Category Archives: Spain

Portugal, A Walking Tour of Ovar

Ovar Portugal Azulejo

The plan for our three days at the seaside in Furadouro was to take a break from travelling and the trains, the drag-bags and the packing and unpacking and to spend some time relaxing on the beach.

Unfortunately our plan was scuppered by the weather because when we woke the next day there was a thick sea mist which would have challenged anything that the North Sea can throw at us back home.

Trying as best we could to be optimistic about the situation we hoped that it would be blown away by the time we had finished breakfast but it was still there like a damp shroud when we left the hotel and ventured onto the streets.  By mid morning it was getting even worse and our clothes were getting damp so we finally admitted defeat, took our swimming costumes and towels back to the hotel and tried to think of some alternative entertainment for the day.

Then I remembered that the nice lady in the Tourist Information Office next door had yesterday tried to persuade me to take a walking tour of the nearby city of Ovar on a trail of the ceramic tiles.  This didn’t seem too exciting to me at the time but it was now getting rapidly more appealing.  It was only €2 each which seemed rather a bargain so we quickly made a return visit to enquire if there were still places available and there were so we signed up.

We considered ourselves fortunate about that because there is only one official tour like this every month and this was the last of the season.

Portugal Tiles Postcard

Now we had to make our way to Ovar so being too mean to take a taxi we walked to the bus stop and when it arrived we were glad to be going inland away from the sea mist and we were encouraged to see some welcome brightness in the sky.

To be honest there isn’t a great deal to do in Ovar, at midday the street market was beginning to close down and we didn’t want to explore the streets in case this was the route of the tour and we might spoil it so instead we found a pavement café, ordered a drink and counted down the minutes to the start of the walk.

This seemed to take a long time, the pace of life in Ovar is rather slow, not nearly as fast as our consumption of beer and wine so we had a second drink and then made our way to the assembly point at the Tourist Information Office where we were separated into two groups, those that spoke Portuguese and those who didn’t.

Our guide was proud to begin the tour with an explanation that Ovar is considered to be the City Museum of the Azulejo since it has a rich collection of tiles on the facades of the buildings, more so than anywhere else in Portugal apparently and for this reason the Museu Nacional do Azulejo in Lisbon has declared Ovar to be a city of historic national importance.

Azulejo Ovar

Azulejos first came to Portugal in the fifteenth century, when parts of the Iberian Peninsula remained under Moorish rule.  Although many assume the word is a derivation of azul (Portuguese for blue) the word is Arabic in origin and comes from az-zulayj, which roughly translates as ‘polished stone’.

Nowhere in Europe has tiles like Portugal, not even next door Spain, they are everywhere and have become one of the iconic symbols of the country and are used to clad buildings both internally for decoration and externally as an essential component of construction for insulation in winter and for reflecting away the heat of the sun in summer.

It seemed to me that Ovar is a city desperately seeking a tourist identity, every town needs tourists after all and Ovar is exploiting the heritage of the Azulejo.  The walk began with a pleasant stroll through the streets of the city centre with frequent stops for information from our tour guide and took forty minutes or so.

I liked Ovar and I hope it succeeds.

Ovar Portugal Tile Painting

Overflowing with unexpected new knowledge we walked now to a ceramic factory on the edge of the city where we were invited to have a stab at painting our own ceramic tile.  We applied the paint, tried to remove the smudges (unsuccessfully as it happened) and then left them behind for the oven baking process and a promise that they would be delivered to us later in the day.  It was all rather like being back at school.

Now there was a bus trip to the nearby village of Válega and the church there which is a true masterpiece of tile painting art and surely one of the remarkable churches in all of Portugal.  A golden temple that sparkles with amazing tiles of many colours especially now that the sky had cleared and the sun was illuminating the towering facade.

Actually I found it to be overly showy and gaudy in its appearance but the tour guides seemed to like it and we spent a few minutes inside and out.

