Joseph Farrell

THERE’S a valley in Spain called La Vera, more beautiful if less celebrated than the valley of Jarama which features in the opening line of the haunting song from the Civil War. The La Vera valley is in the heart of Spain, in the region of Extremadura, far from sea and sand, not on any standard tourist route and is not for those whose idea of a holiday entails the programmed jollity of beach-lounging by day and pub crawling after dark.

It is about two and half hours’ drive south from Madrid, down splendid motorways as far as Navalmoral. The road in the valley snakes up from the city of Plasencia at the southern end to the town of Arenas de San Pedro at the north, with a series of delightful villages along the way. It entered history for a brief period in the 16th century when Charles V, he of whom it was first said that the sun never set on his empire, abdicated as Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain to retire to the monastery of Yuste and spend his remaining days in prayer and meditation. Of all his territories in Germany, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands, he chose this valley, and plainly he had good eye for natural beauty. It has been written that his chosen home was an ante-chamber to the paradise where he hoped to spend eternity.

He did not intend to live in total austerity, and had a palace, small compared to what he had been accustomed to, built alongside the monastery. Both are still there and open for visits. The original Titians and Riberas have been removed and replaced by copies, but it is easy to get an idea of how Charles lived. He developed a passion for fishing and had a fish pond built in the gardens, but since he suffered from gout, getting up and down stairs was a problem. He resolved it by having a rod manufactured with a line long enough to allow him to cast it from the balcony overlooking the garden.

The adjoining village is Cuacos, the jewel among the picturesque villages in the valley. The village was the home of Charles’ illegitimate son, Don John of Austria, who led the Christian alliance against the Turks at the battle of Lepanto. His house has been identified, a standard peasant dwelling place from the epoch. There is a bust of him on the patio outside, more tasteful than the bizarre metal carving to his father which stands on the road between the village and the monastery-palace complex.

There are other memorials of those days, some quaint and others savage. Charles was accompanied by an entourage of military and administrative staff, and the male of the species has needs and desires which have to be accommodated. Visitors will see, especially in the village of Garganta La Olla, some brightly coloured residences known as Dolls’ Houses, or others with pious icons of the Virgin Mary. However bizarre it may seem, these houses were officially tolerated brothels. They have more conventional, domestic uses nowadays, but the history is still visible.

Other more sinister institutions of Spanish court life followed the monarch. Also in Garganta la Olla, there is a small Museum of the Inquisition, run by the descendants of the family who lived there after the Inquisition ceased operating. The exhibits are items found in the basement and in a secret room which was uncovered during reconstruction. There is no need to list them, but they were employed to coerce the victims, mainly Jews but some Muslims, to repent and recant. Their range is impressive and appalling, and cannot fail to cause visitors to wonder yet again at the imaginative creativity of human in dreaming up devices to inflict pain on their fellows.

It is a relief to get out and see the cloudless sunshine, the blue skies and the fertile fields of today’s La Vera. The spectacularly impressive chain of the Gredos mountains which encircle the valley helps create a micro-climate, which means that the valley is as green as Ireland but as warm as Sicily. La Vera has one main river, the Tietar, and plentiful streams. One enthusiastic geographer gave the number of streams as 1,473, a suspiciously precise figure which sounds like the number given by the sage in the One Thousand and One Nights when asked for the number of stars in the sky. Who could verify or deny? The fact is that there are many streams, and there is no need to climb or walk far alongside them before coming across an inviting, secluded, natural pool where the water is clear, clean and very cold. In addition, the local councils have constructed a number of man-made pools equipped with artificial beaches and accompanied by those bar-restaurants which are a Spanish speciality and where tasty, inexpensive tapas and raciones are served all day.

It is in this valley that most of Spain’s tobacco is grown, and in season the climate is ideal for such soft fruits as raspberries and cherries which must have cheered the failing days of Charles V as they do those of modern tourists. The agricultural and culinary speciality is the pepper, which can be transformed into a spice, pimenton, the pride and joy of the inhabitants. When I first walked across the plaza in Cuacos almost thirty years ago, an elderly man detached himself from a group chatting under the portico and demanded to know where I was from. When I told him he gave a condescending snigger and said our pimenton could not be as good as theirs. I had to agree on the superiority of the local produce, now available in every town and an enrichment to any meat or rice dish. The local wines, especially the reds, are excellent and very good value in comparison to the better known Rioja or Tempranillo.

For those who prefer luxury accommodation, there is a historic parador in Jarandilla, once the palace of the Dukes of Oropesa and the temporary residence of Emperor Charles while his own palace was under construction. Those with different needs will find caravan or camping sites. Several well sign-posted walks have been laid out in the countryside, some for seasoned hikers but others for amateur strollers. The abundant water makes the district a kind of oasis where the heat is not oppressive.

There is a historic centre in every town, with ancient churches and fountains, but of them all Cuacos de Yuste remains my favourite. Its unaltered lay-out and vernacular architecture mean the village is largely as it was in the emperor’s day, even if it now has wi-fi, hotel and apartments that can be booked on Airbnb, as well as a couple of bars, restaurants, shops (but no supermarkets). The houses are mainly two-storey buildings, with a protruding upper storey supported by columns over a walkway which provides necessary shade from the heat. The buildings themselves have been attractively constructed with stone interspersed with logs of wood, which gives reinforcement but also means that the houses are intriguingly and beguilingly patterned. The central plaza is still cobbled, and an old fountain, whose grotesque shape recalls a mechanism from Star Wars, flows with water which is clear, pure and eminently drinkable. The emperor made a good choice of this magnificent place.