Welcome to Spanish Lapland, Where (Almost) Nobody Lives
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because it may be a hard place to live, but it’s a beautiful one to visit.
By Pablo Esparza Altuna
Molina de Aragón County seems far from everywhere in Spain. Far from Barcelona and Madrid. Far from the seaside party towns and from the dazzling museums. Far from the Mediterranean beaches where legions of international tourists — 82 million in 2017 — get tanned every summer. And located in the mountains of east-central Spain, it’s an unlikely destination for Spaniards and foreigners alike.
But still, or maybe because of that, it’s worth the effort — a five-hour drive from Barcelona — to travel here. Especially for those who come to a country looking for more than the typical postcard experience.
Molina de Aragón lies at the heart of the so-called Spanish Lapland, an informal region in the highlands where the river Tajo — the longest of the Iberian Peninsula — begins its long trip to Lisbon into deep canyons amid pine and oak forests. No, this is not the Arctic steppe. But this territory of 65,000 square kilometers shares with the real Lapland the uniqueness of being one of Europe’s most depopulated areas: Fewer than seven inhabitants per square kilometer live in these mountains.
This is a rough land of austere, sometimes minimalist, beauty.
At least that’s the official data, says Francisco Burillo, a professor at the University of Zaragoza who has extensively researched the demography of this region. “If you go village by village, you’ll find out that we have half the density of population of that of the northernmost area in Finland. The area shares a population “category with the Sahara desert,” he adds with a hint of sadness.
This is a rough land of austere, sometimes minimalist, beauty. Its allure is intense and rather paradoxical. Some of the reasons that led many locals to leave are now seen as its main charms: emptiness, wild nature and unspoiled hamlets where time runs at a slower — much slower — pace.
“There are no crowds here and places are not adulterated,” explains Marta Perruca, a local journalist who co-authored a geological guide to the area. We talk at a bar over beer and bread with chorizo. “Here you come to know places and meet people at the village’s plaza, to enjoy nature and have a bath in the river. Simple things.” Unlike many young people, Perruca chose to come back to her hometown after college: “I like living here because we Molinese are very Molinese. … Our traditions and this landscape are part of our identity.”
If you’re seeking an off-the-beaten-path destination, this is as far as it goes in Spain. But the roads leading to these distant places have been beaten for millennia. Celts, Iberians, Romans, Arabs and Christians conquered this county. And each of them left an enduring footprint. Molina de Aragón itself is a mixture of all those cultures, its Moorish citadel overlooking the old town dotted with Romanesque chapels and the ruins of an ancient synagogue. During the Middle Ages, Christians and Muslims struggled to control this borderland. Those battles are long gone, but — in fiction — fiery sword combats still go on here.
This territory is the home of the Tower of Joy. Fans of Game of Thrones will know where to pin it on the map of Dorne. In reality, that mythic scenery is the Castle of Zafra, a 12th-century fortress perched on a rugged crag of red sandstone just a few kilometers from the town of Molina.
Looking at the vastness of the landscape from this windy hill, you may forget that you are in the country of flamenco and sangria. For a second, you may even think that you’ve traveled to a different time.
- Pablo Esparza Altuna, OZY Author Contact Pablo Esparza Altuna