Válega Church Ovar Portugal

We were beginning to wonder what was happening next on the itinerary when we were driven to an artisan workshop and museum and I began to sense the commercial part of the tour was fast approaching. I was wrong to be sceptical however because this was where the €2 was going and some enthusiastic ladies in traditional costume baked for us and then served up the local specialty of orange loaf bread which was quite nice but to be honest I found a bit stodgy, a touch under baked and rather too much of it.

This was the end of the tour, the coach took us back to Ovar and we caught the bus to Furadouro where the sun was belatedly shining and we hoped for better weather tomorrow so that we could revert to our original beach plan.

Later we went to the Tourist Information Office to collect out painted tiles and were surprised to find that the baking process had seemed to surprisingly improve them.  We use them at home now as oversized coasters.

Ovar Portugal Orange Bread

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A Ghost Story for Halloween

Posada San Telmo

We picked up a hire car at the Sol-Mar desk and after completing the formalities found the vehicle and headed west on the Autovia to the tourist town of Santillana de Mar and the nearby village of Ubiarco where our accommodation was booked.

It was an odd thing about the accommodation but when I checked the web site a few days before I couldn’t find the hotel again and I had worried that perhaps my booking had been cancelled or the place might be closed for the winter.

Eventually I found it through my booking reference number and everything seemed to be in order so I stopped worrying. I was perplexed however that when I entered alternative dates just to check, there was never any availability and there were no more rooms available for this weekend either. I convinced myself that the place must surely be full of people all enjoying £10 flights just like us, but there was another odd thing because there were no customer reviews posted to the site, which has to be a little bit strange.

image_room_double_1

It took only about thirty minutes to get to the village and most unusually for me, we found the place almost immediately and drew into the car park. There was only one other car there and the place was in almost complete darkness except for a creepy light seeping through the cracks in the curtains at a downstairs window. It was locked but when we knocked on the door a kindly elderly couple opened a heavy creaking door and invited us in.

They explained that they had been waiting all day for us to arrive and I was surprised by this because I was certain that I had advised my late arrival time when I had booked.

Now, here was a peculiar thing because it was immediately obvious that there were no other guests and the man took us to our room on the first floor. We asked about restaurants and bars but he told us there were none close by and as it was about half past nine we weren’t in the mood for driving any more so we decided to settle in, have a bottle of wine and play cards in the lounge.

The lady melted into the shadows in the room and we didn’t see her again but the man was downstairs and most attentive, he seemed to know instinctively when we needed something from his small bar. First we ordered beer and later a bottle of wine and he was always available when we needed him but at this stage I didn’t find that especially strange even though he seemed to appear from the same dark shadows.

The wine said 1974 and I hoped it wouldn’t be expensive, on the coffee table were a pile of very old magazines and the television programme was an episode of something like Dallas dubbed in Spanish and the place began to feel more and more unusual and curious the later it became.

We finished the wine and went to bed and I went to say goodnight but the place was deserted except for us so we went straight to our room via the creaky staircase and settled down.

After a minute or two we heard soft footsteps in the corridor and whoever it was stopped outside our door for a second or two and then moved on.  I felt a shiver dart down by spine but I told myself that it was just the owner making sure we were all right and I thought that was a nice touch and that I should be sure to mention it in my hotel review.

ghost Wales Cottahe Llanuwchllyn

I had a restless night full of wild dreams, nightmares almost and at some point I heard the footsteps for a second time but I had no idea what time it was. The room was pitch black and although we were on the village main road there wasn’t a single sound to punctuate the total silence that lay on us like a thick blanket. Wild thoughts raced through my brain, I thought about the web site, why were there no guest reviews? Why was no one else staying here? Why did the room go cold and the lights dim when the man bought us the wine?

And then I heard the footsteps again and Kim stirred and heard them too, we were too scared to investigate so we pulled the sheets over our heads and prepared to meet an apparition..

