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Castile–León and Castile–La Mancha Travel Guide

  • Photo: WellyWelly / Shutterstock

Plan Your Castile–León and Castile–La Mancha Vacation

Madrid, in the center of Spain, is an excellent jumping-off point for exploring, and the high-speed train puts many destinations within easy reach. The Castiles, which bracket Madrid to the north and south, and Extremadura, bordering Portugal, are filled with compelling destinations, steeped in tradition.

For all the variety in the towns and countryside around Madrid, there's something

of an underlying unity in Castile—the high, wide meseta of gray, bronze, and (briefly) green. This central Spanish steppe is divided into what was historically known as Old and New Castile, the former north of Madrid, the latter south (known as "New" because it was captured from the Moors a bit later). Occasionally, elderly Spaniards may still refer to the Castiles as "Old" or "New"—labels that persisted through the Franco years—but most people nowadays prefer Castilla y León or Castile–León for the area north of Madrid and Castilla y La Mancha or Castile–La Mancha for the area to the south.

Over the centuries, poets and others have characterized Castile as austere and melancholy. Gaunt mountain ranges frame the horizons; gorges and rocky outcrops break up flat expanses; and the fields around Ávila and Segovia are littered with giant boulders. Castilian villages are built predominantly of granite, and their solid, formidable look contrasts markedly with the whitewashed walls of most of southern Spain.

The very name Extremadura, widely accepted as "the far end of the Duero," as in the Duero River, expresses the wild, remote, isolated, and end-of-the-line character of the region bordering Portugal. With its poor soil and minimal industry, Extremadura never experienced the kind of modern economic development typical of other parts of Spain, and it’s still the country's poorest province, but for the tourist, this otherworldly, lost-in-time feel is unforgettable. No other place in Spain has as many Roman monuments as Mérida, capital of the vast Roman province of Lusitania, which included most of the western half of the Iberian Peninsula. Mérida guarded the Vía de la Plata, the major Roman highway that crossed Extremadura from north to south, connecting Gijón with Seville. The economy and the arts declined after the Romans left, but the region revived in the 16th century, when explorers and conquerors of the New World—from Francisco Pizarro and Hernán Cortés to Francisco de Orellana, first navigator of the Amazon—returned to their birthplace. These men built the magnificent palaces that now glorify towns such as Cáceres and Trujillo, and they turned the remote monastery of Guadalupe into one of the great artistic repositories of Spain.

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Top Reasons To Go

  1. See El Greco's Toledo El Greco’s paintings, previously displayed around the world, returned to Toledo in 2014 for the 400th anniversary of the painter's death. Museums have been renovated and El Greco–theme tourist trails link the sites in the stunning city that the Greek-born painter chose to call home.
  2. Be mesmerized by Cuenca's "hanging houses" Las Casas Colgadas seem to defy gravity, clinging to a cliffside with views over Castile–La Mancha's parched plains.
  3. See Salamanca's old and new cathedrals The cathedrals are a fascinating dichotomy—the intricate detail of the new contrasts with the simplicity of the old.
  4. Visit Segovia's aqueduct Amazingly well preserved, this still-functioning 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct is unforgettable.
  5. Get stuck in a time warp The walled city of Cáceres is especially evocative at dusk, with its skyline of ancient spires, towers, and cupolas.
  6. Medieval musing Explore León's Gothic cathedral, with its kaleidoscopic windows. Royal snacking Aranjuez is known for its strawberries, and in spring and summer vendors sell them with whipped cream at the market and along the river by the Royal Palace of La Granja's San Ildefonso, whose opulent gardens rival those at Versailles.

When To Go

When to Go

July and August can be brutally hot, and November through February can get bitterly cold, especially in the Sierra de Guadarrama. May and October...

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Castile–León and Castile–La Mancha Itineraries

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