Like most tourists, we came from the wrong direction. The orange-rich plains near Valencia should have lain before us. Instead, we had driven away from the city that morning. A tortuous ascent had led us to Ares, in a forgotten corner of north-east Spain. This was once the the limit of the Christian kingdom, and heroes such as El Cid drew breath here as they contemplated the fruitful lands below.
We left the rich pickings of the coast for the barren splendour of Ares. An imposing Crusader castle once stood proudly over the town. Now it is a one-walled fragment on a precarious limestone sponge. We popped into the Hotel d’Ares, which doubled as the town bar. The owner was paying lip service to five centuries of Moorish rule by serving pistachios.
Looking eastward, past the Gothic arcading of the Templar monastery, past the forbidding steel statue of James, the Conqueror of Aragon, our gazes tumbled 4,000 feet to the plain below.
The Maestrazgo is a tricky place to pin down on the map. Topographically, it represents the last hurrah of the Meseta, the raised upland of central Spain. In times past it denoted the area within the jurisdiction of the Maestre, or the head honcho of those warrior monks who helped expel the Arabic settlers. Armed brotherhoods of farmers had long existed in Spain, but they had acquired a quasi-religious character in emulation of their Moorish neighbours. It was these arms that built the walled towns of the region.
This then was the harsh landscape that El Cid swept through, and the self-same terraced fields we would drive past the next morning. The Cid’s name lingers everywhere, whether in the stubborn pride of the farmers or as a simple appendage to towns such as Villafranca del Cid.
Here you won’t find the gentle groves of Moorish almonds, olives and oranges of just a few miles east. Instead, you are treated to one of the most majestic landscapes in Europe – table-top mountains endlessly repeating to the horizon. The sheer scale of the terraces, the Moors’ greatest legacy to this region, would defy the imagination of the busiest Yorkshire stone-waller.
Though much of Spain’s hinterland still feels like frontier country, this was the frontier’s frontier, a place for hardened men to subdue and move on, leaving others to scratch a living from the unyielding soil. Even today this feeling remains palpable. Settlements are small and huddled into valleys, or brood nervously above rivers. Scattered flocks of dirty Merino sheep, which arrived a millennium ago with their Berber masters, still blend into the bare yellowing grasslands.
Now, apart from nods to a wool-dominated past in towns like Villafranca and Cati, where textiles of all materials are made, the region thrives on pigs.
Our first full day in the car took us north from Ares across one of the most dramatically empty landscapes in Europe, to the precipitous heart of Crusader territory, Cantavieja. The film director Ken Loach was so excited by Cantavieja that he shot Land and Freedom here, his film about the Spanish Civil War. The slightly forlorn town, which perches atop a sheer, three-sided gorge, is slightly forlorn, although its square, with a Tardis-like cathedral, is a jewel.
A network of alleyways led to one of those treasures that guidebooks mention, and yet still retain a “stumbled upon” feel. The Templar church of San Miguel presented us with an opportunity to play the endearing game of “hunt the priest”, with bonus marks for finding the priest’s devoted 80-year-old acolyte, who held the keys.
The chapel, notwithstanding its Ikea-style altar, was a palpable link to the organisation of soldier monks that helped expel the Arabic presence from Spain. Nowhere else had I felt the presence of these white-robed Crusaders so strongly.
Glorious sunshine accompanied us to one of the most perfect villages in Spain. A Unesco-sponsored World Heritage Site, Mirambel was once home to the Templars who, reeling from trumped-up charges of heresy and sodomy, packed up shop and retired to impregnable Cantavieja. They left a heritage to drool over. The Puerta de las Monjas (Nun’s Gate) is emblematic of the beautiful collision of Gothic and Mudejar architecture, and probably the most photographed site in the region. The town’s only hotel, the Fonda Guimera, has been an inn as long as anyone can remember. The slightly forbidding reception (also the town bar) gave way to charming if somewhat sparse accommodation – though their lunchtime paella was excellent.
A little later, several bottles of the local Utiel-Requena white fuelled our stumble around empty but stunningly preserved streets. Almost opposite the hotel, the tiny chapel of Saint Catherine proved to be a treasure trove, unlike the big barn of a church at the other end of town, whose doors were singed by revolutionaries a century and more ago.
Day three led us to Morella, the self-styled capital of this administratively eclectic region. Twenty miles an hour down a half-finished road littered with dinosaur remains took us past the Fabrica Giner, a model industrial village recently converted by the Valencian government into a hotel. One more gravelly bend, and Morella reared up before us. No photo can prepare you for this jaw-dropping moment.
It’s hard to know where the eyes should begin. Crowning the town like a wedding cake, the castle is a thing of wonder. Then there are the walls. Built by the Knights of Montesa (an Aragonese sub-branch of the killer monks), they are punctuated by four gates and 14 majestic towers.
The town itself sits below like a giant pink bib. This particular bib contains magnificent shops. Along the main street hang succulent cured hams, cardigans no granny could knit, sweets drenched in honey and almonds, dark, creaky tapas bars, and exotic alpargatas, hemp shoes made from single lengths of twine.
Above us, where no car could follow, stood the 12th-century basilica of Santa Maria, the most beautiful church in this corner of Spain. An array of saints and virgins ushered us into the gloomy interior, where a marble and mahogany staircase took up the heart of the nave, seemingly leading everywhere but up.
After a day of stair and pavement bashing, we settled into the Cardenal Ram. This well-preserved medieval palace has a somewhat medieval kitchen, but the cordero trufado (truffled lamb) was excellent. We had already discovered that the restaurants of the Maestrazgo seemed to be as much prey to the over-liberal use of olive oil as anywhere in Spain. Vegetables were served reluctantly.
In the morning we motored out of town beneath the imposing bulk of St Matthew’s Gate. A short descent took us to the newly improved N232. As we headed back to the coast, it became clear that no tourists ever branched off the road. A pity, as there were other Templar treats to see before we reached the Hollywood-endorsed town of Peniscola (where they actually shot El Cid) for paella and a swim, before hitting the motorway back to Valencia and another Spain.
British Airways (0845 773 3377; http://www.ba.com) and Iberia (0845 601 2854; http://www.iberia.com) flies direct to Valencia from most UK airports. From there it is a train ride to Vinaros and then by bus to Morella. Barcelona is an even cheaper starting point, but entails a three-hour journey from the airport. Unless you are planning to hike on one of the many excellent marked trails, a car is essential. Flights and car hire can be booked through Magic of Spain (0870 888 0222; http://www.magictravelgroup.co.uk).
Hotels can be booked on various websites, including http://www.maestrazgo.org and http://www.turismomaestrazgo.com, but the information is not always up-to-date. Two options are the two-star Fonda Guimera, Mirambel (0034 964 178269), or the three-star Cardenal Ram, Morella (964 173085). The Palacio Osset Miro, Forcall (964 177524), is a beautifully converted palace in a somewhat down-at-heel town eight miles north of Morella, or there’s Hotel d’Ares, Ares del Mestre (964 443007). Morella makes a perfect day trip for sun worshippers on the Costa del Azahar; in winter it’s cold at 3,000ft plus, and most hotels close down, leaving a tourist-free spring and autumn.
By Adrian Woodford in http://www.telegraph.co.uk