I struggled top get back to sleep for straining to listen for strange noises but eventually it was morning and when we looked outside there was a promising clear sky and an unexpected view of the sea. We made a cup of tea and then went downstairs for breakfast but were surprised to find the place deserted and all of the furniture draped in dust covers.

It was cold and eerie and no one responded to our holas! I didn’t like it at all so we went outside and down the street there was a lively little café that was full of customers so we went inside. I asked for the breakfast menu and told the owner that we were staying at the Posada San Telmo next door.

He turned pale and gave me an odd stare and when I looked surprised he said ‘Senor, you must be mistaken, no one has stayed at the San Telmo for thirty years, the house has been abandoned since 1976’.

My blood turned to ice and froze and the hairs on the back of my neck stood to attention and I suddenly understood about the empty web site and the ghostly footsteps and we were anxious to get away so we drank our tea and left rather quickly…

halloween-witch

Portugal, Tomar and the Aqueduct of Pegões

Tomar Portugal

The day began with breakfast.  Nothing unusual about that of course, most days begin with breakfast, but this breakfast was unusual.

I have to say that I did not have very high expectations about eating at Conde de Ferreira Palace but I was soon to be proved wrong. The food and the service itself was excellent but it was the ambiance of the dining arrangements which set it apart from other places that we have stayed.

There was only one large dining table and hotel guests all sat together; this sort of arrangement can be uncomfortable at first but within only a very short time everyone was chatting away to each other.  When I say chatting I really mean struggling because around the table there were several different nationalities rather like a meeting at the United Nations but without the interpreters.

The French Canadians from Quebec couldn’t speak to the Germans, the Flemish Belgians couldn’t speak to the Dutch because the French couldn’t understand German, the Belgians couldn’t understand the Dutch and vice versa.  No one except the Portuguese could speak Portuguese.  But this didn’t matter one jot because everyone could speak English, except for the Americans of course, so everyone was able to satisfactorily communicate with one another.  I am forever ashamed of my linguistic ineptitude but today English was the universal language and we all got along rather splendidly.

It was a bright start to the day and we planned a walk out of the town to visit a nearby aqueduct about three miles away that had been recommended to us at the Tourist Information Office..

Tomar Aquduct

The small city of Tomar is situated on the river Nabão, a short but swiftly flowing river that carves its way through a deep valley and consequently the town is situated at the bottom of a steep hill which rises quickly away from the banks of the river and requires considerable stamina to make the trek.

The ascent seemed positively endless, every time we were certain that we were at the top of the hill the road tricked us into climbing even further, even Sisyphus would have despaired and we walked out and past edge of town houses that got bigger and grander the further we went.  Each one had a big dog that barked like crazy as we passed by and with my cynophobic nerves shattered I wondered why?  Why do people keep these obnoxious animals I wonder?

The Aqueduct of Pegões is, it turns out a little known monument and therefore very little visited, totally free access and no tourists.

It was built to bring water to the Convent of Christ in Tomar and is an amazing monument just over about four kilometers long and in some parts reaching a height of a hundred foot or so and made of one hundred and eighty arches and fifty-eight arcs at the most elevated part.  The construction started in 1593 and finished 1614 and it is the biggest and most important construction of the Philip I kingdom in Portugal.  Wow, who knew that, even the Tourist Information Office doesn’t give it a lot of headline space.

It was a quite astonishing place, no one there but us and some occasional ramblers.  There was no entrance fee, no safety barriers and nothing to stop visitors from climbing to the top and carelessly falling over the edge.  We climbed to the top and walked a short way out along the elevated section until we realised that this was quite dangerous so after walking out further than was really sensible and clinging desperately to the stones for security we groped our way back to safety and returned to ground level.

IMG_7860

This was the sort of place that I am reluctant to leave but after a while it was time to concede that this was the end of the visit and we debated the route back.  Should we return by the road and the way that we had come or perhaps take what appeared to be the walking route back along a narrow dusty track?

