ISA in the Sierra de Francia

This beautiful part of Spain is full of small villages that have existed in much the same way (though they obviously have running water, electricity, and internet – those hallmarks of Western civilization) for the last few centuries. We began our visit in Miranda del Castanar, which boasts a fifteenth century castle (mostly in ruins) and one of the earliest bull-fighting rings in Spain – Plaza Los Toros – situated immediately in front of the castle. This small village has some amazing views of the Sierra de Francia and is an interesting place to walk around for an hour or so – our major stop being “La Bodega,” and 18th century building whose 13th century wine cellar is open to the public.

After leaving Miranda del Castanar and making several stops at scenic viewpoints – the Sierra de Francia is one of the most beautiful natural places I’ve ever seen, a combination of high peaks and rolling mountains with small villages scattered on hillsides throughout – we arrived at our second stop of the day in La Alberca. I have to say, Miranda del Castanar reminded me of undeveloped areas of rural Virginia and West Virginia – areas whose architectural remains bear witness to a more prosperous past (the Greek Revival town hall of the decaying South being equivalent to the slowly disintegrating castles of these small pueblos) but whose future seems stagnant – but La Alberca was like some of the tourist areas in both places. A rural town scrubbed just enough to be acceptable to day-trippers visiting the nearby hotel (which many many people told us to visit) who wander around the town purchasing quality craft goods and foodstuffs. Fortunately, my only purchase was a bag of caramelized nuts that were absolutely amazing and a hot neopolitana, which by virtue of being full of warm chocolate, briefly held the position of “best neopolitana in Spain.”

As harsh as my commentary may sound, I really did enjoy my visit to both places; they truly are lovely and they lack the intrusion of modern touches that I’ve found so jarring in Rome and Madrid, where graffiti-covered walls surround palace gardens and neoclassical sculptures clash with skyscrapers. Our last stop of the day was my favorite, though – La Pena de Francia. According to my guidebook,
“…at the highest point in the mountains, is the peak known as the Pena de Francia, overlooking Las Batuecas Valley and Las Hurdes country in Caceres province. This mountain-top is the site of an important Maria sanctuary, whose legend has caused intense devotion to the Virgen of La Pena de Francia. The image was discovered in 1434 by a Frenchman, Simon Vela. Three years later, Dominican monks built the sanctuary in Gothic style, with rather rough lines, from great granite pillars made from the ashlar stone. The High Chapel contains the image of the Virgin of La Pena de Francia. Over the cave where the figure lay hidden for 200 years stands the Chapel of La Blanca, commissioned by a Castilian princess of the same name. The site also contains two chapels independent from the church, that of El Santo Cristo and that of San Andres, both built in the 15th century on the sites where images of Christ and Saint Andrew were found. Also interesting is the former Chapel of Santiago, now Balcon de Santiago, a vantage point commanding magnificent views of the Sierra. The convent adjoins the church, standing on the edge of the precipice on a prolongation of the so-called “salto del nino” (“child’s leap”).”

My guidebook does a much better job of pulling together all the information about the site than I could, but fails to capture what you experience in person when you visit. To begin, I was fairly certain I was going to die before I reached the top of the peak – our massive tour bus was using a very tiny road, with few guardrails (and he scraped against those that were there at least once), and many tight twists and turns. Finally, after an age spent absently taking pictures from the bus window and calculating how many calls I could make in the time it would take for our bus to crash at the base of the cliff if something untoward happened, we reached the top.

What I saw when I reached the top made me think of one of my favorite English words, “transcendent.” I’ve never really known why it was one of my favorite words, but Pena de Francia made me actually feel it. In all fairness, I suppose it could have been the altitude, but there was something about the rough stone structures and endless views of sky and mountain that made you feel at peace with yourself and the rest of the world. The ringing of the bell as we stood in front of the church felt like the past reaching out, not just to brush tentatively against my skin, but to wrap me in its embrace. Closing my eyes and breathing deeply, I could no longer hear the other students or tourists, no longer see the parking lot beyond the edge of the church, no longer feel the urge to snap a digital photo of everything I saw. For a moment, I simply was, and it was…transcendent.

When I opened my eyes, the feeling lingered, but I couldn’t help but walk around being a tourist. Leaning from the Balcon de Santiago to take the most spectacular pictures I got of the Sierra de Francia. Visiting the Capilla de La Blanca and step cautiously down a claustrophobic stairway to the Grotto of the Virgin. Walking out to the giant compass arrow pointing North and then climbing down into what appeared to be simply a winding, brick-lined hole in the earth but which was actually a maze of staircases leading to other vantage points.

