Category Archives: History

Spain, Belmonte to Almagro

Almagro 1

“We are in the Spanish south.  The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”  –  Jan Morris,  ‘Spain’

More or less, still following the Ruta de Don Quixote we drove directly now from Belmonte to the town of Almagro, so far south in Castilla-La Mancha that it almost in Andalucía.  We arrived around about mid-morning, parked the car and made straight for the Centro Historico.

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.

The centre of Almagro is conveniently located inside a circle of modern roads so we circumnavigated it all as we walked through surprisingly wide and airy streets with the ubiquitous boxy white houses with little balconies and ornamental black iron grills over the windows where much of the town has been redeveloped to accommodate modern living demands.

Almagro x 5

Along the route there were churches, a wide open park and a convent, now converted to a Parador hotel.  We went inside as we usually do to take a look but Parador room and menu prices are not really for us so we weren’t tempted to stay and instead made our way back to the Plaza Mayor passing by the equestrian statue of the Conquistador Diego de Almagro and then entered the rectangular Plaza.

At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide it is flanked on both sides by a Praetorian Guard of weathered Tuscan columns supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of green and fully glazed in a central European style this place is truly unique in Spain.  These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.

We choose a table on the sunny side of the Plaza, ordered beer and wine and just sat and watched the activity while we nibbled the inevitable olives.  The bar owner shooed away some small boys playing football, telling them to play elsewhere and families began to arrive and the bar quickly filled up with chattering customers.

Almagro Plaza Mayor

We were staying at the Hotel Retiro del Maestre, a renovated old Spanish nobleman’s house on a street leading to the main square.  It was a friendly family run hotel with spacious and comfortable public rooms, a large outside terrace basking in the pleasant sun and was a nice room for us with a view over the garden where we let the afternoon gently slip away with a bottle of local wine, a game or two of cards and a couple of chapters of our books before out thoughts turned to evening meal.

The next morning breakfast at the Retiro del Maestre was simply wonderful and easily the best so far, in fact, if we were compiling a list of the top five hotel breakfasts ever then this would certainly be in there.  It was the usual thing in terms of content but it had clearly been lovingly prepared by the ladies of the house and the cook fussed around the breakfast room, making recommendations, making sure everyone was happy and brazenly fishing for well deserved compliments.

Almagro x 3

We planned to spend another morning in Almagro and we started with a visit to the Corral de Comedias, a sixteenth century theatre, similar to those that Shakespeare would have been familiar with in Elizabethan England, built in what was the courtyard of an Inn and which today is the only fully preserved example of a theatre of this type in the World.  It is amazing what gems you come across when you stray off the well beaten tourist track.

It is a working theatre still today and inside it is an immaculate example of a theatre of the golden age, built on three levels with galleries and private boxes running around all three sides of the still open courtyard.  It was an unexpected bonus for us but it didn’t take long to walk around and listen to the audio commentary so after we had finished we stopped for a coffee and compiled a shopping list of souvenirs that we could confidently carry back in our hand luggage and agreed on some local pottery and some water-colour postcards of the main sights of the town.

Now it was time to leave and start the next stage of our journey towards the City of Toledo. We had enjoyed Almagro and glad that we had included it in the itinerary, a lovely town and with a Plaza Mayor that went straight into my personal Top Ten.

Plaza Mayor Almagro


Spain, The Romans

Merida Roman Theatre

Segobriga was a surprise discovery and we enjoyed our afternoon at the archaeological site.

There are many more Roman remains in Spain, these pictures are from the city of Mérida in Extremadura.

Emerita Augusta  was the capital city of the most westerly Roman Province of the Empire in Lusitania and the most important Roman city in Iberia.

Today, on account of its past, Mérida is a sister city of Rome.

Spain, The Roman City of Segóbriga

Segobriga Spain 01

“I saw the great gold plains, the arid and mystical distances, where the sun rose up like a butcher each morning and left curtains of blood each night.”  Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning

After seeing all that there was to see in the quiet town of Belmonte, we needed something to do for the afternoon so after consulting the guide book and the information available at the hotel reception we decided to drive to the Roman ruins at Segóbriga about thirty miles away.

