Tag Archives: Almagro

Travels in Spain, Windmills

Spain WindmillConsuegra Windmills SpainDon Quixote Alcala de Henares

Travels in Spain – Off the Beaten Track (1)

If you are travelling to Spain and want to avoid the coast and the obvious tourist traps then let me make some suggestions…

Almagro in Castlla-La Mancha

almagro

“We are in the Spanish south.  The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”  –  Jan Morris,  ‘Spain’

Almagro is an old town that was once much more important than it is today, two hundred and fifty years ago it was for a short time the provincial capital of La Mancha (1750-61) but religious decline set in during the reign of Charles III and it fared badly and suffered damage in the Napoleonic and the Carlist wars.  Eventually it was eclipsed by its neighbours, Ciudad Real and Bolaños de Calatrava and it became the quiet town that it is today on, not being unkind, a secondary, less important, tourist trail.

At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide the Plaza Major is one of the finest in all of Spain, flanked on both sides by arcades of cream Tuscan columns, weathered by the years, supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of botella verde and fully glazed in a central European style that makes this place truly unique in all of Spain.  These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.

Antequera in Andalucia

“For almost the first time I felt I was really in Spain, in a country that I had longed my whole life to visit. In the quiet back streets of I seemed to catch a momentary glimpse, a sort of far-off rumour of the Spain that dwells in everyone’s imagination.”  –  George Orwell

Antequera has always been an important place due its geographical position as it falls on a natural crossroads east/west between Seville and Granada and north/south between Malaga and Cordoba and the Moors built their most impregnable castle at this place to protect their possessions in Iberia.

Plaza San Sebastian is at the very bottom of the city at a busy roundabout junction where every major road in the city seems to converge, a bubbling pink marble water fountain, a modern monument that marks the junction of two Roman roads, a proud church, several grand buildings and overshadowed by the looming presence of the Alcazaba, a steep cobble-stoned hill climb away.  The steps are steep but lead to the castle gate and inside is the Plaza de Santa Maria dominated by the biggest church in town.

Girona in Catalonia

Girona Catalonia Spain

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

This is a fine place – better than Barcelona!  The old town is packed onto a hillside alongside the river, which is spanned by a series of bridges that lead to the shopping area. One bridge leads to  Carrer de la Força, which, it’s hard to believe was once part of the Via Augusta, the road that led across Spain from Rome, and from the tenth to the end of the fifteenth century was the main street of one of Europe’s most important Jewish quarters.

The visitor will climb all the time but make frequent and sometimes pointless diversions into side streets and blind alleys, up steep steps and along difficult cobbled passageways, always grateful for shade in this labyrinth of enchanting lanes.

Eventually everyone will arrive in the square in front of Santa Maria Cathedral whose Baroque façade conceals an austere Gothic interior that was built around a previous Romanesque church, of which the cloisters and a single tower remain.  After the climb find the energy to climb the steps from the square to the Cathedral and go inside to visit the interior of the building and see the World’s widest Gothic nave and the second widest overall after St. Peter’s in Rome

Siguenza in Castilla-La Mancha

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Spain

“…Sigüenza, ninety miles from Madrid, remains a quiet spot in an empty landscape.  It sits among narrow valleys celebrated by Camilo José Celar in his ‘Journey to the Acarria’”  –  Christopher Howse – ‘A Pilgrim in Spain’

Sigüenza has always occupied an important strategic geographical position in a narrow valley on the main road and railway line between Madrid and Aragon and Catalonia.  This is not a surprise, the Romans, the Moors and the Catholic Monarchs of the Reconquista had all previously fortified this place.

For a small town the cathedral is an immense building and one of the most important late Romanesque buildings in Spain which was built to symbolise the power of Bishop Don Bernardo who began construction in the twelfth century.  It has three naves and a main chapel with an ambulatory and a dome and around the outer walls are a series of commemorative chapels which reads like a who’s who of the local campaigns of the Reconquista.

Inside is the jewel of the Cathedral, the Chapel of St. Catherine which houses the sepulchre of Martín Vázquez de Arce where in what is regarded as one of the finest examples of Spanish funerary art is his alabaster statue decorated with the cross of Santiago as he lies serenely on his side while casually reading a giant book. The authors of the Spanish Generation of 1898 (a group of patriotic artists and philosophers) drew national attention to the statue by naming him ‘el doncel de Sigüenza’ – the boy of Sigüenza.

