Matarraña has all the vineyards and romantic villages of the Italian region — but no tourists
Who wants to do nothing in the middle of nowhere? That’s what the locals asked Jemma Markham when she and her late husband, Piers, opened the Torre del Visco hotel in the Spanish region of Matarraña, in Aragon, in 1995. “They thought we were bloody mad,” she says.
Twenty years later, with the rooms full, the Markhams’ sanity has been proven. Yet foreign visitors remain mostly absent from Matarraña: little more than a thousand came in 2014. That despite a dreamy blend of rivers, vineyards, olive plantations and pine-forested peaks that has earned it the nickname of Spain’s Tuscany.
Why such a secret? It’s because Matarraña appears, initially, damned pesky to access, with mountains all around and no railways or autopistas. Spaniards themselves have barely heard of the place. Yet Barcelona is only three hours away. In September, Ryanair will make things slightly easier when it launches a new flight to Castellon airport from Stansted and Bristol.
The village of Valderrobres (Alamy) So, the middle of nowhere, more or less. But do nothing? That’s only one option. Within half an hour of gulping down a welcome cerveza at Torre del Visco (doubles from £140; torredelvisco.com), I’m standing behind El Salt waterfall, being splashed by its invigorating spray.
The next morning, I trek El Parrizal, a five-hour trail through Els Ports, the blocky mountains that may have inspired Picasso’s first experiments with cubism. El Parrizal is a work of art itself: rapids are interspersed with pools of green water in which snakes swim. Walnut trees teeter on sheer slopes, golden eagles launch themselves from crags.
I borrow a bike from the hotel and follow Jemma’s directions to Tastavins pools. Leaving my cycle beside a clump of purple lilies, I pad down to a gentle, pebbly basin, secluded and deep enough for diving. The water’s cool, but I dry off on great river-smoothed rocks, wafts of wild rosemary tickling my nose.
A similarly olfactory dinner follows: fragrant fish and sucking pig, served with vegetables from Torre del Visco’s farm. Even better are the breakfasts: homemade lemon curd, cheese plates and cured Aragonese hams, which I devour at the kitchen’s communal wooden table.
Take the El Parrizal trail through Els Ports I don’t linger too long, as today I’m headed 30 minutes south, to the remoter-still Mas de la Serra, another luxury residence, with the sort of views one might anticipate of a medieval former watchtower (doubles from £120, B&B, masdelaserra.com).
From here, I set out to explore Matarraña’s caramel-coloured towns. A huge-ceilinged gothic church crowns Valderrobres, where colourful posters advertise imminent fiestas. Further north, hilltop Calaceite is straight out of a Tuscan textbook: lanes, lanterns and sleepy squares dominated by a baroque bell tower.
Rock art, the Mas de Buñol vulture sanctuary and La Via Verde, a railway turned cycle path, offer further distraction. Mas de la Serra’s willing butler, Luis, offers trips to them all, plus fossil-hunting for kids, rock-climbing, wine tours and horse riding through almond groves.
Those same almond groves make my trip’s standout meal possible: a slightly sweet almond-and-truffle soup in Mas de la Serra’s restaurant. The chef here hails from Peru, hence the pre-meal pisco sours and her lamb stew’s subtle coriander kick. A much greater shock comes when, from a patio, I see ibex balancing on top of more spindly almond trees.
Quietly brilliant: poppies in Matarraña Later, on a balcony at the hotel, I toast Matarraña over glasses of Scottish single malt. (The hotel’s founder is Alasdair Grant, of the distillery family.) As the peaty nightcap slips down, I succumb to the silence and let myself be hypnotised by the stars above.
Here I am, after all, in the middle of nowhere, doing nothing.