Collegiate church of Santa María. Toro, Zamora.
MYNT. Diputación de Zamora.
Landscape in Los Arribes del Duero. Zamora.
Donkeys from Zamora.
Typical street in Puebla de Sanabria. Zamora.
View of Sanabria lake. Zamora.
We suggest a visit to this area in inland Spain where you're guaranteed to find peace and quiet while you immerse yourself in a genuinely natural setting. This is the region of Zamora (in Castile-León, in northwest Spain). You'll find landscapes with features like the large lake with glacial origins in Sanabria and the deep gorges carved by the course of the Duero river, and you'll have the chance to hear sounds you'll remember for ever, like the bellowing of stags or the howling of wolves. Our suggested route comprises a five-day itinerary through places like Toro, Zamora, Fermoselle and Puebla de Sanabria, and offers recommendations about what to visit, and what dishes to order in bars and restaurants. You can use it as a travelogue or guidebook to give you ideas.
DAY 1. TORO
We begin our route in Toro (about two hours from Madrid by car). After catching a preliminary view of the landscape from the "El Espolón" viewing point (the city stands on a vantage point 100 metres high), the first point we need to head for has to be its famous collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor. Once there, don't miss its imposing façade, the painting of the "The Virgin of the Fly", the pregnant Virgin (one of the few existing in Spain) and the relics of the skull of the real Saint Valentine (although we should warn you this Saint Valentine has nothing to do with love, but is the patron saint of headaches). Then the best idea is to take a gentle stroll until the Puerta del Mercado gate (this is the clock tower) or head towards the bullring, one of the oldest in Spain (for a guided visit to the interior of the ring it's advisable to make a prior reservation at the tourist office in Plaza Mayor square). Don't be surprised to see a sign in the bullring dedicated to Mario Vargas Llosa, the Nobel laureate, as he's a bullfighting enthusiast and has been here as a guest. It's now time for lunch, and here we can give you another important tip for your visit to Toro: make a point of trying its wines, awarded their own Designation of Origin. The wines from this area have been famous for centuries, and are mentioned in great works of literature. In fact it is said that the confessor of Queen Isabella I "La Católica" baptised one of Columbus' caravelles with the name of La Pinta, in honour of the wine from his birthplace: Toro (in the past "pinta" was a measurement of capacity that was used to encourage the drinking of wine, as in "to have a 'pinta'"). Today there are over 50 wineries producing these wines, and many of them offer the chance to enjoy a meal and sign up for wine tourism activities as a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, with guided winery tours, tasting-sampling, visits to vineyards (some require a prior reservation for groups, so we recommend enquiring beforehand). Another option in Toro is to visit a cheese factory and try the delicious cheese from Zamora, also with its own Designation of Origin.
DAY 2. ZAMORA
A little over 30 kilometres away (following the A-11) you'll come to the capital: the city of Zamora, known as "la bien cercada", or "the walled city". We are now in the place with the greatest concentration of Romanesque art in the world, so we'd better get started to make sure we have time to see all the essentials. We head for the historic centre along Calle de San Torcuato. A pleasant stroll will take us to the Plaza de La Catedral square. On our way we'll pass monuments like the church of Santiago del Burgo, the Los Momos Palace, the church of San Juan de Puerta Nueva, the old Town Hall, the Parador hotel, the El Tránsito convent, the Cathedral, and the Baltasar Lobo Castle-Museum. You just need to walk in a straight line –you can't miss it. Walking around Zamora is a delightful experience, because every alleyway and corner has a story to tell. Here are just a few: In the Plaza Mayor square you'll find a sculpture of a couple of penitents playing instruments. You'll see that it says "Merlú", which refers to the name given to these typical couples that feature in the well-known Easter week festival in Zamora. In Plaza de Viriato square you'll see a statue of Viriato himself, the famous leader of the Lusitanians. This historic personage was murdered in order to gain a reward from the Roman Empire. But when his assassins delivered his corpse, they were met by the now legendary phrase "Rome does not pay traitors". You can't pass up the chance for a photo here. Another essential stop is in Calle Balborraz, which was a Europa Nostra prizewinner and is certainly among the loveliest streets in the city. A final tip. Make a point of stepping inside the Cathedral (there's an outstanding view of the dome from inside), and go to the upper floor with its attractive collection of tapestries. Along our walk we should recall the exciting history of this city. In fact the famous saying "Zamora was not won in an hour" refers to the fierce siege by King Sancho II of Castile to seize it from his sister Doña Urraca. If we're feeling peckish before lunch, we can always buy some typical cream-filled pastries known as "cañas" in any of the traditional pastry shops we see along the way. After a leisurely break for lunch, we now continue on to the Mirador del Troncoso viewing point to enjoy the views over the whole of the Ribera del Duero region. Look closely at the river, because the next thing on the agenda is to take a ride in a kayak. To get there we walk along the area of the Cabañales watermills. Here we can visit a museum to learn about the operation of these old restored mills, and then take a guided trip on the river in a kayak. The view of the city from the Duero river with the cathedral towering above is simply magnificent. In the evening there's a very interesting option: the "El Castillo con sabor" (the castle with flavour") guided itinerary. This route consists of sampling some of Zamora's elaborate and delicious tapas in various restaurants while exploring its illuminated Romanesque and Modernist monuments. The route ends at Zamora castle, where you'll be able to enjoy views of the illuminated city and take some spectacular photographs (this activity tends to take place on Friday and Saturday nights. The best idea is to enquire any tourist office, such as the one in Plaza de Viriato square).
