For anyone driving through Spain from the French border on the
Atlantic coast, to Madrid or on the main route to Portugal, a good part
of the journey will involve crossing the hills and table-land of the
region of Castilla y Leon.
Castile & Leon - wide open spaces and big sky country
Spain's main highway from the north, today the A1 motorway,
enters Castile and León close to the small town of Miranda
before reaching the historic city of Burgos. Here the great routes of
Castile divide, taking travellers on in the direction of the region's
other great historic cities – Leon, Valladolid and Salamanca,
or to the Spanish capital Madrid.
A thousand years ago,
when Mediaeval Europe was taking shape following the turmoil
the "Dark Ages", the kingdoms of Castile and León were the
from which the Christian reconquest of Spain spread southwards. The two
kingdoms united In the thirteenth century, and from then on formed the
nexus of what was to become the Kingdom of Spain.
Today, travellers venturing through Castilla y Leon, en
southern Spain or Portugal may get the impression that this is an
endless area of vast open horizons or arid hills and valleys, a place
to view at speed from the long half-empty motorways that cross it: it
is a patchwork of greens in the spring, baked to a dry straw colour in
summer, red in the autumn when much of the land is laid bare, and often
white in the winter. The average altitude of Castile and
León is 830
metres above sea level - that's almost 3,000 ft, making it the highest
of the Spanish regions, and the one with the most continental climate:
the days here can range from seeringly hot on cloudless summer days, to
arctically cold when winter winds blow down from the
northeast. Once agriculture was hard in this high area: the open spaces
provided food for sheep and goats, but there was little in the way of
arable farming, except in the river valleys. Today, the land is farmed
and where it is not too hilly and stony, great wheatfields stretch to
jam on a small road in Castile
Climate has always been one of the greatest factors
how people live and where they live; and Castile and León is
exception to the rule. The harsh climate led historically to people
congregating in places along river valleys, where small towns
and cities grew up – leaving much of the rest of the area
unprotected and very sparsely inhabited. The historic cities thrived
and were prosperous, the rural areas were mired in poverty. And where
towns and cities grew up, or rich men and grandees established their
territory, they did so behind strong defences, to protect themselves
from invaders or pillagers - be they Visigoths, Moors, or Christians.
And the fortified cities and castles of northen central spain
gave the area its name - the land of castles, or Castile.
Places to visit
Castile and León is a treasure trove of historic sites and
landscapes. With its hundreds of mediaeval castles and fortresses -
witnesses to the area's turbulent past - its tiny villages, its open
spaces, changing landscapes, and its historic cities and great cathedrals, this
is an area
for anyone wanting to explore the real Spain.
This fully-walled mediaeval city is a UNESCO world heritage site, and a
unique experience. Visitors can walk along the ramparts, but not
completely round the city. Avila also has a fine early gothic
cathedral, one of the oldest in Spain, with beautiful and unusual
Renaissance cloisters. The most impressive view of the city ramparts
(as in the photo above) is
had from a viewpoint at Los Cuatro Postes on the hillside opposite, ten
minutes' walk from the Puerta del Puente, at the lower end of the
town. Avila is an hour and a half from Madrid by bus or by
Seat of the oldest university in Spain, Salamanca has
fine historic centre, which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.
The most interesting monuments are the great cathedral - or
cathedrals. The great "new" cathedral is a fine late
edifice; but fortunately, when local notables decided to rebuild the
cathedral in the 16th century, they took the unusual decision to build
the new beside the old, rather than demolish the old cathedral to make
place for the new one. The old cathedral, in romanesque / early gothic
style, is notable for its fabulous 15th century gilt altarpiece by the
Italian artist Dello Delli. (► More cathedrals)
Salamanca's Plaza Mayor is one of the
finest in Spain. Around it, the narrow streets of the old city of
Salamanca offer a rich collection of historic buildings, including
university buildings and ornate private dwellings. Among the most
interesting is the Casa de las Conchas, an early 16th century town
whose facade is decorated with over 300 carved scallop shells
symbol carried by pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostella.
