Castile and Leon rich in history, culture and wine

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There was a time when Spanish winemakers tossed small, dead animals in with their grapes to speed the fermentation process.

That's the kind of attention-grabbing factoid one learns while touring the Bodega de las Animas, an underground winemaking cellar converted into a museum. It's also eyebrow-raising, but not quite as jarring, to learn that children cleaned empty barrels because they were small enough to get inside and that women were not allowed to visit underground bodegas until the 1950s.

The Bodega de las Animas is located in Aranda. In the 15th century, Aranda's 300 bodegas occupied about seven miles of tunnels and produced the equivalent of 7 million bottles of wine a year.

Aranda is located on the Duero River, which made it a frontier town in the days when the Moors controlled much of Spain. The Duero, which in those days served as the border of Christendom, cuts across what is today Spain's largest region, Castile and Leon.

The region encompasses cities such as Avila, Salamanca, Segovia and its capital, Valladolid. Its 200-plus castles give the region part of its name.

Castile and Leon is known for, or deserves to be known for, its cultural and historical importance and its wines. It boasts 50% of Spain's cultural heritage, based on the numbers: 112 historical city centers, seven World Heritage Sites, almost 400 museums and 11 cathedrals plus all those castles. Half of the 465-mile Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a route followed by Roman Catholic pilgrims, passes through Castile and Leon.

And, of course, there is the wine region, which follows the Duero to the Portuguese border.

Perhaps because this area is so rich with treasures, there are numerous mini-destinations that the average traveler might not know about. Consider Toro, population 9,000: It is home to 47 bodegas, 250 bars, 40 churches (most of them closed) and seven cloistered convents. Toro is also known for its annual carnival and its wine festival.

Or consider charming Simancas, population 1,500. It's the site of a positively Dis-neyesque castle that in the 16th century became the world's first government archive; it is now open only to researchers.

And then there's Aranda, a town of 30,000 that today has 120 bodegas and more than four miles of tunnels, where locals make wine for private consumption.

Clearly, there are many towns and cities that could be combined for a creative and attractive itinerary in this northwestern part of Spain. The focus here is on two choices: Penafiel, a town of just 5,500, and Zamora, population 90,000. Both are on the Duero River.

Castle on a hill

The castle at Penafiel, dating from the 15th century, looks like something from a fairy tale. It has the requisite crenulated, white-stone walls; turrets; central tower; and tiny interior moat. The castle was recently restored to pristine condition, in part so it could house a wine museum.

Visitors can visit the tower interior and climb 93 steps to the top for a view of the town in the valley below.

The tower-top perch offers a great introductory glimpse of Penafiel's medieval town square, the Plaza del Coso, which every August accommodates a bullring for a popular series of bullfights.

The town's houses have kept their medieval architecture, which means lots of wooden balconies; these are intricate structures covering the front of each building or a great part of it. Some people own, by inheritance, the right to watch bullfights from those balconies.

The modern, two-story Provincial Wine Museum is surrounded by the castle walls. The exhibits are a lesson in area winemaking.

Penafiel's local wine, Protos, is produced by a collective of numerous winemakers who have cellars inside the hill, under the castle. The town hosts the Riberexpo, a wine fair, on the third weekend of May. Penafiel also is known for a sheep's cheese, flor de esgueva, and for roast suckling lamb.

Zamora, a city on a hill

Zamora is less well known than Castile and Leon cities Avila and Salamanca, making it all the more pleasant to discover this charmer. This city on a hill overlooks the Duero and a lovely, arched, stone bridge built in the 12th century.

The 12th century also was a busy time for church builders. Zamora has several halls of worship from the era, all featured on the city's Ruta del Romanico, or Romanesque Route. A local guide will point out Arab influences in some designs.

The cathedral also dates from the 12th century and its tower from the 13th, but a memorable aspect of a cathedral tour is the attached museum, which houses a collection of valuable tapestries made in Brussels in the 15th through 17th centuries. It took one year to weave about nine square feet, our guide said.

The in-town parador, the Palacio de los Condes de Alba y Aliste, once a private residence, sits on the main drag between the Plaza Major and the cathedral. Its public spaces are grand and suitably impressive, but the rooms available for our inspection were rather drab.

Zamora is noted for its Holy Week processions; a museum houses the sculptures that are paraded around town from Palm Sunday to Easter.

A pair of statues in front of the Romanesque church of San Juan in the main square illustrate a traditional "wake-up call" for the busy Holy Week. One character carries a trumpet, the other a drum. They represent citizens whose duty it is to wake residents in time for the 5 a.m. start of each day's parades.

Zamora doesn't shout "I'm special" in the way of Avila with its walls and Salamanca, with its double cathedrals and university. Zamora's appeal is quieter and old-fashioned.

In the early evening of a sunny autumn Sunday, the streets were abuzz with strolling families, and outdoor eateries were filling up. I regretted an indoor dinner date.

For more on Castile and Leon, contact the Tourist Office of Spain at (212) 265-8822 or www.okspain.org.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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