Category Archives: El Cid

Travels in Spain, The Historical Centre of Valencia

Valencia Town Hall

Regardless of the size of any Spanish city the historical centre is generally small and easily managed on foot and Valencia is no exception confined as it is within a circle that was once the old medieval city walls.

Our excellent accommodation was close to the central squares adjacent to the Cathedral and to the central market which was one of my favourite places.  Every morning I volunteered for breakfast shopping duties and made an early morning visit joining lines of Valencians going about their daily business, some vigorous, some dawdling, some urgent and energetic some reluctant and lethargic.

On the very edge of the centre is another market, a very fine building with a colourful Gaudi-inspired façade which is an example of Modernista Valencian Art Nouveau architecture of the time and has since been declared a national monument.

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It was once a real market but these days it has been gentrified and gone up-market and instead of stalls of fish and vegetables it is home to expensive cafés, restaurants and shops, the smell of the sea and the soil has been replaced by barista and croissant but it is a good place to visit all the same.

Not a great deal of the original city walls remain in place, just a pile of gnarled stone here and there but there are two restored gate houses that El Cid would surely have recognised even today and I chose one of them to pay the very reasonable admission fee of €1and climbed to the top where there were good views over the whole of the city.

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One of the things that I especially liked about Valencia was the general level of cleanliness with tidy streets and a thankful lack of graffiti, I know some people consider it to be a form of expressionism but in my opinion it is almost always a punishable crime.  I do however like good urban art and on almost every street corner there was something worthwhile to see, always well done and tasteful.  (The three worst places that I have been for graffiti by the way are Bologna, Lisbon and Ljubljana).

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Finally we visited the Bull Ring which I know a lot of people won’t agree with as being something worthwhile.  I used to think that I would like to see a Bullfight but not anymore.  Not because I disagree with it in principle but simply because as a spectacle it wouldn’t appeal to me.  That is because I am not Spanish and it is not part of my culture and tradition.

“Nothing expresses the masculine quality of this country better than the bull-fight, that lurid and often tawdry gladiatorial ritual, which generally repels the northerner in the theory, but often makes his blood race in the act.”  – Jan Morris. ‘Spain’

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There are many calls from outside Spain (and within as well) to ban the sport but that would be doing away with a pagan tradition that stretches back to the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans and once it has gone that link will disappear forever.

“I do not consider bullfighting a sport, it is an art, a science, a ritual more spiritual than physical”   Patricia McCormick – America’s first professional female bullfighter

The informative little museum explained that in a bullfight six bulls are killed in an event and this involves three matadors with their band of attendants, the picador horsemen who lance the bulls and the banderillos who stab them with barbed spikes.  If the spectators approve of the matador’s performance they wave white handkerchiefs to signal to the president of the fight that he should reward him with a trophy, one or both of the bull’s ears and/or its tail.  Personally I would rather have a bottle of champagne or a cheque!

Every year, approximately two hundred and fifty thousand bulls are killed in bullfights. Opponents condemn it as a cruel blood sport, supporters defend it as a cultural event and point out that animal cruelty exists elsewhere in horse racing, rodeos or any form of hunting with guns which are all forms of sport that are stoically defended by those who take part.

Personally I would include the cruel and pointless sport of fishing in that list because to my way of thinking there is nothing more barbaric than catching a poor creature just going peacefully about its daily business with a hook and line and dragging it from its environment in a most stressful way and watch it lying there on the bank of a river gasping for breath.

All in all, I remain firmly on the fence in the matter of Bullfighting. I think we should first address the issue of man’s inhumanity to man.

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Favourite Places in Spain, Antequera in Andalucia

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When planning a road trip in Spain at least for one night I generally like to find a place to stay off the usual well beaten tourist trail.  I have had great success with this and in picking places like Carmona, a few miles east of Seville in Andalucía, Pedro Bernardo in the mountains of Castilla y Leon and Almagro on the Ruta de Don Quixote in Castilla-La Mancha.

I was optimistic that Antequera was going to be added to the list of good selections.

Because of geography, tradition and culture Antequera is called the heart of  Andalucía and was once considered as a suitable candidate for the regional government to be based but it eventually and inevitably lost out to Seville.

My instincts proved to be correct and I was not disappointed.

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Favourite Places in Spain, Almagro in Castilla-La Mancha

Almagro Watercolours

Almagro is an old town that was once much more important than it is today, two hundred and fifty years ago it was for a short time the provincial capital of La Mancha (1750-61) but religious decline set in during the reign of Charles III and it fared badly and suffered damage in the Napoleonic and the Carlist wars.