Standing at the foot of the Sierra Guadarrama mountains, 100 km
northwest of Madrid, Segovia is one of the oldest cities in Spain, and
another UNESCO world heritage site. The old city is built on a
naturally fortified bluff at the far end of which stands the great
or castle, one of the finest in Spain. At the other end, at
the entrance to the old town, Segovia boasts one of the finest Roman
aqueducts in the world - a two-tier structure that is
still used to
bring water to the old city. At the highest point of the old city
stands the great cathedral,
the last great gothic cathedral to have
been built in Spain. Old Segovia also contains the largest
concentration of romanesque churches in Spain (and perhaps anywhere),
including San Esteban, San Martin and San Millan with their fine
sculpted porticoes. Another monument not to be missed is
Monastery of San Antonio, now a museum.
Segovia, city walls, cathedral and Sierra Guadarrama .
Other interesting cities
the historic capital of Castile is a modern city with an ancient
centre, and has many historic sites. The most emblematic of these is
perhaps the Arco de
Santa Maria (picture above right), one of the finest
mediaeval city gates in Europe. Close by is the cathedral of Santa
Maria, a thirteenth century gothic cathedral and UNESCO world heritage
site: Burgos cathedral
is the third largest cathedral in
Spain, and is very much a European cathedral, its architects and
builders having come from France and Germany. The third great historic
monument of Burgos is the 15th century Cartuja de Miraflores,
Carthusian monastery and royal residence. The abbey is one of the
finest late gothic buildings in Spain, and contains an ornate
altarpiece by the sculptor Gil de Siloé.
Finally, Burgos also has a very interesting modern
museum, the ethnological Museum
of Human Evolution, which was opened in
2010 as an extension of the Atapuerca
archeological site ten miles
away. The Atapuerca site itself is another UNESCO world heritage site,
and is the site of the earliest known traces of human life in western
Historic León is best known for its fine high gothic cathedral and for
the austere and older basilica
of San Isidoro. In the crypt
of San Isidoro can be seen the Royal
Pantheon, a jewel of romanesque
art. The pantheon contains the tombs of the kings and queens of
from the 10th to the 12th century, and its vaults are decorated with
the finest collection of 12th century romanesque frescoes in Spain. The
museum contains a remarkable collection of early mediaeval artefacts.
For more modern artefacts, visit the Museo de Arte
Contemporáneo de Castilla y León,
opened in 2010, and described as one of Europe's major contemporary art
This is the largest city in Castile & Leon,
and can be reached by high speed train from Madrid. The old
contains an interesting collection of mediaeval and
renaissance buildings: the cathedral
was started in the seventeenth
century, but never completed. The most interesting historic edifice is
the church of San Pablo,
with a unique sculpted west facade.
The small city of Zamora is home to one of the most interesting and
unusual romanesque cathedrals
in Spain. In an enclave surrounded by
mediaeval walls and gates, the cathedral is in particular remarkable
for its 12th century dome.The south door of the cathedral has a fine
romanesque sculpted typmanum.
This region is dotted with historic castles and fortresses, some of
them well known, others right off the beaten track. Visitors wandering
by car or by bike along the backroads of Castile and León
are liable to
reach small towns or villages, well off the tourist map, but boasting
fine mediaeval castles.
of la Mota at Medina del Campo
Apart from the Alcazar
at Segovia, the region's
most famous castles are the massive Castello
la Mota at Medina
Campo, and the extensive castle at Peñafiel,
one of the
biggest mediaeval castles in Europe. Both of these lie well away from
major tourist routes, though Medina del Campo is beside the main A6
motorway to northwest Spain, and Peñafiel is not too far
southeast of Valladolid.
there are hundreds more castles in Castilla y
Leon; some other interresting castles can be found at Arevalo (between
Avila and Medina del Campo - the castle has been beautifully
renovated, and houses a small museum), Valencia de
Don Juan (a very impressive fortress south of Leon, close
to the A66 route) , the small but well preserved Castillo de Olmillos de
Sasamón (west of Burgos on the road to Leon),
or the privately-owned but visitable castle in the attractive small
town of Ampudia,
Palencia, which featured in the 1964 Hollywood film El Cid.
