s the largest region in Spain and it is littered with enchanting medieval villages, some of the most impressive Gothic cathedrals in Europe and historic cities which are like living, outdoor museums. Names such as Segovia and Salamanca are enough in themselves to fire the imagination and these extraordinarily beautiful cities generally surpass the expectations of first-time visitors. Together with Avila, these cities have earned World Heritage status along with the Santiago Way – the famous pilgrims’ trail which traverses Castile y Leon en route to the Galician capital of Santiago de Compostela.
Near the city of Leon, you can visit the site of the Roman empire’s biggest gold mines – Las Medulas where the Romans devised pioneering techniques based on hydraulic power to access gold deposits in the first century AD (another World Heritage listing).
The magnificent Roman aqueduct that runs through Segovia is one of the region’s greatest architectural wonders. It’s one of the best preserved aqueducts in the world – constructed from 20,400 stones which have held fast for more than 2,000 years without the aid of a single drop of mortar. Segovia’s other top tourist attraction is its fabulous palace/castle – the Moorish Alcazar built in the 12th and 13th centuries and replicated in 20th century Disney cartoons and theme parks.
The gorgeous ‘Golden city of Salamanca‘ (so-called because of the yellowy-red sandstone used in the construction of many of its ancient and modern buildings) is home to Spain’s oldest university which was founded in 1218 by King Alfonso IX. Both the universities of Salamanca and Valladolid (the former capital of the Spanish empire in its 15th century glory days) attract foreign students keen to study in a region famed for cultivating the purest form of the Spanish language.
The fortified medieval town of Avila, the birthplace of Saint Teresa, is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the whole of the region. It’s still encircled by 11th-century walls punctuated with nine gates and more than 80 look-out towers.
But Avila and St Teresa are part of modern history compared with the archaeological site at Atapuerta, 15 kilometres East of Burgos, where the 800,000-year-old remains of Europe’s earliest inhabitants were discovered.
Besides its vast wealth of historic and cultural treasures, Castile y Leon is also blessed with some of Spain’s loveliest scenery including dramatic mountain landscapes and protected nature reserves inhabited by the rare Iberian Lynx and brown bears. One of the most stunning protected reserves in Spain is the Sierra de Gredos, between the provinces of Avila, Caceres and Salamanca. Gredos national park is a heart-stopping confection of mountains, unspoilt villages and rolling hillsides which attract nature lovers and outdoor sports enthusiasts from all over Spain and abroad.
History of Castilla y Leon
The ancient kingdom of Castilla (or Castile) was first united with the neighbouring kingdom of Leon in the early part of the 11th century. It takes its name from the many castles built by the Christians as a defence against the Moorish invaders in the 8th and 9th centuries. In the early years of Arab domination, the region was at the vanguard of the centuries-long battle to oust the Moors. The most famous champion of the Christian reconquest was ‘El Cid el Campeador’ who was born in Bivar near the city of Burgos and whose coffin lies in the city’s truly magnificent 13th-century cathedral (yet another of Castilla Leon’s many World Heritage sites).
Visitors from all over the world come to Castile y Leon to follow the ‘route of the castles’ and to soak up the rich history of a region awash with well preserved legacies from the days of the Roman, Moorish and Spanish empires.
Cities of Castilla y Leon
Segovia’s most famous monument is certainly its colossal Roman aquaeductus which dominates all of the town. Additional attractions include the Alcazar and the Gothic cathedral.
In Soria, located at the Duero river, you should pay special attention to the magnificent Romanesque churches and the Palencia Medieval town with its outstanding Romanesque monuments. Among the major attractions are the beautiful cathedral and the archaeological museum.
The capital of Castilla-Leon has one of the most important sculpture museums of all Spain, and the famous Easter week processions are of great tourist interest. The city itself is monumental, and it is surrounded by innumerable castles. It has to be said that in Valladolid the most correct Castilian Spanish is spoken, so it is an ideal place to study the Spanish language.
Zamora is a beautiful medieval town with a magnificent cathedral and several great Romanesque churches. Nearby there is the 8th-century Visigothic church San Pedro de la Nave, and Lago de Sanabria, the largest lake in Spain and the only one of glacial origins.