Lizzi, our luxury travel expert, has just got back from visiting Castilla and Leon, a region in the northwest of Spain. Read on to hear about her incredible adventure!
Castilla and Leon is not only the largest region of Spain, but it is the largest region of the European Union. It is a very picturesque region, packed full of medieval history, and if you love cathedrals, monasteries, castles and fortified towns, this is an area you must see. The best way to get there is to fly into Madrid and hire a car. Driving is easy, on wide, open roads with stunning views on all sides. You will spot a hilltop village, a castle and rolling hills in the distance, so it makes for a very interesting and enjoyable journey. It takes about 2 ½ hours to reach Salamanca, but you could also take a fast train, which is only an hour and a half. I think having a car is an advantage, though, as there is much to explore!
About an hour from Madrid, you will pass the medieval town of Avila, which is entirely enclosed by a magnificently preserved wall. Make a small detour and explore the town, or maybe stop over here for a night. We drove straight to the Hacienda Zorita, a converted monastery which is now a winery and organic farm.
Approached by an impressive driveway, the monastery sits surrounded by open countryside, yet it is only a 10-minute drive from Salamanca. The building is stunning, built of yellow sandstone and, from the outside, it looks like little has changed since it was built in the 14th century. In 1336, the Hacienda was donated to the Dominican Order and became a monastery. Its purpose was to provide accommodation and food care – with its own produce – to the professors of the University of Salamanca as well as honourable guests who were passing through. One such guest was Christopher Columbus, who spent a long time here, planning his trip to discover the Americas.
Today, the building has become a small, boutique hotel, focusing on providing peaceful accommodation, and a magnificent wine cellar, which you can tour and learn about wine production while sampling the excellent local wines. In the restaurant, you will have a real gastronomic experience. Food is mostly produced on the farm or bought from local farmers. Zorita’s kitchen, the main restaurant, was once the site of the monks’ refectory. There is also a fabulous cheese room and cheese from Zorita is now justifiably famous. There is a spa which has a view over the river and weir and provides excellent treatments in a sublime setting. Don’t forget to visit the beautiful chapel, which is now used for weddings and other private functions.
A walk around the grounds leaves you gasping at its beauty. The two lap pools were once the horses’ troughs and the stable blocks have been converted into villa accommodation. All the rooms are different, but I recommend the villas and room 17, which is a duplex.
Salamanca, the “Golden City”, is home to one of the oldest universities in the world. Start your visit in the main square and stop for a coffee while you watch the world go by. I recommend taking a guide to visit the old town, but it is compact, so you could easily do it yourself with a guidebook. The old buildings are built with sandstone, so at any time of day, the sun turns them into a show of rich yellow and orange. The university buildings are impressive, but then you arrive at the cathedral, or rather two cathedrals in one as the “new” cathedral was built around the old one! If you are able, it is worth climbing the 100 or so steps to the top of the cathedral, where you can look down from a balcony at its magnificence. I experienced a light and sound show in the evening when the cathedral was lit up to the sound of choral singing and this sent shivers down my spine. It was so moving.
Reluctantly leaving Hacienda Zorita, I travelled on to stay at the Castilla Termal Monasterio de Valbuena, part of the Castilla Termal chain of just five 100% sustainable luxury hotels, focussing on creating a wellness and gastronomic experience with zero impact on the environment.
Castilla Termal Monasterio de Valbuena is a luxury hotel within the best-preserved 12th-century Cistercian monastery in Europe. The building is huge and remarkably intact. The hotel, with just 79 rooms, has every modern convenience, yet the fusion of ancient and modern works perfectly. Past the lobby, you come to a magnificent courtyard, the cloisters, with ornate carvings and frescoed ceilings. The hotel only forms part of the building and a tour of the old monastery is not to be missed. There is a huge church and a small chapel and beautiful grounds. Walking from my room to the hotel reception, I felt a strange calm and could just imagine the monks going about their business and almost hear the faint hum of their chanting.
This is the place of origin of the Ribera del Duero wines, since the Cistercian monks who occupied the Monastery of Santa María de Valbuena, produced the wines. These days, the renowned wines from the region are world-famous. There is a choice of restaurants, all situated in the atmospheric restored monastery rooms and the emphasis is on “slow” food, using local sustainable products.
If you are a real foodie, don’t miss the nearby Michelin star and Green Michelin star restaurant Ambivium, just a short drive from the hotel. You can visit their priceless collection of wines and enjoy a “pairing” and “tasting” experience, where they match exactly the right wines to the 20 or so small dishes they serve you. Allow about four hours for the full experience!
The rooms at Castilla Termal Monasterio de Valbuena are huge, many with high vaulted ceilings and everything flows. I felt that everything in my room was just where I wanted it to be and nothing was too complicated! Easy light switches, heating controls, and even an easily workable coffee machine! The bathroom products are luscious and the beds and bathrobes are of the highest quality. Then there is the spa! The thermal pool is set in a replica of the small chapel and it is one of the best and most unique I have ever seen. There are also full-sized indoor and outdoor pools.
It is rare that a hotel gets everything just right, but I could not fault this one. It has everything: in a glorious setting, it is visually stunning and the whole experience is truly 5* (and then some!). If you are looking for the ultimate spa and gastronomy break, you really could not beat this.
Enjoy a 3 night escape in Spain’s Castilla and Leon region from just £860pp! Discover the wonders of Spanish wine making and experience the stunning Spanish countryside while staying at the 5* Castilla Termal Monasterio de Valbuena. Includes a 3 night B&B stay, incredible excursions, a visit to a local foundation, and a free £86 donation to the charity of your choice! Find out more here.
If you wanted to extend your trip, there are other hotels in the region from the Castilla Termal group that I can recommend, all sharing the same ethos of sustainable and responsible travel. This region could also be combined with Extremadura, which I featured in my previous blog.
To sum up, if you are looking for somewhere different to go next time and you are interested in good food and wine, history and scenery, I would put this firmly on your list!
Feeling inspired? Book your next sustainable Spain escape now. Get in touch with Lizzi by emailing [email protected] to book your dream trip!
We would like to thank Esther M. Rojo and the Spanish Tourist Office in London for making this trip possible and for inviting Lizzi on this incredibe holiday.