Monday 16 February 2009

La Alberca

So, two weeks ago I told you were I was going. Now I shall tell you where I have been.

Approximately four hours weary bus ride west of Madrid lays the little town of La Alberca. Situated at the foot of the Peña de Francia Mountains, it is a town untouched by time – by order of the government.

This was not my first visit to the town. I feel privileged that I have been able to see it in all the seasons of the year. Nestling almost a kilometre above sea-level it can be very hot in summer and with little ultra violet protection is an excellent place to get a tan. In winter be prepared for bitter temperatures and snow. But best of all is the autumn when the trees turn golden and there are chestnuts ready for picking and roasting. I love roast chestnuts!

We stayed in the hotel Villas Abadia de los Templarios. This is a resort hotel with a central building housing reception, the restaurant and the all important bar, surrounded by small, but very comfortable chalet style houses which are where the residents sleep.

The name of the hotel (Abadia means Abbey) is a reference to the Knights Templar, a quasi-military-religious order from the time of the crusades who gave aid to the sick and wounded during the wars in the Holy Land. Some of the order also provided care and lodging along the various routes of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, one of which, La Ruta de Plata, or Silver Route. This runs up through the west of Spain and comes close to La Alberca. There is a slight diversion through the town to enable pilgrims to visit the Madona Negra, or Black Madonna, in the monastery that sits high on the peak of the Peña de Francia.

So why is the town protected by the government? It is a beautiful example of unspoiled medieval architecture. The town is wonderfully preserved. The designation as a site of Historical Importance guarantees this. The houses are of timber frame construction lining delightful narrow cobbled streets. Roofs and balconies sag under the weight of their years, the uneven cobbled lanes could twist many an ankle, walls lean, and stonework shows the erosion of extremes of weather. In winter, swollen by snowmelt, the tiny stream crashes and splashes its way under the stone bridge at the foot of the sloping and very twisting Calle del Puente.

The name, La Alberca, means a watery place. There are many springs and an overflowing stone trough in the Calle de la Fuente Canal is meant to have health giving powers. I heard tell of an old lady who claims to have never drunk anything else. The trough behind the stone cross in the plaza mayor, though, seems to be the main refuelling place of kids playing with water pistols on hot summer nights.

To walk these streets is to return to an age of knights and chivalry, crusades and jousting, but also to poverty and persecution.

This area of Spain was known as “La Tierra sin Pan”, or the Land without Bread. Hidden in a valley not far from the Portuguese border, it was a forgotten place. But in 1933 Luis Buñuel made a short documentary film of the area, which brought it to public attention. Surprisingly, this was something that a visit by the abdicated king, Alfonso XIII and the doctor Gregorio Marañon a few years before, had failed to do.

La Alberca is known for its Jamon. The hams, lomos, (pork loin), and chorizos, (Spanish sausages), for sale in its shops are without question absolutely delicious. The surrounding countryside is full of black pigs happily snorting as they enjoy the bellotas, the slightly longer than usual acorns from the encina tree, (Holm oak), little suspecting what lies in store for them. One very happy pig is allowed to roam the streets of the town. And this is one of my favourite stories:

Casting you mind back to 1492, when Cristobal Colon sailed the ocean blue, you may recall that the “Catholic Kings”, Ferdinand and Isabella, decided that the “convivencia”, the peaceful cohabitation of Catholics, Jews and Muslims, could no longer exist. Moslems and Jews were given three choices: leave the country, face death at the hands of the newly formed Inquisition, or convert to Christianity. Jews with business, families, or who just liked living here, proclaimed their conversion. But there was a catch. Muslims and Jews don’t eat pork, but Christians do. So there was an obvious test to prove the veracity of the conversion. As Marie Antoinette didn’t say, “Let them eat pork!” And to take this one stage further the townsfolk of La Alberca decided that a pig should roam free in the town. If it was found outside your house at nightfall you were meant to take it in for the night, give it supper, provide sleeping arrangements and after a hearty breakfast the next morning you could release it back onto the streets.

Carved into the lintels of several doorways in the town are inscription proclaiming the conversion of the family inside. Invidiously, one doorway’s inscription is thought to show it to be the local offices of the Inquisition.

I don’t know if La Alberca has any remaining Jewish or Muslims residents, but the pig still roams free. It’s not the same pig! A new one is introduced each year and when sufficiently fattened up by the good food and comfortable beds it is put up to be won in a lottery. It’s a very friendly pig, as my photographs show. Ignorance is, very obviously, bliss!

So engrained in the psyche of the town has the pig, and its products, so become that outside the church stands a granite statue of a pig. It is very obviously a boar! Local legend has it that childless couple wanting to conceive a child should give the pig’s, er, equipment a rub. I don’t know if it works.
On August the 15th every year the town comes alive with the sounds of the traditional festival of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, after who the parish church is named. The image of the virgin is placed in the Plaza Mayor and the townsfolk offer their devotions. There are colourful costumes, which have special significance and the day concludes with dancing and traditional music.

The next day the plaza becomes a bullring with a Pamplona style running of the bulls and a corrida.

La Alberca holds a special place in the heart of many Spanish, who come here by the busload throughout the year. In summer the locals must be out-numbered by tourists several times over. I have been there a good dozen times now and still find it fascinating. A tiny place, it should not be missed. Just don’t sit down where the pig wants to be.


  1. I was in La Alberca in March 2010. What a wonderful place. I was there for Puebloingles which is an english village for spaniards who wish to be emersed in an English environment. That aside we spent time in La Alberca and it is just as wonderful as it looks.