The younger girl in Alcalá del Júcar’s vacationer workplace appears stunned once we say we now have come from England. “How did you discover us?” she asks. “No one is aware of about this place.” No one, she means, besides the Spanish, and even for them, Alcalá is way from well-known.
Alcala map
In La Manchuela, in central Spain, Alcalá is considered one of a string of villages within the Júcar canyon, a spectacular limestone gorge working for some 40km via the province of Albacete. I kind of fell in love with the place earlier than I received right here. First, I’d been seduced by {a photograph} of Jorquera – a village on a rock that appeared so magical, I couldn’t fairly consider it wasn’t computer-generated. Then I heard a couple of new boutique cave resort close by (Xuq – extra on that later).
And Alcalá, I learn (due to Google Translate) “is a surprise to find … a spot of distinctive pure environments and a really distinctive structure”.
It has rather a lot in frequent with Matera – the rock-hewn metropolis in Basilicata, southern Italy, which is at present having fun with a 12 months as a European Capital of Tradition. Like Matera, lots of Júcar’s villages are carved from the cliffs of a gorge; each have underground tunnels, grotto-like cave dwellings and medieval roots. However whereas Matera is struggling to deal with customer numbers, Júcar’s inspiring landscapes (Alcalá was named a website of particular historic and inventive heritage in 1982) stay largely unknown. So for those who don’t fancy elbowing your manner via the Sassi di Matera, this could possibly be a quieter, extra adventurous different.

Alcalá del Júcar on the sting of the gorge. {Photograph}: Alamy
We arrive from Alicante – a two-hour drive. One minute we’re rolling throughout the grassy plains of Castilla-La Mancha, the following we plunge into the gorge. On empty roads, hugging the banks of the River Júcar, we loop round big rocky outcrops, slip underneath bulges of limestone overhang and zigzag up and down vertiginous cliffs. There are views to take your breath away at each hairpin bend. My husband, Dave, is wishing he’d introduced his bike (he says it once more – “that is higher than the Alps”).
The younger girl from the vacationer workplace – Petra, a Slovakian, married to a neighborhood lad she met on a kayaking vacation – jumps on the probability to practise her rusty English and takes us on a strolling tour of her adopted house.
We start with the fort, a Moorish fortress perched atop a tower of rock with dizzy views of Alcalá because it tumbles downhill, slipping into folds and fissures of the valley and leaning into its rugged limestone partitions. Petra factors out the egg-shaped bullring (which can be Roman), the Roman bridge (which isn’t), and the 15th-century bell tower of San Andrés church. Alcalá’s uneven terraces of white and terracotta homes look as if they’ve been pressed into the rock. Half-house, half-cave appears to be the norm round right here.

Alcalá, with Júcar bridge and fortress atop the crag. {Photograph}: Getty Photos
Casa Cueva el Castillo is a once-ruined cave home that has been restored and changed into a mini-museum. The dug-out rooms as soon as lived in by peasant farmers (no person appears positive precisely when) have contemporary white paint and are full of rustic furnishings, pottery and outdated farm instruments. So as to add authenticity, there are dwell chickens within the yard, and a donkey referred to as Margarita in a rock-cut secure.
Donkeys apart, a whole bunch of Júcar’s caves, identical to this one, are nonetheless inhabited. There are cave rooms underneath our toes, Petra tells us, as we stroll the cobbled streets all the way down to the river. Some are open to the general public – if you could find them.
An not easily seen doorway leads into the Cave of King Garaden – an unlimited subterranean palace used as a stronghold within the 12th century, with a 170-metre tunnel that takes us underneath the fort to a medieval lookout lower excessive within the gorge. The passage, which is cool, dank and dimly lit, most likely hasn’t modified in a whole bunch of years.
From right here a staircase takes us all the way down to Cuevas del Diablo, named after its present proprietor – El Diablo, a nickname he picked up in childhood. A poet and former bullfighter with a waxed Salvador Dalí moustache, this “satan” has furnished his warren of caves – a few of which he dug himself – with a big and eccentric assortment of classic stuff (stitching machines, radios, weapons, money registers, quite a few Diablo selfies). At one time, he ran a nightclub right here: a glitter ball nonetheless sprinkles mild on the craggy partitions of a cave the dimensions of a ballroom.