After an unfortunately short period of time, we loaded ourselves back on to the bus for another terrifying drive – this time down the mountain. Luckily, my headphones hadn’t completely died (they did by the end of the weekend, sadly) and I was able to focus on the annoyingly peppy songs of Aqua. A while later, we reached Ciudad Rodrigo, where we got off the bus and walked into the city (the streets being too narrow to accommodate the bus). This weekend was another packing success – I managed to bring nothing but my backpack. We went straight to the hotel and checked in, though unlike most everyone else I decided I’d rather sleep then go be an obnoxiously loud American in a small city. For anyone who doesn’t know, I really really, truly, absolutely love to sleep. It’s possibly my worst habit – especially here in Spain, where it turns out the siesta is for eating, not napping.

The next morning, my roommate (Jessica) and I woke up (she had been sick all the day before and still wasn’t faring too well) woke up and got ready for a day of touring the city. We went downstairs first, though, and had the most magnificent breakfast ever – orange juice, tortilla with jamon mixed in (not like tortillas in the US or Mexico, a Spanish tortilla is more of a potato…cake? I guess. It’s difficult to explain, but it’s amazing. If I can figure out how to make it, it may replace mashed potatoes in the comfort food category), rolls with butter, fruit, this amazing croissant, and what replaced the hot neopolitana from Alberca on the “best neopolitana in Spain” pedestal, mainly because I’m pretty certain it was more chocolate than pastry. After breakfast, we packed up and got ready for the day ahead, though Jessica ended up staying back to rest because she still wasn’t feeling well.

What I am quickly learning is that most Spanish towns (not counting massive, sprawling ones like Madrid and Barcelona) can be thoroughly visited in a few hours – a full day, maybe, if it played a big role in multiple stages of Spanish history. Ciudad Rodrigo is a very small, walled city, with more than two millennia of history packed behind its fortifications. The original settlement dates to the 6th century B.C. Vettons who called the it “Mirobriga.” The Romans later re-named it “Augustobriga” (and presumably built the walls I spent the better part of the morning walking around on – the Romans really liked walls, but then, if you went around conquering people who’d prefer you stayed in your own pretty city, you’d probably like walls too). We toured the city by foot, and only made two stops to actually visit places. One was the Cathedral of Santa Maria (founded in 1165, with major alterations during the 16th century), which was beautiful inside and out, especially the cloister. Though many of the others in my group seem to be tired of churches – saying they’re all the same and that they blur together – they tend to be the highlight of my visit to any city. Maybe it’s the ten years of Catholic school. Or the architectural history nerd. Whatever it is, Santa Maria’s cloister – a space usually reserved for the private reflection of the nuns who live there – is notable at Santa Maria because it conserves some of the 12th and 13th century construction of the Cathedral. It was exquisitely stark, just the bright green of the trees and the gray-gold of the stone, with a subtle emphasis on sinuous geometric shapes in the exterior carvings. The interior of the Cathedral was stunning though, especially the elaborate stonework of the Puerto del Perdon (Pardon Gate) depicting the life of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that was transformed by our guide using various lights.

The only other place we visited was the Museo de Orinales – the Chamber Pot Museum. I’m pretty sure most of our group thoroughly enjoyed it – and I have to admit, the artistry of some of the porcelain and ceramic was beautiful – but as someone who’s spent the past few years focusing almost exclusively on early American history, I know way too much about chamber pots already. The really exciting thing (this shows how much of a history nerd I am) is that when I usually see chamber pots, they’re in shards because they’ve come out of a trash pit in middle-of-nowhere Virginia. The less exciting thing is that I knew even before I looked that the majority of the chamber pots in the collection were 20th century (an interesting fact by itself), or late 19th century, and often artisan pieces (chamber pots were meant to be used roughly, so painting pretty pictures on them makes little sense – most in Virginia are found in trash pits because they broke too badly to be repaired and had to be discarded – think about that…).

We had lunch in Ciudad Rodrigo and got back on the bus for a much shorter ride (only an hour and half) back to Salamanca, arriving just at the end of the siesta – something that made me extremely happy until I remembered it was also Sunday, so there wasn’t the slightest hope of anything in the city being open.

Things to think about:
1. How do countries make the transition from developing to developed, especially in rural areas? How can you tell the difference? What practices and institutions make a country or region “developed”?
2. What is the importance of maintaining traditions in rural areas? (search “pig” and “La Alberca” together and then explain that one to me, since I couldn’t follow the Spanish explanation during the tour – there’s a picture at the bottom) It’s obvious things have stayed the same for hundreds of years in rural towns like Miranda de Castanar – what stays the same in major cities like Madrid? Do people change?
3. Why is Spain Catholic? Though the majority of people are Catholic, they aren’t practicing. This is the country of the Catholic Kings, the Inquisition, and some of the most beautiful religious art and architecture in the world, but how did it start?
4. Sorry, I’m out of questions…for now anyway.

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