Category Archives: Hotels

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, 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.

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Travels in Spain, the Roman City of Mérida

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After lunch the antiquities were all closed for the siesta and wouldn’t open again for a couple of hours so we went back to the Mérida Palace.  It was hot and the sun was shining so it our intention to sit on the sun terrace on the roof, read a book, have a glass of wine and do a bit of lazy sitting about.

For no good reason (as far as I could make out) the sun terrace was closed and when I enquired at reception the receptionist said that they were unable to open it because it was too early in the year and it wasn’t warm enough!  I was perplexed by that, in England we will sit on beaches in May even though the temperature is just a fraction above zero!

Kim rested in the room and in search of sun I sat on the patio at the front of the hotel and sneaked a can of Mahou beer down from the room so that I didn’t have to pay the inflated hotel prices.  It was nice just sitting and enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of the square but with the sun moving behind the hotel and throwing us quickly into shadow it was time to resume our sightseeing and to use the rest of our entrance tickets.

We walked towards the River Guadiana because our first destination was the original Roman Bridge built over two thousand years ago.

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At five hundred miles long, the River Guadiana is the fourth longest in the Iberian Peninsula and for part of its course marks the boundary between Spain and Portugal.  At this point the river is about five hundred yards wide and spanning it is the sixty arch Roman Bridge that remained the principal road for traffic entering the city until as recently as 1993.

Mérida was proving to be a really fascinating place with the oldest this, the biggest that, the best preserved, the most unique and now was added the longest remaining Roman bridge.  It is pedestrianised now and we walked away across towards the centre and looked over the sides into the muddy brown water of the river below.

We didn’t all the way across to the other side but stopped and returned to the east bank because next we were visiting the Alcazaba, a ninth century Muslim fortification  located near the bridge that was built in 835 to command the city. It was the first (here we go again) Muslim Alcazaba, and includes a big squared line of walls, every side measuring one hundred yards in length, twenty foot high, nearly two feet thick and incorporating twenty-five towers all built re-using Roman walls and Roman-Visigothic edifices in granite.

The Plaza Mayor was busy but quieter tonight mostly because there weren’t any football matches taking place but the fountain which had been dry the previous evening was now erupting with water and sending magnificent plumes high into the blue sky.  We sat at the same table and had San Miguel and wine and olives and we reflected on a busy day of rewarding sightseeing and some amazing places.

The meal the previous evening had been satisfactory but we had no plans to return there because we had seen a little place around the corner from the hotel where there were some pavement tables where it was warm and sheltered enough to dine out in the street and we had a pleasant, simple and unhurried meal before returning to the Plaza Mayor for a final drink.  As the light began to fade we made a summary of what had been an excellent day in a Spanish city, which only a few years ago I would never have remotely thought of visiting.

The next day we had a final few hours in Mérida.

The reason that the modern city has so many Roman antiquities is that it was a very important place in the Empire. The Roman conquest started as early as year 19 B.C. with the invasion of the Carthaginian region and ended with the last resistance being overcome in the north-west in the same year. The south soon came under the Roman Empire’s growing domination with a framework of roads connecting towns and strategic bridges and Iberian cities including Mérida, Cordoba, Seville and Cartagena passed into the hands of the Romans.

The economy flourished under Roman rule and, along with North Africa, served as a bread basket for the Roman market and as well as grain it provided gold, wool, olive oil, and wine.  Agricultural production increased with the introduction of irrigation projects, some of which remain in use even today and much of daily life consisted of agricultural work under which the region flourished, especially the cultivation of grapes and olives.

Silver mining within the Guadalquivir River valley became an integral part of the Iberian economy and some of the Empire’s most important metal resources were in Hispania where gold, iron, tin, copper and lead were also all mined in abundance and shipped back to Rome.

Spain also has historical and political significance for the Roman Empire because it was the birthplace of the Emperors Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Trajan, Theodosius I and the philosopher Seneca.  Luckily, when the Roman Empire fell, it didn’t create such a major crisis or havoc in Spain as it did in other western countries like Gaul, Germany and Britain and thus much of its essential infrastructure remained intact.

Next to the river there were some excavations but to be honest we found these rather disappointing so we hurried through them and walked to the water and walked along a pedestrian walkway to the stout, reliable and weather-beaten Roman bridge and then back towards the main square.

