Where in the world can you visit the biggest natural wildlife attraction in Europe, have a fresh waterfall massage in a natural pool, ogle dinosaurs, meander through medieval villages, soar above a cobalt blue reservoir on a zipwire, walk the plank over rocky gorges and snaffle up a hearty plate of local almonds and ham whilst watching the almost-extinct ibex mountain goats scramble across the rocky hills?
No matter what season you visit the Matarraña Province of Teruel in North Eastern Spain it will knock you out.
About 4 hours east of Madrid, this province is the subject of the “Teruel Existe”, the (Teruel Does Exist”) movement to promote the area and reduce its rural depopulation.
Today, ironically, the result of this neglect is a beautiful, unspoilt evergreen area peppered with medieval fortified hilltop villages and lots of and lots of piggies.
Teruel ham now graces tables all over the world. Nestled in the eastern part of the province, Matarraña enjoys a milder climate and boasts two of Spain´s most beautiful villages in the “Pueblos Más Bonitos de España” list, namely Valderrobres and Calaceite.
The panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and olive and almond groves from the fortified hilltop villages are more reminiscent of Tuscany than Iberia. Yet this is Spanish Tuscany on speed without the spectators as the natural landscape provides a thrilling adventure at every turn.
Surprisingly, water is a recurring theme in this inland province as visitors can enjoy kayaking and paddle-boarding on the local azure waters of the Embalse de Peña reservoir or gorge walking on wooden boards set above the crystalline waters at El Parrizal before refuelling at local restaurants such as Raco or Roda in tiny Beceite whose population totals a mere 603 inhabitants.
Matarraña is also host to the internationally-acclaimed “vulture man”, José Ramón Moragrega, whose wild vulture reserve is the biggest natural wildlife attraction in Europe. Moragrega’s interest in vultures began 25 years ago when these carnivorous creatures’ source of food dried up thanks to the ban in leaving out animal carcasses after the outbreak of mad cow disease so now every morning at 9.30 am sharp he feeds 250 kilos of rabbit to 300 odd vultures at the Mas de Bunyol farm and conservation centre which also includes 6 guest bedrooms on site.
Jurassic Park enthusiasts will be fascinated by the Dinópolis circuit of 7 interactive dinosaur museums dotted around Teruel where the largest dinosaur remains were found in Europe. The Inhóspitak centre in the tiny hamlet of Peñarroya de Tastavins, a stunning 20-minute drive through the mountainous heart of Matarraña from the fortified village of Valderrobres provides a fun and informative introduction to excavating dinosaur remains through interactive video games.
If adrenaline is more your vibe, look no further than the newly opened Tirolina Fuentespalda which boasts the longest zipwire in Europe at 2000km with endorphine-fuelled ascents of up to 200m.
There are now several interesting places to stay in Matarraña. The first hotel to make its mark on the area and where the former monarchs of Spain, Juan Carlos and Sofía have stayed is Torre del Visco, run by British-born Jemma who has converted a stunning medieval watchtower near Fuentespalda into a luxury boutique Relais & Chateaux hotel with all the trimmings and charm, including a river with natural swimming and outstanding local cuisine from their on-site organic farm.
Perched on a hill at 985 metres above sea level is Mas de la Serra Wilderness Retreat, a restored farmhouse or masía on an almond farm in between Fuentespalda and Valdrerrobres.
Mesmerised by the dramatic countryside, the hospitality of the people and inheriting a not insignificant smattering of family eccentricity, my then student brother, Alasdair vowed to buy an almond farm as soon as he was “grown up”. In 2000, by now a TV producer and camera man, Alasdair had narrowed down his search to a heap of crumbling rocks on the 28-hectare farm known as Mas de la Serra.
After several years of meticulous restoration, in 2010 the building work was complete and whilst Alasdair hasn’t scrimped on the sanitaryware, providing both a sauna and outdoor hot tub, there are a couple of second-hand items that add to the quirky atmosphere.
In 1979 Margaret Thatcher’s lavatory was requisitioned by my grandmother from a skip outside her Chelsea home. Realising it was incompatible with her Victorian house’s plumbing she converted it into a plant pot on a pedestal in her drawing room complete with the blue plaque “Margaret Thatcher sat here from 1967 – 1979” and it is now enjoying its retirement in the Masia alongside my grandmother’s enamel and iron bath.
Guests are treated to arresting views of the mountains and pine and oak forests from the terrace of one of the remotest hotels in Europe.
At dusk whilst diners tuck into herb-crusted lamb baked in the outdoor oven or rabbit in almond sauce, the rare wild mountain goats, known as Ibex, punctuate the deafening silence as they scramble up and down the scraggy hillsides. Serious foodies can arrange truffle hunting trips in the area that is responsible for 70% of the world´s truffle production, a lot of which ends up in the finest Italian restaurants. Whilst walkers can wander past the almond groves up to La Picosa to enjoy magnificent views of the piercing blue reservoir in the valley below.
If modern architecture is your thing you can consider sleeping in a square glass cube balanced precariously along the edge of a mountain ridge in Monroyo at Hotel & Restaurant Consolación. The restaurant is also open to non-guests and pays homage to local ingredients such as Monroyo black truffles, wild honey, light Aragonese lamb and plenty of Teruel ham.
Last year saw the opening of the fully-restored Torre del Marqués, the area’s first 5 star hotel complete with spa facilities and vineyards which promise to reactivate the former flourishing local wine industry, the forebear of the area´s fruit and almond production.
Naturally, 4 hours is quite a long way to drive to view former politicians´ memorabilia but if you are interested in the slow pace of remote wildlife and adventure whilst quaffing delicious truffles in crowd-free heritage villages, you too might be soon scouting high and low for a bargain mound of rocks…………..and maybe even Aznar’s bathroom suite.