In the center of Spain lie the three regions of Castile-La Mancha, Castile-Leon, and Extremadura. While these areas are definitely less-traveled than the major cities of Madrid or Barcelona, they are an ideal place to explore if you enjoy smaller towns and local culture. Central Spain is jam-packed with ancient history, and is yet to be inundated with tourists and modern businesses, so if you're visiting, don't be afraid to discover unmarked territory simply by wandering.
For many, the famed story of "Don Quixote" is the trigger for the iconic images of Castile-La Mancha. The mention of La Mancha may conjure up images of Spain iconic rolling hills, windmills, groves of olive trees, and medieval castles. It is one of the most sparsely populated autonomous communities in the country and is developing in rural tourism. La Mancha experiences arid climate with extreme temperatures ranging from 5 degrees (F) in the winter to 115 degrees (F) in the summers. Visit La Mancha during spring and fall, for comfortable weather and landscapes at their optimal beauty.
Castile-Leon was formed by the union of Old Castile and the Kingdom of Leon in the Middle Ages. For a medieval adventure into fairytale castles, mountains, and villages, Castile-Leon is the perfect backdrop for picturesque sunsets and setting to explore history and traditional architecture that still stands today. Due to the distance from the sea and high altitude, the region experiences cold winters and dry, warm summers.
Extremadura is the furthest away from the modern world, embracing slow life, natural beauty, and old-world charm in its rolling hills and forests. If you ever wondered what old-world Spain looked like, this is as close as you may get to experience as many of the small towns still maintain their old-fashioned traditions, especially in local cuisines.
La Mancha, considered the cultural heart of Spain, is centered around its capital, Toledo. Toledo is prized for its history, architecture and art, especially because of Kyriakos Theotokopoulos, also known as El Greco, who came from Crete in 1577 and lived in La Mancha until his death in 1614. His works can be viewed in Iglesia de Santo Tome as well as in the Museo del Greco.
There are also numerous churches, mosques and synagogues in the area because of the deeply-rooted religious tolerance, set in place long ago. The massive, gothic-style Catedral Primada features 22 chapels within the interior as well as paintings by El Greco, Titian, Goya, and Van Dyck. Check out the Visigoth presence and crown jewels in the Mezquita Cristo de la Luz, originally built as a mosque and one of the oldest edifices in the city.
Around La Mancha, there are numerous sights to see. Visit Almagro for the oldest theater in the country, also famed for its summer drama festival which draws more than 60,000 visitors every July. Cuenca is known for the Museum of Abstract Spanish Art and its hanging houses, which have been around since the 15th century.
Nearby, Ciudad Encantada draws in visitors with its curious rock formations, also called mushroom rocks, which date back 90 million years. If you love nature, explore the beautiful pastures of grazing sheep at the Parque Nacional de Cabaneros and the wetlands popular for waterfowl hunting at Tablas de Daimiel National Park.
Avila, which is the highest city in the peninsula at 3,710 feet, is also the birthplace of Santa Teresa. Check out the 33-foot high Walls of Avila, which stretch around the entire city and have been well-preserved since medieval times. Avila's Catedral is the oldest Gothic church in the country and is worth a visit to view the retable of scenes of the life of Christ and the choir stalls, by Dutch sculptor Cornelius. Relics of Santa Teresa fill the area, including a statue of her in the Plaza de Santa Teresa, the Convent of Santa Teresa, which was built over her childhood home, and a collection of her things, including her saddle, toy drum and even her finger, on display in the Convent of San Jose.
Castile-Leon is also a significant as a seat of education. Founded in 1218, the University of Salamanca is one of the oldest and most highly-respected universities in the world, featuring more than 40,000 rare volumes and manuscripts in its library and Plaza Mayor, considered to be the most majestic in Spain.
Castile-Leon also spotlights religious buildings, such as the Cathedral and Panteon de los Reyes and the Modern Museum of Contemporary Art
Ciudad Rodrigo, site of the famous battle in the War of Independence, highlights wonderful views of the city and the medieval Cathedral of Santa Maria, built in the 12th century.
