Category Archives: Food

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, Besalú in Catalonia

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Besalú is designated as a National Historic Property but it is rather small and as we were staying here for a couple of nights we thought it best not to rush around and see everything straight away.  This plan suited me just fine because it was exceptionally hot by mid-afternoon so the best place to be was in the main square under a parasol with a big glass of cool Estrella beer in a frozen glass and several plates of local specialities for lunch.

Eventually the bars and restaurants began to close down as the owners and staff cleared the tables and started to think about the afternoon siesta so we took the hint and moved off to go and explore the streets of Besalú.

Away from the medieval main square we melted into narrow alleys with cobbled streets with weathered stone buildings and balconies with terracotta pots host to effervescent flower displays, wooden doors with heavy metal hinges and rusty locks and several coats of paint attempting to conceal the damage of hundreds of years.

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Travels in Spain, Trujillo and The Spanish Conquistadors

Francesco Pizzaro Trujillo Extremadura Spain

“…the breed of men who conquered a continent with a handful of adventurers, wore hair shirts day and night until they stuck to their flesh, and braved the mosquitoes of the Pilcomayo and the Amazon”  Gerald Brenan

Our plan now was to visit the town of Trujillo that we had missed two days ago because of changes to our itinerary on our way to Cáceres.  After we had stopped for fuel we drove north skirting the Parque Naturel de Cornarvo but to be honest there was little to get excited about across the flat dusty plains of Extremadura and nothing to divert us as we drove the thirty miles or so towards our destination.

Trujillo, on the Tozo River, a tributary of the Tagus, is sited on the only hill for miles around and about forty kilometres east of Cáceres.  Although the Autovia passes close by it is not an especially busy tourist city so when we drove in and followed signs to the Plaza Mayor we found parking surprisingly easy just a few yards away from the main square.

Extremadura Trujillo Alcazar

The pace of life in the plaza was delightfully soporific with a just a few visitors wandering around and others sitting with local people in the bars and cafés around the perimeter. It was pleasantly warm but I would suspect that in high summer this large exposed granite space can become an anvil for the blistering sun and, unless you have the heat tolerance of a lizard,  it would be important to find a spot in the shade.  This was genuine Spain, this was Spain in the raw, stripped down to the bones.  I liked Trujillo almost immediately and without any hesitation.

All around the square there are grand palaces and mansions and outside the sixteenth century red brick, blood stained Iglesia de San Martín in the north-east corner is the reason why, a great equestrian statue of the Spanish conquistador, Francisco Pizzaro.  Everything about the statue is fierce and warlike, a giant muscular warhorse, a mighty warrior with aggressive jutting beard and elbows, wicked long spurs, visor raised with flowing plumes, his sword drawn and ready for action.

It is an interesting coincidence that many of the sixteenth century explorers and adventurers who carved out the Spanish Empire in South America came from Extremadura and as well as Pizzaro, Hérnan Cortés, who defeated the Aztecs and founded Mexico, Hernando De Soto, who explored Florida, and Pedro de Almagro, who accompanied Pizzaro, all came from this south-west corner of Spain.

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Because of these adventurers Trujillo flourished in the sixteenth century but it declined again just as quickly and has been largely forgotten since and the palaces, the castle, the stone mansions, the columned arcades and the baking plazas are sitting there almost exactly as the conquistadors and soldiers of fortune left them.

It is a magnificent statue, matched only by that of El Cid in Burgos, and I challenge anyone not to admire it.  I think I could have stayed and admired that statue all day long, it epitomises the spirit of the Spanish Seaborne Empire of the Sixteenth Century.

The statue captures the flare and the audacity of the conquistadores and in his hand he carries a menacing sword but there is a message that here was a man who lived and died by violence the statue has no scabbard which seems to suggest that he rarely ever put the blade away!

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Francisco Pizzaro was born in Trujillo and became a conquistador who travelled along much of the Pacific coast of South America. With an army of only one hundred and eighty men and less than thirty horses he encountered the ancient Incan empire and brutally and quickly conquered it, killing thousands of natives, including the Inca King Atahualpa and stealing immense hoards of gold, silver, and other treasures for the King of Spain and for himself including the Inca King’s wife who he took for a mistress.

As a consequence of Pizzaro’s adventures, Spain became the greatest, richest and most powerful country in the world at the time and as well as conquering Peru and founding the city of Lima, he also added Ecuador and Colombia to the Spanish Empire thus providing immense new territories and influence and spreading Roman Catholicism to the New World.

We walked out the Plaza Mayor and followed the steep cobbled lanes as they twisted their sinuous way up past buildings constructed of attractive mellow stone, past the inevitable Parador and more churches and mansions until finally we were at the top at the Alcázar of the Moors who controlled this city for five hundred years before the Reconquista.

