December 14, 2013

Pueblos con encanto: La Alberca and the Sierra de Francia

Sun setting on Miranda del Castañar and the Sierra de Francia
Last weekend I took a road trip to Salamanca, my first time there! Rather than write about that, which I imagine dozens of bloggers and travel guides have already done to death, I thought I would write about the other part of that trip: a visit to the beautiful, and less-well-known Sierra de Francia south of Salamanca. Most visitors to Spain, particularly to Madrid, often manage to see the many impressive mid-sized cities of interior Spain... Ávila, Salamanca, Toledo, Segovia... etc. But once again I want to make a plug for seeing Spain's rural, off-the-beaten-path sights. Which is why I'm revisiting my series, "Pueblos con encanto", with this photo recollection of my visit to La Alberca, a hike through the surrounding Sierra, and my jamón fest in the other must-see pueblo of the Sierra, Miranda del Castañar.

Some of the many "Lugares de Interés Turístico" listed on a sign at a
pit stop on the AP-6 between Ávila and Madrid. I've been to three of these
(Ávila, Salamanca, and Segovia), and seen a fourth from the highway.
What about you?

• Autumn in the Sierra de Francia

There are many hiking trails that you can do in the Sierra de Francia. Unfortunately we only had time to do one: La Alberca-Herguijuela, a 3-hour (one-way) trail that connects La Alberca with another, even smaller town Herguijuela de la Sierra. The trail is rated medium difficulty (although it's pretty easy if you skip the final section, a steep descent to Herguijuela that I imagine might tire you out going up it). This is not the most famous trail in the region, which would probably go to the Peña de Francia Trail that leads up to the tallest peak in the region, and which is rated as very difficult, though you can cheat and simply drive up to the top. (Next time!) Still, any hiking in the Sierra de Francia is going to be pretty darn pleasant, especially if you are as fortunate as we were to do it in the Autumn, when fall colors were setting in.

The yellow-white mark of the "P.R.", pequeño recorrido, trails.

And a river runs through it... always fun to see streams crossing the trail

This was about the steepest ascent we had to deal with

You can see the leaves of the Chestnut, Oak, and Pine trees changing colors at different stages, and the trail is covered in fallen leaves, giving it extra charm...

... and you'll find frost on the ground along the turns in the trail where the sun don't shine (a.k.a. "la umbría")!

And like all good trails, eventually you come out to some very nice overlooks, great panoramic views of the Sierra...

That haze or smoke you can see over the valley is from wood-burning fires.
The entire valley, all the towns we visited, smelled of the fireplaces warming houses.

• La Alberca, a foodie's paradise

The Peña de Francia, which
you can see from La Alberca
After our hike we walked around La Alberca, an incredibly quaint and photogenic small town in the Sierra. You'll notice the white-with-wood-stripes architecture typical in this Sierra, which make the main plaza particularly pretty. (I must have taken dozens of photos of it, trying to figure out the right angle of light, since the shadows were difficult at certain times of the day.)

I wouldn't say the town is a secret in the region, since there were large groups of local tourists visiting it on the puente holiday weekend. But it's not so well-known outside of the region, despite its clear beauty and tourist appeal... not to mention the food!

The main square in La Alberca

La Alberca's main square, seen from another angle

The house on the right is an example of the typical architectural style of the pueblos of the region.

Smile for the picture!

Awesome brick-walled path leading from the town center out to the edges of town.

I've written in earlier "Pueblos con encanto" entries that the perfect formula for enjoying these day trips to towns is to hike early in the morning and then save time to visit the town shops for local foods and to eat a hearty meal in the homey, traditional restaurants that always populate these places. Needless to say, that's precisely what we did. We booked a lunch at a recommended restaurant, La Cantina de Elías. After our hike, we were ready for the meat-heavy fare typical of the region.

At the end of the Main Street, at the edge of town, are these old arches and, behind them,
the restaurant, La Cantina de Elías, where you can get some excellent,
homey traditional local food.

I order sopa de ajo every time I'm in a Castilian region, a specialty there.
(Note the beers in the background... they always taste so good after a hike!)

Chuletón! This is one Texan who is always desperate for the steaks in Castilla y León,
in my opinion one of the few regions in Spain where they know how to prepare beef.
This chuletón was made with ternera morucha, a local breed of cow from this region.

After lunch, despite being totally stuffed, we could not resist stopping at half a dozen shops in La Alberca and buying local food products... beans, a specialty of the region, but also sweets and pastries from a highly rated, nationally renowned bakery...

We didn't know about it in advance, but we recognize a good bakery when we see it.
Small towns in Spain are famous for their bakeries, but this bakery in La Alberca was another level!