We were momentarily confused, we had no idea, no map, no SatNav and no clue about the track and bear in mind here that I was with Kim who generally suffers from a chronic lack of direction but who was urging a reckless walk into the woods.  I surrendered my common sense approach to these sort of situations and we followed some optimistic signs and set off down the track.

To our surprise, before very long we were in a blackened wilderness of post forest fire devastation.  Earlier in the year central Portugal had suffered a scorching summer followed by devastating fires which had wiped out acres of trees and caused several deaths.  This was one such area and as we walked now through charcoal and ash we reflected on the power and terror of such an event.  Sometimes I am grateful to live in a country where it rains rather a lot.

Eventually we emerged from the blackened wilderness, stumbled across a road back into town and made our way back to the main square where we were ready for an afternoon drink at a pavement bar.

We squandered away the rest of the day, did a bit of exploring through the back streets, enjoyed an hour or so at the Conde de Ferreira Palace and then dined again at the same place as the night before.  Once we have found somewhere that we like we are always reluctant to give it up and go elsewhere.

Tomar Forest Fire aftermathTomar Portugal Forest Fire

France, Cinderella and Joan of Arc

Pierrefonds Castle Postcard

“This enchanting landmark is an architectural blend of many European styles, from 13th Century French Fortress to late Renaissance Palace.  Since it was inspired by no single structure, Cinderella Castle represents them all” – Disney Official Souvenir Book

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

In the 1960s, so the story goes, Disney ‘imagineers’ travelled throughout Europe looking for the perfect castles on which to model Cinderella’s Castle in Walt Disney World.

Cinderella's Castle Walt Disney World Florida

The lead architect for the project was a man called Herbert Rymanand and what makes this story a bit of a mystery is that there is no documentary evidence to establish exactly which castles he visited and indeed which of them became the inspiration for the Disney Magic Kingdom centrepiece.  Disney themselves do no more than confirm that Cinderella Castle was ‘inspired by the great castles of Europe’, but they never explicitly say which one.

Pierrefonds France Picardy

I mention this because today I was planning a visit to the nearby town of Pierrefonds which is famous for its castle.  Actually that is just about all that it is famous for and without the castle I doubt that very many people would take the detour to go there.

The castle itself is rather magnificent, statuesque and grand, stout walls and conical turrets and if the Disney architects had stopped by Pierrefonds on their fact finding tour of Europe then I suggest that they would have gone no further in their search for inspiration for Cinderella’s Castle.

Pierrefonds

After Pierrefonds we continued to nearby Compiègne which turned out to be another attractive but rather unremarkable town but my reason for visiting was to see just one thing.  A statue of Joan of Arc.  There are statues of the Maid of Orleans all over France but I especially wanted to see this one because it has some special significance.

A bit of background: Joan was born in about 1412 into a relatively well-off peasant family in Donrémy in northern France somewhere near the border of Lorraine.  At this time English troops were running riot through France and at one point raided and plundered the village of Donrémy and the d’Arc family had to flee into exile.  During this time Joan convinced herself that she had a visitation of saints and angels and heard patriotic voices that told her that she was chosen by God to save France.  Joan kept hearing the voices for a further three years and when she was finally convinced she left home and presented herself to the authorities as the saviour of France with a mission to put the Dauphin on his rightful throne.

L'hôtel de ville de Compiègne et la statue de Jeanne d'Arc (Oise, France).

Word of Joan quickly spread and it was claimed that she was the embodiment of a prophecy made by a mystic called Marie d’Avignon, that a ‘virgin girl from the borders of Lorraine’ would come to save France.  To test whether Joan was genuine the Dauphin had her questioned by a committee of clergymen and asked a group of respectable ladies to test her virginity.

