Have Bag, Will Travel
- 927,121 hits
Search my Site
“Granada! Holy place of the glory of Spain, Your mountains are the white tents of pavilions, Your walls are the circle of a vase of flowers, Your plain a Moorish shawl embroidered with colour, Your towers are palm trees that imprison you” – José Zorrilla y Moral
We had nice accommodation in Granada, a studio apartment with kitchen and living room. We liked it and congratulated ourselves on our good fortune and then immediately set off into the city in search of something to eat.
Unlike the previous stop in Puerta de Don Fadrique the streets were busy and everywhere was open so there was a lot of choice. It was mid afternoon by now so we only wanted a snack so we found a tapas bar and then proceeded to order far more food than we really wanted.
We needed to walk it off so after we had finished and settled up we set off towards the Alhambra Palace and a viewing point called the Mirador directly adjacent.
After a gentle stroll along the banks of the Rio Biera the road turned sharp left with signposts to the viewing platform which involved a much steeper climb than we had really anticipated when we had set out. The road seemed to go on forever and become steeper and steeper by the step. The smart people zoomed past on the shuttle buses that were taking passengers to the top but without a ticket we just had to continue slogging away.
It was one of those climbs when every so often you think you are there but you are not, hopes are dashed and another set of steps appears ahead and then another dog-leg to tease and to taunt.
Eventually however we were at the top, there was nowhere else to climb and there was a welcoming bar and some vacant tables. Hardly surprising really because the prices were as high as the elevation but to be fair we were paying not only for the beer and wine but the magnificent view as well and we sat and looked out over the snow capped Sierra Nevada mountains to the south and in the foreground the Alhambra Palace and the hundreds of visitors climbing around the walls. Busy because with three million visitors a year it claims to be the most visited site in Spain.
The top ten most visited are the Alhambra, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, the Mosque at Cordoba, Santiago de Compostella, Burgos Cathedral, the Alcazar of Segovia, Roman Theatre at Merida, Casa Mila in Barcelona, the Cathedral and La Giralda in Seville and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. I have visited them all except for the Guggenheim.
The Alhambra complex was built for the last Muslim Emirs in Spain during the the Nasrid dynasty who at the time were becoming increasingly subject to the Christian Kings of Castile. After the final expulsion of the Moors and being allowed to fall into disrepair for centuries, the buildings occupied by squatters, the Alhambra was rediscovered following the defeat of Napoleon, who carried out retaliatory destruction of the site.
Our original plan was to visit the Palace but due to some sloppy travel planning on my part this wasn’t going to be possible this time. It seems the place is so popular and so busy that during the peak season it is necessary to book tickets at least three months in advance and when I eventually got around to doing it I had left it too late. Never mind, on the plus side it means we may need to back.
So for this time anyway we had to satisfy ourselves with a wonderful view of the exterior which I have to say provided a significant amount of compensation. When we had finished our drinks and had stopped drooling over the view we made our way back down into the city which thankfully was a lot easier than the climb up.
We sat for an hour or so now and enjoyed the accommodation before going back into the city for evening meal. We didn’t go far, just into the next street where there was a good choice of restaurants, using the selection criteria of looking at what other people were eating and spotting a man with a very nice steak we chose the first one that we came to and enjoyed a simple meal and a jug of house wine.
We liked Granada and we looked forward to a full day in the city tomorrow.
“See Naples and die. Well, I do not know that one would necessarily die after merely seeing it, but to attempt to live there might turn out a little differently”, Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad
A few weeks ago I suggested to some regular travelling pals that we should go to Naples in Italy for a few days. They were horrified by the suggestion because of the city’s reputation as being quite dangerous. They said that they would prefer to go to Barcelona in Spain even though I pointed out that the Spanish city is the pickpocket capital of Europe.
So we made plans to visit Naples, the third largest city in Italy (after Rome and Milan) by ourselves.
