The Long North Eastern Loop
The following exploration of North Eastern Spain loops from Madrid although it could equally be made from Barcelona.
La Ruta de las Caras: The Route of Faces
The numerous sculptures set along the area’s hiking trails symbolize and idealize the relationship between humans and nature. As someone who loves art, outdoors and a touch of madness, this is a place for a pleasant outing. While the art may not be worthy of the Prado, it is a pleasant walk and fitting of its surrounds. www.rutadelascaras.com
Cuenca: Hanging town of incredible beauty
One of the most beautiful and memorable towns in Spain. The handsome township is dominated by its physical location between two sharp ravines where buildings precariously cling to the side. When we visited the spectacular town, it lacked the throngs of tourists and, as a result, had the unhurried air of a small town. The sunset was a delight, as is seeing the town lit up.
A few kilometres north of Cuenca are the unusual rock formations of Ciudad Encantada (enchanted city). The formations start with the farmlands, can be seen from the road, and look as if they’re from a modern art installation.
Valencia: Barcelona’s more interesting sister
Often over-looked for Barcelona, Valencia offers much of Barcelona’s energy and charm without its hordes of stag and hens parties and tour groups. As a result, Valencia feels like Barcelona’s more homely sister. And, like many a less attractive sibling, it hasn’t been able to survive solely upon its good looks and, instead, has developed something ultimately more alluring – a wit and a charm. This is demonstrated in its bars and restaurants which heave with a strong university population and those savvy to good food.
Valencia has a generous and large beach although with its brown gritty sand it feels more like a poor quality sandpit (for some of us at least). However, being spacious, it’s perfect for grabbing a few beers, a football and having a sprawling beach picnic. Further to the north of the beach is a series of restaurants featuring the most delicious paella in Spain or, for that matter, the world.
Valencia once wrapped itself around a flood prone river but the locals got sick of the floods and diverted the river, creating an incredible green ribbon of parks that dissect the city. The historic bridges remain, enabling a great vista of Valencians relaxing or playing football as well as one of the most creative playgrounds I have ever seen – a giant Gulliver, fell to earth, with his appendages doubling as slides and lookout points for children to explore.
To the south of the green ribbon you’ll find over-the-top modern architecture, reminding you of pre-financial crisis Spain, where ambition was paramount and cost no object. The series of museums and galleries magnificently seem to defy gravity, making incredible use of water and reflection.
Albarracin: Wild west town or remote hill town
The town has a cinematic air to it, with its dishevelled township of buildings that seem to rust away in front of your eyes and its city walls that cling to the steep hills. The township is certainly on the tourist route, but thankfully this hasn’t translated into gentrification or disneyfication of the experience. As a result, there is something genuinely enjoyable about navigating its tightly-packed, ramshackled streets shielded from the harsh sun.
Belchite: A poignant memorial to civil war and our introduction to industrialised warfare
40km south of Zaragoza is Belchite, the scene of fierce bombing during the Spanish civil war when the opposing forces were testing newly discovered weapons of war. We forget that Spain, for a period during World War II, became a testing ground with such devastating consequences across Europe. The Russian, German, French, American and English forces all dabbled in Spain – contributing arms, tactical and financial support, and often troops (typically indirectly). In Belchite, the forces tested the techniques of firebombing an entire town, devastating it in the process. Yet, rather than rebuild, it still lies in ruins as a chilling yet poignant memorial. The site is unregulated, unless you count the local kids who, between playing war in the rubble, sell photocopied maps of the town and offer tours.
Zaragoza: Kingdom of Aragon
Not to be confused with the Lord of the Rings mythical kingdom of Aragorn, Zaragoza was the seat of power to the kingdom of Aragon. Zaragoza’s outer lying suburbs leave something to be desired and the town suffers the ignominy of its elected official’s flight of folly, selecting it to be the site of a “World Expo” in 2008. But if you ignore where your European taxes were spent, the downtown and, in particular, the riverwalk are a delight – being more spacious and elegant than many Spanish cities. Set beside the impressive river Ebro the baroque cathedral (El Pilar) is one of Europe’s prettiest, particularly if you sit and relax by the river and watch the sun set, with beer in hand.
1. La Ruta de las Caras
This is a multi-part article exploring Spain by car. Next up: Part Four – Southern Spain or check out the intro The Perfect Country for a Road Trip.