She passed both tests and with religious sincerity and sexual inexperience being considered more suitable qualifications than an education at an appropriate military academy she was given a suit of made (maid?) to measure white armour and an army of forty thousand men and sent to fight the English at Orléans.

joan_arc-capture

Joan rejected the cautious strategy that had characterized French leadership and attacked and captured the outlying fortress of Saint Loup, which she followed the next day with a march to a second fortress called Saint Jean le Blanc, which was found deserted.  The next day with the aid of only one captain she rode out of the city and captured the fortress of Saint Augustins and two days later attacked the main English stronghold and secured a stunning victory that took everyone by surprise.

After that there was a seemingly endless run of French victories as the English and their Bugundian allies fled from the field of battle whenever challenged by the invincible Maid of Orléans fighting, it seemed, with God by her side.

From here however things started to go wrong for Joan and she was betrayed by the King, Charles VII, who was beginning to find here her to be a bit of a nuisance and to get her out of the way he dispatched her on a hopeless mission to fight a Burgundian army right here at (which brings me conveniently back to) Compiègne, where she was defeated by a much stronger army, captured and taken prisoner and so began her sad journey towards the bonfire.

You can read my story of Joan of Arc right here.

I found the statue and with nothing else to detain me in Compiègne I headed back to the campsite at Vic-Sur-Aisne.

Vic Sur Aisne Picardy France0

A Virtual Ancient City

Aqueduct of Segovia

It was a long tedious drive from Ephesus to Pamukkale and thinking about the Ephesus experience I thought it would be fun to recall all of the other ancient sites that I have visited and assemble a near perfect virtual ancient city.

Approaching the city the first thing to be seen would be the aqueduct bringing fresh water to the citizens.  The finest aqueduct must surely be that in Segovia in central Spain.  It was built at the end of first to early second century AD by the Romans to bring water from the Río Frío about eighteen kilometres away and requiring an elevated section in its final kilometre 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 twenty eight metres high and constructed with over twenty thousand large granite blocks, which are joined without mortar or clamps and have remained in place for two thousand years.

Split, Diocletian's Palace

After passing through the arches of the aqueduct the road would lead to a Palace – Diocletian’s Palace from Split in Croatia.  The palace was built as a Roman military fortress with walls two hundred metres long and twenty metres high, enclosing an area of thirty-eight thousand square metres and it is one of the best preserved Roman palaces in existence because after the fall of the Romans within the defensive walls it effectively became the city of Spalatum which eventually evolved and became the modern city of Split.

Herculaneum

Inside the city walls there would be the houses of the people who lived in the city, the houses of Herculaneum  near Pompeii in Italy that was destroyed in the same Vesuvius eruption.  But in a different way because where Pompeii was buried in ash, Herculaneum was destroyed by a pyroclastic flow which is  a ground-hugging avalanche of hot ash, pumice, rock fragments, and volcanic gas that rushes down the side of a volcano.  Although it killed all of the inhabitants this flow did little damage to the structures, instead slowly filling them from the bottom up and preserving them perfectly without destroying them altogether.

Volubilis Morocco

After passing through the residential area there would be a magnificent triumphal arch marking the entrance to the civic and public areas.  I think it would be very much like the arch at Voloubilis in Morocco.

Volubilis  was the Roman capital of the Province of Mauritania and was founded in the third century B.C., it became an important outpost of the Roman Empire and was graced with many fine buildings.  Extensive remains of these survive in the archaeological site, located in the middle of this fertile agricultural area.  The city continued to be occupied long after the Romans had gone and at some point converted to Islam and Volubilis was later briefly to become the capital of Idris I, founder of the Idrisid dynasty, who is buried at nearby Moulay Idris.   It is now of course a UNESCO World Heritage Site, admitted to the list in 1997.

Rome The Forum

Once through the Arch into the Forum which for the Romans was the centre of political, commercial and judicial life. This has to be the Forum in Rome.

According to the playwright Plautus the area ‘teemed with lawyers and litigants, bankers and brokers, shopkeepers and strumpets’.  As the city grew  successive Emperors increasingly extended the Forum and in turn built bigger temples, larger basilicas, higher triumphal columns and more lavish commemorative arches.  Here is the Temple of Romulus and the house of the Vestal Virgins and then the Temple of Julius Caesar erected on the very spot that he was cremated following his assassination in 44 BC.

