Category Archives: Postcards

France, Le Tricolore et La Fenêtre

At the top of the climb we went through the charming town of St Pons-de-Thomieres and as we sat in the mid morning traffic we drove past the Hôtel de Ville and in the courtyard there was a magnificent statue of Madame Liberty, the traditional female embodiment of the French Republic with her ample bosom unashamedly thrusting out and exposed to all.

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tricoloure window 2Tricolour window

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Napoleon Bonaparte, Three Ways and Twenty Separate Parts

Napoleon 1

When I was a boy, about ten or so, I used to like to make Airfix model kits.

The little models were mainly heroes from English history but curiously there was a figure of Napoleon included in the range and it was always one of my favourites, probably because he was one of the easiest to put together and to paint.  It is an odd thing but I think that Airfix kit of Napoleon Bonaparte began my interest in French history and why I went on to study the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire at University.

Napoleon Airfix

Other figures in the range were the Kings Richard the Lionheart, Henry V, Henry VIII and Charles I and to balance things up there was the regicide Oliver Cromwell.

Napoleon was there but not Hitler or Stalin and alongside him representing France was Joan of Arc.

For some reason Julius Caesar who once invaded England was included but not William The Conqueror.

Airfix Figures

Who was your favourite Airfix figure?

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…

Travels in Spain, Cervantes and Alcalá de Henares

Cervantes Alcala de Henares

Modern day Alcalá de Henares is a busy sprawling industrial suburb of Madrid but at its heart is the world’s first planned University City founded in 1293 by King Sancho IV of Castile.  It was the original model for the Civitas Dei (City of God), the ideal Christian community that Spanish missionaries exported to the New World and it also served as a model for universities in all of Europe and elsewhere.

Alcalá de Henares is Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale but I wouldn’t have guessed this as we drove towards the city centre through grimy streets, clogged with growling traffic and unattractive high rise apartment blocks and small industrial units lining the road.

The City is however packed to overflowing with two thousand years of history.  It was settled by Romans, Moors and the reconquering Christians.  As a former royal residence it is where Columbus met Queen Isabella for the first time.   In 1547, it was the birthplace of Spain’s greatest literary genius, Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote.  It achieved UNESCO world heritage status in 1998 thanks to this venerated university which has produced a steady supply of saints and generations of powerful Spanish Catholic bishops.

Don Quixote Alcala de Henares

It was almost lunch time now and having missed breakfast judged it about time to eat so we found a place in the sun and asked for a menu.  When I said it was almost lunch time I meant that it was about eleven-thirty and this proved to be a bit of a problem because most of the things we selected weren’t quite ready so we tried again and most of the things on our second selection attempt weren’t ready either so we settled for a bocadillo and a glass of beer before setting off into the centre of the city for sightseeing.

The pavement bar with the seriously restricted menu options was close to the centre of Alcalá de Henares so after our short stop we walked through the red brick city to the expansive tree lined Plaza Mayor, here called the Plaza de Cervantes.

Cervantes wrote a dozen or so major works and his most famous is Don Quixote, a sprawling epic novel regarded as the most influential work of literature to emerge from the Spanish Golden Age.  It is the story of a man who believes that he is a knight, and recounts his adventures as he rights wrongs, mistakes peasants for princesses, and  “tilts at windmills,” mistakenly believing them to be evil giants.

don-quixote-book-cover

As one of the earliest works of modern western literature, it regularly appears high on lists of the greatest works of fiction ever published.

In 2002 a panel of one hundred leading world authors declared Don Quixote to be the best work of fiction ever written, ahead even of works by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Hemingway and Bryson.  Cervantes has also been credited with shaping modern literary style, and Don Quixote has been acclaimed as “the first great novel of world literature”.

Since publication in 1605 it is reputed to be the most widely read and translated book on the planet after the Bible. I tried to read it once but found it rather heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we walked around I resolved to have another attempt upon returning home.

So that is the two most translated books in the history of the World that I haven’t read! The third is ‘Listen to God and Live Forever’ by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and not surprisingly I haven’t read that either.

The Plaza is a supremely handsome square surrounded by tall University buildings decorated with untidy Stork nests. There was a lot of activity in the nests today because the population of these birds in Spain is rising, from six thousand seven hundred pairs thirty years ago to an estimated thirty-five thousand pairs today.  In fact there are so many White Storks in Spain that it is now second only to Poland who with fifty thousand birds has always traditionally been the country with the most pairs of the birds in Europe.

Cervantes

On three sides there are medieval colonnaded arcades and in the centre on a tall column stands a statue of Cervantes with quill held delicately in his right hand as a Conquistador might hold a sword, as though poised to begin writing a masterpiece.  We walked through and around it and then explored the University district before returning to the main shopping street the Calle Mayo

All along the Calle Mayor there were shopping distractions for Kim to investigate so while she looked at shoes and cakes and sparkly things I made my way to the end of the street to the birthplace museum of Cervantes and waited in the company of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza for her to catch me up.

I had a mind to visit the museum especially as the web site said that admission was free but at the entrance I was greeted by an attendant who explained that there was a charge of €10 which I judged to be rather expensive for just a handful of rooms so I purchased a couple of postcards and left.  Maybe I made the right decision because I read subsequently that there is some suggestion that this is not his birthplace at all and the house was built some time after Cervantes birth, an accusation that is strenuously denied by the museum of course.

Cervantes House Alcala de Henares

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, The Aqueduct of Segovia

Segovia 08

“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.

Aqueduct of Segovia

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.

Segovia 04

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.

Segovia 03

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.

Segovia