This article is about a route along some of the most interesting villages in Matarraña and Terra Alta, an amazing natural and cultural region in North-Eastern Spain. This region is split into two political regions (Aragon and Catalunya) but it has a common history, cultural similarities and its inhabitants speak the same language. In the Catalan side we speak about Terra Alta Comarca to define the territory where we can find Horta de Sant Joan, Prat del Comte and Arnes. Otherwise, in the Aragonese side, they call Matarraña Comarca to the small and amazing region where we can spot Beceite, Valderobles, Cretas and Calaceite.
The whole territory, either the Catalan or the Aragonese side, they speak the language we call Catalan in Catalunya. In that peace of Aragon, you can hear people speaking Catalan as easily as if you were in Costa Brava or even more. There is no conflict with that and no political matters involve, that is just part of their cultural richness and the shared past in between those territories. They belonged to the same kingdom in Medieval times and more recently they have faced the history keeping a lot commercial relationships, fighting in the same local wars (Guerras Carlistas) and making common strategies to develop.
Since this territory is quite far away from any important city and it is located in (why not to say that?) in forgotten extremes of its political regions, you may have the feeling that has been abandoned by the authorities during a too long period of history. That means also from the most advanced economic development. On the other hand, it has been out of the traditional tours and circuits too and somehow discarded by the massive tourism and preserved from it. Those conditions make out of Matarraña and Terra Alta and extraordinary unknown territory, mainly visited by some locals during weekend short trips, where its authenticity has been very well maintained and the prices have remained on a budget.
Moreover, this natural region has a lot to offer, a rich untouched patrimony with its delicious decadent vibe included; amazing mountains in the background sprinkled by almond and olive trees in the valleys as well as vineyards that produce excellent wines; natural pools on the rivers and tasty gastronomy.
Here, we propose a one hour and a half driving route (97 km), along seven of the most interesting towns in between Terra Alta and Matarraña. We recommend to split the route in two days since there are many spots to see and this way you will have time to relax and enjoy the vibe and local gastronomy.
Horta de Sant Joan made his identity out the olive oil agriculture. And, to this rural origin they added a piece of high level art history. The main square (Plaça de l’Església) of Horta is one of the most beautiful in the country.
This square and the ashlar buildings that surround it were built during the 16th century as many of the other historic buildings in town. Therefore, the Town Hall is a Renaissance building from the 16th century too. On the facade, a mural of Fernando VII stands out, in commemoration of Cortes de Cádiz, and on the ground floor, you can find the old prison.
The Parish Church of San Juan Bautista was built during the XIII-XIV century in Gothic style on a single nave, covered with a transept turn, with a polygonal chancel, ogive windows and stepped buttresses that protrude to the outside. La Casa de la Encomienda (Trull de la Comanda in Catalan) is one more interesting Renaissance palace of the XVI-XVII century with a gallery in the attic and a sentry box at one of its ends.
Besides the historical buildings, the visitor could join to a Picasso experience, since Picasso stayed twice in town for living. The first time he came with a local friend and stayed in one of the very normal houses that the Town Hall has identified and, the second time, he stay in a hostel currently disappeared in the heart of the medieval town. He almost invented there the Cubism style inspired by the shapes and the particular architecture of the houses from Horta and he recognized that saying a very famous sentence: Everything I know, I learned in Horta. You can visit in town the Picasso Centre.
In Plaza de la Iglesia, there is the Ecomuseu, an information point for the Ports Natural Park and a tribute to the rural culture of the region. For a drink or even to eat some tapas and enjoy “vermut” time (very important religious moment in Catalunya…) we recommend to choose a a terrace in Plaza Catalunya and join the local vibe.
Arnes is medieval atmosphere. It has been during centuries the last village in Catalunya and being that far from everything its alive heritage has been preserved in a very good condition. It is a very calm village. We arrived there from Horta and Anna felt a bit disappointed since there is not much live there. You cannot expect many terraces or restaurants but in exchange, Arnes could offer a living medieval village in the middle of 21th Century. My favourite there is just to walk around and point out all the medieval entrance gates that the visitor is allow to spot untouched. The shape of the streets has not change very much in centuries.
That medieval atmosphere has its continuation in the main agriculture pride of the town: the honey. It is possible there to buy natural honey, honey liquor and visit a honey museum. In addition, the square in between Carrer Major and the church, Parroquia Santa María Magdalena, has inspired legends and fiction books about witch hunting based on true facts.
