Category Archives: Spain

Travels in Spain, Castles and Fortresses

Castles of Spain

Finding a castle to visit is not difficult in Spain because, according to the Official Tourist Board there just about two thousand five hundred. For comparison there are eight hundred in the United Kingdom and whilst France claims roughly five-thousand this figure includes a lot of questionable small Chateaux in that number.

My blogging Pal Brian has some interesting observations on French Chateaux and I think you might be interested to visit this post and then more of his site…

Chateau Saumur … a love-hate experience!

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Travels in Spain, Castillo de Almodóvar and The Game of Thrones

Castillo de Almodóvar 4

It was a glorious morning and although it was slightly chilly there wasn’t a cloud to be seen in the perfect blue sky and we interpreted this as a really promising sign and although this was November dressed appropriately in summer linens and short-sleeved shirts.  After all we were in Spain!

Together with a lot of local people we had a traditional breakfast at the Goya and this made a nice change from the usual hotel buffet arrangement that we usually have.  It was a simple affair with a choice of toasted bread drizzled with olive oil and a thin tomato puree and topped off with thin slices of cured ham or alternatively, for those who didn’t care for the ham, toast and marmalade made from finest Seville oranges.

After breakfast we prepared for a drive to the city of Córdoba about a seventy miles to the east along the River Guadalquivir. Córdoba is a moderately sized place today but once it was the largest Roman city in Spain and later became the thriving capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba that once governed almost all of the Iberian Peninsula.  It has been estimated that in the tenth century it was the largest city in Western Europe and, perhaps, in the whole world with up to half a million inhabitants.  If this is true then only Constantinople and Rome would have previously been bigger and even today a population that size would be in the top three in Spain.

As always of course, be wary of biggest, highest, widest claims!

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We didn’t take the direct motorway route because we thought the alternative may be more scenic and anyway we were worried about paying unnecessary road tolls.  This proved to be a mistake on both counts because it wasn’t especially picturesque and there weren’t any tolls either.

First we drove to the town of Lora Del Rio along a road that took us through an agricultural landscape with fields all freshly ploughed and waiting for next year’s grain crops.  Although the highest mountains on the Spanish mainland are in Andalusia most of the Province, which stretches from the deserts of Almeria in the east to the Portuguese border in the west is a flat plain in the valley of the Guadalquivir, which at nearly four hundred miles is the fifth longest river in Spain and is one of the country’s most important because it irrigates a fertile valley, and creates a rich agricultural area.

Lora del Rio was an unexceptional working town and there was nothing to stop for so we continued along the road through the similar towns of Palma del Rio and Posadas.  On our left, to the north, was the Sierra Morena mountain range that separates Andalusia from the central plain of Castilla-La Mancha and there were some worrying accumulations of cloud that looked a little too close for comfort.  Eventually we came to Almodóvar del Rio where a large castle was perched strategically on the top of a hill and this looked well worth stopping for.

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The Castillo de Almodóvar is a grandiose Caliphal fortress erected on a high mound along the Guadalquivir.  Square towers flank its towering walls and the entire castle is surrounded by a large moat.  During the years of occupation it was a Moorish stronghold and after the reconquest it became the medieval home for members of the Spanish nobility.  It gradually fell into disrepair however and much of it was plundered for convenient building material by the people of the nearby town but the Count of Torralba rebuilt it a hundred years or so ago restoring the external appearance of the original Arab fortification.

The castle was used as filming location for the TV series Game of Thrones where it was used (if anyone is interested, I know that I’m not) to represent the castle of Highgarden, the seat of House Tyrell in the Reach on the Mander River.

GOT Castillo de Almodóvar

At its elevated position there was a spectacular view of the plains to the south and the mountains to the north and although the sun was shining it was getting cold and the clouds were getting closer.  We visited the castle in the company of a school outing who were enjoying an interactive history lesson which must have been highly entertaining judging by all of the laughter and giggles.

It was a good castle and well worth the €5 entrance fee and we climbed the towers and walked the ramparts and when we had seen all there was to see we left and continued the drive to Córdoba.

