Category Archives: Natural Environment

Travels in Spain, The Next Road Trip…

Map Route

Alcalá de Henares completed our road trip around central Spain. Thanks to everyone who joined me on the circumnavigation of Madrid, next time in Iberia I will head further north into Castilla y Leon and towards the Northern Kingdoms.

Cities of Castilla y Leon

Before that I am going to visit some historical sites in France…

Dinan Brittany France

… And then I am going to Naples in Italy…

Centro Storico Naples

… As always you are welcome to join me…

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Travels in Spain, A Mountain Pass and a Fuel Crisis

San Ildefonso o la granja 3

“The Sierra, like the moon, had two distinct faces: the north one aloof and cold in its shadow, a place of green thickets and alpine silence, whilst to the south the mountain was just a raw burnt rock, the cliffs stripped bare by the sun.”  – Laurie Lee

After we had walked through the gardens we reluctantly left the Palace of San Ildefonso o La Granja and then the town and we drove south again towards our next intended destination, the fortress town of Manzanares El Real where we planned to see our final castle.

To get there we had to drive across the top of the mountain and shortly after leaving San Ildefonso we began to steadily climb the northern face of the peaks.  Eventually we reached the top at a mountain pass called Puerto de Navacerrada, the gateway to the long descent on the southern side down towards Madrid.  We were right on schedule but at the top were some policemen who pulled us to a stop and then explained that the road was closed and that we would have to take a detour back down the northern side of the mountain.

Guardia Civil

At least we assumed that was what they were saying because to be honest I didn’t understand Spanish police instructions terribly well and they weren’t especially good at understanding English tourists who couldn’t understand Spanish police instructions.  I said “Madrid, Madrid, Madridon the basis if you say something over and over and get louder each time a foreigner might eventually understand and this seemed to work on this occasion because eventually he pointed again to the alternative road that we would have to take and smiled as we set off.

This was going to be a problem because it was going to add twenty miles to the journey and there certainly wasn’t enough fuel in the tank for that.  Luckily it was all down-hill from here so I used the throttle as little as possible and freewheeled down the safe sections.  I knew that there was enough fuel left in the tank but as we went down the really steep bits the needle on the fuel gauge rushed headlong into the red zone and even though I knew this was because of uneven fuel distribution in the tank the situation certainly brought me out in a hot sweat.

There was no sign of a filling station and I began to grow concerned but then we reached the pretty town of Rascafria sitting in a narrow valley surrounded by mountain peaks and after stopping and asking for directions at a restaurant we thankfully found a garage and I put an extra couple of squirts in more than we really needed just to be on the safe side.

Rascafia

After I had calmed down we relaxed a little at a café pavement table and then walked through the streets of the charming little mountain town that provided a pleasant contrast to the tourist cities of Toledo and Segovia.  It was as though we had turned full circle and were back in Belmonte and then we resumed our journey.  There was a safe route but feeling confident once more we choose to try the mountain passes again this time using the eastern route and we hoped that this wouldn’t be blocked and closed as well.

We climbed again, quite quickly this time and reached a mountain top plateau surrounded by snowy peaks and with uninterrupted views into the distance.  We were only twenty miles from Madrid but we were practically alone in a lonely natural wilderness. What a day this was to be in this seemingly remote part of Spain, a glorious blue sky, snow on the mountains, early days of Spring and absolutely no one to share it with.

Top Of The World View

We crossed the top and thankfully there were no Guardia Civil to send us back and after we passed through the town of Miraflores de la Sierra the road dropped quickly down to the shoreline of a shimmering blue reservoir and the town of Manzanares El Real.

We arrived and parked in a dusty car park directly below the huge medieval castle sat on an outcrop of rock that we had driven here to see.  Leaving the car we walked through the languid square where little afternoon groups of men in flat caps and berets were congregating and debating the big issues of the day and women were shopping in the small stores around the perimeter.  They don’t get many English tourists here, especially in March so I think one or two of them were surprised to see us as they went about their daily routine.

We found the entrance to the castle and paid our €4 fee and then made our way inside through the main gate.  The castle has been restored of course, most recently in the 1970s, because only a few years ago it wasn’t in very good shape at all and I guessed that what we were seeing was what Belmonte castle will look like when it too has been restored.

