Category Archives: Cathedrals

Travels in Spain, Ávila The Pride and The Passion

Avila Hotel

The weather was so settled that I practically stopped carrying out the early morning check because it was so constantly reliable and this morning we just went down to breakfast without giving it a second thought.

After eating we had an early walk into the town before checking out of the hotel and we stepped out in shirt sleeves but were immediately forced back to get a jacket because although the sun was shining, at this elevation, there was a sharp chill in the air.

The hotel was next to the cathedral, which was closed to visitors this morning on account of this being Sunday and the local people were using the place for the purpose for which it was really intended so we walked around the outside instead and were delighted to see a dozen or so Storks sitting on huge but untidy twig nests at the very top of the building.  They sat perfectly still in pairs just like bookends with only the breeze occasionally ruffling their feathers.  Periodically one or the other would fly off in search of food climbing high and magnificently on the morning thermals that were beginning to form.  Upon return they greeted each other with a noisy display of bill clattering that resonated through the granite streets and echoed off the sides of the buildings like rapid machine gun fire

.Avila View From walls

Progressing outside of the old city walls we found ourselves in the middle of preparations for a half marathon that was going to take place around the city walls with athletes all warming up and preparing for the big event.  In the early morning sun the view over the table top plain to the snow capped mountains in the distance was unexpected and wonderful and we sat for a while and enjoyed it.  It was peaceful and serene and I felt unusually contented.  It seemed hard to believe that twenty-four hours ago we were driving across the southern plains with all thoughts of winter behind us and now were in the mountains surrounded by snow.

We wished we were staying a second night in Ávila but sadly we weren’t and after we had checked out of the hotel we went back into the city to walk the walls, which are the best preserved in all of Spain and although they have had some recent renovation still capture the spirit of an impregnable medieval granite fortress.

It is over a mile long with two thousand five hundred battlements, eighty-eight cylindrical towers, six main gates and three smaller pedestrian gates.  Ávila was used in the 1957 film ‘The Pride and the Passion’ that starred Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra when a group of Spanish nationalists during the war of independence (The Peninsula War) lugged a huge gun up the mountains to attack the city and liberate it from the French invaders. It was based on the book ‘The Gun’, written by C S Forrester.

Avila x 4

We paid the €4 fee and received long winded instructions on how to find the four separate routes to which our tickets entitled us entrance and then climbed the steps to the top of the wall.  There were excellent views of the town, of the countryside beyond and the Storks sitting on their piles of sticks on top of the Cathedral and other buildings.  We thought that Ávila seemed nicer than Toledo and friendlier too because all of the information boards on the wall and in the town were thoughtfully translated into English.  There were an awful lot of steps to negotiate on the wall and because not all of the upper walkway was open this involved having to double back a lot as well to get to the exits.

After completing two of the sections we stopped for a drink in the sun in San Vicente Square on the outside of the walls and we agreed that we really liked the practice of always providing a little tapas with the drinks and we hatched a cunning plan – three bars, three drinks, three tapas, free lunch!

Spain Tapas

Just as we were leaving a mini-bus pulled up and a dozen or so men in blue and white football shirts got out.  They were making a lot of noise and made straight for the bar.  They were here from the nearby town of Aranda de Duero to watch a football match because their team Arandina were playing Real Ávila in the Spanish third division but as kick off wasn’t until five o’clock they were probably going to be doing a lot of drinking that afternoon in preparation.

Rested and refreshed we continued our walk around the walls but it became a bit repetitive and we tired of the reoccurring turrets and the seemingly endless walk so we abandoned the top of the wall and returned to street level and walked around the exterior instead.  After about an hour we re-entered the city at the Puerta de Santa Teresa on the west side and walked through the twisted narrow streets through the commercial centre and the market place and then deftly bypassed the shops back to the cathedral where we turned down the opportunity to pay and go inside in preference for staying outside in the sunshine.

The sun was quite strong now but there was a stiff breeze blowing off the adjacent plain and accelerating through the narrow streets so I don’t think we appreciated just how strong it was.  Soon we were back where we started at the Puerta Del Alcázar and it was time for a final drink and tapas before we prepared to leave.