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More Game of Thrones filming locations…

Travels in Spain, Car Hire and Trouble with Maps

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“I would sooner be a foreigner in Spain than most countries.  How easy it is to make friends in Spain!” – George Orwell – ‘Homage to Catalonia’

In the summer a cheap flight opportunity to Seville and Andalusia in November provided the perfect opportunity to continue the quest to discover the real Spain.  A visit to the South and the part of the peninsula with which, thanks to the travel brochures I suppose, we are all familiar, the Spain of flamenco, Moorish architecture, sherry, tapas bars and bull fighting.

The first task after arrival at Seville airport was to pick up the hire car and the lady at the desk took me step by step through the formalities and then showed me a diagram that identified all of the previous damage that the car had suffered.  This took some considerable time because it turned out to be practically every single panel, front back and sides and when we collected it from the car park it was in a real mess and looking quite sorry for itself and my first reaction was to be a bit annoyed that we had been allocated such a tatty vehicle.

I was soon to discover however that this was quite normal for cars in this part of Spain!  The interior was clean but there was an overpowering smell of industrial strength air freshener that was so unpleasant that we had to drive with the windows down and we began to worry about what sort of previous smell the deodoriser was covering up.

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Instead of staying in the city of Seville, where the hotels seemed to be a little expensive and beyond our budget, we had chosen instead to book a cheaper alternative in the nearby town of Carmona that was about twenty miles away.  The first part of the journey along the Autovia du Sur was pleasant and without incident and then we left at the junction for the town and things started to unravel.  We didn’t have a proper town map, only something from the multimap website and this didn’t prove to be especially helpful.

We (I) became confused and did a couple of circuits of the town looking for street names that we could identify but these proved to be illusive and of little assistance because they didn’t seem to correspond in any way to the map.  Eventually, on third time around the main town square I found a bar that was still open and asked (pleaded)  for help.

The man was just as confused by multimap as we were and it took him some time to interpret it for himself before he could even begin to draw the route that we needed through what looked like a tangled web of streets with a baffling one way system.  Finally he provided comprehensive instructions but in rapid fire Spanish that made it difficult to follow but it was helpful just to discover that we were in the new part of the town and what we really needed was the centro historico, which was a few hundred yards away.

Confident now of directions we set off again and this time took the correct turning through an imposing medieval fortress gate and into a labyrinth of confusing narrow streets.  At a fork in the road we were presented with two options.  We were staying at a hotel in San Fernando Square and there was a sign that seemed to suggest that we should turn left but I overruled Micky who pointed this out and foolishly decided to ignore the sensible thing to do and took the right fork instead.

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This was a very big mistake because the road climbed up a narrow cobbled street barely wide enough for the car to pass through and then seemed to abruptly stop at what looked like a pedestrian alleyway.  There was an elderly Spanish couple out strolling so we asked for help and after they had studied the map seemed to suggest to us that we should carry on down this narrow path.  We were not entirely convinced about this and asked for clarification several times and the man, who spoke no English and was not terribly useful, was determined not to let his wife, who could speak a little English and was a lot more helpful, have her turn with the map.

Maps and men must be the same everywhere, let me explain, it’s a macho sort of thing that drives us to take control and this is based on years of experience of being sent in the wrong direction.  Women generally are as hopeless with maps and town plans as men are with knitting patterns.  Anyway, while we were debating the situation another car pulled up behind and seemed to be heading in the direction of the alleyway so this was a clue that this was indeed the correct way to go.  As we pulled away the woman looked into the car and in a genuinely caring sort of way said ‘Be careful, good luck’ and this parting comment filled my cup of confidence full to the brim and overflowing.

We set off and it soon became clear why we needed both precision and good fortune because if we had thought that the previous street had been narrow this one made it look like a six lane highway.  First of all it was necessary to negotiate a dog leg gate that was barely wider than the car and we all had to collectively breathe in so that we could squeeze through and after that the street narrowed down still further and I needed delicate keyhole surgery skills to manoeuvre through 90º bends and past carelessly parked cars and iron bollards strategically placed to impede progress at every turn.

It was like threading a needle blindfolded and we now understood why the car was covered in dents and scratches and probably why the air freshener was so strong; the previous hirer had possibly driven down the same street and had an unfortunate bowel incident in the process!

