Spain: The idyll that time forgot
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We went off the beaten track in the Ambroz valley and were rewarded with peace and quiet
Lets be honest, venturing off the beaten track in Spain is not easy for us Brits. Weve been to and in some cases, appropriated most of it. But just when you think a country has nothing more to offer, a hidden gem pops up that delights as much as it startles. Hervas is such a jewel.
Nestling in the Ambroz valley in the North of Extremadura, one of Spains least populated and least visited regions, this small town like anywhere that resists the lure of the mob is something of a shlepp to get to.
It is a good three to four hours by car from Madrid, but dont let that put you off; the carrot at the end of this sticky drive is an oasis of tranquillity and charm, packed with more history and beauty than all the Costas put together, and a fair amount of it is Jewish.
On arrival, we made our way to Plaza del Convento, a rectangular plaza which takes its name from the genteel, pink-stoned convent building that watches over it. Here, we found our hotel, El Jardin del Convento, a casa rural (rural house) of great serenity and comfort. The rooms, all opened by the chunkiest key Ive ever seen, a sure sign of quality in my book, offer a simple luxury, whilst the beautiful garden is about as relaxing a place to sit and contemplate life as I have experienced, especially when accompanied by the classical music played by Carlos, the hotel owner, a lovely man who could have made a fortune as a Yul Brynner lookalike.
Probably the first place to head to in Hervas is Santa Maria de las Aquasvivas, a one-time templars castle and the highest point in town. From here, you get a great overview of the area, in particular the chestnut forests on the outskirts that at one time provided much of the wood for the houses and, before the arrival of the potato, the major source of carbohydrate.
From the highest point physically, we then made our way to Hervas highest point metaphorically, its Jewish quarter. Affiliated to the Caminos de Sefarad (Separdic Routes) organisation, a community of Spains Jewish quarters, the tiny houses and narrow passageways of Hervas quarter instantly sends you hurtling back to the fifteenth century, when more than half the population was Jewish.
Of course they didnt last all that long, getting booted out or forced to convert in 1492, but the small area is fantastically preserved and stamps its personality on the whole of the town. Only the hardest of heart can fail to be enchanted by it.
We were there for the Los Conversos festival which takes place over the last weekend in June. Everyone gets involved, from dressing up as medieval Jews and Christians to man the quarters market stalls to taking part in the play that gives its name to the festival, its a joyful coming together of the townsfolk.
The play is a tale about a Jewish man who had converted to Christianity and his a Christian wife, who, when he got carted off by the inquisition, became so distraught that she killed herself.
Apparently, her screams can still be heard at night.
Performances begin at 11 in the evening, right next to the very bridge the poor soul is said to have jumped from to end her life. Everyone involved lives in Hervas and those that arent part of the cast or crew, watch in awe as the story unfolds. Sadly, I couldnt understand a word, but it looked great. Elsewhere, I would recommend a visit to the Museo Perez Comendador-Leroux, an art museum dedicated to the works of local lad Perez Comendador, as well as the fantastic Museo de la Moto Clasica.
This unusual collection of peaked buildings house one of Europes best and most important collections of vintage motorbikes, as well as a fine smattering of cars, prams and carriages. It seems oddly out of place on a hillside next to the Jewish quarter, but dont let that put you off. Its blinding.
Out of town, you might fancy escaping the Extremaduran heat by taking a dip in one of the surrounding areas many piscina natural (natural swimming pools). We headed to Segura de Toro to cool off, which was delightful, but really was a case of out of the frying pan, in to the freezer. Its cold, really cold, but, oh-so refreshing. Of course no travel review in a Jewish paper is complete without a comment about food, and the good news is I can report that, along with a fine selection of traditional Spanish bars offering local tapas, Hervas has a number of very decent restaurants, the best being Restaurant Almirez and Restaurant Nardi.
Above all else though, its the Jewish flavour of Hervas that shines through the place is rife with Magen Davids, street names such as Synagogue Street and Jewish/Christian Friendship street abound and the Jewish quarter is a protected area that has been officially declared one of great historical and artistic interest. It would be all too easy for Spain to forget its Jewish heritage, but thanks to the likes of the Caminos de Sefarad, its not only being remembered, its thriving.
In the early 15th century 50 Jewish families, mostly weavers, wine-growers and merchants, settled by the River Ambroz. In 1492 a third went in to exile, whilst the others converted to Chritianity. Currently, there is no Jewish community in Hervas.
For more information about the history of Jewish culture in Spain, go to www.museosefardi.net.
There was a synagogue on Calle del Rabilero, though its exact location is disputed. The nearest active ones today are in Madrid, of which the main one is Beth Yaacov. For information email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nearest kosher restaurants in Madrid include La Escudilla (Tel: 0034 914-457-380) and Naomi Grill Restaurant (Tel: 0034 915716923 www.naomigrill.com)
Ivor Baddiels accommodation was through Colours of Spain (www.coloursofspain.com; email@example.com; 01865 201001) which offers hotels with character, Spanish guesthouses and privately-owned holiday rentals in all areas of Spain. Most of the establishments are Spanish-owned and have never been advertised outside Spain. El Jardin del Convento from 59 (around 39) for a double room per night. Easyjet (www.easyjet.com) has flights from London Luton to Madrid from 35 return.