The drinking group were all happy now and in very high spirits and I expect they were even happier after the game because I checked the football results later and Arandina won the match 2-1.

Avila Blue Sky

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Travels in Spain, A Detour to Talavera de la Reina

Talavera de la Reina Faces

Talavera de la Reina is a city in the western part of the province of Toledo, the second-largest centre of population in Castile-La Mancha after Albacete; it is the largest in the province, larger even than the city of Toledo itself, although the more famous city naturally remains the capital.

This means that to a certain extent Talavera is a city with an inferiority complex and this isn’t helped by the fact that it isn’t really a primary tourist destination but we are keen to visit as many Spanish cities as possible and even if it was not on our most direct route between Toledo and Ávila we were not going to exclude it from our itinerary.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Talavera achieved great recognition in Spain and beyond, thanks to its ceramics. Wonderful pieces of pottery and Talavera tiles are found in the main museums of the world and in the most luxurious palaces all over Europe.  The city is internationally known for its products, which King Philip II used as tiled revetments in many of his works, such as the monastery of El Escorial.

The nickname of Talavera de la Reina is ‘The City of Pottery’ and Mexico’s famous Talavera pottery was named after the place.  We could have guessed this because after lunch we walked through the old city towards the River Tagus and our route took us past a succession of similar ceramics workshops and shops.

Talavera de la Reina Soldiers

Eventually we reached the river which is the longest in the Iberian Peninsula and the twelfth longest in Europe. It is just over six hundred miles long long and flows all the way to Lisbon in Portugal where it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  Along its course there are several dams and diversions supply drinking water to most of central Spain and Portugal, while dozens of hydroelectric stations create power.

The source of the Tagus is the Fuente de García, in the Montes Universales, Sierra de Albarracín Comarca. The main cities it passes through are Aranjuez, Toledo, Talavera de la Reina and Alcántara in Spain, then Abrantes, Santarém, Almada and Lisbon in Portugal.

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To be honest there wasn’t a lot to detain us for more than an afternoon so after a short while we left.  Driving out of Talavera de la Reina was not too difficult except that we emerged from the underground car park onto a one way street and managed to cross the River Tagus twice until we found the road that headed north towards the Gredos Mountains, but once out of the city motoring was straight-forward and the satellite navigation lady seemed to pull her self together so we didn’t have any fall-outs!

As we headed north we began to slowly climb as we entered an area of green scrubland littered with huge granite boulders where the verges of the road were a riot of red poppies and contrasting yellow daisies.  Ahead of us we could see the mountains with peaks covered in a few stubborn streaks of snow in the protection of the shadows where the March sun couldn’t quite reach.  We were still in bright sunshine but ahead of us the sky was a dramatic dark grey, brooding, threatening and angry and we worried that crossing the north south dividing line of Spain parallel with Madrid (40° 25′ 0.3900” N) that we were leaving all of the good weather behind.

A short way out of Talavera we crossed the site of a famous battle of the Peninsula War where Sir Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) won one of his most successful and famous battles.  On 27th and 28th July 1809 the Battle of Talavera took place between the Anglo-Spanish army and the French.  It was a total allied victory and during the fight Talavera was hardly damaged and Wellesley’s army expelled the French from the city and the surrounding area.

The battle is also the setting for the fictional event of ‘Sharpe’s Eagle’ the first book written in Bernard Cornwell’s ‘Sharpe’ series.

Next time I will finally get back to Ávila…

Regions of Spain

Travels in Spain, Toledo to Ávila

Castilla y Leon

“When you approach from the west almost all you see is its famous wall, a mile and a half of castellated granite… it looks brand new, so perfect is its preservation and seems less like an inanimate rampart than a bivouac of men-at-arms….” –  Jan Morris – ‘Spain’ 

We had spent nearly four hours in the city of Toledo but that wasn’t nearly enough time to appreciate fully the medieval magnificence of the place and in truth we had been way over ambitious and given ourselves too much to do in one day and with still a long way to go to reach our final destination we had to leave before we were ready and before we had seen everything we wanted to see.

On reflection our itinerary should have included a night in Toledo to give us more time but that wasn’t an option now because we had a hotel waiting for us in Ávila.