Going forward was tricky and we were making slow progress but what really concerned me was the possibility of reaching a – and having to reverse all the way back because that would have been impossible.  Finally however we came out into a square (that was actually a circle) and by luck we had found our hotel.  After three circuits of the square it was obvious that there was nowhere to park however so we had to settle for a side street and a hundred yard walk back to the Hotel Posada San Fernando where a lady on reception was waiting to check us in.

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Travels in Spain, Barcelona in Pictures

Click on an image to scroll through the pictures of Barcelona…

Travels in Spain, Barcelona and Leaving the Best Till Last

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‘For us, the hall ranks alongside the Musikverein in Vienna, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, or the Royal Albert Hall in London’  – Lluís Millet

Friday the 15th June was my birthday and on account of having one or two glasses of wine over what was really sensible I was surprised next morning over breakfast to find so many night time pictures in my camera of the Sagrada Familia; also, I was wearing a brand new Barcelona tee-shirt.  Wow, I must have way too many because it turned out that I had been shopping as well!

It was our last half day in Barcelona and after breakfast I walked to the tourist office and bought tickets to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Palau De La Musica Catalana and on the way back to the IBIS hotel I bought another Barcelona tee-shirt and the only explanation that I have for that is that the alcohol was still working its way through my system.  I am pleased to report however that I hadn’t lost complete control of my senses or of my wallet because it was only a cheap tourist shop and not the official Sagrada Familia boutique with prices to match the height of the towers.

After packing and checking out we set out now on foot back towards the old Gothic Quarter of Barcelona which was relatively straight-forward now that we had mastered the geography of the grid system of Eixample and within half an hour or so we were close to our intended destination.  Actually, even though we had made an unscheduled stop at a market hall we were about thirty minutes early.

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We had bought scheduled tickets for the Palau De La Musica and this seems to be the preferred way of doing things in Barcelona these days.  There are discounts for booking on-line and a guaranteed timed visit but, maybe I am a bit old fashioned here, the system seems to rob a city visit of any spontaneity and imposes time pressures that are a bit of a burden and I found that I was forever keeping an eye on the clock I suppose that a city that has thirty-five million visitors a year needs to have some sort of organisation.  Some statistics suggest that Barcelona is the fifth most visited city in Europe after London, Paris, Rome and Prague.

So we waited for the visit to begin and the sense of expectation began to rise as we sensed that what was about to begin was going to be rather spectacular.  And we were not disappointed.

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The Palau is an icon of modernist architecture in the city, if there were to be an arm wrestling competition with the Gaudi experience then this would hold its own for sure.  It is an exercise in opulence, grand salons, tiled columns decorated to reflect nature and a concert hall that would surely distract any performer or spectator through a musical performance of any kind.

And at the very top of the building a great glass dome, a drop of water hanging from the ceiling like a tear from a melting icicle with reflections of the sun, a source of both light and inspiration.  Effectively, this is a large skylight, the centre of which forms an inverted dome over the rectangular auditorium, the dome is described as ‘a giant droplet just about to fall from the ceiling‘, or ‘one of the most remarkable works of stained glass art of our times’. The effect is such that the hall is claimed to be the only auditorium in Europe that is illuminated during daylight hours entirely by natural light.

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For me this was the highlight of the visit to Barcelona and we had saved the best till last.  In a city that has Gaudi and the Sagrada Familia the Palau De La Musica was easily the best of all attractions and my advice to anyone going to the city would be to make this an absolute priority visit.  It has grand architecture, a riot of colour, opulent decoration and a rich musical history.  It left me wide eyed and open mouthed, overawed and drooling.

It was fabulous and I could have stayed there all day but the tour was drawing to an inevitable close and after a final look around the ornate reception area we were back on the streets and in  our favourite bar at Plaça Catalunya making an assessment of our visit before returning to the hotel to take a taxi back to the airport and a flight home.  I was planning to pick out my top five places in Barcelona but it was impossible, I had enjoyed everything about the city and the short five day visit.  I might have to go back!

