Discover the Magic of This Charming Spanish Village.
It would have made a perfect postcard picture. In fact, it probably did. A sun-drenched village square, historic buildings and a beautiful church assembled under a soft blue sky. But this scene wasn’t a 3×5 glossy, sanitized scrap of tourist paraphernalia. Simon, Otto, our friends and I were among a small crowd of people standing in the center of the square, listening to truths and legends about the village of La Alberca and its fascinating history.
During the cold winter months, La Alberca’s population hovers around 1,300 inhabitants. But during the hot dry summer, it swells to approximately 4,500 tourists, as well as the pilgrims traveling the Camino de Santiago. What draws all these travelers to this small Castile-Leon village? Here are a few of our experiences that make me want to return to La Alberca.
Located in the province of Salamanca, La Alberca is a four-hour drive from Madrid and approximately 50 miles southwest of Salamanca. Somewhat removed from the trappings of larger towns and cities, this 14th century village has managed to preserve its architecture, legends and traditions.
Situated on the northern slopes of La Sierra de Francia, La Alberca lies 3,556 feet above sea level in a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The landscape surrounding La Alberca is varied, adding interest and depth to the delightful village scene. Wild vegetation and lush forests of oak, chestnut, and almond trees., as well as farms and pastures, create a backdrop of rural charm.
La Alberca is Spain’s first designated historical monument. This, in addition to its mountain location, makes this village a popular summer escape for Spaniards and international visitors.
Considering La Alberca’s 14th century beginnings, – the, level of preservation in the village is impressive. Medieval architecture and narrow cobblestone streets take you back in time. And because all new construction must be consistent in style with existing buildings, the look and feel of La Alberca isn’t likely to alter going forward.
The oldest house in La Alberca dates back to 1492. And similar to other houses is constructed from stone and granite found nearby., In accordance with the French influence in the area, buildings are supported by wooden beams, and limited to a height of three stories. It is believed these architectural factors were responsible for the survival of many of La Alberca’s buildings following the 1755 Lisbon earthquake that wrought devastation as far as the Salamanca region.
History-rich buildings surround the square, offering their columned balconies as protection from an unrelenting sun. Since the only cars permitted in the center of the village must belong to residents, the sense of having stepped into the past is easy to retain.
Religion and tradition are alive and well in La Alberca. Symbols such as the village’s coat of arms, the Knights Templar and Camino de Santiago speak to the historic and current importance of La Alberca.
Even the sign of the Spanish Inquisition, a hand holding a cross, an olive branch and a sword, has been preserved as a reminder of one of Spain’s darkest periods.
Some symbols, however, defy explanation. In La Alberca’s, Alba Theater, the ceiling is covered with various coats of arms and other carvings, including the logo of the Rolling Stones.
History and Legend:
The village of La Alberca came together in the 1300s, but nearby cave drawings and other discoveries suggest there were people inhabiting the area 5,000 years before Christ. And during the reconstruction of The Parish Church of Our Lady of the Assumption, severely damaged by the Lisbon earthquake, remains of a house dating back to 16th century Visigoths were unearthed.
The rest of La Alberca’s history is somewhat dry, but not so the legends and traditions that have become popular over the centuries. One of my favorites is the story of the defeat of Portuguese soldiers in 1465 by the village women, taking possession of the Portuguese flag. Truth or exaggeration, the flag still can be seen today in La Alberca, and provides as good a reason as any to hold an annual victory celebration on the second day of Easter.
In front of the church is a granite sculpture of a pig, and you might even see a live one as well.
La Alberca has a centuries-old tradition of selecting one lucky pig on July 13, and allowing him to run free throughout the village. He is fed and sheltered by village residents until January 17 of the following year, the feast day of San Antonio. The now fat and spoiled pig is raffled off in front of the church doors. The funds go to the Brothers of St Antony.
The pig goes to the winner of the raffle, and becomes one fortunate person’s exclusive prize or problem.
While in La Alberca, we were regaled with stories of a mysterious self-ringing bell, and the even more mysterious recovery of a long-lost statue of a black virgin. The latter led to the construction of the monastery at the top of the mountain. And there were more tales of unusual events leading to traditions, leading in turn to celebrations or shrines. They were so entertaining and creative, my cynical nature decided to sit down, shut up, listen and enjoy.
No postcard of a Spanish village would be complete without the presence of a church, and La Alberca is no exception. Ordinary on its exterior, the Parish Church of Our Lady of the Assumption is a compelling and historically rich surprise on the inside.
The sculpted granite pulpit from the original 16th century construction, a magnificent Gothic copper processional cross and a statue of Cristo del Tudor are splendid reminders of the church’s power to captivate even the non-religious. Legend has it that on September 1, 1655, the statue appeared to be sweating blood. The following day it appeared to bleed from a wound on one side.
The church bell tower also survived earthquake damage. It had been paid for by the first Duke of Alba – of the family after whom the theater is named – and his coat of arms is still visible in one of the Tower corners.
La Alberca’s annual Feast of the Assumption takes place on August 15, and is considered to be one of the best festivals of its kind in Spain. The commemoration of Mary’s ascent to heaven brings out women in brightly colored clothing, and a festive atmosphere combines with the solemnity of the occasion to make for a day of family, community and tourist participation.
If you’re looking for authentic regional food, I hope you like pork. And if you do, you’ll love chowing down in La Alberca. Start with Black Ham, a somewhat pricy yet popular La Alberca staple. Another speciality is Jamon, which you can find sold in shops as large legs, or among the traditional tapas in dark medieval Bars. We feasted on thin slices of these hams, salami and cheese with fresh crusty bread at one of these local watering holes. And of course, we washed it all down with rustic red wine.
The source of these wonderful meats can be found in paddocks surrounding La Alberca. The young pigs are fattened on black acorns, found locally in abundance. It is this diet that produces the rich nutty flavor of the ham.
Not into pork? Fear not. La Alberca offers specialty stores selling all manner of delectable treats such as locally produced honey and fragrant roasted nuts. Treat yourself to a traditional Spanish sweet made from honey, almonds and egg whites, known as turrón.
You’ll also find quaint cafes and tapas bars offering a variety of dishes, including a bar above the village library. Among the restaurants available in La Alberca, are three operated by Hotel Doña Teresa: El Castillo, La Catedral and La Abuela.
While in the square you might want to take a swig of cold fresh water from the spigot on the wall. It is known as the “fountain of youth”, but I have yet to reap the benefits. And it’s been over six months since our last visit to La Alberca.
La Alberca is the sort of place that can turn even a shopaphobe like me into a shopaholic. Store windows displaying unique jewelry and other necessities of life, as well as locally produced meats, cheeses and heavenly baked goods, beckoned me to stop, enter and buy. Sadly, most of the items I desired were too fragile, heavy, bulky or perishable to pack in my suitcase. My one purchase was a pair of whimsical hand-crafted silver earrings, which had none of the above deterrents.
A day in La Alberca will be a day well spent. You will leave with your mind, soul and stomach pleasantly full. If you are fortunate enough to have more time in the area, the pastural landscape and ruggedness of la Sierra de Francia offer numerous hiking, cycling and walking opportunities. Either way, you will find yourself wishing you had more time to explore and enjoy.
Is there a town or village in your travel memories that gave you much more than its size suggested? Tell us about it in the comments.