Tag Archives: Antequera

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 – Memories of Andalucía

Seville FlamencoAndalucia BullFlamencoAndalucia Bottle ShadowAndalucia Bar RestaurantBullfight Poster SpainRonda Matador

Travels in Spain – Córdoba and the Mezquita

“The Supreme Caliphate of Cordoba was set up in rivalry to the Abbasside dynasty of Baghdad and was so cultured, sophisticated broad-minded and fastidious a state that for a century southern Spain was the lodestar of Europe”  Jan Morris – ‘Spain’

Although the road was swinging encouragingly to the south it couldn’t keep us ahead of the cloud and by the time we reached the city of Córdoba it was beginning to overtake us.  It was still patchy as we parked the car but by the time we had set off for the centro historico its advance was relentless and it became quite gloomy, overcast and cold and we were beginning to regret the lightweight clothing option that we had selected earlier.

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!

Catalonia Spain

Walking to the city centre we were disappointed to find that one of the two principal attractions the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos was closed for the afternoon so we had to make do with the external views and move on to Córdoba’s Great Mosque, the Mezquita.

As well as being the second largest mosque in the world at the time of its construction this was the grandest and most beautiful mosque of all constructed by the Moors in Spain and it is situated amongst a picturesque lattice work of narrow streets, patios and plazas in the city’s old Jewish quarter.  After the Spanish Reconquest, it was transformed into a church, and some of the Islamic columns and arches were replaced by a basilica and today it is a Roman Catholic Cathedral and the main church of the diocese of Córdoba.

Inside it was really spectacular with nearly a thousand columns of granite, jasper and marble stripped buff-white and rose-pink supporting the roof and creating a dazzling visual effect.  When the Cathedral was constructed in the sixteenth century some of these pillars were removed which I suppose might be described as an act of vandalism but in actual fact, despite being a sort of cuckoo in the nest, the Baroque structure didn’t seem to be entirely out of place.

That is the good things about buildings, when they are no longer required for their original purpose they can always be converted to some other use.  All over Spain Mosques were converted to Christian Churches, Arab Alcazabas to medieval fortresses and more recently stately homes, haciendas and castles to modern Parador hotels.

“To Cordoba belong all the beauty and ornaments that delight the eye or dazzle the sight.”  –  Stanley Lane-Poole – The Moors in Spain

The mosque of Córdoba is without doubt one of the finest buildings in Spain – the most original and the most beautiful. From the moment of entering the great court planted with orange trees it is possible to experience  a feeling of peace and harmony which is quite different from the mood of religious holiness and austerity imparted by Christian cloisters. The small reddish oranges cluster among the dark green leaves, butterflies chase one another, birds compete and squabble and the thrusting columns make a statement that they have been willed by God.

It took some time to walk through the Mezquita and see all of the highlights and when we left and returned to the courtyard it had thankfully stopped raining and although it was still quite cold the temperature had thankfully risen a degree or two above zero.  We walked for a while down by the river and crossed half way on the Puente Romano, which is an elaborate bridge that still sits on original Roman foundations.

Because of the weather we didn’t really see Córdoba at its best and the grey skies took the edge of the visit and because of that we walked back to the car stopping briefly for a drink and a warm in a café and then  drove away in the direction of Granada.

we weren’t staying in the city but in a small village called Romilla just about ten miles west and we drove in in the late afternoon and we knew immediately that this wasn’t going to be very thrilling.  This place was like a cemetery for the living and apart from the excitement of the visit of mobile vegetable shop our arrival was most likely the only thing that had happened in Romilla all day and possibly all week!

Travels in Spain – Antequera to Córdoba

Antequera King Fedinand

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

We woke to a glorious morning and sunlight spilled like a waterfall into the room through the splintered cracks in the solar-bleached  shutters weathered over years by rain and sun and in contrast to the previous two mornings there was a perfect piercing blue sky.  These are my favourite sort of mornings!

The hotel was wonderful but didn’t provide breakfast so we found a place nearby and enjoyed hot tea, cheese, ham and pan con tomate, in the company of groups of young men who were sitting around chatting, preparing for later life and practising what the old men of the town do – sitting around and chatting –  just as as Gerald Brennan explained in ‘South from Granada’ “…almost every Spanish peasant becomes wise when he passes fifty.”

For the first part of the morning we split up once more, Kim went to the main shopping street, I declined the opportunity to join her and in the ninety minutes that was allocated I planned a speed sightseeing tour of the city.

I began in the church opposite the hotel but there was a service taking place and I felt like an intruder so I made my way to the city museum which was still closed and not due to open for another hour so instead I walked to the bullring at the opposite end of the city but that was closed as well, with an apologetic sign that explained that it was being prepared for some sort of military display.  I snapped some pictures and then walked back to San Sebastian.

Antequera Bullring

With all of the unexpected closures I still had time to spare so walked back to the Alcazaba and Plaza de Santa Maria where the weather today was so much better for photographs of the city from this elevated spot.  Reunited with Kim I explained about the bullring closure but I don’t think she believed me and we walked all the way back to get exactly the same result!