Inside the main building we followed a route through a succession of restored rooms with displays of armour and medieval bric-a-brac of dubious originality and then out onto the battlements and turrets at the very top of the building.  To the north there were the snowy peaks of the mountains and to the south a stunning view over the Embalse de Santillana which is a recent addition to the landscape of course so wouldn’t have been there in the middle-ages for the occupants of the castle to enjoy and what made it all the more satisfying is that today we had the castle and the views all to ourselves.

After a long day it was getting late so we left now and continued to our final destination, Alcalá de Henares.

Manzanares el Real

Travels in Spain, The Royal Palace of San Ildefonso o La Granja

San Ildefonso o la granja 1

“I came on the Royal gardens of La Granja – acres of writhing statues, walks and fountains rising from the dust like a mirage. A grandiose folly, as grand as Versailles and even more extravagant” – Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning’

After breakfast we checked out and were reunited with the little Chevrolet Matiz that we hadn’t used for two days and we set off on our planned route back in the direction of Madrid.  We could have used the new motorway link that tunnels through the mountains but our plan was to use the mountain roads and go over the top.

We left the town and headed south towards our first destination of San Ildefonso o La Granja about ten miles away in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama and the location of a fabulous Royal Palace.

After driving through Nuevo Segovia we soon arrived in the town where there were a lot of road works and building activity, which made it difficult to find where we were going but we parked the car just outside of the town and walked through the gates into the Baroque streets and sauntered in what we supposed to be the direction of the Palace.  Kim wasn’t feeling so well this morning and she had a stiff neck and vertigo from watching the Storks so we found a little café and as the streets were still quite cool sat inside and had a coffee and an early slice of tortilla.

The town was wonderfully quiet, no coach tours and very few visitors as we walked to the Palace through the front garden and to the pay desk where admission was free on Wednesday if you could demonstrate European Union citizenship so we flashed our passports and avoided what was actually a very reasonable €4 admission charge.  Won’t be able to do that after March 2019, I should have taken that into consideration when I voted LEAVE!

San Ildefonso o la Granja x 3

The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso is a palace set in extensive gardens in the French style of Versailles that was built for King Philip V in the early eighteenth century and remains today an official residence of the King of Spain.  The Spanish Royal family used to like to leave Madrid in the baking hot summer months and take up residence in the mountains where the climate is cooler and more agreeable and looking around the place it was easy to see why.

Inside the dark rooms it was quite chilly and an attendant in woollies and a topcoat looked at me in my shirt sleeves as though I had escaped from an institution and gave a surrogate shiver as we examined the exhibition of Flemish tapestries before moving through a succession of state rooms all of which had magnificent views of the adjacent gardens and the snow capped mountains beyond.

Best of all was the Royal bedroom with a perfect balcony vista overlooking the fountains in the garden.  I didn’t get a sense that the present King, Felipe VI actually uses this room anymore and he probably has an apartment somewhere hidden away, which has a twenty-first century specification with wireless Internet access and Sky TV that this one certainly didn’t have.

In fact the King of Spain has eight Royal Palaces to choose from but I suspect he doesn’t stay at any of them very often, most are close to Madrid and one is on the island of Mallorca.  By comparison the Queen of England also has eight Royal residencies but only one is officially a Palace (Buckingham of course).

It was nice inside but when the sun is shining I prefer to be outside so I suppose I rushed us through the rooms a bit hastily and after finishing in the predictable shop selling lots of Royal souvenirs that we didn’t want we emerged into the gardens and the very pleasant sunshine.

From the Palace we walked through the King’s back garden along the row of fountains all of which represent various themes from classical mythology, including Greek deities, allegories and scenes from ancient myths. They are cast in lead to prevent corrosion, and painted over to simulate the nobler material of bronze, or lacquered over white oxydised lead to imitate marble. Amazingly the original waterworks and piping are still functional: they rely purely on gravity to project water up to the forty-meter height of the fountain jet of Perseus and Andromeda because an artificial lake, El Mar, lies secluded at the highest point of the park, and provides a reservoir and sufficient water pressure for the whole system.

Today, only a few fountains are active each day and only during the real tourist season but twice a year, on the feast days of San Fernando and San Luis all twenty-six fountains are set to work, providing what must be a truly memorable aquatic show.  To try and imagine just what it might be like I have to rely on the account of Laurie Lee:

“A hundred fountains were playing filling the sky with rainbows and extraordinary dreamlike clamour. Marble Gods and wood-nymphs, dragons and dolphins, their anatomies studded with pipes and nozzles, directed complex cascades at one another or shot them high over the trees…. Lakes, pools, jets and falls, flooded grottoes and exotic canals, all throbbed and surged at different levels, reflecting classical arbours, paths and terraces, or running like cooling milk down the statuary.” 

