I’d seen the sign before in Madrid proudly displayed on El Cuchi Restaurant just off the Plaza Mayor. Hemingway Never Ate Here. I’d seen the phrase in a London gallery as the title of a painting by Patrick Caulfield. Now I was standing in the middle of a medieval plaza of a small Spanish village tucked into the mountains of La Sierra de Francia and there it was again on a bar specializing in wine, ham and bull tail stew. I figure if the Fates send me the same odd message three times, it’s a sign my peregrine compass is about to discover something special. And La Alberca, Spain is special.
About four hours northwest of Madrid by car and an hour east of the university town of Salamanca, the village of La Alberca was officially founded as a community in the 1300’s. Though geographically isolated, La Alberca did not escape the history that shaped Spain. There are cave paintings in the surrounding mountains indicating the area was inhabited as early as the Neolithic era. There is evidence the multi-cultural village had influential Jewish, Arabic and Catholic roots. The name La Alberca comes from the Arabic words, berka and al which translated means “place of the water”.
The village’s layout of narrow streets and some of the architecture indicate there was an influential Jewish population in its early development. Over some of the doorways are engravings from the Spanish Inquisition. These were the homes of Jewish or Muslim residents who converted to Christianity during the Inquisition and proclaimed their new faith to avoid prosecution.
At the end of the Middle Ages, the image of the Virgen de la Pena Francia was discovered nearby and a shrine was built. Today the southern route (the Ruta de la Plata or Silver Route) of the famous Catholic pilgrimage, the Camino de Santiago , also known as the Way of St James passes by La Alberca to reach the shrine as evidenced by the clam shell route markers on the walls of some of the buildings.
The Catholic Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in one of the village plazas is not only an architectural and historical structure, but it’s the starting point for a nightly ritual unique to La Alberca of local women who walk through the streets at sunset ringing a bell reminding residents to pray for lost souls.
In 1940 the village was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Spanish government. The designation carried strict building and remodeling restrictions to insure that La Alberca is architecturally frozen in time giving visitors the opportunity to meander authentic medieval streets and shop and eat in buildings looking just as they did in the Middle Ages.
The National Historic Landmark restrictions have resulted in interesting juxtapositions of important modern day building functions such as this bar over the public library.
I never did solve the mystery of the Hemingway sign. When I asked the barkeeper about it, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and gave me a sample of the area’s famous Iberian ham to taste.
It may be a village, but La Alberca caters to Spaniards and international visitors who want to do more than a day trip. Just outside of town within walking distance is the hotel and chalets of Abadia de los Templarios. The owner also owns the Hotel Dona Teresa inside the village and there are additional accommodations around the small main plaza.