Siguenza Spain

In the Plaza Major café tables are arranged in the shadow of the South Tower which reaches high into the blue sky and has small-fortress like windows at regular intervals and the description fortress-like is rather appropriate because they bear the marks of shell damage inflicted on the building in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

Travels in Spain – The Ruta de Don Quixote

Almagro Spain

“Don Quixote is the national glory of Spain.  No one who does not know that has the right to call himself a Spaniard.  There is a monument to him in Madrid…he was our first revolutionary.” – Gerald Brenan,  ‘South from Granada’

Don Quixote Alcala de Henares

After four days of travelling, eight-hundred kilometres driving and some serious sightseeing, today we were planning an altogether less demanding sort of experience with a leisurely full day in the provincial town of Almagro.

Breakfast at the Retiro del Maestre was simply wonderful and easily the best of the week, in fact, if we were compiling a list of the top five hotel breakfasts ever then this would certainly be in there.  It was the usual thing in terms of content but it had clearly been lovingly prepared by the ladies of the house and the cook fussed around the breakfast room, making recommendations, making sure everyone was happy and brazenly fishing for compliments.  And she deserved them all because this was truly an excellent breakfast.

Almagro is an old town that was once much more important than it is today, two hundred and fifty years ago it was for a short time the provincial capital of La Mancha (1750-61) but religious decline set in during the reign of Charles III and it fared badly and suffered damage in the Napoleonic and the Carlist wars.

Eventually it was eclipsed by its neighbours, Ciudad Real and Bolaños de Calatrava and it became the quiet town that it is today on, not being unkind, a secondary, less important, tourist trail.

Almagro Spain

Talking of trails, as we stepped out into the street we were now inevitably on the ‘Ruta de Don Quixote’, which is the golden thread that binds the Castilian tourist industry together in a ribbon of towns, castles and windmills stretching from Cuenca to Toledo.

Don Quixote is a novel written by the seventeenth century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and is regarded as the most influential work of literature to emerge from the Spanish Golden Age.

Don Quixote & Sancho Panza

It is the story of a man who believes that he is a knight, and recounts his adventures as he rights imaginary wrongs, mistakes peasants for princesses and  famously “tilts at windmills,” mistakenly believing them to be evil giants.

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 and Dostoyevsky.  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 or twice but found it rather heavy going so gave up quite quickly but as we walked along I resolved to give it another go upon returning home.

Don Quixote Spain Madrid

The historical centre of Almagro is conveniently located inside a circle of modern roads so this morning we circumnavigated it all as we walked through surprisingly wide and airy streets with the ubiquitous boxy white houses with little balconies and ornamental black iron grills over the windows where much of the town has been redeveloped to accommodate modern living demands.

Along the route there were churches, a wide open park and a convent, now inevitably converted to a Parador hotel.  We went inside to take a look but Parador room and menu prices are not really for us so we weren’t tempted to stay and instead made our way back to the Plaza Mayor.

Catalonia Spain Besalu Door

Although it was midday it was quiet in the Plaza as we selected a table for a refreshment break and we watched restaurant owners preparing for what they hoped would be a lunch time rush and then we looked around some of the traditional local craft and souvenir shops and then the not so traditional Mercadona (Spanish Supermarket)  for some essential alcohol supplies because our plan now was to return to the hotel and spend the afternoon relaxing in the sun on the roof terrace.

As the sun moved from east to west in the sky we let the afternoon slip away with a bottle of local wine, a game or two of cards and a couple of chapters of our books but after a while some cloud was beginning to gatecrash the party sky and gradually it turned from azure blue to milky white as the sun was completely blotted out.

The wine bottle was empty and this was our cue to leave the terrace and return to the town for the final piece of sightseeing.

Almagro Spain Corral de Comedias

This was the Corral de Comedias, which is a sixteenth century theatre, similar to those that Shakespeare would have been familiar with in Elizabethan England, built in what was the courtyard of an Inn and which today is the only fully preserved example of a theatre of this type in the World.

It is a working theatre still today and inside it is an immaculate example of a theatre of the golden age, built on three levels with galleries and private boxes running around all three sides of the still open courtyard.  It was an unexpected little gem but it didn’t take long to walk around and listen to the audio commentary so after we had finished we stopped for a coffee and compiled a shopping list of souvenirs that we could confidently carry back in our hand luggage and agreed on some local pottery and some water colour postcards of the main sights of the town.

Almagro Medieval Theatre Audio Tour

There was time for a few more early evening minutes on the terrace but the weather was continuing to deteriorate and worryingly the hotel staff were beginning to prepare for bad weather by collecting up the cushions and winding in the sun shades that were no longer needed and this disappointed us but to be fair, given the pessimistic forecast before we arrived in Spain, we had been lucky all week so far with the weather.

