Letters from Iberia – Castilla y Leon

Letters from Iberia – Castilla y Leon

Castilla, a land shaped by history…


There is a strange sound coming out of my engine bay this morning. A high pitch metallic noise an insufficiently oiled pulley would make. It can’t be right, my accessory belt and its pulleys have been changed less than 10.000 kms ago. Unless they have been wrongly installed (happened before once) it shouldn’t be an issue. Could it be all that mud I have been driving through since the beginning of this trip, rusting exposed moving parts of my engine? Shouldn’t be either !
Luckily, the sound disappears as the engine warms up, and hopefully it was nothing to worry about. It has been a trouble free trip so far, it would be sad to loose that luck now. Just to be safe I’ll keep on checking and look for a Jeep dealer if that noise was to come back.

It’s still raining, it’s still cold, it’s still beautiful. I’m on the edge on La Rioja and Castilla y Leon. Nearby rise Los picos de Urbion, one of the most prominent rock formation of the Sistema Iberico, created by a glacier long long ago. To get there I have selected a trail that rides on the edge of one of the surrounding mountains, offering a clear view on the overall range. But, for the first time since the start of this trip, I am confronted with a NO ENTRY sign. I have seen so many signs so far, limiting access to so many restricted areas; either for hunting, for fishing, because of private properties lost in the middle of nowhere, etc… As if Spain, like the rest of Europe, was just an endless patchwork of prohibited wilderness, however, the road had always stayed opened !

To be fair, nothing apart from that sign stops me from entering that track. Nobody in the vicinity will come and force me to turn around. But since I intend to share my route with you in a dedicated travel guide, I must make sure, that at the time of posting, all the tracks are legal and accessible. As such, I must regretfully divert and find another way to reach my destination of the day. Fortunately, options are plentiful, and that early setback isn’t altering my mood.

I want to see the Laguna Negra (the black lagoon). A small lake surrounded by photogenic rock formations seen on most local touristic brochures. The area has been declared a natural park, and money has been spent to welcome large numbers of tourists, including a very nice, but in Spanish only, visitor center. Unlike other parks I have seen so far, there is a toll to pay to enter; 4 €. Other noticeable difference, this one is actually popular ! Despite the foul weather this late in the season, the place is pretty crowded ! Families mostly, either dressed for a winter expeditions or for a walk at the mall, both seemingly inappropriate for this natural setting.

All are here with the same intention, getting a selfie ! Hoping to get a whaooh shot myself, I’m carrying all my gears, and instead of taking the shuttle bus to the lake, decide to climb though the forest while following the torrent. Sadly, it’s hard to see further than a few feet away, thanks to a dense fog rolling over the forests. Undeterred, I keep on climbing, now through the thick of snow, hoping for a better view ! It takes me two hours to reach the summit. Or what I think is the summit, as the clouds makes it impossible to know for sure. As sole reward for my efforts, a dreadful wind is now slapping me around, so loud it’s almost covering the once thundering sound of the grand cascade I came in vain to admire.

“You can’t always get want you want…” as the song would say…

Back in the warm comfort of my car, I am now driving down a never ending pine forest on my way to the Douro valley. The Douro, which began right where I just was, will become my guide all the way to Portugal, running across La Castilla y Leon. Always stunning to imagine that this little stream will progressively turn into the giant reaching the Atlantic Ocean in Porto !

Calatanazor at sunset
Calatanazor at sunset

What was so far a journey through natural beauty is now turning into a cultural and archeological expedition. The architectural vestiges erected along the way are rapidly replacing the geological wonders admired through the previous days. We’re now entering a land shaped by a conflicted past, where wars and conquests have left their marks. Fortified villages like Calatanazor, hiding behind tall walls erected on rocky mounts, overlooking the vast plains, waiting in fear for the Muslims invaders. A battle between the Califate and the Christian kings and queens played out on those fields many centuries ago. They may have been built to withstand the fury of combat, they could not survive the assault of time. Silent ruins, like the Fortaleza Califal de Gormaz, now home of the wind, where birds of prey come to play, they offer incredible view points on the surrounding valleys, while telling a story our modernize world is too quick to forget.

Gormaz & Calatanazor
The walls of Gormaz on the left, inside Calatanazor on the right

Just as remarkable, and in most cases far better preserved, the religious monuments found across the region. Churches and monasteries, unfortunately too often kept closed to the curious eye, keeping alive medieval traditions and rites. It’s only by chance that I am allowed to enter the Santo Domingo de Silo monastery for an evening “concert”, where the monks come to sing and pray.

Religious art

The next morning, out of pure luck, I stumbled on the Sad Hill cemetery. Any fan of the cult Spaghetti western, “The good, the bad and the ugly” will know what I am taking about !
This epic final scene of the movie, where the three characters meet in the cemetery for a three way duel under the incredible music of Enio Morricone… What a surprise for me. What a pleasure to walk around the set build specially for the movie back in 1966, and still preserved today. Here I am whistling the score, imagining myself as Clint Eastwood !

Sad Hill cemetery
Sad Hill cemetery
Sad Hill cemetery
Sad Hill cemetery

But I’m not the only one whistling, so is the car ! The engine bay is again showing signs of distress!
I have to make it to Burgos, my destination for the night. I should stick to the road, but the dirt track seems good and offers a substantial short cut… Till it turns into a field of mud I have a very rough time passing through. I like taking chances, but there is no point getting stranded in the middle of nowhere, having to deal with locals who don’t speak a word of english. Burgos here I come, the road from here it will be.

Burgos seen by Albert Robida in 1880

Burgos is special to me. My great grand father wrote a travel guide dedicated to Spain back in 1880, and was very found of Burgos and its majestic cathedral. I feel emotional thinking that I stand where he stood some 138 years ago. A place my late father visited as well some 50 years ago. I have their drawings and pictures at home. I would have liked to take the same image from the same view point, but it’s now dark and rainy. It will have to wait for tomorrow.

But tomorrow has my mind focused on a completely different matter. Not only the weather is still awful, but my car has had enough ! Turns out my alternator is dead. Not a complicated fix, just an expensive one (Jeep parts!). One that will kill my budget for the reminder of this trip. One that forces me to take an unwanted decision… Stop for now and go home!

I should be pissed, or sad, but I’m not. It has been beautiful so far, and I know that I will return to follow the rest of my route. I just consider this to be “part one” of a grander journey. From Val d’Aran to Burgos. A coherent track through the Norther mountains of Spain. One I strongly advise you to try on your own. One for which I will now create a complete travel guide with all the required informations for you all to enjoy…

Happy travels.


Make sure to check our dedicated guide for the Spanish Trail where you’ll find all the informations you’ll need to complete it on your own.