Practically unknown to outsiders, even within Spain
Well off the beaten tourist trail, Soria is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered.
This is a land that time forgot. Somewhere in the mists of history it got by-passed and ceased to be relevant to politicians and planners. For generations its young people have sought a future elsewhere, leaving behind an impoverished and neglected backwater.
Celtiberian and Roman archaeological sites, medieval castles and churches, sleepy little towns and villages. Breathtaking scenery with plains and forests that stretch as far as the eye can see. Mountain walks and vineyards. Flowers, butterflies and birds.
Get ready for an unforgettable visit to this overlooked corner of rural Spain.
At the heart of Spain's forgotten interior
The province of Soria is located in central northern Spain, at the eastern end of the Castile and Leon region. It lies about two hours from Madrid and approximately halfway between Santander and Valencia.
The province comprises an area of 10,306 km2 and has a population of 93,291 inhabitants, equivalent to half the size of Wales or the combined size of Devon and Cornwall with only 5% of the population. The average population density of Soria is 9.23 inhabitants/km2, similar to that of the Scottish Highland region, though in many municipalities there is actually less than 1 inhabitant/km2. In our municipality the population density is 3.11 inhabitants/km2.
We live in the western part of the province, and consider "our patch" to be that bordered to the north by the snowy mountains of the Sistema Ibérico mountain chain which separates the province from the Rioja region, and to the south by the Sistema Central mountain chain which divides us from the province of Guadalajara. It reaches eastwards to the city of Soria and westwards into the neighbouring provinces of Segovia and Burgos. All of this area is well within an hour's quiet drive from home.
The settings of western Soria
Western Soria is the realm of the river Douro (Duero in Spanish), which rises in the northern mountains and flows eastwards to the city of Soria, before bending round and heading due west, bound ultimately for Oporto and the Atlantic Ocean. The fertile valleys of the river Douro and its many tributaries are a constant feature of our local area and have moulded and shaped its history and geography.
Simplifying, western Soria may be split into the three following geographic zones:
1. "Pinares", which means pine forests. This is the name given to an area of north-western Soria and south-eastern Burgos, where a thick blanket of Pinus sylvestris pine forests covers all the territory up to the tree line on the high peaks of the Sistema Ibérico (Sierra de la Demanda, Sierra de Urbión and Sierra de Cebollera). This "sea of pines" has traditionally been a great source of wealth and the forests are now managed mainly for the timber trade and furniture factories. The mountains are covered by snow for much of the year, so there are lots of babbling mountain streams and, as mentioned above, the source of the river Douro. The landscape around the Pico Urbión (2,228 m) has been sculpted by glaciers and there are a number of spectacular glacial circuses, most famously at the Laguna Negra (Black Lagoon).
2. "Paramera". This word refers to the rugged moorland of the area encompassing the Sierra de Cabrejas, a limestone ridge that runs down from the province of Burgos to the "Pico Frentes" promontory just outside the city of Soria. This zone is characterised by having what is reputedly the best conserved "sabina" (Juniperus thurifera) Spanish juniper or incense juniper woodlands in the world. The ecological niche of this hardy tree is where nothing else will thrive: extreme hot and cold temperatures, poor soil and very low rainfall. The dry, rocky landscape nevertheless conceals a complex aquifer system with abundant groundwaters that feed the sources of several rivers. The karst landscape is most impressive in the famous "Cañón del Río Lobos" (the "wolf river" canyon), where the water has crafted a 25 km gorge with spectacular rock walls, and where the subsoil is riddled with chasms and caves.
3. "Ribera del Duero". As the mature Douro flows westwards towards the sea, the rolling countryside and plains that surround the river and its many tributaries provide productive land for farming and forestry. Large pockets of ancient oak and holm oak woodlands coexist with great swathes of Pinus pinaster pine forests that have been used for resin tapping since Roman times. Further down the river, the characteristic red soil is home to a thriving modern wine industry, following in the steps of many generations of vintners.
