In the village of Tragacete, just outside the province of Teruel, the merry widows – as I had come to think of them – met a sad counterpart. We had stopped in our minibus for a mid morning coffee, but the first bar we tried was closed. Our leader was seeking out another, and we were dawdling in his wake, when a woman the size of a sparrow bade us, “Buenos días.”
She was clearly keen to chat, so the more fluent Spanish speakers obliged. They liked her village, they told her. How long had she been here? Fifty years, she said, but she was an incomer and it still didn’t feel like home. Especially not now. Her husband had died 13 years ago and she missed him desperately. And at that, she burst into tears, and two of them took her in their arms and hugged her. They knew how she felt: they had lost their husbands themselves, one as recently as last autumn.
“Christopher Pollard Tours,” one of them had told me with a smile earlier, “is the answer to a widow’s prayer.” Here was evidence that he assists not only his customers but those they meet on the road.
For me the draw was slightly different. I wanted to see the province of Teruel, in Aragón, but didn’t want to drive its corkscrew roads, and CP Tours had scheduled a trip there. It is one of the most thinly populated and least-visited parts of Spain. A new airport was built in 2013 – but that’s just for the parking and maintenance of aircraft. The provincial capital, 3,000ft above sea level, is the only one without a direct railway link to Madrid. It is bypassed by the motorways, too. The province as a whole feels the need to declare, in what must be the most plaintive slogan in tourism, that “Teruel existe” – Teruel exists.
If you knew of its existence, you’ve probably learnt some Spanish and read the legend of two star-crossed lovers, Los amantes de Teruel. If you didn’t, you need to know what you’re missing. Being a regular nibbler of Spanish cured hams, but hardly a connoisseur, I can’t say whether the much-trumpeted jamón de Teruel is better than ham you’ll eat in Andalusia. But I already knew from the guidebooks that Teruel has the finest examples in Spain of Mudéjar architecture – executed by Moorish craftsmen working under Christian rule. Now, having been there, I can confirm that it has some of the loveliest villages in the country, and that they deserve to be better known.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. When I walked through the exit doors at Madrid airport, it was to join a tour, led by a man who had texted me to say: “I’m the fat guy with long hair as you emerge from Arrivals.” I hadn’t expected to be admitted to a club.
None of the 10 others gathering on the pavement around Chris, 65, and his 35-year-old partner, Moses, a Spanish-Moroccan, needed an introduction. All had travelled with them before, some a dozen times. A few had known Chris for more than 20 years, having attended Spanish classes he gave in his native Somerset before branching out into tourism and moving to Madrid. They ranged in age from 64 to 88, and included retired teachers and tax inspectors, and a nurse from Sydney whose husband was sailing elsewhere. One or two had been to Teruel before, but some had signed up simply on Chris’s recommendation. As one put it, “Once you’ve been Pollarded, you stay Pollarded.”
To be “Pollarded”, I discovered over a week, is to be both educated and entertained. It means sightseeing at a sedate pace that allows for conversation over coffee, lunch (including Moses’ picnic in the woods at the source of the Río Cuervo) and dinner. It means succinct “lecturettes” on the Spanish Civil War and spirited argument over whether the terms “twitcher” and “anorak” are necessarily derogatory (our leader described himself as “an opera anorak”). It means being introduced by a man who loves Spain to some of its lesser-known corners.
We reached our first base, Albarracín, after a four-hour drive that took us from the suburbs of Madrid though wild, craggy terrain where nature has sculpted crenellated forts from rocks of grey and gold. Albarracín’s walls, man-made, are some of the best-preserved Moorish versions in the world. They enclose a town that is a national monument in more ways than one. Through a quirk of history, it retains the status of a city, but its population is just 1,000, of whom only 40 are permanent residents.
Isabel, a local guide, sketched a trajectory of founding, prosperity and depopulation as we followed her on our first morning, past houses that leant forwards, backwards and sideways to maximise space in tight streets. All but one share a colour: a rusty red caused by the action of rain on particles of iron in the plaster.