I wasn’t especially optimistic that there would be a great deal to see there so I drove deliberately slowly and stopped often for photo opportunities of the fields with their attractive contours and delightful pastel hues.  Along the way we looked for somewhere to eat and passed through a couple of villages but as it turned out there was little chance of food and drink because we concluded that the people that lived there probably think that Belmonte is exciting.

Along the way we left the road to follow a track to the Castle of Almenara but it was in a state of extreme disrepair, awaiting restoration and closed to visitors so we returned to the road and carried on.  Within a few minutes we spotted the signs to Segóbriga and as we turned into the historic site we were immediately astonished by the size of the place because it turned out that this is the most important Roman archaeological site in all of Central Spain.

Amazing! And I had never even heard of it.

Segobriga x 9

There was a café on site where we had an overpriced bocadillo and a small beer before moving on to the entrance where a Spanish lady seemed genuinely pleased to see visitors from England in early March and gave us some precise and clear instructions to make sure we enjoyed our visit to the full.  First of all there was a little film about the Romans in Spain and then a considerable walk to get to the main site and the excavations.

Segóbriga was a textbook designed Roman city – there was a theatre, a five thousand seat amphitheatre, a chariot racetrack  a basilica, a temple, public baths, a cistern and a complex system of sewers, everything in fact that you would expect to find in an important city of Rome.

It was wonderful to walk around the old streets, wander through the corridors of the amphitheatre, sit in the seats of the theatre and imagine that in this very place there were gladiators in its arena, actors in its theatre, emperor worshippers in the temples, Roman Legionnaires swaggering through the streets, magistrates in magnificent purple togas parading around importantly, and slaves of course in rags to do all of the dirty work.

Segobriga x 3

Segóbriga was a mining town and the mines brought great wealth and made some of the local families very rich but they weren’t mining for precious metals or for fuel but for a very specialised commodity.  What they wanted was plaster, or rather gypsum, which in its crystal state (selenite) is transparent and these rocks could be split into fine sheets to make windows in an age before the Romans had begun to manufacture and use glass.

In ancient Rome buildings had wind eyes, which were square or rectangular holes in walls to let in light and air but without glass panes.  To let in the light had the disadvantage of letting in the weather as well so probably most of the time people kept those windows blocked with a curtain or a shutter.  The idea to use the sheets of crystal gypsum for window panes came around the turn of the millennium when an architect imported some from Spain and used them as skylights to light the public baths in Rome. This caught on quickly and the rich started doing the same for their houses and villas and in time it was used as wind eye glass and the very best quality gypsum came from right here in Segóbriga.

Because we had to wait so long for uncooperative people to move so that we could take the perfect uncluttered photographs it took almost three hours to explore the site and then to visit the museum and it was a long walk round so what had started out as a planned easy day had turned out instead to be very full and very tiring.

We drove back to Belmonte in the early evening and after a rest and a glass of wine did the same things as the previous night and went to the hotel down the street, where the friendly barman insisted on showing us the downstairs cellar bar and invited us back later and we thanked him for that but what we didn’t tell him was that it didn’t open until way past our bed time, and then we ate again in the hotel restaurant and had a third good traditional style Spanish evening meal.

This was our last night in Belmonte and as we packed our bags so that we could make an early start in the morning we reflected on what had been three excellent days in Castilla-La Mancha and we looked forward to a short drive in the morning to the town of Almagro.



More posts about Roman Ruins:

Spartacus the Gladiator


The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles


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

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

Spain, The Hanging Houses of Cuenca

Cuenca Blue Sky

“It gave me vertigo to imagine what it must be like living up there, a permanent aviator above the trees”   Ted Walker – ‘In Spain’

From Belmonte to Cuenca was a distance of about sixty miles and leaving Belmonte the drive took us first of all through gently undulating fields with the most attractive colours that rolled rhythmically but desolately away in all directions. A stunning vista of subtle hues and variations of tone; champagne and parchment, butter-milk cream, dusty olive, lavender grey, pheasant copper and russet gold that were almost autumnal all lying lifeless and crushed under the burden of a vivid blue spring sky.

Now we were on the ‘Ruta de Don Quixote’ which is the golden thread that binds the Castilian tourist industry together in a ribbon of castles and windmills stretching all the way in a circuitous route from Madrid to Toledo.