Cuevas del Diablo
The €three entry price contains Garaden’s cave, a drink from the bar there and entry to Alcalá’s disused cinema. One other Diablo enterprise, this too is crowded with curious collectables (a stuffed gorilla in a phone field, rusty farm implements, a horseless cart) however excessive up on the balcony, rows of exhausting bench seats and an authentic projector recall this atmospheric relic’s silent-movie roots.
At Café Masago, in one other avenue, in one other cave, on the finish of one other lengthy tunnel, we eat slow-cooked partridge with white beans and a gazpacho manchego – a country La Manchuela stew of rabbit or hen (or each) cooked with squares of unleavened bread. Seated at a round window lower into the stone, we’re on the penthouse degree of the gorge, with views of the river 100 metres or so under.
The sinuous Júcar is a inexperienced snake of a river, flanked by forest, river seashores and allotments: the latter a patchwork of fruit timber, almonds, olives and neat rows of lettuce. Historically this was a market backyard financial system; now the world specialises in journey sports activities (kayaking, rafting, mountaineering, climbing, biking and canyoning amongst others). Teams of canoeing (typically shrieking) youngsters in orange life jackets are a standard sight on the river, which provides miles of rocks and rapids stretching all the best way to Cuenca, practically two hours’ drive to the north.
There are a number of low-cost hostales in Alcalá, however we spend the night time in considered one of its cave-house vacation properties. Casa Cueva Las Tinajas de Naya (sleeps six from €300) resembles a standard village home from the surface however inside, three windowless double bedrooms have been scooped out of the rock – darkish, womb-like and fully silent, apart from the hum of a dehumidifier.

The River Júcar in its gorge close to Cuenca. {Photograph}: Alamy
Within the morning, we observe the Júcar to Tolosa, a tiny hamlet 6km to the east, the place the river widens and the vertical gorge is inexperienced with fragrant forests of juniper and pine. The place is abandoned, however the stone-built AvenJúcar hostel (mattress €32pp B&B) advertises energetic group experiences (akin to paddleboarding, rafting and climbing) so it’s most likely not all the time so tranquil.
In the wrong way, Jorquera – half an hour’s drive from Alcalá, is the walled medieval village whose {photograph} introduced me right here. From a bend within the street that climbs out of the gorge, we cease to take {a photograph}: perched on a lump of rock, with the river wrapped round its base like a moat, Jorquera seems to be like a floating island.
With one tiny store and a restaurant-bar that isn’t open, abandoned Jorquera appears locked in a time-warp however on the foot of its cliff we discover an surprising pocket of 21st-century cool. A glassy new-build restaurant, La Playa has tables on a jetty over the river, a artifical seashore with parasols, a menu of recent takes on Spanish classics (grilled octopus, seafood paella, patatas bravas), respectable costs (starters from €8, mains from €14) and workers who converse good English, a rarity round right here (finally, no want for Google Translate).Just a few kilometres additional on, we cross the river on a slim, fairly rickety bridge and test into Xuq (suites from €124 B&B), the aforementioned boutique “aside resort” with eight groovy suites tucked into the partitions of the gorge.
The resort was created by mates Victor Pinedo and Fernando Monteagudo, who left their jobs (in engineering and accountancy), purchased a row of rundown, middle-of-nowhere cave dwellings, and launched into a “new idea in rural tourism”. They took the identify from Xuquer (Arabic for Júcar) and jazzed up the cave rooms with reminiscence foam pillows, authentic artwork, retro fridges, dinky kitchenettes and designer furnishings (the odd Eames chair). Practically each room has an outsized spa tub (a few of them sunk into the rock); some have bathe rooms and all function bumpy partitions of pure limestone.

A bed room on the Xuq resort, with bumpy limestone wall
From right here there’s loads of strolling and biking (there are bikes to borrow), and cities and villages to discover. Xuq doesn’t serve meals apart from a continental breakfast buffet and though all of the rooms have a kitchenette, the closest grocery store is in Alcalá.
One of many house owners’ goals, they are saying, is to unfold the phrase about their area – and it appears to be working. The resort is full, principally with younger {couples} swapping Madrid or Valencia for the soothing rush of the river in its canyon, and the odor of pines and wild rosemary. Overtourism is a good distance off.
• Lodging was supplied by Xuq (doubles from €124 B&B). Alcalá del Júcar is two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Madrid, or simply underneath two hours from Valencia or Alicante. Extra data from lamanchuelarural.com
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