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We were looking now for the Temple of Diana and we found it tucked away behind the main shopping street and next to a small museum.  The Temple was a sacred site constructed by the Romans in the first century A.D. and remains well preserved mostly because in the sixteenth century some local big-wig built a palace inside the rectangular ring of Corinthian columns. There has been some recent debate about removing the palace structure but as this is over five-hundred years old as well the archaeologists and the authorities have agreed that it should stay.

We were over an hour ahead of schedule so we had a last drink in the main square while we waited for the car to be returned from the out of town car park and when it was there we went back to the hotel and checked out.

We drove out of the city through fields of golden corn and verges decorated with scarlet poppies.  We were heading for Trujillo.

Poppies in Extremadura

Travels In Spain, The Romans in Merida

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Extremadura is often considered to be the traditional boundary between Moorish and Christian Spain and Mérida itself has previously passed between Christian, Moorish, and even Portuguese control.  Because of its rich and busy history it was declared a UNESCO World heritage site in 1993.

To begin with we walked along a busy main road towards the crimson and saffron Plaza de Torres and near here was our first excavation to visit.  We bought an all sites pass for €12 each which seemed like a good deal and went inside to see the remains of a house that had been the home and office of an important Roman citizen in the first century A.D. and after that we visited an adjacent ancient Roman burial site and cemetery.

It was getting hot as we made our way to one of the main attractions, the amphitheatre and theatre and as we walked we were aware of hundreds of school children arriving in buses, far too many for this to be a normal school trip occasion and we wondered what they were all doing here.  We found the entrance to the site and all was revealed because today, and all week, there was a production of the Greco-Latin Youth Festival Theatre which meant that the theatre was in use and access was restricted.  I was annoyed about that and wondered just how restricted?

First we went to the amphitheatre which was completed in 8 B.C. and was able to seat up to fifteen thousand spectators within the elliptical stadium.  The previous month we had visited the amphitheatre at Pula in Croatia which accommodated twenty-thousand spectators but this seemed just as huge.  It wasn’t in such good shape however because a lot of it has been subsequently dismantled for alternative building projects.  If UNESCO had been around two thousand years ago then it would still be there.

Mérida was the capital city of the most westerly Roman Province of Lusitania so this was a very important place and the amphitheatre here would have been on the main gladiatorial and events circuit of the Empire and it continued to be used for this purpose until the fourth century.  Today, on account of its past Mérida is a sister city of Rome.

The site was beginning to fill up now with the school children and the volume levels inside the Roman Theatre were beginning to build so we left the amphitheatre and walked the short distance to the theatre next door.

Two thousand years ago this would have been a massive entertainment centre for the city and I suppose that we were lucky because today we were going to see it being used for its original purpose.  Although we couldn’t get down close to the stage area and the columns and the statues and the central seating area was full of chattering and excitable school children we could make our way around the upper circle and visitors were invited to stay awhile and watch the production.  We sat and watched for about half an hour but it was a three hour show and struggling with interpretation we finally gave up, left and moved on.

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After a drink and the inevitable dish of olives we made our way to the Roman Circus which would have been quite a way outside the walls of the Roman city.

Although we have now visited a number of Roman amphitheatres we had never been to a racetrack before and this place was stunning in its layout and sheer size.  There is nothing left of the grandstands now because these have all been dismantled and the stone used elsewhere but it was easy to imagine what it might have looked like simply by thinking about the Charlton Heston film ‘Ben Hur’ because it was in such a place as this that the Roman chariot races took place.

Inside what was the arena it was peaceful and quiet with a carpet of rough grass and wild meadow flowers but with a little imagination it was possible to imagine what a place like this would have been like on race days when there was capacity for thirty-thousand boozed-up rowdy spectators!

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Leaving the circus we walked along another busy road looking for the site of the aqueducts because although they are not as spectacular or as complete as that of Segovia there are approximately five miles of aqueduct running into and through the city.  We found the largest and most complete, the Aqueducto los Milagros in a green park on the edge of the town with each towering arch topped with an untidy nest of twigs and a family of Storks.

We had been walking for four hours now so this was a good time to find somewhere for lunch.  It proved surprisingly difficult to find something suitable and one thing that Mérida did seem to lack was a good selection of street cafés and bars.  The ones we liked were full and those that weren’t didn’t tempt us.

Eventually, after we had passed underneath Trajan’s Arch on the way back to the centre we came across a place in a side alley off the main shopping street where, partly our own fault it has to be said, although we had a nice salad, we paid a hefty price for it and then sulked for half an hour or so afterwards.  It seemed that we had paid the full price for a menu of the day even though we hadn’t chosen or eaten all of the courses. Another language and interpretation issue and a lesson learned!

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