Villages of austere beauty, rising above stone and slate terraces, are set between pine trees, oaks and chestnuts amid the murmur of water
The local authorities pulled at their hair... there was no milk in Las Hurdes, no goats or cows or any animal that could be milked to meet the king’s request.
But what the land couldn’t give, the people could. They served the king a glass of milk from a woman who had recently given birth.
At that time I had not visited Las Hurdes: the land without bread, the land of philosopher Luis Buñuel, and I did not even understand surrealism.
But I decided to make myself a little more grown up if I was allowed to go to Las Hurdes and find out the truth of the story and of the courage of people who dug up food from beneath the stones.
No-one from the area could tell me if the anecdote was true, but I discovered the only real truth in this area is that these people never lose heart.
Philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno had already said it: "If all over the world man is the child of the earth, in Las Hurdes the earth is the child of man."
All around Las Hurdes the worked terraces on the mountainsides remind us of Machu Pichu in Peru or any rice field in Asia.
To make these terraces, the field workers carried up the soil in baskets, often balanced on their heads. That is how they beat hunger. And that is how this unique landscape was born.
Hard working and ingenious, the people of Las Hurdes are upset that for many years other Spaniards used the saying ‘This isn’t Las Hurdes, you know’ every time they wanted to assert the modernity of their village.
This, on the other hand, really is Las Hurdes. In the extreme north of the province of Cáceres between the Gata mountain range and the Alagón river.... one of the most beautiful landscapes imaginable lying just a few hours from Madrid.
Verdure and water. Slate and rock-rose. Freshly-born streams that trickle over the slate quarries. Junipers, oaks and chestnuts. Natural pools. Suddenly everything seems rich and abundant in today’s Las Hurdes. And above all the flowers that burst forth everywhere in spring and invade the fields as an army of fairy lights.
Although the people of Las Hurders deny the fact, Buñuel and Unamuno gave them world fame. Even though it was as a paradise of hardship. Today’s Las Hurdes is prosperous and welcoming. Stone and slate houses, white hermitages, terraces covered in flowers. This is Las Hurdes now.
We can visit Las Hurdes at our leisure, because any starting point is a good one. We can, for example, enjoy a sweet start in Aldehuela, a village full of honey and even better houses. This is the typical architecture of Las Hurdes, with slate, stone and green serenity, where a quarter of an hour seems to last a whole hour, yet the hours are too short.
All around Las Hurdes the low stone houses with their slate roofs melt so completely into the countryside that sometimes we don’t even realise we have reached a village until we are right on top of it.
In Asegur the houses show off their open stonework that makes us feel we are visiting a picture-postcard village of the Tirol. But in fact we continue in Las Hurdes - for the good of our spirit and our tastebuds. For today’s Las Hurdes is not the ‘land without bread’, it is the area where we can enjoy excellent roast lamb with garlic, savoury breadcrumbs, cabbage stew, lemon salad and chestnuts in milk.
Before arriving at Caminomorisco, the largest village in the district, we can stop in Cambrocino and visit the church of Santa Catalina. The villages round here have an austere beauty as though they had never laughed or they had laughed themselves dry.
That is why this is a beauty that does not tire but rather becomes more enjoyable as we continue along the secondary roads always threatened by the flowers that come to meet us at every ditch as though wanting to capture us and make us stay here for ever.
Near Caminomorisco there is an enchanted and enchanting well where we can play with the naked and invisible nymphs who live in the crystalline waters. Natural pools lie in all the slate quarries and are among the many rewards for the traveller on his delightful discovery of Las Hurdes.
In Caminomorisco the wooden eaves and balconies proclaim an ancient splendour that contradicts (or perhaps not) the splendid portrait by Buñuel.
As often happens, it could be that the lion isn’t as fierce as he is painted and in Las Hurdes the people weren’t quite as poor as depicted. In any case they are rich in culture because in Casar de Palomero there is a Jewish quarter (Los Barreros), an Arab quarter (Hanete) and evidence of the Christian quarter dominated by the Ermita del Cordero hermitage.
Because for 500 years Las Hurdes was a refuge for those persecuted for political or religious beliefs.
Now we are only followed by the incessant splashing of water - small waterfalls and the green shade of the mountains on the road to Casares de Hurdes. Nevertheless, the Chorro de la Miacera - when we have already arrived in El Gasco - is the mother of all the waterfalls in Las Hurdes.
We follow the river Malvellido and nearby is the religious centre of Cotolengo. For centuries Las Hurdes was thought to be inhabited by spirits and ancient documents record the founding of monasteries as the best way to frighten them off. According to popular legend, that is why they built the nearby Batuecas monastery.
But the spirit of the elms, the chestnuts and the beech are our friends - the last thing we want is to frighten them away. Perhaps it is they that make this region so special.
We pass La Horcajada and in Ladrillar we see a cave excavated in the slate, the subject of many stories. For Las Hurdes is also a land of legends playwright Lope de Vega set a comedy here in which he described the inhabitants as barbaric cannibals.
But the people of Las Hurdes that we come across are very civilised and full of fun, telling us stories of strange lights that float on the rivers and kill the walkers they alight on. Myths are even more abundant than waterfalls in Las Hurdes.
There are many stories of strange lights. In one of them a mule driver came across a mysterious light and died shortly afterwards of a strange fever. Other locals talk of UFOs. After all, until a short time ago Las Hurdes was an isolated, remote spot... ideal for any ‘visitor’ to this planet.
They say that a landworker saw a triangular light, and on turning round he ‘heard a noise like the gnashing of teeth’ and saw a black and famished figure covered with a type of cape or smock.
He ran away but the figure was seen in other places. The people organised hunts and in one of them the chasers were on the point of catching the figure. Suddenly they saw triangular lights in the sky and the figure disappeared for ever.
Yet in truth there is nothing dark or eerie in Las Hurdes this spring morning... only heather in flower. In Las Mestas awaits El Charco de la Olla. How can there be so many springs, so many pools, so much water and so many flowers all over the area?
We pass the Garganta de la Sierpe to arrive at Nuñomoral. From there to Ovejuela... and on the green path the pines, oaks, ferns and chestnuts.
All around there is the splendour of the ancient Iberian Peninsula, the one that history tells us a squirrel could cross without coming down from the branches. It would not surprise us to find one of these squirrels magically preserved by the honey and the spirits of the woods in Las Hurdes.
We think we see the squirrel but it is only a shadow that takes us to Pinofranquado where we recover from our mystic vicissitudes with a cheese from Las Hurdes, one of the delights we won’t find in the city. There are still cherry trees in blossom, as delightful as poems in the heart of the countryside.
Now it is time to eat and we have come to Riomalo. Many people have come here to take a walk or fish in Riomalo de Abajo. The river is not bad (malo) here, it sings a little song, it is full of trout with which a good cook will make us forget the weariness of the journey.
Other delights that cheer my heart include the Swiss cows that accompany us on our way.
My grandmother would have been astonished to travel now around Las Hurdes, neat and tidy and rich, where the land does not only give forth milk and honey but also exquisite cheeses.
And King Alfonso would have had no problem asking for a glass of milk in the area today.
There have been many changes here but the beauty of the dark mountains and the spell of the water have not changed and promise never to do so.
The murmur of the water invites us to stay here for ever to enjoy the delights that really matter.