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza

We were using a relatively minor road and after half way the landscape began to change and we left behind the patchwork of fields and farmland and as we started to climb through hills there was more drama with steep sided hills and pine forests and the busy water of the Júcar River dashing madly through narrow gorges.  We were approaching the city of Cuenca.

Cuenca is a big city and capital of the fifth largest province in Spain but we found a parking spot next to the river with surprising ease.  The city was built here because the rocky outcrop of land lies between two deep river gorges, the Júcar and the Huécar and it made an excellent location for a defendable fortress.

At three hundred miles long the Júcar is a big river but it was not especially lively today in the City and we followed a man in a battered sombrero along the path next to the lethargic oozy green water that slipped lazily by until we came to steep steps that took us away from the water and up towards the old city, through a crumbling arch and into the main street to the top.  On the way we passed some brightly coloured tall buildings just before a narrow archway in the road underneath the town hall that led into the Plaza Mayor.

In the Plaza there were more gaily coloured houses, shops and pavement cafés and bars and the city’s Cathedral that was completed in the thirteenth century but partly fell down in 1902 and over a hundred years later the rebuilding of the façade still remains to be fully completed and remains a curious mix of architectural styles from Anglo-Norman to Iberian Gothic.

Cuenca Spain Coloured Houses

We continued to the top stopping on the way to climb the castle walls and to admire the scenery of the gorges stretching out seemingly endlessly on either side of the city.  Climbing even further we reached the very top and here there were various vantage points of the city from elevated craggy rocks where people, without the precaution of a parachute were walking out and taking as much risk as they might dare just to get the perfect selfie  photograph.

Standing above the vast ravine that winds its way around Cuenca I could suddenly see why this was once regarded as the unconquerable city.  This ancient citadel is perched on a steep rocky peak, high above the surrounding plain, and the treacherous gorge below encircles the city like a moat and this is the deepest moat you’ve ever seen, a giddy drop of several hundred feet, with nothing beneath to break a fall.

From this position it was clear to see how the city had developed.  There was only limited space at the top of the rock so as it grew and it was unable to expand outwards the city went up instead and that explained the tall houses.  Even more dramatically it also went as far as it possibly could in making use of all available space and in the fifteenth century houses were built like Swallow’s nests with rooms and balconies partly and precariously overhanging the gorge above the Huécar River.

These are called the Las Casas Colgadas, the hanging houses, and are the most famous attraction in the city.

Cuenca Lamp

It was time for lunch but at half past three the bars and restaurants were all overcrowded and doing brisk business and with no prospect of a seat there we had to walk back towards the town and discovered a place in full sun overlooking a rather splendid convent.  I was surprised that the town was so full but we learned later that today was Father’s day in Spain and all of the children were off school and out with their parents for the day.

We decided to have some tapas but the menu was giving nothing away in assisting with a selection of dishes we didn’t recognise and the waitress could give no helpful explanation except in Spanish so we went for the ‘surprise me option’ and stabbed a nervous finger towards a couple of items on the menu and sat back in anticipation.

When it arrived we had a chicken dish and a sort of mutton stew, which we probably wouldn’t have knowingly selected but it was tasty and filling and we ate it all and when we had finished we communicated to the waitress the best that we could that we had thoroughly enjoyed it in that polite sort of way that we do when we cannot speak each other’s language.

It was late afternoon so we left Cuenca getting slightly lost in the tangle of streets on the way out and with no real alternative returned to Belmonte by the same route, first through the rugged hills, the raging water and the winding road and then to the gentle rolling plains, the languid fields and the long straight road.

Later we walked out again and even though this was Father’s day Belmonte was just as quiet as the night before but we found a nice bar in a hotel in the centre of town where we had drinks and olives before returning to the Palacio Buenavista Hospedestra for evening meal, a last drink in the bar and a second early night.

It had been a very good day indeed!

Cuenca x 3

Spain, Tilting at Windmills

Windmill Lo Pagan Spain

I stand here in my place,
With my foot on the rock below,
And whichever way it may blow,
I meet it face to face,
As a brave man meets his foe. 

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I came across this windmill in the coastal town of Lo Pagan in the region of Murcia on the east coast of Spain.