The young woman in Alcala del Jucar’s tourist office seems surprised when we say we have come from England. ‘How did you find us?’ she asks. ‘Nobody knows about this place.’ Nobody, she means, except the Spanish, and even then, Alcala is far from famous.

In La Manchuela, in central Spain, Alcala is one of a string of villages in the Jucar Canyon, a spectacular limestone gorge running roughly 40 kilometres through the province of Albecete. I more or less fell in love with the place before I got here. First, I’d been seduced by a photograph of Jorquera – a village on a rock that looked so magical, I couldn’t quite believe it wasn’t computer generated. Then I heard about a hip new boutique cave hotel nearby. And Alcala, I read (thanks to google translate) ‘is a wonder to discover… a place of unique natural environments and a very unique architecture’.

It has quite a lot in common with Matera – the rock-hewn Basilicata city in southern Italy which is currently enjoying a year as a European Capital of Culture. Like Matera, much of Jucar’s villages are literally carved from the cliffs of a gorge; both have underground tunnels, grotto-like cave dwellings and medieval roots. But while Matera is struggling to cope with ‘overtourism’, Jucar’s inspiring landscapes (Alcala was named a site of Historico Artistico back in 1982) remain largely unknown. If you don’t fancy elbowing your way through the Sassi di Matera, this could be a quieter, more adventurous alternative. 

We arrive from Alicante – a two-hour drive. One minute we are rolling across the grassy plains of Castile-La Mancha, the next we plunge into the gorge. On empty roads, hugging the banks of the Rio Jucar, we loop around giant rocky outcrops, slip under bulges of limestone overhang and zig-zag up and down mountainous cliffs. There are views to take your breath away on every hair-pin bend. My husband Dave is wishing he’d brought his bike (he says it again – ‘this is better than the Alps’). 

The young woman in Alcala’s tourist office is Petra, a Slovakian, married to a local lad she met on a Rio Jucar kayaking holiday. Glad for the opportunity to practice her rusty English, she takes us on a walking tour of her adopted home

We begin with the castle, an Arabic fortress perched atop a tower of rock with dizzy views of Alcala: a place that tumbles downhill, slipping into folds and fissures of the valley and leaning into its rugged limestone walls. Our guide points out the egg-shaped bullring (which might be Roman) and the Roman Bridge (which isn’t) and the 15thcentury bell tower of San Andres church. Alcala’s uneven terraces of white and terracotta houses look like they’ve been pressed into the rock. Half house, half cave is the norm around here. 

We visit Casa Cueva el Castillo, a once-ruined cave house which has recently been restored (using proceeds of the castle’s ticket sales), and turned into a mini museum. The dug-out rooms – ‘hand-picked’ by peasant farmers (nobody seems sure exactly when) – have been washed in fresh white paint and dressed with rustic furniture, pottery and old farm tools. To add authenticity, there are live chickens in the yard, and a donkey called Margarita housed in a rock-cut stable. 

Donkeys aside, hundreds of Jucar caves, just like this one, are still inhabited. There are cave rooms under our feet, Petra tells us, as we walk the cobbled streets that limber down to the river. Some are open to the public – if you can find them.

Cave room at Xuq

An inconspicuous doorway leads us into the Cave of King Garaden – a vast subterranean palace used as an Arabic stronghold in the 12thcentury and featuring 170 metres of tunnel that takes us under the castle to a medieval look-out cut into high in the gorge. The passage, which is cool, dank and dimly lit, probably hasn’t changed in hundreds of years. 

From King Garaden’s cave, a staircase takes us down to ‘the devil’s cave’, named after its current owner – El Diablo, a nick-name he picked up in childhood. A poet and former bullfighter, with a waxed Salvador Dali moustache, Diablo has furnished his warren of caves – some of which he dug himself – with a large and eccentric collection of vintage stuff (sewing machines, radios, guns, cash registers, numerous Diablo selfies). At one time, he ran a nightclub here: a glitter ball still sprinkles light on the craggy walls of a cave the size of a ballroom. 