In preparation for travel I carried out my usual research and used my favourite benchmarks to try and understand the country that I was visiting. I started as usual with the Human Development Index which ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed amongst other criteria from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. Italy is ranked twenty-seventh which is quite low, especially for Europe but it is improving and is up two places from the previous year.
The European economic crisis has had a negative effect on Italy’s position in the Europe Happiness Index and it is rated at only twentieth out of thirty which is some way behind the United Kingdom at thirteenth. Finland is the happiest and Albania the least jolly.
Not surprisingly Italy is the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites; it has fifty-three, seven more than Spain which has the second most sites in Europe. I have visited half of the sites in Spain but when I reviewed the Italy list I was disappointed to find that I have been to less than a quarter. The historical centre of Naples is on the list and although I have been there before it was a long time before it was added to the list.
Italy has a lot of coastline which stretch for four and a half thousand miles and along this coastline are three hundred and forty-two Blue Flag Beaches which is the fifth highest amongst participating countries. The Bay of Naples is not very famous for beaches and there are none at all along this particular stretch of coastline.
My next measure is always the Eurovision Song Contest and Italy has participated in the annual contest forty-three times since its debut in the very first contest in 1956. They have won the contest twice but the most famous Italian entry made only third place in 1958. “Nel blu dipinto di blu” or most popularly known as “Volare” by Domenico Modungo.
Despite its success the entry surprisingly only came third in the 1958 competition after France and Switzerland but was later translated into several languages and was covered by a wide range of international performers including Al Martino, David Bowie, Cliff Richard, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Luciano Pavarotti, The Gipsy Kings and my personal favourite Dean Martin. I might be wrong here but I don’t think any of these musical giants ever recorded cover versions of ‘Waterloo’?
Flying even short distances can be a tedious business, not much to see or do but there are one or two exceptions and flying south across the Alps is one of them. The aircraft seems to come across them so suddenly and even flying at thirty-seven thousand feet, the earth suddenly gets an awful lot closer and suddenly you are only twenty-thousand feet high. And the snow covered black granite peaks rise like soft meringue peaks below. It is a wonderful sight and I never tire of it but it doesn’t last long and just as dramatically as they rise in southern France they fall away rapidly in Northern Italy.
I always enjoy flying over the Alps, it reminds me of my very first flight and continental holiday in 1976 when I visited Sorrento just south of Naples.
We arrived in Naples around mid-morning and the only sensible way to reach the city and the hotel was by taxi. I hate taxis, I am a very nervous taxi passenger, I am petrified of the metre which seems to rack up charges at an alarming rate and I spend any taxi journey fixated upon the clock. I am almost as afraid of taxi drivers as I am of dogs, but that is another story.
My friend Dai Woosnam once challenged me on this point when he commented: “… there is a contradiction between someone who avoids taxis like the plague, but is happy to spend £100+ a night on a hotel !! It is such contradictions that make people interesting!” Well, here is my rationale: A fifteen minute, €30 taxi ride costs €2.25 a minute, a €120 hotel room for twenty-four hours costs .10 cents per minute so it is a simple question of economics and value for money. If I hired the taxi for twenty-four hours at these rates it would cost me €3,300!
I loathe spending money on taxis especially when the flight here cost only £20. Kim tells me that I should look at it in a different way – because we got the flight so cheap then we can easily afford a taxi.
As usual in Italy we managed to get a driver who looked like and drove like Bruce Willis in an action movie car chase, the type where the cars scatter dustbins and demolish vegetable stalls, and he rattled through the streets at break neck speed, occasionally using his mobile phone and cursing any two second hold up or inconvenient red light and I was thankful when the journey finally ended.
“Here were churches, castles, and medieval walls standing sharp in the evening light, but all dwarfed by that extraordinary phenomenon of masonry, the Roman aqueduct, which overshadowed the whole…’The Aqueduct’, said the farmer, pointing with his whip, in case by chance I had failed to notice it.” – Laurie Lee
If the Alcázar isn’t enough for one city the Aqueduct is the most recognised and famous historical symbol of Segovia. It was built at the end of first to early second century AD by the Romans to bring water from the Río Frío about twelve miles away and requiring an elevated section in its final half mile from the Sierra de Guadarrama to the walls of the old town.
