A tale of two cities

We go west to discover the vineyards, cities and traces of Jewish history in Spain's little-known Duero Valley


'We know the Jews lived around here," says my guide Mara Castaño, pointing mournfully towards the river which runs through Valladolid, "but there is nothing left of them."

The city's ghetto may have crumbled following 500 years of disuse but the community has been sorely missed since the Sephardim were expelled from Spain, she adds. "They lent so much money to [Queen] Isabella, she had to invent a reason to get rid of them so she would never have to pay them back - and when they went, our economy foundered."

Such is the story of Castile and Leon, whose Catholic monarchs effected ethnic cleansing before Columbus set sail - in the case of Valladolid a full century before the Inquisition. No doubt Isabella would turn in her grave to see not only a modern community re-established in Madrid, but a government keen to offer Spanish citizenship to all Sephardic Jews who can prove their ancestry.

Far-flung western Spain, however, seems likely to remain a land of cathedrals, monasteries, sheep-grazing plains and vineyards, especially around the Duero River, where the nation's finest wine is made. And where some of the grandest monasteries are now being converted into hotels, many producing their own wine and food.

Abadia Retuerta, an award-winning winery between Valladolid and Penafiel, a town which had its own ghetto, is a good base for visiting both - if you can bear to tear yourself away.

Getting there

Both Valladolid and Salamanca are most easily visited from Madrid, with a hire car or driver.
EasyJet flies daily to Madrid from London Gatwick and Luton from £52 return.
A two night gourmet package including spa treatments at Abadia Retuerta Le Domaine costs from €1,904 (£1,670) per person or bed and breakfast from €460 (£405) per person.
Hacienda Zorita costs from around £150 per night pp, room only.

The peace of its 12th-century cloister and the drama of a vaulted refectory bearing remnants of a Last Supper fresco have been beautifully preserved, while the thoroughly contemporary rooms are sumptuous. A bedroom and bathroom both have French windows opening onto superlative views of the vineyards and puffy round pinon trees, as good as a spa treatment in itself.

Vinotherapy is the USP of the new, exquisite treatment suite, so no surprise there is a Spa Sommelier, who uses blind tastings of the house wines to try to gauge what you'll benefit from. For me, it was a massage blend of yuzu, almond and apricot oil; for my other half, cedar and thyme.

After the massage we got some vinotherapy by the glass, enjoyed poolside with a fine tomato, cheese and rocket salad dressed with pesto made on the estate from the pine nuts which are the fruit of those puffy pinons. I added some of the fat anchovies for which neighbouring Cantabria is famous to make my own, quite fabulous version of a salade niçoise.

The hotel can arrange guided tours of Valladolid, once the chief city of the kingdom of Castile, whose greatest claim to fame is an amazing carved and gilded altarpiece so big that it had to be cut into pieces in order to be displayed in the National Sculpture Museum.

A dramatic rendition of Abraham on the verge of slaughtering Isaac is, however, as close to Jewish history as visitors are likely to get in this town. Over the centuries, it has lost all trace of its Jews, the most famous of whom was John of Valladolid, a 14th-century convert to Christianity who travelled throughout Castile trying, without much success, to get other Jewish-born Spaniards to do the same.

Instead a lovely park with fountains has replaced the ghetto while Valladolid has one of those huge colonnaded squares for which Spain is famous. Penafiel is smaller, but also worth a visit: its hilltop Game of Thrones-style castle now contains a wine museum, with a plaque near the river marking the site of the village's own "Juderia".

Salamanca, just over an hour south-west is a former Jewish seat of learning with a happier history: its community, established in the 12th century, enjoyed equality with Christians and prospered for a couple of centuries.

As late as 1389, they were granted permission to erect a new synagogue after another was confiscated, and were spared the first round of persecutions, remaining active as late as 1490, with evidence of conversos returning to the city in order to revert to Judaism. Here, the Jewish quarter in the southwest of the city cannot really be called a ghetto, as Jews lived outside its confines as well as in, and their neighbours within the quarter were not universally Jewish.

The relics of Jewish life may be few but there are plenty more sights to discover in Salamanca's jewel of an old city. With the delicacy of wedding cake decorators, stonemasons brought their carving skills to the countless golden-stone buildings, and the exterior of the quite fabulous cathedral is an absolute delight.

But you have to go inside to discover there are in fact two churches, one built centuries after the other. Then climb the spiral staircase to the belfry for a spectacular sight of Salamanca's Plaza Mayor, one of the most beautiful squares in Spain with its colonnades and more exquisite carving.

On the outskirts of the city, Hacienda Zorita is another fine hotel conversion of a medieval monastery. The owners are vignerons, making wine not only in this part of the Duero butting up against Portugal, but in other parts of Spain.

However, the pièce de résistance is their organic farm; guests can visit the dreadlocked Mangalica pigs in the orchards, taste olive oil and goats' cheese from the hacienda's own production, and indeed the many wines. Food is good, if not at quite the gourmet level of Le Domaine, and fine therapists are at work in the small spa.

The hotel also arranges private tours of the cathedral after closing, a really special night-time experience enhanced by some beautifully spooky son et lumiere.

In this tale of two cities, there are plenty of reasons for the Jews to return for a visit.

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