The three-euro entry fee includes Garaden’s Cave, a drink from the bar and entry to Alcala’s disused cinema. Another Diablo enterprise, this too is crowded with curious collectables (a stuffed gorilla in a telephone box, rusty farm implements, a horseless cart) but high up on the balcony, rows of hard bench seat and an original projector, help bring this atmospheric relic back to its silent-movie roots. 

On another street, in another cave, at the end of another long tunnel, we find Café Masago where we eat slow-cooked partridge with white beans and a gazpacho manchego – a rustic La Manchuela stew of rabbit or chicken (or both) cooked with squares of unleavened bread. Seated at a circular window, cut into the stone, we are at the penthouse level of the gorge, with views of the river, a hundred metres or so below. 

The sinuous Jucar is a green snake of a river, flanked by forest, river beaches and allotments: the latter a patchwork of fruit trees, almonds, olives and neat row of lettuces. Traditionally this was a market garden economy; now the area trades in adventure sports (kayaking, rafting, rock-climbing, hiking, cycling and ‘canyoning’ among others). Groups of canoeing (often shrieking) children in orange life jacketsare a common sight on the river, which offers miles of rocks and rapids stretching all the way up to Cuenca, nearly two hours to the north. 

We follow the Jucar to Tolosa, a tiny hamlet, six kilometres east of Alcala, where the river widens and the vertical gorge is green with aromatic forests of juniper and pine. The place is deserted, but the stone-built Avenjucar hostel by the river advertises various energetic group ‘xperiences’ (like paddle surfing, rafting and hiking) suggesting it’s not always so tranquil. 

In the opposite direction, we head for Jorquera –half an hour’s drive from Alcala, this is the walled medieval village that brought me here. The best place to see it is from a distance. From a bend in the road that climbs out of the gorge, we stop to take a photograph: perched on a lump of rock, with the river wrapped around its base like a moat, Jorquera looks like an island afloat. 

With one tiny shop and a restaurant-bar that isn’t open, deserted Jorquera seems locked in a time-warp but at the foot of its undercliff we find an unexpected pocket of 21stcentury cool. A glassy new-build restaurant, La Playa has tables on a jetty on the river, a fake beach with parasols, a menu which gives a modern twist to Spanish classics (grilled octopus, seafood paella, patatas bravas), decent pricesand  staff that speak English, a rarity around here (at last, no need for google translate.

A few kilometres further on, we cross the river on a narrow, rather rickety bridge and check into XUQ, the aforementioned boutique ‘apart hotel’ with eight groovy suites tucked into the walls of the gorge.

XUQ was created by a pair of twenty-something friends – Victor Pinedo and Fernando Monteagudo – who left their jobs (in engineering and accountancy), bought a row of run-down, middle-of-nowhere cave dwellings, and embarked on a ‘new concept in rural tourism’. They took the name from Xuquer (the Arabic for Jucar) and jazzed up their renovated cave rooms with Viscoelastic pillows, original art, retro fridges, dinky kitchenettes and designer furniture (the odd Eames chair). Nearly every room has an over-sized spa bath (some of them sunk into the rock); some have Flintstone shower rooms and all feature bumpy walls of natural limestone. 

There is nothing much to do here, except walk, cycle (there are bikes to borrow) or explore nearby towns or villages. XUQ doesn’t serve food other than a do-it-yourself continental breakfast, and although all the rooms have a kitchenette the nearest supermarket is in Alcala. 

One of their objectives, say the owners, is to help spread the word about the little-known region they grew up in – and it seems to be working. The hotel is full, mostly with young urban couples who have escaped Madrid or Valencia for the drama of the Jucar Canyon, the soothing rush of the river, the smell of pines and wild rosemary. Overtourism is a long way off, but let’s hope it doesn’t work too well. 

WAY TO GO

Alcala del Jucar is two-and-a-half hours’ drive from Madrid, or just under two hours from Valencia or Alicante. Suites at XUQ cost from €124 (or £106) per night (www.xuq.es). For more information visit www.lamanchuelarural.com.

This post is a version of an original article published in Guardian Travel.

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