This is supported by an engineering achievement of one hundred and sixty-six arches and one hundred and twenty pillars constructed on two levels. It is sixty feet high and constructed with over twenty thousand large, rough-hewn granite blocks which are joined without mortar or clamps and have remained in place for two thousand years.
We liked the Aqueduct and looked all round it from every possible angle, it is one of those structures that make you appreciate just how brilliant the Romans were. I never tire of visiting these ancient structures, I feel privileged to able to enjoy them and the sense of wonderment is constant no matter how many I see.
Underneath the Aqueduct in the Plaza of Azoguejo at the tourist information office we checked timetables and made plans for our railway journey to Madrid in the morning and then retraced our steps back to the Plaza Mayor where in the mid to late afternoon sunshine we sat and had another beer and another plate of tapas at a third different bar.
There was only one more thing to do in Segovia so after the refreshment break we went to the Cathedral to finish off the day. The building was completed in 1577 and is regarded as the World’s last great Gothic Cathedral. There was an admission charge again, which seems to becoming quite normal, so we paid the €3 and then entered what I suggest is quite possibly the coldest cathedral in Spain and probably all of Europe.
We were inappropriately dressed for sub-zero temperatures and although the cathedral was well worth the admission charge it was too cold to enjoy it so we sprinted around the naves and the chapels with rather indecent haste and were glad to come about again into the sunshine with only seconds to go before fatal hypothermia set in.
Later in the agreeable afternoon sunshine we needed to warm up so we ambled around the pretty little streets, bought some wine from a little shop near to the hotel and then went back to the room. The Sercotel Infanta Isabel was a good hotel in an excellent location and we enjoyed the setting and the atmosphere as we drank our bottle of local Spanish wine and thoughts turned to dining arrangements for the evening.
Before eating we visited the Aqueduct to take pictures in the fading light of dusk and later we ate at the restaurant that Kim had shown a preference for the previous evening but I had overruled and it turned out to be an excellent choice with a very tasty selection of food.
It had been a long day and we had done a lot of walking so as we were planning to go to Madrid in the morning we finished early and went back to the hotel for an early night and to consult the guide books to make last-minute plans for tomorrow.
So far this week everything had gone mostly to plan and the itinerary that I planned meticulously beforehand had worked well so something just had to go awry and today it went spectacularly wrong.
It was quite cool at six o’clock in the morning as we walked to the bus station next to the Aqueduct and caught the no. 11 bus that would take us to the railway station three miles out of town in time to catch the seven-twenty train that would whisk us to the city in thirty-five minutes in time for a traditional Madrileño breakfast.
There were ten minutes to spare and only one person in front of us at the ticket desk so we didn’t wait long to step up and request two return tickets. The clerk looked at the computer screen and made twitching expressions and tutting noises and I began to fear the worst. After a minute or so he explained that there were no seats on the train and the next one wasn’t for two hours. Oh Bugger! This was something that I hadn’t made allowances for in the plan.
I had naturally assumed that train travel would be the same as in the United Kingdom where you turn up at any main line railway station, they sell you a ticket whether there is a seat or not (usually not) and you travel to London standing in the corridor next to the loos. Sadly this isn’t an option on the AVE bullet train so we could do no other than to go back to Segovia on the same bus that had just brought us here. The driver seemed a bit surprised because I suspect not many people do a round trip to the railway station for no apparent reason at seven o’clock in the morning.
So we had a second unexpected day in Segovia and as we had done all of the main things to do yesterday we wondered just what we would do – so we did the same things again today but a little more slowly.