For nightlife, Valladolid is the place to be. While there are no clubs, the city boasts numerous bars and pubs which serve Castilian tapas, especially down Calle del Paraíso. You can also visit the underground bodegas and vineyards of Aranda and taste Vega de Sicilia, the country's most renowned wine.
The Alcazar, one of the inspirations for Disney's Cinderella castle, is located in the west end of Segovia and towers over the city, perfect for beautiful panoramas. Ancient history and architecture are also exhibited in the Roman aqueduct, built in the 1st century.
The digital age has spread far and wide, but has bypassed Extremadura, which maintains its old-world lifestyle in its remote location. With only a little over a million inhabitants, Extremadura's population is low for the amount of land it covers, which makes it the perfect setting to discover things off the beaten track. A lot of the land is covered in mountains or labeled as nature reserves, which makes it much easier to experience and imagine old world Spain.
Visit the capital city of Merida to see some of the country's best Roman architecture, including an aqueduct de los Milagros and the ruins of the Roman amphitheater. The Puente Romano over the Guadiana River is the longest of all Roman bridges that still exist and are used today.
The old town of Caceres is often compared to Toledo, but is much less of a tourist destination. Some of the main sights to see include the magnificent Iglesia de San Juan, built in the 13th-15th century, the 12th-century Torre de Bujaco, Palacio de los Golfines de Abajo, where Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Fernando I lived, museums, and Montfrague National Park, which contains the largest mediterranean forests in the country.
Cancho Roana's Tartessan temple, which dates back to at least the 6th century B.C., is an archaeological site open to public. Alcantara features a first-century Roman bridge built over the Tagus River. Zafra, also known as Little Sevilla, is a beautiful gleaming-white city full of history, baroque churches and traditional architecture.
Food and Dining
Castile-La Mancha is especially well-known for Manchego cheese. Regional dishes include hearty stews and soups, like Cocido Madrileño, a stew traditionally centered around garbanzo beans and often made with pork, beef shank, chicken, potatoes, turnips, cabbage, and carrots. Pisto manchego, also known as Spanish ratatouille, is another Spanish bell pepper stew made with eggs, tomatoes, onions, and eggplant, topped with slices of Manchego cheese.
Castile-Leon is most famous for its roasts, including roast milk-fed lamb, black sausage, "botillo," a pork stomach stuffed with meat from the spine, tail and ribs of the pig, and roast suckling pig. Cooking is not taken lightly among the locals and this is visible in everyday culture especially during celebrations such as international trout week and the annual trout-cooking competition. In addition to a variety of other traditional dishes, red, white and rose wines are all likewise highly valued in this region. Ribera del Duero is considered to be one of the best wine-producing regions in the world, exporting Denomination of Origin or D.O. wines like Vega Sicilia.
Extramadura takes pride in its simple local specialities, which include cured Iberian ham, Torta de Casar, a prized soft white cheese made from sheep's milk, and el frite, a lamb stew made with potatoes, herbs, and paprika. Pimenton is another popular and widely-used spice in many recipes and due to the small sizes of the towns throughout Extremadura's provinces and cities, you'll be certain to find local small markets where you can buy and taste regional specialties for reasonable prices.
Castile-La Mancha is well-connected by air, rail, and highways, especially to Madrid. With two airports - Albacete Airport and Ciudad Real Central Airport - and a high-speed train, not to mention numerous local and long-distance buses that serve the area, there are countless ways to get around from one town to the next.
Likewise, Castile Leon is also accessible via air, rail, and roads. Castile Leon has three airports Leon, Valladolid, and Burgos, and can also be reached by Renfe.
Due to its remote location, Extremadura is not well-connected by air and has only one airport, Badajoz Airport in the region. Though railways are accessible in Badajoz, Caceres and Merida, to get to other small towns, the best way is to hire a car.
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