Leaving Toledo was just as easy as driving in and quickly we were out of the city and heading north again and skirting around Madrid with another one hundred miles to go.  For the first part of the journey there was nothing very special or exciting, every twenty miles or so there was a ruined castle like decayed teeth in the gums of the tawny hills once completing the Spanish defensive ring around Madrid and we seemed tantalising close to the cities and towns that I recognised from the Sharpe novels and the Peninsular War stories, Talavera, Badajoz, Salamanca and Ciudad Rodrigo but these were all to the west on the way to Portugal and we had no time to detour to any of them.

Spain Castles

As we crossed into Castilla y Leon the scenery quickly began to change as we left the flat plains completely behind and began to drive through pine forests with Alpine like meadows, crystal lakes, busy rivers and snow capped mountains.  We were climbing all the time and it was a complete transformation as we left behind the picturesque whitewashed villages of La Mancha and the towns now had grey stone walls and flat tiled roofs and we had completely lost the appearance of Mediterranean Spain.

Eventually we reached a desolate treeless table top plateau with a wilderness landscape with giant grey boulders lying randomly on the bracken coloured land and then we dropped a little and at three thousand feet started to approach Ávila, the highest provincial capital in Spain.

The old city of Ávila is completely enclosed within a medieval wall and as our hotel was inside it we drove through one of the main gates and into tangle of narrow streets and immediately got lost and confused.  Just as things were beginning to look hopeless we found a tourist information office and went inside for help.  The man at the desk explained that parking was very difficult (we’d guessed that already) and that it would be best to go back out of the old city and park in a public car park nearby.  He gave me a street map that looked like a bowl of spaghetti and told me that it was too difficult for him to try to explain how to get out and that I should just drive around until I get to a gate.  ‘Thank you very much, that was very helpful’ I muttered silently under my breath.

Avila x 6

Well, we eventually found the way out and the car park and then we had to walk back into the city and to the Plaza Catedral to find the Hotel Palacio De Los Velada.  We passed some lovely hotels on the way and I worried about my choice but I needn’t have because it turned out to be exceptional.  It was a four star hotel and we don’t usually do four star hotels but I had picked up an excellent half price deal and found ourselves staying in a genuine old seventeenth century palace that had been converted into this excellent hotel with a large internal courtyard, grand wooden balconies, sumptuous furniture and a brilliant room.

I congratulated myself on a real result as I opened the wine with a corkscrew that we had treated ourselves to at a nearby supermarket.  I had a very good feeling about Ávila.

Later we walked out into the city and looked for somewhere to eat.  Our first choice refused to serve off of the menu del dia so we left and then found a rustic sort of place serving simple meals from the cheaper menu and we had a meal of Castilian soup and the local specialty of roasted suckling pig.  On the walk back to the hotel there was a black velvet sky full of bright stars and a big full moon that reflected off of the snow on the Gredos Sierra Mountains and things looked very promising for another good day tomorrow.

Avila External

Travels in Spain, Museums

Kim doesn’t always share my enthusiasm for Museums.  She sat this one out but from the garden outside caught me looking at the exhibits through a window.

Travels in Spain, Toledo The City of Religion and Steel

Toledo Postcard

“A castle stands sentinel across the stream; harsh grey hills are all about: the setting of Toledo is all abrasion, nothing soft, nothing hospitable, nothing amusing.  This is the Spanish character at its most intractable” –  Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

The car park might have been conveniently right on the edge of the City but to get there involved a rather strenuous climb to reach it because old Toledo is built on the top of a craggy outcrop of rock which sits like a Stork’s nest that in the Middle Ages made it impregnable to hostile forces.

The whole city is a sort of natural castle with a moat, the Tagus River, running in a looping gorge around three sides of it. The only way an enemy could take it was to attack the north side and that was difficult because not surprisingly that was the most strongly fortified part of the city walls.  The Tagus, by the way, is the fourth longest river in Western Europe and the most important in Iberia and from Toledo it flows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon in Portugal.

Toledo has always been one of the most important cities in Spain and for many years actually contested the status of capital with nearby Madrid and was in fact the principal city until 1560.  But Madrid gradually came to prominence under the Hapsburg Monarchy and Phillip II moved his court there and made it his Capital in 1561.

