It is really quite difficult to pick out the most beautiful or scenic villages in an area as far reaching as La Alcarría! The historic, natural and cultural significance of the 187 towns and villages which are found in this region are apparent in every one of their steep, winding streets, in the intense flavours of their local cuisine and in the views of their impressive castles.
However, what we can do is a extensive tour, sweeping across the area as the crow flies, to discover from north to south and from east to west the towns and villages which really stand out in each corner of La Alcarría, whether it is for their charm, history or importance. Whether you are travelling from Guadalajara, Cuenca or Madrid, or if you just want to take a tour through the region, these are the five villages you won't want to miss.
Located in the north of the region, in the area known as La Alcarría Alta and crossed by the River Tajuña, the town of Brihuega has been declared a place of great historic-artistic interest and value. Wandering through this town you will discover some real medieval gems such as the 13th century churches of San Felipe, San Miguel and Santa María de la Peña, as well as arches and paintings still intact as part of the wall which surrounds the locality. The town has had a thriving textile tradition since the 13th century, which really began to flourish from the 18th century on, thanks to the construction of the Royal Cloth Factory of Carlos III in 1750, a model example of civil engineering of the Spanish enlightened idiology. Throughout the 19th century Brihuega gained importance as it attracted investors of the time due to its proximity to the lines of communication between Madrid, Zaragoza and Barcelona, and especially after the arrival of the railway during the second half of the 19th century. There are some buildings from this period still standing - modernist with glass-enclosed balconies. As well as this, Brihuega has become well-known as The Garden of La Alcarría, due to the huge expanses of aromatic plants that surround it. Among them, the dramatic flowering of the lavender fields, which occurs each year in July and has become a festival to flood the senses.
Pastrana is the heart and the "capital" of La Alcarría. Located right in the centre of the region, the historic and cultural importance of this town is immense. It was once a dynamic Carpetani citadel highly sought-after by the Romans where the city of Paternina was finally built, which was of some importance during Roman and medieval times. However, it was after it was taken by the de la Cerda family when it experienced a great boom thanks to their patronage. It was one of the most important towns during the 16th and 17th centuries in the Kingdom of Castille; the Dukes of Pastrana were amongst the most influential families in the European courts - a period which is brought to life every year in July by the Ducal Festival, declared a festival of Regional Tourist Interest. Visiting Pastrana takes travellers back to an era that seems to be the stuff of legends but which is brimming with historic authenticity. Take the impressive historic town centre which is still mostly intact, where you will find the remarkable Colegiata de la Asunción, a medieval church housing several artistic collections (including a unique collection of Flemish tapestries from the 15th century). Or the Palacio Ducal, residence of the Dukes of Pastrana and an example of Spanish Renaissance architecture. Visiting the palace, you will learn the unfortunate story of the Princess of Éboli: how she languished watching the time pass on the clock in the Plaza de la Hora from her balcony, confined there in the palace by Felipe II - most say because she was an accomplice in a conspiracy against the monarchy, but others add that the king's punishment was also that of a scorned and vengeful lover.
At the western end of La Alcarría, south-east of Madrid, you will find this little gem; and there's a reason that it appears in the official list of the most beautiful villages in Spain. Chinchón has attracted travellers from all over across the centuries because of its timeless beauty, and the intense and unique character showcased in its streets, balconies, small plazas and hidden corners. Apart from its impressvie historic centre, which includes two 15th century castles, several churches and convents from the 16th and 17th centuries and manor houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, the heart of Chinchón is its central plaza (Plaza Mayor) and its soul, the local traditions kept alive by its dedicated inhabitants. Close to the plaza you will find age-old public laundry areas and huge hidden wine caves; you can learn how the inhabitants worked with wicker and cloth, and taste (or take home) traditional local produce: aniseed, garlic... or their delicious desserts flavoured with aniseed. And a final interesting fact: How about seeing Chinchón's Plaza Mayor looking its best on film? Just check out the orginal Around the World in 80 Days (1956) with David Niven, Cantinflas and Shirley McLein, alongside the most captivating Hollywood bullfighting legend, Luis Miguel Dominguín.
In the southernmost part of the region you will find the "Loyal and Noble City" of Huete, also known as the "capital" of the Alcarría of Cuenca. Just like most of the villages and towns of La Alcarría, Huete has a highly valued and rich heritage reflected in its impressive buildings, both secular and religious: its defensive wall and castle dating from Moorish times, its noble palaces and manor houses from the 19th century, its churches and convents, which are exemplary of the medieval and modern Spanish styles, not to mention the 18th century Monastery de la Merced and the 16th century Convent of Jesús y María. However, if there's one thing that makes Huete stand out it must be its ability over time to maintain a real spirit of cultural melting pot; wandering its streets there is a distinct atmosphere of the traditional mixed with the cosmopolitan. The Ethnography Museum and the Forge Museum, full of well-loved, ancestral objects, are housed in some of the town's most important buildings; daring contemporary art works and photography in the Florencio de la Fuente Museum, including pieces by Dalí and Picasso; in the Museum of Sacred Art you will find a collection full of passion, authenticity and emotion. If you visit Huete in May, you will be spell-bound by the festival of San Juan Evangelista and Santa Quiteria of Huete, especiallly by the traditional "galopeo" dances.
Continuing our tour of the unmissable villages of La Alcarría, we end up in the far east of the region, in the foothills of the Serranía de Cuenca, to discover Priego - a truly beautiful and unique village whose unmistakeable silhouette defines the horizon as we approach. Surrounded by a lush natural landscape of hilly woodland, and washed by the waters of three rivers, the historic centre of Priego sits on a limestone promontory carved out by erosion. In the centre the spire of the church of San Nicolás de Bari towers high at 30 metres; it was built in the 16th century in the late gothic style which was still prevalent at that time in the interior of the Kingdom of Castille. Once more we can marvel at the rich heritage found here: after being the site of a medieval Arab fortress of which the Tower of Despeñaperros still stands, Priego was given the title of Señorío (estate) in the 13th century, then Condado (earldom) and Ciudad (city) in the 14th century. It was the home of nobles and wealthy Spanish families due to its strategic position as the gateway to the mountains and La Alcarría, and this stately aura can still be observed in its grand, distinguished buildings including the Palace of the Counts of Priego, currently the Casa Consistorial (town hall building). Priego also has great cultural value thanks to a tradition of ceramics and wicker hand-crafting, both crafts passed down from ancient times. One final suggestion, for the most curious visitors: an inspiring visit to the skeletal ruins of the Convent del Rosal, where the Rosas Festival of folk and metal music is held every summer.
A visit to any of these villages of La Alcarría, or being lucky enough to have time to discover all of them (and more) and even stay a few days, will without a doubt quench your thirst for a real immersion into the interior of Spain and its culture, taking the time to discover and experience it all more intimitely.