The Erotic Romanesque and other Palencian Delights

The Erotic Romanesque and other Northern Spanish Delights

© Marshall Carter-Tripp

Northern Castilla y León and the neighboring area of Cantabria offer a wide array of fascinating but low-stress touring pleasures.  The landscape is wonderful at any time of year: rolling fields and hills offer a hundred shades of green, or yellow, under a huge sky.  Another attraction might be the Relais et Chateaux inn, the Posada de la Casa del Abad, in Ampudia (a venerable village between Palencia and Valladolid).  The Casa is a 16th century building, completely redecorated in an eclectic and charming style, and with truly air-conditioned bedrooms, a real plus in the meseta summer.  The restaurant has a most excellent chef and you will not mind dining here every evening!  A swimming pool, tennis, riding , paddle ball, gymnasium and sauna, and many other activities are available if you do not just want to read a book.  The surrounding village has a truly splendid castle and fine Gothic church, plus  streets lined with ancient arcades or “suportales” where the markets were held.

When you feel like moving, many directions beckon.  We chose to run up to the Camino de Santiago as it passes just to the north (going via the Mirador de Campos, where you can look out across many miles of the landscape).  Frómista on the N-611 has one of the finest Romanesque churches in any country, St. Martín, now serving as a museum.  Just east is one of the major lock systems for the centuries-old Canal de Castilla, built from the mid-18th to mid-19th century to provide a means of moving Castilian grain to the northern seaports.  Following this canal was another theme of the day, leading to beautiful oval locks and peaceful country canalside activities such as boat rides down the canal.  Pangs of hunger took us to Abarca, where an old flour mill has been turned into a center for contemporary art (where artists may also take up residence for a while).  In an associated building is the restaurant La Fabrica, set in a post-modern industrial decor and offering most excellent food.  When they have rooms to let, I’ll be there.  Every village in this area has a Romanesque or Gothic church, and very photogenic old doors and windows.  On the outskirts are fantastic “palomares,” or dovecotes, in varying shapes - some being revived to provide “pinchon” for the market and the table.  (Outside one town we passed something like looked like a castle, and only in the rear view did it become clear that it was a palatial residence, complete with turrets, for many hundreds of doves.)  

Moving further north, you’ll encounter an area that is incredibly rich in Romanesque buildings (and  just to the west, there is Roman as well, in the villas of La Olmeda and Quintinilla de la Cueza, with splendid mosaics which we’ll see on another trip ...).  The less said about the hotel we chose in this area, the better; the hotel we should have chosen was El Convento, in Sta. María de Mave, about 20 km south of Aguilar de Campoo.  Here you are out in the country - nothing but cowbells to disturb you - in a beautifully restored monastery.  The welcome received from the staff could not have been nicer.  Rooms are somewhat plain but comfortable.  There’s a fine garden for sitting out.  And the monastery has a fine Romanesque church attached.  Just up the road, in Olleros de Pisuerga, is a church carved into the rock hillside, still in use after many centuries.  (A sign on the door directs you to a lady in the village for the key and we were glad we took the trouble to find her and get access to this remarkable building.)

You can choose any of several circuits for leisurely country driving in pursuit of the Romanesque jewels of this area.  (In Aguilar de Campoo the Sta. María La Real Monastery serves as a museum and center for the Romanesque art of the area, and you can get detailed information here.)  From Alar del Rey, where the Canal de Castilla begins, west to the monastery at San Andrés de Arroyo, whose cloister has beautiful twin columns, Moarves with its splendid frieze of the twelve apostles, Sta. Eufemia de Cozuelos, Olmos de Ojeda, Valdespinoso de Aguilar with its cliffside ermita, and back around to Aguilar where there is another ermita, Santa Cecilia, just below the ruined castle.  North of Aguilar a route around the embalse will net Matamorisca, Cillamayor, San Cebrián de Muda, and Barrio de Santa María - where the ermita has what are described as the narrowest windows in Spain, and a beautifully restored capital depicting Adam, Eve, and the serpent.  There are many many many more!  If you tire, a short drive west will bring you to Cervera de Pisuerga, where there is a handsome modern parador on the edge of town with a splendid view of lake and mountains.  Take a break!

