The magnificent Alto Maestrazgo north of Valencia

We were on our usual month-long summer trail winding through France and Spain to spend some time in a friend’s house near Marbella before winding back up again. On the way down I wanted to try a different route, so we cut inland from north of Valencia with the idea of avoiding main roads and discovering some of the provinces of Castellón and Castilla/La Mancha.  We stayed one night just outside Benasal (of which more in my previous post), then we were going to set off across country towards our second night which was to be in Tomelloso.

Our first stop, though, was in Benasal itself to explore and enjoy the Historical Fair.

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This small town turned out to be a revelation, with tiny medieval streets and equally old buildings now pressed into service for today’s needs.  Benasal started as a Moorish town, then in 1234 after the “reconquest” , the period when the Spanish crown took back the country and drove out the Moors, it belonged to the Templars for a while.

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It would have been a beautiful gem of a town to visit anyway, but with the whole centre of town pedestrianised because of the Fair, and with many of the local population dressed in costumes of a previous time, it was atmospheric and fascinating. A charming local lady saw us wondering at the old buildings and grabbed us to take us into the town hall which had been turned into a museum; she explained a lot and insisted that we visited all the exhibits, which formed an eclectic collection ranging from shards of Moorish pottery to explanatory posters about a famous local teacher and poet, Carles Salvador.

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The little main square had been turned into a bullring, with an ingenious arrangement of scaffolding, and while we were there we saw working horses and mules, as well as local people dressed in old costumes.

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We bought some excellent local hazelnuts, a local speciality, and some very good local olive oil from a man who coped very well with the two English women asking him questions about the production of hazelnuts – we were almost certainly the only non-locals there that morning.

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We moved on from Benasal, following a vaguely logical route to Tomelloso, south and slightly east of Madrid.  We intentionally steered clear of Cuenca, with its famous ‘hanging’ houses because that must be a trip of its own, so we ended up heading straight across what we hadn’t known until then was the “Alto Maestrazgo”, a fascinating area of hills and medieval villages – and lots of dry stone walls.

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This is such an attractive area, we could have taken photos for hours on end.  Hercules the Hatchback Skoda was particularly taken by the countryside.

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We saw very little traffic, and certainly no foreign cars, and yet again we asked ourselves why people have given up doing the kind of road trip that we love. The world is shrinking, globalisation is having its wicked way and in Europe at least every city is beginning to look like every other – why do we just lie back and take it?  Why are people not out there, seeking out the original and the ancient, revelling in the history and the differences between our cultures so as to learn from them?

We had not allowed ourselves enough time on this occasion – although we will definitely return – so we were only able to stop in one of the many beautiful little towns in this region, apart from Benasal.

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Iglesuela del Cid (you can’t get away from that major Spanish historical figure in this region) was once a ‘frontier town’, an outpost of the Christian fight to regain Spain from the Moors in the 11th century, a fight famously led at one point by Rodrigo Diaz, known as “el Cid”, about whom a very well known epic poem was written.

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The town has been built in the distinctive warm brown stone of the area, and like so much here is a mix of European and Moorish influences.

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Finally, the countryside of this part of the world has a beautiful view at every hilltop and at every turn (and there were a lot of turns – Hercules became quite giddy at one point and we had to stop to let him calm down).

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Our picnic this day was up on the plateau, shaded by a huge old holm oak tree from the sizzling sun and with a view in the distance of an old Moorish castle up on a hill, still starkly guarding the roads all these centuries later.

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Eventually, like all good things, it came to an end and we moved on into Castilla/ La Mancha, which is flat.  After the joy and the adventure of the Maestrazgo, it was, well, flat.  And there were no windmills, which was the main reason I wanted to stay there, being a don Quijote fan.  Flat.  Very flat. No blog entry for flat.

Dulcinea, don Quijote’s love interest, may have been from Tomelloso but whether because of this or despite it, it is not the kid of town to which I will return in the near future.

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