Vallderoures (in catalan language) is a delight on the border. It belongs to Matarraña region, which means to Aragon Autonomous Community, but the locals there speak Catalan language. It is kind of big town with a new part on the southern side of Matarraña River. On the North side there is the amazing old town where you can get in crossing a medieval bridge that provides excellent views to the upper castle.
There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the old town but it is worth to stay for some tapas on the riverbank in Plaza Autonomía de Aragón, since from there you can admire the medieval town from the other side.
After that, you should get in and get lost strolling up to the castle. It is not a very tough way up to reach up there and you can spend a nice time admiring the ancient gates of the houses, the stoned patterns and rural details of the old streets that seem to be kept on purpose to make that very authentic town more stunning.
From Vallderoures and Arnes will be needed to drive back to Horta de Sant Joan to reach Prat del Comte as a final destination of the day. We chose Prat del Comte to stay for the night just because we found a fair price accommodation on Booking.com. But at the end of the day the experience in the village was much more than a simple stopover.
We arrived in late afternoon with few expectations and we found a very authentic and nice village. It’s tiny but is nice for a stroll, admiring the church (Parroquia San Bartolomé) and ending up for a “vermut de la casa” in Bar Foncalda to join with the locals.
To stay there is only one option: Ca l’Angels. This place is really worth, good value for your money! Roberto, the owner is a nice and helpful guy. Since there are not many options around to eat I recommend to stay there for dinner, the menu is excellent. After that, you may want to check on a short stroll how calm and charming could be the night out there in Terra Alta.
Beceite is a beautiful municipality in the province of Teruel, Aragon. Like Vallderoures, It is located in the Matarraña region, and you can arrive there in a short drive south direction from Vallderoures. In Beceite, as the rest of the towns in the Matarraña region, locals speak their own language which they call Chapurriau, actually a western variant of Catalan.
From the end of the 18th century to the middle of the 20th, when the last factories closed, the municipality of Beceite stood out for its highly relevant paper industry since it supplied products, such as card stock, to all of Spain. Now is again a very rural town, which tries to attract tourism because of its awesome natural environment. They have natural pools along the river that you can visit only (since Covid-19 appeared) getting a ticket upfront on line.
The urban area of Arab origin is a rich in architecture, very typical of the region. Overall, is a very interesting town that has kept the balance being a normal living town for locals and conserving the touristic elements for the visitors.
From Beceite you need to get back to Vallderoures and drive north direction to reach Cretas. You will not regret that. Cretas is one of the most amazing hidden secrets you can find in all Aragon Region. Honestly, I have only heard about Cretas once in my live, and that was because of one of the relatives of a college was from there. Therefore, this time was my first visit to the village and I have to admit that became my favourite all over this route.
Cretas is tiny and medieval. There is almost no a modern part on the other side of the road like it was expectable. There is a parking lot you will see just getting in and after that, the best is just to walk around the stone houses streets.
You will end up for sure in Plaza Mayor where you could spot besides the magnificent square the entrance doors of the old prison. If you are lucky they will be open to take a look to two very tiny cells. Calle Mayor, Casa Turull built-in XVIII Century and all the arches and old entrances to the town will complete an awesome visit for you. This is a real Besides the Obvious place.
According to the famous website “Los Pueblos más bonitos de España”, Calaceite is one of the most beautiful villages in Spain. I agree. Moreover, it is not a very tiny village, it’s rather an ancient town that has many things to show. The architecture in Calaceite is very similar to the other villages you may have visited along this route. So, might happen that you will be a bit spoiled on that. Keep walking in, It’s worth!
Calaceite is the cultural capital of the region, an area with influences from Catalan and Valencian territories. Those influences upon the local identity have created particular ways of doing and a singular history. The local culture, the beauty of its streets and landscapes are enough catchy to surprise any kind of traveller who enter these lands.
Calaceite has a great architectural value. Its urban area was declared a Site of Historic and Artistic Interest by the authorities. The centre is around Plaza de España and the Parish Temple, Parroquia De La Asunción De Nuestra Señora. From there, the visitor can choose among three main paths that go along the town. Those routes arrive to the three chapels upon the gates on the old town extremes: Virgen del Pilar, San Antonio and Virgen del Rosario, currently disappeared.
The town has in Its urban structure two original upper neighbourhoods: Torreta and Castell, from which is possible to admire the abundance of manor houses stand out. Calaceite had a period of important growth in 18th and 19th Centuries thanks to economic prosperity due around the olive tree agriculture of which Calaceite has historically been the highest producer in the area. You can get more information about local olive oil on the Bajo Aragon Oil Council website. Enjoy!