Imagine yourself on cobblestone streets surrounded by three story buildings constructed in the 14th through 16th centuries. An older man rides past on a donkey. Two abuellas carefully pick their way along the cobbles heading to market, chatting softly in Spanish. Shopkeepers begin to open their tiny shops, moving merchandise outside the old heavy doors, and carefully arrange their wares.
There’s no sign of a fast-food restaurant or supermarket, much less a big box store. Nor will there ever be such a thing here, because it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1940, Spain’s first. Every change to the buildings, every repair, must maintain the town’s historical look. It’s evident in the care a man takes to remove paint from a second-floor door along the main plaza.
The Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage that culminates in Santiago de Compostela, runs through the village along the southern route. At one time pilgrims got their passport stamped in a tiny hermitage on the edge of town. These days the pilgrims come to the central plaza (Plaza Mayor) and stop at the El Porrón tavern for the stamp. It’s next to the village jail. You can see the symbol of the pilgrimage at the bottom of the column, a shell.
At this hour (10:30ish) the main plaza is near empty except for delivery trucks, the only vehicles plus police and resident’s cars allowed on these streets. A couple of vendors set up tables to sell almonds, honey, and other local products. They offer samples and I buy crunchy sweet-coated almonds.
We are visiting in late March and spring has not yet arrived except for the presence of a few spring wildflowers. In summer, the balconies on the plaza will hold planters filled with colorful flowers, and the arcades below will provide shade from the sun. I can imagine it will be glorious.
Our guide, Sam, points out that the buildings have a French look: half-timber houses with rocks filling in between the timbers. The more refined have a plaster coating. It is definitely not the sturdy stone buildings of the rest of Spain. This came about because in the eleventh century, Spanish King Alfonso IX married off a relative, Doña Urraca, daughter of King Alfonso VI, to a French nobleman, D. Raimundo of Burgundy. The king then gave them the Salamanca region. In 1087, the Frenchman invited workers from his country to settle here to help repopulate the lands. This is the origin of the building style and the name of the nearby mountains, the Pena de Francia.
As it turns out, this French design helped the village survive a large earthquake in 1755. They quickly repaired the small amount of damage imposed by the earthquake (see the “staples” in the church), then helped the people in the region’s main city, Salamanca which was badly damaged. As a thank you to the people of La Alberca for their generosity, the city of Salamanca gave statues of crosses to the village, thirteen of which still remain in the village.
The large church in town, the Seniora de la Asuncion (Assumption), was built in stages: the tower was funded by the Duke of Alba, the royal family in these parts, and built in the 1500’s; the main church was completed in 1733.
The interior is large and dimly lit with a muffled feeling as if a thick blanket filled the space. The only sound is the quiet chanting of two women as they make their way around the Stations of the Cross – we are here in the season of Lent.
In centuries past, wealthy parishioners could afford to contribute money to the church, and in return, they received burial spaces in the floor close to the altar. Those who contributed less found themselves at the back of the church. But the bodies of peasants were placed inside a walled enclosure outside. These souls were presumed to spend more time in Purgatory, since they could not afford to buy Indulgences. So local women took turns praying for these souls, walking to each corner of the village at sunset, ringing a bell as they went. In this way they hoped to reduce the time that the deceased peasants suffered in Purgatory. A local legend tells of a stormy night when the bell-ringer skipped her duty. The villagers heard the bells ring anyway. This bell-ringing tradition continues today.
Across the street from the church is the symbol of the Spanish Inquisition. Their investigations focused on the Jews and Muslims in the community. The symbol means, either you take up the cross with us and we will offer you the olive branch, or if you do not, you will die by the sword. To prove that they had abandoned their old religions which forbade the eating of pork, Jews and Muslims gave the villagers pigs.
The village continues the tradition to this day. Each year on June 13, the Feast Day of San Antonio de Padua, they release a pig into the village after a blessing ceremony. The pig is welcome to wander the streets like the village dog, fed wherever he happens to be. In the old days, the pig was also welcome to spend the night in the stables, which originally occupied the ground floor of these buildings. Presumably, now that the ground floor is filled with shops, the pig sleeps outside.
On January 17th, the village auctions off the pig for charity. It is likely that the winner or someone he knows will be able to slaughter this pig because these people are still very close to the land. All around, very close to the village you can find small farms with moss covered rock walls and sheep, black pigs and donkeys.
To commemorate this long tradition, a statue of a pig stands outside the church. There is a belief that if you and your loved one touch the testicles of this statue together and pledge your love, the woman will become pregnant. So watch what you touch in La Alberca.
At this point we had some free time. I wandered back to a shop that specialized in beans. The shop was closed when I first saw it, but the artful doorway intrigued me.
Imagine a place where a business can survive selling such limited products; but oh, the variety and the way they were displayed – a visual feast! I had never seen so many different legumes, more than I could identify. Of course, it doesn’t help that I can’t read Spanish.
We regrouped at the Plaza Mayor, and walked over to one of the ancient tapas bars in town, with its medieval Spanish bar customs. The dimly-lit bar had uneven flooring and the occasional step. Dusty wine bottles filled racks, bullfighting posters hung on the walls, and cobwebs hung from ancient rafters. Here we enjoyed cheese, several kinds of ham, and of course, red wine. An expert ham slicer carved one of the specialty jamon for us to taste.
Afterwards, we went to one of the town restaurants for the main meal. By the time we headed back to the resort, the shops were closed for siesta. Timing is everything when visiting rural Spain.
This medieval town touched my soul like no big city could. The age of the village and the depth of its roots may best be illuminated by the fact that the Duchess of Alba from the ancient royal family of this area, is the only person with so many titles that the Queen of England must curtsy to her. That’s a long history.
Thank you to Sam for the great tour.
For information on how to visit this region of Spain with free lodging and meals, see Free room and board in Spain for a week with Diverbo.
To learn more about the traditions we experienced and the food/drink, see Firewater, witches, black pigs and bota swigging in La Alberca Spain.
For the rest of my adventure in Spain, see:
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