Visit the most important (and accessible) archaeological sites of La Alcarría

If there's one thing that characterises La Alcarría it must be its great historical and cultural value: full to bursting with castles, monasteries, palaces, mansion houses, monuments... and archaeological sites. A few days ago, drawn by the red, brown and ocre colours that bathe the landscape of this area, and the strange light of the diminishing autumnal days, I took a look around some of the most fascinating, romantic and scenic ruins of La Alcarría. The experience was profound and inspiring, and I had no alternative but to share it: for those of you who know November to be the most beautiful month of the year, and for those of you who are yet to discover it.

 

La Cava site in Garcinarro (Cuenca)

We begin with the most ancient and enigmatic site on our tour, La Cava, in the municipality of Garcinarro, an enchanting little village in the province of Cuenca. The path is signposted from the village itself, so you won't get lost. If you have arrived in Garcinarro early in the morning, you might like to have a small bite to eat before climbing the hill to the ruins; a simple piece of toast with local olive oil with the Denominación de Origen stamp of authencity, will be more than sufficient and delicious. La Cava is one of the most fascinating Iberian archaeological sites: perched on top of one of the hills of the Valley of Altomira (when you are up there it is clear that it is a strategic site from which to rule the whole valley), the views are spectacular and astonishing. However, its authenticity lies in its architecture, as it is an ensemble of substantial monumental structures built into the limestone rock, about which many interpretations (some almost fantastical) have been made. In any case, archaeological investigations have shed light on the mysteries of this site: there are traces of human occupation on this hilltop site dating back to the Bronze Age, and it was over the last thousand years BC when the mysterious stone buildings like a fortress from which to rule this territory were excavated. However, it is possible that this was not its only funtion, since in the high land around this hill there are other buildings, all of them reoccupied both during the times of the Roman and the Visigoths, as well as by shepherds of medieval and modern times. La Cava is the perfect site from which to start, as it will energise you for the rest of the journey.

Edificio excavado en la roca con vistas al Valle de Altomira, desde La Cava de Garcinarro (Cuenca)
Excavated building on a rock with views of the Altomira valley, from La Cava, Garcinarro (Cuenca).

 

The Roman mines of the Sanabrio Cave, Saceda del Río (Cuenca)

Just 20 minutes by car from La Cava of Garcinarro you will find the Roman mines of lapis specularis, characteristic of this corner of Spain, which were known throughout the empire to be of the highest quality. There are various mines for the extraction of this gypsum dotted around the province of Cuenca, but the mines at the Sanabrio Cave are particularly beautiful and they are en route. Visiting them is very easy and they are open to the public; although visits are only allowed as part of a guided tour, these run every weekend, morning and afternoon. The tour experience is fascinating for children as well as adults, takes about half an hour, and at this time of year you will appreciate the cool temperatures inside the cave. The marks left by the miners, and recreations of how the interior was lit and of how they extracted the gypsum, help visitors to realise what a tough job the miners had. The engaging explanations of the tour guides help you understand the commercial importance of this mineral in Hispania under Roman rule, used mostly for sealing windows and other openings. This is one of the most entertaining visits on this route, and without a doubt it will leave you wanting to know more about those crazy Romans.

The Roman town of Ercávica, Cañaveruelas (Cuenca)

After leaving the mines of lapis specularis at Saceda del Río, a small local road takes us north, crossing the Alcarría (plateau) of Cuenca province, for about 40 minutes until we reach Cañaveruelas, at the feet of the Buendía reservoir. This was the most beautiful and inspiring road of today's route, as it really showcases the essence of this somewhat forgotten and abandoned area. A landscape of solitary hills, barren plains, slopes, silhouetted smallholdings, sparse but sturdy vegetation and intense colours accompanies the traveller, and invites you to drink it all in. After arriving at Cañaveruelas, it's easy to find the farm track that leads to Ercávica as it is well signposted. Once again we have to climb one of the local hills; on reaching the entrance to the site, there is a small hut that serves as a visitor centre, where you can get information on the importance of Ercávica before taking a walk around the ruins, and warm yourself up by their welcoming fireplace. The settlement of Ercávica was an important centre, especially during the high imperial period. It was founded by the Romans on this hilltop, possibly due to its strategic location from which to survey the surrounding area, and halfway between other important Roman settlements such as Segóbriga (Cuenca) and Complutum (Madrid), spanning the valley of the Tajo river. The size of the town, its exquisit urban design, the presence of numerous public buildings including an impressive Roman forum, and the affluence of some of its villas all point towards its importance during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. With spectacular views over the surrounding valleys, these days flooded by the Buendía reservoir, discovering Ercávica gives us yet another chance to be surprised by the Roman world in Hispania, and to realise that we are perhaps not so different.

