“And if you don´t come out by 1 pm I´ll be putting you through the mince grinder” quipped the seasoned butcher-cum-custodian of the Arab caves to my daughter who was dawdling in the labyrinthine tunnels under the main square. Visitors to the sprawling caves have to negotiate the swinging carcasses in his shop next to the main entrance in order to request the key.
Images of 7-year old Claudia being ground into Anglo-Spanish meatballs prompted me to give her a prod as I checked my watch anxiously. The children had been spending a merry hour scampering through the 8 km maze of tunnels dating from the 10th Century. Originally built to provide sanctuary from invaders and religious persecutors, the constant temperature of 12 degrees had also rendered the caves under the main square a convenient storage facility.
The medieval-walled town of Brihuega, at only 90 km from Madrid makes for an interesting daytrip. With only 3000 inhabitants, the population of this historic town in Guadalajara is swelled by visitors flocking to admire the local lavender fields that bloom in July. The rest of the time you can enjoy most of the venerable sights without the ubiquitous crowds more commonly found in Segovia or Toledo. Lavender features heavily in the local economy and its heady aroma is used in soaps and sweets in and around the town´s bustling market and shops.
Another unusual highlight on offer is the world-acclaimed Miniatures Museum* that houses over 65,000 tiny replicas of anything from hats to palaces; dogs; suitcases; cities; shops; furniture and even “The 7 Wonders of the World”, the latter of which are painted onto lentils. A feast for all ages of eyes and definitely a contender for “Most Unusual Museum” prize with its chewing gum sculptures and matchstick paintings. And there was me expecting an aeroplane-size bottle of Beefeater.
Brihuega also boasts several notable examples of historic architecture such as the Romanesque Iglesia de San Felipe; the Castle of Piedra Bermeja whose origins date back to Arab times, a 17th Century convent and Textile Factory offering impressive views across the Tajuña Valley. It was at the castle cemetery that we stumbled across some charming Romanians. After a short exchange about our elusive bear tracking exploits there a few years ago and the underwhelming promotion of their country´s fascinating sights beyond Dracula and Transylvania we established that, coincidentally, they were huge fans of my brother´s TV documentary series on the bears and medieval communities in the Carpathian mountains which was took us all rather by surprise.
All this talk of Romanian sausages gave us an appetite and if you´re after some authentic Alacarreñan cuisine there are plenty of restaurants with wood-fired ovens serving roasted pork, lamb and fish dishes to choose from. However, if you´re looking for the full gourmet experience then head to Michelin-starred Doncel where you can dine out on Black pudding chips, 4 x 4 Pork scratchings (evenly crisped up on all four sides) and Venison carpaccio with Thyme ice cream. On my next visit I will just have to borrow a concoction from Alice in Wonderland to shrink the kids and donate them to the Miniatures Museum so as to indulge myself on Bambi and fries uninterrupted.
A mere 10 minutes by car from the Brihuega centre takes you to the Tolkienesque abandoned village of Cívica. There is a charming outdoor café at the river´s edge opposite the ruins where you can recharge after exploring the tangled web limestone hidey-holes that may have hosted many a retiring monk or Sephardic Jew according to local legend.
All in all, Brihuega and its environs make for an enchanting peak into Castillian history against an intriguing backdrop of fantasy and myths.
*Museum opening times may be affected by Covid-19