Toledo compensated for this by reinventing itself as the principal religious city in the country and today remains the seat of the Primate of all Spain.  To walk around the cramped streets of Toledo and browse the souvenir shops is the closest you can get in Spain to being in Rome as replicas of the Saints stare out from every shop window.

This to is the city of El Greco, the greatest artist of his age and his religious paintings and his interpretations of the scriptures that represent Toledo as a brooding cauldron of spiritual energy are never far away.

Spain - Historic City of Toledo 1

At the end of the climb from the car park we entered the city at the busy main square, the Plaza Zocodover, which was surrounded by tall imperial buildings and confusing little streets leaking away into deep shadows in all directions.  Without a map we were rather confused and disorientated because this was easily the biggest place we had visited so far.

After a while we established our bearings and walked to the Alcázar, which was closed today for improvements and a planned new museum but being at the top of the city did have spectacular views over the river and the lands stretched out to the south.  We were still unsure of our location and after an aborted refreshment stop at a bar with a broken loo and unacceptably loud music we threaded our way into the maze of narrow streets and walking in the general direction of the Cathedral.

After lunch we walked to the Cathedral and paid the entrance fee of €7, which turned out to be excellent value compared to the €2 to get into the tiny church in Belmonte.  It is one of the biggest cathedrals in the world and the interior is not at all austere as some cathedrals can be.  Slightly annoying was the fact that for those who didn’t want to pay the admission charge they could enter by a side door and although they couldn’t walk around freely and see all of the internal rooms and the especially impressive choir area, they could certainly see and appreciate the magnificent structure for free.

Acuarela Original

Outside the Cathedral we found a tourist information office and now we had a map the city was suddenly much easier to negotiate.  In the past Toledo had changed hands many times and it was renowned for its diversity and religious toleration and we visited a synagogue with, unusually for a synagogue, free admission and then after walking through a warren of mazy streets came out on the other side overlooking the modern town to the north.

Every available square metre of this rocky outcrop has been built upon and the buildings are heaped together in a random and haphazard way with cobbled lanes revealing new delights at every twist and turn.  We negotiated the narrow confusing streets and the surprises back towards the Plaza Zocodover and as we did so passed through an area of artisans workshops where metal workers were making swords and knives and displaying them in the windows.

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Traditionally Toledo (like Sheffield in England) is famous for its production of steel and especially of swords and the city is still a centre for the manufacture of knives and other steel implements designed for stabbing people.  In the tourist shops slashing swords and dangerous daggers compete for selling space with the holy Saints and religious icons.

For soldiers and adventurers in past times a sword made of Toledo steel was a must have item because the quality of the steel and the skill of the blacksmith combined to make an exceptionally strong and perfect lethal weapon.  In literature and film the Three Musketeers had Toledo steel swords and so did Don Diego de la Vega who was more famously known as Zorro.

The manufacturing process was a carefully guarded secret and to make such an exceptional weapon they had to select the very best raw materials and then follow a complicated technical process to achieve the right balance between hard and soft steel forged at a temperature of 1454º Fahrenheit for exactly the right length of time and followed by a critical cooling and shaping process.  So complicated was this whole procedure and so perfect was the finished weapon that to achieve this level of precision a master craftsman would typically only be able to make two or three blades in a year.

Little wonder that they were so expensive!

Toledo Steel

Travels in Spain, Castles and Travels of El Cid

castle of Jadraques

This is the castle of Jadraques near Guadalajara in Castilla-La Mancha.

There isn’t a castle in this part of Spain that doesn’t make a claim that El Cid made a visit.

There is no absolute way of knowing if El Cid or his contemporary Alvar Fáñez de Minaya ever really did pass this way but there is a quotation from ‘El Cantar de Mio Cid‘ to provide the evidence that he did.

One thing is for sure – if El Cid did turn up at all the locations that claim that he did then he certainly covered an impressive amount of miles and spent an awful  lot of time in the saddle.

El Cid

Travels in Spain, Belmonte Castle and El Cid

Belmonte Castle

When it was night the Cid lay down. In a deep sleep he fell,
And to him in a vision came the angel Gabriel:
“Ride, Cid, most noble Campeador, for never yet did knight
Ride forth upon an hour whose aspect was so bright.
While thou shalt live good fortune shall be with thee and shine.”    