Views from the ruins of the Roman settlement of Ercávica towards the Altomira valleys and Buendía reservoir (Cuenca)
Views from the ruins of the Roman settlement of Ercávica towards the Altomira valleys and Buendía reservoir (Cuenca)

 

Monsalud Monastery, Córcoles (Guadalajara)

Just 20 minutes from the Roman settlement of Ercávica you will find the ruins of the Monsalud Monastery, one of the gems of Roman Cistercian architecture on the Iberian Peninsula that still conserves today many original elements and invites passing visitors to observe its skeletal remains with reverence and emotion. It was created in the 7th century as an economic centre for the area, and during times of Christian repopulation entrusted the white Cistercian monks with the task of organization, as well as allowing for the planting of small Christian settlements in the surrounding area. I recommend reserving a guided tour in the post-lunchtime slot, after a filling plateful of one of the local specialities. You will find more than one rustic restaurant where you can sample the authentic local cuisine - I opted for morteruelo (pig liver deliciously ground in a mortar) accompanied by local artesan Arriaca beer, which has used its micro-brewery philosophy to gain popularity across Spain in recent years. Once in the monastery, with the taste of authenticity still on your palate, you will be surprised by the raw stone, the play of light and shadow on the ruined nooks and crannies, and the dramatic contrast of the assertive forms of the monastery against the horizon. The importance of the monastery also comes from its history and founding: its first abbot, Fortún Donato, would have been a disciple of the creator of the order, Saint Bernard of Claraval. The presence of the Monastery of Monsalud resulted in the cultural and economic revitalisation of the area, a growth in farming, production and exportation of local produce. It also attracted many visitors - pilgrims of the Virgin of Monsalud as well as those coming as a result of the expansion of local hunting grounds. In the 19th century, during a time of expropriation, the order was supressed and expelled from the monastery and monastic activity ceased, although its influence remains reflected through the centuries in other Romanesque monasteries both in Cuenca and in Guadalajara.

The Visigothic city of Recópolis, Zorita de los Canes (Guadalajara)

The final part of this tour takes us, in about 40 minutes, to Zorita de los Canes, passing through Sacedón and crossing the south side of the Entrepeñas reservoir, which alongside its neighbour the Buendía reservoir in Cuenca, form what is known as the Castille Sea. The road now takes us south across the lower plateau of the province of Guadalajara, through some expanses which transform from vegetation-covered cliffs and slopes, and scrubland with views over the turqoise waters of the Tajo reservoirs, to the more austere, ocre-coloured high plateau. In Zorita de los Canes there is a lot to see, including an impressive medieval castle-fortress which deserves its own entry in the blog, but as a high point on which to end this tour and to enjoy the fading autumnal light to the max, it is best to finish with the Visigothic city of Recópolis. This site is unique and very special, since it is one of only three Visigoth cities built from scratch in ancient Hispania, together with Victoriacum (Vitoria) and Oligicum (Olite). Commissioned to be built in the 6th century by King Leovigildo in honour of his son Recaredo (and named after him) it was an extremely important city from the 6th to the 9th century, a lively commercial centre in the eastern plateau which can only be compared to Toledo, the capital of the Visigoth kingdom. A demonstration of its relevance can be observed in this impressive palatial site, or directly in the accounts of this period which reflect its influence. During the Islamic period the main centre of the population moved into the interior of the walled castle-fortress, and the city of Recópolis was left abandoned in the valley by the river Tajo, today reclaimed to remind us of what it once was.

Vista de los pilares del complejo palatino en Recópolis, con la luz crepuscular (Zorita de los Canes, Guadalajara)
View of the pillars on the site of the palace of Recópolis, at twilight (Zorita de los Canes, Guadalajara)

The occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by the misleadingly named bárbaros (barbarians) was brief compared to other periods, but their fundamental legacy for Spain brought with it a primitive concept of nation; a set of laws and rights which we still draw on and learn from, and a culture of sensitive spirituality which we can still contemplate now in the apparent simplicity and primitiveness of the Visigoth shrines. With this feeling of closeness, spiritual retreat and understanding of a town and a time which seem so far in the past but are so intimately ours, the final rays of sun disappear over the horizon inviting us to return to a place where we can rest, have a warm drink by the fire, and slowly process all that we have seen, lived and learned.