Spain is an enchanting country with so much to offer visitors. Most tourists tend to stick to the well beaten paths of Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada. These are amazing destinations, but we wanted a little something different to add to our experience of Spain. Instead of taking the train or driving the long boring stretch of highway between Madrid and Barcelona, we went the long way. Our route off the beaten path took us to a Spanish village set perched on a cliff, an old medieval hilltop town, a long forgotten ghost town from Spain’s civil war and through many more rural villages nestled in between fields of olive and grape plantations, before reaching the bustling and enchanting Barcelona several days later.
Heading southeast out of Madrid, our first stop was Cuenca approximately 2 hrs away. Cuenca is one of Spain’s most enchanting medieval towns where houses precariously hang on the side of cliffs.
The Parador de Cuenca was the perfect hotel for exploring this medieval town. The building, an old convent, is ideally located directly across from old town with excellent views of the famous hanging houses. The hotel has massive rooms, interesting architectural details and beautiful art adorning the walls and common areas.
Moving on, our next destination was a few hours away, but there were many items on our agenda! The first was a quick stop off at viewpoint Ventana del Diablo (Devil’s Window) where a 5 minute walk leads to a picture perfect window looking out over the valley. From here, we drove on a few miles to the quirky Cuidad Encantada (Enchanted City). This is a great detour for kids to get out, run around and explore nature. Pack a lunch and enjoy yourself while surrounded by limestone that has been eroded into interesting shapes resembling buildings, animals and even a tornado! The walk around the grounds takes about an hour to complete at a leisurely pace.
After lunch, we headed out along driving through beautiful scenery along the meandering Jucar river. We were enchanted with the narrow twisty mountain roads filled with the sound of cow bells ringing as herds made their way around the forest. The beautiful scenery was just the start of what was waiting for us as we arrived to the picturesque mountain town of Albarracin. This medieval gem has narrow winding cobblestone streets, with ancient houses that practically touch each other over the lanes. It looks and feels just like it must have several hundred years ago.
We spent a few hours exploring the castle and getting lost in the virtually car-free by-lanes. The best part of our visit to Albarracin for my son was picking wild growing grapes hanging from the houses as we worked our way to the top of the town admiring the fascinating details of the homes. He was even happier once he spied a large playground below the town. Letting him be a kid for a while, we relaxed while admiring the views of the castle looming above us, imagining what life was like here in times past.
In hindsight, this would have been the ideal location to stay the night. Instead, we powered on for our overnight stay in the industrial town of Teruel. We had grand plans to visit the Dinopolis (a fabulous dinosaur theme park), but decided to have a mellow morning instead before slowly heading a bit off path to the ghost town of Belchite.
Slowly making our way through through steep canyons and vast empty fields, we arrived at a long forgotten ghost town from Spain’s civil war. The original Belchite town is situated next to the newly rebuilt town as a reminder to the horror of the conflict. We enjoyed (can you say that?) wondering through the ruins, listening in on our audio guide here and there, but mostly just imagining how life would have been back then and how it must have been during the war. Our son didn’t understand any of this, but he loved being able to climb on a canon and walk through a town destroyed by war, a word he didn’t even understand. As had become the custom on our road trips, our son loved exploring the traditional Spanish playgrounds present in even the smallest of villages.
Our final evening ended at the amazingly beautiful Parador de Alcaniz perched high above the town of Alcaniz, welcoming us as we drove into town at sunset. This hotel was a 12th century castle converted to a palace that now houses a gorgeous hotel.
The weather had turned cold and rainy which thwarted our plans of picnicking in villages and playing on playgrounds along the way on our final stretch to Barcelona. Instead we relaxed in our gorgeous hotel before heading on to our airbnb in the Barceloneta district of the vibrant, bustling Barcelona.
Exploring off the beaten path in Spain was a delight as we felt we were able to experience real day to day life. By following this route, you enjoy some fabulous sights that are truly off the beaten path. However, as a word of caution, exploring outside of the tourist zones means you need a certain level of Spanish as many people we ran across did not speak any English. My basic Spanish (accidentally mixed with years of Hindi!) was adequate for our journey, although we probably could have had many more great conversations with friendly locals had we spoke a bit more Spanish.
Go ahead, explore a bit off the beaten path next time you are in Spain. You will be rewarded with fabulous food, scenery and a glimpse into the past.