Madrid is about four hours away; we continued our journey north, this time in pursuit of the Ebro River.  This took us up into Cantabria, toward Reinosa - the river begins not far west of here - but the Romanesque was still with us; in Cervatos and Bolmir, south and east of Reinosa, where the carvers gave full vent to their imaginations - producing figures that several guidebooks are reluctant to describe, and which apparently were considered to be so shocking in the not too distant past that schoolchildren were not taken on tours of these churches.  So take a look for yourself!  A third church, Retortillo, lies just east of Bolmir, amid the ruins of a Roman city, Juliobriga, and was constructed partly of stone from the ruins.  No erotica!, but a beautiful staircase to the belltower.

About here you turn south and follow the Ebro along a quiet country road, heading for Polientes where there is a church in a cave, and perhaps more importantly, a place to eat.  Not far from here, still on the same road, the river enters the canyons that it has cut over the millennia.  Huge cliffs tower above you on both sides, with eagles making lazy circles around them.  It is hard to believe the still relatively modest river could do so much work!  Along this road is St. Martin de Elines, with another beautiful church, done by the same carving school as Cervatos.  Orbaneja del Castillo follows, with a lovely road-side waterfall; the town itself is perched high above the road in the cradle of the cliffs.  You exit the canyons at Escalada (another Romanesque church!), now back in Castile, and join the N623 leading to Burgos - fortunately just for a few kilometers.  Pass the exit to Valdelateja and continue another kilometer or so - you’ll see a sign for a posada to the left.  Here is the Posada del Balneario, a lovely old riverside building with a shiny new spa in the lower level, where you can get the full run of treatments - or just a plain old massage, nothing wrong with that!.  If you don’t feel in the need of care, just book a room - some overlook the Rudrón, a tributary of the Ebro, and all are cool and quiet.  The restaurant is at river level, and offers a fixed price meal at lunch and dinner (definitely not spa food!).  Various packages are available.  If you like walking you can hike to the top of a nearby cliff where there is a Visigothic ermita...or just relax by the pool.

The next slice of river runs from just north of Valdelateja - back up the N 623 and off at Pesquera, a small town full of gorgeous carved coats of arms on creamy stone buildings.  The Ebro’s course is wild along here, with more huge canyons, and you cannot follow it entirely - at least not in a motorized fashion - but you wind across country a bit from Pesquera and connect again as it turns south.  In the interval there is a very nice dolmen, La Cotorrita, just before Dobro, down an unpaved but ok trail.  From Valdenoceda the road parallels the Ebro....take the turn off the N232 for Puente-Arenas and one last Romanesque church, San Pedro de la Tejada.  This is really a splendid one, with a beautiful tower that you can climb - where you will appreciate close-up the corbels placed under the eaves of the tower, far above ground - and here too the erotic school of carving has been at work.  The portal is also splendid, and inside is a wonderful artesonado ceiling, with the ends of the beams turned into whimsical faces.  The curator insists that it is not restored; this seems too good to be true, but the church is certainly too good to miss.  

The next attraction is Frias, a town built on cliffs overlooking the river, with a fortified bridge crossing the Ebro below.  The castle crowns the steepest part of the cliff; houses cling to the sides much like those in Cuenca.  There are lots of flower-decked half-timbered houses, and the whole effect is quite charming.  From Frias the Ebro flows into the Basque country for a stretch and then emerges just north of Mirando de Ebro, an old town now much industrialized.  (There is another Romanesque church along here, if you are not out of steam, the ermita de la Era in Sta. Gadea del Cid.)  If you need an overnight stop, the El Convento hotel here is set up within a working monastery.  The rooms are generously sized, and the value for money is excellent.   Madrid is about four hours away on the N-II.  

Practicalities: Ampudia: Posada de la Casa del Abad de Ampudia.  A member of Relais et Chateaux and of the Rusticae group.  Tel 979 76 80 08, Fax 979 76 83 00;   Abarca:  La Fabrica.  Tel 979 83 58 24.  Sta María de Mave:  El Convento.  979 12 3611, fax 979 12 54 92.  Valdelateja: La Posada del Balneario, 947 15 02 20, fax 947 15 02 71.  Miranda de Ebro: El Convento.  947 33 27 12, fax 947 33 26 52.  When calling from Argentina, dial country code 34 first.

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.