Now it was time for the moment that I had not been looking forward to – trying to manoeuvre the rental car from the cramped parking spot without damaging it so after settling up at the hotel I made my way pessimistically back to the garage.  I was absolutely certain that it would be impossible to get out of the tight space.  I was sweating, I was panicking, my stomach was tied in a Gordion knot but as it turned out I needn’t have worried, by a miracle ours was the only car in there and getting out was piece of cake but despite this piece of welcome good fortune I still told Kim how difficult it was and that it required all my driving skills to plot a safe way out – that is a secret by the way and I am trusting you all to keep it that way!

It was early lunch time now so before leaving Antequera we found a restaurant on the edge of town with a sunny terrace and a splendid view of the castle and the whitewashed town gleaming like salt flats in the sun or as though there had been an unexpected fall of snow so we stayed longer than intended and ordered more food than we planned and then we left and headed for Córdoba.

Alcazaba Antequera

We didn’t drive directly there but made a short detour to Almodóvar del Rio where a large castle was perched strategically on the top of a hill and this looked well worth stopping for.

The Castillo de Almodóvar is a grand fortress erected on a strategic  mound along the valley of the Rio Guadalquivir, which incidentally at 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.

Square towers flank its towering walls and the entire castle is surrounded by a large moat.  During the years of Moorish occupation it was an Arab stronghold and after the reconquest it became the medieval home for members of the Spanish nobility.  After the Reconquista and no longer required for a military purpose it gradually fell into disrepair 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 ago restoring the external appearance of the original Arab fortification.

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.

More castles of Spain

Travels in Spain – Andalucía, Antequera

Antequera Andalucía

“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

When planning a road trip in Spain at least for one night I generally like to find a place to stay off the usual well beaten tourist trail.  I have had great success with this and in picking places like Carmona, a few miles east of Seville in Andalucía, Pedro Bernardo in the mountains of Castilla y Leon and Almagro on the Ruta de Don Quixote in Castilla-La Mancha.

With the car safely but (very) tightly parked and walking back to the hotel at Plaza San Sebastian I was optimistic that Antequera was going to be added to the list of good selections. Because of geography, tradition and culture Antequera is called the heart of  Andalucía and was once considered as a suitable candidate for the regional government to be based but it eventually and inevitably lost out to Seville.

And the sun was shining!

Antequera Santa Maria

Plaza San Sebastian was at the very bottom of the city at a busy roundabout junction where every major road in the city seemed 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.

We tackled the steps and entered through a castle gate and made our way directly to the top where we found a restaurant/bar with pavement tables and stopped for a while to draw breath.  This was the Plaza de Santa Maria dominated by the biggest church in town and we sat and enjoyed the heat of the sun on our faces as we drank wine and nibbled the inevitable olives.  It was wonderful.

Refreshment break over we left and paid admission to the Alcazaba and entered the interior of the fortress.  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.

It took the Christian armies of the north almost two hundred years to overcome this fortress but this was eventually achieved in 1410 and the Muslims were expelled and obliged to relocate to Granada.  In the context of the current migrant crisis in Europe this set me thinking.  The movement of people, both voluntary and enforced has been going on forever.  As I have said before history teaches us nothing except that we live in a sort of hamster wheel of rotating repetition.  As we walked around I could just imagine what the reaction was in Granada at the time – “How can we cope with all of these extra people?”, “Think of the added pressure on our water supply systems!”, “How will our Mosques accommodate all of these migrants?”.

 Antequera Expulsion of the Moors

We dawdled around but towards the end of the tour around the battlements and towers we had to speed up significantly because there were some uninvited black clouds gate-crashing the sky and we ended the visit rather abruptly and dashed for the shelter of the church as a steady rain began to fall.

There is only so long that anyone can spend in a church of course and after we had watched a video history of the city and finished wandering around the interior, back at the door and finding it still raining there was only one really sensible option so without any sort of debate we returned to the friendly bar on the opposite side of the plaza.

We made it only just in time because within seconds there was a thunderstorm of almost biblical proportions when the sky exploded with thunder and was lit up by lightening brighter than a flashing roadside speed camera and the rain bounced off the cobbles like shrapnel.  Luckily it didn’t last long and after one drink we promised to return later for an evening meal – just so long as it wasn’t raining of course.

In the early evening the day settled down into a period of perfect weather and so later we fulfilled our promise and returned for an excellent meal, a history lesson and a weather forecast for the next few days from the helpful waiter.

Back at Plaza San Sebastian we grew concerned about the traffic noise and just how busy the little square might be and with a room on the front we worried about sleeping but I reminded Kim that this should be no trouble at all because one time in Pisa we stayed at the noisiest hotel in Italy, the Royal Victoria Hotel.

Anyway, we needn’t have worried, the noise died down and we fell asleep and the only sound I heard in the early hours when I stirred was running water which I thought might be more rain but which turned out to be the fountain.

Antequera San Sebastian

Travels in Spain – Postcards from Andalucía

Andalusia Postcard

“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 dark eyes and black hair”  –  Jan Morris, ‘Spain’

After two years I have returned to my travels in Spain, this time to Andalucía where there is no Don Quixote of Castilla-La Mancha or El Cid of Castilla y Leon because this is the land of Don Juan, Carmen and famous bull-fighters!

I will tell you  soon about my visit to Ronda, Antequera, Cordoba and Granada…

Andalusia Postcard 2Ronda Postcard