In the late 1980s, the Spanish band Gabinete Caligari brought out an album called Camino Soria, or Road to Soria. The group chose the title because Soria was the province where they sold the fewest records, and they had resolved to go there to try to shift a few more copies. The title made quite a few of their fans, including me, want to go to this remote corner of Castile too.
Soria is one of the most sparsely populated areas in Spain, a forgotten province in an unfashionable part of the country. It has long been short of funds – I knew when I had crossed the invisible frontier into Soria because the road surface suddenly deteriorated. It has however always attracted creative people; painters, writers and particularly poets have been mesmerised by the rich colours of its landscapes.
What with the emptiness, lack of investment and the poets, I was rather expecting the town of Soria to be a bit quiet, but when I arrived on a Friday evening, the medieval main square was heaving. It was the same story the next morning as I walked down the porticoed Calle Collado, which slopes gently down to the square. Groups of people stood around chatting as if they were at some sort of outdoor cocktail party.
So many main streets have virtually the same shops these days, but Calle Collado still has some of the curving shop windows in elegant wooden frames that have been there for the last century. Some have been revamped, and there are the inevitable mobile phone shops and chain boutiques, but there is still a haberdasher’s, a tailor’s and a butcher’s.
I went into Heras, a wonderful old bookshop and stationer’s that has been in business for 150 years, and stood at a wooden counter while the shopkeeper patiently pulled out a dozen different notebooks for me from the shelves behind him. I paid at an ancient till and got change from a euro.
There were empty premises along the street, and as the traditional shops slip away, it will probably look like any other Spanish high street before too long. But for now, one of the prime sites, on the corner of the main square, is still an ironmonger’s.
Wandering around, I came upon the 12th-century church of Santo Domingo, one of the best examples of Romanesque architecture in Spain. There was no one there. There are plenty more churches in the old town, along with medieval mansions adorned with elaborate coats of arms.
I walked through the lanes down to the River Duero and crossed a bridge to the Monastery of San Juan de Duero. Built by the Knights Hospitallers of Saint John of Jerusalem in the 12th century, only the church and part of the sandstone cloister are still standing, but these vestiges exert an extraordinary power. Four sides of different interlacing arches remain, some Romanesque, some Islamic, some Gothic.
I walked under the poplars along the bank of the river for a mile or so and climbed up to San Saturio, a church built into the rock. Just below it, the stone is inscribed with verses by the poet Antonio Machado, who was born in Andalucia but worked in Soria as a teacher. ‘With their dry leaves, the poplars along the river, accompany the sound of the water, when the wind blows.’
The leaves rustled in the breeze, just as they had when Machado lived in Soria, nearly a century ago.