Uncrowded rural Spain
Almost half of Soria's population lives in the city of Soria, about 65 km east of us. El Burgo de Osma, just 10 km from home, is the third largest municipality in the province, with a population of around 5,200 in the town and its dozen or so outlying villages, and nearby San Esteban de Gormaz is the fifth largest municipality in Soria, with another 3,200 inhabitants. Apart from a few other smaller towns in the Pinares area, the rest of western Soria is dotted with many tiny villages that typically have just a handful of elderly residents. Our village, Valdemaluque, has about 60 inhabitants, which isn't bad going, but it should be added that there are more over-85's than under-55's.
So it's not surprising that when we get asked what people in Soria do for a living, we usually reply "collect their pensions". With some light industry in the larger towns, farming and tourism are the main sources of employment in the province.
That said, tourism is at a very early stage of development here. Soria is practically unheard of outside Spain, and frankly is very little known even to Spaniards. Poor planning and low awareness of the great potential of this province means that visitors usually get no further than a couple of popular sites. It is also highly seasonal tourism, being concentrated mostly at Easter, a couple of weeks in August, and various bank holiday weekends. The vast majority of visitors are Spanish, and so far we see few intrepid foreign tourists.
Not only will your holiday experience in Soria be untroubled by hordes of tourists, you will also find it harder to bump into foreign residents here than elsewhere in Spain. In Soria province, for instance, there are just 37 registered UK nationals, whereas in Alicante there are over 130,000. That means there is one Briton per 450 m2 in Alicante, but just one per 278 km2 in Soria. Where would you start looking for "the real Spain"?
A natural paradise
To say that Soria has a lot of magnificent scenery and a thriving and diverse wildlife hardly puts it in a class of its own, as many other places also do. But what really sets this province apart, and is particularly striking to visitors from Northern Europe and even from Spain's own cities and coastal areas, is quite how wild and natural (or "man-free") Soria really is. The very low population density, endemic lack of investment and development, and many centuries of a hand-to-mouth peasant economy have meant that nature has largely been left to its own devices.
Soria is a natural paradise, clean and unpolluted, starting with its air, its forests and its rivers. The province's natural setting comprises a surprising variety of landscapes with many different types of woodland, mountain, moorland and river-valley ecosystems. There are a number of protected natural sites within easy reach of our village, including habitats of EC interest and special bird areas, though the entire province is a beautiful backdrop to any day out.
Popular beauty spots in western Soria, besides the aforementioned Cañon del Río Lobos and Laguna Negra, include La Fuentona, the source of the river Abión; El Sabinar de Calatañazor, a protected incense juniper wood; Castroviejo, a hilltop with curious rocky formations and spectacular views; Cañon de Caracena, another impressive limestone gorge; and Monte Valonsadero, a large nature park just outside the city of Soria.
Soria's natural heritage undoubtedly has great potential for sustainable eco-tourism. Wild mushroom collecting is currently vogue, and has spawned a number of activity-related enterprises which in time will hopefully come to offer a fuller range of organised activities for nature lovers including wild flowers (especially orchids) and birdwatching. In the meantime, however, shooting continues to be the architypical country pursuit. Deer and wild boar are the main 'big game' trophies, while hare, partridge, quail and thrush are among the popular small game species. Fishing is also popular, and many of the rivers in our vicinity are highly rated trout and crayfish waters.
Miles of unspoilt, unfenced countryside makes for excellent walking. There are many well signposted short- and long-distance walks, which are generally easy-going for all types of walkers, and for the more adventurous there are plenty of mountain walks that provide more of a challenge. On- or off-road cycling is another possibility with many options available. Rural roads are well maintained and traffic-free, and the fields and forests are criss-crossed by a comprehensive network of unpaved tracks.
Vestiges of a vibrant history
Soria's countryside is steeped in history, and especially in the area around the river Douro it is hard to go far without coming across a historic site or building. Soria was almost certainly more prosperous, industrious and well populated over 2000 years ago when the territory was ruled by city states belonging to Celtiberian tribes such as the Arevacos, and when the Romans took over its prosperity soared, thanks in part to commerce along the road linking Caesar Augusta (Zaragoza) with Asturica Augusta (Astorga) and the gold mines of north-western Iberia. Numancia, Tiermes and Uxama are examples of Romanised Celtiberian towns which today make for interesting archaeological visits, and the Museo Numantino in Soria is one the best archaeological museums in the country. The Romans also built many luxurious villas in Soria, and the mosaics of La Dehesa villa at Las Cuevas de Soria have recently been reopened to the public, along with a very interesting museum.