Eventually it was eclipsed by its neighbour Ciudad Real and it settled down to become  the quiet provincial town that it is today on, not being unkind, a secondary, less important, tourist trail.  We came upon Almagro quite by chance and chose it for a one night stop-over.  We stayed for three!

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Favourite Places in Spain, Chinchon in Comunidad de Madrid

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From Besalu in Catalonia to Chinchon in Castilla-La Mancha about four hundred and fifty miles to the south.

The Plaza is in a marvellous location with a big irregular shaped square that is used for town festivals and the occasional bullfight; it is surrounded by a hierarchical arrangement of buildings of two and three storeys with two hundred and thirty-four wooden running balconies all painted a uniform shade of green called ‘claros’ and below these shops, bars and restaurants on the ground floor all spilling out onto the pavement.

It was the location for one of the opening scenes, a bullfight as it happens, in the 1966 film, ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’ and was also used as a location for the film ‘Around the World in Eighty Days’.

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Favourite Places in Spain, Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha

“…Sigüenza, ninety miles from Madrid, remains a quiet spot in an empty landscape.  It sits among narrow valleys celebrated by Camilo José Celar in his ‘Journey to the Acarria’”  –  Christopher Howse – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

I am sharing with you my favourite places in Spain; last time I was in the north in Cantabria and today I am two hundred and fifty miles south in the town of Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha…

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Travels in Spain, Cáceres in Extremadura

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“Extremadura was pre-eminently the country of the adventurers for many of them went to the New World… and often returned rich and the region is full of their memorials…. The old part of Cáceres is embellished everywhere with the heraldry of imperial nouveaux-riches”, Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

As we walked into the city we passed into the old town through one of the eight-hundred year old Moorish gates.

The city has an eclectic blend of Roman, Islamic, Northern Gothic and Italian Renaissance styles, the result of many tug-of-war battles fought here throughout history.  Precisely because of this Cáceres was declared a World Heritage City by UNESCO in 1986.

Saint George is the patron saint of the city and the story goes that he knew that there was a dragon terrorising the population of Cáceres, so he captured it and brought it to the city; he told the citizens that if they all converted from Islam to Christianity then he would kill the dragon. Fifteen thousand men converted on the spot (the women weren’t so important it seems) so he slayed the dragon and Cáceres lived in peace.

St George

The route from the splendid gate took us to the immaculate Plaza Mayor which had recently been resurfaced and tidied up in preparation for a submission to be considered as Spain’s representative as the European capital of Culture. (Ultimately not successful as it happens – pipped at the post by San Sebastián in the Basque Region).

It was hot now under a clear blue sky so after we had walked the circumference of the square we took a table at the Meson ‘Los Portales’ and ordered drinks and tapas.  Because of a communication problem (We can’t speak Spanish, the waiter couldn’t understand English) we didn’t get the one that we ordered but it was nice enough and we enjoyed it anyway.

After Alfonso IX of Leon conquered Cáceres in 1227 it flourished during the Reconquest and the Discovery of America as influential Spanish families and nobles built homes and small palaces here, and many members of families from Extremadura participated in voyages to America where they made their fortune and then returned home to enjoy it.

The colour of the walls was of the richest golden brown to be found anywhere in Spain, as though drenched, steeped, saturated with all the sunlight of centuries of summers.”  –  Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’

The old quarter, with its numerous palaces, churches and convents is enclosed by the city wall, most of it Moorish in construction, many of the defence towers are still standing and there are even a few Roman stone blocks visible.  From the Plaza Mayor we walked up the steps and through the Estrella de Churriguer archway.

From there to the Plaza de Santa Maria where close by is the Palacio De Los Toledo-Moctezuma, which is a vivid reminder of the importance of Cáceres in the conquest of the Americas because it was built for Techichpotzin  by one of her three Spanish husbands.  Who was  Techichpotzin? I hear you ask, well, let me tell you, she was no less than the daughter of the Aztec ruler Montezuma.

Dominating the square is the Iglesia de Santa Maria so we slipped inside and took a look around carefully remembering to avoid the image of the Cristo de los Blázquez, also known as the Cristo Negro or Black Christ which, tradition has it, brought death to all those who looked at, or touched it.

It cost just €1 to climb to the top of the bell tower so we paid and took the stone spiral staircase to the top where there were good views of the old town and beyond which we shared with all of the Storks that had built their untidy nests at the highest possible points.

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From here we walked the old narrow streets. Past the Palacio De Los Golfines De Abajo, with its spectacular and architecturally important façade in a style that was widely used in Spain and in South America throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. This Palacio was where the house the Catholics Kings stayed when they visited Caceres as guests of the Golfin family, the most important people in town, and the royal crest is carved above the doorway to prove it.