It didn’t really matter to us, the effervescent snow on the mountains completely compensated for a lack of fountain action.

San Ildefonso o la Granja 2

Other Royal Palaces in Spain:

Palacio Real Madrid

Arunjuez

Palace Real Alcázar, Seville

Travels in Spain, Ávila The Pride and The Passion

Avila Hotel

The weather was so settled that I practically stopped carrying out the early morning check because it was so constantly reliable and this morning we just went down to breakfast without giving it a second thought.

After eating we had an early walk into the town before checking out of the hotel and we stepped out in shirt sleeves but were immediately forced back to get a jacket because although the sun was shining, at this elevation, there was a sharp chill in the air.

The hotel was next to the cathedral, which was closed to visitors this morning on account of this being Sunday and the local people were using the place for the purpose for which it was really intended so we walked around the outside instead and were delighted to see a dozen or so Storks sitting on huge but untidy twig nests at the very top of the building.  They sat perfectly still in pairs just like bookends with only the breeze occasionally ruffling their feathers.  Periodically one or the other would fly off in search of food climbing high and magnificently on the morning thermals that were beginning to form.  Upon return they greeted each other with a noisy display of bill clattering that resonated through the granite streets and echoed off the sides of the buildings like rapid machine gun fire

.Avila View From walls

Progressing outside of the old city walls we found ourselves in the middle of preparations for a half marathon that was going to take place around the city walls with athletes all warming up and preparing for the big event.  In the early morning sun the view over the table top plain to the snow capped mountains in the distance was unexpected and wonderful and we sat for a while and enjoyed it.  It was peaceful and serene and I felt unusually contented.  It seemed hard to believe that twenty-four hours ago we were driving across the southern plains with all thoughts of winter behind us and now were in the mountains surrounded by snow.

We wished we were staying a second night in Ávila but sadly we weren’t and after we had checked out of the hotel we went back into the city to walk the walls, which are the best preserved in all of Spain and although they have had some recent renovation still capture the spirit of an impregnable medieval granite fortress.

It is over a mile long with two thousand five hundred battlements, eighty-eight cylindrical towers, six main gates and three smaller pedestrian gates.  Ávila was used in the 1957 film ‘The Pride and the Passion’ that starred Cary Grant, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra when a group of Spanish nationalists during the war of independence (The Peninsula War) lugged a huge gun up the mountains to attack the city and liberate it from the French invaders. It was based on the book ‘The Gun’, written by C S Forrester.

Avila x 4

We paid the €4 fee and received long winded instructions on how to find the four separate routes to which our tickets entitled us entrance and then climbed the steps to the top of the wall.  There were excellent views of the town, of the countryside beyond and the Storks sitting on their piles of sticks on top of the Cathedral and other buildings.  We thought that Ávila seemed nicer than Toledo and friendlier too because all of the information boards on the wall and in the town were thoughtfully translated into English.  There were an awful lot of steps to negotiate on the wall and because not all of the upper walkway was open this involved having to double back a lot as well to get to the exits.

After completing two of the sections we stopped for a drink in the sun in San Vicente Square on the outside of the walls and we agreed that we really liked the practice of always providing a little tapas with the drinks and we hatched a cunning plan – three bars, three drinks, three tapas, free lunch!

Spain Tapas

Just as we were leaving a mini-bus pulled up and a dozen or so men in blue and white football shirts got out.  They were making a lot of noise and made straight for the bar.  They were here from the nearby town of Aranda de Duero to watch a football match because their team Arandina were playing Real Ávila in the Spanish third division but as kick off wasn’t until five o’clock they were probably going to be doing a lot of drinking that afternoon in preparation.

Rested and refreshed we continued our walk around the walls but it became a bit repetitive and we tired of the reoccurring turrets and the seemingly endless walk so we abandoned the top of the wall and returned to street level and walked around the exterior instead.  After about an hour we re-entered the city at the Puerta de Santa Teresa on the west side and walked through the twisted narrow streets through the commercial centre and the market place and then deftly bypassed the shops back to the cathedral where we turned down the opportunity to pay and go inside in preference for staying outside in the sunshine.

