Often, it’s the mistakes that make the best travel stories. Traveling slowly gives us time to go with the flow and embrace those mishaps. Usually, they lead to the memorable, like unexpectedly finding Spain’s Book Village, one of the most unique places in Spain I’ve been to in the two+ years I’ve lived here.
A few weeks ago, I was road-tripping with a friend to the north of Spain. The drive from Madrid to Asturias is around 4-5 hours (yep, you can traverse half this country in that time). Much of that drive crosses through the province of Castilla y León. When I had first applied to be an English language assistant in Spain back in 2012, I had chosen this region since it has the most castles out of any region in Spain. Priorities. (I ended up getting placed in Madrid).
After stopping at a gas station, I headed back to the highway in what I thought was the right direction.
I started cursing myself in that way that anyone who’s ever gotten back on the highway going in the wrong direction does. How long until the next exit? How much time did I just waste with my stupidity?
Luckily, an exit popped up just around a bend and a hill. Along with the standard exit sign, there was a historical interest sign, stating that the town was “Villa del Libro.” My interest was piqued, but not only because of the name, Book Village. I had heard of this place before, briefly mentioned as a piece of trivia in a Spanish language podcast. This town had the most bookshops per capita in Spain.
Five minutes later, we were tooling down a country road leading towards the town of books.
Urueña: Off-the-Beaten-Path in Spain
Medieval walls greeted us as we rounded a corner. The town sat on a hill in a castle complex, completely obscured by hills from view on the highway. Descending into the valley and then climbing the small road up to the top, it felt like we were entering a twilight zone town, like in the legend of Brigadoon.
A sign proclaiming the town “One of the Most Beautiful Villages in Spain” welcomed us. We wholeheartedly agreed, and we hadn’t even stepped foot out of our car yet.
We walked around, enchanted. It was around 2 pm when we arrived, prime siesta time, and we were the only ones in the streets. We had the whole town to ourselves – as if it had sprung out of existence just for us to enjoy.
We began to realize how Urueña, the town’s official name, had the most bookstores per capita in Spain. The town has 189 residents as of 2016.
Urueña became a Book Town in 2007, joining the International Organization of Book Towns from around the world. Most of the registered book towns are in Europe (the first one was Hay–on–Wye in Wales), but there are some in South Korea, Malaysia, and New Zealand. None in the United States yet – someone get on that!
Book towns have a concentration of secondhand and antiquarian bookshops and focus on traditional book-related crafts, such as illustration, bookbinding, and printing. Book towns also usually organize festivals celebrating all things books.
Urueña has 12 bookstores, various book-related museums, and hosts an annual festival. The town offers bookbinding workshops and even has an institute of calligraphy. Even though we saw no one in the entire town (and everything was closed for siesta), there was evidence everywhere of the town’s pride of being a book village.
The 12 bookshops all focus on various subjects, such as one specializing in bullfighting (no thanks) and one that specializes in wine (yes please)! There are also many buildings with literary phrases adorning their walls.
Beyond the bookshops, Urueña is a beautiful and historic town in its own right. Without a doubt, it’s one of the most beautiful towns in Castilla y Leon. We traversed the city looking for a lookout to eat our packed lunch. On the other end of the town, we came upon the southern gate of the city, a perfectly pointed portal to the outside world.
Passing through it, rolling hills and flowers greeted us. There was even a bench perfect for a picnic lunch and gas station chips.
The wall that surrounds the city dates from the 12th and 13th century and is pretty much as every medieval wall should be: epic. Walking back to the car from lunch, we discovered a spiral staircase leading up to them. Naturally, we climbed it. Up on top, we met one of the town’s elusive residents, though this one was furry and didn’t possess the ability to speak.
As we climbed back down from the wall, the town began to wake up. Other tourists were arriving and siesta was ending. It was time for the fairy tale to end. We reluctantly dragged our feet back to the car, soaking in the peaceful tranquility of this little medieval walled town on a hill.
We got back into our little rental car and slowly drove away, silently contemplating the experience we just had. Next time I get on the highway going in the wrong direction, I’ll keep my eyes out for random little towns to explore. Though they’ll have some pretty high expectations to live up to.
How to Get to Urueña, Spain’s Book Village:
Urueña is located about 2 hours north of Madrid, right off of the A-6 highway. Spain’s book village is an easy stop if you’re road tripping through northern Spain.
Since the town is so tiny, public transportation is basically non-existent. It seems as if there is a bus from the nearest city of Valladolid (info here), but as we did not use it, I’m not sure if it’s running or how frequent the times are. Report back if you use this option!
While the town is small and can definitely be enjoyed over the course of a couple of hours, you can always make a night of it and stay within the medieval walls.
Festivities occur on World Book Day (April 23) or on the town’s anniversary (in March).