From the old town we came back to the square and walked into the shopping streets and around the old town walls from the outside and then with the afternoon slipping quickly away we returned to the Plaza Mayor and to the car.  If I was planning this trip again I would have stayed for a night in Cáceres but it was too late now and our accommodation was booked in Mérida about thirty miles to the south.

We estimated that we would be there in a little under an hour and at first all went according to plan until suddenly the motorway was closed and there was a diversion.   I took a decision to take the Badajoz road because although it wasn’t on the route to Mérida it was at least going south and I was confident that there would somewhere be a minor road to make the necessary correction.

We started to travel south-west and because this is such a sparsely populated region of Spain it turns out that there are not a lot of roads at all so we just kept going relentlessly towards Badajoz and further and further away from our intended destination. Eventually after quite a lengthy detour we came across a road that was so new that it wasn’t even on the map but it said Mérida so we trusted to luck and took it and started to drive in roughly the right direction

The journey that should have taken under an hour took nearly two and it was very late afternoon/early evening when we arrived at the Hotel Mérida Palace, parked the car and presented ourselves at reception for check in.

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Travels in Spain, The Palm Forest of Elche

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Close by to where Mick and Lindsay live is the city of Elche.  It is the third most populated city in the Community of Valencia (after Valencia and Alicante) and the twentieth largest Spanish city.  I would never have guessed that.  The twentieth largest city in the UK is Nottingham and I have heard of that of course and in USA it is El Paso, Texas which surprised me.  In Australia it is the splendidly named Albury–Wodonga in New South Wales.

The two main reasons for visiting Elche are to buy a pair of shoes (footwear manufacture is the largest industry in the town) or to visit the Palm Forests which are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  No one needed a new pair of shoes today because we had been shopping the day before and been in every shoe shop in La Zenia so today we were visiting the date palm orchards which date way back to the time of the occupation of Iberia by the Moors of North Africa.

In 2000 UNESCO designated the Palm Grove as a World Heritage Site citing the transfer of landscape and agricultural practices from one culture and continent to another – Moorish North Africa to Christian Europe.

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Currently, in the urban area of Elche there are almost one hundred different orchards containing about seventy-thousand date palms mostly in the east bank of the Rio Vinalopó. This number however does not include other large plantations located around wider urban area and all together the number may be close to a staggering two hundred thousand palms. It is the only palm grove of its type anywhere in Europe, the northernmost of its kind and one the largest in the world outside of North Africa.  Individual specimens of the palm trees can grow to a height of more than one hundred feet and be up to three hundred years old.

For statistical reasons I now digress.  The tallest trees in the World are the Californian Giant Redwood which grow to nearly four hundred feet, in Australia there is a species of Eucalyptus (Mountain Ash) which gets to three hundred and thirty feet and the tallest trees in the UK are the Douglas Fir which by comparison struggles to get to just two hundred feet or so.  The iconic English Oak (which we always think of a tall tree) is left way behind at only seventy feet!

Tallest trees

We arrived in Elche at mid-morning, found a convenient parking place and wandered off towards the palm forest, none of us thought about noting down the name of the street where we had left the car!

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Very quickly we were in the first orchard, a carefully managed public park with winding footpaths and clear direction signs but not very long after that we strayed into a less well managed area with winding dusty paths and not so many direction signs.  Soon it became clear that we were losing our sense of direction and as anyone who has been in a palm forest will know one palm tree looks very much like all the others because there isn’t a great deal of variation in shape or form.

We wandered around a little more getting ever further from our starting point and with realistic hopes of following the same route back rapidly deteriorating and it was at about this point that it suddenly occurred to us that we weren’t absolutely certain about where we had started from anyway.

Eventually we came across a busy road and close by a public park where there was an entrance fee to see the palms.  Having just seen about a thousand palms for free I wondered if this was necessary expenditure but we paid up and went inside and we were glad that we did because the gardens were immaculate and there were several interesting palms in there including one known as ‘Imperial Palm’ with seven stems in the shape of a candelabra and estimated to be about one hundred and seventy-five years old . It was named after Elisabeth, the Empress consort of Franz Joseph of Austria, who visited the plantation in 1894.

Palmera Elche

The visit over we made our way to the city centre but finding it to be a modern concrete sort of place with little really to interest us, it seems that most of the historical centre has been demolished and cleared away, we turned our attention back to the issue of finding a way back to the car.

We were still surrounded by a forest of palm trees on all sides so there was quite a bit of guess work involved here and several disagreements about direction and I always get nervous when Kim assumes the role of navigator because this is rarely good news.  I say nothing of course.  As it happened Mick had the keenest sense of direction, overruled all of our panic suggestions and insisted on a route that soon got us back to the car without any further detours.

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