It had been a good day in Almagro and after dinner and before returning for the final time to the hotel we strolled one last time through the Plaza and had a final drink in a busy bar that was full of extended Spanish families all starting the weekend here in the square.

Don Quixote & Sancho Panza Alcala de Henares Spain

Travels in Spain – Almagro, The Plaza Mayor and Flamenco

Seville Flamenco

“We are in the Spanish south.  The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.”  –  Jan Morris,  ‘Spain’

We were staying at the Hotel Retiro del Maestre, a renovated old Spanish nobleman’s house on a dusty street leading to the main square of Almagro.  It was a friendly family run hotel with spacious and comfortable public rooms, a large outside terrace basking in the pleasant sun and was a nice room for us with a view over the garden.

It was late afternoon by this time and with the sun beginning to dip we didn’t linger long but made our way quickly to the Plaza Mayor to find a bar.  On the way we passed by the equestrian statue of the Conquistador Diego de Almagro and then entered the rectangular Plaza.

Almagro Plaza Mayor Spain

At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide it is flanked on both sides by arcades of cream Tuscan columns, weathered by the years, supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of botella verde and fully glazed in a central European style that makes this place truly unique in all of Spain.  These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.

We choose a table on the sunny side of the Plaza, ordered beer and wine and just sat and watched the activity while we nibbled the inevitable olives.  The bar owner shooed away some small boys playing football, telling them to play elsewhere as families began to arrive and the bar quickly filled up with chattering customers enjoying the late afternoon sunshine.

Plaza Mayor Siguenza Castilla-La Mancha

The Plaza Mayor is the most important part of a Spanish town or city and I really cannot think of an equivalent in the United Kingdom where we have public squares but use them in an entirely different way.  This is the place where people meet, relax and enjoy themselves; it is generally flanked with shops and restaurants and usually has the town hall and the main church somewhere close by.  In the centre sits a military veteran with only one arm selling Spanish lottery tickets.

When we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a glass of wine and a complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the character of the town and its people.

In the search for real Spain  we have visited and enjoyed dozens of Plaza Mayors; Madrid, the largest, Salamanca, the second largest, Toledo, next to its towering cathedral and the tiled Plaza de España in Seville.  We liked them all and we began now to compile a list with a view to choosing our top five favourites.

We considered ÁvilaMérida and ValladolidCáceres and Santiago de Compostella in Galicia but after a lively debate weighing up the pros and cons and putting forward the case for each one in turn we finally agreed on the top five but could not reach absolute consensus on the actual order.

So this is our list: Segovia in Castilla y Leon because of the Cathedral and the architecture and the little streets running away from it like spokes from a wheel, Trujillo, where we had been only today, because of its unspoilt medieval charm, the unpretentious and functional Ciudad Rodrigo,  Chinchón with its open balconies and bullfights and although we had only just arrived we liked this place so much that we both agreed to include Almagro in the list.

  

After a second leisurely drink we paid up and left the square and strolled back to our hotel where we asked for some dining recommendations and the receptionist convinced us to go to her favourite restaurant just a couple of streets away so after we had rested and changed we took her advice and found the place in a side street off the main square.

Although it wasn’t especially late when we finished the meal we were tired after a long day that had started three hundred kilometres away in Mérida, taken us to Trujillo and then a three hour drive to Almagro and we were ready for bed.  We walked back through the Plaza Mayor that was lively in a subdued sort of way (if that makes sense) and then to the street to the hotel.

Spain Flamenco Dancer

About half way along the route back to the hotel we heard the lyrical sound of Spanish guitars, clacking castanets, the rhythmic stamping of Cuban heels and clicking stilettos, rather like the sound of an approaching steam train and we wondered where it was coming from and then through the pavement level window of a cellar we could see a dancing class in full swing.

Spain Flamenco

Some local people suggested that it would be quite all right to go inside and watch so we did just that and before the lesson ended we enjoyed fifteen minutes of genuine Spanish music played by an assembly of musicians and a group of young people dancing the flamenco; stamping, posturing and pouting in a rapid, aggressive, staccato style – wonderful vivacious movement, flicking to the left and prancing to the right and  accompanied all the time by the sound of chattering music like a machine gun firing into the sky.

It was a wonderful way to end the evening!

Almagro Spain Plaza Mayor

Weekly Photo Challenge: Door to the Town of Besalú

Besalu Catalonia Spain

The cool narrow alleys started to drop now as we approached the river Fluvià where fat carp swam lazily close to the surface in the sunshine and mocked the fishermen who were valiantly trying their luck and then we reached the twelfth century Romanesque bridge which is the principal feature of the town.

