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Flower mosaic at the Olmeda, Palencia

From Roman mosaics to fields full of sunflowers: James Dyson explores the unexpected wonders of Spain's least visited province

It was a sun-baked August afternoon, when our friend and local guide Patricia drove us into the small village of Saldaña in the Castilian province of Palencia.

We certainly weren't expecting to see many people. The land-locked northwestern territory of sunflower and wheat fields has the dubious honour of being the least visited of Spain's 50 provinces. And despite covering an area the size of North Yorkshire, it is also one of Spain's least populated with just 162,000 inhabitants.

The sunflower fields of Palencia

So, as we searched for a parking space, we were surprised to find Saldaña's narrow streets and squares bustling with locals and visitors.

It was market day and the numerous outdoor stalls were laden with sheep's cheese, lentils, cured 'cecina' beef, spicy chorizos and all kinds of vegetables. The flat farming land of Palencia's central meseta has long defined the province, even giving it its name: Palencia is thought to derive from the Indo-European word 'pala' or plain.

But the real reason for our visit was less to sample the local produce than to see what had been uncovered nearly half a century ago beneath the region's clay-like soil.

In the early evening of 5 July 1968, Javier Cortez was tilling his land not far from Saldaña when he stumbled upon an ancient stone wall and a small patch of mosaic.  He was to spend the next 12 years of his life and almost all his savings rescuing what has turned out to be one of the most important archaeological sites of the late Roman Empire.

Mosaic of hunting scenes at the Olmeda

Today, visitors to the Olmeda site can marvel at 1,450 square meters of intricate Roman mosaics preserved in situ under a specially designed roof. The mosaics cover the floor of what was a Roman villa, including a courtyard, baths, kitchens and over 30 other rooms.

1,600 years ago, the Olmeda was part of a whole network of Roman villas that dominated the region. However, since then the centre of Palencia has moved further south to the province's capital of the same name, which is where we headed next.

Built in a shallow valley on the banks of the Carrion River, the City of Palencia is today home to almost half of the province's entire population. Its fourteenth century Cathedral is one of the largest in Europe and close by is the site of Spain's first university and one of the first in the world.

Unfortunately, the 'Estudio General de Palencia' also turned out to be one of the world's shortest-lived universities. Established around 1208, its founder died just two years later and within a few decades all its students and professors had left for the newly established University of Salamanca.

I decided to take a stroll along the main street, which runs for half a mile through the city centre. Dating from the late nineteenth century, the locals are particularly proud of their 'Calle Mayor' because it formed the backdrop of a classic Spanish film of the same name. Directed by Juan Antonio Bardem, the film depicts the harsh reality facing unmarried women in the provincial Spain of the 1950s. But Palencia's female inhabitants haven't always been so downtrodden.

View of the city of Palencia

At the southernmost end of the Calle Mayor stands a modernist statue dedicated to the women of Palencia. Affectionately nicknamed 'La Gorda' [The Fat Lady], the statue is in fact a reminder of the very special status of Palencia's women due in no small part to their surprising role in one of the most humiliating defeats in English military history.

In 1386, the Duke of Lancaster, better known as John of Gaunt, landed in northwestern Spain with 7,000 English troops. Married to a Spaniard with a claim on the Kingdom of Castile, the Duke's aim was to seize the throne from King Juan I. At first things went well with his troops capturing several cities on their way south. Then, in May 1388, the Duke's forces reached the Castilian city of Palencia. They set up camp for the night, confident of an easy victory because most of the city's menfolk were away fighting on other fronts.

But the women of Palencia had other ideas. Legend has it that - armed only with scythes, hoes, axes and rakes – they launched a surprise dawn raid on the camp and after three hours of furious battle, the English troops were forced into an ignominious retreat. What is certain is that shortly afterwards the Duke abandoned his claim to Castile and an eternally grateful Juan I conferred on the women of Palencia the unique status of honorary knights. Indeed, even to this day, they are the only female citizens of Spain not required to bow before the King.

However, war is obviously as much about brutality as heroism and a far less glorious conflict is commemorated in the north of the city.

At first sight, Palencia's Parque La Carcavilla looks like any other municipal park. Inaugurated in 1981, it even includes a children's playground of swings and slides. But unknown or ignored by many of the city's own inhabitants, beneath the ground lie the bodies of nearly 500 victims of Spain's civil war and subsequent dictatorship. Many of those summarily executed when General Franco's nationalist forces took over Palencia in July 1936 were local mayors, which is why the mass grave is known as 'La Fosa de los Alcaldes'. In recent times, exhumations have been carried out and, hidden behind the trees, there is now a small memorial to the victims that have so far been identified.

Like many cities, Palencia's past is a complicated one and overlooking it all is another striking monument.

Memorial to victims of Spain's Civil War in Palencia’s Parque La Carcavilla
'Cristo del Otero' overlooking Palencia

On a small hill in the north-eastern outskirts, stands what was for a few brief months the world's tallest statue of Jesus Christ. Patricia's brother kindly drove me out for a closer look.

Designed by local sculptor Victor Macho, the 66-foot-high 'Cristo del Otero' [Christ of the Knoll] was built in 1930. Unfortunately, by 1931 Rio de Janeiro had completed its own 98-foot-high Christ the Redeemer and since then other cities have entered the tallest-Christ competition.

Even so, Palencia's Cristo del Otero still has some curious features. Macho's original design was for the statue's eyes to be embedded with blocks of ivory and marble but the budget ran out. So, the empty sockets became windows and for many years visitors could climb up for a God's-eye view of their city. Sadly that's no longer possible, but what you can see from the foot of the Cristo del Otero is a city whose landscape and climate has once again transformed the lives of its citizens.

The 'Cristo de Otero'

Palencia may no longer be the religious and commercial hub it once was, but it is certainly now one of Spain's most sustainable cities. Wind turbines on the surrounding hills provide much of the city's electricity and with nearly six square miles of gardens, the citizens of Palencia benefit from the largest landscaped area in Spain in relation to its surface area.

The restaurant-lined Isabel II Park, the 'Jardinillos de la Estación' and the 'Huerta de Guadián' Park are all worth a visit but my favourite are the gardens that run along and between two tributaries of the River Carrion.

The 'Puentecillas' bridge in Palencia

The 'Sotillo de los Canónigos' park can be reached via a narrow bridge dating from the Roman era, known as the 'Puentecillas'. While canoeists plough the waters below, Palencians stroll or cycle between wide open green spaces under the shade of beech trees, poplars, birches and chestnuts.

It's an idyllic setting and a reminder that Palencia's unique climate and landscape has not only defined the province's remarkable past but is now being re-evaluated to ensure its future.

Green Adventures November 2019