Empty Spain: This is the nickname given to the interior of mainland Spain, an area that concentrates 60% of the territory, but where only 10% of population lives. The reason for this depopulation is the dynamic of the economic development of Spain. In recent years job opportunities have concentrated more and more around the two main cities: Barcelona and Madrid, leaving the rural areas with poor infrastructures and an ageing population. The tourism boom that has interested Spain during the last decades did not benefit Empty Spain either, as visitors concentrate in the islands and the coast.
Empty Spain is however an area of stunning beauty, made up of a diversity of historic villages, natural parks and rich gastronomy. This year Empty Spain is back on the spotlight as the need for social distancing has convinced many tourists to choose rural holidays, leading to a 300% increase in visits in some regions. There is hope that the current crisis could at least have a positive consequence: a more sustainable spread of tourism towards the neglected areas of Empty Spain, avoiding further depopulation.
So, what there is to see in the Empty Spain? Every history and/or nature lover would find something interesting in Empty Spain. If you want to fully understand Spanish culture (and its complex diversity) you have to head towards these areas.
As a starting point this is an incomplete list of some of the nicest villages divided by province (to be updated in the future).
The province of Segovia is close to Madrid and for this reason it already benefits of good internal tourism, although the density of the permanent population is low. It is an area characterized by mountains, rivers and valleys and many villages with a rich history.
Pedraza is a quaint medieval village which conserves its XIII Century castle. It has only about 400 permanent residents, although many people from Madrid have a second house here. Among its main points of interest there are its small Romanic church and the remains of the ancient jail that can be visited. Here the restaurants offer the typical Segovian food: roasted baby pig (cochinillo), lamb and the ponche segoviano: a cake made of custard and marzipan.
Cuéllar is located 68km away from Segovia, in the Northern part of the province. In medieval times Cuéllar was a fortress town where the Arab, Christian and Jewish religions coexisted pacifically. Remains of the three cultures are still found in different areas of the town. The village conserves its ancient castle and it is possible to walk on its walls.
Sepúlveda is a village that dates back to Roman times and whose architecture presents Roman, Arab and Christian elements. Its main point of interest is the X Century castle where cultural events are still organized. If you love nature you can combine a visit to Sepúlveda with an excursion to the natural reserve of Rio Duratón which features dramatic gorges around the river Duratón.
Granja de San Ildefonso
Located only 10 km from Segovia and 80km from Madrid. this village is famous for its Royal Palace built by the Bourbon kings in the XVIII Century which reminds of Versailles for its grandness, the spectacular fountains, the sculptures and Italian gardens. The fountains are opened every spring and they work until the end of August. The town is close to the Parque Natural Sierra de Guadarrama, a vast mountain area of rich biodiversity, that offers numerous trekking trails.
The province of Cuenca is part of the region of Castilla-La Mancha in the East-Central part of Spain. The province has a diverse landscape with mountains in the North and dry lowland in the La Mancha area in the South. Many medieval villages exist in the area.
The capital of the Province is a must-see starting point if you head in the area. Cuenca’s claim to fame are its “hanging houses” (Casas Colgadas), impressive buildings that seem to dangle of the verge of the gorge below. Only three of these original medieval houses are actually left and they can be visited, hosting museums and a restaurant.
As in most of Spanish villages the central square of Cuenca is called Plaza Mayor and it is the heart of the town’s life. The square hosts one of the most striking buildings in the city: the Council Palace, an imposing baroque building. Other points of interest include its castle, a monastery and the Tower of Mangana, which along the centuries belonged to an Arab citadel, a synagogue and finally to a Christian Church.
Uclés is located in La Mancha, the region where the story of the most famous book ever written, the Quixote of Cervantes, took place. Here echoes of Cervantes atmosphere can be found in the dry landscape, starting with the traditional white windmills which contrast the yellow of the earth with the blue of the sky. Uclés is built on a hill and dominated by the remains of its Arab fortress. The most famous landmark of the village is however the Monastery of Santiago, where one of the most ancient Spanish military orders, the Order of Santiago, originates from. The building is so striking that it has been nicknamed “the Escorial of La Mancha”.
Belmonte is known for its impressive XV Century castle-fortress, so well preserved that has been used as scenery for several movies. The town is devoted to its medieval past and it is not a chance that medieval combat championships take place here. The gastronomy of the area is also noteworthy: this is the best place to taste authentic Queso Manchego cheese and the wines that are produced locally.
Soria province is the quintessence of Empty Spain. This area divided between mountains and valleys includes villages so remote that many of them are or are close to the point of being abandoned.
Medinaceli, is a town of about 700 inhabitants that hides some artistic jewels. These include the town walls with elements from Roman, Arab and Christian times, an Arab fortress, a ducal palace and the famous Christ of Medinaceli, a sculpture that is a Catholic point of pilgrimage.
San Esteban de Gormaz
San Esteban de Gormaz is a pretty village located around 50 km from Soria and a great place to visit if you want to be brought back to a different time.
The town was developed by the Romans and later it was located in the border between the Arab and Christian empires. Due to its strategical relevance it was often contended and it changed hands several times. Its architecture brings traces of its history as there are many examples of Romanic architecture, among which it stands out an Arabic fortress and a Roman bridge that crosses the river Duero nearby.
Burgo de Osma
Located not far from San Esteban de Gormaz, Burgo de Osma is one of the most beautiful villages of the Empty Spain. Its main square, the Plaza Mayor (!), is a fabulous example of baroque architecture, nowadays it is still the centre of the local social life as it hosts bars and restaurants with outdoor tables. The town features an impressive Romanic Cathedral and a castle that are located outside of the village but can be reached with a tourist bus that goes around the main landmarks of the town.
León is one of my favourite provinces of Spain, due to its gastronomy and green landscape. I have written about my experience in visiting the capital and surrounding areas here.
Astorga is located about 50 km of the capital León. The town was founded by the Romans and the original walls still surround it. Nowadays Astorga is famous for hosting various buildings designed by the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí, the most striking is surely the Palacio Episcopal. More about Astorga here.
Castrillo de Polvazares
Castrillo de Polvazares is a tiny village with about 100 inhabitants and only five streets. Despite its size it is worth visiting this attractive village for its historic houses, artisanal workshops and restaurants where to try the cocido maragato, the typical dish of the area made with stewed beans and seven types of meat.
Ponferrada is located in the district of El Bierzo, an area with an incredible natural landscape. Originally built as a stopping point on the way to Santiago the town developed and in the XII Century was owned by the Templars order. The most evident trace of that period is the imposing Templar Castle which during the years was extended to include more buildings. The area around Ponferrada also features Pallozas, typical circular stone houses, common in the Northwest of Spain, that were in use until the mid XX Century.
Bonus: Las Médulas
If you visit the area of El Bierzo you have to include a visit to Las Medulas, an ancient Roman gold mines site. The Roman mining techniques resulted in the erosion of the mountain, leaving however a spectacular landscape that can now be visited by foot or by bicycle.