Just 15 km west of Ampudia is yet another impressive castle,
at Montalegre de Campos
: if one were to select a site most emblematic of Castilla y Leon, it
might be this castle, standing on a spur of land at the edge of a
sleepy village, and looking out over the plains all around.
Austere, isolated, defensive. The castle at Montalegre de Campos .
Well off the main roads, and lying 80 km NNW of
Segovia, the small town of Coca
has one of the finest and best preserved Mudejar castles in Spain - a
15th century edifice built largely of brick. Thirty kilometres
northeast of Coca is the small town of Cuéllar,
which has not just a fine castle, but also a good length of surviving
There are also a number of ruined castles, on hilltops or on plains,
that can be freely accessed - but sometimes can only be reached via
tracks or hiking trails.
For more Spanish castles,see Castles in Spain
Some other sites and places to visit in Castilla
Doubting Thomas - detail from a 12th century bas relief
at the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos .
of Santo Domingo de Silos - 50 km south east of Burgos :
perhaps the best romanesque cloister in the whole of Europe: two levels
of cloister, with richly decorated sculpted capitals from the 11th and
12th centuries. Santo Domingo is still a working monastery
Valporquero : north of León
magnificent journey underground into a world of stalacmites and
of Las Medulas : near Ponferrada, northwest
near the border with Galicia. The most significant Roman mining works
visible today. A UNESCO world heritage site. For the Romans, this was
one of the most important sites in Spain - a source of the Roman
Empire's mineral wealth.
Castile and Leon.
The region is traversed by two of the main pilgrimage routes
towards Santiago de Compostella: the main inland route from France
(GR 65) crosses the northern half of the region, via Burgos, Carrion de
Condes, León and Astorga. The Via de la Plata (GR 100) comes
Andalucia, and crosses the west of the region, through
Zamora, and Astorga, and on to Oviedo.
Another hiking trail, the Senda del Duero (GR 14), follows the Duero
valley from near Aranda de Duero as far as Barca d'Alba on the
Portuguese border - and thence on to Oporto.
Sierra Gredos and Sierra de Guadarrama: these
mountain ranges, part of the Sistema Central, mark the
southern limits of Castilla and León region.
With peaks up to 2700 metres, they offer winter sports in winter, and
good mountain hiking opportunities in other seasons. Nearest cities:
Segovia, Avila and Salamanca.
The Sierra de Gredos in spring - near Barcos de Avila .
The Picos de
Europa, and the Cantabrian range, mark the northern border
of Castile and Leon; though mostly in Asturias and Cantabria, the
southern slopes of these high ranges are in Castile and Leon. Unlike
the northern slopes of these ranges, watered by the rains off the
Atlantic, the southern slopes are generally dry and barren.
for larger map of Spain
flag of Castilla y León flying on a small castle
to Castilla y León :
By car via
the southwest corner of France, and San Sebastian. Alternativly, take
the ferry from Plymouth or Portsmouth to Santander.
Castile: There are plenty of scheduled flights to Madrid.
and Valladolid are on the main train line from France, via Bordeaux, to
Madrid and Portugal. Burgos, Valladolid and León can be
reached by AVE
trains from Madrid.
has pages on three neighbouring regions:
gateway to Burgos
Castile and León
the independent traveller, a choice of hotels and hostales in the main
cities of Castile and León and their surrounding
city & star rating
a broad choice of hotels and the best discounted online
links will take you to Booking.com,
Europe's leading online hotel booking portal
12th century fresco in
the Pantheon of the Kings, San Isidoro, Leon.
and text copyright About-Spain.net except picture of Montalegre de
Campo by P Maeyaert