Travel: Spain - Return of the village people

Spanish urbanites are a migrant species. They winter in cities but head home for summer. By Martin Moore
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The Independent Culture
As we drove down from the Piqueras pass in 100 degrees of Castilian heat, we realised we had no idea what we had committed to. First, there were the directions: Angel's postal address was simply "Angel Saenz, El Royo". No street names, no house number. "Just ask the first person you see in the village," he told us. "And don't worry if I'm out; the door will be open. The lock's been broken for a couple of years." We drove for an hour and passed only two villages. What sort of one-mule place were we heading for? And how had I got us into this mess?

The answer to the last question was that I was intrigued by a phenomenon I had encountered while teaching in Spain. As holidays approached, I'd asked my students what their plans were. "I'm off to my village (mi pueblo)" was the almost unanimous reply. "And how about you?" they said.

I told them about a hiking trip in the Pyrenees and they nodded politely, sorry that I obviously had no pueblo to go to.

Eight years on and I was still intrigued to find out what was so special about these pueblos. I'd seen lots of hot, dusty towns and most seemed very ordinary. When the invitation came to visit a friend, Angel, in his village, we decided the moment had come. Taking a week out of our holiday on the Cantabrian coast, we headed inland over the mountains into Castile. Our destination was Soria: about the size of Yorkshire, midway between Madrid and Bilbao, and only 130 miles from each, but far enough to take us into Spain's most deserted province.

In medieval times, the region occupied a strategic position on the fault line between Moorish and Christian Spain. You can trace it by following the trail of ruined castles along the Duero valley, the castles that gave Castile its name. First, though, we had to find our pueblo.

Ten miles after the last village, we finally hit El Royo, its warm stone glowing in the midday sun. In classic Castilian style, several hundred modest, stone-built houses were packed around a surprisingly grand church; yet outside the village nucleus there was nothing but fields, trees and mountains.

El Royo is, in fact, a small town, and as we drove into the main square it was positively bustling. But sure enough, the first person we spoke to knew Angel. That's the first rule of pueblo life: everybody knows everybody else, and in many cases is related to them. A week in El Royo was like a Spanish lesson in naming members of the family: "that's my tio (uncle)", "she's my sobrina (niece)", "he's a primo (cousin)"...

The second rule of pueblo life is that most people are here just for the summer. I knew Angel lived in El Royo all year with one of his brothers, but we found another brother, sister-in-law and niece visiting from Barcelona; and before the week was out we'd met up with his third brother and family. Angel told us that only 200 people lived here throughout the winter; but in summer the population swelled to 800. The car number plates told the story - M for Madrid outnumbered SO for Soria.

Summer in the pueblo is a chance every year to claw back a slice of your childhood. There's no doubt it is a fantasy world for children - at least it was for our two-year-old, on her first trip abroad. Endless opportunities to potter were mixed with a ready supply of other children and constant attention from adults. Bedtime was extended until 11pm, though that was still earlier than the other kids' bedtime. (Our Spanish friends couldn't believe she normally went to bed at 7.30pm. "Do you have to strap her down and gag her?") But the moment she reached two-year-old heaven came at breakfast, when she was actually offered hot chocolate and cake, no tantrum required.

We soon discovered the third law of pueblo life: nothing much happens. It's like the longest long weekend: a leisurely breakfast, a stroll round the square, a daily trip to the nearby waterfall (and icy natural pool) for gossip and sunbathing. It's about catching up with family, and friends whom you've known all your life yet see only once a year.

If you have the energy, you can explore a fascinating region. Soria's towns have struggled to recover the importance they had in medieval times, but as a happy consequence there are still some fine medieval centres intact. El Burgo de Osma, Berlanga de Duero and Medinaceli all boast arcaded streets, dominating churches and grand mansions.

Soria also offers two impressive natural attractions, set among the high wooded mountains to the north. La Laguna Negra (the "black lake") is a mountain tarn, in a dramatic amphitheatre, associated with the province's most famous (adoptive) son, the poet Antonio Machado. The river Lobo canyon, 10 miles long with sheer walls of rock, offers a splendid walk and a chance to see vultures, eagles and other wildlife. Though popular with locals, both make for rewarding trips.

In the middle of an idyllic summer week in El Royo, it was easy to overlook the reality of village life in Soria. Return in winter and you'd find a different world: 35C becomes 35F, and less. El Royo's altitude of 3,000ft means that snow settles for months. Soria was, believe it or not, the location for the vast snowscapes of David Lean's Dr Zhivago.

We left, promising to come back to experience Soria in the snow and see the pueblo in its everyday clothes. But deep down I suspect my few weeks of annual holiday will be saved for warmth and comfort and, like so many others, I will remain a fair-weather fan of El Royo.

Fact File

Getting there and around

As The Independent has already reported, travellers to Spain this summer can expect the madre of all fares wars. The reason is that the low-cost airlines easyJet (0870 6 000 000) and Go (0845 60 54321) have chosen the country as this summer's battleground.

As well as its existing services from Luton to Barcelona and Madrid, easyJet is adding flights from Liverpool to Malaga. Go has launched services from Stansted to Malaga and Bilbao; flights to Madrid start on 1 July, with summer-only services to Alicante (starting on 18 August), Palma (20 July) and Ibiza (14 July) to follow. Fares are around pounds 100-pounds 150. In addition, GB Airways - which operates services to Spain on behalf of British Airways (0345 222111) - has stepped up its flights to a range of Spanish cities for the summer. With all the competition, Monarch (01582 398333), Debonair (0541 146200) and Iberia (0171-830 0011) are cutting fares.

To reach Barcelona, you can choose from all the above airlines, except Go and Monarch. For his trip to Soria, Martin Moore used Air Miles for a Gatwick-Bilbao trip on BA. To reach Cadiz, the best gateways are Seville - served by BA and Iberia from Gatwick and Heathrow respectively - and Gibraltar, linked with Gatwick and Manchester by BA and with Luton by Monarch.

For domestic travel, rail remains the best way to combine safety, speed and economy. Internal flights are overpriced. Car rental is phenomenally competitive this year, with the best deals available to those who book from Britain.

More information: Spanish Tourist Office, 22-23 Manchester Square, London W1M 5AP (0171-486 8077; brochure line 0891 669920).