DAY 3. ARRIBES DEL DUERO
We set out again on our route, and head for the town of Fermoselle (a little over 60 kilometres from the city of Zamora on the CL-527 and C-527 roads). On the way we could make a stop in Pereruela (a typical country village famous for its pottery), and another at the Roman bridge in Sogo to see the scenery around the vast Almendra reservoir. Once in Fermoselle, the beauty of the town (declared a historic-artistic site) is an invitation –despite the hills– to stroll around and take some photos from its stone steps. It's well worth going to the lovely church of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción and taking a look at the underground wine cellars in Fermoselle (in fact some of them can be visited. For more information, check with the tourist office in the Plaza Mayor square). Another curious fact: you may see some small coverts on the streets. These are used during the town's festivities when the bulls run through the narrow streets (like in the famous festival of San Fermín in Pamplona). The area around Fermoselle is part of one of the loveliest nature spaces we're going to see on this trip: the Arribes del Duero Nature Reserve. For some really spectacular views, the best idea is to climb to the top of the Mirador de El Torojón viewing point. One last essential stop is the Casa del Parque (the visitor centre at the Nature Reserve). You'll find it in the old convent of San Francisco, beside the shrine of the Virgin of La Bandera (the patron saint of Fermoselle, containing a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin with the Child at her breast). The Casa del Parque visitor centre is very comprehensive and offers abundant information about the area and the places for active tourism or where you can book a river cruise. When it's time for lunch, you can either stay in Fermoselle or else make for one of the country houses in the villages in the area like Mámoles or Gamones (where you can take part in an entertaining craft workshop or buy some of the items made earlier). All of them are charming, full of traditional buildings, and convey an indescribable sensation of peace. After recharging your batteries, the best idea is to spend the afternoon at the nature reserve engaged in more active pursuits. There are a range of options to choose from: everything from a visit to the viewing points of El Castillo and Las Barrancas (in Fariza), through to hiking, MTB, trying your hand at geocaching, birdwatching, photographic safari, petting some of the adorable Zamoran donkeys, transforming yourself into a "gold-digger" in the Villadepera mines, stargazing… You'll find all the information on the options available in the Casa del Parque visitor centre, although there are also private companies that can organise all these activities, as is the case of Frontera Natural (http://www.fronteranatural.es/).
DAY 4. PUEBLA DE SANABRIA
From Fermoselle, today we head northwards until we reach Puebla de Sanabria (about 160 kilometres away on the ZA-912). However, before leaving behind the landscapes of the Arribes del Duero Nature Reserve, we suggest making two further stops. The first in Villardiegua, where we can have our photo taken with its stone animal figure known as "The Mule"; and the second (perhaps the most special in the area) at the Puente de Requejo bridge, popularly known as "Puente Pino" (in the Villadepera area). As we approach this point through the beautiful landscapes in the reserve, we're bound to be overcome by an urge to stop the car and admire this construction, which is one of the most spectacular in Zamora, over a century old and by the school of Eiffel. There is a marvellous view of the river framed by the bridge. Now our journey takes us to the town of Puebla de Sanabria, where we can have lunch and spend an enjoyable afternoon. The best way to explore is simply to stroll through the streets, but just so you don't miss anything, here are a few recommendations. We could start our visit at the Plaza Mayor square and explore the church of Santa María del Azogue and the shrine of San Cayetano. From here we can go to the "jewel in the crown": the castle. On our way we're bound to see a sign referring to the Way of Saint James, with the words: "All the waves of history have left their imprint here. The Celts, the name. The Swabians, the first organisation. The monks and the Mozarabs their traces. And the counts, their energy. Wayfarer, you too, in each wave of your history and through your good works, leave the memory of your passing. Love is the way". Once in the castle (one of the best conserved in Spain, and also the site of a museum) we can climb up to the top of "El Macho". This is the popular name for the keep, which offers some spectacular views. Did you know that Joanna "The Mad" (the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella), and Felipe "The Fair" stayed here in the midst of the internal struggle for the Crown? If we continue on our stroll until dinner time we can see the lovely balconies decorated with flowers in Puebla de Sanabria, and browse the little shops. Another option is to head for the urban spa resort or visit the curious Museum of "Gigantes y Cabezudos" (carnival figures). And by the way, if you're visiting on the weekend nearest 15 August, you'll see Puebla de Sanabria transformed into an enormous mediaeval market to coincide with its annual festivities.
