Castilla y León

Great historic cities and vast open spaces - the alternative guide to Spain 

On this page:  Avila Segovia Salamanca Other cities Other sites

Plains of Castile
Castile & Leon - wide open spaces and big sky country
  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 León.
   Castile and León is the largest region in Spain, and covers a large part of the Meseta, the high plateau that includes the large part of northern Spain. The main highway from the north, today the A1 motorway, enters the region close to the small town of Miranda de Ebro 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, Segovia, or to the Spanish capital Madrid.
   A thousand years ago, when  Mediaeval Europe was taking shape following the turmoil of the "Dark Ages", the kingdoms of Castile and León were the springboard 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.
Castile - big sky country
    Today, travellers venturing through Castilla y León, en route to 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
Sheep on the road in Castile
Traffic jam on a small road in Castile
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 the horizon.
    Climate has always been one of the greatest factors determining how people live and where they live; and Castile and León is no 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 open, 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 impressive 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.

Most interesting cities:

Avila :

Walls of AvilaThis 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 train.

Salamanca :

Seat of the oldest university in Spain, Salamanca has a fine historic centre, which is listed as a UNESCO world heritage site. The most interesting monuments are the great cathedral - or rather cathedrals.  The great "new" cathedral is a fine late gothic-baroque edifice; but fortunately, when local notables decided to rebuild the city's 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 house whose facade is decorated with over 300 carved scallop shells – the symbol carried by pilgrims on the route to Santiago de Compostella.


Segovia, city walls, cathedral and Sierra Guadarrama .
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 Alcazar, 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 the Royal Monastery of San Antonio, now a museum.

Other interesting cities

Burgos :

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, a former 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 Europe.

León :

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 León 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 museums.

Valladolid :

This is the largest city in Castile & Leon, and can be reached by high speed train from Madrid. The old town 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. 

Zamora :

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.

Other sites


Castle of la Mota at Medina del Campo
Castle of la Mota at Medina del Campo
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.
   Apart from the Alcazar at Segovia, the region's most famous castles are the massive Castello la Mota at Medina del 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, west of 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.
  On the other hand it might also be  the massive tenth to fourteenth century castle at Gormaz, near Soria, the largest fortress in Europe, built originally by the Moors to defend the caliphate of Cordoba.

    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 city walls.
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 y Leon:

Montalegre de Campo
Doubting Thomas - detail from a 12th century bas relief
at the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos .

Hiking in 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 los Condes, León and Astorga. The Via de la Plata (GR 100) comes up from Seville, in Andalucia, and crosses the west of the region, through Salamanca  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 through the Northern region of Portugal.


Montalegre de Campo
The Sierra de Gredos in spring - near Barcos de Avila .
The 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 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.

Other pages of interest : - Andalucia - Extremadura -  Valencia Undiscovered Spain - The coasts of SpainTravel in Spain  -  Food and eating in Spain  -  Driving in Spain  -  Spanish motorway map

Castile and León
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Castile Leon map

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Symbols of Castile & Leon
The flag of Castilla y León flying on a small castle

Getting 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.

Fly to Castile: There are plenty of scheduled flights to Madrid.

Burgos 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 high-speed trains from Madrid.

Neighbouring regions : has pages on  neighbouring regions:
Mediaeval city gate Burgos
Mediaeval gateway to Burgos

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Montalegre de Campos

Austere, isolated, defensive. The castle at Montalegre de Campos .

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