The river Tajo and the wines of the Order of Saint James

The Order of St James brought vineyards to flourish in the lands received from King Alfonso VIII in payment for its assistance in the fight against Muslim rule.

In 1170 King Ferdinand II of León and the Bishop of Salamanca, Pedro Suárez de Leza, asked thirteen knights know as Frates or Knights of Cáceres to defend the capital of Estremadura. On 29 July of that same year the Order of St James was born in the Kingdom of León, a religious and military institution designed to protect the pilgrims on the Road of St James and make the Muslims intending to occupy the Iberian Peninsula retreat. By 1172 the order had extended its activity to Castile, from where it immediately spread to Aragon, Antioch, France, England, Lombardy and Portugal.

During the long period of the Reconquest of Spain, the monarchs of the recovered territories transferred lands and privileges to the order. The territories now known as the Sub-area of Arganda were among those affected, and became a part of the protectorate under King Alfonso VIII. The presence of the knights and priors of the order gave a permanence to former settlements and those that had been founded after military victories.

While the advanced lines continued to restore Christianity, agriculture flourished in the rearguard. The vineyards in the region of the Tajuña, a tributary to the Tajo (that for centuries had been a natural frontier between the Christian kingdoms and Al-Andalus) hadn't experienced a similar splendour since the age of Roman rule. Filled with traces of mediaeval bastions, this route invites travellers to relive one of the most notable inspirational moments in the history of Madrid's wine making.

Villarejo de Salvanés

This spot became a wine-making centre in 1174 when Alfonso XI, King of Castile, transferred Alharilla Castle (twelve kilometres away, in Fuentidueña de Tajo, the next stop along the route) and its limits, which included Villarejo de Salvanés, to the Order of St James. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, transformed into what was known as the Encomienda Mayor of Castile (a temporary patrimony granted by the sovereign), the town was recognised for the activity of its vineyards.

The tower of the fortress that still stands today in the town centre, beside the shrine of Our Lady of the Victory of Lepanto, has been recently restored. On its walls we can make out the impressive blazon of the order, the Cross of St James, thus illustrating a magnificent past that had been practically forgotten.

Wineries: Three wineries fall under the Wines of Madrid DO, although they do not yet appear on the Madrid Wine Routes.

Villarejo de Salvanés—Fuentidueña de Tajo

As we approach the Tajo Valley, the landscape is characterised by calcareous soil and sedimentary formations, while the horizon is dominated by hillsides of holm oaks and olive groves. A couple of kilometres before reaching Fuentidueña de Tajo, a sign on the A-3 motorway (exit number 59) informs us that we shall soon be abandoning the silent road surface of the motorway.

Fuentidueña de Tajo

The remains of the tower of Fuentidueña Castle, known today as Tower of the Keep and which measures over thirty metres in height, offer an impressive welcome to visitors. Despite the existence of pre-historic, Roman and Visigothic remains (there is a Visigothic necropolis beside the Royal Soriana Ravine), the most important settlement was recorded around the Muslim fortress of Alharilla, an Arab enclave designed to stop the advance of Christian kingdoms, no longer extant.

Before continuing along our journey we recommend stopping at the end of the Miguel Hernández Promenade to greet the River Tajo, for the first time on the route: the course of its waters, opposite the steel bridge, will be especially obvious for all bird lovers. The surroundings offer the possibility of learning to canoe and enjoying the municipal swimming pools in summer.

Fuentidueña de Tajo—Belmonte de Tajo

While in the first part of the journey, before crossing the small town of Villamanrique de Tajo, we can guess the importance of the waters of the river for the agriculture of the area, the detour towards Belmonte de Tajo is a declaration of intentions: the landscape is dotted with the vineyards, grain and olive groves introduced by the Romans two thousand years ago.

Belmonte de Tajo

The Order of St James played a key role in the occupation of Pozuelo de Belmonte (the name given to the town by the first settlers on account of it being surrounded by bellos montes (beautiful mountains). Documents from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries provide evidence of the lawsuits and disputes concerning ownership of the territory between the Order of St James and the Bishop of Segovia, to whom King Alfonso VIII had granted jurisdiction.

Outstanding features of the town are its circular main square, the parish church of Our Lady of the Star and a small hotel and restaurant with a stone façade, an inner courtyard and a grotto. The location of the first winery that can be visited on this route is quite special and easily accessible by car despite standing by the pronounced clayey bed of a stream on an unpaved track.