DAY 5. LAGO DE SANABRIA AND SIERRA DE LA CULEBRA
This is the start of the last day of our trip so we must make the most of it and venture into our natural surroundings. Did you know that Puebla de Sanabria was named European Biodiversity Capital in 2011? In fact, very nearby (around 15 kilometres) we can find one of the most famous landscapes in Castile-León: the Lago de Sanabria Nature Reserve. Before going into the reserve, here are two suggestions. The first: don't miss the sunrise in Puebla de Sanabria, when the town appears to be emerging from the mist as it rises from the river. The second, drop into the Casa del Parque, which functions as a visitor centre (ZA-104 road, kilometre 4.5 Rabanillo-Galende). There you'll see a 3-D audiovisual display, you'll find out that the Sanabria Lake is glacial in origin, and you'll be able to observe models of traditional constructions, and hear the typical language of the area that is today spoken by only a few inhabitants. Enquire about the organised activities. Once we've taken it all in, we can set off for the lake. The crystal clear waters fringed with small beaches make an exceptionally beautiful sight. If it's summer, we can take a dip, enjoy a range of water sports, and even go boating. At other times of the year we could opt to go hiking. In fact the park has over 100 kilometres of traditional footpaths (simple and easy-going routes that link all the villages in the area), mountain paths for the more adventurous, a cross country ski trail for winter, and a GR long-distance route with mountain refuges. After enjoying the lake, we can drive further up the mountain to see a view of the landscape from on high. The best idea is to go up to the Laguna de los Peces lake and make a stop at the viewing points and the other visitor centre located at the monastery of San Martín de Castañeda. This area is so special it has served as the inspiration for famous writers such as Unamuno, and there are even theories that these are the lands described by Cervantes in "Don Quixote of La Mancha". This reserve is also associated with a tragic historic event: in 1959 the dam broke one night, and the village of Ribadelago was submerged; according to legend, on the Night of San Juan you can still hear the bells of its church pealing beneath the lake. After enjoying lunch in any of the restaurants in the area, we could put the finishing touch to our trip by heading for the Sierra de la Culebra (around 70 kilometres away) to spend the afternoon and see the sunset. This area is home to the greatest concentration of wolves in all of Spain, so we recommend contacting one of the active tourism companies that organises wolf spotting excursions. It's definitely worth it. And if you're visiting at the end of September or in early autumn, you shouldn't miss the bellowing of the stags. This is the stag mating season, and the spectacle of these beasts clashing antlers and the sound of their bellowing are unforgettable.
Things to remember
If you're coming to Spain by plane, remember that Zamora is 96 kilometres from Valladolid airport, 62 kilometres from Salamanca airport, 135 kilometres from León airport and 248 kilometres from Madrid airport. From Madrid, you can reach Zamora by train in only two hours. Once in Zamora, although there are buses that connect the different areas, the most convenient way to explore the area is in your own or a rented car so you can move at your own speed. For lunch and dinner, make a point of ordering the typical local dishes: beans from Sanabria, rice "a la zamorana", roast kid, chickpeas from Fuentasaúco, cod "a la trance"… and for dessert, some delicious cream filled pastries known as "cañas". If you're visiting a winery, remember they tend to lay on special activities during the wine harvest (end of September and beginning of October). Zamora has all kinds of accommodation, including two five-star hotels with their own winery, and another with a spa. The skies over Zamora are perfect for stargazing. If you can, sign up with some astronomic tourism activity (enquire at the tourist offices, the Casas del Parque visitors centre, or in the rural houses where you're staying). There are travel agencies that arrange an all-inclusive tour of all the most important points in the province of Zamora. The trip they suggest is based only on some areas of Zamora, although you can extend it as much as you want and also visit Benavente, the Lagunas de Villafáfila lakes and much more.
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