Hierapolis Pamukkale Turkey

Every ancient city needs a theatre and at the end of the forum in this virtual city is the theatre of  Hierapolis at Pamukkale in Turkey, a restored ancient theatre that surely has to be amongst the best that I have ever seen and that includes Segesta in Sicily and Merida in Spain and also (again in my opinion) the ruins that we had visited yesterday at Ephesus.

Temple of Apollo Didyma

Next to the Theatre is the Temple and I am happy to include in this virtual city the Temple of Apollo in Didyma just down the road from Ephesus.  This place would have been huge, one hundred and twenty columns, fifteen metres high and each taking an estimated twenty thousand man days to cut and erect.  It was never completely finished because during the construction process the money kept running out but if it had been then it is said that this would have been one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World in precedence over the Temple of Artemis at nearby Ephesus.

Arles France Amphitheatre

Finally there would be an Amphitheatre and whilst it may seem like madness not to include the Colosseum in Rome I am going to overlook it and include instead the Amphitheatre at Arles in Southern France.  It could also have been the the Amphitheatre in  Pula in Croatia or,Mérida in Spain but there is something majestic about about Arles which just fascinates me.  No one can be absolutely sure about which was the largest in terms of capacity and it is generally agreed that this was the Colosseum but we can be more certain about physical size and there was a plaque nearby that claimed that this was the twelfth largest in the Roman Empire.  Interestingly using this criteria the plaque only listed the Colosseum as second largest but it’s like I have always said size isn’t the most important thing!

So there it is, my virtual Ancient City, just my personal choices and I would be more than happy to consider any alternative suggestions for inclusion.

Ancient Rome

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My blogging pal Wil sent me this in an email and I am delighted to add it to my city…

… thought I would share this picture of the colonnaded street and forum at Jerash. It would definitely be in my fantasy Roman city!

Jerash Jordon Picture_0438

Check out Wil’s blog here …  Wilbur’s Travels

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Related Posts:

Spartacus the Gladiator

Rome

The Roman City of Pompeii

The Roman City of Herculaneum

The Roman Amphitheatre at Pula

The Aqueduct of Segovia

The Roman Buildings at Mérida

The Roman Ruins at Segóbriga

Diocletian’s Palace at Split

The Roman Buildings at Arles

Verona

The Greek and Roman Ruins at Empuria, Catalonia

The Palace of Knossos in Crete

Athens and Ancient Greece

The Acropolis Museum in Athens

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European Capital of Culture 2002, Salamanca

Salamanca Province

“And nothing in Europe better expresses a kind of academic festiveness than the celebrated Plaza Mayor…. Its arcaded square is gracefully symmetrical, its manner is distinguished and among the medallions of famous Spaniards that decorate its façade there have been left spaces for heroes yet to come.”             Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

If the evening meal at the hotel Conventa Spa was exceptionally good then so too was the breakfast the following morning with a full spread presented with no expense spared for only a handful of guests.

Today we were making a second visit to the city of Salamanca to follow up our first in November 2009 when a misty overcast day had not presented the city in the best light.  We were hoping for blue skies today as we drove south along theruta de plata the old Roman road, the silver route, so named because this was how Rome moved its precious treasure north from the silver and tin mines further south.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

The road bypassed Zamora and then there was nothing of great interest to tell you about for sixty kilometres or so because the truth is that the landscape of this part of Castilla y León is rather tedious and quite forgettable with vast dry plains stretching away into infinity in all directions.

It seems that we are destined not to see Salamanca in fine weather because this morning it was grey and rather cool as we approached the city with its backdrop of snow capped mountains, the Sierra de Gredos and then made our final approach to the city and made our way to a car park close to the Plaza Mayor.

