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Until the recent installation of high-speed rail, few North Americans beyond architecture buffs ever visited Zamora. Although it does have some modern hotels and terrific restaurants, the city seems little changed since its years of dusty decline in the 17th century, when the majority of its populace emigrated to South America, establishing several Zamoras across that continent. Scholars sometimes refer to Zamora as an open-air museum of Romanesque architecture, and the old churches—most of them well-preserved and still functioning as neighborhood parishes—are powerfully moving. The processions, or pasos, during Holy Week (the week before Easter) are some of the largest and most spectacular in Spain. Reserve far ahead to visit then.

It is surprising that Zamora’s monuments have survived so many centuries, as the city has been the site of fierce battles. It was here that Leon finally captured the city from the Moors in the 11th century; Zamora was also the scene of fierce battles in the 15th-century war between Isabel I and Juana la Beltraneja, Isabel’s illegitimate half-niece—a struggle whose memory is preserved in the old Spanish proverb No se ganó Zamora en una hora, or “Zamora wasn’t won in an hour.”

Zamora sits on the north bank of the Río Duero just downstream from the wine districts of Rueda and Toro (and just upstream from Portugal’s port vineyards). To the north, the landscape rises rapidly into mountain woodlands that supply the foraged mushrooms and wild trout often found on Zamoran menus. Historically, the city was an important stop on the Roman “silver road” to Galicia, and the Galician penchant for octopus continues even in this dusty Castilian city.

Zamora’s Romanesque churches are a delight to explore, but you’ll have to check the doors for the hours of Mass to get inside most of them. They may be priceless monuments that are 700 to 800 years old, but they are still active parish churches. A handful open for prayers in the mornings at 10am, close before lunch, and open again in the early evening before dinner, 5 to 8pm. It’s also a treat to explore the city walls. The Portillo de la Traición(Treason Gate) on the northwest corner of the city commemorates the duplicitous assassination of Castilian king Sancho II in 1072 when he and El Cid were laying siege to the city in a battle over succession to the crown of León. The upshot of Sancho’s death was that his brother Alfonso united the crowns of Castilla and León.