Barcelona Tee Shirt

Travels in Spain, Barcelona and The Palau De La Musica

IMG_0296Palau De La Musica 02Palau De La Musica 04Palau De La Musica 03Catalan Flag Palau De La Musica

Travels in Spain, Plaça d’Espanya and Poble Espanyol in Barcelona

Palau Nacional de Catalunya

The train from Montserrat arrived back at Plaça d’Espanya in the middle of the afternoon and this was our chance to take a look at another famous district of Barcelona – Montjuïc, a flat top mountain area which overlooks the port and the city.

The Plaça d’Espanya was included in the plans for the expansion of Barcelona in the mid-nineteenth century and was laid out with wide boulevards and six main roads all converging on the centre of the square where there is a monumental statue surrounded by a Baroque colonnade.  It was completed in 1929 on the occasion of the International Exhibition which was held in this area of the City.

The statue at the centre is designed as an allegory representing all of Spain. Three sides with sculptures that symbolize the three principal rivers of the Iberian Peninsula,  Ebro, Guadalquivir, and Tagus, around the central sculpture, three decorated columns which symbolise  a Spanish/Catalan self-assessment of the qualities of themselves as a Nation – Religion, Heroism and Arts.

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The Plaça d’Espanya is a busy roundabout, on one side is the old bullring, now a shopping centre (because bull fighting is banned in Catalonia) and on the other are two bell-towers known as the Venetian Towers, on account of the fact that design and construction was heavily influenced by St. Mark’s Campanile in Venice.  From there a walk up a gentle gradient towards the imposing structure of the Renaissance style Palau Nacional, built in 1929 as the main exhibition hall and today The National Art Museum of Catalonia.

This is a lovely part of Barcelona that has a national and international ambiance with architecture borrowed and copied from across Europe and with buildings designed to give a representation of all of Spain.  A shame then that large areas of it were destroyed in the calamitous Spanish Civil war of 1936 to 1939.  Fortunately everything is now rebuilt and restored in the original style.

To illustrate this, at the centre of this Spanish showcase, next to the Palau Nacional, is an attraction called Poble Espanyol, built in 1929 and still there now as a tourist attraction.  I found it to be a rather odd sort of place that aspires to celebrate the various regions of Spain but, for me anyway, failed to effectively capture the spirit of the country and it isn’t really a museum but rather a collection of shops and restaurants claiming to sell and serve regional specialities.  For anyone who has been to Disney World EPCOT World Showcase you will probably know what I mean.

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The Disney view of the World doesn’t include Spain in the World Showcase, which is an oversight if you ask me, but if it did then something like Poble Espanyol would be exactly what it would most likely look like.

An interesting thing about the attraction is that it claims to introduce the visitor to the heritage and culture of each of the Autonomous Communities of Spain and yet it only showcases fifteen of the seventeen and as we left I couldn’t help wondering why the Canary Islands and La Rioja didn’t rate a mention or at least a shop? So, I have looked it up; apparently the research designers were unable to organise a visit to the Canary Islands for economic reasons and LaRioja didn’t exist as an Autonomous Community of Spain until 1980.

We stayed around the area for a while but it was too late to visit the museum or the shops of Poble Espanyol so we stopped for a drink in the park and then made our way back to the metro.

Magic Fountain Barcelona

The route took us past a cascading waterfall and four ionic columns originally erected in 1919 to be a symbol of the Catalan Nation and its aspiration for self-governance and independence (the columns represent the stripes of the Catalan flag). The originals were demolished in 1928 under the orders of Madrid but were rebuilt in 2010. I understand the symbolism of the columns but to be honest I found them to be a little inconsistent with the area and a bit jarring on the eye.

Not so the adjacent Magic Fountain which was providing a fountain display where the water was dancing and leaping into the air with a cycle of changing routines. The fountain was commissioned to replace the four columns in time for the National Exhibition. It is a great spectacle but the best time to see it is at night time when the fountains are accompanied by a light show and music.

We weren’t staying close enough to return later (mid-June and not getting dark until quite late) so instead we returned to the same restaurant as the previous evening and instead of the fountain took night time pictures of the Sagrada Familia as an alternative.

Montjuic Columns

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