Alarcón: hidden jewel of La Mancha

Alarcón is very dear to my heart because when I was younger I spent all my summers in this area as my mother is from a neighbouring village. We would come to Alarcón often to cool off in the refreshing (well, more like bloody freezing) Júcar River and then go up to the castle where we would listen to the older generations tell us stories and legends surrounding this historic village. One particular legend stuck in my mind: it says that when the Christian armies were about to take over Alarcón during the Spanish Reconquest, the Moors who once defended this castle knew that their demise was imminent so instead of accepting their fate, they blindfolded their horses and hurled themselves into the river below. It is said that they believed that their bodies would eventually be carried by the river out to sea and wash up on the shores of Africa, the land of their ancestors. Inshallah.

Alarcón, deep in the historic region of La Mancha most famous for windmills, Don Quijote de La Mancha, saffron and Manchego Cheese, is a picturesque village perched on top of a rock promontory surrounded by the meandering Júcar River and its valley. As it is surrounded by a river-cut valley, the only way in is also the only way out which back in the days was a great defence against the enemies.1_fotor

MAIN ATTRACTIONS:

Despite its small size, Alarcón became influential and was instrumental in repopulating the surrounding area following the Christian Reconquest. At one point, its Military Order owned the richest livestock farmers in the entire Kingdom of Castile. It is for this reason, that it is not surprising that, despite its small size, there are many architectural monuments including a total of 5 churches, palaces, a castle and its fortress.

CHURCHES:

Parroquia de Santa María (Saint Mary’s Parish)

Built on top of a former Romanesque church in 1520 – 1565, this church is the most important place of worship in the village and the only one that holds weekly mass for the dwindling population of 148. The spectacular main door resembles an altarpiece carved in stone which is sheltered under a triumphal arch. The interior is no less impressive; gothic vault and columns, the most important renaissance altarpiece in the whole region, beautiful baptismal font and a tabernacle which is a jewel of the Renaissance of Cuenca.

iglesia-santa-maria
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Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad (Church of the Holy Trinity)

This is the oldest church in Alarcón built in the 13th Century in the Late Romanesque/Early Gothic style. As there was not enough space to build the belltower, they were forced to build it over the side street leaving an arch at its base so that people could still use the street. In the 15th Century the main door was moved to the south of the church and built in the Plateresque style with grotesque forms of mythological animals and vegetal motifs.

iglesia-santisima-trinidad
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Iglesia de San Juan Bautista (Church of Saint John the Baptist)

Built in the 14th Century this church was abandoned until 1994 when a young artist called Jesús Mateo was offered the chance to let his creativity go in this space and fill it from top to bottom in contemporary mural paintings which have been included in UNESCO. See more info here

Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Silos (Church of Saint Dominic of Silos)

Despite being the most humble church that was ever built in Alarcón, this church has the singularity of preserving the largest amount of Romanesque architectural features left in Alarcon and Cuenca. Nowadays, it has been desacralized and now serves as an auditorium and exhibition hall.

Ermita de de Santa María de la Orden de Santiago (Hermitage of Saint Mary of the Order of Santiago)

Located in the cemetery, this hermitage hasn’t been used for centuries but in its most primitive form it was a Romanesque church. The only Romanesque elements that have stood the test of time include the semicircular apse and presbytery. The hermitage is not open to the public.

iglesiasdealarcon
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Castillo y Fortaleza de Alarcón (Castle and Fortress of Alarcón)

This is definitely the jewel that crowns this village and is the most representative monument in all of Alarón. Originally built by the Moors it was then taken over during the Spanish Reconquest. Nowadays, it has been converted into a Parador which is a Spanish high-end hotel chain of sorts that was founded by King Alfonso XIII of Spain(1886 – 1931). Most hotels are situated in converted historical sites such as convents, monasteries and castles. I’ve never had the opportunity to stay in this Parador but even if you are not a guest you are free to enter the bar area which is housed in the largest space within the castle. I normally come here to have a coffee or an alcoholic beverage and pretend that I am a “king” with my cheap cup of coffee while I watch the uppercrust check into their luxury hotel suites…

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The fortress element of the castle includes sections of the old walls and numerous towers strategically dotted around the landscape such as Torre del Campo (located at the entrance), Torre del Cañavate and Torre de los Alarconcillos.