"Estos jarrones de turrón han salido en el telediario de la primera el día de nochebuena del 2010."
Why take my word for it? If it's good enough to get national news coverage on Christmas Eve,
then it must be good, right?

In addition to the usual suspects, you can find a variety of
local bean varieties in the Sierra de Francia.

Jamón epilogue in Miranda del Castañar

We stayed overnight in the pueblo Miranda del Castañar, which is noteworthy for its castle and its history as an important center for the Spanish Inquisition. (Don't worry! That was many, many years ago.) While not as pretty as La Alberca, it has just as much to see and do. In our case, the highlight of our stay here turned out to be jamón! The Sierra de Francia is in the heart of Spain's jamón iberico de bellota country. (Please feel free to review my blog entry on it here.) On our drive from Salamanca to Miranda, I was floored when I realized that there were pata negra pigs roaming around the fields of acorn-bearing oak trees adjacent to the country road we were on. It was like right out of a jamón advertisement. (My wife must have wondered if the squeal she heard was from me or the pigs.) The Sierra de Francia is extremely dry, which is why it is a major center for producing the famed Spanish ham, and in particular the high-end variety from pigs that feed on acorns.

One of the coolest things in Miranda del Castañar is this point
on the main street where two opposite houses nearly touch. I can
just picture the owners passing each other the salt.

The town walls, after the castle, are what the guides sell up the most for this town.
There is a shop adjacent to them where you can hear about an old bodega,
which used to run the wine through the walls pouring it out here onto the street for buyers.

Apiarian tools right next to the town walls... Yes, there
is a lot of local honey to be found at the markets here.

The castle during the day.

On our first night we went to a great bar with great atmosphere, La Mandrágora, and ate tostas featuring different high-quality cuts of ham. (I confess, we violated our usual rule of trying different restaurants, and returned there the next night for more.)

From the traditional, quaint exterior, you'd never imagine that La Mandrágora
would have such a hip, modern atmosphere inside.

Mmm... tostas de lomo. This was the nicest quality lomo I had ever had.

While talking to the owner of La Mandrágora, we asked where we could buy some good jamón at a reasonable price, thinking she'd direct us to one of the shops in Miranda del Castañar. Instead, she replied, "You should just go directly to the jamón factory here in town where I get it." She gave us directions (it's not a big town) and told us to tell him that she sent us. We thought, "What a bargain! We'll get it from the source. No middleman!"

But it was even better than that. This is small-town Spain, in an under appreciated tourist area, where people are friendly and proud. (Moreover, as an American, I'm a curiosity in such places, since we're not common there.) So when we struck up a conversation with the jamón factory owner, Jamón Benito Pérez (if you're curious), about differences between food in Spain and the U.S. (e.g. he laughed when we told him that tapas bars in the U.S. are a fancy affair), he invited us down into the cellars where they age the ham and produce the different cuts. Next thing you know, we're getting a free tour and lessons in how jamón is produced!

This is where they cut it up, grind it, and process it.

Salt. Lots of it.

This is only one corner of only one room on only one floor out of four floors full of
hanging jamones! For the best jamones it will take them 3-4 years of hanging here in
the dry Sierra climate to age to perfection.

So our brief weekend in the Sierra de Francia was delicious, and fun, and relaxing. I encourage you to add it to your list of destinations for the next time you're in central Spain. You won't be disappointed. And for the moment, it's still a hidden gem!

One of many spectacular sunsets during our stay in the Sierra de Francia

Another sunset seen from just outside the town walls of Miranda del Castañar


Sorokin said...

I was in La Alberca some years ago and it is true that it is a very interesting village. The whole region is known as "las Batuecas", being la Peña de Francia a part of it. The surprising thing is that a few kilometers away (or even miles, for the Americans) there is the region of "las Hurdes", one of the poorest areas of the Iberian peninsula. You probably know the Buñuel's film "tierra sin pan" that was filmed there. I don't know if the status of las Hurdes as improved since I was there, but I was shocked.

An American Spaniard said...

Hi Sorokin! Is there a place you haven't been? If so, let me know so I can add it to my bucket list. The subject of Las Hurdes came up while we were driving around there, because I had just written up the entry on Spanish cinema, including Buñuel's famous film there. I think our next long road trip might be out to around there, though we'll probably skip Hurdes and aim for Cáceres and Trujillo. Say hi to the in-laws for me! I'm sure they're having a blast with beer and muscles in Brussels.

Sorokin said...

Hi, Expat. I read your answer today and I can tell you that just on the 29th, when you wrote, i.e: 8.32PM I was with your in-laws in "Le Cirio" having a couple of "Triple Karmeliett" beers. I think that they enjoyed it.

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