Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Spain: A medieval town and a lake of eerie beauty, hiding a dark secret

Puebla de Sanabria in Castilla y Leon, in northern Spain, reveals a landscape of stunning beauty and a proud medieval history

by Kon Hans

Gazing through your aircraft's window as it descends to Madrid's airport, red and ochre patches will dominate your view; like a colorful canvas of a passionate painter, the land of Spain is a surrealist work of art.  A land of art, beauty, contradictions and surprises, the Iberian peninsula is not only about sea and sun, fiesta and crazy summer nights, it is also about dramatic landscapes, forged by the brutal power of nature.  And, up there, in the north, deep in the rocky bosom of the mountains, there exist such a place of serene and eerie beauty, with a tragic secret hidden deep in the cold embrace of a beautiful lake.

Lake of Sanabria

In the mountainous region of Castilla y Leon, after passing the famed towns of Salamanca and Zamora, one can find a medieval small town of a unique character, called Puebla de Sanabria. In order to embark on this magical trip, you must leave Madrid by taking the A6 highway towards Zamora and enter the region of Castilla y Leon.  The road will lead you to the mythical land of the river Duero, the birthplace of one of the most splendid Spanish wines, Ribera de Duero.  Rows upon rows of vineyards will welcome you, rising through the fog like a minuscule army in perfect order by the river banks, and after a three-hour trip you will finally get a view of the Puebla de Sanabria, among the mountains. 

Puebla de Sanabria

Lake of Sanabria
The river calmly flows by the walls of Sanabria, like a silver necklace upon the neck of a beautiful medieval Lady. She proudly stands watching, from up there, from the Castle and the Old Town, the mountains and the vast horizon before her, and up there is where you are headed.  The Old Town of Sanabria, a medieval walled town with a long history, one of the oldest in the region is home to the best preserved Castle of Spain. Moreover it is  a place impregnated with local myths and mysteries, under the shade of a mysterious tragedy, of which the source is the nearby calm and beautiful lake.  However, before you visit the lake, you should explore this medieval fairy tale unfolding before your eyes: manor houses made of stone and wood, narrow alleys, the smell of the humid timber and the cold from the mountains caressing your face, and the Castle with its imposing presence.  For your exploring base, nothing better than an 18th Century mansion restored to its former glory and serving as a distinguished guest-house, "La Posada Real La Carteria", offering high quality services in logical prices. Don't forget to visit its "subterranean" restaurant and enjoy the local cuisine with its strong mountainous character.  The next day, and on your way to the famous lake, you can enjoy a stroll on the walls of the Castle enjoying the views or visit the small gothic Church. You could even enter one of the small traditional and cozy cafes of the Old Town, and of course, buy some local products, like goat cheese, mountain honey or dried meat. 

Castro River and Puebla de Sanabria
Fog and church in the village of El Puente
On your way to the lake, it is advisable to make a small stop at the small village you will encounter, "La Puente", where you can enjoy a glass of the famous topical wine or a cafe "cortado" (with some milk) with the company of a tasty "tapa" (small plate of appetizers) in the local cafe, with its traditional architecture and small folklore showcase.  Making your way among the mountains towards the lake, it is highly recommendable to first visit the small village "San Martin de Castanieda".  Situated up on a slope,  it will award you with a first impressive view of the lake: the golden-red colors of the trees around seem to embrace with tenderness the blue, crystal clear waters, radiating a tranquility and a splendid harmony.  In the local tavern "Recreo", you can savor meat delicacies of the region and of the finest quality, in truly impressive amounts:  it is obligatory to order the famous beef steak, bigger than the plate served on, and enjoy the view of the lake from up above.

Leaving the restaurant with your energy refilled, and on your way down to the lake, you will find the medieval Monastery of San Martin de Castanieda, with a long history tracing back to the Visigoths and the glorious Al Andalus, when Spain was under the Moorish dominance.  Apart from the serene beauty of the view that the Monastery offers, you can also visit a small exhibition on the upper floor about the local history and the flora and fauna  of the lake's ecosystem.

The Lake of Sanabria

Lake of Sanabria and the sky below!

The lake of Sanampria, is a place, from which many local mysteries and myths seem to emanate, and  the starting point for all these appears to be a tragic incident, a historical tragedy;  one of many that have marked the stormy history of this country under the dictatorship of Franco.  The dam that was inaugurated in 1956 from General Franco, built with off-hand calculations, cheap materials and with the excessive vanity of a dictator to glorify his name has proved to be a devastating curse for the residents of the village "Ribadelago", situated a few kilometres lower, on the bank of the lake.  A frozen night, on January the 9th of 1959, and as the unsuspecting residents of the small village were trying to warm up in their humble houses, also of poor construction, a deafening roar erupted from the bowels of the earth, as the unstoppable river, released from its bonds, was taking a terrible revenge.  

The next day would dawn with heartbreaking laments,  as 90% of the  village was destroyed, literally buried in the bottom of the lake,  and with the dreadful outcome:  144 persons, mainly small children, were forever lost in the wet grave of the lake.  Nowadays, a statue of a mother embracing the lifeless body of her child stands as a witness to the terrible disaster and to remind us that greed often results in the nature's fury, in front of which humans are truly insignificant.  And the mother's soundless lament seems to echo in the eerie silence of this beautiful lake, that is only interrupted by the haunting sounds of a bell tolling and children laughing, that even today many visitors swear they hear coming out from the frozen depths of the lake.

(Published in TIME OUT DUBAI ©, on July 1, 2014, read it here )

(Photos by Alejandro Tiana Mas and Kon Hans )

View from the Castle of Puebla de Sanabria