Calatayud is an impulse.
Intriguing earthy, red-brick spires and towers almost camouflaged against a matching rock-face catch our eyes as we shoot past at 120kph. The town, mostly hidden in a gully, has been little more than glimpsed. But it’s enough of a taster to have me commenting “that looks like an interesting place” and craning my neck to discover the name written on the road sign.
The plan had been to keep a casual eye out for anywhere which looked remotely interesting around the half-way mark of our drive from Provence to Setúbal in Portugal. Somewhere to lay weary heads overnight on our return journey. Calatayud, not far from Zaragoza in Aragón, ticks both boxes. After endless kilometres across Spain’s flat, thirsty, yellow plains, the ruddy towns and green, fertile valleys before Zaragoza were oases for singed eyes. Who was it that said red and green should never be seen? It’s a compelling combination, enough to have us booking a stopover night in a former monastery in the centre of the town to break our journey home.
A week down the line, and later in the day than we’d hoped thanks to congested Provençal roads, we check into Hotel Monasterio Benedictino at dusk. Initially we’re disappointed. Outside it looks the bizz, inside it doesn’t look as stylishly boutique as it did in the Booking.com photo gallery. Our room is a bit on the tired side, and there’s a half-consumed bottle of water in the fridge, which doesn’t instil confidence at a time like this. But staff are extremely friendly, something which stands out even more than usual after a week in France. Not that the people we’d encountered in Provence had been unfriendly, they just hadn’t been Spanish-friendly.
We dump cases, head to a cervejaria next to the hotel and order a couple of beers. The surroundings make us wonder if our impulse has been a mistake. Instead of charming, historic lanes facing us we find 70s style characterless apartment blocks. It looks like we’ve ended up in the Spanish equivalent of Brinnington.
We down our beers whilst checking Tripadvisor for any half-decent restaurant which might be open on a Monday night. Our mood is one of reluctant acceptance of our misjudged lot rather than excitement at having one more night of our holiday to spend somewhere lovely. We return to our room to shower, which helps wash away grime, tiredness, and negativity. Refreshed, clean, and more chilled-out thanks to the cerveja coursing through our veins, we decide the room is absolutely fine, apart from that COVID-ridden bottle of water. The bed is comfy, the pillows are plentiful, and the shower hot and powerful. Plus, we have a cracking view of the impressive curves of the Real Colegiata del Santo Sepulcro, a 17th century temple located right next to the hotel.
Restaurant Casa Escartín boosts our spirits further; virtually a hop and a skip from the hotel, it’s a cosily traditional restaurant, specialising in using seasonal local ingredients, which has a Michelin Plate rating. The waitress who welcomes us is as friendly as the receptionist in the hotel. We make a mental note to stop gushing “isn’t she/he lovely” every time a Spanish person speaks to us. A set menu at €25pp seems a good deal, especially as it involves a taster of olives, pate, and croquettes before we move on to relatively generous portions of tuna, olive, and tomato salad; jamón ibérico and gutsy cured cheese; scrambled eggs with mushrooms and salt cod; and the best tasting snails I’ve plucked from their shells. And this is only starters. Andy also has a steak to contend with whilst I’ve a plate of strips of secreto ibérico in a Cabrales sauce to face. It sounds like it’s too much, but Casa Escartín’s owner chef knows how to balance his dishes perfectly, we’re full but have just enough room left for the lightest of desserts. The wine, picked by our ‘lovely’ waitress is also winner, a smooth, light and flavoursome local red made from Garnacha grapes. We take a note of its label, even though the chances of finding Calatayud wines anywhere else is probably slim.
A new morning brings a new Calatayud, or rather the old Calatayud we thought we saw from the A-2 motorway. The sunshine lights up the gypsum cliffs which enshroud the old town. These level out at a plateau on which there are the remains of the fortress whose Arabic title gave the town its name – Ayyub’s Castle. Standing sentinel on the clifftop and around the dome of the temple opposite our hotel is an army of storks.
The grand spires we could see from the road hinted at this once being a place of high importance. And it was, strategically. The Iberian Celts settled here, then the Romans, naming it Bilbilis, before the Moors added their distinctive architectural style and left an indelible mark. Alfonso I “El Batallador”, reconquered the city in 1120… and so its see-sawing history continued.
We have 800km to drive and are keen to set off early, but not before we at least take some time to have a look around. Turning left from our hotel we swap Brinnington for a bewildering network of narrow streets that are more like the alleys in a souk; another Moorish legacy. Beyond the Colegiata del Santo Sepulcro, the town appears to grow out of the rock, some buildings virtually indistinguishable from the cliff which rises above them. Many are worryingly crooked looking. I’d go as far as saying I’ve never seen a town with so many buildings that appear to be on the point of collapse. Lop-sided buildings weigh heavily atop the colonnaded arcades around Medieval Plaza de España, aka Market Square, looking like they’re the victims of earthquake damage. In one corner of the square is a bustling bar with customers enjoying wake-up coffees, the ceiling of the colonnade bowed above their heads as though ready to give way at any moment. Soil consisting of gypsum and limestone doesn’t make for the strongest foundations, which is why some buildings lean against each other like weary drunks seeking support. It is a curious place.
By contrast, Calatayud’s grand religious buildings stand tall and proud, like the 70m high Mudejar tower of Santa María la Mayor which is so pristine it could have been constructed last year rather than in the 17th century.
The narrow old streets do their best to draw us in, but time is slipping away, so we zig and zag a route back to our car, passing under arches and traversing the Jewish quarter, one of the most thriving Jewish communities in Spain until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492.
The impulse paid off, Calatayud is a fascinating place, but one that deserves more time to get to know.
And as for Dolores? A famous Spanish song suggests that if you go to Calatayud you should ask for Dolores as she’s a nice girl who’s fond of granting favours. It’s a line which has earned the local girls a reputation as being very ‘friendly.’ What they actually think of this, we didn’t have time to find out.