Five places in Spain that are not where you think they are

You might be surprised to discover that not all Islamic palaces are located in Andalusia...

A canal in Palencia.
A canal in Palencia.

Andalusia? No, Zaragoza

Islam’s power in the Iberian peninsula reached much further north than we tend to think. Ahmad Abú Ya’ far ibn Hud al-Muqtadir, head of the taifa (independent Muslim principality) of Saraqusta between 1046 and 1081, ordered the construction of a recreational residence in what is modern-day Zaragoza. The architects followed the style of the Umayyad Caliphate’s desert palaces, and the result was the Aljafería (or what is left of it), the best Muslim palace in northern Spain. This impressive 11th century construction has the classic lobulated arches, ponds filled with fountains and flowers, and marble-covered rooms that we associate with Islamic architecture, and which now houses the regional assembly, the Cortes de Aragón.

The Sahara desert? No, Galicia

This is one of the oddest landscapes in the northwestern region of Galicia, a sea of dunes that seems straight out of a story about the Sahara, but which is actually on Barbanza peninsula, between the estuaries of Arousa and Muros-Noia, within the city limits of Ribeira. The dunes are part of Corrubedo Park and cover around 9,600 hectares of land. The largest one is one kilometer long, 250 meters wide and 20 meters high. The local vegetation has adapted to the sandy conditions and includes infrequent plant species in Galicia such as the marine thistle and ammophila.

Antonio de Ulloa (

Flanders? No, Castile

Central Europe is crisscrossed by navigable waterways that facilitated trade for centuries, bringing with it prosperity. The monarchs of the Court of Castile envied this network that was the equivalent of a highway compared with the prehistoric roads of Castile, where the transportation of goods was slow and costly. During the Enlightenment, the Marquis of Ensenada, who served as minister to Fernando VI, convinced the court to dig a similar network of canals to link Castile’s capitals with the port of Santander. The project was never completed, but it left behind 203 kilometers of canals in the provinces of Palencia and Valladolid.

Mars? No, Río Tinto

One could well describe the banks of the River Tinto, in the southern province of Huelva, as a Martian landscape. The high iron content gives the river its characteristic reddish hue, making this a world-famous location. Even NASA has tested space equipment on this alien-like terrain. Copper and iron has been extracted from the nearby mines since the days of antiquity, but the golden age of mining has long since passed, and little remains of the Riotinto mines save for a few abandoned miner towns and trains that have been converted into a tourist attraction.

The Bavarian Alps? No, the Basque Country

It looks like a Bavarian castle ripped out of the Alps and plonked down on the rolling green hills of the Basque Country. Butrón Castle in Gatika, in the province of Vizcaya, is an incongruent landmark dating back to the 19th century, when the Marquis of Cubas decided to build a storybook castle over the ruins of the old fort, in a decided break with local building styles. The looming tower of Homenaje presides over the complex, and the inside is so small that one can only access many of the rooms from outside footpaths.

For more, visit Paco Nadal’s travel blog.

English version by Susana Urra.


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