Inside the castle we walked around the high stone walls and stopped frequently to admire the uninterrupted views over the dehesa of Extremadura spreading endlessly in every direction in a ragged patchwork of agricultural green, gold and brown where distant villages floated on the vastness all the way to Portugal.

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Walking back down to the plaza was a great deal easier than the energy sapping climb but we got lost in the web of tiny streets and surprised ourselves by emerging at an unexpected entrance to the square which was jam-packed with cars on account of it being the end of school for the day and parents were collecting their children to take them home.  It was a little past lunch time and we were overdue something to eat so we examined the menus at the pavement restaurants and when Kim was satisfied with our choice we found a seat in the sun and ordered some local dishes.

As the Plaza slowly emptied and peace and quiet was restored it was nice sitting in the sunshine enjoying the sights of the square in a city blessed with great architecture and a theatrical history but mercifully not overrun with tourists. It was lovely and if I was planning the trip again I am certain that I would squeeze at least an overnight stop in Trujillo into the itinerary and we would have stayed longer this afternoon but we had a long drive ahead of about one hundred and fifty miles because now it was time to start to drive back east towards Castilla-La Mancha which was going to be about a three hour drive.

Trujillo 5

A Challenge Accepted

Just recently a blogging pal of mine challenged me to tackle these three questions. I don’t usually respond to challenges but in this case I have made an exception.

1. Which philosopher do you most admire and if they were alive today in your country/town how would they focus or direct their main theory and to what end?

Thomas Paine Thetford Norfolk

I immediately thought that I might go for John Locke “The Father of Liberalism” because I think that “Two Treatises of Government” is where nearly fifty years ago I formed my own views on politics and society.

I then considered Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (not Voltaire himself of course even though it neatly sums up his contribution to the principle of Free Speech.

But I have decided to choose Thomas Paine. My interest in him was rekindled when I visited his birth town of Thetford in Norfolk.

Thomas Paine Hotel

Paine supported both the American Revolution (one of the Founding Fathers no less) and the French Revolution and his most important work was The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen which became the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law. In 1792 he was elected to the French National Convention. In all of the turmoil of the revolution he was arrested. He only narrowly escaped the guillotine during the reign of terror and was then (not being welcome in England) allowed to travel to the USA.

The Declaration is important, it is included in the beginning of the constitutions of both the Fourth French Republic (1946) and Fifth (1958) and is still current. Inspired by the philosophers of the French Enlightenment like Voltaire and Rousseau, the Declaration became a core statement of the values of the French Revolution and had a major impact on the development of freedom and democracy in Europe and Worldwide.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen is so significant that it is considered to be as important as Magna Carta, the English Bill of Rights, the United States Bill of Rights and inspired in large part the 1948 United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

If he was here now I’d like to think he would have a solution to the crisis of democracy in the UK which has been brought about by the whole BREXIT fiasco.

Thomas Paine Memorial

If he was here now I’d like to think he would have a solution to the crisis of democracy in the UK which has been brought about by the whole BREXIT fiasco.

2. If you could completely “remove” three things from this planet what would they be and why? By “things” I don’t mean poverty, disease, discrimination etc, I mean tangible items, goods, or artefacts that really bug you. 

Dogs

alsatian

In the UK you need a licence for a shotgun or to keep poison or even weed killer but not for a killer animal!

Apologies here to my canine loving friends but I really don’t like dogs, I suffer from Cynophobia – I am scared of them, and this isn’t completely irrational because they really don’t like me either – but they are not frightened of me!  As soon as people with dogs realise that I have an unnatural and unexplainable fear of them then they seem to take sadistic delight in subjecting me to the terror of their company.

I don’t like dogs because I see no redeeming features in them. They sweat, they are greasy, they smell, they have bad breath, they foul the pavements and they piss up my garden wall.  What is there possibly to like about them?

My dislike for them started as a boy when I was taken one day for a walk by my granddad and on a piece of waste land opposite my parent’s house in Leicester an Alsatian dog knocked me to the ground, pinned me down and stood on my chest.  The inconsiderate owner had let it off its leash and I was absolutely terrified.

I couldn’t sum it up better than in the words of Bill Bryson…

“It wouldn’t bother me in the least…if all the dogs in the world were placed in a sack and taken to some distant island… where they could romp around and sniff each other’s arses to their hearts’ content and never bother or terrorise me again.” 

I wasn’t always frightened of dogs…

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Garlic

I hate garlic, I mean I really, really hate garlic. I hate the taste, I hate the aroma, I hate the way that it dries your mouth out and I hate the way that it makes you smell for twenty-four hours after eating it. I know that it is useful for warding off vampires but that is all I really have to say about garlic.  I am not even going to post a picture.

