Little more than a strange-sounding name on a motorway exit sign and virtually ignored in tourism brochures, Minglanilla is not the first place that springs to mind when planning a weekend in the country. However, its numerous attractions, including breathtaking countryside, picturesque buildings and a natural spa concealed by majestic mountain summits, make it an enchanted island among the flame-red plains of central Spain.
The strange-sounding, musical name is thought to have been taken from the minglano (local lingo for pomegranate tree) next to a natural spring in the area. Romantics prefer the legend of a pretty young girl named Minga, nicknamed Galanilla (which roughly translates as ‘handsome young lass’) who was always courted by opulent locals and had the locality named after her.
Although Minglanilla officially became a town in 1505, people were setting up camp there long before. Cave paintings in the Hoz de Vicente near the Cabriel river, discovered 20 years ago, show the Paleolithics were alive and kicking thousands of years before Minglanilla was put on the map.
Throughout the centuries, it was always a calm and pleasant place to settle, with even the Moorish invasion and the Civil War practically passing it by. However, life in Minglanilla has not been all peace and quiet. To compensate for missing out on the bloodshed the rest of Spain suffered throughout history, anti-Franco pro-Republican armies, known as maquis, grew in force in the town at the end of the 1940s and beginning of the 1950s, using the caves for refuge.
The most notorious of Minglanilla’s warriors was known as Manco de la Pesquera, who was so named after losing two fingers of his left hand while planting a bomb which exploded in front of him.
Thankfully, Minglanilla’s harmonious nature wasnot disturbed for long and it is now an ideal location to escape for a weekend and blow away the cobwebs. Admittedly, it has more nightclubs than casas rurales and is within easy distance of Valencia city, but the dramatic surrounding countryside is a walker’s or rider’s paradise.
It may be difficult to believe that anywhere in Castilla La-Mancha – known for its flat, arid, red landscape and generally scorched look, could boast greenery and hills. Yet Minglanilla’s nature reserve, Las Hoces de Cabriel, is a true oasis in the dry, dusty plains.
Located on the banks of the river Cabriel and covering 95 per cent of the municipality, this part of Spain used to be under the sea 170 million years ago. Its impressive rock formations developed as a result of the Europe-Africa collision around that time.
Ravines of more than 100 metres deep, vast canyons and waterways make Las Hoces de Cabriel a green paradise with a spectacular landscape. Not like the rolling pastures of the farnorth but towering mountains with raging white water far below.
Among the dense shrubland and pine forest flanking the river are numerous wild herbs, esparto grass (used for weaving baskets, particularly in Alicante province) and the so-called strawberry tree, whose bright red berries resemble strawberries from a distance.
This part of the countryside is a natural habitat for wild animals including foxes, jennets, squirrels, mountain cats and goats and wild boar with Bonelli’s eagles, golden eagles and peregrine falcons soaring overhead.
Deep within Minglanilla’s breathtaking countryside are, literally, hidden gems. The huge saline lakes in the pine forest, are a treasure chest of aragonite and quartz.
Known for its revitalising and therapeutic properties, natural mineral salt water eases aches and pains and softens the skin. People have been taking rejuvenating dips in the Baños de Sal since the Roman times.
The nearby salt mines, which were exploited as far back as the Iberian era, are also a major tourist attraction and a small hotel has been built next to both for the hundreds of visitors who come every year seeking a relaxing reak.
Minglanilla’s charm has, in the past, been a magnet for the rich and famous. The town’s celebrity cast includes Ava Gardner who, on numerous occasions, stayed in the Venta de Contreras, a lovely old cavalry inn and now partly a hotel with one wing due to be turned into a museum. Inside, a collection of major works of art, ancient maps and engravings, antique furniture and mineral stones adorn the premises.
Built in the 16th century by the distinguished Contreras family, part of Minglanilla’s aristocracy, it now has a campsite attached to it and several casas rurales around it with a bar, a shop selling natural mineral products using ingredients from the Baños de Sal, and a riding centre close by.
Despite being turned into a rural tourism complex, the Venta de Contreras and its grounds have not lost their quaint, picturesque allure but retain the olde worlde feel characteristic of a remote country village.
Typical cuisine from Minglanilla is not difficult to conjure up in the kitchen even if you are a culinary cretin.
Given its inland location, Minglanilla’s traditional dishes are mainly based on pulses, meat and vegetables, although there are a few vegetarian options on the menu, too.
For example, pisto con huevos is made by frying puréed tomatoes in a bit of oil, adding salt and eggs and stirring well. Minglanilla-style garlic soup involves frying three or four garlic cloves in oil, then frying some bread in it, adding salt and then water until you achieve the right consistency.
A more filling dish, typical of the area and mainly eaten during Easter week, as the name suggests, is potaje de Semana Santa, a tasty and warming meal made of chickpeas, cod, breadcrumbs, eggs, garlic, parsley, onion, oil and flour, seasoned with salt and paprika. The breadcrumbs, egg, garlic and parsley are made into dumplings that are deep-fried along with all the other ingredients and then left to simmer.
An ideal time to visit Minglanilla is on August 15, when the fiesta in honour of La Virgen de la Piedad takes place. A marathon around the town is held for those mad enough to take part while the streets are roaring with the sound of motorbike engines as they hold a race around the municipality.
For those who like to take things a little easier, the colourful parades are fun to watch and there is a cake-baking competition where examples of Minglanilla’s domestic gods’ and goddesses’ wares can be tried and tested.
On September 14 during the festival in homage to the patron saint, Santísimo Cristo de la Salud, a market is held to raise funds for missionaries followed by a photography competition and then open-air concerts and dancing until the early hours of the morning.
Perfect for a relaxing weekend away or well worth the detour en route to the capital, far enough away from life as we know it but easily reached by motorway, Minglanilla is an undiscovered paradise.
You won’t see it advertised in travel agents’ windows and it tends not to appear in the guidebooks – yet once you see it, you’ll wonder why not.
If it’s good enough for Ava Gardner, it must be worth a visit.