The exception, painted blue and white, was designed – so legend has it – by a shepherd to woo his intended from her balmy Andalusia to Teruel, where winter temperatures can fall to minus 19C. Of the eight churches, Isabel told us, one is open for just a couple of feast days in summer but throughout the winter – because it’s alone in having central heating.
Albarracín used to live off the land, including the production of pine resin (poured hot over its walls during sieges). Increasingly it has been turning to tourism, but that is essentially a weekend trade, and its 20 or so restaurants and hotels, each with a handful of rooms, are otherwise quiet. While enjoying the peace, we were conscious of a melancholy air, though that didn’t extend to our dinners.
With a few clinks of his knife on a glass of the regional wine to call for order, Chris would introduce his selection of starters: “The first one [migas] looks like breadcrumbs with grapes. In fact, it’s grapes with breadcrumbs…” Then there would be a lengthy offering of main courses, strong on meat, prefaced by the question, “Would you like…?” “Would you like pig’s cheek?” became something of a running joke, as did one widow’s fondness for Eduardo, our driver, who joined us at every meal.
After the cloistered calm of Albarracín, Teruel town – Spain’s smallest provincial capital, with a population of 35,000 – seemed madly metropolitan. We strolled around the main square, home to El Torico (the little bull), which measures less than 20in from tail to mouth but, thanks to column and plinth, towers over its bigger, living cousins, which charge around the square in a fiesta every July . We admired Mudéjar towers of brick and ceramic tiles and the painted ceiling of the cathedral (“the Sistine Chapel of Mudéjar art”). We also saw – an obligatory stop – the last resting place of the lovers of Teruel.
Legend has it that poor Diego and rich Isabel were inseparable from childhood, but her father refused to sanction marriage. Diego was, however, given three years and three days to find fame and fortune as a soldier, but he missed the deadline and found on his return that she had been married to Fernando, a nobleman. Diego died of a broken heart and Isabel, on kissing him in his coffin, joined him in death.
Their remains, dug up in the 16th century, are now interred beneath images of the long-haired lovers immortalised in marble. They are the perfect couple, except for those frequent occasions when a Spanish matron steps between them to grin for a snapshot.
Calaceite, our second base, has Moorish foundations and a medieval outline, but its buildings date from the 17th century, when it was rebuilt after being razed by Philip IV for backing a rebellion by Catalonia. Among its most striking features are its portals, with gorgeous carved balconies and arcades that take the house over the street to produce a spectacular entrance.
Our Lady of the Assumption, a late-Baroque church, is equally impressive, its façade reminiscent of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. Congregations, though, aren’t quite in keeping. When we slipped through its massive door, we found one young priest saying mass before seven elderly women.
The provincial capital aside, the only place where we saw tourists in any number was in Valderrobres, a dozen miles from Calaceite. The latter, Chris reminded us, had been medieval but rebuilt: “Valderrobres was never rebuilt; it’s the real medieval McCoy.” And it has the classic medieval combination of church – which was first a mosque – and castle.
We shared the castle with a coachload of Spanish visitors, but had the church, a spare Gothic sanctuary with one of the biggest rose windows in Spain, to ourselves for 15 minutes. In between, we gazed down from the heights towards a building site, where an avian construction team had also been at work: a family of storks had set up home on the counterweight of a crane.
In our own, less precarious billet, we were ticked off by a German guest for making too much noise. Well, one of us was. Act your age, she was more or less told. Which was what she had been doing. It was her birthday, and she had half-walked, half-danced back from dinner at 11.30pm with a singularly appropriate song playing on her mobile: the Beatles’ When I’m Sixty-Four.
Michael Kerr was a guest of Christopher Pollard Tours (01823 286097 christopherpollardtours.com), which organises all-inclusive, escorted tours of Spain, Morocco, Italy and the Low Countries. It specialises in lesser-known regions, including Extremadura, Navarra, Soria and Teruel. A seven-day tour of Teruel in September 13 2016 and May 23 2017, with three nights in Albarracín and three in Calaceite, and visits to the provincial capital, rural areas and villages, costs £1,925 (single supplement £190).