While I lived in León, which is about a two hour drive northwest of Madrid, I went on quite a few excursions with my fellow graduate students who were determined to show me thoroughly around Spain, and one place which made a lasting impression on me was when we took a ride out to the countryside in the Region of El Bierzo.
Las Médulas is not the Grand Canyon, but in a way it’s even cooler because instead of being carved out by a river millions of years ago, it was made by humans, beginning two thousand years ago; the Romans did it. I love this about Spain—everywhere you look you see the Roman footprint. Located near the small city of Ponferrada, which is in the Province of Castilla y León, the landscape of Las Médulas is composed of stunningly bright orange pillars and outcroppings of raw earth, wreathed with dark green vegetation. (You can’t see the bright colors in this picture as it is 27 years old and has faded, but the websites I’ve added below have some great pictures!)
Why did the Romans carve out this vast landscape, you may be wondering? Quoth Mark Twain: “There’s gold in them, thar hills!” Apparently, even before the Romans arrived two thousand years ago, the people in the area found gold nuggets washed down from the mountainsides in the rivers. So the Romans decided to force Nature’s hand and do the washing down themselves. Using a complicated system of pulleys and levers, ramps and something like seven aqueducts, they engineered a way to wash tons and tons of the soft sandstone down and then filtered out the gold. They produced quite a bit of gold—5,000,000 Roman pounds over a period of 250 years, according to Pliny the Elder, a Roman who lived around 74 CE (1) Roman pounds are only about ¾ the amount of a modern pound, but that’s still a lot of gold!!
The area is so very spectacular, that in 1997 it was named a World Heritage Site. I believe there are also on-going archeological studies about how the Romans mined and some studies about the pre-Romans who lived there. There’s even a museum with artifacts they’ve found.
Now the area is filled with chestnut and hazelnut trees, just like the rest of that region of Spain. As autumn settles in and the days get cooler, the nuts finish ripening and soon they will be harvested and shipped all over Europe. And this brings me to another favorite memory in Spain: it’s winter, and I’m outdoors (‘cause people in Spain are always outdoors—they’re obsessed with walking every day, all the time) and I smell the wood-burning stoves roasting chestnuts. I locate a small vendor, purchase some piping hot nuts, rolled in a newspaper cone, and try not to burn my cold fingers as I free the soft, wrinkled fruit from its shiny brown skin, then pop it in my mouth and savor the goodness. Ah! Heaven!
If you haven’t been to Spain, by all means, go. And if you’ve been, but haven’t toured north of Madrid, you are missing out! For descriptions on other great places in the north, you can take a look at some of my prior blog posts. There is one on Santander, where my novel is set, one about the Guggenheim Museum and one about the city of Bilbao where I lived for six years and a place my characters visit, one on an embarrassing adventure I had in Valladolid, one about Santiago de Compostela, on occasion of the horrible train crash, one about the fiestas in Pamplona, Bilbao and other parts of Spain, and one about a mansion in Santillana del Mar, Gaudi’s Capricho.
I LOVE northern Spain! And I think you will too!
For some more awesome pictures of Las Medulas please visit: http://www.lagosumido.com/, and of course, if you type in “Las Medulas El Bierzo Leon” on google images, you’ll see a ton of awesome photos. Here’s a link: https://www.google.com/search?q=las+medulas+el+bierzo+leon&es_sm=93&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=iVQ8Up6vJISS9gSq-4DADA&ved=0CFcQsAQ&biw=1440&bih=815&dpr=1