The sun was quite strong now but there was a stiff breeze blowing off the adjacent plain and accelerating through the narrow streets so I don’t think we appreciated just how strong it was.  Soon we were back where we started at the Puerta Del Alcázar and it was time for a final drink and tapas before we prepared to leave.

The drinking group were all happy now and in very high spirits and I expect they were even happier after the game because I checked the football results later and Arandina won the match 2-1.

Avila Blue Sky

Travels in Spain, Toledo to Ávila

Castilla y Leon

“When you approach from the west almost all you see is its famous wall, a mile and a half of castellated granite… it looks brand new, so perfect is its preservation and seems less like an inanimate rampart than a bivouac of men-at-arms….” –  Jan Morris – ‘Spain’ 

We had spent nearly four hours in the city of Toledo but that wasn’t nearly enough time to appreciate fully the medieval magnificence of the place and in truth we had been way over ambitious and given ourselves too much to do in one day and with still a long way to go to reach our final destination we had to leave before we were ready and before we had seen everything we wanted to see.

On reflection our itinerary should have included a night in Toledo to give us more time but that wasn’t an option now because we had a hotel waiting for us in Ávila.

Leaving Toledo was just as easy as driving in and quickly we were out of the city and heading north again and skirting around Madrid with another one hundred miles to go.  For the first part of the journey there was nothing very special or exciting, every twenty miles or so there was a ruined castle like decayed teeth in the gums of the tawny hills once completing the Spanish defensive ring around Madrid and we seemed tantalising close to the cities and towns that I recognised from the Sharpe novels and the Peninsular War stories, Talavera, Badajoz, Salamanca and Ciudad Rodrigo but these were all to the west on the way to Portugal and we had no time to detour to any of them.

Spain Castles

As we crossed into Castilla y Leon the scenery quickly began to change as we left the flat plains completely behind and began to drive through pine forests with Alpine like meadows, crystal lakes, busy rivers and snow capped mountains.  We were climbing all the time and it was a complete transformation as we left behind the picturesque whitewashed villages of La Mancha and the towns now had grey stone walls and flat tiled roofs and we had completely lost the appearance of Mediterranean Spain.

Eventually we reached a desolate treeless table top plateau with a wilderness landscape with giant grey boulders lying randomly on the bracken coloured land and then we dropped a little and at three thousand feet started to approach Ávila, the highest provincial capital in Spain.

The old city of Ávila is completely enclosed within a medieval wall and as our hotel was inside it we drove through one of the main gates and into tangle of narrow streets and immediately got lost and confused.  Just as things were beginning to look hopeless we found a tourist information office and went inside for help.  The man at the desk explained that parking was very difficult (we’d guessed that already) and that it would be best to go back out of the old city and park in a public car park nearby.  He gave me a street map that looked like a bowl of spaghetti and told me that it was too difficult for him to try to explain how to get out and that I should just drive around until I get to a gate.  ‘Thank you very much, that was very helpful’ I muttered silently under my breath.

Avila x 6

Well, we eventually found the way out and the car park and then we had to walk back into the city and to the Plaza Catedral to find the Hotel Palacio De Los Velada.  We passed some lovely hotels on the way and I worried about my choice but I needn’t have because it turned out to be exceptional.  It was a four star hotel and we don’t usually do four star hotels but I had picked up an excellent half price deal and found ourselves staying in a genuine old seventeenth century palace that had been converted into this excellent hotel with a large internal courtyard, grand wooden balconies, sumptuous furniture and a brilliant room.

I congratulated myself on a real result as I opened the wine with a corkscrew that we had treated ourselves to at a nearby supermarket.  I had a very good feeling about Ávila.

Later we walked out into the city and looked for somewhere to eat.  Our first choice refused to serve off of the menu del dia so we left and then found a rustic sort of place serving simple meals from the cheaper menu and we had a meal of Castilian soup and the local specialty of roasted suckling pig.  On the walk back to the hotel there was a black velvet sky full of bright stars and a big full moon that reflected off of the snow on the Gredos Sierra Mountains and things looked very promising for another good day tomorrow.

