I know a bank where the wild thyme blows…
If you drive North out of the elegant streets of Madrid, past the golden fields and gnarled olive trees until you reach the winding mountains roads, make sure to wind down your windows so you can smell the scent of the sweet, wild thyme drying under the hot sun. From there the red earth turns dramatically to a shimmering dark black slate – you are now on the the ‘ruta de los pueblos negros‘ – the route of the black villages of Guadalajara, perhaps the most beautiful of these villages is Campillo de Ranas.
Campillo de Ranas translates as ‘little field of frogs’ and you can easily imagine a Spanish relative of Mr Toad from Wind in the Willows hopping around this little village. In my head this Señor Rana would be a lot more down to earth – a humble and kind frog with no pretenses or pretexts who worked hard on the land, enjoyed the company of his friends and family and most importantly – always ate good food!
The slate (pizarra) that is quarried in this region can only be used by locals and the locals are also only allowed to use it when building new houses to ensure that the villages stay in keeping with the natural surroundings. As a result the little villages filled with houses with black slate walls, roofs and chimneys, mixed with adobe, feel like they’re still a part of the earth they came from.
There are lots of different colours of slate in the area: black, red, violet, silver and blue but to me the black colour has a surprising warmth. The houses are usually made with one large lower floor and one smaller upper floor. The lower floor would originally have been split into two rooms – one for cows and sheep and one for owners; while the upper level would have been used for storing hay and grain to keep it dry.
The little village is filled with charming houses, many of which are bars, guest houses or restaurants with enchanted terraces covered with vines and green leafy creepers. In the centre of the village, next to the church is La Fragua, a rustic restaurant with a true local feeling. The lights are placed in old wooden feeding troughs and heavy pieces of ploughs and harnesses adorn the beamed walls. Campillo de Ranas is situated in a hunting park – one of the best places to taste some of the wild creatures of spains forests – wild boar, deer, pheasant and quail all feature prominently on the menu. Make sure to start off with the venison chorizo – the deep red colour coming as much from the meat as from the Spanish pimenton, or paprika – is absolutely delicious!
There’s no better way to experience the real Spain than to get lost in one of its old villages and Campillo de Ranas is, as my father says, a humdinger of a village so thanks to my wonderful mother for discovering it and taking us all to visit!