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El Río Júcar (Júcar River)

You can either drive down the windy road to the bottom of the valley where the river is or you can go on foot, although the walk back up is tiresome. When I was younger we used to swim in the river but nowadays it is not permitted. Alternatively, you can do some kayaking and discover Alarcón from a different perspective.

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ANYTHING ELSE?

Alarcón is tiny so why not do some hiking too? There is an easy hiking trail with breathtaking views of the village from afar, its valley, the Júcar River and the fortress.

Click here for PR-CU-71 Sendero de las Hoces del Júcar (Júcar River Valley Hiking Trail)

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WHERE TO EAT

As controversial as it may seem, I actually don’t recommend eating in Alarcon, especially if you don’t have deep pockets. The restaurant within the Parador de Alarcon is undeniably impressive where they showcase the traditional cuisine of this region but it comes at a price-click here for menu. There is a more mid-range option called La Cabaña de Alarcon but I can’t vouch for it as I’ve never eaten there. However, you could always take advantage of their nice terrace overlooking the valley and have a drink and a tapa.

Instead, I recommend driving to Motilla del Palancar, either on the way back to Valencia or on the way to Alarcón (it’s only 20 minutes apart) as there are more options that suit all budgets. My favourite bar is called Bar Hermanos Granero (Avenida del Rialto, 55) which has existed for as long as I can remember and it’s also my family’s favourite bar (our village has no bars so we always come here). My favourite tapas include:

Oreja a la plancha (Grilled Pigs Ear): It may sound disgusting to those who are not used to eating such parts but it is to DIE FOR!

Zarajos: sheep intestines wrapped around a bit of meat and two vine twigs. Yes, I know, it also doesn’t sound very appealing but they are delicious and very typical in this area.

Lomo de Orza: Pork loin that was traditionally preserved after the annual pig slaughtering so that they could enjoy the meat all year around. Served cold with chunks of tomato.

Bravas: Fried potatoes with garlic mayonnaise and smoked paprika

It also specialises in seafood, which may seem weird seeing as Motilla is inland but if it has won my father over from Galicia, the seafood capital of Spain, it can’t be bad.

Alternatively, a new bar opened last year which is also very good called Tapería Reme (Carretera Valencia, 52). They serve pretty much the same tapas as Hermanos Granero which is normal in this area as they mainly cater to the traditional palate.

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And on the topic of food while you are in Motilla del Palancar, go to la Cueva de Quijarro which is a delicatessen that sells proper Manchego cheese cured in caves, Spanish cured ham and all sorts of traditional food items from La Mancha such as Morteruelo (a kind of wild game and offal pate), Ajo arriero (Salt cod and potato pate) and Perdiz escabechada (Partridge Escabeche). Oh…and you need to buy a box of Miguelitos which is the most famous sweet from La Mancha; it’s basically puff pastry filled with either creme patissiere (the most traditional one), chocolate or white chocolate. The white chocolate ones are my fave!

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SHOPPING

El Arcón de Alarcón: this is the only shop in Alarcon; it’s a good place to buy a souvenir such as a fridge magnet or something more adventurous. They also sell local honey.

 HOW TO GET THERE:

Transport links in Spain are quite poor when it comes to visiting towns and villages and Alarcón is no exception. It is possible to reach Alarcón by public transport but you wouldn’t be able to make it for a day trip as there aren’t enough busses a day. If you decide however that you’d like to make it an overnight visit you’d need to take the bus to Motilla del Palancar and then another one to Alarcón. Visit www.monbus.es for fares and times.

The best way to visit Alarcón is by car; if you don’t have one you can rent one for the day. The best route is to take the A-3 (Motorway to Madrid), exit at Motilla del Palancar and then take the N-III (National Road) towards Alarcón. Total time: 1.46 hours.

¡VIVA LA MANCHA! LONG LIVE LA MANCHA!

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