Avila External

Travels in Spain, Toledo The City of Religion and Steel

Toledo Postcard

“A castle stands sentinel across the stream; harsh grey hills are all about: the setting of Toledo is all abrasion, nothing soft, nothing hospitable, nothing amusing.  This is the Spanish character at its most intractable” –  Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

The car park might have been conveniently right on the edge of the City but to get there involved a rather strenuous climb to reach it because old Toledo is built on the top of a craggy outcrop of rock which sits like a Stork’s nest that in the Middle Ages made it impregnable to hostile forces.

The whole city is a sort of natural castle with a moat, the Tagus River, running in a looping gorge around three sides of it. The only way an enemy could take it was to attack the north side and that was difficult because not surprisingly that was the most strongly fortified part of the city walls.  The Tagus, by the way, is the fourth longest river in Western Europe and the most important in Iberia and from Toledo it flows all the way to the Atlantic Ocean at Lisbon in Portugal.

Toledo has always been one of the most important cities in Spain and for many years actually contested the status of capital with nearby Madrid and was in fact the principal city until 1560.  But Madrid gradually came to prominence under the Hapsburg Monarchy and Phillip II moved his court there and made it his Capital in 1561.

Toledo compensated for this by reinventing itself as the principal religious city in the country and today remains the seat of the Primate of all Spain.  To walk around the cramped streets of Toledo and browse the souvenir shops is the closest you can get in Spain to being in Rome as replicas of the Saints stare out from every shop window.

This to is the city of El Greco, the greatest artist of his age and his religious paintings and his interpretations of the scriptures that represent Toledo as a brooding cauldron of spiritual energy are never far away.

Spain - Historic City of Toledo 1

At the end of the climb from the car park we entered the city at the busy main square, the Plaza Zocodover, which was surrounded by tall imperial buildings and confusing little streets leaking away into deep shadows in all directions.  Without a map we were rather confused and disorientated because this was easily the biggest place we had visited so far.

After a while we established our bearings and walked to the Alcázar, which was closed today for improvements and a planned new museum but being at the top of the city did have spectacular views over the river and the lands stretched out to the south.  We were still unsure of our location and after an aborted refreshment stop at a bar with a broken loo and unacceptably loud music we threaded our way into the maze of narrow streets and walking in the general direction of the Cathedral.

After lunch we walked to the Cathedral and paid the entrance fee of €7, which turned out to be excellent value compared to the €2 to get into the tiny church in Belmonte.  It is one of the biggest cathedrals in the world and the interior is not at all austere as some cathedrals can be.  Slightly annoying was the fact that for those who didn’t want to pay the admission charge they could enter by a side door and although they couldn’t walk around freely and see all of the internal rooms and the especially impressive choir area, they could certainly see and appreciate the magnificent structure for free.

Acuarela Original

Outside the Cathedral we found a tourist information office and now we had a map the city was suddenly much easier to negotiate.  In the past Toledo had changed hands many times and it was renowned for its diversity and religious toleration and we visited a synagogue with, unusually for a synagogue, free admission and then after walking through a warren of mazy streets came out on the other side overlooking the modern town to the north.

Every available square metre of this rocky outcrop has been built upon and the buildings are heaped together in a random and haphazard way with cobbled lanes revealing new delights at every twist and turn.  We negotiated the narrow confusing streets and the surprises back towards the Plaza Zocodover and as we did so passed through an area of artisans workshops where metal workers were making swords and knives and displaying them in the windows.

IMG_0161a

Traditionally Toledo (like Sheffield in England) is famous for its production of steel and especially of swords and the city is still a centre for the manufacture of knives and other steel implements designed for stabbing people.  In the tourist shops slashing swords and dangerous daggers compete for selling space with the holy Saints and religious icons.

For soldiers and adventurers in past times a sword made of Toledo steel was a must have item because the quality of the steel and the skill of the blacksmith combined to make an exceptionally strong and perfect lethal weapon.  In literature and film the Three Musketeers had Toledo steel swords and so did Don Diego de la Vega who was more famously known as Zorro.

The manufacturing process was a carefully guarded secret and to make such an exceptional weapon they had to select the very best raw materials and then follow a complicated technical process to achieve the right balance between hard and soft steel forged at a temperature of 1454º Fahrenheit for exactly the right length of time and followed by a critical cooling and shaping process.  So complicated was this whole procedure and so perfect was the finished weapon that to achieve this level of precision a master craftsman would typically only be able to make two or three blades in a year.

Little wonder that they were so expensive!

Toledo Steel

Travels in 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