Belmonte de Tajo—Colmenar de Oreja

The two towns are quite close together. Although the journey is short, visitors have a clear view of the vineyards at both sides of the road. The differences in temperature that characterise the Sub-area of Arganda harden the skin of the grapes, thereby protecting the berry and increasing the taste and quality of its wines.

Colmenar de Oreja

After becoming a powerful Arab bastion, in 1139 Colmenar de Oreja was conquered by Emperor Alfonso VII, who granted it the Jurisdiction of Town of Oreja. In 1171 Alfonso VIII donated the territory to the Order of St James, along with Oreja Castle which is in Ontígola (Toledo), a landmark that can be visited on the last stretch of our journey.

Besides the traditional Plaza Mayor or main square, the porticoed buildings and galleries evoke its importance as a town centre since the Middle Ages. In December 2013 it was declared an asset of Cultural Heritage Value. The Ulpiano Checa Municipal Museum, the proliferation of caves and buildings dedicated to the culture of wine make it an essential stop on our journey. We should not forget that it was an important centre of production of clay vessels. If the route is followed in the month of May its wines can be tasted at the Wine Fair.

Colmenar de Oreja—Castillo de Oreja

The longest journey on the route (thirty-eight kilometres) can be divided up into three sections. The first ten kilometres consist of a downward drive to the bed of the River Tajo (visitors are advised to drive carefully). A few metres before reaching the Tajo we should take the detour and turn right, towards Villaconejos.

The second section (twenty and a half kilometres) runs along the river valley. The land’s suitability for agriculture is soon obvious, as is the importance of the orography that acts as a frontier between the Christian kingdoms and Al-Andalus. The impressive tower of Oreja Castle at the end of the route soon comes into sight, although we must proceed a little further before crossing the river and returning to our route in the vicinity of Aranjuez. The solemn wooded entrances to the town announce the possibility of enjoying long strolls by the gardens of the Royal Palace—the Prince’s Garden lies to the right of the roadway.

Much of the third and last section (seven and a half kilometres) follows a long stretch of an unpaved track, although this one is quite wide and easy to access. After taking a detour left towards Finca de Sotomayor, some nine hundred metres along an entrance is marked by two white blocks and approximately six kilometres further Oreja Castle stands at the end of the route.

Castillo de Oreja (Ontígola)

The ruins of the impressive building on the former shores of the Sea of Ontígola (today reduced to a small lake) where the city of Oreja, no longer extant, had once flourished, preside over the course of the Tajo. Although its origins date back to the Roman settlement of Aurelia, the period between the Christian defeat in the Battle of Uclés (1108) and the siege led by Alfonso VII of León with troops from Galicia, Toledo, Estremadura and León that caused its final surrender due to hunger and thirst (1139) was the most eventful of its history. From then on it would be transferred to the Order of St James for the defence of the reconquered territories.

The top of the promontory can be reached by some of the winding paths that begin in the vicinity. The view of the valley is the true present that Alfonso VII made to the Order of St James almost nine centuries ago. If travellers still have the energy, they can return and enjoy a visit to the city of Aranjuez, her Royal Palace and the two wineries on the Madrid Wine Routes.

Route 3

Villarejo de Salvanés—Fontidueña de Tajo
Carretera A-3
12,2 km | 11 min

Fontidueña de Tajo—Belmonte de Tajo
Through Villamanrique de Tajo: Calle de la Cañada—Calle de la Cruz—Calle Chile—Calle del Clavel
21,4 km | 24 min
Camino junto al Tajo

Belmonte de Tajo—Colmenar de Oreja
6,5 Km | 10 min

Colmenar de Oreja—Castillo de Oreja
Through Valle del Tajo & Aranjuez: CM-322—Calle Colmenar de Oreja—Calle Cano (unpaved)
38 Km | 55 min

Towns: Villarejo de Salvanés, Fontidueña de Tajo, Colmenar de Oreja, Belmonte de Tajo, Castillo de Oreja.
Wineries: Bodega Andrés Díaz, Muñoz Martín, Bodega Ricardo Benito, Bodega Real Cortijo de Carlos III, Bodega Viñas El Regajal
Distance Madrid: 65,8 km | 42 min.
Length: 78,1 km