It was still misty even though the sun was struggling to break through as we walked through cobbled streets and buildings of rich caramel coloured Villamayor stone and directly to the centre of the city.  From there around the University buildings and through the public library and after that the centre of the city and the inevitable Plaza Mayor where, because it was too chilly to sit at a pavement café, groups of men were wandering around deep in conversation discussing the important matters of the day.  They were all elderly men of course because just as Gerald Brenan explained in ‘South from Granada’ “…almost every Spanish peasant becomes wise when he passes fifty.”

Salamanca Plaza Mayor

The Plaza is located in the very centre of Salamanca and was built in the traditional Spanish baroque style and is a popular gathering area. It is lined with bars, restaurants and tourist shops and in the centre stands the proud city hall. It is considered the heart of the city and is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful plazas in Spain.

Previously I had not really appreciated its grandness or beauty but now that I was made aware that it is one of the most important Baroque monuments in Spain and the city’s historical timeline I was able to reassess my previous judgement and it might now get into my top ten but I will come to that in a later post.

As we sat at a pavement café with a coffee the weather began to improve, the cloud lifted a little and some weak sunshine started to leak through the white shroud but we still did not consider it fine enough to climb the cathedral tower, as was our intention, so after we had finished we walked to the 1st Century Roman Bridge across the River Tormes, which was flowing north towards the Duero and from there back to the city centre stopping on the way at the site of the archives of the Spanish Civil War.

The original documents were assembled by the Francoist regime, selectively obtained from the administrative departments of various institutions and organizations during the Spanish Civil War as a repressive instrument used against opposition groups and where today there was a temporary poignant exhibition of children’s drawings depicting the conflict.

Salamanca Roman Bridge and Cathedrals

It was lunch time now so the next task was to find somewhere amongst the huge choice of bars and bodegas to find somewhere suitable but we didn’t have to concern ourselves too greatly with this because our minds were made up for us when a young student stopped us and forced a card into our hands and directed us to a bar down an old town side street.  There was something in her smile that said if you present this card I will be paid some commission and it was impossible to refuse.

After a pavement lunch of beer and complimentary tapas we were forced to concede that the weather was not going to improve any further so there was no putting off the visit to the cathedral any longer.  I should say cathedrals because Salamanca has two, an old one and a new one that are joined together into one massive structure.  We paid €3.50 each for tickets (no increase since 2009) to visit and then commenced a tour of the towers and the balconies that involved an awful lot of spiral staircases.  It was a spectacular building and well worth the money but it was a pity about the weather because the drab overcast sky and persistent patches of mist spoilt what would certainly have been spectacular views from the top.

Salamanca Cathedral SpacemanBack at street level we circumnavigated the Cathedral looking for one of its most famous stone carvings.  Built between 1513 and 1733, the Gothic Cathedral underwent restoration work in 1992 and it is a generally a tradition of cathedral builders and restorers to add details or new carvings to the façade  as a sort of signature. In this case the Cathedral authorities gave the go-ahead to add some more modern images  including an astronaut floating among some vines. Despite there being clear documentation of the astronaut being a recent addition, the spaceman has already fuelled wild ideas of ancient space travel, and medieval alien interventions.  We found the astronaut but not the other recently added images of a dragon eating ice cream, a lynx, a bull, and a crayfish.

It was now late afternoon and time to leave the ancient university city of Salamanca, the city that is regarded as the true home of the purest form of the Spanish language and we dawdled a while through the Plaza Mayor for a second time today before returning to the car and moving on.

Salamanca

A Competition, Compostela, Cahors and a Chateau

In the early summer of 1998 the Times Newspaper ran a daily competition one week to win a prize of an all expenses paid trip for two nights in an up market Relais and Chateau Hotel somewhere in Europe.  One day the competition required answers to three questions about Santiago de Compostela in Galicia and the Way of St James.  I was confident of the answers and telephoned them in several times over the course of the day.

Over the following couple of weeks I forgot all about the competition but one day was surprised to receive a letter from the Times telling me that I was the winner and that the prize was first class air travel to Toulouse in South West France, car hire and two nights all-inclusive at the Château de Mercuès just outside the provincial town of Cahors.