In the early middle ages Soria was as far north as the Arab kingdoms of Al Andalus reached. For centuries this was frontier land, strongly militarised with a dense network of castles and watchtowers, with numerous skirmishes between the Christian and Muslim armies. The remains of these medieval strongholds still stand on hilltops all along the Douro in western Soria. The caliph's fortress at Gormaz is one of the great castle sites of Europe, with 1200 metres of perimeter walls suspended high above the Douro plain commanding breathtaking 360° views. The castle at Ucero, with its elegant gargoyle-decorated keep and a secret passage that runs down to the river, also stands on an impressive site with magnificent views of the high rock walls of the river Lobos canyon. Other castles that are well worth visiting include Berlanga de Duero, Caracena and Calatañazor, and many of the Arab watchtowers have recently been restored and offer very rewarding views.
Following the final reconquest of Soria in the early 12th century, large numbers of settlers moved down from Cantabria and the Basque Country to colonise the land that had been practically abandoned for hundreds of years. The setting up of new towns and villages coincided with the emergence of the new "romanesque" style of architecture, and many village churches and chapels built in that style still stand to this day. Superb examples of romanesque churches can be seen at San Esteban de Gormaz, Caracena, Aguilera, Andaluz and Nafría La Llana, among many others. The hermitage of San Baudelio at Casillas de Berlanga, with its medieval frescos, is built in the "mozárabe" style, combining Islamic and Christian features, and comprises a central column supporting a vaulted ceiling that is like being under a palm tree in a fantasy oasis.
In a country like Spain, where the Catholic church has played such a predominant role throughout history, religious monuments are obviously a major part of the urban landscape. The city of Soria boasts a number of interesting church visits, such as the early Romanesque church and cloisters of San Juan de Duero, the intricately carved west front of the church of Santo Domingo, often referred to as "the bible in stone", and the elegant cloisters and gothic church of San Pedro. There is a charming walk along the banks of the Douro to the hermitage of San Saturio. The cathedral of El Burgo de Osma is basically gothic, with some remains of the early romanesque church such as the beautiful and highly original painted stone sarcophagus of the cathedral's founder San Pedro de Osma. It has an outstanding baroque bell tower and a number of notable neo-classical chapels. Mention should also be made of the beautiful renaissance collegiate church at Berlanga de Duero.
Life in Soria today
For centuries, Soria has been a quiet agricultural province, and the fields and villages of western Soria bear constant witness to its rural heritage. Sheep enclosures, dovecotes and apiaries built of stone or earth bricks can be seen everywhere, often in an advanced state of decay. South of the Douro it is still possible to see ancient buildings roofed with sticks and heather rather than ceramic tiles. Many villages in the wine-producing area along the Douro conserve the remains of entire areas given over to wine cellars and grape presses, which offer a fascinating sight, most notably at Recuerda and Atauta. All villages have their communal washhouses, but few are as pretty as those at Quintanas de Gormaz and Berzosa.
Farm mechanisation in the 50's and 60's brought an end to village life as it had been known for centuries, and decadence set in. It is sad to see these old villages crumbling away, and with what little taste or consideration new holiday homes are replacing the old peasant houses. But somehow there is a compelling romantic side to all this decadence, and it is fascinating to walk around these villages and admire the little features that make each place unique. And the old Sorianos are lovely people, who are always happy to have a chat and to point a visitor in the right direction.
Modern life is now concentrated in the small towns of El Burgo de Osma and San Esteban de Gormaz, where all the shops and services are located. El Burgo is a monumental little town, with its medieval city walls, cathedral, and main street and squares with their wooden arcades. Impressive public buildings such as the old university, seminary and hospital are reminders of how important the town once was. Now it comes to life in the afternoon when young mothers watch over their children playing in the main square, and thanks to the visitors strolling around the town and sizing up the shops offering traditional local products. There is a lovely walk through the park along the banks of the river Ucero, and several charming squares where one can sit out at a pavement cafe.