When you think of Spain, what springs to mind? I’ll bet the first things do not include weird rock formations, grand castles in provincial towns, or even chocolate. Yet this is the Spain I know, and it exists in a place north of Madrid and east of Galicia, a region called Castile-Leon.
I was a bright-eyed, eager student who had just arrived in Asturias, a little-known province in northern Spain, for a five-month stint at the University of Oviedo. On one of my first weekends there, my friends and I joined a welcome trip put on for foreign students and set out to explore the neighbouring region Castile-Leon.
I had no idea what to expect – just a few months earlier, I hadn’t even heard of the town I was living in, so it’s safe to say that northwest Spain was not my speciality. However, we soon stopped at our first point of interest: the World Heritage Site of Las Medulas. The weirdly-shaped orange rocks certainly make an impression, but at first glance they look natural, some geological quirk. However, we soon discovered that this was once a Roman gold mine and the rock formations are due to their complex mining system. We spent time oohing and aahing, peering into caves and taking in the extraordinary landscape.
It wasn’t far to our next stop, the small town of Ponferrada. Although it was a Saturday, the town was very quiet, with just a few people out and about. It was intensely pretty though, with colourful squares and old stone buildings. Its most surprising feature was the enourmous castle at one end of the town. It looked like a picture-book castle come to life, all turrets and crenellations. We paused in Ponferrada for a relaxed and pleasant lunch, before hitting the road again.
If Ponferrada was slightly surreal, our next stop was like stepping right into a fairytale. When we disembarked from the coach in Astorga, our mouths began to water: the rich aroma of chocolate actually wafted through the streets. Like Ponferrada, it was also a small, provincial town and it was also very quiet. Still, the shops were open for business – every second one was a chocolate shop, with gorgeous displays in the windows. Before we could be tempted inside, we were herded along to the Chocolate Museum, where we were given a tour, a chocolate tasting (Yes!) and an explanation of the history of Astorga.
It turns out that Astorga was once the main town in this region, and consequently one of the first places in Europe to taste the new discovery from Mexico: chocolate. Since then, it has firmly established its commerce upon chocolate.
It is also a key stopping-point on the Camino de Santiago, which goes some way to explaining its ridiculously-proportioned Cathedral and Episcopal Palace. Like the castle in Ponferrada, these buildings completely dwarf the town.While the cathedral, with its traditional gothic style at least vaguely fits in, the Episcopal Palace is totally surreal. It was designed by Gaudi and definitely exhibits his flair for the dramatic. It is the archetypal fairytale palace – built with white stone that actually sparkles in the sunlight – and it boasts tall towers, the kind you imagine a damsel in distress being locked up in. It is quite a sight to behold.
Our journey through Castile-Leon came to an end (after a few chocolate purchases) and we left, awestruck. Thinking back on that trip now, if I didn’t have photographic proof, I would be convinced that I had dreamt some of it. But I have irrefutable evidence. In Castile-Leon, fairytales really do come true.
Have you ever been to a fairytale place on your travels?