Plastic

truckers rubbish

I wish plastic had never been invented.

I have recently become more upset than ever before about litter alongside roads and paths. While littering of the oceans is now at the forefront of public concern, general littering of the countryside and communities is barely on the national radar. Yet the amount of eyesore litter, not just plastic, is increasing exponentially on roadsides, in rivers, in public spaces and in the countryside and has a hugely negative impact on our lives.

Litter ruins people’s enjoyment of the countryside and makes open spaces feel like waste grounds. In Lincolnshire, where I live, many road verges are strewn with plastic sheets and bags hanging from trees, discarded meal containers and sacks of general rubbish.  Rubbish collection, or lack of it, compounds the problem. Bins for public use are relatively scarce, and litter collection is less frequent as councils simultaneously promote recycling and cut budgets.

This is me  at work in 1990 trying to tackle the litter problem with local school children…

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3. Magic wish …. you can visit and see anything or any place on earth for a week, what is it, where, why?

Easy, my garden with some bottles of fine wine and a plate of my favourite nibbles!

So that is my challenge completed.  It is my job now to pass it on.  I have decided not to nominate anyone specifically but to invite anyone that has a care to, to think about and answer my three questions…

1 Most disappointing place ever visited

2 Which King or Queen of England would you invite to dinner and why and what is on the menu

3 Should the World build walls to restrict free movement of people

If you don’t like my questions then you could always use Brian’s…

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Check out his amusing and informative blog pages right here…

https://thetwodoctors.wordpress.com/

Travels in Spain, Mérida in Extremadura

Extremadura

“Sometimes the Spaniard will resent your attempts to use it (Spanish).  Sometimes he believes it to physically impossible for an alien to understand it.  Sometimes he cannot actually convince himself that you are speaking it…”   Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

Mérida is the capital city of the Autonomous region of Extremadura and is set in the heart of the Province of Badajoz. One of the most important Roman capital cities at the height of Roman occupation of Spain, the city today has one of the best preserved collections of Roman monuments anywhere in Europe and UNESCO World Heritage status.

This is why we were here of course but right now all we wanted was a table in the early evening sunshine, a drink and a plate of olives so after we had approved the room we left immediately to the Plaza Mayor right outside the front door.

The Plaza was vibrant and busy with families enjoying the weather (it had rained the day before, the receptionist told us), young boys playing football and girls running and skipping.  In the centre was an extravagant fountain and it was surrounded by arcades, shopping streets leaking away into shadows and tall colourful buildings decorated with palms and exotic plants.  At each corner was a covered café so we choose one in the sun, next to some boys playing football who were using palm trees for goalposts and sat and simply enjoyed the atmosphere.

What was noticeable was how well behaved the children were, how well dressed everyone was and how this seemed like one giant drawing room where an extended family was meeting up at the end of the day and having a sociable hour or two together before dinner.

As the afternoon slipped effortlessly into early evening we remembered that we needed some supplies for the room because being a five star hotel there was no way we were going anywhere near the mini-bar and its inflated prices.  There were no shops around the square so we finished our drinks and joined the crowds of people walking through the main shopping street of the city.  There were all kinds of shops but no mini-markets and we walked until we came to a busy main road where we were certain there would be a shop because we had seen people with carrier bags, but being unsure which we to turn, left or right, it was time to ask directions.

There was a man on the pavement just watching the world go by and minding his own business so I asked him a straightforward one word question, “¿Supermercardo?”  He took a step backwards as though he thought I might have an infectious disease and his face went curiously blank.  He looked around for help but there was none so he shrugged his shoulders and rattled off some words in Spanish at machine gun speed which I took to mean that he wasn’t sure, he was uncomfortable being accosted by foreigners and that we should leave him alone.

We decided to walk on and within twenty metres we were outside a huge ‘Discount Supermercardo’ and I don’t think I could have been so unintelligible that he couldn’t have understood that this was exactly what we were looking for.

It was getting late by the time we had finished off a bottle of Rioja and were ready to go out so being unfamiliar with the city we didn’t walk too far and found a restaurant close by that seemed just about right.  Actually it turned out not to be very thrilling and there was an elderly English couple in there complaining about the food and the service and although I wouldn’t have gone back it really wasn’t that bad and I enjoyed a Extremadura lamb stew and Kim a beef steak.  We declared it delicious, there were no complaints from us!

One of the reasons that I like Spain so much is its diversity, no region, city or town is much like another, each has a special unique quality and Extremadura and Mérida was proving to be no exception.

Extremadura Map

Even in Spain Extremadura has a very distinct character, in the summer it is sun-baked and unforgiving, in the winter it is cold and unrelenting.  Much of the land has no agricultural value, there are no industrial centres.  Bordering to its west is Portugal and it is and has long been the poorest region in Spain, in the past, its poverty led to many of its population fleeing elsewhere in search of better fortune.