Before the adjacent new road bridge was built this was the only way of crossing the river and it is heavily fortified in a redundant sort of way and was once so important that it was blown up and partially destroyed during the Spanish civil war.

Read the full story…

Catalonia Spain Besalu Door

Entrance Tickets – The King of Spain’s Palace at Aranjuez

Aranjuez Spain

King Juan Carlos has eight Royal Palaces to choose from but I suspect he doesn’t stay at this one very often because it didn’t look very ‘lived in’, if you know what I mean; most are close to Madrid and one is on the island of Mallorca.  We walked through the gardens and then paid the entrance fee to go inside and take the tour through a succession or rooms (all the same, by the way) and then some exhibits about life at the Royal Spanish court through the ages.

Read the full story…

Aranjuez leaflet 1

Catalonia, The Medieval Town of Besalú

Besalu Catalonia Spain

Besalú is designated as a National Historic Property but it is rather small and as we were staying here for a couple of nights we thought it best not to rush around and see everything straight away.  This plan suited me just fine because it was exceptionally hot by mid-afternoon so the best place to be was in the main square under a parasol with a big glass of cool Estrella beer in a frozen glass and several plates of local specialities for lunch.

Eventually the bars and restaurants began to close down as the owners and staff cleared the tables and started to think about the afternoon siesta so we took the hint and moved off to go and explore the streets of Besalú.

Away from the medieval main square we melted into narrow alleys with cobbled streets with weathered stone buildings and balconies with terracotta pots host to effervescent flower displays, wooden doors with several coats of paint covering up the damage of hundreds of years and heavy metal hinges and rusty locks.

Besalu Catalonia Spain

In the forty degree heat this was a wonderfully lazy place where shopkeepers sat outside without worrying about customers or sales targets and tourist shops acted like a magnet for Kim who was considered this the perfect place to find the holiday souvenir in the craft and pottery shops that lined the streets.

The cool narrow alleys started to drop now as we approached the river Fluvià where fat carp swam lazily close to the surface in the sunshine and mocked the fishermen who were valiantly trying their luck and then we reached the twelfth century Romanesque bridge which is the principal feature of the town.  Before the adjacent new road bridge was built this was the only way of crossing the river and it is heavily fortified in a redundant sort of way and was once so important that it was blown up and partially destroyed during the Spanish civil war.

We walked across the bridge to the other side of the river but this transported us from the medieval to the modern world and so we stayed just long enough to look back and admire the view, the stone houses rising vertically from the banks of the river, the bridge, designed to repel hostile attacks and the intense blue sky that framed the whole town and full of swifts and house martins that came in waves and waves like Nazi Stuka dive bombers.

After we were certain that we had seen what there was to see in Besalú we returned to the main square and the shade of the pavement café parasols and as we watched guests arriving for a wedding in the church we agreed that this was one of the most attractive places that we had visited in Spain and excluding cities we started to compile a top ten and in no particular order this is it:

The fishing village of Cudillero in Asturias with its tiered buildings wedged into a wooded rocky cove and staying on the northern coast the stone built village of Santillana del Mar in Cantabria and then dashing south to Andalusia and the immaculate white-washed villages of Ronda and, close to Seville, the town of Carmona.  I think we are happy to declare Extremadura as among our favourite places in Spain and from here the conquistador town of Trujillo must surely have a place in our top ten.  Next I had to squeeze in the historic town of Ciudad Rodrigo in Castilla y Leon and finally four places in the centre of the country and all quite close to Madrid, Chinchon of course with its delightful Plaza Mayor and nearby Almagro and then the delightful town of Siquenza and finally, and this just might be the best of all, the mountain village of Pedro Bernardo once again in Castilla y Leon.

This is a personal top ten and we have barely visited enough places in Spain to be qualified to compile this list so I have left out your favourite then I apologise and invite you to comment and add a suggestion.

Gradually the wedding guests all made their way inside the church and Kim slipped back to the hotel to rest so I took the opportunity to enter the church that had previously been locked and gatecrash the wedding but I wasn’t the only one and no one seemed especially bothered by that as they concentrated on the ceremony as we poked about the side chapels and watched the happy couple nervously exchanging vows and rings.

Later as the sun dipped, the shadows grew longer and the temperature dropped we went back out into the square and selected a restaurant for evening meal and enjoyed a slow service menu del dia for only a few euro as we watched the town move slowly from evening to night time and before we returned to the hotel for the last time today we repeated this afternoon’s walk and completed another circuit of the town this time under floodlights rather than a blistering sun.

Besalu Catalonia Spain