“The finest sight in Castile, is how Segovians sweepingly define the first appearance of their city and I agree with them: there are few urban compositions on earth to equal the impact of Segovia….” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
After we had finished our drink in Ávila it was reluctantly time to leave. We had liked it here but it was time to go and drive to our final destination, Segovia, about thirty miles away to the east. This involved a drive along the line of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the central mountain range of the Iberian Peninsula which effectively splits Spain in two, north and south.
The approach to Segovia was truly wonderful and still some way out we could see a golden city on a convenient rocky outcrop rising majestically from the plain with a spectacular mountain backdrop and the Cathedral and the Alcázar reaching dramatically into the blue sky.
I was determined not to repeat the parking difficulties of Ávila but this plan went spectacularly wrong after I drove through the gates into the old city and tried to guess a way to the Plaza Mayor where our hotel was waiting for us. We made a couple of circuits stopping here and there to consult an inadequate map and then by chance arrived at the main square where our path was blocked by one of those steel retractable bollards and my dramatic entrance raised the eyebrows of some nearby pedestrians.
Some men in a bar directed me to another entrance and this had a bollard in the down position and an intercom to request permission to enter. There was no answer and I was nervous about driving across it in case it raised up without warning and the CCTV cameras would catch the moment and I would forever be shown on television repeats of the Spanish equivalent of ‘Caught on Camera’. I could sense that a bus driver behind was getting impatient so I had to go and I revved the engine and popped the clutch, spun the wheels and dashed across as quickly as I could. Nothing happened – the bollard stayed down of course.
We were staying at the Sercotel Infanta Isabel and we had one of the best rooms on the second floor with a perfect view of the Plaza Mayor lined with cafés and bars and with the Cathedral directly opposite.
As it went dark it was nice to sit and watch the square melting from afternoon into evening with plenty of street activity. There were lots of Segovians walking out in families and we joined them in the busy streets and looked for somewhere to eat. We walked further than planned and ended up at the Aqueduct, which we were really saving until tomorrow so finding ourselves at the bottom of the town we walked back and by my choice found a little restaurant that turned out to be quite disappointing.
The next morning after breakfast we walked out into the sociable main square and followed a street adjacent to the Cathedral and walked in the direction of the Alcázar, which according to visitor statistics is the most visited castle in Spain.
The route took us through narrow streets, past craft shops and churches and eventually brought us out at the north of the city on the top of a rocky outcrop that was the location of the fortress that was begun in the twelfth century and was subsequently occupied by a succession of Castilian monarchs from Alfonso X to Phillip II and Charles III.
Segovia and the Spanish tourist board would have us believe that the Alcázar was the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland and Disneyworld but there is no real evidence for this. In fact it is more likely that the famous icon of the Disney empire was inspired principally by Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria and several picturesque French palaces, most notably Louis XIV’s Versailles although it is also quite possible that the Alcázar in Segovia may also have been an important influence.
We purchased tickets to visit the Alcázar and paid a little extra to climb to the top of the Torre de Juan II (total price €6 each). The castle was busy with a coach full of Japanese tourists and several school visits so we had to try and arrange our journey through the rooms and exhibits to try and avoid the busy sections and the crowds. After visiting the state rooms and the armouries we ended our visit with a climb of three hundred and twenty steps up the spiral staircase to the top of the tower where we were rewarded for our efforts with fabulous views over the city and the surrounding countryside.
It had taken most of the morning to visit the Alcázar and after we were finished we walked back to the Plaza Mayor for a drink and a tapas and selected a bar with tables in the sun and sat and enjoyed watching the residents of Segovia as they went about their business of the day in probably the same way that they have for a thousand years. A walk around the square, a sit down, a chat, a walk around the square, a sit down, a chat and so on and so on.
It was hot now and we were enjoying the sun so when the bar owner pulled down the canopy for shade we moved on back into the side streets to find a photo opportunity of a medieval door that had inspired us from a description in a guide book that we had purchased at the castle. With mission accomplished and pictures in the can we returned to the square and stopped at a different bar for more drink and more tapas and then left and walked in the opposite direction towards the Roman Aqueduct.