Castile and León is the largest autonomous community of Spain, and indeed the third largest region in the EU. It is the power base that eventually grew to dominate the peninsula, and the place where Spain’s greatest uniting characteristic evolved: the language. The official language of the country is actually named as Castellano, or “Castilian,” in the constitution, and many people will still insist it is referred to as such, particularly in those regions where the local languages help define their identity. The region is bordered on all sides by mountain ranges, but away from the frontiers it is largely a windswept, flat plain. This is the northern part of the meseta, at an altitude of around eight hundred meters above sea level.
The region was born out of a cycle of conflicts between rival kingdoms ruled by fratricidal offspring. León was the first state to emerge after the Kingdom of Asturias was renamed when the capital was moved to the city of León in 910. Gradually the area on the plain came to be populated, stimulated by the promise of special entitlements for those involved in border defense. The process was also helped by an influx of Christians living under Islamic rule in the South, the so called Mozarabs. The dry and dusty frontier land, with its castle fortifications, became the “land of castles,” Castilla, and it became a separate kingdom in the beginning of the eleventh century.
Out of a complicated web of relationships between the various ruling powers, the balance of power on the peninsula gradually shifted towards the Christian kingdoms, and a united Castilla and León gradually grew. Together with neighboring Aragon they expanded south and by 1248 had control over much of the peninsula, save for the Muslim enclave of Granada (which was allowed to remain autonomous as a dependency of Castile), the crown of Aragon, and the French dominated Kingdom of Navarre. In 1479 the dynastic union of Castilla-León and the Kingdom of Aragon was realized with the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabel, and in 1492 Granada fell too.
1492 was also the year of Christopher Columbus’ fateful journey, and Spain became thrust into the international spotlight, not long after becoming a part of the Hapsburg empire. In its heyday, its dominion, as well as the lands in the Americas, the Caribbean, and Indonesia, included territory in Italy, Germany, Holland, and France. How beneficial this was for the country is questionable, as it became embroiled in an endless series of international conflicts, for which Castilla and the American Empire remained the source of the vast majority of funding, and military muscle.
A lot of the main attractions of the region for the visitor are to be found in the cities between the vast, featureless plains. The historic importance of the Church is reflected in a wealth of magnificent cathedrals, including in Burgos, Leon, Salamanca, Segovia, and Avila. Castles and medieval town centers are abundant too, and Segovia deserves a special mention for its mix of Roman, Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic influences, as well as just about the finest existing Roman aqueduct you are likely to see. If you are there and a meat lover, be sure not to miss out on its specialty, cochinillo, or suckling pig. There are also some spectacular and deserted nature parks if you know where to look between the large, featureless plains.