A GUIDEPOST REPRINT: “The Valley of Lozoya: Rascafría & El Paular,” 14 August 1970

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by L.A.

14 August 1970


GP Cover, 14 August 1970


The pine forest of El Paular in the Valley of Lozoya is the most beautiful of all Spain, according to the people who live there, the local Benedictine monks. Thousand-year-old tales, as romantic as any ever told in Spain, originated in the valley which lies just behind the Guadarrama Mountain Range, visible from Madrid.

The Ministery of El Paular, as it stands today. It was originally a Carthusian monastery whose construction is believed to have begun in 1390.

The valley’s Carthusian monastery, dating back to 1390, is two centuries older than El Escorial and, even so, is young in comparison to the antiquity of local villages in the valley.

Not only tourists and historians find a store of history here, but fishermen, hunters, hikers, skiers, bird watchers, swimmers and mountain climbers too.

The visitor’s first surprise is a luxuriant green valley dotted with vegetable gardens, a contrast to the bleak Castilian plateau flanked by fir and spruce woods.

Some sixty rivers and streams come down from the mountains to fill two man-made lakes. Nights are crisp and chilly and there are occasional frosts until mid-July. Patches of snow cap the 7000-foot peaks of Peñalara and Cabeza de Hierro which dominate the western end of the 30-mile-long valley.

Snowfalls actually begin in late September.


Rascafrians, inhabitants of one of the valley villages, spin yarns over coffee, anis and cognac as they contemplate the history of the valley. Benedictine monk Fr. Ildefonso is probably the most historically accurate of the storytellers. An invitation to a liqueur, distilled in El Paular, might encourage him to tell the story of the valley.

Around the year 1000, when the Moors were pushed south from Guadarrama, they sought refuge in the valley, at that time a haven for wild game. The Moorish bands crossed the Northern slopes and ravaged the countryside around Segovia. They killed Christians, destroyed property and kidnapped maidens, so the story goes.

During the time of Alphonso X, the Moors who took refuge in the Valley of Lozoya, accused of barbaric deeds, were wiped out. (Photo: Alfonso X and his Court)

A vengeful Spanish king sent armies, called “quiñones,” probably after the Quiñones family of Segovia, to fight off the Moors. Finally, with the help of men on horseback armed with lances, the Moors were wiped out during the time of King Alphonso X, known as Alphonso the Wise.

People of the valley united in small settlements called sesmos to protect themselves from the raids and to govern themselves independently. Representatives from the sesmo of Lozoya met and still meet monthly, to apportion grazing lands, regulate the amount of wood to be cut and to assign common tasks and divide food during times of famine.

King John I in 1390 dealt the sesmos of Lozoya a hard blow.  The Trastamaras, the old royal family of Castile, endowed the original Carthusian Monastery of El Paular with the Cinta, a huge track of land and forest. The Cinta was about 5000 acres which belonged to the sesmo. King John entrusted the building of a monastery on the Cinta to a Moorish architect from Segovia called Sidi Abderraman. The Gothic structure made of stones from riverbeds still stands in simplicity and beauty. The sesmo retained some rights to the Cinta, such as control of grazing, use of firewood, water, transit and lumber cut to build homes for newlyweds.

The execution of three Comuneros in Villalar on 24 April 1521, in conjunction with the War of the Comuneros. (Painting: “Ejecución de los Comuneros de Castilla” by Antonio Gisbert, 1860.)

Isabella the Catholic, following family tradition, favored the Carthusians. It is to her that the monastery owes its largest buildings and the church. Also, the masterpiece of the church, an altarpiece made of alabaster, by the Flemish master Jan of Was.

The sesmo of Lozoya joined the long and bloody Comunero War against Charles V. The Comuneros, communards of Castile, rose up in arms when they felt their rights and democratic traditions to be threatened by Hapsburg Caesarianism. The Hapsburgs were beaten in the Battle of Villalar and the Comuneros and their ancient sesmos were victorious.

The power of the El Paular Carthusians rose increasingly after Villalar. They became the absolute masters of the valley and beyond, as far as Salamanca. They became not only the richest Carthusian monastery in Spain but of the world. Their holdings included olive groves; wheat and barley fields; mills: trout hatcheries, which are still producing; 500 servants; 83,000 head of livestock, mostly sheep, and a breeding mare stable for the army.

The death knell for the Carthusians sounded in 1835 with what is known in Spanish history as the “desamortización de Mendizábal.” They lost their lands and livestock as did other religious orders in Spain.

Mendizabal, from the desamortización scheme to actual confiscation

Mendizábal, a figure considered evil incarnate by some, an enlightened politician by others, and an unsuccessful economist by most, devised a scheme to save the country from bankruptcy precipitated by the loss of the Spanish colonies in America. The plan meant expropriating church property and selling it. There was an abundance of property for sale and few buyers with ready cash so that prices were ridiculously low. The Cinta with its forest of four million pines sold to a Catalonian for four million reales, a penny a tree. The Catalonian sold the land to a Belgian lumber company. When the people of the Sesmos realized what was going on they threatened to burn the woods and claimed rights to the Cinta since they had been dispossessed of it in 1390.

In the meantime, after the “desamortización,” the El Paular monastery fell into a state of ruin. According to Fr. Ildefonso, people came from all around to cart away the treasures. There is not one book left in the library from the olden times, he laments. He says that in 1957 the government offered the monastery to the Benedictine order. The Department of Fine Arts has been restoring it ever since.

Entrance to the Parador of the Monastery of El Paular as photographed in 2009

A national parador will be ready by the end of the year if predictions come true. Making the monastery into a parador will alleviate the lodging problem in the area. Besides the income from the trout hatchery, the monastery is supported by the distilleries which produce Licor El Paular.

Accommodations in the valley are hard to get during the winter wild boar and corzo (an animal from the antelope family) season, the badger and the trout fishing seasons.

Last year the valley seemed undiscovered.

“Now we get them by the thousands,” said Juanito a local restauranteur whose fare includes steaks and a typical dish, “potaje de judias”, made with Rascafria beans and trout. Casa Juanito, El Potro, Peñalara and La Brisca are recommended for a gastronomic surprise. Prices are unbelievably low.


Images (from Wikimedia Commons)
Featured image/FDV, CC BY-SA3.0
Monastery of El Paular/Jorge Muñoz Sánchez, CC BY-SA4.0

Rascafria/LBM1948, CC BY-SA4.0
Alphonso X, scanned from Four Gothic Kings, Elizabeth Hallam, ed. PD
Execution of Comuneros, PD
Mendizabal/unknown 19th century Spanish portrait painter, PD
Entrance of Parador of the Monastery of El Paular,2009/Igor Gonzalez Martin, CC BY-SA


Ed’s note: for a comprehensive update on the Valley of Lozoya you might want to check out websites like  www.ValleDelLozoya.eu