Geographically it is the fifth largest of the Autonomous Communities of Spain but it has the lowest population density of all.  There is no international airport and no AVE high speed train link, it is the least visited region in Spain by tourists.  Mérida is the smallest of all seventeen capitals of the Autonomous Communities.

As we left the restaurant we strolled through the Plaza Mayor which was still vibrant and busy. As so often in Spain, there was a sense simultaneously of gravitas, fragile grandeur and impending festivity. Spanish people really know how to colonise urban space, and at all hours. We liked Mérida.

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Travels in Spain, Pedro Bernardo and the Tipping Point of History

Pedro Bernardo 19

The drive north from Talavera de la Reina took us into the neighbouring Province of Castilla y Leon and through the little town of Buenaventura, which was closed, towns like this are often closed in the afternoon I have found and then the climb became more dramatic as we reached almost six hundred feet when we made the approach to the mountain village of Pedro Bernardo.

We managed to stay just short of the cloud and the sun was still shining as we drove through several tricky corners and into the village and easily found the Hostal El Cerro on a dramatic bend in the road overlooking the valley below.

Although only two star it was an excellent hotel with a great room, a wonderful view and with excellent weather the ideal place for an hour or so of  enjoying the sun on the very private terrace.  After a while the grey sky started to muscle in and there was a drop or two of rain but inside there was a Jacuzzi to experiment with and after a half an hour or so it had blown over and the blue sky reasserted itself and there were good views over the rural hinterland with forests of elms, pines, chestnut and hazelnut trees and waterfalls and rivers making the town a scenic paradise.

The origins of Pedro Bernardo are not clear; the original name of the village was Navalasolana and there is a popular local legend that talks about the leaders of two groups of shepherds, Pedro Fernández and Bernardo Manso. They started to fight and struggled to get the control of the village and finally the feudal lord of the council tired of it all came up with a solution and decided to change the name of Navalasolana to Pedro and Bernardo to achieve peace and stop the struggles between the two squabbling bands.

This sounds very much to me like the spat between Steve McQueen and Paul Newman over who should get top billing in the film ‘Towering Inferno‘ and where there was an equally sensible solution – to provide dual top billing, the credits were arranged diagonally, with McQueen lower left and Newman upper right. Thus, each appeared to have “first” billing depending on whether the credit was read left-to-right or top-to-bottom.

What a silly argument and they are both dead now anyway!

Towering Inferno

In the early evening we walked into Pedro Bernardo, passing first through the Plaza de Torres and then the Plaza Mayor where groups of mainly old men were sitting in small groups and discussing the big important issues of the day.

Through the twisting narrow streets flanked by crumbling buildings with rotting timber and decaying plaster walls,  Precarious wooden balconies and barely inhabitable houses we wandered aimlessly through the streets until we arrived at the church somewhere near the top of the village.  It was nothing special and really hardly worth the walk at all so we made our way back down and stayed for a while in the main square and had a drink at a bar where there was reluctance to serve us at an outside table on account of the fact that the owner and bar staff were watching a bull fight from Seville on the television in the bar which demanded all of their attention.

I formed the impression that Pedro Bernardo was a town on the precipice, about to tip over in an avalanche of change that will achieve an instant transformation and erase a hundred years or so of history in the blink of an eye.  It is rather like one of those penny drop machines in a games arcade, one shove and it will all tip over.  One day it will all be gone.  It is a shame but it will be ultimately it will be impossible to cling on to the crumbling rotting wreckage of an old town like this and everyone despite their objections will eventually be obliged to move to the nearby featureless modern new town instead.

Old people will weep, young folk will smile.  Old people will lament, young folk will rejoice.  Property developers will move in behind them and there will soon be a new old town of modern swanky apartments and boutique hotels.

I am so glad that I saw Pedro Bernardo as it once was.

The Hostel El Cerro was a perfect place, a rare mix of rustic charm and modern sophistication and we had no hesitation in eating in the hotel dining room.  It was only eight o’clock which seemed to surprise the staff but the chef was already there (in the bar as it happened) and we tucked in to an excellent Chuletón de Ávila, an excellent cut of prime beef steak that we had enjoyed only last year on a visit to that city.

Although it was still quite early, we had been a long day and had had an early start so after the evening meal we went back to the room and sat on the balcony with a final glass of red wine and from our elevated position watched the stars twinkling overhead in the sky as though from the prow of a ship and stared into black emptiness except for the lights of the distant villages, Lanzahita, La Higuera and Ramacastanas lying like constellations in the vague immensity of Spain.

Travels in Italy, Updated

I have got a few gaps in the map, so I will have to get travelling…

Italy Visited