It was another excellent morning and behind the dark shutters the early morning sun was waiting to strike lack a dagger as soon as they were opened.  The sky was clear and it was  serene and tranquil with absolute silence but for the merry chirruping of the house martins nesting in the garden and already well into their days work.

The breakfast room was busier this morning as a few families had checked in the previous afternoon so while we waited to use the toasting machine I had a look around the room and the pictures on the wall.  At the far end there were photographs of the actor Charlton Heston in the film El Cid and the man on duty behind the bar tried to explain to me in a combination of Spanish and English (mostly Spanish) that some of the movie was filmed right here in Belmonte at the fifteenth century castle that overlooks the town.

El Cid Belmonte Castle

Although the sun was shining it was quite cool in the shade so we kept to the sunny side of the street and after breakfast made for the castle.  On the way we stopped to ask directions and a lady showed us the route but explained in sign language that it wasn’t open at the moment (several times).  This didn’t come as a complete surprise I have to say because there was an enormous crane sticking out of the top of it and even from a distance it was obvious that the builders were in.

Despite this it looked well worth an external visit anyway so we left by a town gate and began to walk up an unmade path towards the castle.  The walk involved quite an arduous climb, especially as I insisted on trying to reach the highest point for the best view and this meant negotiating an almost vertical ascent up a loose shale path that crumbled away under our feet at every step.  I was puffing by the top but tried to pretend that I wasn’t!

But it was worth it and we were rewarded with great views over the town and from here we could clearly see its military footprint because Belmonte is a fortified town at the foot of the magnificently sturdy castle which was part of the ring of fortifications that marked the front line in the medieval power struggle between the Spanish Christians and the African Moors.

On the way back down to the castle we crossed the exact spot where Charlton Heston led an assault against the Moors on his white stead Babieca and his mighty sword La Tizona flashing menacingly in the Christian charge.

Belmonte Spain

El Cid is the national hero of Spain, a bit like our Queen Elizabeth I or Winston Churchill.  He was a warrior, a nobleman, a knight, and a champion.  He became a legend within only a few years of his death and most Spaniards know about him because at school they read an epic poem called El Cantar de Mío Cid.  It is the first great poem in the Spanish language and was written about 1140, only fifty years or so after he died.

Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar known as El Cid Campeador, was a Castilian nobleman, a gifted military leader and a diplomat who fought for and then fell out with Alfonso VI, was exiled but later returned, and in the fight against the Moors conquered and governed the city of Valencia. It’s a good story but the film takes a lot of historical liberties so it’s best not to rely upon it as a source document for serious study.

The castle is a declared national monument and it was closed for some serious renovation and no one seemed to know with any degree of certainty when it would open again.  It was a shame not to be able to visit but we walked around the outside underneath its imposing towers and told ourselves it was a good excuse to come back sometime.   From here there were uninterrupted views over the Meseta, the massive central plateau of Spain laid out like a patchwork quilt in front of us.  It was obvious why they built the castle here because no one was going to sneak up on them, that’s for sure!

Mont St Michel Door

From the castle we took the road back into town which took us through lazy whitewashed streets where elderly ladies in shabby black dresses and faded floral pinafores sat gossiping in the doorways and men folk sat on benches discussing the weekend football results and important matters of state.  In the centre of town there were a few shops, a mini market, butcher, grocer and a fishmonger, an electrical shop that didn’t look as if it had sold anything for years, a florist and a photographer.

What we really wanted was a bar with outside tables but there were none and I formed the impression that the town was really only just waking up to spring, like a snowdrop under a fall of snow and after a longer than normal winter wasn’t yet quite certain enough that it was really here and to have the confidence to put the tables and chairs outside without having to hastily bring them back inside again.

Instead we walked to the other side of the town to some more windmills, made a visit to the collegiate church which was absurdly overpriced at €2 each and took about ten minutes to look around (and that was dawdling) and that was it and after only three hours that was Belmonte visited, seen and finished.

Charlton Heston El Cid

Some more posts about El Cid…

El Cid and the Spanish Reconquista

El Cid, the Film, Fact and Fiction

Northern Spain – The City of Burgos

El Cid Charging