Chateau de Mercures Cahors

Early in the Autumn we flew with British Airways in a first class cabin that we shared with the actor Robin Ellis (Ross Poldark) and his wife (his real wife not Demelza)and enjoyed a silver service meal and complimentary champagne.  When we arrived at Toulouse in the early afternoon we picked up the Renault hire car and set off in a northerly direction on our way to the Chateau.

On the way we stopped at the town of Cahors and after we had walked around the centre, sitting within a protective loop of the River Lot, we found a traditional patisserie and sat and gloated about our unusual good fortune.

The village of Mercuès was just a few kilometres west of the town and eventually we set off again following the course of the river as it swept through the countryside and soon in front of us we saw a splendid castle with soaring towers and blue slate conical roofs and we imagined that it looked somewhere interesting to visit.

After only a short distance there was a sign to our hotel and we took a narrow road that climbed high away from the river and after one final turn we were confronted with the entrance to the very same magnificent building.  This was the Château de Mercuès and way beyond the standard of any hotel that we had ever stayed in before.

The car had hardly come to a halt before a porter rushed through the front doors and took our luggage from the car and indicated that we should follow him to the reception.  Inside there were wonderful furnishings and treasured artefacts and I worried that we were in the wrong place.  But no, it was true, this was prize for winning the competition.

After registration we were shown to our room at the very top of the tallest tower with stone walls, wooden beams and an external walkway on the outside with long distance views over the Lot valley, the Chateau gardens and the raging River Lot rushing by below swollen by days of heavy rain and carrying fallen trees and other debris hurriedly downstream.

Chateau de MERCURES

Our room at the top of the tower with personal balcony!

It took a while for all this to sink in but fortunately there was a complimentary bottle of Cahors wine to help us and when we had settled down we took some time to explore the castle and its gardens, its wine cellars and it public rooms.  Dinner off of an expensive menu was included and I remember that this was the first time that I ever tasted Foie Gras and feeling guilty about it because I was certain that my vegetarian teenage daughter would certainly not approve.

For our full day in France after breakfast we chose to drive the thirty-five kilometres north to the tourist town and Christian pilgrimage centre of Rocamadour.

At first the road was straight and driving was easy but the final few kilometres were on twisting bendy roads that swooped through gullies and over ravines as we got closer.  Rocamadour is one of the busiest tourist sites in France because the picturesque town is built almost vertically into the side of the mountain with its golden houses overhanging a rocky gorge and the River Alzou below.  The car park was at the bottom of the mountain and to get to the entrance gate of the town required an ascent up several flights of wooden steps that eventually brought us out at the main tourist street.

It was quiet today because this was October and outside the main tourist season but the summer months bring thousands of visitors to this place daily.  Years later I visited Carcassonne and Mont St Michel and found them rather similar in a touristy sort of way.

It didn’t help matters that the weather was rather poor and although it wasn’t raining it was misty and rather damp and the honey coloured stones looked disappointingly dull and lifeless today, the place was full of tourist shops that weren’t doing enough business to justify being open and we had the streets and medieval staircases almost to ourselves as we wandered past churches and chapels on ancient streets punctuated with shops and restaurants every few metres.  We stopped for lunch and then made our way back down the steps and drove back to the Chateau where we enjoyed a second gourmet meal in the expensive dining room.

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The next morning when it was time to check out I suddenly began to panic in case I had to pay for any of this unaccustomed extravagance and finery that we had enjoyed and the thoughts got stronger as I waited behind an American guest who settled his obscenely large bill and then made a dreadful fuss about being charged a couple of Francs for a postcard that he picked up while waiting.

My hands were sweating and I avoided the postcards but I needn’t have worried of course, the whole bill was taken care of by the Sunday Times and with the sun shining now we had one final walk around the delightful gardens before setting off for the return journey to Toulouse airport.