Is Albarracín the prettiest pueblo in Spain? Plenty of people think so – a readers’ poll by El País a few years back put it right at the top of the list. And there’s plenty of competition – Spain is really not short of picturesque villages.
Albarracín is tucked away in the hills 35 minutes drive from the regional capital Teruel in Aragón, a bit off the beaten track and nearly two hours inland from the coast at Valencia.
Albarracín is spectacular, rather than picture postcard pretty – a mountain village built inside the hairpin bend of the little Rio Guadalviar, which over time has carved out a steep gorge around three sides of a rocky crag. You didn’t need to be a military genius to work out that this was an ideal location to settle in the strife-torn Middle Ages; the river and gorge acted as a ready-made defensive moat.
The Moors left a permanent stamp on the place – the name Albarracín itself is Arabic, originally al-Banu Razin, the town of the sons of Razin. The family were Berbers from North Africa, who ruled the surrounding area as a taifa (an independent Moorish kingdom) in the 11th century. Albarracín was a fairly important place back then.
At the top of the hill, the Moors built their castle, and over the centuries, the rest of Albarracín arranged itself around the lower slopes. The result is a warren of narrow, cobbled streets rising up the hillside from the valley floor. The roofs of the houses on either side of the streets nearly touch overhead and the village has more levels than a multi-storey car park.
Somehow, they managed to squeeze in a Cathedral (after the Moors had been invited to depart, naturally) and a Plaza Mayor with great views over the rest of the town.
The defensive walls spread up and around the adjoining hillside; if you have plenty of energy, head up to the Torre del Andador at the top for a birds-eye vista over the town.
It’s worth heading up there at dusk when the lights come on in the village, but if truth be told, we gave it a miss and headed out to eat instead!
Albarracín wasn’t always like this – by the end of the Civil War, it was a bit of a ruin by all accounts. But dedicated restoration work over the decades has left the village looking pristine, its buildings coloured a traditional pinkish-red hue from the local plaster.
Once you’ve explored the village itself, take a stroll along the river (el paseo fluvial) – it’s a bit of a rocky scramble in places, but you can follow the river gorge around the hairpin bend and then climb up the ramp into the village itself.
The river has a ghostly visitor, according to local legend. Doña Blanca was the Infanta (eldest daughter of the King) of Aragón, the Christian kingdom which ruled Albarracín after the Moors were thrown out. Apparently, she fell out with her sister in law and headed for the neighbouring kingdom of Castile. She stopped off in Albarracín, where she was taken in by the local lords, the Azagra family, but mysteriously, that was the last anyone saw of her. Apparently at the full moon in summer, her ghostly figure emerges from the Torre (tower) de Doña Blanca and heads down to the river to bathe.
These days, Albarracín lives on tourism and if you’re driving down from the north coast ferry ports of Bilbao or Santander, it’s a great place to break your journey. It lies just off the toll-free Zaragoza to Sagunto motorway and is seriously worth the small detour.
Tip: try the Sierra de Albarracín cheeses – there’s a shop just by the river bridge on your way into the village. Made from unprocessed sheep milk from local flocks, the semi-curado has a great flavour.
Eat here: el Señorio del Albarracín, a modern restaurant with an innovative menu on Calle Puentes, right next to the road tunnel that runs under the old town.
© Guy Pelham