Aragón: the villages time forgot

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Amid the clamour of modern Spain, a world away from the Spanish stereotype of sun, sand and sangria, the stone-built pueblos (villages) of Aragón move to a different pace, even as they capture the spirit of Spain’s epic historical story and landscapes.

It was the ancient kingdom of Aragón that, together with that of Castile, gave power and prestige to the Christian Reconquista (Reconquest), forcefully confirming Spain’s Christian identity in the late 15th century. In Aragón’s northwest, Sos del Rey Católico breathes life into this stirring tale as the birthplace, in 1452, of Fernando II of Aragón, the male half of one of history’s most famous double acts. ‘Los Reyes Católicos’ (The Spanish Monarchs) – Fernando II and Isabel I of Castile – would sweep all before them until their relentless armies, four decades after Fernando II’s birth, brought an end to seven centuries of often-enlightened Muslim rule on the Iberian Peninsula.

The village where Fernando II’s picaresque life began possesses few clues as to the grandeur of what would follow, other than as a symbol for the countless small settlements that represent the traditional heartland of Spanish heritage. Draped along a ridgeline from where it surveys the surrounding plains, Sos del Rey Católico at once resembles a fortress from more historically uncertain times and a Tuscan hill town bathed in honey-coloured stone. Its quiet byways rise steeply from the valley floor, snaking along the contours of its narrow perch and rising to a summit where castle and church stand sentinel like icons of Ferdinand II’s battle to secure Catholic supremacy.

Aside from the grand sweeps of Spain’s history, Aragón is dominated by a geography that is almost continental in its variety. In the far north, valleys, deep and verdant, cut far into the Pyrenees, sheltering forgotten streams and terracotta-roofed hamlets, then rising in steep, forested hillsides to some of Europe’s most shapely peaks. Inaccessible for much of the year, these villages – among them Torla, Echo and Ansó – are sturdy mountain refuges at the mercy of the capricious moods of the Pyrenean climate, even as flowers cascade from balconies to lighten hardy local spirits.

Where the Pyrenean foothills descend – sometimes abruptly, sometimes gently – away to the south, Aínsa, like Sos del Rey Católico, colonised a hilltop in medieval times and has scarcely changed in the centuries since. Cobbled together in uneven stone, Aínsa has a colonnaded public square, fine views north towards distant peaks and just two ‘streets’ that rise and fall in subtle shades of multicoloured stone offset by gentle interplays of light and shadow.

Before Aragón levels out, Alquézar is a pyramid-shaped, defile-top village and one of the canyoning capitals of Europe, while the isolated backcountry of El Maestrazgo is truly one of Spain’s most delightfully forgotten corners. Where the horizonless meseta (high plateau) of central Spain takes hold, Fuendetodos (the birthplace of Goya in 1746) and Daroca (encircled by hilltop castle ramparts) serve as reminders that Aragón has always played its part in the onward march of Spanish history.

But in Aragón’s deep south, it’s Albarracín that stakes the strongest claim for the title of Spain’s prettiest village. With a name that evokes the storied history of Al-Andalus, architecture at one with the land and a location suggestive of a secret redoubt, Albarracín has the quality of a quiet and intimate fairytale. Once the capital of an 11th-century Islamic state, later the scene of an independent Christian kingdom on the cusp of Aragón’s historical domain, Albarracín is an enchanted blend of earthy red, pink and terracotta set against dark stone and bouldered hillsides. The daily onslaught of summer day-trippers notwithstanding, there is something timeless about this place, never more so than when the sun dips behind the castle ramparts and envelops the village in a silence broken only by soft footfalls on cobblestones.