Thursday, October 15, 2009

Journey to the Alcarria

The weekend took me to La Puerta, a village in the province of Guadalajara. It’s a place no one really knows much about, so let’s add a little context. The city of Guadalajara is fairly near Alcalá de Henares, home of Cervantes and seat of an old and prestigious university, which is itself not far from Madrid. The province broadly corresponds to the old region of the Alcarria, which is known to Spaniards for two things only- everyone keeps bees, and Camilo José Cela wrote a book about it.

La Puerta is up in the mountains, and has about 100 inhabitants, though as it was a holiday weekend and the weather was good there were rather more on this occasion. It’s on the river Solana, a tributary of the Tagus (which later flows through Toledo and comes out at Lisbon). A lovely village, in a little valley between two great crests of rock. It’s easy enough to walk or climb up them and see the village, the valley and much of the surrounding area. Cela mentions it in his book, sending one of his characters there, and giving a brief description of the place.

On the slopes above the hill there are a number of small caves, natural entrances used for keeping barrels of wine, because the temperature is very stable throughout the winter. They also become impromptu bars at the weekend, when the tasting begins.

The rocks are lit up at night, giving a glow and a majesty to the whole place. The other picture is of an old stone bridge over the river, simple and elegant.

I remember the beehives, mostly home-made, from logs, pipes, paint pots and barrels, placed in protected spots on the mountainside. I remember the juniper bushes offering their berries to passersby, and the unwary might not notice that this variety is poisonous. I remember the bright sun and the great green landscapes, brilliant greens unlike the colours of the land down here. And I remember the Breasts of Viana.

Hickory being a happily married hedgehog pays no attention to non-proprietary breasts, but these are a different matter. A pair of conical hills, rising to over 1100m (3,600ft), topped by a pair of 60ft high karstic rock formations, each with a flat top about an acre in extent that you can walk on if you have the nerve to climb up the side.

We climbed the Greater Breast, to 1133m, to see the views on all sides, of La Puerta and the villages of Viana, Trillo, Azañón and Gargoles, of the nuclear power plant with its columns of steam casting long shadows on the tops of the trees. Green hilltops, houses lost in the mountains, the path of the river Solana visible as it wandered through the valley marked on both banks by cypress trees, and the curves of the Tagus bordered by mud; you can see it all from up there.

It is said that the Moors built a castle, a watchtower for the whole of the Alcarria and part of Cuenca, but the only remains are of an ‘aljibe’, an underground water tank. And it is said too that they still graze sheep there, driving or hauling them up somehow and leaving them to fend for themselves all winter. There is grass, after all, and there’s nowhere for them to go.

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